A 2014 Reading List

We circulated a flash card around friends gathered to celebrate the start of 2014 and each one contributed the name of a book that you should add to your reading list soon. Here they are, in no particular order.

I’ve read six of these, and liked them all, which bodes well for the rest of them.

Indian Supreme Court refuses to strike down anti-homosexuality laws

In a major setback to gay activists, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held that homosexuality or “unnatural” sex between two consenting adults under Section 377 Indian Penal Code would be an offence and this provision did not suffer from any constitutional infirmity.

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/homosexuality-illegal-sc/article5446939.ece?homepage=true I am appalled, disgusted and feel for the millions of Indian LGBTQ. India’s laws against homosexuality (section 377) were written by British colonizers in 1860 (pdf) and no parliament since has bothered to strike them down. They are not enforced with vigour, or at all, perhaps, but the very presence of such a law silences, intimidates and oppresses the people of India, and in fact, anyone visiting as well. The LGBTQ in India suffer from oppression and silencing for reasons that go well beyond the presence of a law, but changing laws is often the first step in societal change in India. The Delhi High Court in 2009 did the right thing (and politicians a favour) by ruling the law unconstitutional. The supreme court had other ideas, apparently. The court argues (very disingenuously) that they find nothing nothing wrong with a law that the Delhi court found violated Article 14 of India’s constitution, and that the onus is on the legislature to repeal the provision. Given the idiocy of defending laws that clearly discriminate between different types of sexual activity between consenting adults, who is to blame here?

  • The British: Thanks for imposing your morals on India, no one asked you to.
  • The Congress-led ruling coalition, which initially opposed the Delhi verdict, then supported it, then mounted a tepid defence at the supreme court (like Obama on gay marriage in the US). They had the opportunity to strike the law down legislatively in 2009, and could have used their majority to do so at any point in time, they did not.
  • Indian fundamentalists. The Christians, Muslims and Hindu fundamentalists launched a united front against the ruling and argued in court together.
  • Civic organizations like Prayas, who seem to think that sex between consenting adults has something do with protecting children.
  • The Delhi Commission for protecting children? This is a governmental organization tasked with preventing child abuse. Again, they seem to think that sex between consenting adults and abuse of children are somehow connected. Sexualized abuse of children in India is terribly common and primarily perpetrated by family members,
  • The Supreme Court in India, which by law should not always be deferential to legislative process, especially when the constitution is concerned. It is well within the court’s jurisdiction to look at laws enacted before the Indian constitution and void them if they violate the constitution. The fact that they decided in this case to pretend to “see nothing wrong” indicates that they made up their mind and found a rationalization.

rainbowWhat next? India’s election is in 4 months, nothing will happen then. Given the congress coalition’s recent weakness, and the BJP’s resurgence, India may be looking at a right wing coalition led by the BJP coming to power. Given their close ties and identification with Hindu fundamentalism, and their social conservatism, the law is likely to stand for a while longer. It will oppress millions.

Fun with maps: BC Smart meters and the 2013 election

SmartMeterVotingMapI have been MOOC’ing this summer and learning how to do maps. Geography as an adult is much more fun than my 10th grade geography class.

Chad Skelton over at the Vancouver Sun intrigued me with his data retrieval and mapping of British Columbia’s Smart Meter uptake. if you’re not from BC, here’s a short intro (#BCpoli-aware feel free to skip the next two paragraphs).

BC Hydro is the government owned (Crown Corporation) utility that produces and distributes electricity for the province of British Colombia in Canada. In 2011, BC Hydro announced its intention to spend $$$ upgrading all its electricity meters to “smart meters”. These meters are capable of being read via wifi by meter readers, and potentially also give BC residents the ability to monitor their electricity usage in near-real time.

Many concerns were raised about the smart meters. One was about the costs of the program vs. perceived benefits. The others, which gained traction were around an emerging movement in BC connecting wifi, cell signals and wifi-enabled smart meters with a whole variety of health effects. While few, if any of these health concerns have been actually causally linked to smart meters, or even to the amorphous descriptor “wifi radiation”, these health concerns have gained traction even among official bodies such as the Union of BC Municipalities, municipal councils and school boards. The BC provincial election in 2013 was a chance for people to voice their concerns. The opposition parties all brought the issue up during canvassing.

For my peer assessment mapping project, I wanted to see if areas of relatively high smart meter refusal were correlated or co-located in any way with voting against the ruling BC Liberals.

