Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Millennial Elections

Earlier this week I was listening to an older episode of CBC's The Pollcast.  In the episode Eric Grenier interviewed David Coletto of Abacus Research about the impact Millennials  had, are having, and will have on elections. The old wrap that young people don't vote is quickly not being applicable to Millennials. The oldest of the generation are turning 38 this year, and the youngest (which is dependent upon how you define Millennials) are either already or turning the voting age.

My generation is hardly homogeneous. Different opinions exist within each generation, but it can be useful to think of broader trends, especially when contrasting to other cohorts. We have elections that may illustrate real world examples of Millennial voting behaviour.

In some elections it is clear that Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Millennials have diverged sharply on certain questions. It's not unusual for issues to break down along generational lines, but a number of elections seemed to have hinged on the gap between Millennials and others. Brexit is a great case in point. Younger people overwhelmingly voted to remain within the European Union, while older Brits voted to leave. Coletto suggests in the podcast that Millennials were key for Barack Obama to winning the primary and the general elections, and supporting Bernie Sanders and as a result leading to Hillary Clinton's defeat.

As discussed in The Pollcast Millennials have already important sway in elections in Canada. The 2011 federal election, the 2014 Alberta provincial election, the 2015 federal election, the 2017 Calgary mayoral election and the 2017 British Columbia provincial election. In each case Millennials broke for the winning party and may have made a significant difference. In each case they backed a centrist or left-wing party and helped them edge out a victory.

Millennials tend to skew left, but I'm not so sure that is an accurate way to read my generation. I think certain concepts are accepted as political orthodoxy by Millennials in general, such as basic legal equality, gay rights, legalization of certain drugs, etc. However, the embracing of the left we've seen by Millennials I think more accurately reflects their precarious economic situation. My generation may support things like pharmacare and free tuition because economic fortunes seem so grim. I think it may be more accurate to say Millennials are polarizing and perhaps becoming more extreme, or open to political extremes/radical ideas. I see this on the right and left. On the right a generation that seems lost is fertile ground for blaming others for failed promises and drift. This is an element that will need to be carefully watched going forward.

As my cohort ages it will have a greater say in the form and shape of our politics. We are already determining the results of elections, and in the future political parties will rely on those born after 1980 for victory. We already may be seeing this happening in Canada in upcoming provincial elections and the federal election next year. As demographics change so does our politics, and we are in the midst of it now. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Worth Reading - February 15, 2018

A report by the Fraser Institute suggests that Toronto can handle considerably more density using lessons from California. 

Andrew Coyne writes that despite the protestations of PC leadership candidates, a carbon tax is coming to Ontario. 

John Michael McGrath writes five things to watch for in the Progressive Conservative leadership race in Ontario. 

Patrick Brown is striking back after the reporting of his sexual misconduct was made public. 

A mass school shooting has devastated a community in Florida. But don't worry, there is absolutely no chance this will influence gun policy in that country. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

The Unfinished Parable of the Sparrows It was the nest-building season, but after days of long hard work, the sparrows sat in the evening glow, relaxing and chirping away. “We are all so small and weak. Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!” “Yes!” said another. “And we could use it to look after our elderly and our young.” “It could give us advice and keep an eye out for the neighborhood cat,” added a third. Then Pastus, the elder-bird, spoke: “Let us send out scouts in all directions and try to find an abandoned owlet somewhere, or maybe an egg. A crow chick might also do, or a baby weasel. This could be the best thing that ever happened to us, at least since the opening of the Pavilion of Unlimited Grain in yonder backyard.” The flock was exhilarated, and sparrows everywhere started chirping at the top of their lungs. Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” Replied Pastus: “Taming an owl sounds like an exceedingly difficult thing to do. It will be difficult enough to find an owl egg. So let us start there. After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.” “There is a flaw in that plan!” squeaked Scronkfinkle; but his protests were in vain as the flock had already lifted off to start implementing the directives set out by Pastus. Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on.
 Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.

The Unfinished Parable of the Sparrows is how Nick Bostrom opens Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. The parable highlights the danger posed to us all: the unregulated, uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence leading to superintelligence. Here superintelligence refers to a being whose intelligence is many, many fold that of a human being/all humanity. Bostrom makes some powerful analogies in the course of his work to portray how out of our depth we are as we press towards  creating artificial intelligence. The author compares our development of A.I. to children playing with armed nuclear weapons. The potential danger is so high, the destructive potential so massive, and the ignorance/naivety so great as we venture forward.

