Friday, 26 July 2013

Rethinking Legalization v. Decriminalization of Marijuana

Full disclosure: I am 65 years old and smoked my first joint in or around 1965, when I was ~18. I haven't smoked a joint in or around 10 years, but in the intervening years I smoked almost every day. I quit simply because I lost interest in the effects. My personal preference was for hashish rather than marijuana, but the point is moot.

For decades I have advocated the legalization of these substances, and frequently compared their side- and after-effects to those of alcohol. Numerous studies have evinced, for example, the fact that stoned drivers tend to be far more cautious than drunk drivers. I did read the results of many studies on various drugs, also including LSD, mescalin, peyote, etc. I fancied myself well-acquainted with the published literature.

But now that Colorado and Washington have voted in favour of either decriminalization or outright legalization, I have become aware of the side effects -- not of the substance itself but rather the complications inherent in outright legalization, and also of my naive simplification of these issues. Consider a few of these:

1. Regulation by content: in the case of alcohol, this is easy. Despite all the talk among devotees of wine or whiskey, from the regulatory point of view there is only one significant measurement: the percentage of alcohol within any particular beverage. Depending on the country, percentages vary considerably. On average, however, beer contains about 4-6% of alcohol. "Hard" liquors such as Scotch or vodka or gin can go to 40% content. The governments tend to price them relative to that content factor. For example, the price of a single liter of vodka is equivalent to a case of 24 beer, and both are taxed accordingly.

I used to think that equivalent rules could be applied to the world of marijuana and hashish, in the belief that the THC count was the only important measure. But lately I've been doing some reading of the research available, and have come to realize how naive were my original beliefs. First and foremost, measuring the THC content is woefully insufficient: between 35 and 40 other variables factor into the ultimate effect of any given sample of marijuana; to cite just one, the content of triptamine significantly affects the resultant effect. The net result of this research is that one cannot test simply for one element, but must factor in the relative presence of many others as well.

2. In the case of alcohol, one simple measure indicates the content, and can easily be printed on any given brand's label. But how should we deal with the fact that 35-40 elements all factor into the resultant affective content? Who makes a label that large, upon which to print such information?

3. No two batches, even grown from the same seeds under the same lights, will be equivalent. Granted, that could ultimately result in a market in which, say, the 1998 batch was far superior to the 2010 batch, and the result would be something akin to the wine or Scotch markets, which in itself might be a good thing, but which would place an enormous burden on both the growers and the governmental machinery required to conduct these measurements -- not to mention the huge task awaiting the equivalent of wine-reviewers, whose lives would be further complicated by the simple fact that most wine-reviewers take a sniff and then a taste and then spit it out rather than ingesting it. Not possible with marijuana or hashish.

One argument often proposed by those who object to decriminalization is that marijuana is a gateway drug (i.e. it leads to the use of cocaine, crack, heroin, Oxycontin and similar hard drugs). My counter-argument is that tobacco is the gateway drug, not marijuana.

I have written frequently about the incredible costs of criminalization of these substances: the number of people in jail, the vast costs of finding the traffickers in terms of police expenditures, the overall failure of the War on Drugs, and perhaps most significantly, the movement of billions of dollars per year into the hands of criminal empires. All these arguments remain relevant, in my opinion, but I used to think it was a simple problem to solve, and I now see that this is far from the case.

Time was, I thought that decriminalization was senseless, since it prevented the governments from acquiring a huge new source of taxation revenue. But now I'm thinking that decriminalization is the middle path. As now, go after large-scale grow-ops and prosecute them to the full extent of the law, but permit Joe and Joan Average to grow a few plants at home with impunity. Keep it as a cottage industry, so to speak. This would effectively cut the legs out of the criminal empires, while simultaneously avoiding the nightmare of regulation. It might not be the perfect solution, but then what is? A world in which people had no desire to take recreational drugs, perhaps, but what is the likelihood of that?

