A Moderate Shift in Canadian Voting

The parties’ seat distribution matters for the four years between elections, and this past election generated a significant shift in seats. The popular vote will also matters for those four years as the parties try to align their policies with their understanding of the voters. After that comes the 2015 election, where seat distribution will be meaningless and popular vote will once again mean everything. So let’s not forget the popular vote in our collective, well-justified consternation around seats.

Here’s the popular vote from 2008 and 2011:

These changes may have tipped a lot of first-past-the-post riding outcomes, but in themselves they are moderate shifts.

I’ve read a few articles from a range of politicos stating or implying that Canadians must broadly support the Conservatives’ conservative politics, given that they “just won the election” (see here for a fresh example). Yes, but without the actual support of the actual majority of voters, and with little improvement over their last lukewarm endorsement. And if you believe the post-election focus-grouping, even the people who voted Conservative aren’t especially motivated by conservativism. This will be a trying four years, parliamentary process being what it is. But the left won’t be any stronger through those years if it forgets that it represents the significant majority of Canadians’ values. That’s not a trivial factoid, that’s a baseline fact.

And how about that “historic collapse” of the Liberal party? From 26% to 19%. A shift of one voter in 14.

If you follow the parliamentary trend over the last few years you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve seen a entrenchment of conservative values in Canadian politics, and now a massive re-arrangement of centre-left party politics. I think what we’ve seen is parties luffing their sails in the fickle winds of minority politics, some slight shift in Canadian voting, and very little shift in actual Canadian values. Those votes and those values are what will matter in the long run, even if the short run is a sorry mess.

See previously: Plus Ca Change

Seeing the Climate Change Signal in Big Problems

We’ve been seeing correlations between climate change and localized biological events for many years. Now we’ve begun to see research linking climate change to regional and even global outcomes. In the last few months there’s been seperate studies suggesting a global warming driver behind extreme rainfall events, flooding, and now international food prices.

These are all interesting and alarming findings on their own. It’s also interesting that some combination of increasing magnitude of climate change and increasing intrepidness of research methodology is facilitating continent-scale climate outcome analysis. It’s one thing to identify a general trend of change in the climate. It’s another thing to move on from averages to spotting trends in extreme moments and changes in frequencies of outlier events. It’s another thing again to credibly link those trends and variances to specific outcomes big enough for people to care. Continental weather patterns are complicated systems with multi-step chains of causality. That’s hard to see through. Especially when you’re stacking a layer of economics on top of geo-physical systems, as in the case of food prices. But that doesn’t mean that climate won’t have serious outcomes at the local, regional and global level, and that means we very much need to try to spot those as soon as we can.

It’s also interesting to consider what effect these kinds of studies might have on opinion and policy, if science and media can get along well enough to effectively articulate them to the public and to governments. The likelihood of climate change hasn’t been enough to motivate us to prevent it. Maybe the identifiable presence of the consequences of climate change in our everyday life will be. That’s not just a science problem, although its surely that. Its also very much a communications problem. But I’m glad the science is being done.

Half A Chance At A Centre-Left Coalition

It’s a ridiculous time for speculation, given that the one poll that really matters is actively underway, but I’m going to speculate anyway. I’ve got four ifs and a hopeful then.

  • If Harper doesn’t get a majority.
  • If the NDP comes in number two.
  • If the NDP and the Liberals have more seats together than the Conservatives, without the help of the Bloc.
  • If the NDP calculate that the public opinion cost of spearheading a coalition wouldn’t be too high.
  • Then we could have an NDP-led centre-left coalition within weeks.

I’d assign about 2/3rds likelihood to the #1 if. The best two polling aggregation and modelling sites are both projecting 143 seats for the Cons, 12 short of a clear majority. Polling and modelling sometimes gets it wrong, but not usually very wrong right before an election. Especially if multiple models are coalescing on the same projection.

