Archive for: October 2010

Politics, proprieties, and protection

Being a cabinet minister requires adroit balancing skills. On one hand, a minister sometimes performs duties that border on the judicial, and must do so impartially. On the other, a minister has political responsibilities to the governing party and its allies.

DenisePetersonRafuse-200To judge from her public comments about an impending investigation into allegations of abuse at group homes operated by the Colchester Residential Services Society, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse has an imperfect grasp of both roles.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union complained that managers of the Colchester homes had failed to react, or failed to react quickly enough, to violent attacks by residents against other residents and against unionized staff.

Department officials looked into the complaint and reported to Peterson-Rafuse, who ordered a formal investigation under the Protection of Persons in Care Act. The act gives the minister broad powers to protect residents and patients at special care homes, including the power to compel production of records and issue binding directives on the homes.

Shannon McLellan, director of the non-profit society, said the organization would “co-operate fully with all audits and investigations.”

“We consider these to be useful processes,” she added in a written statement. “We look forward to any recommendations that will help us do our job better.”

So far so good. The responsible department receives a complaint of violent attacks against vulnerable citizens; an expedited inquiry finds the complaints worthy of detailed investigation; the responsible minister orders such an investigation; the operator of the homes in question pledges full co-operation.

Then the minister saw fit to speak to the Canadian Press:

Peterson-Rafuse said in an interview she was informed of injuries and abuse earlier this week after her assistants met with representatives of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

“Upon completion of that meeting, I was informed of what was going on and requested a full investigation be put in place by the department,” she said.

Here Peterson-Rafuse oversteps her role, referring to “what was going on” when all she has are allegations the department deemed worthy of further investigation. Finding out “what was going on” is a key part of the investigation, a task the minister should not taint by appearing to prejudge its outcome.

CP reporter Mike Tutton confronted Peterson-Rafuse with Worker’s Compensation records purporting to show 38 violence-related workplace injuries at the society’s five homes over the last five years — a rate of about 1.5 incidents per home per year.

Peterson-Rafuse said the injury rates at the provincially funded, non-profit agency are too high, and she expects the investigation will find out what is happening.

“To me, that sounds like an awful lot of people getting injured. Your life circles around being able to do your job and being able to support your family and one injury can take that away from you,” she said.

There are two problems with this.

First, by proclaiming that injury rates at the homes are too high, and speculating about the personal consequences of those injuries, the minister is again pre-judging the results of a quasi-judicial process she ordered and for which she bears ultimate responsibility.

Second, Workers Compensation stats relate to injuries incurred on the job — injuries to employees, in other words, not to residents or patients in care. In my reading of the Protection of Persons in Care Act and regulations, investigations like the one the minister ordered can only look into abuse directed at residents, not staff. Unless the investigator strays beyond the mandate set forth in the act, the investigation will not “find out what it happening” to union workers.

The Colchester Residential Services Society is entitled to fair treatment, and this entitlement is no mere technicality. The departmental official designated to carry out this investigation will know that the minister has, in effect, already declared that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That official may be reluctant to buck this presumption, regardless of what her investigation turns up.

Viewed through a political lens, Peterson-Rafuse’s performance doesn’t look any better. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union has long allied itself with the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party. Now that the NDP is in government, the union enjoys unaccustomed sympathetic access to ministers and their staff.

Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with the minister ordering an investigation based on a union complaint, assuming the appropriate inquiry by the appropriate department staff found grounds for further investigation. But Peterson-Rafuse apparently thought it clever to reinforce her decision with public comments sympathetic to the union’s position.

That was dumb. The union already had what it wanted: an investigation. Playing footsie in public offered little additional political gain. On the contrary, it risked political damage. Rightly or wrongly, voters wary of union influence over the NDP will feel reinforced in their suspicions. If the investigation comes down hard on the Colchester society, the minister’s imprudent comments may raise doubts about its evenhandedness. This is the kind of thing Darrell Dexter scrupulously avoided as Opposition Leader, and that’s part of the reason he’s premier.

On both the proprieties and the politics of this case, the minister is 0 for 2.

Talking sense on marijuana

Name the radical lefty who wrote this:

[M]arijuana… is an astonishing story of the hideously expensive and protracted failure of official policy.

