Mini-review: Pelikan Pelikano

If you like fountain pens, or are curious about them, consider picking up Pelikan’s inexpensive pen designed for European schoolchildren. It costs less than $30 and has a good writing and ink delivery mechanism. It is very bright and simple in its design (they come in primary colours), but there is nothing wrong with that. A lot of fountain pens are designed for people who want to pretend they are General Douglas MacArthur signing a peace treaty aboard a battleship. If you just want something that is fun to write with and a little bit unusual in this age of ubiquitous ballpoint and gel pens, this simple and inexpensive offering is one to consider.

Ottawans can find these pens on sale at Wallack’s (231 Bank Street).

(Note: Make sure to use these pens with cartridges or converters appropriately shaped for Pelikan pens. Cramming in the more commonly available refills available for other brands can lead to inconsistent ink flow and the risk of pen-splosions.)

Security in prisons

For the good of society at large, it does make sense to isolate some particularly dangerous people from the general population. At the same time, society has an obligation to manage imprisonment in a sensible way, including by avoiding the vindictive temptation to make prisons themselves Hobbesian jungles in which those who are incarcerated have no personal security, and only bad examples to follow. Rather than locking up more and more people in worse and worse conditions, we should lock up fewer and treat them better. The probable result of that is less cost and harm to society, along with a chance at genuine rehabilitation for those who do commit crimes.

Sending non-violent offenders to prison doesn’t really make any sense. This is particularly true when it comes to non-violent drug criminals: a class that includes ordinary users, but also producers and smugglers. Treating drugs as a criminal problem only makes them more problematic for society by making them a lucrative racket for organized crime groups, and by ensuring that those who operate in this business can only settle disputes through violence. As with alcohol and gambling, society should recognize that prohibition causes more harm than good and undertake a transition from a drug policy founded on criminal law to one founded on evidence-based medicine and harm reduction.

Similarly, having prisons in which inmates fear for their personal safety doesn’t make sense. Living with that kind of stress simply has to be harmful to the human mind, and likely to exacerbate whatever issues led to their imprisonment in the first place. When someone is branded with a criminal record and ‘ex-convict’ status, it already becomes hard enough for them to sustain themselves and any dependents financially in the future. Adding traumatic years of fear and violence to that can only worsen things.

Plausibly, reducing the prison population by excluding non-violent offenders could allow for more resources to be devoted to each prisoner who remains. These could allow for greater personal security, through measures like reducing over-crowding, and for genuine rehabilitation programs focused on things like addressing existing addiction problems and developing skills that are in demand in job markets.

The idea that criminals are bad people who deserve to be punished for their wickedness probably belongs in the Middle Ages. As we learn more about human psychology, we learn that people are profoundly influenced by the environments they inhabit and that people respond in predictable ways to circumstances like stress and deprivation. Rather than seeing criminals as wicked individuals who should be expelled from society to the greatest possible degree, I think it makes sense to have a bit more pragmatism and compassion and to establish systems that minimize the harmfulness of crime while giving criminals better options.

On failure

Here’s a hypothesis I have been trying out lately:

If you aren’t failing and getting rejected a lot, you aren’t being ambitious enough.

It’s a point of view that helps keep a person going when they are applying for job after job, with no interviews so far. It could also be of some comfort to those who had solo Valentine’s Days.

And, it might even be true, to boot! If we are going to expand ourselves as people, we need to do things which we feel uncomfortable about: give lectures to more people than we feel at ease with, play Starcraft II (or your piano) at a higher level of difficulty than you feel comfortable with, take on an ambitious project, submit work to journals that might reject it, give an honest answer to a challenging question in hopes that it will be well received…

Depending on the field of endeavour, it seems fair to say that you should be failing 90% of the time – with ‘failing’ meaning that you think in retrospect that you could have done something better, in undertaking whatever you just did (whether you succeeded or failed). If more than 10% of your attempts are going off absolutely perfectly, you should probably try something more challenging.

Taxing and spending

One persistent problem in politics everywhere is that politicians know that spending equals votes, while tax increases tend to cost them. There is always a pressure to spend unsustainably and then leave the bill for somebody else to deal with. Some people have even called this a strategy for shrinking governments they believe to be too large by ‘starving the beast’ with spending that exceeds tax revenues.

