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One of the defenses that I hear President Trump’s defenders claim is that because the stock market is at all time highs, the overall economy must have confidence in him and therefore “he must be doing a good job. So what is everyone criticizing him for? Those criticisms ring hollow!”

Most people don’t understand why the stock market goes up. In fact, it goes up due to a multitude of factors like yield curves not being flat, the bond market having a lower yield than the S&P 500’s earnings yield, inflation being under control, consumer confidence being high, and so forth. Trump’s defenders would say that because he’s protecting jobs, people feel good about their overall financial picture and are spending money, and this is reflected in the stock market.

Except that’s not particularly relevant to the people who actually voted for Trump.

According to Gallup, in 2015 only 52% of Americans own stocks, which is down by about 10% since 2008. But it’s not that it’s only a bit more than half, the ownership of stocks is skewed towards people with more money:

Ownership_of_stocks

Furthermore, since starting from the 1980’s where the trend accelerated, wealth inequality has also increased. While everyone’s income has gone up since then, it has gone up the fastest at the highest levels of income as seen by the red line below:

EPI-income-inequality-chart

President Trump’s campaign initially ran on populism – that hidden forces in society were keeping the working class down, was outsourcing their jobs (due to bad trade deals with Mexico and China), and that’s why they were falling behind (and only Trump could fix it).

From the charts above (and other research you can do yourself online), it is the wealthiest that benefit from gains in stocks. But most of Trump’s support came from the working class who don’t derive much of their income from capital gains, nor do they even have high levels of income. Thus, to claim that that stock market is so great for Americans misses the point that it is leaving out Trump’s core constituency – they are not benefiting from this market appreciation.

Indeed, it’s the wealthy – the very ones that Trump decries (yet is also a member of that very class) who are reaping the good fortunes of the “Trump bump”.

During the election, the Democrats would say that the economy has recovered, and America was doing pretty well. The counter narrative (correctly) pointed out that these gains were not shared equally amongst all Americans but instead were concentrated in pockets of the country. Most of the job gains went to perhaps two or three dozen counties surrounding large cities, and most of the income gains went to the top 1% of the country. And they are continuing to go there.

Trump’s base is not benefiting by the one thing his defenders say is the biggest example of why he’s doing a great job.

On the other hand, the fat cats are doing just fine.

Mr-Burns-with-money.PNG

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Remember that episode on the Simpsons when Homer went to clown college?

It all started when the first day of the month, Homer declared it was new billboard day! He sees ads that he found desirable (such as for food), but then saw one for Clown College. He says in disgust “Clown College? You can’t eat that.” He then drives off, determined to ignore the billboard.

Yet he can’t get it out of his head. In everyday situations, Homer images himself at Clown College, taking the classes to become a clown:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college

Even when eating dinner with his family, he images them not as table mates, but as clowns:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college_eating_dinner

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college_eating_dinner_family_clowns.PNG

Finally, he gets up from the table and declares – seeming out of no where to the rest of his family – “You people have held me back long enough! I’m going to Clown College!” He then gets up and leaves the table.

I bring this up because over the past few months, I’ve been getting more interested in politics. I’m not sure what the catalyst is for this upsurge in interest [1], but here we are. I try to stay away from editorials, and instead I’ve done a few things:

a) I started subscribing to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) daily newsletter, and I browse through the articles. The CFR is mostly non-partisan and provides a roundup of news from around the world. I even play to join the CFR if I can get a few members to recommend me (Note: I currently know nobody on the CFR).

b) I subscribed to Foreign Affairs, a newsletter and website that discusses foreign policy as it affects the United States. They are articles written by industry people with a lot of expertise. It cost $40 to sign up, and I read it most days

c) I listen to the podcast The President’s Inbox. This is put on by Foreign Affairs, and every 2-4 weeks they have a new episode of issues facing the President of the United States. One episode was on North Korea, another on jobs training, another on the impact of the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and so forth. The President’s Inbox is also non-partisan.

d) I clicked on an ad from Norwich (online) University about getting a master’s degree in diplomacy, or perhaps in international relations. I had no interest in this until a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been poking through it. I thought to myself “Hmm, it could be interesting to be a diplomat.” This is especially true when I saw that you could specialize in cyber diplomacy. I’m like “Well, I like geo-politics, and I’m skilled with cyber-space, and now they’ve merged these two together and created a course about it?” There’s a big need worldwide for cyber diplomacy because cyber security is such a difficult topic, and there aren’t that many people in general with the necessary skills. There’s even fewer who would want to do government work.

The drawback of this is that while the course can be completed in 18 months, and is done on your own time and is online, for me to go into diplomacy would be a pay-cut, probably 25-40% (I don’t know why the software industry pays me so well, but they do). And that’s for a mid-career level diplomat, not someone who starts from the bottom which I would probably have to do. Another drawback is that the tuition for those 18 months is $30,000. That’s a lot to shell out. While I could afford it, it would be a big investment for a repayment that is less than what I get now. And getting the wife to sign off on it is another big challenge.


So, it’s (d) that keeps sticking in my head. I’m like “A masters in diplomacy? How is that going to help me? This advertisement has no effect on me whatsoever!”

I just hope I don’t make an outburst like Homer Simpson during a meeting at work one day.


[1] Just kidding. It’s the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

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Am I seriously doing another blog post? Yup, I guess so.

Myself and some friends were talking about President Trump the other night, I just can’t help myself. I articulated why I have problems with him.

There are many dozens, or even hundreds of reasons to oppose President Trump. But there are two meta-issues that I think undermine the United States in particular, and western society in general.

1. The refusal to divest himself from his business interests

Before the election, then-candidate Trump took a lot of heat from his business interests, and he said he would divest himself from them. But he never did; he said he would let his sons run the day-to-day business, but that he would remain invested. Unlike other members of cabinet who put their interests into a blind trust (e.g., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), Trump did not.

This is problematic.

The office of the presidency in the United States is not supposed to be used to serve your own personal interests. The president has a lot of power, and therefore can use his office to enrich himself – at the expense of the nation.

For example, he owns a suite of hotels all across the United States, and internationally. He could push for hosting conferences, and foreign governments who travel to the US, to stay in his hotel. He can imply unfavorable treatment if they don’t. And if others want to play ball, they’ll do it. In this way, President Trump would have leveraged his position of power for personal gain, regardless of whether or not his interests align with the United States’ interests. The office of the president is supposed to align first with the US, regardless of whether they are in the interest of the office holder. In fact, even if they are opposed, the president is supposed to put the interests of the country first, not his own. Can you imagine a foreign government offering to spend a large chunk of money on Trump’s hotels in return for favorable treatment by the US government?

This is double confounded by the fact that President Trump refused to release his tax returns, and only leaked the ones that were favorable to him (the 1995 return which shows him declaring a $1 billion loss, and the 2005 return where he paid about $35 million in income tax [mostly due to the Alternative Minimum Tax which his first budget proposal wanted to do away with]).

But because he refused to release his tax returns, we don’t know all of his financial holdings.

And this sets the stage for future presidents to refuse to divest themselves of their financial interests and truly abuse the office of the presidency for personal gain. The precedent the president has set has lowered the bar for future behavior that will be more shady and nefarious. The abuse of office in this manner is how dictators in banana republics operate.

I think this is why President Trump never released his tax returns; it will show that there is something shady going on, and mostly like there is Russia involvement in some way. Perhaps it’s due to financing and special deals (as his sons have said in interviews), but my hypothesis is that the reason Trump is acting all weird when it comes to Russia (e.g., giving them favorable treatment in return for nothing geopolitically), and not disclosing his tax returns, is because he is planning to personally profit during his time in office and that he has to pay Russia back.

2. His administration’s undermining of the geopolitical order set up after World War II

The United States was viewed as isolationist – or at least non-interventionalist – during the first part of the 20th century.

And in Europe, the force driving the continent was a mixture of nationalism (“my country is better than your country”) – and the concept of the balance-of-power.

The balance-of-power was (formally) set up after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon changed the continent by mobilizing all of France and steamrolling over Europe before finally being defeated for good in 1815. To counter that, at the Congress of Vienna, the major powers (Russia, France, England, Austria, Prussia) established a system where entire countries would ally with each other to balance out the other, so any country that tried to invade another would be forced to deal with the other country’s allies. That is, if England and Prussia were allied with each other, then France couldn’t just invade one – they’d have to fight both. This system worked reasonably well because each country knew that a war would require massive resources and victory would incur heavy losses, making the cost/benefit ratio look unattractive.

But in the late 19th century, countries started devolving into nationalism. First Germany reunited with a series of wars, culminating with the Franco-Prussian War where they became the leading power of the Europe. The balance-of-power still held until World War I when Germany, buoyed by nationalism, instigated the war to end all wars. Which it was, until nationalism reared its head again, and World War II claimed 50 million lives.

After World War II, the world powers decided that the concept of the balance-of-power wasn’t good enough, so they instituted a system of integrated alliances. By creating trade unions based upon political and economic interconnectedness, it would create less hostility between countries. Countries are far less likely to go to war if they are both part of a political union that encourages trade; why would Country A invade Country B and incur the price of war, when they could just trade for the goods they want?

