Thursday, February 28, 2019

SNC-Lavalin (Canadian politics)

Several points that are forgotten in the fog of escalated rhetoric:

First and foremost:

There was no pressure to “cut a deal”. There was pressure to consider political criteria, which is perfectly proper. It’s what we expect our MPs to do on our behalf.

Further points:

a) SNC-Lavalin is legally a person. But in fact it is a team of employees and managers, whose work produces profits for the shareholders. A guilty verdict on SNC-Lavalin could result in its bankruptcy. That would not punish the shareholders, who are the first in line when sharing out any leftover money. But it would punish the employees, many (probably most) of whom would lose their jobs when and if SNC-Lavalin assets were bought by a competitor.

b) SNC-Lavalin was not only within its rights to lobby as hard as they could to achieve a DPA. It was their duty to their shareholders and their employees. A DPA would cost SNC-Lavalin tens and possibly hundreds millions of dollars in penalties and confiscated profits. It would be subject to a two-year prohibition against bidding on Canadian government contracts. A guilty verdict would extend that prohibition to ten years. A ten-year prohibition could result in bankruptcy. Or a dissolution of the company, and the sale of its assets to a non-Canadian competitor. Or some other result that would save shareholder value.

In other words, a DPA amounts to an admission of guilt and an acceptance of precisely defined penalties. Included in those penalties is oversight of managment in order to prevent further wrongdoing, and to shift the corporate culture away from its defects.

c) Part of SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying effort was a meeting with Andrew Scheer. We do not know the details of that conversation. We need to know whether Mr Scheer offered any kind of support to SNC-Lavalin, and if so, what that offer included.

d) As a member of Cabinet, Ms Wilson Reybould was first and foremost a Minister of the Crown. Her role was primarily political, not legal. Since a DPA was (and remains) a legal alternative to a criminal trial, political considerations would be the primary criteria in deciding which way to go. I emphasise again: A DPA would certainly cost the company tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars. A trial might not find guilt, in which case SNC-Lavalin would get off with legal costs only, which would be much lower.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Animal emotions

The problem with anthropomorphising isn't that we ascribe emotions to other animals. It's that too often we imagine those emotions to be the same as ours. They aren't, and they can't be. Animals' sensory apparatus is different from ours, so their experience and their awareness of the world is different from ours.

Their self-awareness is also different, and varies from one lineage to another. Feeling pain isn't the same as knowing you are feeling pain. Even humans can train themselves not to know they are feeling pain. It's one of the methods of controlling pain.

Does that mean that animals lack emotional lives? Of course not. Their emotions are as complex as they can possibly be, and that fact is enough to force an ethical/moral choice on us: do we ignore their sentience, or do we accept and honour it, doing our best to treat them as fellow creatures? Keep in mind that animals kill animals, and that this killing is usually not nearly as humane as that which we inflict on the animals we eat.

Respect for other animals is not the same as treating them as fellow-humans. As far as we can tell, we have a more deliberative morality than other animals do. Since we have that gift, we must exercise it. The fact that we too often don't even deal with humans as we should doesn't diminish that moral imperative.

Nor does it change the inescapable fact that all lives will end. While we enjoy our lives, we should do our best to enrich the lives of all other sentient beings that we encounter.

Posted in NYT 2019-02-25 as comment to:

Computer languages aren't languages

I posted this on a newsgroup:

A computer language isn't a language. Formatting code to make it easier for humans to use doesn't make it a language. Computer code at root describes switching sequences. That's all. Recall that the very first machines were coded by rerouting cables between switches.

Human languages don't code, they present what (for want of a better phrase) I call "intersecting ambiguities". That's why you can understand sentences that include words you've never encountered before (it's how we learned our native language in the first place). It's why we can shift word-usage, and be fairly confident that our hearers and readers will get at least enough of what we intend that they can ask good questions about what we mean.

The ambiguities etc of human language are paradoxically also the reason that statistical and pattern analysis of samples has produced successful translation AIs, and AIs that write boilerplate new reports (eg, for sports and business). The most recent language-writing AI can imitate your personal style well enough that it's impossible for the casual reader to detect a forgery. That will not end well.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Love and Hate

I found this when culling some old notes:

From the Toronto Star, 5th April 2014:

“Intriguingly, this pattern [of brain activity when subjects felt hate] touched on brain regions “almost identical to the one activated by passionate, romantic love.” (1)

This finding confirms an insight long known to poets: that love and hate are close cousins. Both are an obsession with the well-being of another person. The lover wants the best, the hater wants the worst for the object of their obsession. What’s intriguing is that the researchers found this discovery intriguing. For a literary scholar the discovery isn’t much of a surprise. We see here another example of C P Snow’s Two Cultures.

