Coyne on Robocon

From the Ottawa Citizen, February 25th, 2012.

James Andrew Coyne[1] (born December 23, 1960)[2] is a columnist with the National Post and a member of the At Issue panel on CBC. Previously, he has been national editor for Maclean’s, a weekly national newsmagazine in Canada and a columnist with the Globe and Mail.[3]

It is a party that believes it has had to fight twice as hard to get where it is, a belief that has only hardened through each of the many compromises it has made on the way. The progression is sadly familiar. Having first compromised its beliefs, a party finds it is easier to compromise its principles; having compromised its principles, it learns to compromise its ethics; and compromises of ethics, as we have seen in other parties, lead sooner or later to compromises with the law.

Good journalists do more than present the facts; they place facts in context of history, both the recent and specific and the more general and human.

The whole Coyne article:
Here is a list of some of the things we do not know about the Robocon scandal  (for those just joining us, the use of automated “robocalls” to harass or  deceive — con — voters in certain ridings during the last election). We do not  know whether the calls were made by members of the Conservative party. We do not  know whether any Conservative authorized them, or even knew about them. We do  not know whether anyone was prevented from voting, or had their vote changed, as  a result, nor do we know whether the results of any riding were affected.

But my God, what we know is disturbing enough. There were not a few calls:  there were thousands. They did not occur in one or two ridings: there were at  least 18 of them, scattered across the country — a handful of which received the  automated calls, while 14 received live harassing calls, targeting Liberal  households. In all but one the race was viewed as being between a Conservative  and a Liberal, and in every one the calls were made to Liberal supporters. (The  NDP now claims to have found nine ridings in which its own supporters received  similar calls. These remain to be verified.) In some cases voters were given  false information on where to vote by someone pretending to represent Elections  Canada. In others, they were annoyed or insulted by calls purporting to come  from the Liberal party.

There isn’t any doubt that this was election fraud; whoever did it, if  caught, is almost certainly facing jail time. In the particular case of the  riding of Guelph, Ont., as reported by Postmedia’s Stephen Maher and Glen  McGregor, Elections Canada investigators have traced the calls to an  Edmonton-based “voice-broadcast” company, RackNine, that has done work for a  number of Conservative politicians, including Stephen Harper — though the calls  were apparently made through it rather than by it. Elections Canada believes it  knows the identity of the caller. One agency email obtained by Postmedia refers  to “Conservative campaign office communications with electors.” Another warns:  “This one is far more serious. They have actually disrupted the voting  process.”

So, no, we do not know for a fact that the calls came from anyone acting on  the authority of the Conservative party. But, well, let’s say it fits a pattern — if not of outright lawbreaking then certainly of close-to-the-wind tactics and  ends-justify-the-means ethics. The “in and out” affair may not have been the  scandal many, including Elections Canada, thought it was, but it hardly spoke of  a robust commitment to honesty and fair play. The deceptive calls to voters in  Irwin Cotler’s riding of Mount Royal are a still closer precedent. It is not  implausible that somebody connected with the party would have taken their cues  as to what was considered appropriate behaviour, and run with it.

But who? It beggars belief that local campaign workers in 18 different  ridings could have separately hit upon the same scam, or carried it out without  the knowledge of anyone outside the riding. The notion that the whole thing  could be put down to one over-zealous young campaign worker, as some are putting  about, is even less credible. Whoever did this would not only have to have the  capacity to organize and fund a national crank-call operation. They would also  have to have the lists of names and phone numbers to call. Such information  would be closely held with respect to the party’s own supporters. But how many  people in the party would have access to lists of Liberal supporters? And how  did they get them?

It is hard to overstate how serious this is. It doesn’t matter whether the  calls had their intended effect. It is sufficient that someone made them. If it  were just the circumstances, or just their track record, the Conservatives might  be given the benefit of the doubt. But the two together, while they do not prove  anyone in the party was involved, make it all too plausible to believe they  were. Indeed, it would be more surprising to find they weren’t.

Which is surely telling in its own right. There are people of whom you would  say: it is not possible to believe that they could have been involved in this in  any way. And there are organizations whose culture is such that, were it to be  discovered that some wrongdoing had taken place, the immediate assumption would  be that it must have been a rogue operation. That is not the culture of the  Conservative Party of Canada. If it was a rogue operation, it was one born of an  altogether different culture.

