Archive for December, 2010

Reforming Canada’s Pension Plan (CPP)

Recent plans to reform Canada’s Pension needs careful attention. I want to quote a few points made in the news today.

Since being reinvigorated in 1997, the CPP has provided Canadians with a highly efficient and secure way of saving for retirement that has also been affordable for employers and the employees who ultimately benefit.

The Pooled Registered Pension Plans may be an advantage over what is now available to small-and medium-sized firms and people who are self-employed, but they cannot hope to match for efficiency in terms either of low administration fees or spreading risk and maximizing return offered by large company plans or the CPP. (Source: Vancouver Sun)

No way should it be like RRSP. As the Toronto Star article have mentioned:

The CPP investment would yield a pension approximately 80 per cent greater than an investment in RRSPs. This result is consistent with a British study by Mamta Murthi, Michael Orszag and Peter Orszag that in the U.K. individual pension accounts result in a 40 per cent reduction in pensions when compared to a public pension fund.
Another consideration that Robson ignores is that the individual cannot know how much one needs to save for retirement. This is because the individual does not know how long he or she will live. And, in addition, the rate of interest on annuities may be based on government bond rates of say 16 per cent (as in the early 1980s) or just 3 per cent (as is the case now). But the large pension funds like the Canada Pension Fund can estimate quite accurately the life expectancies of the large numbers of its members. Thus the CPP is a far more efficient pension scheme than any individual RRSP or defined-contribution RPPs.

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Wikileak Cable Lead To Defeat of MPAA/US Drafted Spanish Bill

Spain have voted down part of the controversial copyright law drafted by the U.S. (with instruction from U.S. industry lobbyist, as leaked cables from Wikileak have shown). The new law would have allowed government and ISP’s to selectively block Internet content, allowing censorship of traffic on the Internet. The law was close to being passed until Wikileak cables revealed that U.S. threat of trade sanctions have forced Spain’s lawmakers to give in. The revelation made it difficult for the lawmakers to support the bill now since they will be seen as compromising Spain’s sovereignty and democracy. Also removed was the three strike law that would have penalized an individual by revoking their Internet access.

The bill still have portion that calls for ISP to hand out user information without court order. This apparently is still being pushed through.

Still, the war over the Sinde Act is not over. As we reported last year, there are other controversial aspects of the law including mandating ISPs to divulge customer information without a court order among other things. (Zeropaid News/Blog)

Other cable leaks shows U.S. interference in Spanish judicial system.

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Apple Pulled Wikileaks Apps on Questionable Ground

Apple have pulled Wikileaks apps claiming it is illegal. However, U.S. government up to this point is still not able to state exactly what law Wikileak have violated. They might have to resort to passing new laws to make Wikileak illegal. But that would surely generate outcry from people who still care about free speech and free press.

Apple had also claimed that it might put individual or group in harm’s way. So far the media have been parsing what can and cannot be published so no individual have really been put in harm’s way. Although it does have the side effect of embarrassing government officials and forcing them to be more open and honest.

Update: Apple Insider have reviewed the Apple’s Store Review Guidelines found this line:

Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free” and “the collection of donations must be done via a website in Safari or an SMS”.

This was not the excuse given by Apple to Business Insider – they have  used the two mentioned earlier. And as PC World had pointed out , if that is the only reason, they could have informed the app developer. If this was the excuse used by Apple to begin with, then maybe it would have seem more legitimate.

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Toronto Cop Charged with Assault on G20 Protester Adam Nobody

A Toronto Cop have been charged with assault on a G20 protester. Investigation was re-opened after new footage became available. Toronto Police Chief Tony Blair claimed the five officers were identified from Toronto Star’s photo. There was allegedly difficulty identifying the officer earlier because the recorded badge number of the arresting officer did not match with actual police badge numbers. Here’s a youtube video of the assault. A youtube video shot by bystander John Bridge was initially dismissed by the Toronto Police Chief as having been tampered with. He later retracted that comment. For full details about the latest assault charges, see this article from Nanaimo Daily News >> Toronto Cop Charged with Assaulting G20 Figure.

And why were the officers not wearing their badge? Will there be more officers charged or only that one officer, which according to the star have lifted his face shield?

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Canada Could Become Breeding Ground for TB and Epidemic

As mentioned by the PBS TV show, TB is making a comeback and there are signs that some are developing into multi-drug resistant strain. Canada is being accused of ignoring the increasing cases of TB at First Nation’s community, spending fewer dollars at home than abroad.