#2 if is probably 2/3rds likely as well. Even the more cautious threehundredandeight.com is projecting the NDPs in a strong second place. Given that the numbers were getting higher right up until the last poll left the field, that could mean that the final results could look even better.

#3 is hard to tell, but let’s say 1/2 chance. tooclosetocall.com says yes, threehundredandeight.com says no.

#4 is probably 3/4s likely. The Liberals made a choice to underwrite Harper’s very effective framing of coalitions as back-room deals to elect second place leaders. They probably had to. But the NDP never bought that message, and they’re better placed to lead the charge on re-framing. And if they do form a relatively stable two-party sans-Bloc coalition, it would likely give them a full four years to prove to the suspicious Anglo masses that coalitions are a boring, practical arrangement.

I’m not sure how to boil those probabilities into a single mathematical likelihood, because they’re all correlated with each other. But generally I’d say we’ve got a one out of two chance of a wonderful outcome here.

The alternative could be terrible. Who says Canadian politics are boring? OK, nobody lately.

Also worth noting: the first major act of a re-elected Conservative party is presumably to re-introduce the same budget that partially triggered the last dissolution. If a coalition is to be formed, that will be an obvious moment for it. If it happens, it could happen in a matter of weeks. Another wildcard: even if a coalition meant a second-place Liberal party very publically going back on their word and allying themselves with the nasty Bloc, they might still go for it. I’m not sure it would be stable or play well in the inevitable next election, but it would be hard to resist.

Oh boy.

My Photo On Treeplanting Book Cover

I’m pleased to report that a photo of mine is going to be used on the cover of this new book:

Eating Dirt cover

That’s Jane schlepping in across the scree slope at the top of a truly nasty block on the Bluebird road outside of Creston. Looks pretty good to me. And I like the font.

The book is by Charlotte Gill and presumably has its roots in this award-winning short story. It should be out in a few months. I gather there’s a lot of back-and-forth in book publishing, all of which takes time.

A Lefty Website for Strategic Donation

Swing33.ca links to the donation pages of 33 candidates that could be key to the outcome of the upcoming election. The idea came from Mitch Anderson, who rents a desk beside the desk I rent, and who has an op-ed in the Tyee today explaining. I helped build it.

We’re not fans of the Harper administration, and we’d like to do something to boost the prospects of the leftist (and centrist) Canadian parties. There’s 308 ridings in Canada, but not all of them are likely to switch sides in 2011. Of those that are in play, not all are being seriously contested by a Conservative candidate. We had a look at the results of the last election and spreadsheeted out the ones where Conservatives came close to winning or close to losing. There are 33 ridings where there was less than a 5% difference between the Conservative and the top non-Conservative candidate. That’s our list. If you’re going to donate to a political campaign (and Mitch argues there’s good reason to), then you might want want to target it at campaigns that are likely to decide the number of Conservative seats in the next parliament. That goals feels important right now.

We did simple-ish math to pick out those ridings, and it’s not a perfect system. We’re using recent history as a guide and history doesn’t sit still. We’ve already spotted a couple of districts where local conditions have changed since 2008 such that the best contender probably isn’t the one Excel picked. Saanich — Gulf Islands is the most obvious to me. (Donate to the Greens there, not the Liberals like the site says.) A commenter at the Tyee has already called out Esquimalt — Juan de Fuca as another flub.

We’re considering aggregating that kind of localized knowledge, and/or bringing in contemporary polling data and providing an alternative curated list. Time is the limitation. In the meantime we didn’t want to make it any harder to understand what the site was about by adding exceptions to our algorithmic approach.

In sum: if you or someone you know can be convinced to pony up some cash to help facilitate a good outcome in this year’s election, Swing33 could provide some reasonable guidance for giving that donation the most impact. The Conservatives are far better fundraisers than any of their competition, so give it some thought. Links to the donation pages of 33 likely candidates are just two clicks away.