This is the foundation of the United Nations, but more importantly the European Union. Greater integration has increased the unity of Europe where the two worst wars of the past 100 years started, and also increased its stability. Nationalism doesn’t make sense, and that’s why it’s important to keep the EU together. The United States helps guarantee global stability by supporting the EU.

Yet President Trump and Co. are actively undermining the European Union:

a) He has clearly preferred to align with Russia whose geopolitical goals are to be a regional power, and their geopolitical goals are to weaken Europe so they can’t be a counterbalance to Russian influence

b) He has (well, had) undermined the Europe Union by endorsing hardline nationalists like UK-independence leader (at the time) Nigel Farage and saying he should be the UK’s ambassador to United States, and endorsing French nationalist Marine Le Pen. Both of those individuals are actively working to break up the EU.

If the EU does break up, then what happens next? It means we revert back to divisions based upon national borders, which leads to nationalism in place of greater political and economic integration. And that’s what led to the last great war in Europe. Peace is not achieved lightly, and undoing one of the things that led to it (another being more democracy) is a negative.

I think that’s bad for global stability; it’s bad for Europe, and therefore bad for the United States.


And those are the two meta-reasons why I oppose President Trump’s agenda.

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As I said in my previous post, I was on jury duty for a couple of days this month. They said the trial would take three days, but it actually only took two. There weren’t a lot of witnesses; the prosecution had 4 while the defense only had 1, the defendant.

I won’t get into the case here because it wasn’t a pleasant case. It wasn’t something trivial like a DUI or break-and-enter, but instead a sexual assault case.

Instead, I’m going to skip ahead to the jury deliberations.

We ended up coming to a verdict of guilty, and you might think I’d feel a sense of civic pride for “putting the bad guy away”. Indeed, a lot of people were joking to me “GUILTY! GUILTY!” during the trial, and afterwards when I told them what the case was about, they all reeled back in discomfort. But I didn’t feel good at all, I had a mixture of depression, sadness, relief, and guilt.

 

First, when I entered the jury room, I was reasonably convinced of the defendant’s guilt. I thought that the victim had a story that was believable; and the defendant did not, and made up his counter story, and lied under oath.

But there were other jurors who were less convinced and gave more weight to the defendant and the principle of innocent until proven guilty. I didn’t like how I was less willing to believe in the defendant’s innocence, and gave much less plausibility to the defendant’s story than others.

Our system of justice is built on the foundation of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I didn’t want to be a guy who brought biases into court (“If he’s here he must be guilty”) because if the situations were reversed and I really was innocent, I’d want the jury to understand that same principle and grant me the same standard of justice.

I was worried that I wouldn’t grant this defendant that same standard that I’d want others to grant me.

After all, some jurors were hesitant at first. Why weren’t they right and me wrong? I didn’t like that I could be wrong but was unable to see it.

 

Second, some jurors who were not hesitant admitted they were convinced by a piece of video evidence that I also found convincing.

But I didn’t need the video evidence (or maybe I did… but if I didn’t, it goes back to my first point of not being willing to grant the presumption of innocence).

But I thought to myself “We are convicting on the basis of this video. What about all of the other sexual assault cases that don’t have video evidence? All of the ‘he said, she said’ cases?”

If you’ve ever wondered how sexual assault cases have such a low conviction rate, it’s because the prosecutor can’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You need more than just “he said, she said”. Otherwise, you have to presume that the defendant is innocent.

And I found that depressing.

It’s only luck that video evidence was in this trial, and that the defendant did something extraordinarily incriminating in the video that undercut his entire argument.

But I was overwhelmed by the role that luck played in this trial.

Third, delivering the verdict was stressful.

Extremely stressful.

As a jury, we discussed all of the evidence, and we went around the table asking for everyone’s input. We then held a vote, but didn’t come to a consensus.

We went back and discussed some more. We took another vote (secret ballot) and read out to ourselves all the votes, and they all came up Guilty.

When that last vote came up Guilty, a massive knot formed in the pit of my stomach. You know the feeling, it’s when you feel terrible because something bad happened.

Because by rendering a verdict of guilty, we forever changed the defendant’s life. He will go to prison where he will be targeted by other inmates, and he will have to register as a sex offender.

We notified the bailiff and went back into the court room where we delivered the verdict to the judge. She read the verdict aloud, and once again the knot in my stomach returned. Actually, it felt like I was punched in the chest and it physically hurt.

It wasn’t fun. I was responsible for making an impact in someone’s life and it would have negative consequences.

The defendant requested that we all say for the record that the verdict was our own decision, and we each said yes.

And then it was done.

* * * * * * *

Afterwards we talked to the attorneys about the facts of the case, and got more background that we didn’t get during the trial.

Indeed, the trial only had the facts of the case. There was virtually no background or criminal history of the defendant. After I found out about it, it probably would have changed the opinions of the jurors to come to a guilty verdict faster.

I came home, and took the rest of the day off. The mental stress was finished.

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This whole Donald-Trump-Russia connection is getting weird.

Way back during the campaign, I wasn’t sure about what to make of President Donald Trump and his admiration of Russia and Vladimir Putin. At the time, I assumed that then-candidate Donald Trump was being manipulated, and obviously so – Putin would praise Trump and Trump would think it was genuine, and because he has such a need for praise, he would return it. But the praise from Putin was not real, it was false because Putin knew Trump would respond to it. Trump never figured it out. I also thought that Trump admired Putin’s way of running the country (Putin was a former mid-level FSB agent who is now rumored to be one of the richest, if not the richest, men in the world).

I never thought that Trump was indebted to Russia, I thought it was all psychological manipulation.

I heard a podcast the other day that Trump’s infatuation with Russia and Putin is an admiration for Putin that runs deep. As I said, Putin now controls a lot of wealth but keeps it all off the books. The underlying message was that Putin mixed business and government with strong arm tactics to appropriate wealth (and poison his enemies), and Trump wants to emulate this – to use government as a springboard to personal wealth and power. I kind of thought that was why he was running for President back in 2015 and 2016, and this fueled into my suspicions.

And then I read an article on Vanity Fair today: How Ex-Spy Christopher Steele compiled his explosive Trump dossier. I won’t go over the details of this, but everything is becoming uber suspicious:

– Steele had several Russian sources, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure; a former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin; and a handful of other sources

– A bunch of different top aides to Russian politicians who were pretty good candidates for these sources have turned up dead

– The dossier said that Trump’s team and Russia co-ordinated on a strategy to undermine NATO alliances in the region which is exactly what happened during the campaign

– A Russian cyber security expert was arrested for treason

– So many of President Trump’s top nominations to positions of power, or close associates, look shady. From former NSA director Michael Flynn, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions who forgot to disclose he met with Russian diplomats, to Trump’s personal associates Carter Page and Roger Stone (who said he had a back channel to Wikileaks and then walked back the claim). Every time they talk about Russia, it gets so weird.

– Then-candidate Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has deep ties to pro-Russian activity in the Ukraine during the past 5 years

– Even Roger Stone, who predicted that John Podesta would be exposed soon enough, just a little while before the Podesta email leaks, had an interview on NPR. I listened to it and he denied everything. But he said some weird things, like “I never used #wikileaks” when I said the leaks from Podesta were coming.”

Huh? Why would you offer up that? It’s like he was trying to say things that he didn’t say in order to distract away from things he wanted to hide.

He sounded, to me, like he was hiding something.

* * * * * * * * *

And now I’ve become suspicious. At first I thought it was just Putin manipulating President Trump. But now I think there was some collusion.

There’s simply too many weird things going on.

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Last year, I wrote a few blog posts about my reaction after the election of Donald Trump and how at first I was in shock, but then I started to get over it.

Disappointed smile

Since he was inaugurated last week, I’ve either been holding out hope that it wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded like (repealing the Affordable Care Act), pleased that it was all bluster (saying torture works, but then deferring to his Defense Secretary [no doubt intended to appease the base at first, but then the rational people]), or accepted that we as a society are probably screwed due to climate change (leading to depression). Fortunately, I’ve been busy at work to distract my attention.

But today I am angry.

Steaming mad

You may have heard that President Trump recently issued an executive order banning people from entering the country if they are from one of several Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya). There are a few other bans, including an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. While saying it is not a Muslim ban and that it’s intended to avoid allowing radical terrorists into the country, many people think it’s just a euphemism to exclude Muslims because many countries that do export terrorists (unintentionally, usually) were left off the list.

My left-leaning Facebook feed exploded in outrage.

Baring teeth smile

I’ve stayed off of social media, but inside I am mad. Really mad.

Trump had said before the election that he was going to do this, so it should come as no surprise. But it still surprised me that it’s this blatant.

What bugs me about this is the lack of empathy for people trying to escape war-ravaged regions, and people on the other side – who are not in that situation – saying “Sorry, you were born in the wrong place. Go away, you’re not welcome here.”