Friday, 5 July 2013

On Influential Teachers

I'm not sure why this happened this morning, but probably it was due to listening to something on cbc radio. The topic is my favourite teachers in my life. There are three, two of whom suffered me during school and the  third being in university.

The first is Peter Cowie, who taught Literarture. He lived it, not just taught it. When he introduced a new poem, he delivered it. The poem that I remember most was called "David", by Earl Birney, and it concerned two mountain climbers; David fell off a cliff and his friend scaled down to where David lay, back broken, and David said "Over", and his friend understood what he meant, and pushed him over. David did not want to live as a wheelchair-person, and asked his friend to end it. Peter Cowie read that poem to us and I wept. I still remember his green corduroy sports jacket with its leather patches, and him standing there in the front of our classroom, not so much reading that poem but living it.

A couple of years later I took another course from him, and he did the same thing with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I have memorized that poem, and several others by T.S. Eliot. Peter Cowie gave life to these poems. He would stand at the front of the room and speak the words like an actor, not merely reading the words but breathing life into them. He turned them from poems into songs from the soul.

The second most influential teacher was Mr. Christie. I never did learn his first name. He taught math, with genius. At one point when he was telling us about the congruency proof, I raised my hand in objection and said, Wait a minute, a point is a location in space, and therefore cannot be moved; you can't move triangle ABC and lay it atop DEF. He chuckled, and we got on exceptionally well from then on, and he taught me some pretty advanced stuff for a grade-ten student. For example, he showed me the Galois proof that it is impossible to trisect an angle using only a compass and a straight edge. Actually, to tell the whole story, he challenged me first to solve it, and I slaved every night for several hours, for a month, and then went to Mr. Christie's office, pouting, and said, "Mr. Christie, I can't do it/" And he said, "It's ok, Arthur, nobody else can either."

Those are my recollections of my two favourite teachers. There was a third, Philip Wright, from whom I took two courses in Philosophy, and a specialist in Greek philosophy. From him I learned about Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates and Plato, the Atomists, the Cynics and so much more. I will never forget his classes. At one point, in Philosophy 301 or whatever its number was, we were challenged to present a paper to our fellows. Mine was on math+art, and my central argument was "The Nude Descending a Staircase", by Marcel duChamp, which when initially exhibited at the 1914 exhibition in New York, was described by one NYT journalist as "an explosion in a shingle factory". Fine. You're entitled to your opionion. I saw an equivilance to Minkowski's math theories of the time, about the universe being an involuted four-dimensional hypersphere -- or to simplify this for the casual reader, imagine that your life is a single strand of spagetti in a bowl of similaar strands -- beginning and end are alfready disctated, and your only job is to travel this strand.

That's what I got from Marcel duChamp and the great mathematician Minkowski.
Subsequent to his teaching, I encountered a book by W.F. Stone, "The Trial of Socrates", that changed my life, and I wish that Phil were still alive so I could present some of Stone's arguments to him. Sadly, I missed that chance, but on the other hand, Phil got me addicted to philosophy and linguistics, and even at age 65 I still read this stuff. I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, to name just two.

I can't let it go at that. I a huge fan of Neal Stephenson. He steered Speculative Fiction into entirely new realms. Snowcrash was awesome, but then a couple of years later came CryptoniiconThe Primer and then the gigantic trilogy called The Baroque Cycle. This is writing on the scale of Thomas Pynchon, as evinced by V. and Gravity's Rainbow. These books are Art, not just some forgettable fling on the subway. These books are Art. It's difficult if not impossible to select a favourite, but if push comes to shove, I think that I would go with Cryptonicon or The System of the World -- not that I dislike Neal's other books, it's just that one captured my soul, perhaps because of the Turing connection. The point is, Neal Stephenson has written some of the finest literarure that I have ever read. The man is a rock-solid genius

A Story about Backgammon

The old version of backgammon was radically revised in about 1920 with the introduction of the doubling cube. There are no clear answers about who introduced this change, but it totally transformed the game.