Ethical standards are fragile enough in politics. Too many partisans view it  as war by other means, exaggerating the stakes in order to justify their  behaviour to themselves. In the case of the federal Conservatives, that  predisposition to expediency is overlaid with a swaggering, bullying style, yet  one that betrays a deep insecurity: the insecurity of a party that, for good  reasons and bad, believes the system — the media, the bureaucracy, the judiciary — is stacked against it, and that it is therefore obliged, if not entitled, to  take a few shortcuts to even the odds.

It is a party that believes it has had to fight twice as hard to get where it  is, a belief that has only hardened through each of the many compromises it has  made on the way. The progression is sadly familiar. Having first compromised its  beliefs, a party finds it is easier to compromise its principles; having  compromised its principles, it learns to compromise its ethics; and compromises  of ethics, as we have seen in other parties, lead sooner or later to compromises  with the law.

Read more:


A Wise Judge: Anne Molloy

The Harper government attempt to force the Canadian judicial system into a strange straitjacket has hit its first major roadblock. The first of many, one hopes.

The details are illuminating and mysterious. A Canadian is in his own quarters, posing (foolishly) with a gun in front of his web cam. The police break in (not seeking him) and he ends up facing a mandatory 3-year term.

In my opinion, a reasonable person knowing the circumstances of this case and the principles underlying both the Charter and the general sentencing provision of the Criminal Code, would consider a three-year sentence to be fundamentally unfair, outrageous, abhorrent and intolerable: Madame Molloy.

An Ontario Superior Court judge has refused to impose a mandatory three-year sentence on a man caught with a loaded handgun, putting the courts on a collision course with the federal government’s belief in fixed sentences that provide judges with little discretion.

In a decision Monday, Madam Justice Anne Molloy added fuel to a rising sense of judicial anger over mandatory minimum sentences by striking down the compulsory term as cruel and unusual punishment.

Instead, she sentenced the defendant, Leroy Smickle, to a year of house arrest. Judge Molloy concluded that Mr. Smickle, a 30-year-old Toronto man with no criminal record, had merely been showing off by striking a “cool” pose over the Internet when police happened to burst into an apartment on March 9, 2009, in search of another man.

The government has adamantly held to the view that mandatory minimums are a necessary restraint on judges who might impose inappropriately lenient sentences for certain offences. That is part of a larger tough-on-crime agenda that includes everything from harsher prison sentences to restricting parole and pardons.

Several months ago, in another major challenge in Ontario Superior Court, a similar sentencing provision was upheld in a firearms case, Regina v. Nur. That, combined with the Smickle ruling, could well result in a high-profile appeal that goes all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Critics argue that a one-size-fits-all sentencing policy inevitably leads to unfair results. In her ruling Monday, Judge Molloy added her voice to those criticisms by saying there are an endless number of scenarios where a fixed sentence would be so cruel as to violate the Charter of Rights.

She said the federal goal of deterring crime is understandable and effective – up to a point. The problem is that individuals can be unfairly crushed along the way, she said. The judge cited Mr. Smickle as just such a case – a peaceable man with solid career prospects whose life would likely have been ruined by the imposition of a three-year penitentiary sentence.

“In my opinion, a reasonable person knowing the circumstances of this case and the principles underlying both the Charter and the general sentencing provision of the Criminal Code, would consider a three-year sentence to be fundamentally unfair, outrageous, abhorrent and intolerable,” Judge Molloy said.

At the same time, she noted that Mr. Smickle was “guilty of colossally bad judgment” for believing that posing with a loaded gun would enhance his image with his friends on Facebook. When police broke down the apartment door, Mr. Smickle was reclining on a sofa operating a webcam. He had the gun in one hand and his laptop computer in the other.

Defence counsel Dirk Derstine and Jeff Hershberg argued that Mr. Smickle had no intention of threatening the police. Judge Molloy agreed, noting that Mr. Smickle, who is right-handed, was holding the gun in his left hand.

She also observed that Mr. Smickle was so startled by the intrusion that he dropped both the gun and his laptop – hardly the act of a cool criminal who was primed to shoot the officers.

Judge Molloy emphasized that penitentiaries are violent places where harsh conditions and seasoned criminals tend to militate against offenders emerging to become better citizens.

“Mr. Smickle is not a person who needs to be rehabilitated,” she said. “However, keeping Mr. Smickle employed and attached to his family and community is the best chance of ensuring he stays on the right side of the law.”

The judge noted that bad drafting was partially to blame for the legal straitjacket she found herself in. She took issue with a discrepancy in the firearms law, passed in 2008, which allows a judge to impose a more lenient sentence should the Crown choose to proceed summarily with a charge – an option that includes no jury and swifter resolution.

