Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Three Political Cultures

The David Emerson screw up has done something interesting - it has revealed the three primary strains of Canadian political culture. Not mere party politics, but the ways in which people relate to their government and their elected officials, the way they expect those institutions to operate, and the ways in which they believe democracy should work.

Emerson's traitorous jump has revealed this, both in those calling for his ouster and in those defending him. Let's call them the Political, the Representative and the Tribal responses.

The Political attitude is the view that is probably shared by most actual members of political parties. This is the view that people are elected not just on the strength of their own personal character and experience, but because of their party and its platform. Political voters weigh the records of each party and pick the one that they feel will do the best job of governing the country, whether on moral, economic or justice grounds. Note that this means that people who vote for the Tories because they oppose gay marriage, and people who vote Liberal or NDP because they favour it, are essentially in the same class here.

Political voters have been quite angry at Emerson because they expect their politicians to advertise their allegiance beforehand, and to stick with it as closely as possible afterwards. Broken promises are especially hated by this group.

The second group, the Representative voters, essentially favour a kind of direct democracy. They want their MP to do whatever the majority of the voters in the riding want, essentially as a remote-controlled representative of their collective will. This is the purest, democratically speaking, of the three schools. It's actually fairly close in philosophy to the anarchist ideal of recallable delegates, who would essentially have no ability to change their minds without consulting with the group they represent. It was the old Reform Party which upheld this view, although it hasn't been tested until now because of their status as an opposition. I suspect it will crumble under the heady influence of governing.

The Representative voters tend to have a fair bit of overlap with the Political voters, and many people, of course, believe in a bit of both. Most Political types would probably veer into the Representative camp if their MP did something that really offended the sensibilities of a large fraction of the community.

The final category is the only one for which I have no sympathy. The Tribal voters just want someone to bring goodies back to their riding, and don't give a shit what party or person is in power. It's naked pork barrel politics at its worst, and not surprisingly, these amoral opportunists have been Emerson's staunchest defenders. They say that having an MP in cabinet, regardless of party, will be good for the riding, for Vancouver or for British Columbia. There are usually then defences about the 2010 Olympics, about job growth and similar garbage. This type of voter can just crawl into a corner and die, for all I care. All they want is for the government to hand them goodies, and damn any principles along the way.

The Liberal voters of Ontario and the Maritimes have been accused of being this type of voter by many Conservatives over the past 12 years. Those crooked easterners were clearly just voting in a corrupt party so they could cash in with new infrastructure, federal agencies and Employment Insurance weighted toward their industries, the Tories said. Now that tribalism benefits the Tories, the shoe is on the other foot, of course. Many candidates, of all parties, openly campaigned along these lines, promising that if they were to be in the coming government, everyone in their riding would wake up after election day to find themselves living in the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

And that is probably the sickest part of the whole deal.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Look! I'm not a complete waste of carbon!

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 9/10 correct!

Of course, I did get one wrong. And frankly, there were two where I really wasn't sure, and now I don't know in which direction my ignorance lies. Damn, that's frustrating!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I'm a Carnivalista!

My post on math education (below) has been linked from the Carnival of Education!. Thanks to the Education Wonks.

All posters are now on notice: teachers are present. Bad spelling and grammar will get you slapped across the virtual knuckles with a digital ruler!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Out, out damned spokesman!

And now, a special announcement from Mount Tory. From CTV.ca:

William Stairs, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications, has been replaced about two weeks into the new government's mandate.

It's not clear whether Stairs has been terminated or whether he voluntarily left.

Now, as a reporter, I know that the person who wrote this story can't outright say what we all know. So I'll just provide a helpful translation here: He got the boot. He isn't saying anything because he is a loyal party hack but... boot. Big time.

A statement from Harper's office said Stairs will be replaced by Sandra Buckler, who served as a spokesperson for the Conservative party during the election campaign.

Stairs declined to comment when contacted late Monday.

"William played an important role in the creation of the Conservative party and the recent campaign," Harper's chief of staff Ian Brodie said in a statement.

"Sandra brings a wealth of communications experience to her new post."

Brodie also says that he is looking forward to working with Stairs as he moves on to new opportunities, CTV's Rosemary Thompson reported Monday night.

It's unclear, however, what those new opportunities entail.

"Don't worry, Billy, we'll find you some cushy lobbying job, maybe land you on a Bay Street board of directors. Want to be a consultant? All the cool kids are doing it!"