I learned the game, well no, I knew the basics, but played Vladimir Dobrich for 40 hours straight and after that read every available book about the game. A summer later Vlad and I attended a World backgammon championship in Nassau. For the unacquainted, even though the first prize was then $50k, that's not where the money is: it's on tables beside the swimming pool. And there is a variation of championship backgammon called chouette, which involves several people playing on a team, against a person who is called The Man In The Box. So if we're playing for $10 a point, if TMITB loses, he loses $10 a point to each player, e.g. if the cube was passed (e.g. doubled), then it's $20 not ten, and if passed backed (redoubled) it's now $40 per game. In other words, this can get expensive very quickly.

Anyway, I was in Nassau, attending the Nassau Championship ($50K prize), playing in a game by the swimming pool, approximately two hours after arriving on the island. There was a chouette game underway at the pool. I knew all the opponents on sight because all but one at that point had written books. How are you going to learn except by playing your superiors? There is no other path. The opponents were:

1. Paul Magriel, who wrote perhaps the definitive book about the game, simply called Backgammon, and resulted from his extensive analysis of the game on a PDP-11 while teaching math at Princeton.

2. Bruce Becker, who wrote Backgammon for Blood

3. Kent Goulding, a Floridian and absolutely cool and expert player. I don't know if he's written a book on the subject, but if anyone is qualified to add to the literature, I would most certainly recommend him.

4. Vlad Dobrich, seven times the Canadian chess champion and twice the world champion of backgammon, and my principal instructor in the game.

5. Ozzie Jacoby, most known for his skills in Bridge, but also the author of a book on backgammon, and one of the greatest players in the world.

I was The Man in The Box (which means that I'm fighting all of these world-greats). There had already been a couple of doubles, and they redoubled me, taking the cube to 16, which meant if I accepted and lost the game, I would owe five players 16 * $10, which would have bankrupted me and left me with only the vague hope that I might win the tournament. I looked at the stats (for those readers unacquainted with backgammon, the secret to success is your ability to do rapid stats on any given position). I looked at the position and calculated the stats and eventually concluded that they had doubled prematurely, which is to say, ignoring the amount of money at stake, I had no alternative but to accept the double.

Bruce was the Captain  of the team, and rolled the dice, and got his worst possible roll. I followed up with one of my several excellent possible rolls. They took another roll, which turned out ugly. I redoubled and they all declined, and I won more money in half an hour than I ever done in my life.

Don't get this story wrong. I am most definitely not saying that my backgammon game is superior to theirs, not even close. I think of these people as the most gifted people in the game. But that, ironically, is the point of the story. There I was, playing five of the best backgammon players in the world, and I just kind of closed my eyes and said, "It's not about the money; it's about the math." And I looked at the math and decided that I must accept this double. Emotion and drama and fear did not enter into the equation. Only one thing did: the math,

There may not be a moral in this story, but if there is, it’s “Stick to the math, and damn the torpedoes.” That’s what I did and continue to do.  Now and then, forecasting does not correspond to outcomes. That is to be expected. But more often than not, cold, cool calculation wins.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Patterns and Anti-Patterns

On this past CBC Sunday Edition The Sunday Edition, there was a fascinating piece on the lost art of walking. As it happens (oops, another CBC radio show), I walk a few kilometers per day, and sometimes lots more. I'm no marathoner, but it's not unusual for me to walk 20 kilometers in a day. Perhaps the exemplary walking marathoner would be Edward Payson Weston, who in 1909 walked from New York City to San Francisco in 105 days. Go ahead, calculate the daily rate. The astonishing thing is that he did it at age 70.

Other parts of the episode included a short piece on the virtues of walking slowly, and paying attention to what is around you. Stop and look. Is this street paved or cobblestone or something else, and why?

This thought caused me to ponder the subject of this post. It caused me to recognize my patterns of walking -- always on this side of a street rather than that, always following the same set of streets to the shopping centre, etc. So I decided that every time I detect a pattern of my own, I will consciously break it and do something else instead. Rather than overwhelm myself, I concluded that breaking just one pattern per day would suffice.