(1) Jennifer Young quoting Semir Zeki, British neuro-scientist at University College, London.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

1950s Teachers' aids

     Velma MacKay, ed. Arts and Activities (March 1950, Vol.27 No.2) A magazine for elementary and middle school teachers, very interesting as a historical document. Most of the contributors are teachers describing activities and teaching aids. The magazine is clearly aimed at teachers with limited budgets and supplies. the publishers promote other titles aimed at other subject areas. The ads promote everything from hectograph masters of arithmetic and spelling exercise sheets, to film strips “centered around a new activity program” with and without recordings, and art supplies.
     I have no idea how the magazine was received, but the whole thing has the air of making do. There's an article about how to use papier mache, a discussion of sand paintings, instructions for making kites, and so on. This magazine is for teachers eager to widen and enrich their pupils’ school experience beyond the 3Rs, which in 1950 was still an ambition not so much discouraged as benignly disregarded. Nevertheless, the assumption motivating the magazine and its advertisers is that these teachers have a great deal of freedom in devising lessons and “activity programs” within the guidelines of the curricula. The horrors of objective testing and narrowly defined learning outcomes were still in the future.
    I found the contents variable. But as information about teaching and learning in mid-20th century America it was well worth the time spent reading it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

.... 1066 and all this?

    E. O. Parrott, ed. The Dogsbody Papers (1988) What’s a dogsbody, you ask? The guy who has to do the work that’s not glamourous or important enough for the glamorous and important people to do. A factotum. A drudge. The one without whom the house would turn into a garbage dump. The necessary worker that the important people don’t notice. Hence the one who can collect and preserve the evidence of what really happened, such as diaries, unpublished poems, drafts of speeches, fragments of joke books, etc. We see bits of history that the official record omits.
     The Dogsbody clan is found worldwide, in all social strata. The age of the lineage is uncertain,. However, palaeontology provides evidence that it originated before recorded history. We owe the record of the discovery of the wheel to the scratchings of one Ugg Dugg Budd, ca 15,000 B.C.E.
     This book is a compendium of such ephemera. Nicely decorated by W. F. N. Watson, including facsimiles of oddments such as broadsheets and manuscript illuminations. If you have a reasonable grasp of history, it will amuse you. If not, you may be puzzled why I rate it ****.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

CNR picture book

     Keith MacKenzie, ed. The History of the Canadian National (1988) In the 1970s and 80s, printing technology improved and became cheaper. Hence a plethora of large picture books appeared, on all kinds of subjects. This is one such. The printing is excellent throughout. Pictures are generally large, clear, and nicely tweaked to improve shadows and highlights. The book is worth a look or two for this reason alone. The text is a mashup of adaptations of some primary and many secondary sources. We get a clear narrative, with very few hints of the skulduggery, political shenanigans, and outright fraud that make the history of railways such a fascinating human story.
     The impetus for the creation of the CNR was a mix of motives. Of course, a politically expedient desire to preserve competition withe the CPR played a role, and the transport demands of the first World War provided the excuse for conglomerating a mess of lines into a single national system. But the CNR was shaped as much by the effective lobbying of private investors to have the government take over their debt. The result was what eventually became a highly efficient operation saddled with enormous debt, which required regular infusions of public cash to prevent a net annual deficit.
     As a crown corporation, the CNR could be used as an instrument of public policy. The CBC and the Transcanada Airlines (later Air Canada) were originally set up as subsidiaries of the CNR. Both the CNR and the airline were eventually privatised, after it became clear that there was a private profit to be made. The book ends its story just before VIA Rail was spun off from the CNR. Since then, CNR has become CN, and has bought and merged with a number of railroads in the USA. It is now the only truly transcontinental railroad in North America, linking the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico by rail. Not a bad outcome for a cobbled-up jury rig of bankrupt and nearly bankrupt lines that spent its first decade harmonising a discordant chorus.
     As “the” history of the CNR, incomplete. As a picture book of Canadian railway history, very good. The kind of book one dips into from time to time to satisfy the need for a ferroequinological fix. **½