Youtube: the Audio Library for Congolese and Other Music

“Trawling through Vincent’s collection we pulled out 10 contemporary and classic grooves straight from the streets of Kinshasa. Many of these records are released as limited pressings and finding them can be an arduous task. Our best advice is to try the specialist African music outlet Stern’s.”

Congo, where rumba meets r’n’b — Josh Surtees, The Guardian

The article goes on to describe the ten tracks, each with a Youtube link discreetly included for those who don’t have time to scour Stern’s.

I would never have predicted that a video site would become something like a rough-and-ready universal library of audio.

Here’s Wendo Kolosoy, described in the article as the grandfather of Congolese rhumba, performing Marie Louise:

When I was DJ-ing at WCBN there was some disagreement over the probity of playing Youtube clips over the airwaves. The Program Director felt, reasonably enough, that DJs should strive for highest audio quality and to showcase the extraordinary, vinyl-anchored WCBN music library. I’m not sure exactly how that discussion resolved itself, but I don’t doubt that people will still fire up Youtube when they catch a tricky request or just can’t find a special track in the stacks. Because they can.

GIS Art from Landscape Biodiversity Project

I’m working on a fun project for the BC Forest Practices Board. We’re taking great whackloads of province-wide spatial data and transmogrifying it into handy reports on the physical status of forests in different administrative and ecological zones. And I’m pleased to report that the project is beginning to produce some GIS art.

biogeoclimactic zones around Port Alberni

GIS art, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, are the serendipitous bits of aesthetic map flotsam that tend to pop up as intermediary products in geographic analysis chains. They’re the recombinant product of the natural attractiveness of landforms, the semi-random automated assignment of colours to landcover classes, and the quasi-organic distortions introduced by algorithm. The above is a relatively unprocessed version, see for comparison one of my old favourites:

localized explanatory power of soil water for shapeness
of juniper, Strawberry Crater, Waputki AZ

OK, so maybe it’s not great art. But when GIS art does show up, it’s often a nicely timed distraction from the more abstract “pleasures” of analytical troubleshooting.

As the Japanese Reactors Go, So Goes the Climate?

As I write this the news about the Japanese nuclear plant emergencies seems to be getting cautiously worse. Morning reports described a single reactor that was recieving insufficient cooling due to power loss. Now the news says there’s a second reactor with similar probems, and possibly a third with a fire on site. It’s a race now. The main power is cut to the reactor cores, the secondary diesel generators have failed somehow, and the tertiary battery-powered systems are apparently unable to pump enough cooling fresh water through the hot rods to keep them from turning the water that is there into radioactive, pressurized steam. If the diminished flow of water is less than the amount being boiled off the rods will eventually be exposed to the air, at which point they will melt. A ‘nuclear melt down’.

That probably won’t happen. Batteries are being delivered to the site to maintain the lessened flow. (A task currently being handled by US Air Force jets. How does a military jet deliver a battery to a power plant I wonder?). Eventually the secondary or primary power will come on and complete cooling will happen. Right?

Already one of the reactors has had to have some amount of steam vented into the open air, and residents within 6 kilometers are being advised to stay indoors. I have no idea what the impacts to residents in the region might be, either in the best or the worst case scenarios.

But the impacts to the climate are necessarily bad, even in the best case. In the worst case they might be terrible.

Increased build-out of nuclear power is likely a necessary but not sufficient condition for preventing worldwide climatic catastrophe. Wind, solar, algae and geothermal are of course superior energy generation technologies, but they are relatively immature practices unlikey to be able to deliver the several terawatts of power needed to supplant fossil fuels anytime in the near or even midterm future. Absent a conservation revolution, the practical alternative is that coal and petroleum plants that should have been mothballed twenty years ago will continue to empty their respiratory clogging, climate destabilizing waste into the air at a vast daily rate for decades to come. Nuclear power plants are at least technically able to be deployed at large scale within a few quick years. Siting a nuclear plant takes much longer than that in practice, but principally because residents are deeply suspicious of having their ugly threatening bulks lurking on the skyline. In the last few years there seems to have been a significant shift in the affections of green thinkers, and that shift seemed plausibly destined to filter down through the larger populace into actual power reactors getting actually built and plugged into the grid.