There was an increase of 600 percent in the federal drug-control budget, from $1.5 billion to $18 billion, between 1981 and 2002, and it is almost certainly now over $25 billion, and yet cannabis as an industry is an almost perfect illustration of the unstoppable force of supply-side economics. Between 1990 and 2007, there was a 420 percent increase in cannabis seizures by drug-control authorities, to about 140,000 tons; a 150 percent increase in annual cannabis-related arrests, to about 900,000 people; a 145 percent increase in average potency of seized cannabis (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol content); and a 58 percent decline, inflation-adjusted, in the retail price of cannabis throughout the United States….

Despite the drug war’s official costs of over $2.5 trillion over about 40 years, comprehensive research by the authoritative International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), a Canadian organization, but with wide international expertise and collaboration, reveals that cannabis is almost universally accessible to twelfth-graders in all parts of the U.S., and that cannabis use by American twelfth-graders has increased from 27 percent to 32 percent between 1990 and 2008; and, furthermore, that among all Americans between the ages of 19 and 28, use increased in the same period from 26 percent to 29 percent….

The Netherlands, which has effectively legalized cannabis use, has roughly half the incidence of per capita use as the U.S…. Differing regimes of cannabis decriminalization have been instituted by Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Portugal, which latter country, even nine years after decriminalization, has among the lowest cannabis-use levels in the European Union. There is a great range of policy options available, and observable in other countries, including restricting places of use, registering and rationing, increasing emphasis on treatment methods, and separating medical (use) from criminal (distribution outside official channels) aspects.

And the public-policy decision has been informally concerted to leave middle-class, prosperous American secondary-school and university youth alone with at least their soft drugs, while trolling relentlessly through poor African-American areas rounding up dealers and users, and imprisoning them en masse.

For blacks, the chances of being arrested and charged and convicted for cannabis offenses are 300 percent greater than for whites. Sending nearly half a million cannabis offenders to prison each year inflicts a $40,000 annual charge per prisoner, not counting the processing costs of the mass-convict-production U.S. law-enforcement system.

Domestic consumption of cannabis is an approximately $140 billion industry in the U.S., which, despite large domestic production, requires large imports, especially from Mexico, Canada, and Colombia. In Mexico, 20,000 metric tons of cannabis are shipped annually to the U.S., and the U.S. is in the position of telling foreign nations to cease production, while it will not impose the same solution on itself nor even make an all-out effort to discourage imports.

The result is a virtual civil war in Mexico, where 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the last four years, five times the number of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last nine years. The beneficiaries of official American policy are the drug cartels, who make billions on it annually, and maintain private paramilitary forces including armored vehicles, submersible drug-transport ships, and a range of aircraft.

If you guessed Conrad Black, move to the head of the class. He was writing in the National Review Online.

Talkin’ baseball

In response to my post about “seeing” baseball on the radio (and the iPhone), Cliff White writes:

Although I am not now, nor have I ever been, a major sports fan, I remember clearly listening as a young boy in the fifties to radio broadcast of local and major league games. I remember nothing of those games except the rhythm and pacing of the broadcasts. I suspect much of the nostalgia for the fifties golden age of baseball is rooted in the soothing, tension dissolving effects of those broadcasts. At a time when fears of the mushroom cloud hung over everyone, those broadcasts took you to a simple world where everything moved at a human pace.

Here’s the windup… the pitch… low and inside.

Here is as good a place as any for a footnote about Vin Scully, the incredibly enduring Dodger broadcaster who did as much as anyone to create the atmosphere Cliff describes. When the Dodgers extended Scully’s contract for a 60th (!) season last year, I listed a few Scullyisms. My favorite of these came in the 1987 All-Star game, when Scully saw the Blue Jays’ graceful shortstop Tony Fernández field a ball for the first time.

“He’s like a bolt of silk,” Scully said.

What I didn’t know, but learned this week reading Scully’s Wikipedia entry, is that the broadcaster grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights district, where his father was… a silk salesman.

This year, the Dodgers extended Scully’s contract for a 61st season.

Sex-partner math revisited

Reader Ritchie Simpson challenges me to consult a mathematician on my assertion that “one should always be sceptical of surveys that show heterosexual men had more partners, on average, than women, since this is a mathematical impossibility.”

While I do not fundamentally disagree with your observation about “heterosexual men,” I am dubious about your math.

My go-to guy on matters arithmetic is retired Cape Breton University professor Doug Grant, now living in exile in Kitchener. His response after the jump.