This is the map I made, my first ever map not scrawled on paper.

View Larger Map

Reading the Map

The electoral districts are colour-coded by BC Liberal Party percentage, darker means higher vote for the BC Liberals. I chose this rather than “who won” because I was looking more for an anti-BC Liberal effect. I will, at some point in time, try to overlay “who won” as well. The smart meter refusal data is in three different coloured and sized circles. Large and red means higher refusal, and small and green means low refusal. This is a hybrid of a graduated circle symbol scheme and a diverging colour scheme. Clearly, using points to represent areas is a big limitation, but it is sufficient for a quick peek.

Anything to See?

  • An overwhelming majority of people had smart meters installed, > 90% in most places. So, BC Hydro’s brute force, no options, default installation plan was mostly successful
  • Places of higher than normal refusal tended to vote against the BC Liberals. I believe this had more to do with existing anti-BC-Lib tendencies influencing smart meter refusal rather than the other way around.
  • Urban centres like Victoria and Vancouver had relatively low rates of refusal. Is this because of higher apartment proportions, or because smart meter refusal was restricted to a small number of high information, highly motivated individuals whose number varied by location and whose numbers in places like Victoria were muted by larger populations?. Note that my home area of Victoria had the most (7300) rejected smart meters, even though the percentage is small. The ageing white (l)iberal enclave of Saltspring Island (Ganges), aka hippieville, Canada had by far the highest refusal percentage. So, is this smart meter refusal map mostly a hippie population distribution map?

The take home message for me was that the anti-smartmeter movement had little influence on the election, which was most likely won on the usual and mundane issues of the economy, trust and corruption.


  1. I downloaded data on smart meter refusal from the Chad Skelton’s post and Tableau public
  2. The data from BC Hydro is categorized using their division of BC into distinct geographical billing areas. I used billing area names to geotag the information. The site http://www.findlatitudeandlongitude.com/ has a feature where addresses can be uploaded in bulk via a text interface, and the site returns the place, and latitude longitude. I added province and country to the place names, and edited ambiguous names to make the search more effective.
  3. I uploaded this table to arcgis to form one layer. Arcgis is a big and expensive GIS software, with a limited free online playpen where this map is displayed. I used graduated circles and natural breaks to represent the different levels of smart meter refusal. A big limitation to this approach is that the BC Hydro billing areas are just that, areas, not points on a map. However, the area boundaries are not available as a shape file, and geographical areas vary widely. So, the points correspond to the centre of the nearest big population area mentioned in the BC Hydro billing area description
  4. I downloaded BC electoral district shape files from Paul Ramsey of Open Geo. These shape files are an improved version of those available from Elections BC, again, thanks to Chad Skelton for pointing me in this direction
  5. Elections BC lists 2013 provincial election results information by party by district. However, there is no publicly downloadable mapped source for the election data results. I used the open source GIS desktop software QGIS to open the shape file and add the attribute of BC Liberal percentage to the shape file. I uploaded this shape file to arcgis and layered it with the smart meter refusal rate graduated circles to look for patterns.

Maps are fun to play with, and I know very very little about them, which is a great combination. Every minute I spent making this map was a learning experience. Comments and feedback, please. I think I will slowly incorporate mapping into my skill set. But I think I will use open source/free solutions in the future.


OspreyNot policy related, but I don’t write free form anything ever, so this is a rare occurrence that is going on the blog. PS: Work does not necessarily mean paid work. Osprey courtesy Sergey Yeliseev’s Flickr Stream used under a creative commons licence because the osprey is on my top 5 list of favourite birds and I did see one eating a rabbit on my walk back from work once.


I wish I worked like I walk
One foot in front of another
A steady, fast pace
Direct, seeking straight lines
Obstacles gone around or over
But always pausing to smile at the rabbits
Or to wonder when that osprey’s going to make my day
I wish I worked like I walk
Anticipating every light
Speeding up or slowing down
Observing every car that doesn’t see me
Shaking to a song that moves
But the walk continues
I wish I worked like I walk
Rain or shine, only the clothes and accessories change
The pace is still steady
A destination awaits
I know why I walk
The path is good and the end is clear.
and maybe that’s why
I don’t work like I walk…


US, unlike Canada, considers climate impacts of fossil fuel transport

SeaLevelThe Sightline Institute alerted me to the scope of assessment for the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Washington State.