Today, however, I broke several patterns, and found the results revelatory.  Upon awaking, I habitually make coffee and check my email. This morning I made tea instead, and then did not check my email, but decided to for a walk instead. I found myself drifting toward the usual street, and decided instead to use the next street over. I walked slowly, partly because I had no particular destination in mind, and partly so I could take the time to notice my surroundings. This porch is elegant; that staircase could use some paint; this front garden is exquisite. Each flower on this plant has a pentagon of stamens and one pistil. I never noticed that building before: it's called St. Ann's Church; who knew there was a Saint Ann? Splendid architecture! I seldom visit churches but made a note to visit this beauty soon, to check out the interior, which is doubtless as beautiful as her exterior.

In the past few days, I have learned something remarkable: the art or science or whatever of consciously breaking patterns. And it has caused me to look at the world around me with new eyes. I go for walks every day, typically to the grocery or the hardware or the library or the liquor store, but now I have decided that I shall forego the habitual paths and try a new one each day. I only began this anti-pattern strategy three days ago, but can testify that the results are astounding.

Doctor David Suzuki has an aphorism that I have followed since I first heard him say it on a CBC program called The Nature of Things: "Never take an elevator for fewer than 5 storeys and never drive for fewer than five blocks."

I encourage you to try these simply formulae, and pretty much guarantee that they will change your awareness of the world around you, and hence yourself.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Rep by Pop: Re-drawing the USA

Despite their differences in governmental style, the USA and Canada share one political fact: the glaring inequality of voting regions based on geography rather than population. Such a scheme may have made sense  two or three centuries back, but as our societies grow increasingly urban, the result is that the vote of a citizen in a sparsely populated region vastly outweighs the vote of a voter who lives in a large city or densely populated area.

One possible solution has been proposed by Neil Freeman, an artist and urban planner who, in an article posted at his site, proposes a radical re-drawing of the map of the USA (Electoral College Reform (fifty states with equal population). Mr. Freeman was careful to preserve the number of states, although he did rename them all. For a refreshing look at a possible America, I urge you to visit his site.

I for one think this is a great idea, albeit extremely unlikely to occur. I would like to apply the same principle to the map of Canada, and shall do some work on this soon. In Canada we have what we call Ridings, which are regions that elect a Member of Parliament. I have the populations of all Ridings in Canada; I just have to average them and redraw the boundaries.

TreeViews -- A Powerful Yet Simple Alternative

Treeviews – A Powerful  Alternative
I have written previously on using the TreeView within Access (Using TreeViews). There are a number of good reasons to use TreeViews – perhaps highest among them is that they are everywhere within the Windows UI, with the result that virtually everyone knows how to use them.

TreeViews are not especially easy to program. Further, they have a number of limitations. However, I have stumbled upon a powerful alternative that delivers an interface much more to my liking. Not only that: it’s very powerful and flexible, and delivers precisely the amount of control that I want. Best of all, it’s dead-simple to create – so simple, in fact, that I wonder why it took me so long to think of it.
The following example was developed in Access 2007 and will work in later versions. I have not tested it in previous versions.

Figure 1: Three-Level "TreeView"

This looks a lot like a formless browse of the parent table. Access does this automatically when you have defined relationships among your tables. However, it happens automatically only when any given parent table has exactly one child table. When two or more child tables exist, Access can’t determine which one to use, and therefore prompts you for the table to use. And unfortunately, once you've made that decision, you're stuck with it: every time you open the parent table, you get the same child you originally selected. 

Although Figure 1 looks a lot like a formless browse, it is actually a series of forms created in DataSheet style, then nested. If you wish, you can even create normal forms for each level, and open them on double-click anywhere within the row of interest. (In this app, I did not do that, because the target users are all very comfortable in Excel, and used to the "spreadsheet" format depicted above.)

By using DataSheet forms rather than simple table-browses, you get complete control  over columns, events, validations, lookups and so on that are available in a form. In this example, I chose to freeze the first two or three columns at each level, so the user never loses track of which row is active.