Stairs, a fluently bilingual Nova Scotia native with a PhD in political science was a longtime presence on Parliament Hill.

Read: future potential party leader. Harper is well rid of this guy, he was about two terms away from planting a knife in his dear leader's back.

e became Harper's chief spin doctor last year, and had previously held the same role for Peter MacKay under the now-defunct Progressive Conservative party.

The shake-up follows complaints that Harper has avoided the media since being sworn in as prime minister on Feb. 6.

"I think what this means is obviously that the prime minister is recognizing that they have had some communication problems in the first couple of weeks of his mandate, and that's why they are making a big change at the top of their communications staff," Thompson said.

"Hey, maybe we should have said something about that whole David Emerson fuck up? Other than that the people who were complaining were shallow? Maybe."

Several Conservative aides, including at least five from the media-relations wing of Harper's office resigned or were forced out over a period of several months last year.

In August, 2005, Stairs insisted the departures were not a sign of dissension in the ranks.

"This is a high-turnover business," he said at the time.

"When people do decide to move on, to pursue careers elsewhere, they usually choose to do it in the summer so that (new) people can move into their jobs with a minimum of disruption."

"Bitter recrimination goes down easier with cool lemonade, and after a few hours playing on the Slip & Slide, you'll hardly remember the bloody political battles that ended with you kicked from the halls of power! Hey, everybody, it's the Night of the Long Knives, Nerf-style!"

Now back to your regularly scheduled government, already in progress.

Friday, February 17, 2006

On Math Education

Yet again, I long for a time machine, in which I could travel back to talk to my younger self. Not to save myself from embarassment or pain, but to deliver a simple message, just a few words long.

It's my Grade Eight self who needs to hear this message. He's about to completely slack off and send me (us?) into a spiral of lower and lower math grades, culminating in flunking Math 12, avoiding Chem 11 and 12 and Physics 11 and 12. And for no reason at all, besides laziness and apathy.

Well, there is one more reason. No one, not one person in high school, ever told me that math was fun. That's the message I'd take back, if I could.

My girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) has recently started a math course, as one of the prerequisites she needs to get a teaching degree. When she signed up for it, she was worried, because she had always thought she was bad at math. I assured her that she was bright in every area, and of course, I was proved right. She has flown through the course so far, and is getting a mark in the mid ninetieth percentile.

The course is essentially every type of math you might teach in elementary school, from basic addition and subtraction to algebra, factoring and geometry. It includes not just what the students have to know, but the basic ideas and concepts behind the elementary school lesson plans. The entire course is crammed into one semester.

I've been following along in the textbook, so she'll have someone to study with. It's made me realize some things about the way I was taught math, and where I went wrong.

When I was a kid, I consistently did well in every elementary school subject, As and Bs predominating on every report card. When I was in Grade Six, I was plucked out of my regular class and with about 15 or 20 other kids, I was tossed into an advanced math class, the only class taught by our principal. He was a great math teacher, a man in love with the subject, and that love was infectious. I did pretty well, although I was far from the brightest kid in the group. Two years later, most of my advanced math classmates and I went to high school and jumped straight into Grade Nine math.

This is where I started to falter, and it was almost entirely my own fault. I'd done well in just about everything in elementary school, but I'd known since I learned to read that words were my first love. History, English and especially writing was where I could really shine. And everything else was boring. I started to slack off in math.

Again, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who loved his subject. He really encouraged everyone to take math all the way to Math 12, and Calculus, even though neither is required for graduation or even (back then) for entry into university in some arts programs. But I didn't care at the time, so my grades slipped and slipped, until I was failing a subject in which I'd once been considered gifted. My teachers deserve none of the blame, and the majority certainly rests on my shoulders.

My teachers, of course, tried the usual tactics to get me to do better and stay in the course. They told me about how many jobs need math, about how hard it is to get into some college courses without certain courses and grades. The thing is, I knew it didn't matter. I had decided by Grade Eight that I would be a reporter. It involved writing, and it would only require a two-year diploma, and then I could be out there working instead of sitting in another classroom. And my plan worked perfectly, in fact. I've been working full time since I was 19 years old. And no, I didn't need the higher math I missed out on.

I did, eventually, learn to miss the fact that I hadn't taken the math courses more seriously. I'm a science fiction nerd, and sometimes I knew I was missing things when I read SF or popular science books. I've picked up the odd mathematical fact here and there, but nothing systematic. Not until my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) started her course.