That perceptual shift has limits (as we’re presently witnessing with the resistance to the shipping of surplus nuclear parts through the St. Lawrence). It doesn’t matter these nuclear installations just absorbed the largest Japanese earthquake in recorded history. It doesn’t matter that they were built by GE in 1971 using rods-in-a-pool technology that is only slightly related to the relatively self-correcting closed-container sytems that could be erected tomorrow. People are going to look at what happens now and in the next few hours, and they are quite reasonably going to ask: do I want to receive a 3 kilometer evacuation warning of my own?

The primary safety systems failed. The secondary systems failed (I think). The tertiary systems turn out to be insufficient. All of which is happening in a country with a disaster readiness culture, no lack of forewarning about the possibility of earthquakes, and engineering standards as high as anywhere in the world. By late tonight we might just find out if popular opinion is going to turn against what is possibly only bridge energy source we have available to keep our climate predictable and stable.

Technical updates are available at the Union of Concerned Scientists website. I will probably edit this post tomorrow to be less emabarrasingly panicky.

(update 14.3.11: I didn’t. I’m still panicky.)

A Few Photos from Vancouver

It’s been a long time since I posted new photos. I’m breaking that spell with a few snaps from around Vancouver town. So far mostly from East Van. Some more to come in following weeks.

neutral portrait

ESP Study Proves Science Still Works

The fallibilities of science as an institution have frequently been on display lately. I’m hoping to find some time to write about that. But today I want to make note of something else: evidence of science working out well. Specifically, the freshly released extra-sensory perception study and the scientific response to it.

I’m not particularly excited about the media response to the paper. The media’s take is still unfolding and, although I haven’t seen any really egregious coverage yet, based on past experience we can generally anticipate the usual noncommittal half-phrases that emerge from the clumsy coupling of science-agnostic journalists and journalism-indifferent scientists.

But I am kind of excited about the way that science — meaning science as an institutional whole — has dealt with the research. I’m excited for a few reasons.

First of all, somebody decided to do a reasonably rigorous study on an interesting, hugely improbable phenomenon. It’s colossally unlikely that ESP exists in the world, but there is enough general interest in it that somebody might as well take a few weeks to run some actual tests. Not of course iron-clad conclusive tests (such things rarely exist outside of physics and maybe chemistry), but some experiments that are well-formed enough to be at least cautiously suggestive of the outlines of truth within some limited contexts. You know, scientific research.

Highly improbable phenomenon rarely turn out to be true. Single experiments are almost never likely to prove whether or not they’re true, either way. But true paradigm shifts in our understanding of major phenomena do occur often enough that it seems worthwhile to occasionally run some off-the-wall research, as long as the research is usefully competent, and reasonably cheap. Individual experiments may suggest some surprises, and those surprises are likely to eventually get explained as unimportant exceptions. They may alternatively or also induce some usefully novel thinking that breaks up comfortable patterns of observation. So colour me skeptical and maybe bemused, but I can’t work up any actual anger that somebody would do a study on ESP.

Second, the paper was submitted for peer-review. Peer review has flaws, lord lord. But it’s not such a bad procedure all-in. Sort of like a pre-trial: is the evidence here good enough to keep the accused in lock-up and use up the court’s time with a real trial, or should the whole she-bang be tossed off the docket so we can get on to the real deal? Or rather, is the research described plausible enough to merit the symbolic weight of the journal’s logo in the top-left corner? Or is it dubious enough that we shouldn’t subject real working researchers to the onus of having to skim past the title and maybe the abstract the next time they’re scanning the results of their daily keyword search alerts?

