Thursday, May 25, 2017

UBC student overcomes severe challenges to earn law degree

Here's a heart-warming story about triumph over adversity and friends helping friends.
Back in 2011, Rumana Monzur, a well-educated Bangladeshi woman with a degree from the University of Dhaka, was studying for her Masters in Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). When she travelled back to Bangladesh to see her daughter and to try to finalize her divorce from her husband, said husband viciously attacked her, incensed by her decision to study in Canada. Unbelievably, he gouged out her eyes and bit off part of her nose and forearm, while their five-year-old child looked helplessly on.
Her friends at UBC rallied round her, raising money for her medical treatment and for her return to Canada, along with her daughter. Meanwhile, her husband was arrested and tried, but died of a heart attack while still in police custody.
Despite her blindness, and with the continued help of her friends and some technology, Ms. Monzur persevered with her studies. Some friends read her textbooks out loud to her; others helped her transcribe her Masters thesis. She successfully completed her Masters in Political Science in 2013. But, still not satisfied, she enrolled in UBC's Law School, hoping ultimately to return to Bangladesh and work to change the legal system there, which is very biased against women.
Now, she has just earned her law degree from UBC's Peter A. Allard School of Law. Since her return to Canada, she has been making more and motivational speeches for organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and she contributed a good one to her law school graduation ceremony, in which she thanked her "UBC family", ending with the inspiring, "I have lost my sight but gained vision".
In September, she begins articling with an international law firm in Vancouver. Her daughter is now 11, and "doing great" according to Mom. Quite a story.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fidget spinners are not a miraculous cure for anything

It seems that fidget spinners are still all the rage, although I have still to actually witness anyone using one. They are just this year's fad toy - there's one most years - but there is a substantial coterie out there who really believe some of the claims that have been made for them, such as that they are good psychological tools for the relief of stress and anxiety, and that they can even help sufferers from ADHD or autism. In fact, they are a big distraction for most children, and some schools are even banning them.
A video by clinical psychologist David Anderson, from the Child Mind Institute who specializes in ADHD and other behavioural disorders, makes no bones about it: he says they are just toys and not a treatment. According to Anderson, "they have about as much scientific evidence for stress relief or for treatment of anxiety and ADHD as a pet rock ... fidget spinners have absolutely no scientific studies behind them, showing any sort of effectiveness in treating this ... there is no psychologically recommended gadget". Sounds pretty definitive to me.
It made me wonder, though, why do we fidget? It seems that, like most physiological phenomena, there is actually a point to fidgeting. But, like most physiological phenomena, it's not simple. According to one theory, fidgeting may be a self-regulation mechanism to help us boost or lower our attention levels as needed (in which case, suppressing it may be a bad idea). Another theory suggests that fidgeting may be a carefully programmed response that helps us unconsciously maintain our weight (apparently, fidgeting can burn between 100 and 800 additional calories a day). Yet another idea is that fidgeting represents a behavioural coping mechanism for stress (studies have shown that fidgeting and other "displacement behaviours" can improve performance during stressful times).
As so often with these things, the real reason may be a combination of all of these, and may even vary depending on what is required at the time. Either way, we really don't need a toy to fidget for us, and fidget spinners are not a miraculous cure for ADHD or anything else.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Toronto Wolfpack rugby league team is a strange animal

The Toronto Wolfpack played their second-ever home game on Saturday, and a great success it was too. They beat the Barrow Raiders by a huge margin of 70-2.
If you're not even sure what sport I am talking about, you wouldn't be alone. In fact, it's rugby league, not the better known and more mainstream rugby union (although even that is a small, if growing, minority sport here in North America), but its lesser-known and grittier 13-a-side cousin. The Toronto Wolfpack plays in the lowly Kingstone Press League 1, the third tier of English rugby league. It is the first and only transatlantic rugby league team, as well as the only professional team among a league of amateurs and part-timers (or, at best, semi-professionals). I don't know whose idea it was, but strangely it seems to be working.
The team plays at home at the ageing Lamport Stadium in the west end of Toronto, and this weekend's game attracted a raucous, if slightly bewildered crowd of just over 7,000. The team's undisputed star is a 230-pound 37-year-old Tongan who rejoices in the name of Fuifui Moimoi, and who rolls around the pitch crushing all before him. The fans love him, and he clearly loves the fans. All the players seem to love the sport and beer in almost equal measures.
Although this was only the team's second home game, they are now upbeaten at 8-0-0 in the Kingstone Press League 1, and have outscored opponents 482-73. Barrow too was unbeaten before this game, although their team was somewhat depleted as four key players were unable to obtain visas in time for the trip to Toronto.
The Wolfpack are resigned to playing most of their games in small grubby towns in northern England, the heartland of rugby league, but they look all set to gain promotion to the second tier league after this first season. What the English rugby league fraternity thinks of these strange big-city Canadians, I really can't imagine.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BC provincial election ends in a cliffhanger