The fundamental problem that Bostrom is seeking to explore is the control problem. The control problem is the question of how do we control an intelligence vastly superior to our own. I'm sure to some the problem might seem relatively minor, but perhaps to create my own analogy, humans dealing with superintelligence may be far more the equivalent of a toddler (or animal) dealing with an adult human. Think not just of the size and power differential, think of the complexity of thinking, tools and innovation at their disposal. Now add in the possibility this adult doesn't care for the welfare of the child. Bostrom paints a horrifying series of vignettes to make his point.

A.I. has fascinated me for years, but in fiction. It's possibility in the real world gives me chills. I don't quite believe the nightmare depictions are wrong, or if they are wrong, they merely humanize machine intelligence too much and overestimate human capacity to overcome it. Machines are not humans in waiting, they will almost certainly be something else entirely.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters, but they can overall be subdivided into a couple of sections. The first explores the history of artificial intelligence and the current state of things. The next explores what is superintelligence and how might it manifest. Then the book explores the topic of controlling artificial intelligence through a series currently understood ideas, and how they may fail to our intense misfortune.

Bostrom makes a compelling case for why there exists a risk. Currently research is growing towards self-improving intelligences/programs. As humans tinker with it there may come a time when the algorithm will adapt faster and improve itself more than the humans programming it. With the way machines think, act, and learn it is possible that in the morning an intelligence will be a simple program and end the day many magnitudes more intelligent than a human. It is possible that if proper safeguards are not put in place that the A.I. will breach its cage before its guardians even realize it has that potential. For an A.I. to protect itself and continue its directives it may learn and expand into new skill sets and abilities. It may hide itself, manipulate its 'masters' and overcome whatever limited barriers humans decipher. Or, constraints placed on superintelligence to keep us safe may make it close to useless. Bostrom also discusses the paths we may take to creating superintelligences, including brain emulation, which I found fascinating.

But the superintelligences may not even have to defeat us, we may defeat ourselves. A subtle theme that runs through Bostrom's book is that human ineptitude, paranoia, short-sightedness, and competitiveness may fuel our own disaster. There only needs to be one dangerous superintelligence to end human civilization as we know it. Free market capitalism and geopolitical competition both mean that secretive, reckless plans to develop A.I. are not inevitable, but likely. Do we trust Google, Apple, the American military and China to take all the precautions needed?

All of our ideas of how to control a superintelligence have loopholes a mile wide. Even our simple instructions to A.I. could fail us. Human interaction and socialization means that we have cues and taboos that restrain us that are rarely expressly stated. To borrow an example from the book: Imagine I ask you to make me smile, you may tell me a joke. An A.I. may paralyze my facial muscles to keep my face in a permanent grin. Or, it may realize the meaning is to stimulate pleasure/happiness. So it wires into my brain a stimulant to my dopamine centre and I live in a blissful coma. These are not unrealistic fears, they are predicated on the extreme, maximizing logic of a machine without humanity. Teaching values, teaching all the nuance would be incredibly difficult, especially if a badly engineered A.I. is the one that takes over.  

The language of the book is incredibly dense. It is definitely written with a highly-intelligent reader in mind. There were subsections where I merely had to get through it because my general comprehension was not there. However, the parts where I did connect, or Bostrom's simplified explanation of the issue often resonated. I found myself grappling with the ideas posed in this book long after I put it down. It is undoubtedly a challenge for a layman, but those curious about this topic may enjoy a deep dive.

I apologize if the review rambles, but the book offers so much to process and consider it is difficult to lay it out coherently. This brief video lays out a summary of the material for you to consider.  Like the sparrows, we are far closer to capturing the owl than knowing how to control it. Some accident or misfortune may breed an A.I. without our knowing or control. After which we will be reliant on benevolence from a god of our own creation. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Worth Reading - February 8, 2018

A study recently examined Canadian cities and whether people who reside in them are open or order minded

Mississauga's local political history as seen through the lens of by-elections

To add some interest to Brampton's municipal elections this year, a long-time councillor is not seeking re-election

Andrew Coyne writes that the Conservatives need to pick a clear direction before the hope to win again. 

In light of the conflict between Alberta and British Columbia, Andrew Coyne writes that the federal government is failing to do its duty

Chuck Marohn writes about ways to identify a healthy and unhealthy relationship between private and public institutions. 

This week Prime Minister Trudeau tried to wriggle his way out of his government's shameful actions on the electoral reform file

Paul Wells takes a look at Trudeau and electoral reform

Wealthy Toronto residents seek to block a homeless shelter in their area. 

