Archive for the ‘news’ Category

When are you old enough for a double standard?

2015/06/30

The other day on the radio I overheard the tail end of a discussion around a recent incident where a swimming pool attendant confronted an eight-year-old girl who was not wearing a top. (Here are a couple of articles about the incident: 1, 2.)

At the end, the radio host asked listeners to let them know: What do you think is the right age at which girls should be required to wear tops when swimming? I missed most of the radio piece, but I can imagine arguments – the prudes on the one side, the nudists on the other side, and a lot of sensible people who are neither prudes nor nudists taking positions between.

But the obvious answer lodged itself in my head pretty quickly. Girls should be required to wear tops at the same age that boys are.

If you think (as the City of Guelph apparently does) that “females ages four and older must wear a bathing top” in public pools, then require males four and older to do the same. Surely covered male bodies won’t offend anyone, so that should be an easy sell, right?

On the other hand, if we are unable or unwilling to make men and boys relinquish a freedom, then perhaps we should not be so ready to take that freedom from women and girls either.

I have a mountain of points I would like to make on this issue, but I suspect I would just fall into ranting tl;dr territory. So instead I’m going to leave it there. What do you think? Is there an appropriate age to require people to cover up? Is there any good reason to restrict one group more than another in this sort of issue? Let me know in the comments.

Facing our demons

2015/06/06

For the past six years, Canada has been undergoing some serious self-examination in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its final recommendations are finally released – leaving the nation to digest them and think about how to move forward.

The backstory is a deep history of abuse, neglect, and antagonism between the European colonial culture of Canada and the indigenous cultures that were pushed aside, stomped on, all but annihilated.

I grew up in rural Alberta knowing very little about our First Nations, and the relationship between them and my own culture. I remember hearing sentiments such as “I was born here – I’m as native a Canadian as any of them.” I remember people saying that the alcoholism and other problems rampant on native reserves were their problems, not ours. I remember knowing one native person – she was at our school for a year or so. She did wonderful native art, but I never asked about her culture, her background.

I remember a persistent sense that, whatever the history, the relationship between our First Nations – the Indians – and the rest of Canada was unresolved. Unsatisfactory. Broken, somehow.

I didn’t know about residential schools (the last of which closed in 1996) until very recently, as the TRC began disseminating its findings.

There are many things that need to be said, and I do not feel qualified. I do not know enough about the experiences of First Nations people to truly address their sense of injustice. I do not work in a caring profession, where I could offer direct assistance.

But I do know that I grew up in a culture that worked to deny responsibility, to push it back onto the victims. I understand that urge. I never sent anyone to a residential school. I never stole anyone’s land, attempted to destroy their culture. When someone points to me, to my culture, and says that we are responsible, it feels like a personal insult.

And yet …

I grew up on a farm, with great open spaces, clean air, and a rich cycle of seasons. I would not have had that childhood if not for the forcible removal of the earlier inhabitants from that land.

True, it wasn’t me that did the deed. But I benefited and other suffered for it. Doesn’t that leave me with some responsibility? It’s not my job to single-handedly solve the problems. (What an ass-backwards solution that would be, eh? “My ancestors wrecked your culture by imposing their solutions on you. Let me fix things by imposing my solutions on you.”) But, until I recognize that the problem is at least partly mine, I can only remain a barrier to a solution. I have to own the demons of our shared past. An analogy might be finding a bit of garbage by a path. It wasn’t me that did the littering. But if the litterer is nowhere to be found, my choice is to leave the garbage there, or to pick it up. I choose to pick it up.

What can I do? I can express my sorrow for what happened. I can assert that it was unjust, unfair. I can look through the recommendations of the TRC report, and talk to my First Nations neighbours, colleagues, students, to see what I can do, either in my own work or with my voice as a voter and citizen, to help in the reconciliation and healing process.

It feels unfair – it is unfair – that I have to deal with the mess the early colonizers created (and continued to create well into my own lifetime). And it’s unfair that my Cree, Stoney, Dene, and other First Nations neighbours have to deal with the mess too. But the mess exists, and the perpetrators are mostly dead – beyond our power to make them fix things. So we who remain will deal with it.

