Saturday, August 18, 2018

Reflexive anti-Americanism

Near the end of a recent column on Sir John A. Macdonald that calls on Canadians to put things in context and see things from more than one side (“If Sir John Must Stay,” August 10), Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick offers us this: “Americans don’t do context, they just bomb. They think all of their pointless wars of recent history stand alone, not realizing they’re just Vietnam over and over again.” She writes as if “Americans” were one amorphous mass. Editors would surely have cut any such crude generalization about “Russians” or “Chinese”; why is crude anti-Americanism given a free pass?

Sloppy thinking, is the short answer. So much attention is paid to Donald Trump and the Trump administration that many Canadians--like so many others around the world who are rightly horrified by the opinions and actions of the current occupant of the White House--allow themselves to start responding in a reflexively negative way to everything American and to the very idea of America. At some level people know that Trump is not America--that 3 million more Americans voted for Clinton than for Trump in 2016, and that since then polls have consistently shown majority opposition to Trump among Americans (in contrast, a significant majority of the Russian population is believed to support Vladimir Putin.) Yet many allow themselves to forget those facts, and to fall into sloppy generalizations.

If it happens with respected journalists such as Mallick and the Toronto Star editorial staff, how much more frequently does it happen with ordinary citizens who do not make their living by following public affairs? Very, very frequently, it would seem; a few months ago the Environics Institute found that Canadians viewed the United States more negatively than any other country in the world--including even North Korea (Canada's World Survey 2018--'s-world-2017-survey; for an interesting commentary see Doug Saunders' April 14, 2018 Globe and Mail column, "Canadians are seeing the whole world through an anti-American lens").

Those of us who live outside America and who oppose Trump and all he stands for should stand firm in our opposition. But we should stop conflating the worst of America with all of America.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Prize of Prizes in the Book World?

The Guardian has an interesting piece on how there has been a significant backlash against the Man Booker Prize having been opened up to Americans:

The piece makes the case well. But if the Booker does revert to being a "Britain and the Commonwealth" prize, let me suggest that a new prize be organized: a prize winner's prize. (Indeed, even if the Booker remains open to Americans there might be good reason to start a prize of this sort.) Such a prize would work in much the same way as does the Champion's League in soccer: the winners of the world's top prizes for a work of fiction in English would each be eligible, and a separate jury would judge which novel they thought to be the best of the best. Or, eligibility could be expanded to allow all the books shortlisted for any of the prizes to be eligible; that would spark some heated debate if a novel that had only been shortlisted for an award won the prize of prizes. (In much the same way, the Champions League also admits some runners-up.)

Which prizes would be included? The Booker, obviously. The Pulitzer and/or the National Book Award from the US. The Dublin International Book Award. The Giller Prize and/or the Governor General's Award from Canada. The Miles Franklin Literary Award from Australia. The Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Best Novel in Britain and Ireland. The Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year. The Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction (New Zealand). It would be important too not to leave out the annual awards from Asia and Africa--awards such as the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English, the Nigeria Prize for Literature (Fiction), the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and (from India) the Crossword Book Award (Fiction).

Even if the Booker stays as it is, a Prize of Prizes would be a good way of drawing more attention to books of interest from around the world.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Commas for Clarity

Would these sentences be improved by the addition of a comma?
In the days after the disaster the family had little to eat other than bread and little to do other than dwell on their hunger.

Though the image appears quite inoffensive at a distance, the artist has affixed to the painting cutouts of body parts from magazines and has incorporated clumps of elephant dung into the piece.
If you are like me, when you see a word combination such as “bread and…” in the first sentence, a part of your mind may be already thinking of possible combinations—bread and butter, bread and jam, and so on. The word and starts to attach itself in your mind to the word bread, and then you have to perform something of a double take when your reading brain finally realizes that the word and should properly be attached in this context not to bread but to the verb had. For the sake of clarity, then, wouldn’t it make sense to add a comma after bread, as a signal to the reader not to attach and to bread, even for a split second?

