Have your FPTP and vote PR too

One voting system doesn’t fit all of B.C.  That’s why I like the Rural-Urban system of proportional representation. It recognizes the vast geography of parts of our province and the diversity of people in others. Rural-Urban PR is one of the three systems offered in the mail-in ballot on October 22.

image: Fair Vote Canada

Rural-Urban PR was recommended by Canada’s former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. It was used in Alberta and Manitoba for 30 years where Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton used Single Transferable Vote to elect multi-member ridings from 4 to 10 MLAs and the rest of the provinces used First-Past-the-Post to elect rural MLAs.

Dense urban areas lend themselves to a Single Transferable Vote, a system proposed by the citizens’ assembly in 2004. STV combines small ridings into larger ones that would be geographically related such as in the Fraser Valley. Instead of electing one MLA from four ridings, four MLAs would be elected from one riding.

STV uses a ranking system similar to what’s now used in Kamloops’ municipal elections. Unlike Kamloops, where we have no political parties, candidates would be listed by party affiliation. A ballot would look something like the one below.

example of urban ballot

Four parties are running plus one independent.  Choose as many candidates as you wish in order of preference where 1 is your first choice, 2 is next and so on. If your first ballot doesn’t elect a candidate, your second choice could because it’s transferable.

If you like one party only, vote for candidates only in that party. If you like one party but a candidate in another, you can vote accordingly.

Ballot counting occurs in rounds. First choice candidates are placed in piles and if ballots exceed a predetermined threshold, they are elected. The second choice of those elected MLAs is transferred so that someone else could be elected. The process continues until all the positions are filled. Finally, the losing candidate’s votes are transferred and a final count done.

Counting ballots in rural ridings is simpler. Unlike the First-Past-the-Post system used in Alberta and Manitoba, there is an extra regional vote.

example rural ballot

In the second part of the ballot, you vote for vote for just one candidate. The successful candidates will be determined by the proportion of votes received. In this ballot there are 16 candidates running but not all will be elected.

The advantage of Rural-Urban PR, in general, is that voters select the candidate of their choice. In the existing system, parties select that candidate. This relieves pressure on parties to select the candidate most likely to win because the vote is essentially a popularity contest.

The advantage of the urban portion of the system that candidates would represent the mosaic of voters and opinions found in metropolitan areas.

The advantage of the rural system is that one candidate still represents a geographic area while another represents a larger region.

If you can order from a menu, voting is not complicated. The president of Fair Vote Canada says: “If you can order a coffee at Tim Hortons, you can vote.” I agree.

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Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts

The radio telescope near Penticton has detected signals that were sent from some mysterious object billions of light years away, at a time when the Earth was so hot that water boiled on its surface and the atmosphere so toxic that life couldn’t exist.

Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton. Image: Phys.org

No one knows what the objects are but the bursts are strong and short. I asked Paul Scholz, Research Associate at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton what they might be: Cosmic strings, Neutron stars, Supernovae, evaporation of black holes? His reply by email:

“This is what we hope to answer!”

Maybe the radio bursts are alien signals sent long ago to arrive at a time when we have the technology to detect them? Deborah Good, a UBC PhD student working on the project, is doubtful:

“There’s a bunch of theories right now, but one thing we’re really confident about is that it’s not aliens,” she told the Globe and Mail (August 5, 2018).”

The discovery of these signals is so new that they don’t even have a name other than the descriptive “Fast Radio Bursts.” I previously read about FRBs in Scientific American and I wondered if the Penticton observatory called them anything else, such as “Lorimer bursts?”   Dr. Scholz relied:

“We call them FRBs. Lorimer burst refers to FRB 010125, the first FRB that was discovered by Duncan Lorimer in 2007.”

The article in Scientific American was written by the same Professor Lorimer, the discoverer of FRBs. He was originally perplexed by his discovery and wondered if they were even real:

“We theorized that if we could identify and understand them, we could not only learn about a new type of cosmic event, but we could also estimate their distances through dispersion measurements and use them to do something as grand as map out the large-scale structure of the universe. But first we had to prove that the burst was real –a quest that would take many surprising turns and almost end in retreat. (April, 2018).”

What intrigues me about this discovery is this use of “dispersion measurements” to measure astronomical distances. Before researching this article, I was only familiar with the “red shift” method: as objects recede from us, the colour they emit is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. The greater the shift, the greater the distance.

Dispersion measurements (DMs) depend on the effect that clouds of electrons have on the radio signal.  As the signal streams towards us, its frequencies are stretched out; dispersed. The greater the DM, the greater the distance. Approximately.

