Saturday, October 31, 2009

Arbitrariness, confusion, fear and panic

Strange week here in the centre of the universe; it started off with a new law, as if we don't have enough laws. The new hand-held wireless law is the Ontario Government's latest attempt to make sure we are all paying attention to the roadway while we drive our vehicles. You would think this is a no brainer and there must already be some law about reckless or dangerous driving (there is), but the powers in Queen's Park think that is too vague. Now drivers will be allowed to push just one button to activate a hands-free device but that's it. No mention about applying lipstick, putting in contacts, peeling an orange, having a hot drink or cigarette or sandwich or doing all of these things simultaneously while taking off your jacket. This seems kind of arbitrary. Soon we might expect a requirement that auto makers put a closed circuit TV camera in all vehicles attached to a "black box" so that a driver's actions may be scrutinized after collisions like airline pilots. Don't laugh.

The strangeness didn’t end there. This is the big rollout week for the recently approved H1N1 vaccine. Media types were falling over each other to make certain the public was well informed about vaccination? Medical types were interviewed, all recommended the vaccine and we all learned a new phrase – vaccine adjuvant. The Americans aren’t using the adjuvant but Canada is. Just to be different? No, it makes what little vaccine there is go farther. But is it safe? Well it’s been used in Europe and in Australia during their winter without adverse effects. Each radio and TV News cast in an effort to cover the story only confused the issue. Much time was given to the conspiracy-anti-vaccination movement. Variations of these groups likely existed back in the day (late 1790’s) of Edward Jenner who first used cowpox blister pus to immunize people against the deadly smallpox. Jenner was ridiculed in the press of his day with cartoons that pictured his subjects as getting cow-like features after vaccination. In fact the word “vaccine” is derived from the original cow-pox injection. The thing is it worked, cow-pox vaccine was improved somewhat, but the original concept ultimately wiped smallpox out, so immunization is not a new theory.

Getting the H1N1 vaccine is probably a good idea if it is delivered in time. The waffling about the vaccine displayed by many people early in the week came to an abrupt end after a healthy 13 year old boy apparently died of H1N1. Parents were spooked, medical officials advanced their schedules and released the vaccine for the most susceptible within communities, but the fear and resulting panic caused long line-ups, queue jumping and frustration. By weeks end things got worse, GlaxoSmithKline, the company that manufactured the vaccine could not deliver sufficient quantities (ironically because they switched from producing the adjuvant and non-adjuvant versions) to meet the demand and now the future clinics for the general public will be delayed. In the end this may reduce the need for vaccination, if the main wave of infection has passed then why bother? It takes a week to ten days for the vaccine to mobilize the immune system in most individuals so if you are vaccinated in mid-November it could be December before protection is effective.

The finger-pointing will begin soon, people will get sick, panic, some may die but I’ll bet the root cause of this debacle will likely be at the feet of government. Sometimes even your nanny-state cannot protect you.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How big government inadvertently stifles enterprise.

The other day I was listening to the Current, a CBC Radio morning program. The documentary segment was titled The Philosophy of Pig. The producer/narrator interviewed a woman, Barbara Schaefer from the Ottawa area who had lost her job as an environmental policy advisor for the Federal Government. Rather than look for another job in her field she chose to become a pig farmer, running her own business. As a farmer Ms. Schaefer breeds and raises a rare heritage variety called the Large Black Pig in as natural a way as possible. Recently she has expanded her operation to other rare heritage breeds of cattle, chickens and ducks. Now this may seem rather unlikely but Ms. Schaefer explained that she enjoys the active life of a farmer over the sedentary life of a policy wonk. So she’s happy and productive, and likely far more productive as a farmer than she was at her government desk job.

The point of this is; here is a very well educated person using her energy and wit to produce a product that would likely not exist, thus creating wealth for herself, her family and the surrounding community from which she buys and sells various products and services. As a government worker she was technically in the employ of the taxpayer. Her salary was taken from government revenue and added to the size of the government. Presumably her creativity and talent were directed at supporting government policies and while she may have produced good work for her department, what was produced likely added little to the gross domestic product of Canada. Now I don’t mean that her government work was useless, it may in fact have had great impact on government policy when and if it was implemented. But as a farmer her efforts are often immediately obvious and her product, if it can be eventually sold, fulfils basic human needs.

