Friday, May 6, 2011

Online predator sentenced; victims' families differ on sentence

You may have heard of the bizarre and tragic case of an American nurse, William Melchert-Dinkel, who has just been sentenced for seeking out depressed people online and getting them to kill themselves. At least two of them, Nadia Kajouji of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, from Coventry, England, actually did it. Melchert-Dinkel has just received a somewhat creative sentence - following 260 consecutive days in jail, he'll serve weekends on the anniversaries of Kajouji's and Drybrough's deaths for ten more years. One thing I find interesting, though, is the vastly differing reactions of the victims' families to this sentence. From the CBC article:

Marc Kajouji, Nadia's brother, said the punishment was too light for the crime.

"A guilty verdict isn't justice; punishment is justice," said Kajouji. "A year in a jail with work release doesn't really seem like justice."

Meanwhile, across the pond we see this:
Last night Mr Drybrough’s mum Elaine, of Walsgrave Road, Stoke, said the sentence was a “good result”.
So is an individual difference, or a cultural one? I'm inclined to think the latter, especially since this isn't the only case of dramatically different responses to similar crimes between Canada and the UK. Remember how Tim McLean's mum was all but calling for the public execution of Vince Li? Well, when another person with severe mental illness, Sabina Eriksson, killed a man in the UK in 2008, the victim's brother had this to say:
"We don't hold her responsible, the same as we wouldn't blame a rabid dog for biting someone. She is ill and to a large degree, not responsible for her actions. But her mental disorder should have been recognized much earlier."
So why are we so much more vengeful here? I think it's probably because we watch more American TV, with its emphasis on hang 'em high "justice". For what it's worth, I find the British response more rational and civilized.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Science experiment leads to arrests

It seems amateur science can be risky in more ways than one:

Two teenagers in Kelowna learned a lesson in not playing with matches Tuesday night after they set off a hydrogen gas explosion that brought out the bomb squad.

Police received a call shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday from a neighbour. The caller reported that an explosion rattled windows and caused one person at the home to jump off a couch, according to Cnst. Steve Holmes.

“Neighbors went outside to find a woman and two males, in their late teens, picking up debris off their driveway,” said Holmes. “A noticeable ring of “charring” scarred the driveway and one of the young men stated that it was only hydrogen, which is a flammable gas.”

Holmes said a witness advised that a smaller explosion had been heard coming from the same residence earlier in the day.

“Police arrived, along with the fire department and maintained a distance from the residence as it was unknown what kind of explosive devices they were dealing with,” said Holmes. “Police called the residence and asked the 49-year-old female inside to come outside.”

The woman went outside her home and was detained by police as they spoke with her, said Holmes.

“Police learned that her two teenage sons were experimenting with hydrogen gas and that it was a science experiment that had gotten out of hand,” said Holmes.

The teenagers were out looking for their dog, which had run away when the hydrogen was detonated. After a search, they were found and arrested for possession of explosives.

Source, my emphasis. Now I don't know about you, but when I was a kid I had a chemistry set, and the instructions explained how to make - and detonate - small amounts of hydrogen. To be fair, they may have been a bit cavalier in the amount they made, and they shouldn't have done it with the dog off the leash, but the charge levied is one that in the old days was usually only applied to serious stuff, usually if you're actually trying to do damage. Of course, if they'd hurt someone, a charge of criminal negligence might be justified, but if possession of any material that could cause an explosion is a crime, then you'd best get rid of any blowtorches, gas barbecues, aerosol cans, and the like that you might have.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The day after

Well, as you're no doubt aware, the election didn't go the way I expected. For that matter, it didn't go the way most other people expected, including some of the winning candidates. And indeed there are some good aspects to what happened; while part of me would have loved to see the NDP jump from fourth place to government in one fell swoop, it's probably better that these rookie MPs get the chance to learn the ropes in opposition before they take office (I suspect that was a contributing factor to the troubles of the Rae government in Ontario back in the day). I'm not unhappy to see Elizabeth May in the House either, for that matter.

But while this was a hugely successful election for the NDP, it is definitely a Pyrrhic victory, thanks to the Conservative majority. What's odd, though, is the way things played out in the final day or so of the campaign. Nearly all the polls put the Cons in the mid to high thirties, while the NDP's share of the vote is shown as pretty close to what they actually got. So what gave the Cons the boost into majority territory?