Sarcastic smile

I find this cold-hearted and arrogant and I can’t imagine denying others entry who are fleeing from terrible circumstances (I know that there needs to be vetting; it’s something that’s already done).

For you see, back in the 1940’s, Jewish emigrants from Europe were trying to escape the destruction that was going on in their country, and no other country accepted them – including the United States. They had to turn back, and many of them ended up dying in the concentration camps.

When I was younger, I wondered “How could this be? How could nobody accept them?”

Sad smile

The answer is that the United States and the allies were at war with Germany. They were worried that the refugees had German spies among them that would infiltrate American society and undermine the US war effort. To avoid taking that chance, the US rejected them all.

That’s the same reason that’s being given today, the refugees from Syria pose a threat to US society and would undermine it from the inside.

But even more than that, I’ve written how my own grandmother was effectively a refugee after World War II, coming to North America 4 years after the war ended. But not before spending 3 years in a Soviet work camp.

What would have happened if immigration officials would have said “Sorry, but you’re German. We can’t trust you, we just fought a war with you people. Besides which, your husband fought for the Germans and was our enemy. You are too much of a risk.”

Or, what if they have said “You spent 3 years in a Soviet work camp? We’re in a cold war with the Soviets, you could be a spy. Sorry, you can’t come in. Go back to Europe.”

What then?

Thumbs down

Today, I am in the reverse position. I get a say on whether to accept refugees from places that need to be escaped from (well, not really; the party I voted for didn’t win [even though more of us voted the same way I did]). I am only in the position I am in by sheer luck. I did nothing to be born in Canada and get a privileged position of also being a US citizen. I was born in the right place at the right time.

By contrast, these other people were born in the wrong place. It’s not their fault; how can I hold that against them when the exact same thing wasn’t held against my own ancestors over 75 years ago? Had that happened, I wouldn’t be alive today. I owe my very existence to a national policy that is at odds where US policy is headed.

That’s not fair, and it makes me angry that the refugee-deniers are exploiting their privilege.

What makes my head spin is not that the US government is doing this against the wishes of the people. I know that Trump sits on a base of support, and his comments are intended to unite them behind him. I estimate that at least 25-30% of the US population is in strong support of this. Another chunk who supported Trump may not totally agree but are willing to go along with it since it doesn’t affect them.

And that is what gives me deep pause…

Don't tell anyone smile

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I was talking to a co-worker the other day about how the US political system – well, the political commentary – is all about the personality of the person running it. For example, a few weeks ago Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton named Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate (for Vice President). I was impressed with the choice; I’d read some of his answers on Quora and liked what he had to say. It turns out that in addition to being a US Senator, he was previously the Governor of the state of Virgina and previous to that, held several jobs in public service.

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Yet the response to Tim Kaine amongst the media is “He’s boring. He’s too boring.” I then look at all the media circus around Donald Trump, and he generates coverage by trying to stay in the headlines even though he is clearly totally incompetent when it comes to running for public office, especially the President of the United States.

In the US, it’s all about the glitter and sizzle.

Yet contrast this with the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway… these all have strong social safety nets, their citizens are well cared for, they have low crime rates, low rates of poverty, and regularly rank among the happiest in the world.

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But can you name the leader of even one of those countries?

I can’t. Because they have a system of government that prioritizes getting things done, and not on the larger-than-life personality.

To me, competence and results is so much more important than the flash and glitter. And Scandinavia gets results because that’s what is important to them. They don’t have the same culture which places being in the spotlight (narcissism) and personal fame as one of life’s goals.

Which brings me to Canada.

In October 2015, Canada elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Liberal party, and they replaced the ruling Conservatives who had been in power since 2006. Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s longest serving Prime Ministers who was in power during the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s.

While I don’t have a problem with Justin Trudeau, I do have a problem with the public image that he, and the media (and so many of my Facebook friends) have created around Trudeau – a cult of personality. There are stories of him giving mini-lectures on quantum physics; stories of him running into hikers while he himself is out on vacation; pictures of him doing yoga poses; and so forth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things… except that it creates a cult of personality around a single individual and leads us (Canada) down the path of American-style personality-politics which revels in the glitter, instead of northern European-style system-oriented, results-oriented politics.

I like Justin Trudeau, I probably would have voted for him; but I do not like the overly friendly media personality that pushes how “cool” he is. The media (and my Facebook friends) are contrasting him to the previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper – “look at how hip and with it the new guy is, and look at how stodgy and uptight the old guy ways.” That’s wrong, by constantly preaching to us how great a guy the Prime Minister is, it weakens the role of the press that is supposed to hold politicians accountable. Yes, I know you like his policies, but your job is not to reinforce his image. The government’s job is to create a system that works for all Canadians. By crafting a public image that he’s a cool guy undermines your responsibility, and it sets us up for problems down the road for the next guy.

Look at Fox News – they are unbashedly Republican, and they are derelict in their duty of whole heartedly supporting Donald Trump and his plethora of bad ideas. That’s what you get when the media is more concerned with protecting the brand than being responsible to the public.

If this guy has a cult of personality, what happens when the next guy learns from this guy and creates his own cult? The fierce partisanship of US politics should be a warning to Canada, and the press must not play a role in that.

It’s too late for us Americans. But Canada, there’s still time for us to save ourselves!

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I often read Cracked.com, a humor site, and the way they write articles is to say “Six things you didn’t know about <blah>”. They then write them in descending order. This blog post is my attempt at writing an article Cracked.com-style.


Last year, I had the chance to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland. That was depressing and left me with a feeling of disgust for humanity.

This year, I went on a much cheerier trip to Germany and along the way, visited Munich. Munich is the second largest city in Bavaria (third largest in Germany), a region in southwest Germany which was one of the last independent German states to join Germany in the 1870’s. Munich is a great city (with architecture, great atmosphere, and great beer) but I learned a few things on a 3rd Reich tour we took. The tour talked about the events between World War I and World War II, and there were several things I had never heard of before. It’s a war that could have been avoided.

So here’s some things about World War II that you probably never knew. The big one? That Munich is considered the birth place of Nazism because it’s where Hitler got his start.


6. Munich had a history of nationalistic fervor

Towards the end of World War I, the war had become unpopular with the local population, especially in Bavaria. Because the region had a large rural population, the farmers and their families were starving because they had to divert all of their resources to the military and couldn’t slaughter their last pig to feed themselves. Bavarians always considered themselves Bavarians first and Germans second, so they weren’t happy that they were being bled dry.

All of this led to rising resentment against the established government, and the last king of Bavaria ended up fleeing. That was the end of that monarchy.

After World War I, in November 1918, Bavaria set up a provisional government headed by Provisional National Council Minister-President Kurt Eisner who promised to hold elections later on in 1919. He probably could have been a decent administrator of the region. Level headed and pragmatic, he was.

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However, due to growing discontent he promised to abdicate earlier but unfortunately he was shot and killed in February 1919 before he could resign. Munich had become a hotbed of extremism, with various elements wanting to reinstall the old regime.

Eisner’s assassin was a German nationalist; he was also shot, but survived to stand trial. At his trial, his defense was that he did it to save the regime, to save Germany. He was sentenced to death, but a judge in his trial, Georg Neithardt, had a history of supporting nationalist causes and ended up reducing his sentence to five years in prison. The judge effectively ignored the law. The law was later changed to make it easier to acquit the assassin. This all happened in Munich, the hotbed of Germany nationalism.

Several years later, the time and place of Munich would be key to Hitler’s rise as he resurrected the doctrine of German nationalism; beer, drinking men, and spirited speeches would grow the Nazi party slowly over time. It isn’t a coincidence that it started in Munich, it was part of a pattern.

 

5. Hitler cheated death once when he should have been executed for trying to overthrow the government but instead got a light sentence (a few years commuted to a few months)

After World War I, the tail end of which Hitler sat out because he had been temporarily blinded in a poison gas attack, he wandered around aimlessly before joining the Nazi party (a movement he didn’t invent, but took to a new level). He bought into the stab-in-the-back myth (an incorrect belief that the German military would have won the war had the civilian leadership not sold them out) and ascended the ranks. From here, he gave his famous speeches in beer halls around the country including the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and it was from there he launched his famous Beer Hall Putsch which was an attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria. It failed, and Hitler was arrested.

The judge was sympathetic to his case because he was in Bavaria, a conservative region of Germany that longed for the old regime. This was the same judge who acquitted the guy who shot the interim prime minister/president of Bavaria I talked about above.

The judge gave Hitler the light sentence because he agreed with what Hitler was saying with regards to German nationalism. Hitler should have gotten death penalty (and we all avoid World War II)… but by an unfortunate coincidence, he instead got a judge who was sympathetic to his cause. What would have happened had Hitler not gotten that judge?

Nice work, idiot judge.

4. Hitler could have been killed when he tried to overthrow the gov’t but his bodyguard took six bullets, he just hurt his shoulder

Hitler’s goal during the Beer Hall Putsch was to kidnap some of the existing politicians, overthrow the government of Bavaria, and then use that momentum to march on Berlin.