Similarly, in the second sentence, when you see the word combination “magazines and…” a part of your mind may already be thinking of a phrase such as magazines and newspapers. For the sake of clarity, wouldn’t it make sense to add a comma? A comma between the word magazines and the word and would help the reader understand more quickly that the word and should not be attached to the word magazines—that the sentence has a compound predicate, with and has incorporated structurally echoing the earlier has affixed.

Adding a comma for clarity in cases such as these seems to me like simple good sense, and a few authorities (particularly in Britain) are of like mind.

Not so in North America, where just about every language authority asserts that such sentences should never, ever be broken up by a comma in this way. We are told that, whereas a comma may be used—indeed, must be used—before a coordinating conjunction such as and when the coordinating conjunction is used to join two independent clauses, in other circumstances a comma should not normally appear before a coordinating conjunction (whether and or any of the six others*). Further, in the case of compound predicates, various authorities put forward the principle that a subject should not be separated from its predicate by a comma. To do so in a sentence with a compound predicate is termed by one authority “the worst punctuation mistake” of all.

Obviously one wouldn’t want to separate subject and predicate with a comma in a short sentence, but every authority in fact accepts commas between subject and predicate in at least one circumstance—the sentence with three or more predicates. Such sentences are treated as lists—which are also regarded as an exception to the rule that a comma should not appear before a coordinating conjunction unless the conjunction joins two independent clauses. Where lists are concerned, preferences vary as to whether the last item in the series should be preceded by a comma (this is the issue of the serial comma, or "Oxford comma."). But in a sentence such as the following, all authorities would agree that a comma should appear after the word bread—and most authorities would also endorse the use of a comma between the word warm and the word and:
In the days after the disaster the family possessed little to eat other than bread, could find little to keep them warm and had little to do except dwell on their discomfort. [no serial comma included]

In the days after the disaster the family possessed little to eat other than bread, could find little to keep them warm, and had little to do except dwell on their discomfort. [serial comma included]
An exception, then, is made in the case of lists—for clarity, in order to enable the reader to better understand the structure of the sentence. For precisely the same reasons, why not allow a comma to be used in the two examples cited in the first paragraph above? Why indeed? At the very least, I would argue, the inclusion of a comma in such circumstances should be considered an acceptable option.

I realize, of course, that I live in North America, where the trend has long been to use fewer commas than in Britain or some other parts of the English-speaking world. But that’s a matter of style rather than of correctness. If North American authorities want to recommend against the use of these sorts of commas, let them do so on the grounds of style—not by suggesting that to add a comma before the word and in sentences such as the one above is to contravene any logical set of grammatical rules.

*This issue arises with far greater frequency with and than it does with any of the other six coordinating conjunctions (but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nation Rising

I heard today through a post on Vegans of Nanaimo about the "Nation Rising" demonstration planned for Parliament Hill July 14. It has the support of a number of excellent groups (including Animal Justice), and sounds like a great idea. The aims of Nation Rising are as follows:
1. Stop subsidies to animal agriculture: Stop the multi-billion dollar subsidies that go to animal agriculture. It is wrong that our tax dollars are used to fund food that makes us sick, destroys our planet, and hurts animals.

2. Make healthy food affordable: Create new subsidies to ensure healthy, organic, plant-based food is affordable for everyone, in particular Indigenous and low-income communities.

3. Help farmers transition to plant-based farming: Provide financial assistance to farmers wishing to make the transition to plant-based farming, and set up the necessary committees to provide guidance during that transition.
If you can go to Ottawa mid July and join in, that would be wonderful. I doubt if I can--but I'm thinking that maybe those of us who can't make it to Parliament Hill might organize support demonstrations in other cities across the country.