The federal Conservatives are struggling in light of the news about Rick Dykstra

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Progressive Conservatives' Second Chance

This was the topic I hoped to write about a week ago, but it remains relevant today as well.

Over the last few months there has been space created for men and women to speak out about sexual abuse, assault and misconduct in public forums in an effort to seek justice and redress. For some I think it was about simply standing up and being heard. This wave has crashed upon Canadian politics and the aftermath is still reverberating. Tonight I'd like to focus on Ontario.

We are delusional if we believe that the allegations against Patrick Brown and Rick Dykstra are unique to the Progressive Conservative Party and Conservative Party. Men, powerful men in politics and elsewhere, have used their position and authority to try to leverage it to their personal advantage. This should be accepted as fact. What's concerning is that there have been numerous personal rumours swirling about Brown for years that have not come to the surface, until possibly now.

It's possible that the court of public opinion will eventually pull back their scrutiny of Brown and Dykstra and they'll be permitted back into public life. At the moment, in the current climate, they are verging on persona non grata.

Oddly, in the end, this may come to benefit the Progressive Conservatives. Polling seems to indicate that people view this issue as falling on individuals rather than institutions. The PCs are still Ontarians' first choice to form the next government in the wake of Brown's crash. The MPPs and party moved so quickly to push Brown out that little could be argued that they tried to defend him or cover anything up, at least to the public's eye.

Brown had managed to do a few successful things. He raised a great deal of money, expanded the party membership (though by how much is now in great question), and recruited a number of star candidates for the upcoming election. However, he remained wooden and cool on the campaign trail and during speeches. Ontarians didn't know him and didn't much care for him. He was simply an empty blue suit to replace Wynne. My sincere opinion was that when Ontarians learned of him the PCs fortunes would sag.

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives have a unique opportunity, but also a severe risk. Choosing a new leader may give them a chance to find someone with greater charisma and talents to lead a party and a government. Or, at least find one that will sit better with the public than Brown did. It should be remembered that this is all hypothetical. They may find their perfect John/Jane Doe to lead the party, but it may leave voters unsatisfied in a surprising way.

The same type of candidate who could win over the Progressive Conservative Party membership is not necessarily the same to win over the voting public. The PCs therefore hare gambling on being able to find the right person in a few short weeks to lead their party, and perhaps our next government. Of course, this ignores the fractures and in-fighting that inevitably follows, even if things go relatively smoothly. Bitter partisans will only hurt local campaigns if feelings are hurt before election day. Ontarians have yet to pay attention to the upcoming provincial election, but this news bomb was woken them up. The public is willing to give the PCs a second chance, so they best not waste it.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Worth Reading - February 1, 2018

Good evening readers. My sincere apologies for missing my Tuesday posting. I've been helping take care of a sick family member. It consumes a lot of time and energy and so the motivation to sit down at 10 PM and write something just was not there. Hopefully this week's Worth Reading helps compensate for that.

Is life common or uncommon in the galaxy, and regardless of the answer what would that suggest for humanity?

In the New York Times they make the case for beautiful subways, which having taken Toronto's transit system more than a few times, is a lesson that could be applied to that city as well. 

Chaos broke out in Ontario politics this week as allegations against the leader and president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario brought them down. The PCs now have an interim leader and a leadership contest before they head to the polls.

Here is a new story about Rick Dykstra resigning after allegations surfaced about him

After being selected as interim leader and saying he would pursue the leadership, Vic Fideli said he would no longer seek to become the permanent leader of the PCs

Steve Paikin writes that Christine Elliot, the candidate who lost against Patrick Brown is the frontrunner to replace him. 

Chantal Braganza writes that the obsession with "due process" in cases such as Brown's is misplaced. 

Jen Gerson writes that the PCs need a woman to lead their party

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Worth Reading - January 25, 2018

Today has been a big 24 hours in Ontario politics. Patrick Brown, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party has resigned amidst sexual misconduct accusations

Still on Ontario politics, Kathleen Wynne's unpopularity is resulting in some ugly town halls

Chuck Marohn offers a twelve-step program for cities in financial crisis

This is a bit of a strange one, but there are concerns about the volume of road salt we use in the province of Ontario. 

Bad streets lead to pedestrian deaths, unsafe environments and poorer cities. Strong Towns talks about how to identify when a street is broken

In an effort to keep in communications with the public governments have hired social media people. The cost of whom is quite high. 

John Michael McGrath argues that Northern Ontario needs regional governance