Now I've discovered the joy that comes with getting it. The pleasure that comes from finding a solution to a seemingly unsolveable problem. I'm enjoying math in a way I haven't since I was in elementary school. (The fact that I can hash out the solution to problems with a loved one does not hurt at all, but I suspect it isn't strictly required.) Why am I discovering this now, and not then?

Because no one is forcing me to do it. Because I'm not being given purely utilitarian reasons for doing it. Because I can yell at the textbook when it deliberately obfuscates things, because I'm free to ask why a certain problem should be done a certain way.

While my teachers are not to blame for my failures, a part of the blame has to rest with the system they find themselves in. The entire high school educational system in Noth America is geared towards producing either basic high school graduates or college entrants. The requirements for both are basically arbitrary, at this point. The courses you take are either completely unneccessary for the unskilled, low wage jobs at the bottom of the barrel, or they are inadequate for the high-skilled jobs, which will require either technical or academic training at another institution. Everyone involved, from teachers to students, knows this. As students, we know there are a set number of hoops to jump through. You must have X, Y and Z courses from the humanities stream, and A, B and C from the sciences side, to graduate at all. Add in D, E and F courses to qualify for your postsecondary stream of choice, whether it's a trades apprenticeship or a university entrance. Our teachers, the better ones, try to get us interested in the course material for its own sake, and we take a course we like when we can, but mostly we're just trying to get to the next hoop. (I never took English Lit 12, either, because it conflicted with another course I needed more, but enjoyed less.)

Most importantly, I don't remember anyone ever telling me that math is fun. It was suggested that it was needed to make me a well-rounded individual, that it would be useful for so many, many careers. But those strictly utilitarian arguements don't work on students who already have their own utilitarian plans for graduation and career lined up.

I'm not dismissing utility in education, of course. But we expect life to be more than the mere utility of eating, sleeping and passing on our genes. We have the best toybox in the history of life between our ears, and math is one of the toys inside. It's criminal not to tell students that, at least once. At least then, the system and the teachers would have tried.

Others have noticed that something is wrong with the way we teach and learn. A system that is supposed to teach us skills, doesn't. A system that desires to make us well rounded doesn't ask us what "well rounded" is. A system that should show us the pleasure of learning offers only dull utility as an explanation for all its courses.

Progressive Review has this story about the roots of the modern American education system. Kevin Carson has commentary on that article on his Mutualist Blog and on this article on a similar theme.

Meanwhile, over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Meyers is plenty pissed about a Washington Post column that suggests no one needs math for a fulfilling life, and that algebra might just be too hard for people. The comments section vigorously defends math, with mostly utilitarian arguments again. But some of the posters are questioning the way students are taught in the first place, which is a good start.

So funny... it hurts...

Still holding my sides in. But it's a good hurt.

Joss Whedon.

Warren Ellis.

Comic/science fiction/comedy gods. Together, for the first time.

Go read it. Now!

And then start the petition to have them do this as a talk show, five nights a week.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Take that Emerson!

It's nice to see the Liberal Party has taken my suggestion so quickly, and are asking David Emerson to repay the $97,000 they spent on his election campaign.

Emerson, of course, is just digging his hole deeper by saying he earned lots and lots of money for the party, so why should they complain that now he's thoroughly betrayed them? I guess the theory is that if you pay off someone, you can use, abuse and then dump them. Another famous Tory once put it thusly: "There's no whore like an old whore." It's good that we can look back to such great statesmen as Brian Mulroney in times of political turmoil like this.

Meanwhile, in today's Vancouver Province, Emerson is complaining that his kids are the target of taunts at school because of his actions. I do feel bad for the kids - it's not their fault their dad is an asshat - but what the hell did Emerson think would happen?

The right wing blogosphere and pundits remain divided, although the bloggers and streeter interviews are much more critical of Harper. It's just a few court eunuchs who are supporting this, and the appointment of Harper's campaign manager to the senate is even worse in many estimations.

I've revised my estimate of how long this government will last sharply downward. I give it less than a year, now.

Crested killer

The oldest relative of Tyranosaurus rex has been discovered in Jurassic strata in China. Check out this CBC page which has not only a pretty good description of the critter, but a nice artist's rendering.