She said that if the Crown instead proceeds by indictment, as it did in Mr. Smickle’s case, the minimum sentence automatically becomes three years.

The discrepancy created by the two sentence ranges is so “irrational and arbitrary” that it would shock the community were she to impose the mandatory sentence on Mr. Smickle, Judge Molloy said.

She also refused to suspend her judgment to allow the government to fix the law before her ruling takes effect. “If a suspension is ordered, there is a real risk that individuals will be subjected to the arbitrariness of the scheme and/or cruel and unusual punishment during the period of suspension,” she said.

Judge Molloy added that nothing in her judgment should be read to minimize the danger of firearms. “As a trial judge in Toronto,” she said, “I am painfully aware, and am reminded almost daily, of the deadly scourge represented by handguns in our community.”

Inequality Harms the Economy: Berg & Ostry

A major study by the IMF has some interesting implications for the Mitt-wits of the world. Not only should growing inequality in nations be considered a moral negative, it is also “bad for the health of capitalists.”

It essence, what we have  is a proof of the Jeremy Grantham thesis that we should always be wary of capitalists because of the very nature of capitalism.

In recent work  (Berg, Ostry and Bettelmeyer, 2011; and Berg and Ostry, 2011), Berg and Ostry state they they discovered that when growth is looked at over the long term, the trade-off between efficiency and equality may not exist. In fact equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth.“ Released in September, the study more specifically concluded that a 10 percent decrease in inequality increased the expected duration of economic growth by 50 percent.

The IMF paper studied a sample of countries around the world between 1950 and 2006 and found that in countries with more income inequality, such as Jordan and Cameroon, the economy more frequently plunged into deeper recessions, while economic growth lasted much longer in more equal societies.

What is interesting is that they are approaching this without any of the bias which we have come to expect from the Chicago school and others where the facts always lead to the predetermined conclusion. The authors state that:

 we study growth spells as medical researchers might examine life expectancy. They study the effects of age, weight, gender, and smoking habits on life expectancy; we look at whether factors such as political institutions, health and education, macroeconomic instability, debt, and trade openness might influence the likelihood that a growth spell will end. The result is a statistical model of growth duration that relates the expected length of a growth episode (or, equivalently, the risk that it will end in a given year) to several of these variables.

Here is the reference to their summary:

Here is the full report.

This is a landmark study in that it negates the validity of the infamous trickle-down effect for planning tax rates, incentives and regulation and makes it clear that intelligent societies will monitor the staus of inequality with as much care as they give to interest rates, trade balances and GDP growth or decline.

As Europe (and Canada) swing back to more progressive and developmental practices, the influence of these studies will be a thorn in the eye for the doctrinaire right wingers.

GM—Genetic Molestation.

The reaction against genetically modified crops is not mere romanticism. Most GMO crops/seeds are linked to pesticides and pesticides, by their nature, are life-threatening. The companies selling these seeds are the same companies selling farmers herbicides and pesticides. The overall process is feudal with a twist: reducing independent farmers to a form of serfdom—using expensive, untested technolgies as the mechanism.

What is greatly needed is independent research and some of that is already available, no matter how much money companies like Monsanto throw at “bought” research.

The following post in the Food Freedom Blog is a useful reference. It, in turn references the work of GILLES-ERIC SERALINI who summarizes the current situation as follows: {DG}

99% of the GM Foods distributed in the world are plants which produce or tolerate pesticides. Four plants represent 98% of GM Foods (soy, corn, cotton and colza). 97% of those plants are grown on the American continent (US, Argentina and Canada). The research focuses on plants that produce their own insecticide and on those that are tolerant to herbicides. Those plants are only adapted to the industrial and western countries, they don’t resist drought or frost. They are not adapted to the climate in poor countries and anyway, there is no market in those countries. The sowing of GM Foods is expensive and those plants are patented. They just make the farmer’s life easier, for intensive practices giving him less work.

But the European Commission’s General Bureau for Agriculture believes that in the end the production is no better. What is more some of those plants grow back again even with herbicides, so in the long run farmers will have to use more and more of those products. They will probably become more and more dependent on the market of the pesticides.

Now we can see huge companies organise and buy farms and smallholdings. Not only are the pesticides very expensive, but they also poison the farmers who use them. One farmer in six is the victim of pesticide problem. This is how we use science to serve the main agricultural industry, which produces and uses pesticides.

We fight to free the world from those intensive methods, which eventually exploit mankind and earth. We fight to foster alternative methods using integrated systems including biological fighting, ecological culture, diversified methods which many times turned out to be very efficient, like the traditional Chinese agriculture which is able to feed close populations and reduce the use of pesticides.’