To create such a “treeview” form, follow these steps:
1. Decide the hierarchy of tables or queries you want to display.
2. Starting at the bottom of the tree, create a datasheet form for each level. This command is hidden a little bit on the Create ribbon. Figure 2 shows where it is.

Figure 2: Create a DataSheet form.
3. Starting one level above the bottom, add a subform. In this example, we create three DataSheet forms and save them. (Call them DS1, DS2 and DS3.) Then we add a subform to DS2 , selecting DS3 as the subform to add. Then we add a subform to DS1, selecting DS2 as the subform. Presto! Your hierarchical form is ready to go.
4. Customize each form to suit your requirements. Write code for events, add validations, combo-boxes. Do everything you would do to a standard form that displays only one record at a time. Decide whether it would be useful to freeze one or more of the columns.

That’s all there is to this simple trick. When I presented the app to the users, they were wowed. With their approval, I used this technique throughout the whole app, wherever hierarchies were involved.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Idle No More

The Idle No More movement is clearly one to be reckoned with, not only by non-indigenous people but also by the "white" establishment (which will suffice as a shorthand term for all Canadian citizens that are non-indigenous; it includes citizens of all races but the emphasis is on "establishment"). Finally, it is of major concern to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), whose national chief is Sean Atleo.

When we feel anything at all, most Canadians feel ashamed at the treatment served up to our indigenous people. We have consistently violated historical agreements, and this practice dates back a century and more. Most Canadians are oblivious to the fact that South Africa modelled its system of apartheid explicitly on the Canadian Indian Reserves model. That fact is not taught in our schools, perhaps because we are too ashamed of it -- and rightly so.

New events have cast all this history in a new light. I'm thinking specifically of the recent Supreme Court ruling that our Metis and non-status Indians are to be now recognized as Indians under the Constitutional Act. And of course, the Idle No More movement has brought all this to the forefront of consciousness in this country. It is too big to ignore.

Some of the opinions on this decision could be predicted. The economists, epitomized by Robert Lovelace (a global development studies professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario), declare that "This ruling could cost the government billions." On the other side, more than a few non-Metis First Nations people see this as a dilution of the moneys they currently receive. And finally, more than a few Metis people themselves are grateful that they were not included in the original definition of First Nations people, because their exclusion kept them out of the reserves system and forced them to fend for themselves; hence, overall they are doing better than the traditional First Nations people.

The Indian Act itself, whose most recent iteration was in 1985, has come under fire, with some on both sides arguing for its abolition.  (For the document in full, see The Indian Act (RSC 1985.)

One thing is perfectly clear: the gap between the AFN and the federal government is so huge that tinkering with a clause here and there satisfies no one, and further, gives the federal government both grounds to say "We're trying" and excuses to do nothing substantive.
I have a more radical, but in my view far more sensible, proposal:

Abolish the Indian Act and replace it not with some similar act, but rather to declare a new Canadian province, comprised of all the reserves, crown lands, and lands currently under territory arising from land-claim settlements. 

Note: Until I began to research this notion and its consequences, I had no idea that a formal paper on exactly this proposal exists. It was written by Thomas J. Courchene and Lisa M. Powell, of the Institute for Intergovernmental Relations, at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. (For the full document, see A First Nations Province).

There are more than 2,250 reserves in Canada, comprising approximately 600 First Nations governments. As of the 2006 national census, there were 1,172,790 First Nations people in Canada (this number includes First Nations, Inuit and Metis).
The following chart shows population by province from 2008 to 2012.