The Washington Department of Ecology, is going to require in-depth analysis of four elements that the coal industry had desperately hoped to avoid: A detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts. An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington. A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters. An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

via Scope of Gateway Pacific Analysis is Bad News for Coal Industry | Sightline Daily.

Contrast with Canada’s Kinder Morgan pipeline review. This pipeline aims to triple the flow of tarsands oil through an already existing old pipeline. Tankers carrying 900,000 barrels of bitumen will ply the Salish Sea every day.

But the scope of the review won’t encompass the potential impacts of the oilsands crude that would be in the pipe, or the end-use for the oil.

At a time when greenhouse gases already emitted are set to cause sea level rise that will affect millions, even in affluent countries like the US, considering climate impacts of all fossil fuel projects seems to be a no-brainer. Obama repeatedly mentions climate impacts as an important factor in the US review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The other part of this review that is more comprehensive than Canadian reviews is the explicit leadership of the state environmental agency, the Washington State Department of Ecology. Here in British Carbontaxia, the government gave up its review rights on the Enbridge pipeline.

Industry boosters claim that individual pipelines have nothing to do with the climate, and that the oil will flow one way or the other, sometimes to tragic effect. This Pembina post is a quick start on what the tarsands mean for climate. Note that building these pipelines is key to increasing capacity, hence emissions. Without pipelines, the tarsands will not grow as fast. So, any review that does not take climate impacts of fossil fuel transport into use is not a serious review. A barrel of tarsands oil (at 20% greater than average emission) is around 0.5 metric tonnes of carbon. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would carry approximately 170 million tonnes (Mt) worth of carbon equivalent per year. The greenhouse gas emissions in BC in 2010 was 63 Mt. Surely, we need to consider climate impacts! Just the incremental impact of tarsands oil (more intensive than average) is itself worth about a billion tonnes of carbon over a 50 year lifespan.

Canada claims to align with the US on greenhouse gas mitigation actions. Clearly, this is one of those “not intended to be factually accurate” statements.

Picture courtesy go greener oz used under a creative commons licence.

Poverty alleviation and healthcare need more people, not more technology

Atul Gawande writes eloquently, about why certain advances are taken up very quickly. and some aren’t. Seven pages of crisp prose full of stories, examples and personal experience mixed with science later, I (re)learned a couple of important lessons.

via Atul Gawande: How Do Good Ideas Spread? : The New Yorker.



This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful. The global destruction wrought by a warming climate, the health damage from our over-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster of our trillion dollars in unpaid student debt—these things worsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the carbolic-acid remedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kind or another, struggle to get anywhere.

The nature of the problem being fixed is important. Issues not immediately apparent to human perception, and which require human behaviour changes to fix are difficult.

We’re infatuated with the prospect of technological solutions to these problems <snip>As with most difficulties in global health care, lack of adequate technology is not the biggest problem. <snip> Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. <snip> To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change.

Two, clearly, inventing new technology/interventions is only second or third in a series of steps needed to actually solve a problem. We often laud the technological aspect, awarding prizes for new inventions and new science, while ignoring the much more challenging human dimensions to changing behaviour and norms.

What would happen if we hired a cadre of childbirth-improvement workers to visit birth attendants and hospital leaders, show them why and how to follow a checklist of essential practices, understand their difficulties and objections, and help them practice doing things differently. In essence, we’d give them mentors.

We are going in the opposite direction. Government spending, especially on hiring people to solve difficult problems over a medium-long term is now almost taboo. Take poverty, for example. Yesterday, there was a report of a groundbreaking study confirming that, contra the billions of dollars spent trying to win the “war on drugs”, poverty is much more harmful to children than their mothers’ cocaine usage. Clearly, Canada has enough money that no one has to suffer from poverty. Yet, my wonderful “heaven on earth” province BC has Canada’s worst child poverty. The BC government is running headlong in the opposite direction, consolidating services, and making assistance services almost impossible to reach.

We know what to do, give people money to live, give them cheap and accessible child care, help people with acute and chronic physical and mental health issues including substance use, and employ people they can talk to and learn from, mentors and more. Take the uncertainty out of their daily lives, take out some of the incredibly taxing daily decisions they have to make every day, and see what happens.