Also interesting is the following (qv):


Three Approved GMOs Linked to Organ Damage

By Rady Ananda

In what is being described as the first ever and most comprehensive study of the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health, researchers have linked organ damage with consumption of Monsanto’s GM maize.

Three varieties of Monsanto’s GM corn – Mon 863, insecticide-producing Mon 810, and Roundup® herbicide-absorbing NK 603 – were approved for consumption by US, European and several other national food safety authorities. The data used for this approval, ironically, is the same data that independent researchers studied to make the organ damage link.

The Committee of Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) and Universities of Caen and Rouen obtained Monsanto’s confidential raw data of its 2002 feeding trials on rats after a European court made it public in 2005.

The data “clearly underlines adverse impacts on kidneys and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, as well as different levels of damages to heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system,” reported Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen.

Although different levels of adverse impact on vital organs were noticed between the three GMOs, the 2009 research shows specific effects associated with consumption of each, differentiated by sex and dose.

Their December 2009 study appears in the International Journal of Biological Sciences (IJBS). This latest study conforms with a 2007 analysis by CRIIGEN on Mon 863, published in Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, using the same data.

Monsanto rejected the 2007 conclusions, stating:

“The analyses conducted by these authors are not consistent with what has been traditionally accepted for use by regulatory toxicologists for analysis of rat toxicology data.”

[Also see Doull J, Gaylor D, Greim HA, et al. “Report of an expert panel on the reanalysis by Séralini et al. (2007) of a 90-day study conducted by Monsanto in support of the safety of a genetically modified corn variety (MON 863).” Food Chem Toxicol. 2007; 45:2073-2085.]

In an email to me, Séralini explained that their study goes beyond Monsanto’s analysis by exploring the sex-differentiated health effects on mammals, which Doull, et al. ignored:

“Our study contradicts Monsanto conclusions because Monsanto systematically neglects significant health effects in mammals that are different in males and females eating GMOs, or not proportional to the dose. This is a very serious mistake, dramatic for public health. This is the major conclusion revealed by our work, the only careful reanalysis of Monsanto crude statistical data.”

Other problems with Monsanto’s conclusions

When testing for drug or pesticide safety, the standard protocol uses three mammalian species. The subject studies only used rats, yet won GMO approval in more than a dozen nations.

Chronic problems are rarely discovered in 90 days; most often such tests run for up to two years. Tests “lasting longer than three months give more chances to reveal metabolic, nervous, immune, hormonal or cancer diseases,” wrote Seralini, et al. in their Doull rebuttal. [See “How Subchronic and Chronic Health Effects can be Neglected for GMOs, Pesticides or Chemicals.” IJBS; 2009; 5(5):438-443.]

Further, Monsanto’s analysis compared unrelated feeding groups, muddying the results. The June 2009 rebuttal explains, “In order to isolate the effect of the GM transformation process from other variables, it is only valid to compare the GMO … with its isogenic non-GM equivalent.”

The researchers conclude that the raw data from all three GMO studies reveal novel pesticide residues will be present in food and feed and may pose grave health risks to those consuming them.

They have called for “an immediate ban on the import and cultivation of these GMOs and strongly recommend additional long-term (up to two years) and multi-generational animal feeding studies on at least three species to provide true scientifically valid data on the acute and chronic toxic effects of GM crops, feed and foods.”

Human health, of course, is of primary import to us, but ecological effects are also in play. Ninety-nine percent of GMO crops either tolerate or produce insecticide. This may be the reason we see bee colony collapse disorder and massive butterfly deaths. If GMOs are wiping out Earth’s pollinators, they are far more disastrous than the threat they pose to humans and other mammals.

Further Reading

Health Risks of GM Foods, Jeffrey M. Smith

Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, Union of Concerned Scientists

Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center

Published in the March issue of Z Magazine.

ifttt: If This Then That

A good site to get some handy tools that are not too difficult to comprehend.

Came via Paolo’s Blog (this one covers one quick transfer you may need to do a lot).

More later when I get it working. His descriptions are somewhat cryptic.

The IFTTT BLog has a good explanation of what they’re up to: event driven programming for the masses!

