Thursday, January 25, 2007

Independent events


News of an interesting study caught my eye today. The CBC headline was "Ontario teenagers gambling as early as age 15: survey." The study was released by the Responsible Gambling Council. Now something about the name of that organization made me uncomfortable, so I had a closer look. Their website says:
The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) is an independent, non-profit organization exclusively focused on problem gambling prevention. Through research, the Council seeks to better understand problem gambling and ways to reduce the risks. Through information, the Council shares this knowledge. Through its awareness programs, the Council provides people with the tools to make informed choices and offers resources for those affected by problem gambling.
But where does their funding come from?
The Ontario government commits two per cent of annual slot revenue from both charity casinos and racetracks to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Ministry of Health Promotion for research, prevention and treatment of problem gambling.

RGC is funded through the Ministry of Health Promotion. We work closely with other research and prevention organizations, as well as with agencies in Ontario that provide problem gambling treatment services.
And their Board of Directors?
Tim Hurson Chair
President
Tim Hurson Enterprises

Larry Moodie Treasurer and Chair, Finance Committee
Detective Inspector
Private Practice

Wendy Rinella Chair, Strategic Directions Committee
Director, Government Relations
First Canadian Title

George Sweny Secretary
Senior Vice President, Lotteries
Ontario Lottery and Gaming

Lisa Root Chair, Nominating Committee
Team Leader
Problem Gambling Program
Niagara Alcohol & Drug Assessment Service

Dr. Colin Campbell Member
Dept. of Criminology
Douglas College

Terry Finn Member
Senior Account Manager
The Computer Media Group

Jane Holmes Member
VP Corporate Affairs
Woodbine Entertainment Group

Michael D. Lipton, Q.C. Member
Lawyer (legal counsel)
Elkind, Lipton & Jacobs

Marie Mullally Member
President/CEO
Nova Scotia Gaming

Susan Olynik Member
Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs
Manitoba Lotteries Corporation

Honourable Justice Reid Scott Member
Retired Judge

Howard Shearer Member
President
Hitachi (Canada) Ltd.

Aubrey Zidenberg Member
President
Casino Amusements Canada

Susan (Vincent) Butler Member
Past Executive Director
Ontario Problem Gambling Helpline
I guess I'm left wondering whether the membership of an organization's board of directors has any bearing on its independence.

Update 28-Jan-2007: The full report is available in PDF: Teen Gambling in Ontario: Behaviours and Perceptions Among 15 to 17 Year Olds.

From the report's Conclusions:
Gambling among 15-17 year-olds in Ontario appears to be quite pervasive, both in terms of its frequency and mentality. However, based on the results of the present survey, it appears that only a small proportion of youth gamblers (3.9%) can be classified as problem gamblers according to a standardized measure.
From the report's Methodology section:
In November 2006, the RGC commissioned Youthography, an organization that specializes in youthbased research, to administer a survey on gambling to youth 15-17 years of age in Ontario. Youthography randomly e-mailed 13,369 individuals in its database who fit this profile an invitation to complete the survey. (Individuals in this database had previously consented to receive notice for online survey research participation.) As an incentive, potential participants were told that their names would be entered into a cash draw for $1,000.

Of those individuals randomly selected to participate in the survey, 2,836 both opened the e-mail and clicked on the survey link; 2,140 then completed the survey. The absolute response rate was 16%, quite high for online surveys where the typical response rate is 3-5%.
Um ... 16%? As far as I can see, the report doesn't mention bias (except in connection with telephone surveys in one footnote), nor does it mention non-reponse.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Quaint provisions

The other day, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the topic of Maher Arar (shown at left, with his daughter) came up. In case you haven't heard his story, here's a quick summary courtesy of Wikipedia:
Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian software engineer. On 26 September 2002, during a stopover in New York en route from Tunis to Montreal, Arar was detained by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service who may have been acting upon false and misleading information supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Despite carrying a Canadian passport, he was deported to Syria in accordance with a U.S. policy known as "extraordinary rendition." Arar was held in solitary confinement in a Syrian prison where he was regularly tortured for almost a year, until his eventual release and return to Canada in October 2003.
Appearing before the Committee, Gonzales wouldn't explain why the U.S. detained Arar and then sent him to Syria instead of to Canada, where he and his family lived. The chair of the Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D.-Vermont) delivered a blistering rebuke to Gonzales (captured on YouTube). Here's an excerpt:
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Attorney General, I’m sorry. I don't mean to treat this lightly. We knew damn well if he went to Canada, he wouldn't be tortured. He’d be held; he’d be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he would be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured. You know and I know that has happened a number of times in the past five years by this country.