It sounds crazy, but one possibility that comes to my mind is the death of Osama bin Laden. Some people seem to see the killing as a vindication of the Afghan war, and if enough people who were right-leaning but had a bad feeling about our involvement in said war had their (obviously limited) minds changed by this, it could have made the difference. Pretty pathetic, but then a lot of Canadian voters are pretty pathetic.

What can we expect now? The Cons claim that they're not going to introduce radical changes... and maybe the government itself won't, but I bet that there will be a lot of private members' bills reopening the abortion and marriage debates. Most of them won't make it far enough to be debated, but those that do get debated have an excellent chance of passing.

And as bad as that would be, there are worse things that could happen. At least if abortion or same-sex marriage is banned it will be easy enough for a future government to reverse the decision. Indeed, if they use the notwithstanding clause to avoid constitutional challenges, such a law would automatically be invalidated unless renewed. On the other hand, if they abolish the Canadian Wheat Board, for instance, NAFTA will likely preclude reversing such a move; it will be gone forever. And that is a bad thing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The moment of truth approaches

Firstly, my apologies for not updating this blog more frequently. Among other things, I've been working on an actual election campaign (hey, you didn't think I was nonpartisan, did you?). But in any case, as you're no doubt aware, there seems to have been a dramatic shift in the last few weeks. The chances of a Conservative majority seem to be greatly reduced, although it's not impossible that the NDP surge could pull enough votes away from the Liberals to push the Conservatives over the top.

Last week, based mostly on poking around on the Election Prediction website, I came up with the following guess as to seat distribution: Conservatives 138, Liberals 67, NDP 59, Bloc 41, Green 1, Independent 2 (André Arthur and Hec Clouthier). However, the NDP could very well do even better, and indeed some seat projections from the latest polls put the NDP firmly in second place in the seat count. In fact, many of the projections have the combined NDP and Liberal seats adding up to a majority. But what then?

My suspicion is that the Liberals would be reluctant to defeat the government and allow the NDP to take power, because this would greatly diminish the Liberals' opportunity to rebuild their party. After all, once the NDP is out of third place they, and not the Liberals, will be seen as the main alternative to the Conservatives. On the other hand, for the Liberals to prop up the Cons once again, they'd have to swallow a lot of pride, and so it's not impossible that Layton will end up in the PMO. We'll know soon enough...

Also interesting is the race in Saanich-Gulf Islands. I have a sneaking suspicion that Elizabeth May will manage to win that seat, which could be the beginning of a slow ascent for her party. On the other hand, if she doesn't win that seat it may be quite some time before the Greens are a significant force.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elizabeth May shut out of TV debates

I wondered if this was going to happen:
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is once again getting shut out of the televised debates, but she is already rallying her troops for a fight and finding some unlikely allies.
From the Star. Interesting to see who some of these allies are:

New Democrat Leader Jack Layton — who had threatened to boycott if she took part last time — expressed dissatisfaction with the way the decision was made.

“If certain leaders are not invited to participate, I think it is reasonable for them to know why,” Layton said in a statement.

“We’re fine with her in the debate,” he added.


Bryon Wilfert, the Liberal incumbent for Richmond Hill and a close confidant of Dion, denounced the decision, although made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of his party.

“I think the networks are wrong,” said Wilfert, who considers May a friend and thought she contributed much to the debate last time.

It's very much to Layton's credit (and Wilfert's, but then he wouldn't have to face her in the debate) to take this stance, especially since he initially opposed her inclusion in the previous debate. The fact is, she did contribute a lot to the debate last time. Now technically, she was on much stronger ground in 2008, thanks to Blair Wilson's having crossed the floor to join her party. Technically, of course, the networks would be consistent with their previous policy if they didn't let her in, since the Greens no longer have a sitting MP, but surely having participated previously should count for something, no? It's worth remembering that the PCs came within two seats of being eliminated in 1993, and it's a safe bet that if Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne hadn't managed to cling to their seats, the PCs would still have been allowed into the debate in 1997.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Then again...

As noted yesterday, Ipsos' latest poll puts the Cons in majority territory. It's worth remembering, as a commenter to yesterday's post reminded me, that polls of this sort are hardly the last word, so maybe it's not time to panic yet. Indeed, EKOS also just came out with a poll of their own suggesting that the Cons, while ahead, are not anywhere near a majority. This poll is a lot more consistent with most (not all) recent ones.