Read more »

Game 2 x iPhone 4 x MLB

MLB-350Please don’t think me old, but I grew up in a suburb of New York City, listening to Vin Scully call Brooklyn Dodger games on a radio the size of a bread box, powered by vacuum tubes. The experience was formative in the sense that it left me with the belief baseball games are best seen on the radio, in singer Terry Cashman‘s evocative phrase.

Tonight at 10, I set out from Sydney, Nova Scotia, for the 75 km. drive to my home on a remote stretch of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes. Before pulling out of the parking lot, I plugged my iPhone 4 into a Griffin FM transmitter the size of a Bic lighter, opened the phone’s Major League Baseball app, and clicked a tab marked “listen.”

For the next hour, I heard San Francisco radio station KNBR’s Dave Flemming, Mike Krukow, and Duane Kuiper call the middle innings of Game Two of the 2010 World Series with a fidelity more than equal to the old tube radio behemoth. The game played over my car stereo, via the iPhone’s connection to a series of cell towers, the MLB app, and the miniature  FM transmitter. Only once did the feed die, when the phone dropped Telus Mobility’s 3G signal for less than 60 seconds in a notorious radio, TV, and cell phone dark zone on the back side of Boularderie Island,.

For the rest of the drive, the game — a splendid pitcher’s duel until the bottom of the eighth — came through admirably, and the iPhone’s display screen kept pace with instant updates to the information-rich scoreboard pictured in the screenshot at left.

No wider point here, except that we live in an era of breathtaking technology, and the 4.8-ounce iPhone is a staggering technological achievement.

Actress, restaurateur oppose environmental science

Another media outlet has presented admiring coverage of the campaign by Halifax restaurateur Lil MacPherson and Halifax actress Ellen Page to oppose something one might expect environmentally conscious citizens to campaign for: the productive recycling of composted human waste as a worthy alternative to dumping it, semi-treated, in the ocean.

A Contrarian reader describes today’s Herald story as:

One-sided journalism at its worst. Lil MacPherson is not an environmental scientist. Ellen Page is not an environmental scientist. Nowhere in the entire story is there any effort to present the case in favour of biosolids. Even the headline “Rising in defence of province’s soil” suggests that MacPherson and Page are on the right side and that the soil is under attack. Could the headline not also read “Actress, restaurateur oppose environmental science”?

Uh, yes it could.

Reporter Laura Fraser, who began her career in Sydney, is a friend, a reliable reporter, and one of the Herald’s precious few bright young lights, but, as explained in more detail  here and here, I’m inclined to agree with this reader’s harsh assessment of this story.

Page and MacPherson employ a familiar oppositionist tactic: fire a shotgun load of fear-laden possibilities (disease, hormones, pesticides, heavy metals, “everything every sick, diseased person flushes down the toilet”) and demand that proponents of composting and recycling prove a negative: that nothing bad will ever happen.

The Herald quoted unnamed critics of composting and recycling as saying there has been “no extensive testing to establish whether there are long-term effects from eating food grown in the reclaimed waste,” but failed to contact a single actual scientist to find out what testing does show about the safety of the output of composting facilities like HRM’s.

Careful composting and recycling solve a terrible problem: our century old habit of dumping untreated waste into deteriorating waterways. They enhance sustainability. Tests have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to eliminate potentially harmful components, or reduce them to levels below conservatively designed safety standards.

No process or product can meet the Pace-MacPherson test of absolute safety forever. But there is an enormous body of science behind regulated soil safety standards, and we can use that science to make sensible judgements in the real world. Like all environmental science, this is a process of managing risks to sensible levels. HRM has done that.

An election in Maine

eliotcutler-150Political junkies in Nova Scotia tend to keep an eye on elections in adjacent provinces, but not so much in adjacent US states. The Atlantic’s James Fallows points to an interesting race for governor of Maine, where independent candidate (and Fallows friend) Eliot Cutler seemed to be coming on strong last week, rising in the polls and winning an avalanche of major newspaper endorsements.

As Fallows points out, victory for an independent is not so far-fetched in the Pine Tree State, where two of the last five governors won election as independents. Viewed from a region devoid of political leadership, Cutler sounds appealing.

He is serious (but also funny), well experienced in politics and with a politician’s natural affability, and extremely ambitious for his home state. Maine has all the natural endowments that tourists and residents of the rest of the country know about — but also some very deep problems with its school systems, its economic base, and the general preparedness of its year-round population for modern global competition. I heard Eliot Cutler talk about this a lot while we were in China [where Fallows and Culter both lived for several years]. Whatever new factory I’d visited or research project he’d learned about became the prelude for a discussion of what Maine would need to do to keep up. If you’re not from Maine, a little of this can go a long way — but for people of the state it’s a good kind of obsession for a public figure to have.