It wasn’t well-organized. Hitler started the revolt in the evening but had to attend to business elsewhere. Upon morning, the revolt had fizzed and so he decided to take matters into his own hands and lead a revolution. However, by that time, the city of Munich had regrouped and called in numerous police officers from other regions.

The two groups came to a head, and legend has it that Hitler fired the first shot and although this was used for propaganda purposes later on, it’s unlikely to be true. In any event, the two groups exchanged fire, four police officers and 16 Nazis died in the exchange while Hitler suffered a dislocated shoulder when he fell to the ground.

That sounds like he got off easy, and he did.

That’s because his bodyguard took six bullets wrapping himself around Hitler to protect him from the firefight, and the pair falling to the ground with his now-dead bodyguard on top of him is when Hitler hurt his shoulder. Those six bullets were meant for him.

Yet another unfortunate coincidence when World War II could have been avoided.

“Good” work, Mr. Bodyguard.

3. Hitler should have been killed when a guy in 1939 put a bomb in a beer hall

Did you ever hear the story of George Elser?

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No?

That’s okay, I’ll tell it to you. It was clear during the rule of the Nazi party that Hitler was leading the country towards war and probably another world war. Not all of the German population was in favor of this, and that includes George Elser.

Hitler was known for giving rousing speeches in beer halls in Munich, and in 1939 it was no different. Elser knew this, so he scoped out the place well in advance and knew that Hitler would be giving a speech there (not the Hofbrauhaus, this is a different beer hall).

Elser taught himself to make bombs and the night Hitler was scheduled to give a speech, Elser entered the beer hall a few hours in advance and planted a bomb. It was timed to go off later that night when Hitler was giving his speech, thus killing him and preventing a war.

It would have gone according to plan except for one thing – Hitler decided to cut his speech short because he had to fly back to Berlin because the war had started (and it was foggy). The bomb did go off later that night and killed several people, but Hitler was not among them. He would have been, had he stayed to give his entire speech.

Elser did not stick around to see whether or not his plan succeeded. Instead, that night he was caught trying to trying to cross into Switzerland. Normally the borders were not patrolled, but they do during times of war. The border guards questioned him and figured out (or at least strongly suspected) that he was culprit and held him in custody. The idea was to execute him publically to set an example.

The right time never came and Elser spent six years in custody. He didn’t get away though, he was executed 3 weeks before the end of the war.

Were it not for some fog and a declaration of war, Elser could have single-handedly stopped the war.


2. Hitler was a decent artist but couldn’t get into art school; not because he had no talent, because he had no artistic vision

I knew that Hitler was a wandering artist who, before and after the war, couldn’t get into art school in Vienna. I assumed that this was a passing phase, and that he wasn’t a good artist.

But it turns out he wasn’t that bad. If I were to look at the below without knowing the artist, I’d think “Hey, that’s not bad. Better than I could do.”

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I wouldn’t say he was the best artist, but he certainly wasn’t the worst – at least not in terms of his drawing ability.

So why couldn’t he get into art school?

Because his art style wasn’t current enough, and it lacked emotion. By the early 20th century, the art world had moved onto expressionism which is less interested in realistic paintings and more interested on artistic expression, particularly with emotion and what the artist is feeling. It had moved away from realistic art since the middle of the 1800’s:

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As you can see, the realistic style of Hitler is no where close to alignment with what the art world was looking for at the time, and as a result, they refused his admission.

Hitler did not come from a high-class aristocratic background so it isn’t surprising that he wasn’t familiar with then-contemporary art trends, just like for most of my life (and even still today) I don’t fully get abstract art.

Hitler never forgot this and he banned art and architecture movements that were contemporary at the time, such as Bauhaus architecture. Decades later, in direct opposition to those actions, Munich would open up a museum dedicated specifically to modern art.

1. When people had to cross by a certain part of Munich, they had to give the “Heil Hitler” sign. But some people walked around to avoid saying it.

Not everyone was a Nazi in Munich. Indeed, a lot of them weren’t.

After the Nazi party came to power, whenever everyone walked by the Feldherhalle in Munich, people had to give the heil salute (this was the site climax of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923).

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But the people who weren’t on board with the Nazi Party decided to openly – or covertly – mock the salute by walking around the square, going down the street behind the hall called Viscardegasse. The Nazis were aware that they were being mocked so they nicknamed the little sidestreet as Dodger’s Alley (Drückebergergasse).

The city of Munich recently put a line of gold bricks down as a memorial to the people who put up this resistance because they were risked repercussions from authorities if they were caught doing this.

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So, it’s great to know that even though many parts of the country supported his rise to power, there were also large parts of the country that opposed the rule of the Nazi party, and were willing to risk their lives to do it.

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Ugh.

I don’t like talking about politics. Everything I write now will be wrong in a year. Or maybe even in a month. And I also have my own biases that I know I can’t see through. I’ve said to myself that if you have 100 friends on Facebook who talk about politics, only 1 or 2 are worth listening to and the rest are wasting electrons. The odds that I am one of those two are small that I shouldn’t be wasting time on my blog.

But I’m still going to talk about it because I have been interested in politics for over 25 years.

These are my thoughts at this exact moment.

Right now, the Republican presidential nomination is led by Donald Trump, an over-the-top reality TV star who has expressed viewpoints that many people would consider contentious. For the rest of the people who don’t, I only have to ask “What’s wrong with you?”

But as bad as Donald Trump is as a candidate, whenever I talk to my liberal friends, they express hope that maybe he’s not as bad as he pretends to be, and all his talk is just that – talk. They may be right, but my concern is that all his talk is not just talk. After all, if the Republican nominee becomes the President of the United States, his party has control of both Congress and the Senate.

But it’s not that Donald Trump is currently leading in the primary that has me concerned, it’s that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is second. To me, Ted Cruz is the worst candidate in the race. I dislike him more than any other candidate on the Republican side. out of the four candidates left from the Republicans, Ted Cruz would be my 25th pick. I just can’t stand the guy. He’s the only guy that I would leave the country if he were elected [1].

I don’t follow politics closely enough to have an informed opinion, all I have is a not-all-that-informed opinion. And my not-all-that-informed position is that he is a hardcore ideologue.

What do I mean?

Ted Cruz is one of the hardest right-leaning candidates in the US Senate, let alone the presidential race. My impression of him is his obstructionist stance against everything President Obama has tried to pass legislatively. That’s okay, but he’s so far to the right it’s hard to take him seriously.

  1. For example, his stance on climate change (that it isn’t real, or isn’t caused by humans) stands in the face of 97% of scientists. In other words, his position is not on the side of science and that’s because if climate change were real, it would require massive government action. But since he’s against massive government action, he has to deny climate change as a reality so he can resolve his cognitive dissonance that there was a problem that he stood in the way of (i.e., he’s opposed to something that’s not a problem is more palatable than he opposed finding a solution to a serious problem). He has to deny climate change because he is an ideologue.

  2. His economic stance is also ideological. He is opposed to increasing the minimum wage because of his belief in markets. Yet many economists say that raising the minimum wage is good for the economy because it puts more money in the hands of low wage earners who immediately spend it thus increasing the velocity of money in the economy, as opposed to concentrating it in the hands of a few people who keep it parked in their bank accounts and don’t do much with it. While that’s their right to do it, politicians have to balance economic growth, ensuring everyone has a fair chance, and retaining your money. Ted Cruz will have none of this, his position is too ideological.

  3. He’s also against Obamacare and would repeal it. I don’t fully understand the law but what I do know is that (a) it hasn’t affected me, (b) more people have insurance now than before and that’s a good thing, (c) I’ve read a little bit about it and it’s actually cleverly designed, and (d) it’s small potatoes compared to public health care in every other developed country.

    Politicians like Cruz always say that they will repeal the bill and instead pass all sorts of other solutions like allow insurance companies to sell insurance over state lines. Yet study after study shows that this does not help; in the US we will have more people without health insurance than before if Obamacare is repealed, and the people who are hit worst by this are the less well off. Yet Cruz stands behind this because he is ideologically driven.

Thus, my problem with Ted Cruz starts with his denial of reality which is driven by his ideology combined with the fact that while in the Senate he has done everything in his power to push that agenda. People who cling so tightly to ideology don’t change their mind regardless of reality. Instead, they pick and choose what they want to believe so it conforms to reality. We all do this, but Cruz is auditioning to be the President of the United States. It matters that he is an ideologue and is not persuaded by science and data.

The second thing that Cruz does that irks me even more is his polished finish and his appeal to the evangelical community. He goes into church events, thanking God for his success so far and how he is the candidate that shares the concerns of the evangelical community.

But to me, he comes off as a used-car salesman with a slick exterior hiding a sleazy beneath-the-surface interior. He convinces ordinary people that he is on their side and is fighting for them, and his cause is in agreement with divine principles. Yet the positions he advocates – denial of climate change, repealing bills designed to help poor people without health coverage, not assisting the people at the lowest rungs of society – ring hollow. That’s what you think is Christian? To me, it sounds more like the confluence between ideology and masking it with religiosity.