Talk about a cliffhanger! The British Columbia provincial election took place the other week, and the incumbent Liberals looked set to be demoted from a majority government to a strong minority, having won 43 of the possible 87 ridings in the province, compared to the NDP's 41 seats, and the Green Party's 3.
However, it's not over yet. The riding of Courtney-Comox on Vancouver Island was won by the NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard by just 9 votes (she garnered 10,058 compared to Liberal candidate Jim Benninger's 10,049). This has therefore triggered an automatic recount, because the winning margin was less than the 0.2% stipulated in BC law. The recount will also include an estimated 1,500 so-called "absentee ballots" that have not yet been tabulated. These ballots include voters who voted by mail, voters who voted in a district office, voters who voted outside their electoral district during advanced voting, and voters who voted on election day but not at their assigned voting place.
If just a handful of votes can be shown to have been miscounted, or if the inclusion of absentee votes swings the result, as it could easily do, then the Liberals will vault from a minority position, where they are reliant on the (dubious) goodwill of the Green Party, whose three members hold the balance of power, to a majority, where they can push through their agenda regardless of the other parties.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the region has been in this position. In 1983, the long-standing NDP member for the Comox Valey riding appeared to have lost the election, only to find that she had won it after all following a recount.

After the recount, the NDP ended up retaining the Courtenay-Comox seat after all, so the final elections results remain the same: Liberals 43, NDP 41 and Greens 3. The Liberals are reduced to a minority government, and the Greens have a historic opportunity to influence government policy. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Amazon's new business model is not good for literature

Up until recently, when you clicked the prominent Add To Cart button on Amazon's websites (known in the trade as the "Buy Box"), you were agreeing to buy a book through Amazon itself, secure in the knowledge that Amazon has in turn purchased that book from a publisher or a publishing wholesaler. Under that system, you knew that Amazon took a sizeable cut, typically around 40%, but you also knew that 60% went directly to a publisher, which then used this money to pay the author his or her cut, as well as to cover the other expenses of producing and distributing the book, plus their own profit margin.
But, for some years now, Amazon has also been in the business of selling books through third-party sellers. Under this system, Amazon typically keeps about 15% of the total sale price including shipping, plus a $1.85 flat fee per item, with the rest going to the third party seller to pay for purchasing, shipping and warehousing costs. But it seems that, although the books sold by third party shippers are technically new and unmarked, they are often not actually purchased from publishers. It seems that just where they do come from, and how extensive the problem is, is not actually known, either by the publishers or by Amazon itself, but it is thought that many of them may be free promotional copies and/or perhaps books with minor cosmetic damage bought up from warehouses at a substantial discount. Either way, the publishers do not benefit much, or even at all, from these transactions, and the poor authors, who rely on their publishers to pay them, get even less of nothing.
Anyway, be that as it may, the recent change that Amazon has brought in, means that when you click on the Buy Box now, without looking for more options, you are buying a book from the "Buy Box Winner", which may be Amazon or it may be an approved third party seller, being the result of a competitive bidding algorithm for each product that Amazon advertises on its sites. So, you no longer have the assurance that a publisher, and therefore an author, is actually benefitting from your purchase. In addition, if a Buy Box Winner happens to be out of stock of a particular title you try to buy, it will look as though the book is not available anywhere else on Amazon, which may not be the case.
If it is more difficult for publishers to make a profit on Amazon sales, this will probably also result in them being less likely to publish artistically challenging or commercially risky books, so that the market will be (even more) flooded with Daniel Steel, James Patterson and Nora Roberts novels. Eventually, as Amazon drives the price of books down and down, fewer and fewer people will be able to make their livings as writers, difficult as this already is - even a typical Man Booker finalist, for example, can only rely on between 10,000 and 20,000 book sales, and sometimes a little as 3,000 - and so fewer and fewer will even try. Not a good prognosis for literature as a whole.