It won’t be a comfortable path. But, now that I have met some First Nations friends, worked with them, I know that it will be worth the effort. I want to live in a whole, united country, not one torn along its very foundation.

Since I drafted this post, the Alberta government has committed to expanding previous “residential school” content in the K-12 curriculum to “to ensure students learn about the legacy of abuse.” Concrete progress from our new government, days after they were sworn in.

Don’t pray on my kids

2015/06/02

Oh, my dear Alberta.

Yes, we have just ousted a party that had been in power long enough to get a real sense of entitlement going.

We are still a socially-conservative province (though perhaps not so conservative as we might think). So we do occasionally get the same issues cropping up here as our southern neighbours get regularly. Today, I’m going to deal with the issue of school prayer.

Most recently, it is a school in Taber, in southern Alberta: Dr. Hamman Elementary School. What’s particularly interesting here is that they stopped morning prayers back in 2013. But the board has decided to reinstate them. (1, 2)

According to the article, they stopped prayers in response to complaints from parents. And now they’ve done a survey, where around 73% of families (91% of respondents) said they wanted prayer. So they’re bringing it back.

I understand that we need to respect everyone’s rights. And, to that end, I would say the obvious solution is for schools not to officially promote any particular kind of prayer. Does that sound one-sided and biased? It sure is one-sided, because the truth is one-sided. Anyone arguing for compassion, religious freedom, respectful education should be on the side of no school-led prayers. Here are the arguments I’ve come across:

Reasons for school prayer:

  • “It acknowledges the Christian heritage of our country.” Really? We have to alienate students who don’t share those beliefs, in order to respect and remember our heritage? Nonsense.
  • “It promotes community cohesion.” Except if you aren’t a member of one of the Christian churches behind this move. I guess the rest of us can just stand outside while the rest of you cohere our community, eh?
  • “It supports the right to religious freedom of the majority of students.” This is a right that people have with or without government-sponsored prayer. Those students who want to pray can do so anyway. Honestly, nothing is stopping them. That’s the same religious liberty that non-Christians are content with in schools.*

Reasons against school prayer:

  • It promotes one religion above others – something a secular school system has no place doing.
  • It makes some students feel ostracised. This marginalization is more of a problem in more Christian-dominant communities, so using a petition or survey as this school council did is exactly backwards (if students’ well-being is important).
  • It opens authorities to the embarrassment and expense of lawsuits, launched on behalf of marginalized students and families.
  • Assuming school prayer is allowed, the principle of equality suggests that non-Christian invocations should also be allowed. Perhaps we could spend the first hours of every school day reciting the basic creeds of all religious groups that students might belong to. How would you feel about your kids learning Buddhist meditation? The Muslim salat? No? Now maybe you see how some of us feel about you pushing prayer on our kids.

Honestly, people: the cause of religious liberty is, in this as in so many other cases, promoted by ensuring a secular public sphere (ie, a public sphere that isn’t bent on imposing one particular form of religion over any other).

Footnote:

* I have occasionally heard the claim from religious that they are actively prevented from praying in public spaces. I have yet to hear any substantial evidence that this is the case, but let me be clear. Preventing someone from praying (so long as they aren’t disrupting others’ freedom to go about their business) is not okay. If you feel you are being unjustly prevented from exercising your religious freedom, let me know. I condemn any unnecessary infringement on religious freedom, and would happily use my little soapbox here to speak against it.

[Edit: I’ve just seen this editorial from the Taber Times, which states things very clearly and eloquently.]

Cranky about voting

2015/04/22

500px-Flag_of_Alberta.svgIt’s election season again here in Alberta.

Last time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living back in Alberta with my family now for four years. We have put down roots here – bought a house, established good jobs in the city in our chosen fields, reconnected with family and friends.

And I have a whole new swath of rants. Most of them, I will confine to private complaints shared with Deena, but I think a few deserve to be aired more widely.