I try to take a neutral stance on all the other candidates. The United States system of government is good in that it separates powers and ensures that no one branch of government can become too powerful. My friends on Facebook bring up counter-examples. I just roll my eyes. So at least I can cling to the belief that this guy would not be that bad because he’d hopefully moderate his positions in the face of reality.

Yet at the same time, politics in the US has become more and more polarized, and one political party would hold all three branches of government plus have the ability to tip the balance of the Supreme Court.

And when I picture Ted Cruz winning the Republican nomination – maybe – I cringe. When I imagine him winning the Presidency – maybe – I cringe even more. And I wonder why he is the second most popular candidate on the Republican side? Is politics really that ideological? The tech geeks promised us that the Internet would allow us to become enlightened luminaries, all clinging to liberal ideals. That definitely has not happened. If anything, it’s sparked the opposite effect of people circling the wagons and retreating back to their corners.

Man, this is getting under my skin. It shouldn’t, but it is. And I know I shouldn’t be taking it so seriously.


[1] I don’t mean to say that I would actually leave the country. I think it’s now become a really funny joke that when people are worried that their opposing candidate will be elected, they are so illogically fearful of this that they say they will leave the country, but no one ever does. So I wouldn’t leave the country either, but I say this as a parody of my friends who say they will, as well as all the others who say they will also but never do.

I don’t want to take politics too seriously, but it keeps sucking me back in. I was sucked in during the 2004 campaign, too.

 

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Almost a US citizen

I am almost a United States citizen.

I have been living in the USA for 8 years and 4 months. I got my temporary green card in May 2012 and my permanent green card in May 2014. I applied for US citizenship in June, 2015.

The process has been a long one.

I sent in the application in June and got my biometrics taken in July. And after that I heard nothing.

Until yesterday.

In January, I have to go down and take a test where they will evaluate my ability to read and write English as well as test me on my knowledge of United States civics and history. If I pass, I am cleared to get my citizenship and take the Pledge of Allegiance.

I’m not there yet, but it’s only a month away before I am a citizen of the land I am living in. I feel like Apu when he got his citizenship. Looking back on it, that’s one of my favorite episodes.

Except the Nie-Mets aren’t my favorite squadron.

 

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A friend of mine posted something on Facebook today about guns. I think this is a pro-gun argument because my friend is a hardcore Libertarian and everything he posts about guns is how guns are good, we should all have more guns, gun control is bad, the government will come and infringe upon you unless you have your gun, etc.

I can’t find the article or post he commented on, but it’s something like this:

A bully at school threw a rock at a kid. So, the teacher gave that kid his own rock. And then the teacher gave rocks to all of the other kids too, because as we all know, the only way to prevent bad kids from throwing rocks is to also give rocks to the good kids.

My friend is too blinded by his own views to understand this but this is an argument against gun control, not for it.

The idea is that the teachers (police) can’t be everywhere, and bullies can do whatever they want undeterred because they know that people won’t or can’t fight back when they throw rocks. But, if they knew that other kids had rocks and could throw them back at them, and if plenty of other kids had rocks, they would be deterred from throwing them because they would be afraid of the retaliation.

The metaphor is supposed to be extended to gun ownership. If nobody but criminals have guns, then disarmed law-abiding citizens will be easy prey for them because the police can’t be everywhere, nor can they respond quick enough to a situation in progress. But if criminals knew that everyone had a gun and could shoot them back, then fear would keep them in line. The “good people” with guns could contain the “bad people” with guns.

Therefore, the government should be loosening people’s access to guns, rather than restricting them. See? We can solve our own problems!

Or so the thinking goes.

But I think my friend’s metaphor is an argument against gun control.

The reason is that giving everyone a rock in the playground does not prevent the first kid/bully from throwing a rock. It makes rational people think twice, but people are not rational. The first bully might take a group of his friends and start throwing rocks, and then the other kids’ friends get together and start throwing rocks back. Now, instead of one person throwing a rock we have an entire group of people throwing them. Far from containing the bully, we have escalated the situation into one with more widespread consequences.

Giving everyone a gun only works if humans are perfectly capable of using reason and logic all of the time. But that’s not the case, humans don’t work that way. We get angry, make decisions based upon incomplete information, and respond to social pressure when we are “hot” in ways that we might not normally act when we are “cold.” If everybody has a gun, then the only person deciding whether or not to fire it is that gun owner.

And if a person does fire the gun, the results are much more devastating than if a kid throws a rock. A rock can cause injury and more rarely, death. But a gun is designed to cause serious injury and more frequently, death. The implications are much worse if everyone shoots a gun at each other than throws a rock at each other.

Giving everyone a gun in a society is by no means a guarantee of containing violence that a “bad person” might do.

And anyway, the definition of a “bad person” and the counter distinction of a “good person” is only in the eye of the beholder.

The “gun is a deterrent” argument sort of works. During the Cold War, we didn’t have any major wars between the United States and the USSR because each had nuclear weapons and the other knew it. If it came to blows, the other knew that it might end humanity and therefore they decided not to come to blows. Each having nuclear weapons acted as a deterrent, and this is known as The Long Peace. If you know someone has firepower and can fight back, you’ll think twice before striking unless you know you can deal a decisive blow to prevent that counter attack.

This is much different than giving individuals a gun. If the government has massive firepower, they can deliberate upon a decision and cooler heads can prevail because the decision to strike has predictable consequences. Most governments don’t think they can deal a decisive enough first attack to prevent a massive counter attack.

But if you’re a one-on-one gun owner, you certainly might think you can strike first. Unfortunately, you’re a poor judge of circumstance and are probably overestimating your own abilities – both in your ability to execute a devastating first strike, and in preventing a counterattack where the allies of the person you struck rally together and hit back. Thus, the situation escalates (you hit their group, they hit you back, your group hits back, your group retaliates, and so forth).

So no, I don’t think that giving everyone a gun will necessarily result in less gun violence. It might work some of the time, but not all of the time.

This doesn’t mean I am against guns. But I think some arguments for them are wrong.

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I’m not sure if anyone here was paying attention but a couple of weeks ago we witnessed one of the biggest shockers in modern Canadian politics – the province of Alberta elected the (traditionally) left-of-center NDP party to a majority government.

Alberta is the most conservative province in Canada and reliably votes conservative at the provincial and federal level. To put this in perspective, imagine if the state of Texas voted Democrat in the next 2016. It’s that unthinkable.

I took a look at the election results. While I was as surprised as anyone to see the NDP win in Alberta, their win is not so clear cut. Because Canada is a parliamentary democracy, the party that wins the most seats forms the government. And, you can win the most seats – over half – without winning more than half of the popular vote. You can do this because if you have pockets of support localized in a few regions but not much elsewhere, you can win overwhelmingly in those few regions but lose by a few percentage points everywhere else. It’s like winning Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals by 8 goals but losing the next four in overtime.

Here’s how it looks in 2015:

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The NDP won 54 seats with 40% of the vote. The Conservative party (the previously ruling party) dropped to 10 seats with 28% of the vote. The Wildrose Alliance Party is the Official Opposition with 21 seats but fewer popular votes than the Conservatives, at only 25%. The always-weak Liberal party took one seat Calgary with 4% of the vote.

I looked up the platform of the Wildrose Alliance Party and they are basically the Reform party but at a federal level. The Reform party was a far-right party based in western Canada, originating in Alberta, that for some reason thought they would be popular in eastern Canada and believed they had a realistic chance of forming government (they didn’t). When they finally figured out the rest of Canada – where the required votes are – wouldn’t vote for them, they re-merged with the federal Conservative party and eventually helped to form government in 2006 after moderating their positions. However, their spirit lives on in the Wildrose party.

If you combine the Wildrose Party’s vote with the Alberta Conservative’s vote, they take 53% of the total vote compared to the NDP’s 40%. The right-wing party’s votes are interchangeable, that is, the a Wildrose voter might vote Conservative if there are no other alternatives, but a NDP voter will never vote Conservative or Wildrose.

Thus, the combined sum of the popular vote of right wing parties in Alberta is still greater than the NDP’s. It seems that vote-splitting hurt both parties in 2015 the way it did the Reform and Conservative parties at the federal level in 1993, 1997, and 2000.

Looking back to the previous election in 2012:

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Here, the combined power of the right-wing parties is 78%. And comparing it to 2015, you can see most of the NDP’s +30% comes at the expense of the Conservatives (-16%) and Wildrose Party (-9%) and a bit of the Liberals (-6%). The Wildrose holds onto their seats in rural Alberta in 2015 but the city of Calgary (not shown above) goes mostly NDP (after being mostly Conservative) and Edmonton went completely NDP (after being mostly Conservative but more Liberal and NDP than its southern neighbor). Interpretation: southern Alberta is more far right than northern Alberta, and the cities are a closer battleground where people switching sides really hurts. Liberal voters also decided to back the winning horse (the NDP) in 2015.

Going back to 2008, here are the results:

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The Conservative party has about the same number of seats with about 8% more of the popular vote. You can see that they’ve pretty much hit their limits in terms of seat count, 60 vs 61. Once you get to 40% of the popular vote you’re on track to win a majority because the rest of the field splits. The real story here is the provincial Liberal party having a strong showing during this election and then collapsing in 2012.