There is a case to be made for deficit spending in times of deep financial uncertainty. Government spending can reduce the suffering associated with job losses and help to maintain confidence in the economic system. That, in turn, can reduce the force of feedback effects where lack of confidence in the financial system produces weakness which then further reduces confidence.

In the long term, though, government revenues and expenditures must be balanced. Given the fondness of politicians for spending, their aversion to raising taxes, and the ever-present appeal of passing on the difficult choices to others, there ought to be political and legal mechanisms in place to encourage that an adequate array of government services are provided and that they are funded in a sustainable way through taxation. Perhaps one way to curb the tendency to spend now and ignore the cost would be the creation of more automatic mechanisms to raise taxes in the face of persistent deficits. If you have gotten beyond the period where Keynesian deficit financing is justified by economic weakness, the onus should be on government to either fund new initiatives through existing funds or raise taxes promptly to cover them. Governments that are aware that their spending projects could generate future tax increases may be a bit more disciplined in deciding where dollars out to be directed (not at local hockey arenas, perhaps?).

There is nothing wrong with obligating people to pay taxes to provide necessary services, including assistance to the least advantaged members of society. In addition, there are many circumstances where taxation-funded government services are the most efficient way to provide something. Canada’s single-payer health care system, for instance, produces demonstrably better outcomes than the semi-private system in the United States, and does so at a lesser cost. This is partly because health care is an industry rife with market failure, where the profit-maximizing behaviour of private firms does not serve the general good of the populace, in the absence of substantial regulation.

Of course, tax dollars can also be spent in inefficient or corrupt ways. There is no simple single mechanism that can ensure good economic and social policies. Rather, maintaining world class standards in governance requires the effective operation of a whole collection of institutions, acting in concert. These include federal and provincial legislatures, the courts, and the bureaucracy. Legislatures may have the most legitimacy, on the basis of their electoral mandate, but they also have the most short-term perspective. Their sneakier and more spendthrift tendencies must be curbed by oversight from elsewhere.

Adrian Harewood on Black History Month

As part of Black History Month, I attended a speech by Adrian Harewood, a journalist with the CBC. One of the things he spoke about was the importance of interrogating received versions of history – going back and uncovering the more complex story that has usually been streamlined into a simpler narrative. He gave the example of Viola Desmond, from Nova Scotia, who has arrested and tried for sitting in the portion of a movie theatre in New Glasgow designated for white people in 1946. People like to think such segregation was something that happened in the southern United States, but it seems it was something that happened in Nova Scotia too. He also talked about the two teenaged black women who did exactly what Rosa Parks later did in Montgomery, Alabama but who were deemed unappealing test cases by the black community, given that they seemed radical and unsavoury, in comparison with Rosa Parks herself.

There are a number of lessons to draw from all of this. It reinforces the important point that history serves a purpose, and that dominant narratives can be highlighted while more awkward counter-narratives are suppressed. For instance, the second world war is often presented as a response to the Holocaust, whereas the historical evidence for that claim is weak. Indeed, Canada refused to accept at least some Jewish refugees during WWII. Similarly, while people are quick to point out the war crimes committed by the Axis powers, they are much more hesitant to consider whether the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians was a war crime. Similarly, embarrassments like the 1967 Klippert decision of the Supreme Court of Canada are not much mentioned.

We should not allow ourselves to get too comfortable with official histories that only tell the stories that flatter us. It is only be recognizing the grave errors in our own histories that we can really appreciate our own potential for error. When we recognize that people who we admire were dead wrong about critical moral issues in the past, we also open our own minds to the possibility that we are passively accommodating – or even facilitating – grave injustice today.

Global emission pathway, made manifest

Over lunch yesterday, I had an idea for a climate change art installation that would represent the task that needs to be completed and, crucially, the kind of raw work that needs to go into it.

The central feature would be a steel bar extending up diagonally to the right, shaped like historical and projected future global greenhouse gas emissions, expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It would be anchored at the point of the present, but flexible and free-standing beyond that.

Toward the far end of the bar would be some physical mechanism for bending the whole thing downward. People who saw the installation would contribute physically to the process, which would take weeks or months. Some ideas for mechanisms:

  • A pulley system with a large array of blocks and tackle, allowing people to slowly wrench the bar downward
  • Platforms attached to the bar onto which weights could be progressively moved, lowering it
  • A chain attached near the end of the bar, connected to a large wheel that can slowly be turned

Whatever the mechanism, there would need to be a ratchet system in place to make sure the bar would not swing violently upward if something went wrong.