Last year, a Winnipeg Free Press series revealed certain Manitoba communities have some of the highest TB rates in the world — up to 100 times that of the Canadian average.
“There are a lot of things you could do, but there’s zero political will to do anything,” Hershfield said.
…medical leaders from all nations need to start pushing governments to examine the real reason TB still exists: poverty.

“Maybe all the effort in treating TB is not enough. Maybe we need to do something about social determinants (of health),” Dr. Anne Fanning, former Alberta TB-control director and World Health Organization medical officer, told a crowd of medical colleagues in Berlin. “We’ve accepted (disparities) but ceased to address them.” (Vancouver Sun)

Some first nation community have similar conditions to third world countries, with “homes rotten with black mould and with limited access to running water”. We ignore the problem in our own backyard at our own peril.


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Why Information is a Right?

I was going to blog in detail why information is a right but decide to leave that to later to include why high speed internet is a necessary infrastructure to meet the rights to information. But today I thought I’ll just quickly answer why information is a right? or more specifically, why everyone has a right to unhindered flow of information? The simple answer is – any entity who can control information and limit its flow can skew facts, and hence public opinion in their favor. It can also give them unfair advantage (commerce/trade, career, knowledge) against people who are denied similar information.

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Enhanced Democracy for the Information Age

The following is my vision of what a direct democracy could look like. A society where people have direct say, government is open, accountable and free from partisanship.  And people are able to think independently. People are able to easily participate and obtain information as easy as reading the morning news through the use of the internet. I am not claiming this is foolproof or the best solution but I hope it will encourage discussion and debate to work out what is or is not practical. I would like to thank Anders for his extensive comment on my blog about Open Source Voting / Democracy, which lead me to expand beyond the constituents voting system.

New Model

A society of open, free and independent thinkers where partisanship is extinct.

Old Model

Power rest with the few. From ancient times of royalty to modern democracy, there has not been a system where individual citizen have direct say on government affairs. Even in U.S., the supposed beacon of democracy, big funded party usually win and electoral college system exist in which Bush have used to great effect. Once elected, decision usually lies solely on the hands of the elected representative for the next 4 years. Or in some countries like the Philippines, for 6 years.

Concerns and Excuses Against Direct Democracy

It could lead to mob rule. It’s a form of populism which usually lead to fascism. People would look after their selfish interest first and there won’t be stability.

Argument Against the Misconception

Mob rule exist when there is no well-established rule of law. Populisms leading to fascism are all results of people who are not able to think independently. Take for instance Hitler, China’s Youth Cultural Revolution, Salem Witch trial, and if you are a Christian you can argue that mob rule is what leads to Jesus being crucified. But in all of these cases, people are following orders from a charismatic or respected leader or from gossips and rumours without thinking for themselves. Voices of reason are non-existent. In those cases, it might seem like majority of people are on board, but that is usually not the case. Rather it’s just vocal minority with silent majority feeling helpless and less unified. Human collectively are good, but vocal minority usually win, albeit temporarily, because the majority are complacent, naïve, or tend to underestimate the degree of malignancy. The majority react only once it reaches catastrophic stage. But if the true majority have voices and able to exercise them easily, then the vocal minority can easily be silenced.

Changing the Mindset

Voter’s education will be the key. It could be integrated into the secondary curriculum.  People can be trained to be better decision makers. Critical thinking without being cynical. Learning to think for long term rather than short term. Look at wider perspective rather than narrow vision. No knee jerk, quick jump to conclusion, heard it so it must be true, and sensationalist reaction. Calm and thoughtful rather than angry and excitable. Ability to think independently.

Exercise and examples could be used to demonstrate importance of having wider perspective. For instance, demonstrating that indifference to crime problem in bad neighbourhood could come back to bite you unless you want to live in a gated community. Neglected First Nation reserves with poor living conditions could be breeding ground for epidemic. You don’t have to worry about epidemic starting from third world nation because we have a third world situation in our own backyard. These are just few of the examples.

Low voter turnouts are not necessarily due to voters indifference. Rather it is a sign that voters does not think they can have real influence. That whoever they vote for, after the election it will be politics as usual. So part of voter education will be to demonstrate how they can be effective and efficient in making their voices heard and making an informed decision.

Lessons on bad political tricks and deception can also be taught not so much for it to be practiced but instead to allow people to easily tell if such tactic are being used. Guarding against hysteria and being easily provoke. Some instances of possible deceit for discussion could include Taiwanese President who was accused of staging assassination attempt to generate sympathy vote on the eve of the election. He suffered minor injury and went on to win by a tiny margin. Others could include non-verifiable claim of attacks or incidents to outrage citizens to agreeing to go to war.

Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is possible with elected representative (NOT politicians). The representatives represent their constituents. No affiliation with any political parties. Political party as a concept is abolished. Instead you have representative that works collectively / co-operatively to advance common cause and concerns. Each constituents vote for their representative and each voter get to vote on every issue using system like Open Source Voting/Polling System. With enhanced user friendly interface that is easily accessible, voting and getting information could be as easy as reading the morning or evening news. Minimal effort would be needed to vote and they can do it at home in their pajamas, registering their vote with just a click of a button. Summary of debate and online discussion are presented as a newscast.

What if they don’t want to get involved in every issue? There are several options:

Abstain – voter would be encouraged to at least abstain if the issue is of no concern to them. For example, if 60% of the vote is required to pass a bill, 60% will be based on those who participated. So if there are lots of people who did not vote, then vocal minority can easily win. However, if people abstain then the vocal minority still have to achieve 60% of total participant. The importance of abstaining must be emphasized. The problem with this approach is if lots of people abstained, then it could lead to deadlock. A deadlock could mean there is not enough agreement or interest. Further discussion is needed to reach consensus.

Vote of Trust – Another option would be for people to choose Vote of Trust by giving their vote to the representative (proxy voting). The representative can then use these votes to vote according to what he/she judged to be the better option.  Vote of trust is granted for each issue rather than blanket authorization. This will give voters second thought if priority on an issue has changed.

The representative leadership role will be to make all relevant information available to their constituents. Make sure it is only factual, undistorted and non-sensationalized. People not buying in or not interested could be due to lack of information.  Neither the representative nor the voters are expert on a lot of matters. An expert can then be brought in with careful consideration of possible conflict of interest or biases.  The people are the government. Government and representatives are ultimately responsible to the people.

Each legislation should have clause, which acknowledges that any possible long term consequences have been considered and stating what they are. Not only consequence for yourself but for other part of the country (riding, municipalities, provinces). List out sector, groups or companies that could be impacted and whether impact is positive or negative. Guidelines could be established to say what the intent of the law is. Define at what point it alters the intent enough to warrant re-consultation with the voters or at what point the representative, working among themselves, could proceed with minor amendments.

Stability & Independent Departments

To prevent things changing with moods of the population, some area of government need stability. This can be achieved through having different independent departments.

Information and education department – moderator of debate forums. Task includes compiling summary of discussion and delivering them in the form of news. Other responsibilities could include obtaining and maintaining census;  Ensuring dynamic and affordable education system.

Economic Department – make decision on minimum wage and taxes based on fixed guideline and trend. Make sure government is fiscally responsible (i.e. Fiscally conservative with a social conscience).  Department could include the Bank of Canada. Promote free enterprise and healthy business environment, including for small businesses.  Depending on the size of the market, monopoly or triopoly should be restricted. Even quadopoly might be anti-competitive if the market share is very huge, leading to price agreement/fixing and cartel.

Science, Innovation and Health – an independent department with regular funding looking after science related work and research. They should be free from constant interference and tinkering in order to promote stability and allow them to concentrate on research and on carrying out their task, rather than getting bogged down with constant re-organization. Innovations and discoveries could go toward benefiting the citizens. However, a system that encourages private enterprise research should be maintained. This does not mean everlasting patent, or patent that allows hoarding of technology and price gouging well above cost long after they’ve recovered their research cost.  This department would not act like crown corporation where external funding option is limited. Instead, they can seek outside funding and donations. Responsibilities could include food safety and health – inspection and testing (e.g. food container and packaging, food processing, toxic chemicals on toys).

Audit department – act as check and balance on independent department.

Justice – the motto ”Justice Delayed is Justice Denied”  should be honored. Cost should not hamper a person’s ability to defend themselves. This include low income earner working double job being susceptible to accepting plea bargain (to avoid costly and time consuming legal process). Intent of the law could be defined to make the system more flexible. An example could be taken from current events where a Toronto grocer nabbed the person who stole from his store.  He detained the person while waiting for police to show up.  The crown then turned around and proceeded to prosecute the grocer for forcible confinement following the law strictly by the book.

Law and Order – law enforcement officers should be respected and should conduct themselves accordingly. Any law enforcement officer found engaging in conduct contrary to enforcing law (e.g. case of undercover police in Quebec protest instigating violence. Or cases of police randomly arresting innocent protester), will be banned from any public trust positions – i.e. government or publicly traded company’s jobs. The agency should not be used as a tool to crackdown on political dissent.