A slight error in the measurement is caused by the fact that electrons are not evenly distributed in space. While the measurement is not precise, it’s pretty good.

The Penticton observatory is collaborating with other telescopes to determine the size and location of the sources of FRBs.

The sources appear to be very small and very powerful says Lorimer. They are only one-five hundredth the diameter of the sun, yet give off as much energy in one second as the sun does in a month.

It will be fascinating to find out what these explosive bursts are. I’m quite sure little green men didn’t send them.

 

One power grid solves the green energy problem

Solar and wind energy suffer from a storage problem. They produce in abundance, often too much, when the wind blows and the sun shines. Storage of that abundance is one solution but it’s expensive and inefficient. You don’t get as much out as what you put in; like a bank account that gives you negative interest.

image: HowStuffWorks

The sun takes a long time to cross the four and one-half time zones of our big country. The advantage of that is when the sun shines on Canada’s largest solar farms in Ontario at ten o’clock, surplus electricity could be used to make breakfast in B.C. and lunch in Newfoundland.

Great idea, except that we have no way to get the excess power across Canada.  B.C. is connected to western Alberta by a major (345 Kilovolt) line and stops. There is nothing between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. One connects Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces; none connects Newfoundland.

While there are few east-to-west Canadian connections, there are 34 lines connecting Canada to the U.S. The problem with north-south connections is that the sun shines on all solar panels in the same time zone at once.

Those gaps in Canada’s transmission lines create a challenge for green energy sources -wind even more than solar. Whereas solar power is fairly predictable, wind can be a problem. Sudden storms can wreak havoc with a power grid, dumping huge amounts of power into the system with nowhere for it to go. Some power utilities, such as in Germany and Texas, pay customers to consume electricity just to rid of it.

Climate change is creating increased demand on air conditioners in some areas of North America, while creating storms and wind in other parts. One big grid would link the wind power to where it’s needed.

The fragmentation of power grids is a problem says science writer Peter Fairley of Victoria:

“This balkanization means each region must manage weather variability on its own (Scientific American, July, 2018).”

Since we are already connected to the U.S., if the States were connected, so would Canada. It would be one big continental grid -something like the internet. The U.S. solution is simpler because they have only three major grids, the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection and the ERCOT Interconnection in Texas.

A big grid would soak up all the power you can pump into it but it requires weather reports. We need to know where the sun is shining and where the wind is blowing to determine where sources are. We already have that. The U.S. Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory maps the potential energy areas of four kilometre squares, updated every five minutes throughout the year. Couple that weather information with a huge single grid and you can send surplus power to where it’s needed.

Fairley continues:

“What we need is a weather-smart grid design, directed by meteorology and built on long-distance transmission lines that can manage the weather’s inconsistencies. Such a system could ship gobs of renewable power across North America to link supply with demand, whatever the weather throws at it.”

Just think, the tidal power generated in the Bay of Fundy could heat a toaster in Moose Jaw faster than the rate at which photos of kittens are shared on Facebook.

 

Normalizing the voices in our heads

Hearing voices is often regarded as a sign of mental illness. But maybe voices are just part of a spectrum.

image: The Atlantic

Professor T. M. Luhrmann says the idea of a continuum of voices is gaining recognition:

“This is the new axiom of the psychotic continuum theory: that voices are not the problem. The problem is the way people react to their voices.” says the professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).

Luhrmann has been studying voices for decades and found people with intense experiences who aren’t psychotic.

One of them is Sarah, who was only four when a “spirit guide” appeared to her. When she told her mother of what she was seeing and hearing, her mother warned: “Cut it out. This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Sarah grew up otherwise normal, went to college and became a nurse. She began to see souls as they left the bodies of dying patients. They often gave her messages to give to people they’d left behind. While she could hear them, she realized that no one else did.

At sixty-two, Sarah is married and still working. One of her voices, “Tom,” is friendly. Other voices, “the council,” not so much but Tom helps mediate between the two.

“But Sarah is not psychotic,” says Luhrmann, “To use the language of psychiatric nosology [classification of diseases], she has no ‘functional impairment.’ She can work and care for herself and others; her marriage is good and stable. She has never been hospitalized.”

Sarah describes the council’s voices as if they are coming from a radio which would tune in and out.

My mother used to describe something like that: voices that that seemed to be coming from a radio; indistinct and sometimes with music. She would try turning off the radio only to find it was already off.