First, on a personal note, I want to declare my deep dissatisfaction with politics. It’s an ugly, depressing, foul window into the dank recesses of human nature, recesses that are more concerned with power and image than with substance. So, you know, politics. What are you gonna do?

With that out of the way, I want to offer a little meta-observation. I noticed, as I was browsing the platforms of our parties and candidates, that my own impulse to tribalism kept wanting to take over. For candidates or parties that I identify with, I want to let vagueness slide. “It’s a platform – they only have room for so much detail.” “I’m sure they would work that out in a way I like.” And if I don’t identify with them – especially if I identify myself in opposition to them – they get the opposite: “They’re evading responsibility by offering empty words.” “I just know they’d find a way to wiggle out of that (apparently sensible) commitment.” Even when they’re not vague, I am inclined to trust or distrust specifics according to my own prejudices.

This is a very important thing to remember. I really don’t like the idea of identity politics – of saying, “This is my team, so I’ll ignore their faults and exaggerate their virtues and treat anyone on another team as the enemy.” That’s divisive and unhelpful, but it is a deeply human way to look at the world. One of many human traits that this humanist strives to overcome.

And, getting past that, I see that most of the parties are essentially saying exactly the same thing. Even when it sounds like they’re not. For example, the Wildrose Party* promises to “Expand the use of clean burning Alberta natural gas and propane for industrial and residential electricity production and transportation”. Which is all about promoting Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based natural resource economy. On the other hand, the Liberal Party promises to “phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025”: a clear commitment to cleaner energy, reducing our reliance on the worst-polluting energy sources.

But, on reflection, it occurred to me that both of these policies could be met with the same action (moving from coal power plants to gas and propane power plants). The same action, with two very different spins. (I don’t know that both parties have the same actual plan in mind, it’s just that their promises aren’t as different as they first seem.)

None of the parties are very heavy on specifics (except, it seems, for the New Democratic Party, the NDP**). And where they give specifics, I confess that I’m not qualified to judge what they really mean. I wish we had the folks from BBC’s More or Less program reviewing our election campaigns. Listening to their recent election coverage (round 1, round 2), I feel a twinge of numerical envy. (If anyone out there knows of people who are doing this, in Alberta or in Canada more generally, please let me know!)

At the end of the day, I have the same choice that citizens in democratic countries everywhere have to make: which person or party is the least bad?

I am zeroing in on my favorite. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to ballot eating. But I would like to close with two pleas which I have made before.

First, if you can votedo it! For all that we whinge and complain about the type of people that we have to choose between in our political system, democracy is still less bad than any of the alternatives. And if you’re going to vote, have a little respect for the power you are wielding and try to get informed. Don’t just vote along identity lines. Find out who is actually promising what, and vote for the person you think will create the change you want (or prevent the change you don’t want). I honestly mean this, whether you vote the way I do or not.

And second, can we please, please try something more informative than a single-mark ballot? Transferable votes are easy to fill out, and give me the option to vote my conscience without worrying that I’m letting the Awfuls in by not voting for the mediocre-but-more-likely-to-win party. As it is, I am sometimes inclined to give the whole thing a miss because it seems so likely my vote will end up counting for nothing. Electoral reform could help to solve the voter apathy problem that is rampant in Alberta, as in so many other places.

Okay, I’m done for today. Maybe my next post won’t be a rant. Have I become a cranky old man? Might have to merge with The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist (written by an old friend of mine). Or start the “No Longer Friendly Humanist”.

Footnotes:

* The Wildrose Party is our current contender for far-right – think a slightly more moderate Republican party. (Oh, how I’m glad to be Canadian!) The wild rose is the provincial flower of Alberta.

** The NDP is the most left-leaning of the main four parties. Roughly, from left to right, they are conventionally ordered NDP, Liberal, PC (Progressive Conservatives), Wildrose.

What really matters

2014/09/25

Dug up from the draft pile – the opening is a little out of date, but the content is quite relevant.