Privy Council – help representative implement proposed law.  Manage government affairs. Give advice on matters they have the expertise with.

Representatives – work for the voters and salary should not be higher than salary or wages of professionals. No exorbitant pension well above what a professionals would earn. Expenditures that are allowed should also be well defined. E.g. only specific numbers of travel paid for by taxpayers are allowed in a year. All records are transparent and readily retrievable and readable with minor effort on voter’s part. By not having dual chamber or houses, cost savings could be directed to education or other areas of needs. Wasteful spending should not be tolerated. If efforts are put in for careful thoughts and considerations at the start of drafting a law, a 2nd house or chamber becomes unnecessary.  Representative should not feel a sense of entitlement.

Representative should consult with constituents, get consensus by providing leadership role in informing voters and laying out the pros and cons. Coordinate information gathering and seek out information from experts if necessary and reporting the findings back to voter in easy to understand and easy to access format.

Conflict of Interest

Any conflict of interest by people disseminating information or campaigning must be stated. Akin to health warning at the end of a cigarette commercial or product. Any person caught in corruption or neglect costing millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money could permanently be denied employment in public trust position – i.e. government or publicly traded companies.

How to Bring about Change

Mass movement and networking, not necessarily on the street, but instead through mass mobilization on social network. While this involves some changes, it is by no means a “radicalization” – an excuse that could be used to justify a crackdown by overzealous leaders with authoritarian tendency. Instead, this is merely adjusting the focus back to grassroots level and away from the radical partisanship and the special interest group influenced politics of this day. Implementation of changes cannot be fully dependent on politicians alone, if the plan is to abolish political parties. Big changes usually brings with it great anxiety. History throughout the world have cases of authoritarian figures cracking down by burning books, closing down university or any tools deemed “corrupting” and threatening the status quo or the old ways, or challenging its authority.  Any street action should be peaceful. Vigilance should be exercised against instigation. There should be no room for those who exercise violence as a protester or against peaceful protest. Only an overwhelming demand for change will be able to force government to implement changes.

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NASA’s Bacteria Discovery News Headline is Misleading

When I read NASA’s big announcement about a new bacteria, I thought this is old news. It has long been known that microorganism do exist in volcano. In fact scientist have been studying how such organism can live in such extreme conditions in hopes of finding a cure for diseases, and to suggest that alien life is possible on planets that were considered inhabitable. One article goes back to 2005 >> USGS 2005 article. It just feels like too much hype going on here and it is being trumpeted as a discovery of a new type of bacteria when it is not.  All headlines were similar in declaring NASA discovers a new bacteria and possible proof of the existence of alien life. But such bacteria that feed on arsenic has been known to exist. What is news is Felisa Wolfe-Simon work in identifying the uniqueness of the DNA of this type of bacteria, compared to a normal organism. She is trying to prove existing theory including that of hers. Arsenic is toxic to normal living organism and is known to enhance DNA synthesis (thus cause cancer) at low concentration and suppressed DNA synthesis (kill cells) at higher concentration (source: Ziqiang Meng). So Felisa’s work might explain why these extremopohiles are able to withstand such extreme conditions. i.e. how their biochemistry is different from ours. Thereby increasing understanding of the mechanics of an existing microorganism.

This quote from NY Times offers a note of caution as to whether arsenic is really incorporated into the DNA.

By labeling the arsenic with radioactivity, the researchers were able to conclude that arsenic atoms had taken up position in the microbe’s DNA as well as in other molecules within it. Dr. Joyce, however, said that the experimenters had yet to provide a “smoking gun” that there was arsenic in the backbone of working DNA.

Plus the fact that they still grew better with phosphorous suggest that arsenic is not their native building block. Are they simply more tolerant and can take higher concentration of arsenic than normal organism? Like Ziqiang Meng study shows, at low concentration it might actually lead to increased synthesis of DNA. Is it possible that they are just simply able to take in much higher concentration of arsenic than the common organism? A threshold at which synthesis of DNA is halted?

It is quite interesting indeed to study how this organism functions.

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Congratulation to Jeff Coleman

Just want to congratulate Jeff Coleman of the Pirate Party of Canada – Winnipeg North, who debuted pretty well in the just concluded federal by-election. He was neck and neck with the Green party. It was quite an accomplishment considering he is new to politics, with a budget spending of under a $100 and just about a month of campaigning. Congrats.

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