Sounds a bit like Frank McKenna.

Compare and contrast: gays and straights

The dating site OK Cupid dips into its database of 3.2 million users to compare gays and straights, debunking a few myths along the way. A few highlights:

  • Gays and straights have the same number of sex partners: six, on average; the same for men, women, gays, and straights.*
  • Gays do not pursue sex with straights. (Only 0.6% of OKC’s gay male users have ever searched for straight matches; only 0.1% of its lesbians users have ever done so; only 0.13% of straight users’s profile visitors are gay.)
  • Straight people sometimes have gay sex, straight women for more so than straight men. (One in four straight female OKC’ers has had sex with a woman and enjoyed it; one quarter of those who haven’t would like to give it a try. For men, the corresponding numbers are one in 16 and one in 14.)

To underscore the last point, OKC provides this heat map of bi-curiosity by state and province. Red is more curious; blue less so. (Alas, the map omits Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and PEI, but surely we’re just as bi-curious as Albertans!)


In other findings, OKC’s gay male users were more ambitious, artsy, compassionate, generous, introverted, literary, political, spontaneous, and trusting. Their male straights were more adventurous, aggressive, competitive, confident, dorky, horny, into sports, kinky, optimistic, polite, romantic, religious, and violent.

* One should always be skeptical of surveys that show heterosexual men had more partners, on average, than women, since this is a mathematical impossibility.

Infographics: an international corruption index

Transparency International'

Transparency International rates Canada the sixth least corrupt nation in the world in a report featuring an interactive map and several interactive graphs. Founded by a former World Bank official, the NGO relies on business surveys of transparency in business process, rather than political corruption, for its guideposts.

Wheelchairs unbound

Haligonian Warren Reed objects to the thoughtlessly patronizing word choices many journalists apply to wheelchair-users and those who discriminate them.

In an email to two Chronicle-Herald reporters who recently wrote about separate cases of discrimination by Metro Transit and the Nova Scotia Justice Department against wheelchair users, he complained about three sentences in their stories:

  • “The driver even called his supervisor, who confirmed that wheelchair-bound passengers are not allowed on [Bus No.] 60.”
  • “However, Sunday morning the driver said that he could get in a lot of trouble for letting wheelchair-bound passengers onto non-wheelchair routes.”
  • “Amy Paradis, 16, is quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair.”

Reed wrote:

Evidently, the style manual in use at the Chronicle Herald requires the modification of wheelchair either with “confined” or “bound.” This must be in the chapter on Gratuitous 19th Century Misconceptions.

Bob Sheeny’s wheelchair doesn’t seem to restrain him in any way; What prevents him from visiting his friend is not his disability, but the intransigence of Metro Transit. Without the discriminatory foot-dragging of Metro Transit, Mr. Sheeny would be able to get on any bus in HRM – just as he could in London or New York. It’s not that Mr. Sheeny can’t do things; he’s prevented from doing them.

You should train yourself to use the much more accurate phrase “wheelchair user.”  Wheelchairs are enabling and liberating.

  • Wheelchair users are not allowed on the No. 60 bus.
  • He could get in a lot of trouble for letting wheelchair users onto non-wheelchair routes.
  • Amy Paradis, 16 uses a wheelchair.

Those sentences are not judgmental, and they help clarify the absurdity of the situation. Let me see. Bus drivers can get in trouble for letting passengers on their buses? The important thing about Amy is that she uses a wheelchair, not her medical condition. If you gave a medical opinion every time you mentioned Darrell Dexter or Stephen Harper, you’d be spending most of your time in court.

I recommend substituting these catch-phrases, which are highly accurate:

  • Discriminatory Metro Transit
  • Cliche-ridden Chronicle Herald
  • Proudly backward Halifax officials
  • Patronizing Chronicle Herald reporters
  • Poorly served Chronicle Herald readers

When you see Bob Sheeny, don’t feel sorry for him, just get out of his way.

I’m uncomfortable singling out the Herald here, because I’m sure I’ve used the same stupid phrases without thinking. I bet the reporters in question slapped their heads in dismayed recognition when they read Reed’s sharp letter.

Still, in 2010, there’s no excuse for a newspaper copy desk not having clear and enforced policies on such word choices — as, hopefully, the Herald does now.

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