Here is an interesting piece in the Calgary Herald on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but fussing over that is not the point of this post. (See here and here for some thoughts on that.)

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, my MP3 player for podcast listening on my commute, the bicycle I often commute on, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important than any of that is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I can get stuck in computer games or TV shows when there are people I could be visiting with.

I fight such tendencies in myself using the framework of my humanist values and worldview. I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

Christmas is a good yearly reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give last year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, encourages socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with others to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not find personal resonance in religious beliefs.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings or Unitarian church, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. The odds are that you do too: have a look around. Join a Meetup group. Start your own. Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids. They are growing up in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Give them enough rope …

2014/06/17

A law school connected to Christian institution Trinity Western University in BC is facing an odd hurdle.

Certain law societies in Canada (BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) are deciding not to allow graduates of the new law school to practice law in their provinces. (More have approved it already without fuss, including my home province of Alberta.) The justification seems to be the discriminatory admission practices of the university. Students must conform to a code of behaviour that excludes gays and unmarried couples who perform certain private acts.

My first reaction is that this is a ridiculous code of behaviour to impose on students, unworthy of an institution that calls itself a “university”.

My second reaction, especially after reading some of the news stories, is that the barrier seemed arbitrary. The news stories focus on the discriminatory rule (eg, here, here, and here). Nobody seems to argue that the students who come out of the program will be unqualified to practice law.

Students who are okay with TWU’s code of conduct may be more likely to oppose the rights of sexual minorities – or they to refuse clients or cases that are contrary to the bigoted position of their alma mater. If that is the problem, then surely the solution is to make individual lawyers to agree to a code of conduct. That way, you address not only the bad eggs coming out of TWU’s law school, but also the bigots that happen to study at more mainstream law schools.

But no – all the quotes in the media seem to centre around how horrible it is that the school has this sexually-discriminatory code for the students.* If this is the problem, then don’t punish the students for their school’s bigoted stance. Find some way to address it with the school. One effective and regulation-free solution would be for all the members of the relevant professional groups to be aware of TWU’s code. They are in a strong position to exert social pressure on new graduates, encouraging them to embrace a more pro-social attitude to the humans they encounter in their professional lives. Given how these votes are coming out, I think the social momentum is already leaning this way.

In the end, my position is the same as Hemant Mehta’s: the school (a private university) should be free to treat its students in this bigoted way; society should be free to criticize them; and its students should be allowed or not allowed to practice law based on their legal qualifications.

I’ll close by pointing to two comments that seem to speak to the content of the program. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada (responsible for accrediting law programs across the country) says

The Special Advisory Committee on Trinity Western University’s Proposed School of Law … concluded that there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs as long as the program meets the national requirement.

And the Advanced Education Minister in BC, Amrik Virk, said in December,

The Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed Trinity Western University’s proposed law degree and found that it met the degree program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

What do you think of this whole mess? What would be the optimal solution to the conflicting needs of private autonomy and freedom versus upholding equal rights?

Footnote:

* Yes, I am taking the media reports with a grain of salt. Journalists and their audience like a good A versus B narrative, and the secular-vs-religious narrative appeals to both liberals and conservatives – each gets to feel either smugly victorious or self-importantly oppressed.

Conservative health?

2014/06/01

[In an ongoing renewal of this blog, I have come across a draft article that was neglected well past the expiry date of the current events it describes. However, I feel that the ideas are still worth airing, so with a little editing I’m releasing it into the wild.]

I have moved back to the province of my birth – beautiful, bountiful Alberta. It happens that an election was held shortly after our return, in which the decades-long domination of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party may be overturned was extended for another four years.

I have a tendency to lean more liberal than my Albertan family and friends – and it may not surprise them that I am writing a post critical of the PC party. What might surprise them is that my current criticism is for a failure to be sufficiently conservative.