For more information, here are the "Nation Rising" website and Facebook page locations:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dee Gordon's 68 Steals: Speedsters, Sluggers, and a New Approach to Batting Order

Much as he is often praised for stealing bases (and for many other aspects of his game), Dee Gordon is also often disparaged for failing to steal bases. His 60 steals in 2017 led the major leagues—but so did the sixteen times he was caught stealing. Most baseball authorities in recent years have been of the view that, for base stealing to be worthwhile, a runner must be successful at least 70-75% of the time; by those standards (and I don’t say I agree with them), Dee’s 2017 percentage of 78% rates as good rather than great.

But Dee’s base stealing in 2017 didn’t result in just 60 extra bases; it resulted in 68. Eight times during the season the catcher’s throw to second was sufficiently wild that Dee ended up taking an extra base in the error. Those extra bases, of course, are scored as errors, not credited to the runner. I’m not aware of such errors being recorded anywhere as a statistic in connection with individual runners (though I wish such statistics existed). To get the number in Dee’s case, you have to watch a reel of all 60 of his steals on YouTube, and count the number of times it happens; 13% of the time, Dee gets to third base when he steals second. You can also see how often the catcher fumbles with the ball and never gets off a throw. There are a lot of those too; clearly having Dee on the base paths makes catchers nervous.

What’s particularly interesting about those 8 extra bases is how they compare with Billy Hamilton’s numbers. Hamilton stole 59 bases—but only twice did he reach third on an error after stealing second. Why so many more errors when Dee was running? Might there be slight differences in their styles—feints or distractions that Dee has perfected, which have the effect of making catchers more jittery? Perhaps, but it seems to me that the answer is more likely to be found by looking at who was batting behind Gordon and Hamilton.

In 2017 Hamilton batted ahead of various players, many of them towards the bottom of the batting order; the most imposing hitter to bat behind him with any frequency was Zack Cozart (63 runs batted in, 24 home runs). Solid numbers, but they pale beside Giancarlo Stanton’s 132 RBIs and 59 home runs; in a managing stroke of genius, Don Mattingly moved then-slumping slugger Stanton to second in the batting order June 11, and he batted behind Gordon for most of the season. It’s hard not to think that the combination of tremendous speed at first and tremendous power at the plate made catchers particularly nervous, and hard not to conclude that such nervousness would lead to more errors when the catcher has to make a quick throw to second. Having Stanton bat behind him almost certainly worked to Gordon’s advantage, both when he stole and when he took an extra base on those errors.

But that’s only the half of it. It’s not just the catcher who’s likely to be made nervous by the combination of great speedster on base and great slugger at the plate. Nervous pitchers are more likely to miss the plate, and that means hitters are more likely to get ahead in the count, and then get a fat pitch to hit. Moreover, pitchers are likely to throw more fastballs when a speedster such as Gordon is on base; fastballs give the catcher a better chance than would a curve ball to throw the runner out at second. But a slugger such as Stanton loves to hit fastballs; in this way too, having Gordon on base makes it more likely Stanton will get a pitch he can hit out of the park. (I’m indebted to my son Dominic for these points about pitchers and batters.)

What will happen to Stanton’s numbers next season? Stanton hit a homer every 2.69 games this year; previously that number was one homer every 3.69 games. As Neil Payne has pointed out today in his post on Five Thirty Eight (, simply on the basis of the regress-to-the-mean principle one would have to expect a 2018 less spectacular than Stanton’s 2017 season (even given that Yankee Stadium is a more hitter-friendly park than Marlins’ Park). But there are other factors involved too. For a change, Stanton enjoyed an injury-free season in 2017. He also changed his stance. But batting behind speedster Gordon may well have played as big a part as anything. Before the change Stanton was batting .262; he had hit 11 homers in 62 games—an average of one every 5.6 games. After the switch he hit 47 homers—an average of one every 2.1 games. Just as Stanton helped Gordon get further on the base paths, Gordon helped Stanton get more hits, and more homers.