Take this individual and multiply her by thousands, there are thousands of well educated government workers whose talent and creativity have been removed from private enterprise so that they can manage, conduct, administer, advice, coordinate, control, regulate, oversee, well you get the picture; these people are not in the private domain, they are governing. Of course most of these people are grateful they have a job and their government job likely has good pay and good perks, and they may even provide a necessary service. The issue that I have is there are too many government employees in too many government departments for me to believe that all their talents are being used efficiently and effectively. I think government is far too big; of course that’s another issue.
Imagine the economic impact on Canada if just a few thousand of these clever individuals were in Ms. Schaefer’s position, that is, in the private sector, the part of the economy that actually adds wealth to the country rather than in government where budgets and salaries are taken from redistributed collected taxes. Imagine the new products, new services, new investments, and new jobs created; it’s all good. Big government not only diverts huge sums of money from the private domain, but also diverts entrepreneurial talent. That cost is almost incalculable.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Evidence for Evolution......yet again.

I was in a store yesterday and I spotted Richard Dawkins new book The Greatest Show on Earth. I was tempted to buy it but I have so many books to read now that I decided to wait. The book is subtitled The Evidence for Evolution, and the fact is I don't need to be convinced having taught the subject for many years. I'll get around to buying the book at some point - but the subtitle bothers me now.
The "evidence for evolution" is a commonly used chapter title in high school and university level textbooks throughout North America and probably around the world. The troubling part to me is that the evidence takes up a large amount of space in these books often at the expense of whats new and wonderful in the field at the time the book was published. I'm sure the Dawkins book has a lot of the latest information in it but don't you wonder why the evidence must be rehashed over and over again? Of course that's a rhetorical question, I know why. No other theory as well entrenched as evolution has such organized and vocal opposition. No other theory needs to rehash its origins in such great detail again and again. No other theory needs to rationalize its very existence as Dawkins' new book seems to be doing. Texts on modern atomic theory, the theory of flight, the heliocentric theory, Newton's Theory of Gravity and on and on give short shrift to origins and evidence. Newton's Theory of Gravity is still routinely taught in high school even though its been shown to be wrong, but because the math works at speeds not approaching the speed of light, its still taught. Everyone believes in atoms and molecules but the details of this theory are astoundingly complex and way beyond the comprehension of most people, but not a peep of opposition. The evidence for evolution is "over-freakin-whelming" and the theory is simple enough to be easily grasped by a high school junior student. Maybe that's the problem its too simple. Every week new evidence is reported, check out the new "missing link" flying reptile discovery announced this week.
In a few weeks we will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" Darwin's monumental explanation of the myriad varieties of life on Earth. Its time to examine that book's subtitle: by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That is what needs to be studied - that is one of the mechanisms of evolution, as for the evidence, its all around you, if you don't see it get the Dawkins book.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Baraking News............

Cashing in on the audacity of hype

No matter what you think of the United Nations whenever it functioned as a way to defuse world tensions and prevent or delay conflict it served a purpose for that moment. Late in October of 1956 Israel, France and Britain invaded Egyptian territory when Egypt announced it would nationalize and blockade the Suez Canal. Egypt was reacting to the withdrawal of funding to build the Aswan Dam when it recognized the new Communist regime in China at the expense of the Taiwanese. A Canadian diplomat, Lester B. Pearson, defused a potentially volatile situation by negotiating a withdrawal of the invading force replaced by a UN force (UNEF) led by "neutral" Canadian Troops. So began the "tradition" of Canadian Peacekeepers and because the Egyptians objected to the Union Jack on the Canadian Red Ensign Pearson eventually proposed a distinctive new Canadian Flag while he was Prime Minister of Canada in 1965. For his efforts in brokering a peace that reopened the Suez Canal during a dangerous time in the Cold War, Lester Pearson received the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today it was announced in Oslo that US President Barak Obama will be given the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. So how do his accomplishments compare to Lester Pearson? Well, Obama doesn't like nukes, but hasn't removed any from the American arsenal. Obama doesn't like war, but America has two wars going on with little chance of either ending any time soon. Obama doesn't like torture but Guantanamo Bay is still in business with no closure imminent. Obama doesn't like climate change's bad. Obama provides us with hope for a better future.......that's starting to get lame. What's he done exactly? Well Obama isn't Bush......maybe that warrants a prize.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