I was perusing the PC leaflet that arrived in our mailbox before the election. (similar to the platform statement here [PDF]), and discovered a policy whose motivation is most transparently vote-buying rather than holding to a consistent political ideology. At the top of page 8 in the linked file, we read the following:

Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

How is paying for new treatments with unproven efficacy (often, proven inefficacy) either socially or fiscally conservative?

Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada thanks to the various economic benefits that derive from rich oil deposits, currently has a struggling health system. Many people are without a family doctor. Oh, we do have a public health system, and it’s a fair sight better than what they have south of the border, but it’s far from perfect.

And here is a nominally conservative party, electing to subsidize witch doctors. (I’m not going to go over the arguments. If you don’t know why I’m so negative about “alternative medicine”, browse the Science-Based Medicine site.) All of the approaches mentioned in the PC literature – naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic – have failed to pass the tests of efficacy that we rightly demand of real medicine.

My guess, gleaned from the greasy language of the document, is that they have perceived a popular trend toward alternative medicine, and want to be seen as open-minded.

Bah.

Let me plant a flag here. I may be a social liberal. I may think that the government has no place dictating private life choices – from who you marry to how you manage your reproductive health. But when you’re putting public money toward public health – as I think we should – then the treatments paid for by that money damned well better have evidence supporting their usefulness.

And if you’re one of those open-minded individuals who likes to ask, “What’s the harm in trying new techniques that haven’t been proven yet?”, let me point you to a site where someone has done more than just ask the question – he’s tried to find the answer. It’s called What’s the Harm? It’s not pretty – there is a body count.

Sadly, as I hadn’t been resident here for the required 6 months, I didn’t get to vote in this election. But I will be voting soon enough. And sharing my opinions. What would I like to see in a party or candidate? I’d like to see the following:

  • uphold basic civil liberties (not generally a problem here – the anti-abortionists and anti-gay-marriage types seem to be on the back foot, even in conservative Alberta) (see my recent post about abortion in federal politics)
  • support democratic voting reform (my choice would be to switch to single transferable vote from our current first-past-the-post) to create a more representative form of representative democracy
  • commit to evidence-based regulation wherever possible (for example, in licensing and funding of medical practitioners and practices)
  • maintain a social welfare net that includes universal healthcare, a welfare system that encourages people back into the workforce when they are unemployed, and minimum wage laws that ensure a viable living salary for anyone who is employed

So, you know, not much.

Kudos to the Trudeaus

2014/05/23

There are times when I despair about Canadian politics, but at the moment I’m holding my head high.

Here is the passage from the article in the Metro that first brought this item to my attention:

“I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religiously, as Catholics,” Trudeau wrote.

“But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people.

“He too held fast to his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

Trudeau says he shares his father’s view of leadership in that regard.

“Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights,” he wrote.

What a sensible approach to deciding how to partition one’s personal beliefs and choices from one’s exercise of political power!

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He recently revealed that future Liberal candidates will be vetted to ensure they are willing to support the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, they must support marriage equality and women’s bodily rights (for example, the right to have an abortion).

One might expect that this puts him ahead of the pack. There are a certainly people making noise about how this will help the Conservatives in the next election (for example, here and here). But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has had a similar policy for a while now, and even the ruling Conservative Party, while nominally open to members “voting their conscience”, has declined to reopen the abortion debate during its recent term in office.

I don’t think Trudeau’s position, on its own, would win the Liberals my vote. On the other hand, the euphemistic platform “Members can vote their conscience” will certainly lose the Conservatives my vote. It is an abdication from taking a stand. It amounts to saying “Members can try to take away people’s rights if they feel strongly about it.” Not okay, Conservatives. Not okay at all.

(I was pleased to note, in researching this post, that Trudeau’s Twitter feed includes items about transphobia and about scientific freedom. Those are issues that may draw me toward voting Liberal in the next election.)

(Also, the acoustics geek in me was delighted to notice that the hashtag for the Liberal Party of Canada is #LPC. Haha!)

Guiding in the wrong direction?

2013/11/16

I generally admire the Girl Guides.