Of course, if after the election the new parliament is pretty much the same as the old one, we'll be right back where we started... unless the opposition tries to form a coalition again. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, since the Cons have been absurdly successful in painting coalitions as something evil and unbecoming of Canadians. Why this idea resonates with the public I have no idea, but it does. So we'd have yet another Conservative minority government... and quite likely a one-way trip back to Massachusetts for Iggy.

Friday, March 25, 2011

And they're off...

As you will doubtless be aware by now, the Harper government has been defeated in a confidence vote, which means an election is coming. The situation is unfortunate, because at best we're looking at another Conservative minority government... but the latest poll looks much, much worse:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives begin an election campaign this weekend far ahead of their political rivals in public favour and would be poised to win a "comfortable" majority if Canadians cast their votes now, a new poll has found.

The national survey, conducted exclusively for Postmedia News and Global National, reveals voter support is declining for the opposition Liberals who have put forward a non-confidence motion that will lead to the defeat of the Conservative government in the House of Commons this afternoon.

The March 22-23 poll by Ipsos Reid found public support remains solid for the Tories despite recent opposition attempts to draw attention to such controversies as the government's treatment of Parliament and revelations that an ex-senior aide to Harper lobbied a department to get funds for his fiancée, a former escort.

The Conservatives are now supported by 43 per cent of decided voters -- up by three points from two weeks ago.

Just as important, the Tories now have a widening 19-point lead over the Liberals led by Michael Ignatieff.

The Grits, who have been trying to incite public fury over the government's ethical record and improve the public's negative impression of Ignatieff, now have the support of just 24 per cent of voters, down by three points.

Jack Layton's NDP, which put the country on the path to a spring election by announcing earlier this week it would not support the Conservative budget, are backed by 16 per cent of voters -- no change from the previous poll.

What's confusing, though, is the fact that another poll found that voters are increasingly skeptical of the government:
A poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV by Nanos Research shows that 41 per cent of Canadians trust the Conservative government less than they did a year ago. Only 6 per cent trust it more. Forty-eight per cent feel about the same, and 5 per cent just don’t know.
What is going on here? One interpretation is simple - one (or both) of those polls is just plain wrong. But there's another possibility, and a disturbing one at that. It could well be that corruption and dishonesty in government tends to favour the political right, even when it's a right wing party that's being corrupt and dishonest. After all, people who have made up their minds that all politicians are crooks are going to be more inclined to give their (grudging) support to a party they believe will reduce the role of government... which is precisely how right wing parties like to market themselves. Notably, prominent Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella thinks the Ipsos poll is accurate, and that a Conservative sweep is coming.

I'm not 100% certain of this, of course, and I really hope it's not the case. If it is, our democracy is even more broken than previously thought.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in our democracy is first-past-the-post. Given this, some people are bound to advocate tactical voting (or, as it's become trendy to call it in this country, "strategic voting"). Now I'm a "never say never" kind of person, and I recognize that in extremis this might be necessary. However, most of the time it doesn't do any good, and you're simply wasting a vote on a party you don't even really like in the mistaken view that you're helping stop the Cons. That said, tactical voting might help if, and only if:

1) The national situation is such that the Cons are either on the verge of a majority (as they may well be now) or on the verge of being pushed into second place. The key, though, is on the verge. If things are such that a majority is inevitable - or impossible for that matter - there's no benefit for tactical voting (though there may be a benefit to the party that advocates tactical voting, which usually means the Liberals). Now this is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for this approach to help. The other is:

2) The situation in your own riding must be such that the Conservative candidate could credibly either win or lose. This rules out a riding like Winnipeg Centre or Elmwood-Transcona (where the Cons are a non-entity) as well as ridings like Provencher or Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette (where most of the population thinks they'll go to Hell if they vote for anyone else).

It's worth noting too that even in such a case, the best tactical vote might actually be for the NDP (especially in parts of BC or Saskatchewan) or even the Greens (in Saanich-Gulf Islands, for instance) but I doubt too many Liberals are going to point out subtleties like this. Myself, I'm kind of hoping a Liberal canvasser comes to my door and tries to sell me on the subject of tactical voting so that I can rub his or her face in this fact.