Jesse & Linden

Beets: gnocchi

A very interesting thing to do with beets: from ironstef {from Bon Appetit, October 2004}

  • Beet Gnocchi with Rosemary
    8 first-course or 4 main-course servings
  • 3 small beets, trimmed
  • 1 pound fresh ricotta cheese (skim or regular)
  •  1 large egg 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  •  1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups flour, divided
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 8 3-inch-long fresh rosemary sprigs
  • Additional freshly grated Parmesan cheese


  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Wrap beets in foil and roast until tender, about 1 hour.
  3. Cool 15 minutes. Slip skin off beets; discard skins.
  4. Coarsely grate beets.
  5. Place 3/4 cup grated beets in large bowl (reserve remaining beets for another use).
  6. Stir in ricotta, egg, 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper.
  7.  Mix in 1 cup flour.
  8. Lightly dust baking sheet with flour. Place remaining 1/2 cup flour in small bowl. Using tablespoon measure as aid, scoop dough into rounds; transfer to bowl with flour, then roll each into 1 1/2 inch log.
  9. Hold in palm of hand and gently press centers with fingertips to make slight indentations. Transfer gnocchi to prepared baking sheet. See image below.
  10. Melt butter with rosemary sprigs in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Cook until butter begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Remove sprigs. Set aside.
  11.  Working in batches, cook gnocchi in large pot of simmering salted water until gnocchi float to surface, about 2 minutes. Continue to cook 1 1/2 minutes longer.
  12. Using slotted spoon, transfer gnocchi to skillet with butter and rosemary. Heat butter and gnocchi over medium heat, stirring gently to coat. Transfer to plate; sprinkle generously with additional Parmesan cheese and serve.

Stef’s army of little pink pasta:

Another source: very similar:

Beets: soup with asparagus.

A warming, tasteful soup with beet puree. By: Bonny Reichert

Recipe: Asparagus Soup with Beet Purée and Crème Fraîche–which takes time to prepare if you can’t get it locally.


Roasting the asparagus before turning it into the soup concentrates and develops its flavour, and the beet purée adds complexity and a rich hit of colour. Crème fraîche is a great gourmet flourish, but you can use a bit of sour cream instead.

Beet Purée
2 large beets, cut into quarters
11⁄2 cups water (375 mL)
1 tbsp sugar (15 mL)
1 tsp salt (5 mL)

Crème Fraîche
1⁄2 cup whipping cream (125 mL)
1 tbsp buttermilk (15 mL)

Asparagus Soup
1 bunch asparagus, woody ends snapped off (about 1 1⁄2 lbs/750 g)
3 tbsp olive oil (45 mL)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 carrot, diced (you can skip it)
1⁄2 clove garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock, store bought or homemade (500 mL) (or veg broth)
11⁄2 cups water (375 mL)
2 tbsp heavy cream (30 mL)
Sour cream (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Place beet pieces in the middle of a large sheet of foil. Bring edges of foil together to form a pouch. Place on a baking sheet and roast beets until fork-tender, about 50 minutes.

2. When beets are cool enough to handle, slip off skins and chop coarsely. Place in a medium saucepan along with water, sugar and salt. Simmer over medium-low heat, partially covered, until liquid is dark red and beets are very tender, 30-40 minutes. Purée with a stand or immersion blender and set aside.

3. To make crème fraîche, place whipping cream in a glass jar and stir in buttermilk. Cover and leave at room temperature for 8-24 hours or until thickened. Refrigerate until needed.

4. To make soup, preheat oven to 400F (200C). Lay asparagus spears on a baking sheet in a single layer and drizzle with 1 1⁄2 tbsp (22 mL) of the olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper and roast until fragrant and light brown, about 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrot and sauté, stirring, until onion becomes translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for a 1-2 minutes. Cut roasted asparagus spears into 2-in.- (5-cm-) long pieces and add to saucepan. Pour in stock and water and simmer soup until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

6. Purée soup with a stand or immersion blender until very smooth. Reheat, stir in heavy cream and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

7. Ladle soup into bowls and add a spoonful of beet purée to the centre of each bowl. Drag a butter knife or skewer through beet purée in a
circular motion to create a swirl. Garnish with a little crème fraîche (or sour cream).

A Place for Posts of Merit

Given the odds of Facebook succuming to the pox of greed or the decay of tyrannies, it seems useful to have a place where interesting material (to me at least) can be available in a fashion where it can be moved, copied, edited, removed etc.

Who knows if WordPress will or will not follow Facebook and go for the huge bucks sometimes, but at least it’s easy to keep an archive and (so far) easy to remove what needs to be removed.

These posts are eclectic by design. (See Ludovico Carracci, who died in Bologna in 1619. And his cousins.)  A little art, a little farming, lots of travel, a few bete noirs, some Innis and some post-Innis, etc etc.