Everything I hear about them seems to indicate an organization that is interested in improving itself, and maintaining high standards of engagement with its members and the world at large. For example, unlike certain other youth organizations, they welcome atheists.

And I like their cookies. I kind of miss the old kind, which I haven’t seen in a few years, but even with the new ones I’m always happy to buy a box or three when they come knocking.

Well, recently, I heard about a petition underway that would take this fine organization a step in the wrong direction (and make me a little less interested in their cookies). You can find it (and sign it, if you disagree with me), over at Change.org. Essentially, some people want the Guides to go GMO-free in their cookies.

Now, I have mixed feelings about genetic modification. On the one hand (despite the rhetoric of the anti-GMO crowd), the science is being conducted responsibly. There is no evidence that scientifically-responsible genetic modification (as practiced in the lab) produces plants that are any more dangerous to consume than other genetic modification (as practiced by nature, plant breeders, and thousands of generations of farmers).

Never forget: we’ve been genetically modifying our diet for millennia. The only difference is that recently we’ve learned enough to do it more carefully. The hysterical accusation of “unnatural” contains no actual justification for treating genetically-modified organisms differently. From what I can see, the difference is that now modifications can be done carefully in a lab, whereas with other methods they’re done haphazardly in the field, through random mutations and selective breeding.

On the other hand, I am distrustful of the economic model within which much of modern genetic modification is used. I think it is a maniacally bad idea for a person or company to be able to patent a genetic code. This concern was somewhat allayed by Steve Novella’s recent investigation and analysis on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 429), where he cut through some of the hysteria over Monsanto’s behaviour. But still, giving corporations that sort of social/legal support seems like a recipe for trouble.

If the anti-GMO people were instead to lobby for modifying the legal status of genetic innovations, I might support them. And, as a side-effect, this might severely curtail the amount of GM research being done. But of course, flagship species like Golden Rice would be unaffected – that’s an entirely public-funded project with a humanitarian goal: reducing death and blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. (And yet, a Golden Rice test plot in the Philippines been vandalized by ideologues who, ironically, often cry “untested” as one of their rhetorical cudgels.)

Anyway, lots of rambling there. The point is, although other Change.org petitions get my support, this will not. I almost feel like starting a counter-petition. “Keep Girl-Guide cookies tasty; leave out the bad science and confused ideology.” But I suspect that it’s not as compelling or catchy a headline. Instead, I’ll express my support by buying their cookies, GM ingredients and all. Others can express their disapproval by not buying the cookies.

Honestly folks, this is one of the great powers we have in a free-market economy: use your dollars as petitions, supporting products you approve of and boycotting those you do not.

Don’t miss the Venal eclipse

2012/06/02

Next week, Venus is going to pass between us and the sun. The moon did it very recently, and far more dramatically. The moon does it all the time – there are solar eclipses every year somewhere on Earth. Even when the moon doesn’t completely block the sun – such as the annular eclipse last month – it’s called an eclipse.

But Venus … well, it’s just too far away to appreciably block the sun. In fact, without special equipment for viewing it, you won’t even know it’s happening. (Unless someone tells you.) So it’s not an eclipse, really. (Though I really like the name “Venal eclipse”. Don’t you?) No, it has the much more pedestrian name, “Transit of Venus”.

But don’t let the name fool you. This is a rare and scientifically valuable event. Transits of Venus have been used as far back as the 17th century to estimate the size of the solar system. Also, we only get two transits in over a century. They come in pairs about 8 years apart. We had one in 2004; before that, the last one was in 1882. After this one, we won’t have another transit until 2117.

So check out what events your local observatory or science centre is hosting (here in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science has a free viewing event). Or set up your own viewing equipment. (Don’t try watching with your naked eyes or sunglasses. You won’t see the transit, and you’ll hurt your eyes.)

I’m planning on using the pinhole box method. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy watching.

PS: Here’s a nice website full of information about the transit. I think they even have phone apps. And don’t worry – if you miss seeing it yourself, I’m sure there will be plenty of videos and photos online to enjoy it second hand.


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