It is a black mark on us. It has brought about the condemnation of some of our closest and best allies. They have made those comments both publicly and privately to the President of the United States and others. And it is easy for us to sit here comfortably in this room, knowing that we're not going to be sent off to another country to be tortured, to treat it as though -- well, Attorney General Ashcroft said, “We’ve got assurances,” though assurances from a country that we also say now, “Oh, we can't talk to them because we can't take their word for anything.”

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, Senator, I dis--

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I’m somewhat upset.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Yes, sir. I can tell. But before you get more upset, perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing --

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: How long?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I’m hoping that we can get you the information next week.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, Attorney General, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll meet you halfway on this. I’ll wait next week for that briefing. If we don't get it, I guarantee you there will be another hearing on this issue. Canadians have been our closest allies, longest unguarded frontier in the world. They are justifiably upset. They are wondering what's happened to us. They are wondering what's happened to us. Now, you know and I know we are a country with a great, great tradition of protecting people's individual liberties and rights. You take an oath of office to do that. I take an oath of office to do that. I believe in my basic core nature in that.
Leahy's eloquence and moral indignation are compelling, and I wonder if his words won't be remembered for years to come. Gonzales has a lot to answer for. In fact this story begins years before Arar was detained.

The roots of torture

A Newsweek article from October of last year recounts Washington's growing infatuation with torture following 9/11, referring to it as "the road to Abu Ghraib". The article cites a January 2002 memo from then-White House Counsel Gonzales to President Bush:
"As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war," Gonzales wrote to Bush. "The nature of the new war places a —high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians." Gonzales concluded in stark terms: "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
Gonzales' cynical contempt for the "quaint provisions" of human rights conventions is instructive. Amnesty International describes the situation in this way:
The reality is that since September 2001, the US government has sought to rewrite the rules banning torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment -- and Guantánamo has been a testing ground for these new rules. Interrogation techniques developed for use in Afghanistan and Guantánamo subsequently emerged in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where torture was exposed in photos that shocked the world.
The US administration's preferred version of events is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were an unfortunate accident. But Amnesty International notes that:
On 7 February 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum confirming that Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions would not apply to any Taleban or al-Qa’ida detainee. This included all the detainees sent to Guantánamo. Common Article 3 prohibits torture, cruel treatment and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." President Bush had been advised that not applying common Article 3 would protect US interrogators from prosecutions for war crimes under the USA’s War Crimes Act.

Six months later a Justice Department memorandum advised that the President could override the prohibition on torture; that interrogators could cause a great deal of pain before crossing the threshold to torture; and that there were a wide range of acts that might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment but would not amount to torture.
What sort of treatment are we talking about?
The euphemistically termed "stress and duress" techniques that emerged in Guantánamo and US detention facilities elsewhere included forced standing and crouching, sleep deprivation, subjection to noise, prolonged isolation, and hooding. Some techniques, such as the use of dogs, forced nudity, forcible shaving, sexual humiliation by female interrogators, and removal of religious items, have discriminatory undertones.
It strains credulity to imagine how this kind of treatment could be considered acceptable by civilized society. But as we know all too well, it's not so difficult to put a spell on the body politic.

The voice from the tower

All you need is to get the white right wizard, in this case Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, to speak from the (ivory) tower. In his 2001 opinion piece published in the LA Times, titled "Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?", Dershowitz wrote:
I have no doubt that if an actual ticking bomb situation were to arise, our law enforcement authorities would torture. The real debate is whether such torture should take place outside of our legal system or within it. The answer to this seems clear: If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law.
When I first heard of Dershowitz's outrageous proposal, I simply couldn't understand why he wasn't being treated as a pariah by civilized society. Certainly his silver tongue had the power to enchant, but weren't his conclusions utterly nauseating? Could it be that the glittery garb of his position at the esteemed Harvard Law School was cloaking the loathsome stuff underneath? (For a well-written, albeit brief, analysis of Dershowitz's nonsense, see Seth Finkelstein's article "Alan Dershowitz's Tortuous Torturous Argument".)