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
persons (thousands)
Canada 33,317.70 33,726.90 34,126.50 34,484.00 34,880.50
Newfoundland and Labrador 506.4 509.1 511.9 512.9 512.7
Prince Edward Island 139.5 141.1 143.1 145.7 146.1
Nova Scotia 937.5 940.6 945.2 948.5 948.7
New Brunswick 746.9 749.9 752.9 755.3 756
Quebec 7,750.50 7,825.80 7,905.10 7,978.00 8,054.80
Ontario 12,932.50 13,068.80 13,223.80 13,366.30 13,505.90
Manitoba 1,205.70 1,219.90 1,235.70 1,251.70 1,267.00
Saskatchewan 1,013.80 1,029.50 1,044.40 1,057.80 1,080.00
Alberta 3,592.20 3,672.70 3,723.80 3,778.10 3,873.70
British Columbia 4,384.30 4,459.90 4,529.50 4,576.60 4,622.60
Yukon 33.1 33.7 34.6 35.4 36.1
Northwest Territories 43.7 43.6 43.9 44.2 43.3
Nunavut 31.6 32.2 32.8 33.6 33.7
Note: Population as of July 1.
Source: Statistics Canada, CANSIM, table 051-0001.
Last modified: 2012-09-27.

To put it another way, the First Nations Province would be larger than Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Given that the creation of FNP would also be the subtraction of these people from the provincial numbers above, it's quite possible that FNP would surpass Manitoba as well, in terms of population.

Above all, the creation of FNP would finally give the First Nations peoples a place at all the First Ministers conferences, and entitle them to all the benefits and responsibilities enjoyed by the other provinces.

This change would have dramatic consequences, virtually all of which would be good in the end. perhaps the most immediate and obvious consequence would be the instant creation of a new "have not" province, and thus a significant shift in the moneys paid out in equalization payments. This new virtual province would also become responsible for education and medical plans; and be able to impose provincial taxes on its citizens. There are many more consequences, which have been addressed thoroughly in the paper cited above. I encourage the interested reader to examine this paper and give it careful consideration.

There remains the serious question of how to consolidate so many First Nations governments into a single entity. One thing is clear, however: this is not a problem for the federal government to solve. That is exactly the wrong thing to do. This is best left for the First Nations peoples themselves to solve.

I don't expect a solution to appear overnight. But I see no reason why the First Nations peoples would object to this proposal. On the other hand, I can easily imagine the federal government's objections, virtually all of which reduce to dollars. That in my view is unacceptable -- as unacceptable as was South African apartheid.

Monday, 14 January 2013

How about Obama's cajones?

In the US every year, guns kill almost as many people as cars do. Many of those victims are children, and many of those tragedies happen at home. If you compare the rational licencing controls on driving a car with the lax controls on owning and carrying a gun in the US, you feel sick.

So it may seem reassuring that there's broad public support in the US for more effective gun control. In a recent Pew poll, 85% of US respondents support background checks for private and gun show sales, 80% support banning gun sales to the mentally ill, 67% support a federal database to track gun sales, 64% support armed guards in schools, 58% support a ban on semi-automatic weapons, 55% support a ban on assault-style weapons, and 54% support a ban on high-capacity gun clips. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found even stronger support for gun control.

Yes, you have to worry about that mental illness question. Error rates in psychiatric diagnosis run about 25%. That's at least 2,500% higher than the percentage of mentally ill people who kill themselves or others with guns. Prognostic predictions by psychiatrists are even worse. The simplest Bayesian arithmetic shows how useless such a program would be.

And you have to worry too about armed guards in schools. Would you send your child to a school where the guards are armed?

And the Pew poll revealed an interesting divide. Respondents with high school education or less are 31% more supportive of armed guards in schools. Did we know that the NRA view that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" plays best to the less well educated?

Still, the polls are clear, the US public wants more gun control, even if two of the controls they favour look dodgy.

Will the US public's preferences translate into effective legislation? Well, about two-thirds of the US public wanted a public option in health care, but the health and insurance industries would have none of it; they made sure no such legislation made it to the floor of Congress, and Obama refused to fight for it. 

Likewise, about two-thirds of the US public wants gun control, but the lobby for 5,400 gun manufacturers has the same kind of stranglehold on Congress. A couple of weeks ago, I asked if there were enough Congressional cajones to pass effective gun controls. Since then, only about a dozen Republicans have publicly broken ranks with the NRA. Not nearly enough.

Then does it come down to whether Obama is Chamberlain or Churchill?