The debate over cultural appropriation is not over (unfortunately)

The cultural appropriation debate has flared up again, as it does from time to time here in Canada (and probably elsewhere), stoked by the Appropriation Prize nonsense already reported on, and the troubles of the white artist Amanda PL who has had the temerity to adopt an artistic style that is influenced by the bright colours and bold outlines of the Woodland School of Art, popularized by Aboriginal artists like Norval Moriseau.
A few high-profile heads have already rolled as the issues get batted back and forth, and the debate becomes increasingly acrimonious. Today, though, the Globe and Mail has seen fit to devote a centre page spread to an article by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Ontario Anishnaabe writer, which she entitles "The debate is over: it's time for action". It may well be time for action of some sort, but it is wishful thinking to suppose that the debate is over.
Sure, it's good to get an in-depth response on the issue from a prominent Indigenous author, but I really can't accept some of the assertions she makes. Partly what rankles is Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm's implicit assumption that the opinions of an Indigenous person automatically trump that of a white male straight guy, and that she is the one to say when the argument is over/won. Were it the other way around, I'm sure she would agree with me on that. In actual fact, this issue is way bigger than just Canada's First Nations, which has been the entire focus of the recent debate. Cultural appropriation can refer to a man writing about the experience of a woman (and vice versa), a white man or woman writing from the perspective of a black person (and, of course, vice versa), a Chinese person writing about a Dutch family, a white straight male writing about the trials and tribulations of a transgendered homosexual (and vice versa)... You get the idea. In today's multiculti post-modern world, writing any book that restricts itself to just one race/sex/nationality/sexual preference would be almost impossible, not to mention tedious. But that is the logical conclusion of the cultural appropriation argument.
And, even if you want to argue that the reductio ab adsurdam is not what we are talking about here, then where exactly does the line fall between acceptable and not acceptable? Can an Inuit writer write about a Cree character, for example. Can ... well, I'm sure you can see where this is going. These are not just idle hypothetical questions: they are valid questions arising from the cultural appropriation standpoint. Unfortunately, I don't think that many of them have convincing answers.
Yes, I understand that the First Nations of Canada, as in most other colonial outposts the world over, have had (and continue to have, in many respects) a raw deal, from the Scoops to the residential school system to the MMIW phenomenon to the lamentable education/healthcare/social/water situation in many northern communities. These are all issues that need to be addressed, and supposedly are being addressed, although not very effectively thus far. And I also understand that unflattering, stereotypical and poorly-understood portraits of native peoples have been the norm for much of colonial history, although I sincerely believe that that has changed in recent years. But to claim, as Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm does, that Indigenous writers should be the only ones allowed to write about Indigenous people, and that "their" stories are being "stolen" by non-Indigenous writers (as she repeatedly claims), I consider arrant nonsense. Are Indigenous writers allowed to write about white experiences, to explore white characters (good and bad) in their books? If so, then please explain the difference. If not, then how stupid is that?
Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm also brings up an article by Lenore Keeshig in 1989, and echoes Ms. Keeshig's easy dismissal of the argument that what some call cultural appropriation others call freedom of speech and artistic imagination. This is not an argument so readily dismissed, though, and is not as "disingenuous" as the two native authors claim. Neither is it reasonable to claim that the appropriationists (my word!) are suggesting that "we are not capable of telling out own stories with the skill, beauty and depth that white middle-class writers could, or that, unlike them, we are too biased". I don't remember ever hearing such an allegation from anyone. She says, of stories about indigenous experiences, that "we can tell them best", and that may well be true, but surely it should not preclude others from trying.
Neither do I believe that Indigenous authors are not taken seriously enough in the world of Canadian letters. Indeed, I see many white people in the industry bending over backwards to institute a kind of positive discrimination climate for First Nations writers (and that's a whole other debate right there). It seems to me that native Canadian writers are completely eligible for the existing literary prizes - some have indeed triumphed in that sphere - and I don't see any obvious signs of discrimination against them. I don't know the breakdown of Indigenous prize winners, as compared to the proportion of the general population, but I would be surprised it were that skewed. If First national writers would like an Emerging Indigenous Voice prize as well, as has been proposed, that is fine by me, although I do worry that they in doing so are just establishing a kind of second-rank prize for those who can't win the big prizes, which would be unfortunate.
Well, that's my own opinion, and I am grateful to live in a country where I can express my views openly. These are not racist views. I don't even see them as being overly insensitive (otherwise I wouldn't share them). They are just views, backed up by a bit of logical argument, and I see them as just as valid as the views of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, even though I am not Indigenous or even a published writer.
And, no, the debate is not over. Unfortunately.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Google - global boon or scary future menace