The real world uses Digg or Reddit or Facebook or whatever to do their focus-filtering. Science uses the peer-reviewed journal method, and it works at least OK (it also uses Digg or Reddit or arxiv or whatever). Sure prestige, apathy, vengeance, intellectual provincialism and ignorance all have a place in the peer review process, but mostly you get forthright and well considered opinions from people who have a reason to know.

In this case the panel of four peer reviewers were sufficiently convinced of the plausibility of the research to pass it along as worth reading by other people. So it’s probably interesting research. So it’s good we get to hear about it.

Thirdly, smart people read the paper and are trying to figure out how the results could be the way they are. Are there experimental design flaws? Statistical flaws? Could it be that the student-subjects were actually influenced by future events? (Let’s check for statistical flaws again.) Isn’t science amazing — if you do your work well enough, scads of brainiacs will add value by contextualizing and critiquing all the bits. For free! At least, free to you (except for when you pay your taxes). Sometimes that process is collegial, sometimes it gets personal and even ugly. I suspect we’re going to see both in this case. But we’re definitely going to see a lot of clever cats blasting away with both lobes. Fun.

I’m a little saddened by and a little sympathetic to the folks who are outraged that this topic is getting treated seriously at all. And yes, I’m sure that the foil-beany woo woo brigade will be barking about a paper proving ESP in a major journal for internet-years to come. There’s also an argument to be made that, given the utter implausibility of extra-sensory perception, diverting the attention of working researchers and the public towards it for any amount of time is a waste of that time. But whatever. The guy did (apparently) real research. It may or may not have experimental flaws, but if he’s maintained the intellectual respect of his intellectual peer group for this long it’s unlikely that he actively gamed his own system, or deliberately fiddled his numbers afterwards. Occasionally a working researcher with some one-off weirdo reason for kinking their own integrity will slip one past the peer review process (e.g. 1, 2, 3). The process mostly works on a presumption of good faith, and is susceptible on those grounds. But those are very rare events. If the media narrative is to be believed, real researchers really respect Dr. Bem’s considerable research record, so I’m guessing this is good-faith experimentation. In which case: hey, he deserves to present it to the community. Let’s have at it.

Fourth, the experiments are going to be replicated. One place I’m not so proud of science is that, as far as I can tell, this doesn’t really happen. Every highschool student is told that replication is very important to the scientific method. I suspect it almost never happens in practice. Because it’s boring.

What does commonly happen is that people adapt your published experimental premises in somewhat different circumstance, and those variants both produce fresh knowledge and sort-of stand in for replication. Oh, you think you showed that turtle gender is influenced by Great Lakes water chemistry? What about if I try it in frogs in Lake Baikal? This time I think we’re going to get to see straight-up replication. Should be interesting. And it will make all those highschool textbooks true for a moment.

Fifth and finally, even if the results of the study are eventually deemed to not be reflective of the whole truth, they are in this case guaranteed to be at least interestingly wrong. Which is possibly the best kind of research result. Most of the time, interestingly wrong studies will throw some little cul-de-sac of current research consensus into relief, and spark some questions that are interesting to people in one side of one building on campus. This time the questions emerging seem to be more grand, like: what if the common statistical framework used by the discipline of psychology is a) not equivalent to that used in other disciplines and b) not entirely suitable to assessing claims of extraordinary uniqueness (whatever that means)? Wouldn’t that be fun to know! So thanks Dr. Bem for helping us to find out. Even if ESP isn’t true.

Indeed, I would bet my kidneys against there being any actual ESP out there. I mean come on! It just sits way too far outside of the network of forces and facts that I have personally perceived or come to trust in the world. But I’m rather pleased about the reactions so far of the institution of science, an institution I’m rather fond of. That reaction could be going much worse — science doesn’t always deal well with institutional problems that come at it from oblique angles. So far, so good.

newer posts · older posts