Instead, it is easy politically to spend billions on shiny cars, bazookas, drones, heat sensing equipment, computers, and more for cops to police poverty. My city’s cops ride around in cars that seem ridiculously over-designed given the city’s speed limit of 50 kmph, and Victoria is not even close to being excessive. Yet, it is impossible to spend money on the harm reduction workers that can actually provide the support services people need. We routinely criminalize poverty and hope that we will somehow solve it by harassing people for being poor.

Real poverty reduction starts with giving more money to the poor, unconditionally and non-judgmentally. But it also involves hiring many more people to act as advocates, teachers and mentors for people who will greatly appreciate and benefit from this increased social connection. If we want change, we need more people whose job it is to make the change happen.


The India Pakistan Partition in Indian Textbooks

Partition_of_Punjab,_India_1947Via Kafila, Shivam Vij on how India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)’s history curriculum for 12th graders (They publish the entire curriculum on the web for free, read/download) addresses the violence that accompanied India and Pakistan’s independence from British rule (the partition), and its aftermath.

I’m startled to see that a government textbook has progressed so much that it begins talking about Partition with oral narratives, that too from 1992 and not 1947. In one go, it has told 17-year-olds the importance of oral history, introduced them to the idea of Partition as a continuing event and showed them how their own family narratives about Partition have a mirror image across the border. The chapter’s last four pages discuss oral history and its limitations in understanding the past.

What I learned about Partition – The Express Tribune.

Class12 IndianHistory3 Unit14 NCERT TextBook EnglishEditionIndiaPakistanPartition

Read embed here.

Wow, oral histories, neutral points of view, narrative and people-based history, this is definitely not my history textbook. The history I learned in school (10th grade and below) was simplistic, date and event based, and painted Jinnah and the British as caricature villains dividing South Asia on religious lines during the partition. I remember the year the Brits massacred thousands of unarmed meeting attendees in Jallianwala Bagh (1919), not what it led to, and why it happened. Divide and Rule was all you needed to know about the partition.

I really enjoyed reading this more nuanced and sophisticated treatment and look forward to reading more of the curriculum on Indian history, all the textbooks are online for free. Well done, Indian government!

Only Indians choosing the “arts” stream would be exposed to this curriculum. The overwhelming majority of those who take science or economics streams would not see this at all. I wonder what kind of history is being taught to 13-14 year old kids taking required social science courses, hopefully, better that what I was exposed to.

Is BC’s agriculture Minister Pat Pimm a climate denier?

pimmFrom Minutes of Wednesday’s Committee C meeting, to me via Torrance Coste on facebook (can’t link), some disturbing words.


N. Simons: Does the minister agree that climate change is human caused?

[D. Plecas in the chair.]

The Chair: Minister.

Hon. P. Pimm: Thank you very much, and welcome to the discussion this afternoon.

The Chair: Good afternoon.

Hon. P. Pimm: I think there are many varying opinions on climate change, and we all have our opinions. I’m sure you have your opinion, I might have my opinion, and I think we’ll just leave it at that.

via Hansard — Committee C Blues — Wednesday, July 17, 2013 p.m..

Very troubling if true. Climate change will have many impacts on agriculture in BC and worldwide and a minister who thinks climate change is a matter of opinion doesn’t belong in positions of power regardless of portfolio.

Stay tuned. I hope this is some kind of transcription error.

School Meals and Child Death in India


Like most, I am appalled and saddened by the death of 20+ (and rising) children in Bihar, poisoned by pesticide in their state-provided school lunch. This guardian article has a good run down on the issues that beset the program.

The fear is that attention is being diverted from what is an acute problem in many of India’s state-run or state-assisted schools. While the ruling party in the state looks for excuses, the harsh reality is that food provided to children all over the country is often substandard, and sometimes not even fit for human consumption.

Indias deadly problem with school meals | Kishwar Desai | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.

What is missing from the analysis is the magnitude of the hunger problem India is trying to solve. It is estimated that over 40% of children are undernourished in IndiaSchool meals have large public health benefits if done right. So it is vitally important that this program work, as this Indian teacher so eloquently details in her blog post.

It’s this absence of monitoring, I believe, that’s sabotaging a scheme that’s helped bring millions of children into school. The scheme was originally envisaged as government-run, but community aided and supervised. In practice, because parents and teachers are both busy, the whole system lacks anyone to ensure hygiene and quality.

The entire post is worth a read.

India reduced its global hunger index by about 24% since 1990. But note that Bangladesh’s percent reductions have been higher. As The Week points out, the last thing you want is for parents to pull their kids out of school because their kids will get poisoned, and for this program to end because it cannot be implemented without poisoning the kids.