They're wrong about it sharing the trait of being three-fingered with T. rex, though. T. rexes were famously two-fingered.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Have A Tall, Cool Glass of Links

Now that I'm slightly calmer about David Emerson (urge to kill receding...) I thought I'd put up a few links to some of the best stuff of recent days.

First, Pharyngula's P.Z. Meyers is threatening horrible violence to a Bible unless people link to him. I really don't care that it's a Bible, per se, but my book-protecting genes are kicking in. Don't do it, P.Z.! Think of the binding!

If it was a copy of a new China Mieville novel, I'd be even more upset.

Then there's my good friend Mr. Misanthropy, who has a Danish-Canadian perspective on the recent Mohammadtoons mess.

Meanwhile, Kevin Carson has two delightful posts up, which tear apart a pair of corporate management books. They're about how to feel good about being a downsized, overworked or frustrated drone. I for one welcome our new corporate overlords... Wait, you mean they've been screwing me all along?

And back to Emerson (urge to kill... returning!), I'm pleased to see that quite a few Tories are pissed about this. Babbling Brooks is mad as hell, and so are all his blogging right wing friends. Of course, they're just regular right wingers. They actually have morals, unlike their leaders.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Emerson: What the #@*!

Hey, Dave, remember this?

"I'm going to be Stephen Harper's worst enemy. We're going to stir the pot and you better believe we are going to make a heck of a lot of noise."

-- David Emerson, on election night [Jan. 23, 2006], when he was elected as a Liberal.

Here's a pithy quote for you, Emerson: Fuck off.

Why am I so mad about this? After all, my ideal world is an anarchist one, without elected representatives, just direct democracy. But at the same time, I've always, before I ever had any anti-state leanings and since, been a strong advocate of voting. In the absence of a workable anarchy, a constitutional democracy is the next best thing, and within that framework, some governments are clearly better than others. Many, if not quite all politicians are moral, well meaning folks. People should vote, if only to elect the party that won't try to screw them over. If everyone with a progressive agenda withdrew from voting, we'd be abandoning the levers of power to people who believe that gays and adulterers should be stoned to death.

But now, I'm considering not even voting in the next election. Emerson has really brought it home for me just how fucking miserable some politicians can be, how easily they'll betray everything they supposedly stand for. He's the latest in a recent string of defections from every side of the political spectrum.

Ujjal Dosanjh, former NDP premier, runs for the federal Liberals.

Belinda Stronach, former Tory, turns Judas for a Liberal cabinet seat.

Keith Martin, who jumped from Alliance to Liberal.

Scott Brison, Tory to Liberal in one easy step.

Bob Rae, another fromer NDP premier, of Ontario, rumoured to be seeking the Liberal leadership.

Notice something about that string of defections? Every one of them (except Rae) was toward the immediate centre of power, which for 12 long years has been the Liberals. Your basic backbench MP can't just jump from party to party either, they just have to sit tight and do what they're told. They're the toiling class of the politicians, just trying to scrape up enough patronage to get another community centre or highway overpass built in their riding.

Above them are the political elite, the literal ruling class. They are marked out by wealth, influence and charisma, and they feel free to jump from party to party, always seeking power and influence. Stronach, a silver-spoon sucking millionaire who hung out with Bill Clinton, engineered the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties into the new Conservatives, and then switched sides when she didn't find herself on the winning team, is the classic example. She's even managed to get re-elected after that stunt. These high-class pols always claim to have the best interests of the country in mind, of course. I'm sure that they think they do. But the effect is that they dilute their own ethics, or show that they had none to begin with.

I'm not writing this rant because I'm a fan of the Liberals, but because I get angry on behalf of the voters in Emerson's riding.

He ran as a Liberal. He ate their salt, and then he stabbed the party in the back. But worse than that, he assumed that he knew better than every single person who marked his name on a ballot. Without asking them, without consulting, without a meeting or a poll, he has invalidated their decision of just two weeks ago.

Some of those people who marked their X next to Emerson, David, voted for him because they liked him. Some were voting strategically, to keep out another party they didn't like. And the majority voted because they supported the platform of the Liberals themselves, because they had weighed the platforms and the records of the various parties, and found the Liberals the least wanting. Now, he'll be supporting the Tory platform, the Tory party line and the Tory cause.

Until they're out of power, presumably. If the Liberals win with a minority in the next election, they'll let him right back in, all forgiven. The need for collective power and the need for individual power feed off one another, perfectly incestuous.

Meanwhile, the voters have no power.