A choice policy

I leave you with the following excerpt from the same Amnesty International report quoted earlier:
President Bush’s 7 February 2002 memorandum, which has not been withdrawn, states that detainees would be treated humanely, "including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment." There are no such detainees. All detainees, everywhere, have the right to be free from torture or other ill-treatment. This is not a policy choice. It is a legal obligation on all governments.
Update 24-Jan-2007: My brother pointed me to an article in today's San Francisco Chronicle: "Gonzales says the Constitution doesn't guarantee habeas corpus." If this doesn't give you the willies, I don't know what will.

Update 27-Jan-2007: Thursday's Globe & Mail had an editorial about the U.S. government's continuing refusal to allow Maher Arar to enter that country. The editorial notes that:
... as a Canadian inquiry concluded last September, there was no good reason to think [Arar] was any kind of threat. Canadian officials have now concluded the secret U.S. files add up to nothing. Yet [U.S.-ambassador-to-Canada David] Wilkins says it is a "little presumptuous" to say Mr. Arar should get his livelihood back ...
(Travel to the U.S. is an important part of Maher Arar's work in computer networking.) As the first line in the editorial opines, "If nothing else ... Wilkins gets top marks for gall."

Yesterday, in a letter to Maher Arar, Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wrote:
On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you ... and your family for any role that Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002-2003.
About time.

Update 28-Jan-2007: Amnesty International are campaigning to Close Guantánamo. It's time to stand up for the "quaint provisions" of human rights for all!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Unfloppable?

As I noted the other day, a large part of the media has obediently lined up to proclaim the glories of Apple's "revolutionary" new iPhone. It seems that simply putting an i at the beginning of the name confers the blessing of the zeitgeist. With such an auspicious title, surely the iPhone couldn't flop. It's unsinkable unthinkable!

Or is it? Check out Kirk Sato's 10 reasons IPhone is going to be a Flop. (He also links to a hilarious Stephen Colbert segment.)

A purportedly potent rodent

And another thing: the iPhone has no buttons. Reminds me of another Apple product: the Mighty Mouse, which came with my iMac. The advertising copy is seductive:
Thanks to a smooth top shell with touch-sensitive technology beneath, Mighty Mouse allows you to right click without a right button. Capacitive sensors under Mighty Mouse’s seamless top shell detect where your fingers are and predict your clicking intentions, so you don’t need two buttons — just two fingers.
A smooth shill for a smooth shell. But--gasp!--Apple doesn't always get things right. For a more reality-based assessment of the purportedly potent rodent, check out the Wikipedia entry. The "Criticisms" section lists quite a number of purported shortcomings. I can personally corroborate these ones:
  • Right clicks can be difficult. The fingers must be lifted completely off the left side of the mouse for a right click to work.
  • The scroll ball is sensitive to dirt, and difficult to clean because it is not removable. It is often rendered inoperable and irreparable after only a few months of use.
  • The squeeze buttons do not provide much tactile feedback and can be awkward to reach.

The issue of tactile feedback (or lack thereof) brings us back to the iPhone:

How can you dial the iPhone without looking at it? How can you reach in your pocket and press “1” for voicemail? How can you orient yourself with the interface without seeing it? With a traditional phone or device with buttons you can feel your way around it. You can find the bumps, the humps, the cut lines, the shapes, the sizes. You can find your way around in the dark. Not with the iPhone.
(Posted by Jason on 37signals).

Floptics

In the end, a flop may be in the eye of the beholder. And prediction without precision deserves derision. (That was original, by the way.) Whereas Nostradamus could get away with making vague and poetical prophecies, it behoves me as a scientist to make a falsifiable prediction. I haven't quite formulated this yet, but it seems to me that:
  • Apple has obviously sunk a pile of cash into developing and marketing the iPhone.
  • It's not clear that they'll recoup this investment.
  • Nor is it clear that they'll still be selling phones three years from now.

This was the sort of thing I had in mind when I made my initial prediction (flop cit).