As an electronics teacher, people sometimes approach me with what I call the “radio phenomena.” They would wonder what the electronics were behind the indistinct voices they heard, seeming to come from a radio. While people can pick up strong radio signals as a result of metal oxides in tooth fillings, it’s rare and only works with strong AM signals. I was generally at a loss to explain the phenomena but it’s starting to make sense now.

Sarah has learned to live with her voices but others struggle. Schizophrenics have traditionally been prescribed antipsychotic medications with limited results.

One grassroots movement called Hearing Voices is offering an alternative approach to medication. They encourage those who are tormented with voices to address them. It’s difficult because the voices are frightening.

Luhrmann met one man at a Hearing Voices workshop. “His voices would yell at him for hours, cursing him, screaming that they should drag him out to the forest and leave him to die in the leaves.” He was encouraged to placate them. One of his voices was obsessed with Buddhism, so he agreed to read Buddhist texts and offer prayers during an allotted hour. Within a year, he had almost completely transitioned off medication.

Rather than treating voices as a disease, a better plan might be to treat them as part of rainbow of voices -some relatively benign, some requiring therapy.

“The central insight of these methods is that the way people respond to their voices can change the course of their lives,” says Luhrmann.

Advice to TRU: educate, don’t prohibit cannabis

Thompson Rivers University plans to prohibit the recreational use of cannabis on campus. This, despite the failure of prohibition to deter use for the last 95 years in Canada.

image: SchoolFinder

Cannabis is not harmless. Inhaling smoke, be it from wildfires, tobacco, or cannabis carries risks. But banning cannabis is not the way to control those risks.

Education is. Education has reduced the consumption of tobacco. Reductions have been especially greater for those with a higher education according to a report from Statistics Canada.

TRU has nine designated locations where tobacco and medical marijuana can be smoked. Once cannabis is legalized on October 17, those locations would be a logical place for recreational cannabis smokers as well.

TRU’s Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee voted on March 5, 2018, to ban all smoking of recreational marijuana on campus for health and safety reasons. Chris Montoya, committee member and Senior Lecturer in Psychology, says not all of the 20-member committee agreed:

“Pro-marijuana smokers on the TRU committee argued that marijuana smoke is no different than cigarette smoke and that smoking areas designated for cigarette smoke should also be used for marijuana.”

But they were apparently swayed by arguments  presented by Montoya: cannabis is more potent than ever before, bystanders can get stoned from second-hand smoke, and marijuana has been linked with psychoses.

Montoya is a member of the National Advisory Council (2016-18) and the Partnership for a Drug Free Canada. He repeated some of his claims to Kamloops This Week:

“A student cannot get drunk walking next to another student drinking a beer. However, students, staff and faculty can get stoned breathing in second-hand smoke.”

Ian Mitchell, Kamloops Emergency Physician, disagrees:

“There have been a series of studies in which non-smokers are shut into a small room with cannabis smokers and tested for both impairment and positive urine tests. While these things can happen, it is only under the most extreme circumstances,” he told me by message.

A doctoral student in clinical psychology at UBC Okanagan also disagrees with Montoya:

“Researchers at John Hopkins University have been conducting studies on the effects of cannabis smoke exposure to non-users and have found that, under regular indoor conditions, non-smokers did not experience changes in cognitive ability –i.e. ’get high,’” says Michelle Thiessen in a letter to KTW.

There are places on campus for students and staff to drink alcohol as well as smoke cigarettes. TRU spokesperson, Darshan Lindsay, told CFJC Today: “There are a lot of regulations, systems in place to promote responsible use of alcohol. We just don’t have that in place for cannabis. For the university, recognizing that we are a place of education and that we want to promote an environment that’s safe and healthy for everyone, our position is that recreational cannabis should not be present on campus.”

Failing to have a “place for cannabis” perpetuates the notion that prohibition will reduce cannabis use. Banning cannabis has a predictable effect -it simply drives consumption into the shadows and prevents dealing with the risks.

TRU should become a model in harm reduction, as “a place of education.”

Prohibition is futile: TRU might as well prohibit wildfires -it would be as effective.

 

Let’s finish the job and implement Pharmacare

Medicare is a good idea but incomplete without Pharmacare. Let’s finish what we started in the 1960s. The plan was always to finish our health care system but realization of that dream got lost in perennial federal-provincial squabbling.

image: Green Party

Canada is an anomaly among nations. We are the only industrialized country with a universal public health care system but no Pharmacare.

Every study of Canada’s health care has identified the lack of Pharmacare as a major gap in our system.

Medicare without drug coverage doesn’t even make sense. What good is a health care system that prescribes drugs but doesn’t cover them?