2004 was another cakewalk for the Conservatives even though they won the same number of seats but less popular votes than the next election.

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And that’s why 2015 is so surprising – the Conservatives dominated provincial politics for so long and they lost to a left-wing party that never got more than 10% of the popular vote. But if the NDP and Liberal votes are interchangeable, the Liberal/NDPs got 30% in 2004, 35% in 2008, 20% in 2012, and 44% in 2015. The left-of-center were never insignificant (except in 2012 when a bunch voted Conservative to keep the Wildrose party out), they just needed a few voters to swing away towards their side and ally behind either the Liberals or NDP. This year, they picked the NDP.

I didn’t think that Alberta had swing voters. Yet a 10% overall swing from right-of-center to left-of-center was enough to propel the NDP to a victory. They had to eliminate the Liberals, the right-wing parties had to split the votes, and the voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party prompted change.

And now Alberta has gone orange.

Yet their reign on power is tenuous. Right-wing parties are still stronger overall with their combined vote. If the 10% swing NDP voters ever go back to the Conservatives, or the Wildrose party figures out that they are not appealing to the majority of Albertans and merges with the Conservatives like the Reform party did, the NDP will be gone. There just isn’t enough left-wing votes to overcome the combined forces of the political right in the province.

And that’s my analysis of the earthquake in Alberta.

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In the US, the Supreme Court recently struck down the 1996 Defense-of-Marriage Act (DOMA) that blocked the federal recognition of gay marriage. This means that in states where gay marriage is legal (12 as of June 27, 2013), people are eligible for federal benefits. In states where it is not recognized, the law is still murky.

There has been a lot of chatter on both sides of the fence that I want to comment on, both for and against.

I was listening on the radio to someone, a conservative political activist, who was opposed to overturning DOMA (i.e., against gay marriage) was complained that the Supreme Court overruled the will of the voters. If voters want to disallow it, then “activist judges” should not interfere.

While I understand the point that he was trying to make, I have two issues with his argument:

  1. In overturning DOMA, the Supreme Court said that the law violated the right to liberty and equal protection for gay couples. This means that if the majority of voters want to discriminate against a certain class of people, the Supreme Court can overrule it. I’m fine with this. We wouldn’t want the Supreme Court to uphold racial discrimination laws so of course they can override the will of voters if it is discriminatory.

  2. Related to this, it seems that political activist who was complaining about activist judges was just using it as a smokescreen to say “I’m against gay marriage and I don’t want the government to legalize it.” Of course, he can’t come out and say this (because of the potential societal backlash against trying to impose morals rooted in religion upon a society that goes to lengths to separate church and state) so he disguised it with a legal argument.

That’s the problem I have with the conservative justification of their defense.

On the other hand, those on the pro-gay marriage side don’t understand why conservatives have a problem with it. The more I study the evolutionary origins of morality, the more I think that conservatives are correct about many things even though I don’t necessarily think they get everything right.

I saw a Facebook picture that says that opponents of gay marriage lost nothing in this court ruling because gay marriage doesn’t affect them. This isn’t true and it misunderstands how morality works.

Morality is a set of rules that is defined and applied to everyone. Not only is a certain behavior not moral for me, but it’s not moral for you either.

Evolutionary biologists believe that morality arose because it enabled groups to live together better and immoral behavior is something that destroys the group. For example, helping people is moral while lying is not. Not hurting others is moral while cheating is not. In both cases, the moral behavior strengthens the group while the immoral behavior weakens it. People don’t believe that lying and cheating is bad for themselves but fine for others, but rather that nobody should do it.

Over time, these beliefs get reinforced (even at a genetic level) into the group. Morality is not a blank slate that we learn, but rather, the human mind comes “programmed” with general ideas about morality, some of which we learn but it isn’t arbitrary.

There are many behaviors we have that are hard wired into our brains. We laugh and smile when we are happy, we cry when we are sad. We get upset when we see unfair behavior. We want revenge when we are cheated. These are programmed into our limbic brains.

At some point, conservatives got the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong. They believe that not only is it wrong for them, but that it is wrong for everyone. Immoral behavior weakens the entire group, and therefore must not be practiced by anyone.

And that’s why I believe that the pro-gay marriage side misses the point. To say that gay marriage does not affect heterosexual opponents is incorrect because morality is not about whether or not individuals practice it, but whether or not anybody does it… ever. Morality goes deeper than logic (which is performed in our neocortexes). It goes to our limbic systems which doesn’t respond to logic which is why opponents react so strongly against it. They think that it does affect them; morality works that way, we all have to play along.

The pro-gay marriage side needs to be sensitive to this; the “you’re not affected” is not true.

And that’s what I think about the DOMA ruling.

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I found another article yesterday about several students at a hypnosis show in Montreal were left in a hypnotic trance for several hours after watching a hypnotist’s act.  The performer was unable to bring them out of the trance and instead had to ask his mentor to break them out of it.

A group of young students at an all girls school were left in "mass hypnosis" after a demonstration from a fledging hypnotist reportedly left them locked in a trance.

Maxime Nadeau was forced to call on his mentor for assistance after the hypnotist could not reverse the condition of several 12 and 13-year-old girls at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur private school in Quebec. One of the girls was reportedly left in a trance for five hours.

"Being in a trance is a state of well-being," Nadeau told the CBC‘s French-language service. "I wasn’t stressed. I knew they would get out of it."

Still, Nadeau eventually called in his mentor and trainer Richard Whitbread to reverse the effects.

Hypnosis enjoys a reputation amongst the general population as something that is mysterious.  When you’re put into a trance, you are in an altered state; you’re not awake but you’re not asleep, either.  You’re somewhere in-between.

Among skeptics, hypnosis is not that.  It’s one of the following:

  • Social pressure – You do things because you’re on-stage and want to be the center of attention.

  • Suggestibility – You want to be “hypnotized” and therefore you play along with the performer’s suggestions.

You’ll notice during a show that a hypnotist will frequently bring many people up on stage and will gradually eliminate them until he is left with 6-10 who are then asked to do many crazy things.  But most skeptics will say that they are not in a trance or an altered state – they are simply playing along.  There is no such thing as being hypnotized.

Yet people are capable of telling themselves things and then doing them. A person who is “hypnotized” cannot move their arm because they believe they cannot move their arm.  But for centuries, nobody could run a 4-minute mile.  Then someone did.  Now people do it all the time.

The placebo effect is real and measurable, too.  Sugar pills don’t do anything but they have real and measurable effects.  But it doesn’t mean that we intentionally market pills that are placebos (at least, not as established by the scientific community).

So this one girl was hypnotized for hours.  What happened?  She believed she was in a trance, and she believed that the guy’s mentor could bring her out of it.  In reality, he could have gotten a friend of his to bring her out of it just by saying the words “I’m his teacher, and when I count to three and tap my finger on your forehead, you will be completely refreshed and not hypnotized.  One, two, three!”

That’s what happened.

Probably.

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You know Easter Island?  That island in the Pacific ocean 500 miles off the coast of South America? The one with all the heads and statues?  Yeah, that one.

You’ve probably heard of the island but you most likely don’t know its backstory.  Easter Island used to be a thriving “metropolis” for much of its history until it became overpopulated.  It had several rulers simultaneously and its kings built those great monuments to themselves – the stone heads.

Unfortunately, rather than attend to the ecosystem of the island, the kings tried to outdo one another and built all those useless statues.  They also cut down all the trees on the island.  In order to move those huge statues they had to chop down the forest, put the statues on the trees as rollers, and then drag them into place.

This deforestation devastated the island. It changed the ecology of the place and the population of Easter Island collapsed. Without the natural resources of trees, which kept climate change in check, it could not support all those people living there.  Decades (centuries?) later, Europeans would invade the island in search of plunder and raided the islanders, taking them back to South America to be used as human slaves.  But by that time, the island was in complete decline. It leads to the question – what was that Easter Islander thinking as he cut down that last tree?

But that’s what happened – environmental change caused by humans led to its downfall.

Today I read an article on Yahoo News. In it, some researcher proposes a new theory about how the Easter Islanders moved all those big statues (and they are big, weighing many tons).  Rather than moving them sideways on a series of planks and rollers like a sled (which is why they cut down those trees), the natives had them upwards and “walked” them into place.

The “scientist” who came up with this theory first proposed it, then constructed his team to re-enact it which is what you see in the photo above (notice that there are no large trees whereas centuries ago Easter Island was covered in them).

Writing in July’s issue of National Geographic magazine, California State University at Long Beach archeologist Carl Lipo and Hawaii anthropologist Terry Hunt postulate that Polynesian natives used a system of ropes and manpower to walk the statues across the island.

"A lot of what people think they know about the island turns out to be not true," Lipo says.

Using the ropes, islanders would stand on each side of the statues, swaying them back and forth to create the walking effect.

Popular theory has held that the islanders created sled-like devices out of the island’s trees to cart the statues. That theory also claims that deforestation from the island’s inhabitants as part of the statue transporting process was directly tied to the population’s eventual downfall.