At the beginning, the whole setup would look like a business-as-usual projection, with annual emissions rising right out to 2100 as humanity continues to exploit coal and unconventional oil and gas (the conventional stuff plausibly being already exhausted by then). At the end, it would look like the curves from the Copenhagen Diagnosis, bent down to carbon neutrality.

An important part of the installation is that the process of moving the bar should be physically hard work for the people viewing the exhibit. It should be uncomfortable in formal clothes, and leave people feeling the strain of it for a couple of minutes afterward. With weights, it could be calibrated to the different strength levels of visitors. Some could move 1kg, some 10kg, some 20kg.

The installation would illustrate how a task that is impossible individually becomes possible when two things happen: when lots of people make an appropriate contribution, and where someone sets up a mechanism that directs and coordinates those actions.

I don’t think you could do this in North America. Some tourist would drop a weight on their foot and sue you and the gallery for millions of dollars. Maybe it could be done in England. If the city of Oxford was willing to take on the liability risks involved in Luminox, maybe there would be some English venue willing to tolerate those associated with a big steel bar under increasing tension.

Reader mobility

Just out of curiosity, how many of the readers of this blog still live in their place of birth?

For those who live elsewhere, how many different places have you lived for a good stretch of time (say, more than a year)?

I was born in Vancouver and now live in Ottawa. Aside from those two cities, I lived in Oxford for two years and Montreal for three months.

Questioning religious beliefs

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris repeatedly questions the societal taboo against critically evaluating religious beliefs. For instance, people are hesitant to raise evidence or arguments that contradict religious claims, as well as point out instances in which different claims made by the same religion contradict one another.

This is at least a bit different from evaluating religiously motivated actions, as was discussed here earlier. As in that case, however, I think Harris argues convincingly that it is wrong to put religious beliefs into a special category deserving special respect. Of course, this is a provocative claim, given that many religious beliefs simply cannot stand up in the face of evidence and critical examination, and people find it awkward when important parts of their religious belief structure are shown to be in a state of obvious contradiction with the kind of every-day mechanisms they use to evaluate new information. People tolerate the fact that claims are made in holy publications and from the pulpit which cannot be made with any credibility in a newspaper or political speech.

The idea that religious beliefs deserve special protection often comes from religion itself. Religions are often extremely hostile toward ‘heresy’, which is understandable from a kind of institutional evolutionary perspective. In many circumstances, faiths that maintain theological and ideological coherence are likely to attract more adherents and last longer than those that tolerate a broad variety of views. Faiths of the latter kind are probably more likely to fragment and fracture, and they are also probably less likely to attract extreme devotion, dedication, and efforts to convert the masses. It is no coincidence that the first commandment (though the notion that there are a clear set of ten is disputed) is that you should make sure not to honour the wrong god. It also doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the more dogmatic forms of Christianity (to choose one example) are winning more converts around the world than the more progressive forms.

Of course, humanity has a whole has an enormous interest in understanding the world well. It is demonstrably the case that our understanding of things like physics and biology allow us to live richer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Particularly in cases where scientific claims based on evidence and reason contradict religious claims based on someone’s supposedly divine authority, I think it is bad for humanity when large numbers of people place the religious claim above the scientific one. There are plenty of contemporary examples. Access to contraception and sex education demonstrably improves the kinds of lives people live, and yet one major force preventing those things from being universally available is religious beliefs that oppose them (arguably, with a hidden patriarchal motivation).

Ultimately, people possess a right to understand their own bodies and control their own sexuality and reproduction that is more important than the religious preferences of others who would seek to restrict and control those rights within the general population, especially among women.

If we lived in a world that took the kind of evidence that Harris finds convincing more seriously – things like the psychological consideration of what effect various circumstances have on human flourishing – I think we would ultimately find it preferable to a world where we continue to rely upon the kind of ‘evidence’ that supports substandard education and medical care for women, or the prohibition of promising types of medical research, or the teaching of utterly refuted theories about the history of life on Earth. People often argue that we should give respect to religious beliefs in the name of ‘tolerance’. While that argument might be somewhat convincing when it comes to benign beliefs, like the existence or non-existence of the Easter Bunny, it seems indefensible in the case of beliefs that have large and harmful effects on the lives of a great many people. Those beliefs – whether religiously motivated or not – deserve to be challenged honestly, openly, and vigorously.