What is especially egregious in this case was that the children noticed something was amiss, and alerted authorities, who did not listen. India’s authoritarian school institutions do not abide any feedback from children, especially the children of low/no privilege that attend government schools. Hunger and lack of choice probably played a part as well. There’s also early evidence that the school administrator ignored warnings from the cook about the cooking oil, calling it “home made”.

In the end, like everything else in India, it comes down to institutional quality and money. For all the complaints about excessive “regulation”, programs like Food Safe in BC are designed to ensure that people working with food know how to handle food, what to avoid, and how to identify and prevent dangerous situations. It takes effective institutions to ensure that quality and safety are maintained consistently and the people involved do the right thing most of the time. India’s performance in providing reliable services for its poor is also complicated by vast state-to-state disparities in institutional quality. India’s so called growth has also been top-heavy. People living in villages and the urban poor have not been a part of India Shining (or its new incarnation Bharat Nirman).

Can regulations on food safety, quality and delivery be enforced in the absence of a good monitoring and accountability system? Can India use the money it gets from “developing” to provide better services for its people? It will take time, and hopefully, eventually tragedies like the one above will be less frequent.

Canadian Citizenship Oath in Court, and Royal Baby!

royalbabyA number of Canadian immigrants want the right to NOT swear allegiance to the Queen (of Canada). Their reasons are varied, they don’t believe in a monarchy, they moved from recently decolonized countries where atrocities were committed in the name of the queen, their religion doesn’t permit it, and more. They have lost their case at every step, and the originator of the case, Charles Roach, passed away recently, but they persist, and it is now going back to court. The globe and mail reports rather breathlessly with a heavy handed dose of editorializing. 

But with a royal baby on the way, and a federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper that has dedicated itself to reviving the country’s connection to the monarchy – restoring the word Royal to the Royal Canadian Air Force, among other measures – the dissenters may have their work cut out for them.

Would-be Canadian citizens set to fight oath to Queen – The Globe and Mail.

The hilarity of the Globe and Mail thinking that the unborn Royal Baby(tm) has anything to do with a serious court case should be the topic of a much longer rant on the sorry state of this newspaper. More importantly, this is an interesting and brave protest by the litigants.

Here’s the oath:

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.

The oath is a strange and anachronistic beast that literally puts allegiance to a hereditary, unaccountable set of people who won a birth lottery in front of duty to the country and its laws. It’s completely understandable that some would balk at swearing this oath. Only half of Canadians surveyed in 2012 supported the notion of Canada remaining a monarchy. It seems unfair to ask a set of people to swear to something only half of the country supports. Would the settlers and descendants of settlers who acquired citizenship through birth like their citizenship to be contingent on pledging allegiance to the British (and Canadian) royal family? I don’t understand how it is acceptable to make one group of people swear an oath, while exempting a whole other group of people.

This troubles me: The notion that the grant of citizenship is a one-way privilege, something that immigrants should be so grateful for that they don’t exercise their charter rights to dissent.

“Canadian citizenship is an honour and a privilege,” spokeswoman Sonia Lesage said.

Immigration is a two-way arrangement, one that benefits the people immigrating and the country. Repeated studies show this, so while immigrants are generally happy to become citizens, the country should be equally honoured and privileged that they chose to stay here rather than elsewhere. A country ruled by the descendants of those who colonized by displacing the original inhabitants of this land through force, spreading disease and attempted assimilation should be more humble in its pledges. It is especially troubling to hear this one-sided understanding of who is privileged by immigration coming from a country with this history.

I swore my oath sincerely because for me, the benefits of being a Canadian citizen outweighed my distaste for the monarchy. As a recent immigrant and recent citizen, my desire to stay socially engaged, commitment to acting for change, and being the best family member, partner, friend, coworker and activist matter way more than an anachronistic pledge, and those are the standards I would want to be held to.

Update: An interesting article on how close PM Chretien came to scrapping the oath and making it something more meaningful.

More Update: My partner pointed out in conversation that the citizenship ceremony’s focus and tone were quite the opposite of all this honour and privilege language spouted by the conservative government mouthpiece. Multiple speakers specifically talked about how happy and lucky the country was to have us become citizens,and how much the country would benefit. They also talked about responsibility and civic engagement, which is as it should be. Multiple speakers specifically acknowledged our presence on Lekwungen and Coast Salish homelands.