Instead, Lipo and Hunt say the island’s population was actually sustainable and instead fell victim to disease when European explorers first visited the island. In fact, Lipo said the cooperative effort involved in his transportation theory might have led to a more harmonious existence amongst Easter Island’s inhabitants.

This theory is absolutely ridiculous. What kind of moron would you have to be to “walk” a big statue into place with a series of ropes in the above?  When you move a couch, you move it on its side unless you have to get it around corners.  When you transport anything big, you lay it on its side.  Why?  So it won’t fall down and break! 

Gravity and friction make it too inefficient to move any other way.  The only time you would “walk” something into place is to move it the last little bit; you don’t do it over long distances.

So why would Professor Moves-a-Little propose this dumb theory?  Because he wants to believe that the reason Easter Island collapsed is not because the islanders did it to themselves by deforestation, but because evil, white Europeans came and raided the island and introduced foreign species like rats. The natives just wanted to live in peace with nature.

Let’s be clear – white Europeans did loot the new world. That’s why they left Europe, they were in search of new riches.  And they did loot Easter Island.  But Easter Island was in decline long before Europeans ever reached there.

The researchers are avoiding the most logical explanation to support their theory. The myth of the highly tuned-to-nature pre-modern man is not true.

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One problem with the far left and the Occupy Wall Street movement (well, I should say my friends on Facebook who support OWS and keep posting links on their Walls) is that their hatred is like a roulette wheel – it changes all the time.

I remember being a university student in the late 1990’s.  But even before that in high school, Royal Bank announced in the year before they made a profit of $1 billion.  My high school physics teacher said in class “Can you believe how much money they made last year?  I tell you, when banks start making that much money…” and I can’t remember the rest, but it was something about inequality.

In Grade 12, I don’t remember the context but we were talking about business and taxes and regulations in English class.  My English teacher gave a bunch of examples but his point was this – Big Business always whines.  Thus, even in 1995-1996, people were talking about how greedy business and banks were.

Since the, the political left has directed their hatred at a lot of different industries:

  • They hated McDonald’s and derisively refer to any low-paying, entry-level position as a McJob.

  • They hated Walmart for not paying high enough wages, and putting downward pressure on prices and putting small businesses out-of-business because they couldn’t compete on price.

  • A couple of years ago they hated the oil industry for keeping gas prices too high.  Gas prices have been investigated by the government numerous times and price fixing has never been discovered.

  • Last year, during the health care reform debate, they hated the health insurance industry for making money off of illness and running up the costs of health care.

  • Now, during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, they hate the financial industry for ruining the economy and causing economic inequality.

Sheesh, who are you going to hate tomorrow?  It’s like they open the newspaper and say “<Yawn> Alright.  Let’s see now… today I hate…” <flip, flip, flip> “… Wall Street!  Man, do I ever hate Wall Street!”

I see a lot of people posting articles about how there is so much inequality now and how it got so bad recently.  Yet people were talking about it while I was in high school 15 years ago.  And that didn’t come out of no where, either: people were talking about how bad it was getting before that.  The writer of Ecclesiastes is right – there is nothing new under the sun.

That’s my problem with the protestors, or rather, my friends who post all these articles.  They seem to think that the 1990’s was some golden age when everyone was equal. 

  • The 1990’s were an anomaly, and people were complaining about it back then, too. 

  • The early 1980’s had the worst recession since the Depression, and double-digit inflation.

  • The 1970’s we had stagflation and the Vietnam War. 

  • In the 1960’s, there was lot of social upheaval due to the civil rights movement and counterculture. 

  • In the 1950’s, there was the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. 

  • During the 1940’s, there was rationing because of World War II, and massive rebuilding of a decimated Europe. 

  • During the 1930’s, there was the Great Depression.

Thus, there never was a Golden Age of economic equality where everyone lived in gumdrop houses and played under chocolate rainbows.  Yet OWS (well, my hippie friends) seem to think so.

And that’s my beef; we tend to remember things better than they actually were.  Yes, we have economic inequality in the US.  But that doesn’t mean we should go back to a place we never were.

Because it never existed.

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In case you’ve been living in a cave (bin Laden sure wasn’t), news broke last night that Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 terrorist attacks and founder of al Qaeda, was killed by a force of US Navy Seals and CIA operatives.  No sooner had the news broke than political one ups-man-ship began along with people putting their own spin on things:

  • Die hard Democrats started claiming that Obama accomplished what Bush could not.
  • Republicans claimed that Bush started the fight and Obama completed it.
  • Others claiming that we shouldn’t have anything to celebrate because celebrating the death of a person is sick and twisted.
  • Still others claiming that bin Laden was a normal person in need of spiritual redemption, and that we should not rejoice in the stumble of our enemies.

I think that administration officials did a good job in relaying the message when they said that they caught bin Laden and the people behind it did an excellent job in execution.  However, Obama warned that the struggle was not complete.  Indeed, the most reasonable voices out there are saying that the mission is not over.

Here’s my take:

  • Capturing and killing bin Laden is a great achievement for the American intelligence and military community, and even the current administration.  It should be celebrated because it was a goal that was set out ten years ago.
  • The problem is that bin Laden’s inner circle, al Qaeda Prime, has been mostly marginalized for years.  His death is largely symbolic and it remains to be seen whether or not his passing will demoralize others who take action in his name, or he inspires them with his death as a martyr (similar to Che Guavara).  Most elected officials are warning the latter.
  • Even though the Obama administration has stated that this does not mean that they will pull out of Afghanistan (the US is fighting the Taliban which provides sanctuary to terrorists, something the US fears will happen again if they do not defeat them), it will be politically difficult to maintain the operation there.  If the main reason for invading Afghanistan, as sold to the public, was to get those responsible for Sept 11, then with bin Laden dead that justification is no longer there.  Political opponents will exploit that fact, whether it be Republican or Democrat.
  • The US will have a lot of questions for Pakistan.  For years, the US has accused the Pakistani ISI of supporting the Taliban.  That’s the reason why they didn’t share their intel with Pakistan and acted alone – they thought that Pakistani intelligence would tip off bin Laden.  Pakistani officials denied for years that bin Laden was within their borders, but he was – only a couple of hours north from the capital in a large compound, not in the caves on the Afghan-Pakistan border like everyone thought.
  • Osama bin Laden knew what he was doing when he launched terrorism attacks, multiple times, against the United States.  There is no need to feel sorry for him.

That’s my take.

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Well, Lent is over and I have lifted my self-imposed ban on politics.  I ended up banning or thinking about banning almost 20 people.  All but two of them were on the left, and the two on the right were borderline.  One was more libertarian but he posted a link to Reason who’s criticism of the Obama administration is too harsh for my liking.

I don’t understand how I can have so many friends who are so overtly left wing considering that I have a number of friends in the Christian community and those types of folks typically vote conservative.  Yet the ones who are conservative are no where near as militant as my friends on the left – they don’t post links, accuse others of being robots when they disagree, don’t make extreme analogies, and so forth.  They are much more tolerant of other people’s ideas – given differing political views – than anyone on the left that I encountered.

But yet I can’t make generalizations because there is no consistent pattern.  Back when I used to spend a lot of time browsing Christian discussion boards, there were equally as many mean and nasty people who advocated Christian positions.  These people were right wing (but we didn’t discuss politics).  I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter what the subject is – if you’re a jerk in real life, you’ll bring that baggage with you to politics or religion.  And your jerkiness will reflect in your comments and online persona even if you’re an otherwise nice person in real life.

One of the best books I ever read on stock investing was The Dick Davis Digest.  In the book, Dick Davis would talk about stocks but he would always provide the good points about a company and the bad points.  For example, Apple is a super hot stock that executes well.  But what would happen if a competitor came along and built a better iPod and iPad?  Or two tech companies got together and squeezed out Apples?  It was the balance that gained Davis a wide following and earned him respect.

I never see that in any of the articles my friends post on Facebook.  Not once.  And as I have learned in the past 10 years, everyone has a self serving bias; they will ignore the faults and inadequacies in their own positions and beliefs and play up and exaggerate the ones in their opponents (I do the same thing, in case you haven’t noticed).

A friend of mine recently posted a link to an anti-Conservative web page about all the things that were wrong with the Canadian Conservative government.  I posted a response saying that the article was biased, along with the links to it.  Someone else responded back saying that I was a Conservative robot and what I said was bullshit.

The article was one-sided; all it did was take a bunch of things that the Conservative government did without providing the context.  Why was a particular government program canceled?  Did they run out of funding?  Was it merged into another branch of government?  Was the funding conditional to begin with?

The government of Canada ran a deficit in 2010 whereas the Liberals previously ran a surplus.  This, too, is out of context because the last three years have seen the world’s worst recession since the 1930’s.  Of course government revenues are down.  Accusations like that without providing a counterbalance are biased, and that’s my point.  Instead, my friends accuse me of being a partisan hack.