I'll conclude this post by taking a page out of Nostradamus' book:

I do but make bold to predict (not that I guarantee the slightest thing at all), thanks to my researches and the consideration of what judicial Astrology promises me and sometimes gives me to know, principally in the form of warnings, so that folk may know that with which the celestial stars do threaten them. Not that I am foolish enough to pretend to be a prophet.
(Open letter to Privy Councillor [later Chancellor] Birague, 15 June 1566.)

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Apple's iPhone will be a flop


One of the gifts I received for my birthday was a 2nd-generation iPod shuffle. It's a triumph of minimalistic design, a near-perfect marriage of functionality and aesthetic. (I really like it.)

But the media are currently in an almost religious frenzy over a different Apple product: the iPhone. A lot of the coverage has seemed like it was lifted straight out of Apple's propaganda press releases. Hmmm ... where have we seen this before?

In reaction to this media love-in, I spent rather too much time today trying to convince anyone who would listen (including my long-suffering brother) that the iPhone will be a flop. I marshaled what I thought were some pretty good arguments. But a Google search of "iphone will flop" reveals that I was scooped! Back in December, CNET News.com editor-at-large Michael Kanellos published an opinion piece titled "The Apple phone flop". He predicted that:
As with any Apple product release, it will be ushered into the world on a wave of obligatory gushing. "It's the greatest advance in communication since cave painting," some will proclaim. ... It's predictable. If Apple got into medical devices, people would come out of Steve Jobs' speech proclaiming "The iBag is the easiest, most user-friendly colostomy device I've ever encountered."
But won't the iPhone do for cell phones what the iPod did for MP3 players?
The entire strategy ... is based on what I call "iPod magic." Apple succeeded with the iPod, the theory goes. Therefore, they can break into other categories and turn them upside down.

But the iPod looks like it may turn out to be a non-repeatable experience. Look at the historical record. When the iPod emerged in late 2001, it solved some major problems with MP3 players.
(At that time, the MP3 players on the market had very little memory, small screens, and what Kanellos described as "cheesy navigation".) But what about cell phones?
Cell phones aren't clunky, inadequate devices. Instead, they are pretty good. Really good. Why do you think they call it a Crackberry? Because the lumpy design and confusing interface of the device is causing people to break into cars? No, it's because people are addicted to it.

Samsung has scoured the world's design schools and hired artists on three continents to keep its phones looking good. Motorola has revived its fortunes with design. KDDI, a Japanese carrier, has a design showcase in the teen shopping area of Tokyo just to be close to trends. And Sharp doesn't skimp when it comes to putting LCD TVs on its phones.

Apple, in other words, won't be competing against rather doltish, unstylish companies like the old Compaq. The handset companies move pretty quick and put out new models every few weeks.
In addition, Kanellos made some other arguments I hadn't thought of. Of course, he was writing this more than a month ago, so he only had rumours about the iPhone to go on. In particular, the name of the new phone hadn't been released: nobody imagined that Apple would pick a name that was already taken. And then there's the rather hefty price tag: the cheapest iPhone will set you back US$500. (I'm not alone in thinking this could be a deal-breaker.)

I have occasionally (ahem) been described as a techno-geek, and I'll admit that I can get pretty enthusiastic about new technology. I also own an iMac G5, which I quite like. But I think the time has come to upset the Apple cart.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Supporting the troops the war


The Ottawa International Airport has a large banner in the arrivals area proclaiming that "We Support Our Troops". I think it's worth considering what this means, so let's take it word by word ...

We

Who exactly is "We"? Perhaps the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority, since they're the ones who presumably authorized the banner. But isn't the airport a public place? Nobody asked my opinion.

Support

Perhaps the key word. As a taxpayer, I suppose it's a given that I support the troops financially. But let's cut to the chase: we're talking about the Afghanistan mission here, and I don't believe Canadian troops should be in Afghanistan. My disagreement is not with the troops themselves, it's with the foreign policy of the Canadian government.

Our Troops

The trouble is, the wording of the slogan seems to suggest that if you disagree with the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, then somehow you're "against the troops". It brings to mind George W. Bush's infantile pronouncement that "You're either with us or against us". Is it just me, or does this sound a bit Orwellian? The standard left-wing response has been a modified slogan: "Support our troops: bring them home". A clever rejoinder, but I still wonder if we shouldn't challenge the whole framework.

Criticizing the Canadian military adventure in Afghanistan is not equivalent to passing moral judgement on individual soldiers.

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