Not all is lost. There are any number of ways we can return more power to the electorate, short of burning the constituency offices of every MP in the land. Retiring NDP MP Ed Broadbent suggested a package of corruption fighting reforms that included a ban on switching parties in mid-stream. Any MP who wanted to change his or her colours would be forced to step down and fight a by-election. It's a good start.

Another good idea would be very tough recall legislation. We need a way to pull these guys out of there when they get out of hand. And the requirements need to be easy enough to make it a meaningful threat. If even a few thousand people think the bum should go, he should go.

I'd also suggest that every time there's a defection like this, of a sitting MP, that the party he or she left should sue the living shit out of the traitor. Sue for every dollar they invested in lawn signs, newspaper ads, hot dogs at the party fundraisers. And every volunteer should join a class action lawsuit, to sue for the time they invested as volunteers. Does $30 an hour for their time sound good to you?

Finally, we badly need to reform the way we elect these people in the first place. Some form of proportional representation (I'm a fan of the Single Transferrable Vote, but I'm open to other options) is badly needed.

None of those reforms would make it a perfect democracy, but we'd be a bit closer. The high and mighty need to feel some anger from the voters, and they need to feel it now.

And to Emerson, once more: Fuck you.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Who the heck is left?

John Manley won't run.

Frank McKenna won't run.

Brian Tobin won't run.

Now, Allen Rock won't run either.

The Liberal leadership race is staring to look rather sad. It's like a seventh grade dance, with everyone lined up against the wall, refusing to take to the floor. (Fears of complete social humiliation are appropriate for both settings.) If someone had asked for a list of the top five Liberal leadership candidates a year ago, those names would have been four of the top five, with maybe Sheila Copps rounding out the list. I'm guessing that at least some of these guys actually would like to lead the party (I'm looking at you, Brian) but they want to let the flames of political scandal consume some other sacrificial leader first. They'll come back to "save" the party eventually.

The odd thing is, this has left us with a pack of highly unlikely "frontrunners" right now.

The CBC's website has a list of possible leaders, and three of them are turncoats for other parties. I know the Liberals are supposed to be a "big tent" party, but this is ridiculous. Scott Brison, Belinda Stronach and Bob Rae! The only remainder is Michael Ignatieff, who has spent most of the past two decades in the US and England.

My two pennies?

Stronach hasn't got a hope in hell. In fact, given that she was one of the major behind the scenes people who created the current Conservative Party, which just tossed the Libs onto the Opposition bosses, I'm surprised they even talk to her. Plus, she jumped ship in exchange for a cabinet post and a chance at more power, whatever she claims. I doubt she'll even launch an official leadership campaign.

Ignatieff was in favour of the war in Iraq. In favour of that mess - that sort of damages your credibility. The nasty little apologist for US imperialism is probably the frontrunner just because all those other long-time Libs have already dropped out. Sad. Just sad.

Brison is in a better position than Stronach despite the fact that he also defected from the Tories. He was a red Tory of the old Progressive Conservatives, who refused to join the new Reform/Alliance dominated Tory caucus because of their views on gay rights (as he is a gay man). A principled stand like that is at least better than a naked power grab, but a lot of Liberals are more than a bit homophobic themselves, and so are their voters.

And then there was Rae. Seriously? Bob Rae? What the fuck happened there? I suppose he's my preferred choice to win... Better than the warmonger.

Hail, Lord of Iguanodon!

It's a big day here at the Little Iguanodon, as it is the birthday our Our discoverer and namer, Dr. Gideon Mantell. From Paleoblog:

Mantell, a physician of Lewes in Sussex in southern England, had for years been collecting fossils in the sandstone of Tilgate forest, and he had discovered bones belonging to three extinct species: a giant crocodile, a plesiosaur, and Buckland's Megalosaurus. But in 1822 he found several teeth that "possessed characters so remarkable" that they had to have come from a fourth and distinct species of Saurian. After consulting numerous experts, Mantell finally recognized that the teeth bore an uncanny resemblance to the teeth of the living iguana, except that they were twenty times larger.
In this paper, the second published description of a dinosaur, he concluded that he had found the teeth of a giant lizard, which he named Iguanodon, or "Iguana-tooth."

Yes, those grinding teeth were the beginning of the acknowledgement by humans of possibly the noblest, wisest and certainly pointy-thumbdest dinosaurs to ever roam the Mesozoic landscapes.