eHealth - What is a Billion Dollars?

Just over a week ago I helped organize an information booth for the Ontario Libertarian Party at a large book fair in downtown Toronto. Our purpose was to publicise the party and solicit new members. We used a technique developed by The Advocates for Self-Government called Operation Politically Homeless where we asked passersby if they thought government was doing a good job. Depending on their answer we followed up with a short quiz to determine if the participant had libertarian leanings or not. From the few that did, we asked if they would like us to contact them. For us it was a productive day that gave us insights to the mood of a small select portion of the electorate. Of those people that consented to be interviewed roughly half were satisfied with government (typically we did not specify what level of government but we are Ontario-centric), the other half not so much. I think this degree of satisfaction (troubling to me) is likely a function of general apathy, ignorance and complacency. Most people don't really pay attention to government except during elections and then usually to the promises on the table rather than the record of the past. Of course that is part of the reason that governments grow larger, the promises invariably include new programs that allegedly benefit the taxpayer, spending increases and so must taxes. So when governments set out to save tax dollars by instituting efficiencies it sounds good but too often that's not what happens.
Ontario joined the other provinces and territories to create an Electronic Health Record (EHR) 10 years ago to streamline patient care across the country and save the Canadian health-care system $6 billion a year, a worthy goal. In Ontario the project was started by the Harris Tories and continued by the McGuinty Liberals and to this day Ontario lags most of the country in developing and implementing these EHRs. In a report released today, Auditor-General Jim McCarter concludes that "Ontario taxpayers have not received value for money for this $1-billion investment." The money was squandered. I find it hard to get my head around a billion dollars, that of course is to the advantage of the government, its just a number. In the current Great Recession it doesn't even sound like much considering all the bailouts that have occurred. But look at it this way, a billion dollars pays 10 000 people a $100 000 salary for one year - good salary. Or it pays 286 people a salary of $100 000 each for their entire 35 year working career. Or if you had a billion dollars in the bank at the current pitiful 1.05% interest rate (the daily rate today at the most popular Internet bank) you would make $10.5 million in interest a year, $875 000 a month! Oh, to dream! So now imagine this money frittered away by the Ontario government, just one of the many levels of government under whose jurisdiction your pockets are picked. Is it possible that the other levels of government are frittering away money? Do bears poop in the woods? Does the government do a good job?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Scientist duplicates Shroud of Turin "effect"

An Italian scientist financed by a group of atheists and agnostics claims to have reproduced the photographic effect seen on the Shroud of Turin the alleged burial cloth of Jesus. The Shroud was shown to be a fake 20 years ago when it was carbon-dated to the 13th century, but no one until now has reproduced the effect using techniques available back then. The controversy continues, but only in the minds of theists.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yet another missing link in Human evolution

Tomorrow in the journal Science eleven papers by 47 authors from 10 countries will describe the analysis of a discovery made in 1992. That discovery may help solve the problem of how the ancestral line that led to humans split from the the line that led to chimpanzees for which there has been virtually no evidence until now. It may be that the newest creature, Ardipithecus ramidus (Ardi), which predates the widely know "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) by over one million years is in our lineage from the common ancestor between chimps and humans. The discovery made near where Lucy was found suggests that continued research in that part of Ethiopia could lead to that last common ancestor of humans and chimps. This also shows the deliberate slowness of scientific discovery, 17 years of research, peer review and debate before a joint announcement is made. Another missing link in the long list of missing links that creationists claim don't exist.