Google is a wonderful resource. If you stop and think what modern life would be like without Google Search, Google Maps, Google Play, YouTube, Chrome, Android and Gmail, it doesn't really bear thinking about. Google has become an integral, even essential, part of contemporary Western life.
What I am less sure about is whether I want to see the company go ether down the Artificial Intelligence (AI) rabbit-hole. Because, make no mistake, that is where they are headed. A handy Guardian summary of its latest annual developer conference, Google I/O gives us a useful glimpse into the geek/technofile mindset that dominates in Google's world.
I used to worry about Apple's thinly-disguised plan to rule the world. But these days, Google is leaving Apple in the dust. The seven applications mentioned above all have more than a billion users, and the company is actively pursuing what it refers to as "the next billion" (or two). With this in mind, it's latest mobile operating system, Android O, which is designed to be more battery efficient and provide better protection against viruses and malware, also incorporates Android Go, a pared down of the operating system that uses less data and loads apps more quickly, aimed at the entry level devices and poorer signals still common in many developing countries.
But for the well-served developed world, Google make no bones about moving from a "mobile-first" to an "AI-first" approach. Google Assistant is now considered much superior to Apple's Siri, and is expected to become even more reliable and conversational in the near future, so that many common tasks will be easily achievable using simple voice commands, or what will feel more like natural conversations of chats. Its new Lens visipn-based computing application is also able to recognize a rapidly increasing number of real-life objects, locations, words, etc, and automatically link them to databases, searches, reviews, translations, etc.
The new Google Home app is also expected to start offer it more proactive advice, rather than just responding to specific questions, and can respond differently to up to six different voices in a household depending on heir personal preferences. This is the stuff of science fiction movies made real, but it carries with a whiff of Orwell's Big Brother, or at the very least.spme of the more dystopian elements of the Black Mirror television series. I'm also less than enthused with what I know I know of its new YouTube "super chat" option, in which audience members can 4pay to have their comments featured prominently during a live streaming event.
As it has already done with airline flights and sports, Google is in the process of aggregating information from job and recruitment agencies like Linkedin, Monster and Carer Builder to provide job listing information without the need to use the websites.
Although it already has its fingers in several aspects of Virual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), Google is surprisingly downplaying these sexy technological paths, perhaps due to the rather muted success of its Google Glass smart glasses experiment.
Google is still inventing the future before our very eyes, and a future without its dominant presence is all but inconceivable. But it is all too easy to forget that it is at heart a commercial company, out to make money for its owners. And the risks of hyper-dominant private enterprises are also a popular science fiction trope, and they rarely have happy endings. I'm just not sure I am entirely comfortable with that kind of brave new world.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why is Caesar pronounced SEE-see?

Maybe it's never occurred to you, or maybe it's not the kind of thing that worries you, but the pronunciation of the name "Caesar" has been bugging me for a while now. It started after passing a pizza restaurant quaintly named Ceasar's Pizza. Which, when you think about it, wrongly spelled as it is, actually makes a lot more sense...
So, a little research confirms my original feeling that, in Gaius Julius Caesar's day, his name would indeed have been pronounced KYE-sahr, not dissimilar to the German word kaiser, which it have gave rise to. By the same token, Cicero would have been pronounced more like KEE-kair-o, strange as that sounds to us. The change in pronunciation occurred as a result of the kind of pronunciation shifts most languages go through over their history. Even in Caesar's time, Latin was undergoing some pronunciation shifts.
Except that it's not quite that simple (of course it's not!) Part of the problem stems from the fact that ancient Roman pronunciation wasn't accurately reconstructed until about 1900. And, yes, we do have a good idea of the ancient pronunciation, partly because it was specifically designed as a phonetic language, partly because we have Roman teaching materials, and partly because we can look at pronunciations in other Romance languages, as well as transcriptions of Latin into other alphabets like Greek and Sanskrit. Before that time, scholars tended to interpret (guess) Latin pronunciations through the lenses of their own languages.
So, we end up with four main versions of Latin pronunciation:
  • Reconstructed Ancient Roman, in which Caesar would have been pronounced KYE-sahr;
  • Southern Continental or "Church Latin", as used in Italy: CHAY-sahr;
  • Northern Continental, recommended for use in scientific circles: TSAY-sahr; and the
  • "English Method", which, of course, is a law into itself: SEE-zer.
Even after my research, I am still not entirely sure why the English Method plumped for SEE-zer, except to say that it probably changed with the Frenchification of English after the Norman Conquest. But I am long past expecting to find logical justifications for English spelling and pronunciation.