What we now have is a mess. Drug coverage in Canada consists of a patchwork of 100 public and 100,000 private insurance plans. Some working Canadians are covered by employer-funded private plans. Seniors and those on social assistance are covered by publicly-funded provincial plans. Indigenous people, military members, federal inmates are covered by federal plans. Low-income Canadians struggle. In B.C. they have to pay up to the deductible amount.

Studies show that some low-income Canadians go without prescribed drugs because they have to buy groceries and heat their houses first. Women typically suffer more than men. Nearly two million Canadians reported not being able to afford one or more drugs in the past year. Unfilled prescriptions result in an additional burden on our health care system –patients end up going back to their doctor or to the hospital.

What we have is a mess and it’s ridiculous. When I go to the hospital, prescribed drugs are covered by Medicare and dispensed from the hospital pharmacy. When I walk out the door of the hospital, I’m on some other plan if I’m lucky, no other plan if I’m not.

The model of Medicare provides a good template for Pharmacare. While Medicare is universal in that it covers everyone, it is not universal in that it covers everything. This is especially true for Pharmacare as technology offers ever more expensive remedies. Pharmaceutical companies are coming up with new, expensive, drugs. Some are only marginally better, some no better than generic drugs. Pharmacare should not cover every conceivable pharmaceutical.

Drug spending in Canada has grown significantly over the past few decades, from $2.6 billion in 1985 to $33.8 billion in 2017, and the share of GDP spent on drugs has more than tripled from 0.5% to 1.6% over this period.

Pharmacare will reduce the amount we pay for drugs. Canadians pay among the highest prices and spend more on prescription drugs than citizens of almost every other country in the world. Among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, only the United States and Switzerland spend more per person each year on prescription drugs and pay higher patented drug prices than Canada.

The bickering between the federal government and the provinces over Pharmacare must stop. Now’s our chance. The federal government has opened a dialogue. What do you think? You can answer the questionnaire and make a submissions until September 28.

 

Catching criminals with genetic tests is not an invasion of privacy

Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s killer went free for decades until DNA evidence led to his arrest in Washington State. The young Victoria woman’s boyfriend was also killed but no one has been arrested so far.

image: Canadian Forensics Inc.

The cold case was solved with the help of a genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, in just eight hours. She reluctantly helped with the investigation:

“It’s something I declined to do for a very long time. I was concerned about informed consent, about people in the genetic genealogy databases having their DNA used for a purpose they had not consented to and were not aware was a possibility (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018)”

Moore’s reluctance had nothing to do with gathering evidence at a crime scene. If perpetrators leave evidence, such as fingerprints, at a crime scene consent is not required.

Nor does DNA evidence gathered in a public place require permission. Police don’t even need a search warrant to take a discarded coffee cup from the trash. That’s how DNA was gathered from the alleged killer and matched to DNA he left behind at the crime scene.

Moore’s reluctance had to do with the fact that the consent of dozens of people related to the alleged killer had not been given. His relatives wouldn’t even have necessarily known about the investigation.

The comparison of DNA to fingerprints is useful because it reveals the stark difference. A fingerprint indentifies one, and only one, person. DNA indentifies one person -and all of that person’s relatives.

An obvious question to ask is: “why did it take police 31 years to match the alleged killer’s DNA with that at the crime scene?” It seems like a simple thing to do until you realize that the number of discarded coffee cups, or whatever, that would have to be analyzed would be in the millions –a logistically improbable task.

That’s when an open-source genealogy database called GEDMatch came in handy. The original purpose of the database was not to catch criminals but rather to help “amateur and professional researchers and genealogists.” By May, 2018, the database had 929,000 genetic profiles.

Detectives uploaded a DNA sample from the crime scene to GEDMatch. From there, they identified ancestors and relatives of their suspect. With the help of Moore they built a family tree, incorporating marriage records and other information, and worked their way backward to find a potential suspect. It was only then that they knew whose discarded coffee cup to check.

Civil libertarians worry about the misuse of the technology by the police. However, while police need a court order to access some private sector databases like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, GEDMatch is open-source.

Civil libertarians worry about the invasion of privacy. It’s also true that in giving GEDMatch permission to share my genetic information, I might be giving access to my third cousin Fred’s genetic information. And that hapless Fred may unknowingly be part of a police investigation without his consent.

Despite all those reservations, the family tree of suspects should be open to investigation as long as the investigation doesn’t incriminate those family members in any way –the target of the investigation must be clearly stated with no fishing allowed.