My ultimate take away from this experiment is that I have very few friends whose political opinions I can trust.  When investing, I ignore a lot of the noise and do my own research; I have a few trusted sources of information.  It looks like I will need to do the same in politics and read the actual sources of data itself rather than relying upon my peers filter it for me properly.

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Back in my home and native land, Canadians are going back to the polls in early May to elect their next government.  This is the fourth federal election since 2004.

In Canada, things work differently than in the United States. The country of Canada is divided into a little over 300 constituencies, called ridings.  Each political party runs a candidate in each riding.  The party that wins the most ridings forms the government, and the leader of the political party becomes the next Prime Minister of Canada.

If a political party wins more than half of the ridings (called seats, because each riding corresponds to a seat in the House of Commons), they have a Majority government.  Basically, this means that they can do whatever they want because they have enough votes to pass legislation through the House.  It is rare for members of Parliament to vote against their own political party (no matter if they are in government or not) because of a principle called party solidarity.  That is when you always vote with your political party because if you don’t, they punish you (they can kick you out of the party and make you sit in the back of the House).

It’s actually easier to pass legislation in Canada if you have a majority government compared to the United States because in the US there is a system of checks and balances – a bill must pass the House of Congress, the Senate and finally be signed into law by the President.  In Canada, legislation must pass the House (which is easy when you have over half the votes), then the Senate (which rarely rejects a bill) and then finally is signed into law by the Governor General who is the Queen’s representative.

If your party wins less than half the seats in the House of Commons, the party who gets the most seats assumes a minority government.  In order to pass legislation, a political party must convince other parties to vote with them, or at the very least not oppose them so as to defeat the bill (i.e., they can abstain on a vote).  Lots of games come into play here.  You might be tempted to think that a minority government means that parties must cooperate to get things done, but it rarely happens that way.  In reality, it triggers elections.

You see, in Canada, there are certain things that trigger automatic votes.  There are some constitutional amendments that say that if the vote on it fails, an election must be calls because the government has suffered a vote of no confidence.  Budgets are votes of no-confidence, trying to raise the age of voting is not.  Because opposition parties can bring down the government by ganging up on a vote of no confidence, minority governments don’t last very long.  In Canada, they have resulted in elections in 2006, 2008 and again in 2011.

Unlike the US, in Canada there are two major parties and two minor parties on the federal level but the minor parties greatly affect the balance of power:

  • The Liberal Partyis a very successful political party and historically has governed Canada the majority of the time.  Even though they say they are Liberals, they are not liberal in the American sense of the term.  They are more of a middle-of-the-road party at least during the 1990’s when they slashed government spending and eliminated the federal deficit.The Liberal party has borrowed principles from the left and the right.  They are a very opportunistic party that doesn’t have any particular ideology.  The instincts of their leaders, at least prior to 2004, have been incredibly shrewd.
  • The Conservative Party is the other major federal party and has ruled Canada when the Liberals have not.  During the 1990’s, the party split and the Liberals took advantage of this, winning three consecutive majority governments.  However, since 2006, the Conservatives have held a minority.The Conservative Party is not Conservative in the American sense of the term.  They are more like the right-leaning element of the Democratic party in the US.  While there are more Republican types in the Conservative party, there are far fewer of them in Canada.  Whereas in the US, the Republican/Democrat split is 50/50, in Canada it is more like 1/3 to 2/3.
  • The New Democratic Party (NDP)is a left leaning party that finds itself more at home with Ralph Nader and the left leaning side of the American electorate.  They have never held federal power in Canada (and never will) but have experienced some success at the provincial level when they have moderated their policies and deviated from a pure left wing ideology.  They do manage to win a number of seats in the House of Commons but never enough to tip the balance of power.During the 1990’s, the Conservative party split the party and the right wing vote.  During the 2000’s, the Liberals and NDP split the left wing vote allowing the Conservatives to squeak into power (albeit without a majority).
  • The Bloc Quebecois (BQ)is party that only runs in the province of Quebec and does very well there, usually winning over half of Quebec’s seats.  The Bloc is a sovereigntist party that initially was formed with the sole purpose of separating Quebec from Canada.  Since then, they have moderated that and while they no longer push separation, they still are there to primarily advance Quebec’s rights within the country.  This leads to tension between Quebec and the rest of English speaking Canada.There is a perception within English Canada that Quebec attracts more than its fair share of resources from the rest of the provinces.  Within French speaking Quebec, there is a perception that the rest of North American anglo-Saxon culture is swallowing up French culture.  This has been the state of affairs ever since Confederation in 1867.

As I said earlier, the Liberal party has been very successful in retaining power, especially with majority governments.  Canada is basically a country that is governed by the Liberals with occasional breaks given to the Conservatives.  Now that I am older and can look back with more analysis, I think I understand why.

I can’t speak for before 1984 when the Conservatives won a majority and again in 1988, but in 1993 the Liberals won a majority with Jean Chretien (pronounced Zhonn Cuh-reh-tchee-yenn, last name is two syllables) as the Prime Minister.  Chretien was a career politician and was involved in politics for 30 years before finally becoming Prime Minister.  And when he was PM, he ruled the party with an iron fist.  In the 1990’s, a Liberal MP by the name of John Nunziata voted against the gun registry proposed by the Liberals and he was kicked out of the party.  If you were an outsider, you would say that this was undemocratic.  But after observing the Liberals now, I can see why they did this.

In 2004, the Liberal party split and Paul Martin became the new Prime Minister after Chretien resigned.  There were two factions within the party and they fought with each other.  Two years later, their minority government fell and the Conservatives came to power.  But the Liberals never regained their mojo.  Their campaigns have been disorganized, bumbling their opportunities.  They forced an election in 2008 and did even worse than 2006 and forced out their party leader.  They forced another election in 2011 (despite all the public opinion polls showing them behind the Conservatives by 10 to 15 points) but are less well funded and organized than their opponents.

By contrast, Stephen Harper runs a tighter ship than the Liberals.  Harper is leader of the Conservative party and they have their act together.  He has run a minority government that has lasted for five years (two years, and then three years) which is a record in Canada.  This is despite an opposition that ideologically outnumbers Conservatives.  Harper and the Conservatives allow their members far less leniency and imposes party discipline far harsher than the Liberals currently do, but no less than the Liberals historically have.  I think that if the Liberals won in Canada that they would suffer a lot of missteps while in power.

I really don’t understand why the Liberals would force an election other than being opportunistic.  The Conservatives are suffering from some minor scandals (and they are minor despite what some of my friends on Facebook think… geez, so they missed their scheduled tea time… who cares?).  This might be the Liberals’ window of opportunity and could be why they jumped at the chance.

Even if the NDP and Liberals formed a coalition government (where they teamed up) they don’t have enough seats to defeat the current Conservative government.  The only way to do it right now is if they form a triple coalition with the Bloc.  This leaves a lot of Canadian uncomfortable.  Forming a coalition with a separatist party to form the government of Canada?  How can you hope to govern a country when one party wants to split it up?  The Conservatives will likely play up this fact during the election campaign.

The leader of the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff, has stated that whoever gets the most votes (seats) on election day will become the next Prime Minister.  This means that he is ruling out a coalition government with the NDP.  However, the reality is that the NDP is a left-wing party (federally, not necessarily provincially) and the Liberal party is center-left.  If the two parties together had enough seats to form a majority, you better believe the leaders of both parties would start talking to each other.  This is what happened after the 2008 election – the Conservatives won and increased their seat count and the other three parties conspired to overthrow the newly elected government.  This was not very popular with the electorate and those plans fell apart.

I don’t think that the Liberals have what it takes to form government.  Their leader is Michael Ignatieff.  He lived in the United States for a couple of decades before returning to Canada in 2006 to enter politics.  It’s clear that he is inexperienced as a politician because his party continues to misstep in a way that governments under Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau never did.  Chretien called elections when his opposition was weak and divided and the polls were in his favor.  Ignatieff called an election when he is behind in the polls and five weeks just isn’t enough time to reverse public opinion without a major issue.  The electorate doesn’t change government in Canada unless they are really upset with them.  Some ideologues are upset; ordinary people don’t care.

If Stephen Harper and the Conservatives win a minority, we can probably expect another election in 2012 or 2013.  If the the Conservatives win a majority, I think Michael Ignatieff should resign.  His miscalculation cost the Liberals four years of obscurity.

Eventually, the Conservatives will wear out their welcome and Canadians will vote in the Liberals.  Things have a way of reverting back to normal.  Will that time be now?

We’ll find out on May 2.

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Well, it’s been nearly two weeks since I gave up politics.  How am I doing so far?

Pretty good, I’d say.  I haven’t gone out of my way to read any political editorials.  The only thing I have come close to breaking my resolution is reading articles on Reason, but only because they show up in my RSS feed.  I skim the titles and I’d say I am able to resist 85%-90% of the time.  Not bad, I’d say.

On Facebook, I have been faithfully blocking status updates of all friends who post anything political.  Right now, I am up to 11 friends – 1 on the right and 10 on the left.  Given that the split of friends probably runs roughly even, this is a tremendous over representation from one side of the spectrum.

I will continue to block as necessary.

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