As of now, the Yankees don’t have a speedster in their lineup; there is no one they could slot into their batting order ahead of Stanton who would have anywhere near the same effect as Gordon. Unless they acquire such a player (and there are not many of them out there), it’s hard not to think there’s one more reason a decline in Stanton’s performance in 2018 is likely. The Mariners, on the other hand—alone of all major league clubs—now have two speedsters and two sluggers in their everyday lineup. Jean Segura has averaged 29 stolen bases the past five seasons. And Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are of course among the game’s top sluggers. Conventional baseball wisdom would suggest batting Cano and Cruz one behind the other at 3 and 4 in the order (as they were in 2017). The Stanton-Gordon story of 2017, however, suggests that the Mariners might do much better by alternating speedster and slugger: Gordon-Cano-Segura-Cruz (or Segura-Cano-Gordon-Cruz).

One thing is sure: there was just a one-in-29 chance that my favorite baseball player would be traded to the team nearest me geographically, and it happened this week. I’m a happy baseball fan, and I’ll be making a trip or three from Nanaimo to Seattle next season!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Experimenting with Humans: Scientific Research and The Moral Imagination

A great many of the foundational ethical principles that humans have set out for themselves have involved an imaginative component.* Involving the imagination can be of obvious assistance if we are trying to figure out (or to remind ourselves) how we should treat other individuals, or other groups of humans. But what if entire species are involved? It’s a lot less easy to involve the imagination in figuring out how we should treat chimpanzees and bonobos, or rhesus monkeys—let alone cows, pigs, and chickens.

It may help to imagine a species that doesn’t exist—or, at least, that is not known to us. Let’s imagine a species that’s smarter than we are—imagine the smartest person you know, and then imagine a species in which that person is far from the sharpest tack in the drawer. But let’s imagine that the habits of moral reasoning among members of that species aren’t that much different from our own habits of moral reasoning. Let’s imagine that they arrive on earth, and decide to stay. We’re allowed to stay too—they don’t wipe us out—but they’re clearly the more intelligent species, and they’re more powerful too; they’re in charge.

Let's further imagine that that the members of this other species are similar to us physically, and in many genetic respects—including in their propensity to die from various diseases. Understandably, when it comes to trying out prospective new treatments or new drugs, they decide to use us as we have used chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. They try the drugs on various human populations, with various control groups. Of course, the humans in question have to be given the diseases first—and of course, the norm is for all experimental subjects to be killed at the end of each experiment. That’s unfortunate, but any reasonable person would have to understand that it’s justifiable—necessary, even. Any reasonable person would understand too that, within the scientific community in this species, different groups would compete to see who could develop the best means of infecting human subjects with these diseases or debilitating medical conditions—even of genetically engineering human subjects so that they would be bound to develop those diseases and conditions. We can hardly fail to understand the rationales that would be provided as justification for all this; we use the same justifications ourselves:
Some may find it especially objectionable that the primates are genetically engineered to mimic the symptoms of human brain diseases. That adds a new dimension to the debate, but existing standards ought to be able to deal with any welfare issues.

The bald fact is that Japan and China are going to do this research anyway. It is surely better for it to be part of a global scientific program – accompanied by a welfare debate – so we can all benefit from the research as ethically as possible. (“Monkey experiments are a necessary evil for better medicine,” New Scientist, 15 June, 2016)
“As ethically as possible”—given that the subjects will have to be made to suffer, and then killed.

It’s worth looking closely at the language we use to help us justify these killings. “Culling” is a word that occurs frequently; animals aren’t described as having been killed at the end of the experiments we subject them to; they are described as being “culled” or “euthanized.” “Sacrifice” is another word you run into a lot: the subtitle of the article quoted above runs as follows: “Like it or not, primates are an essential part of biomedical research. But we must ensure the sacrifice is worthwhile…”

But for many scientists, there is not even a show of regret at using innocent beings in this way; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sunday Edition radio program, for example, carried an interview yesterday with a neuroscientist who lauded the discovery that “you could mimic a disease” such as Parkinson’s “in an animal model.” Imagine again that other species subjecting us to experiments, and scientists belonging to that species marveling at the wondrous discovery that you could mimic in human subjects the diseases that their species suffered from; what tremendous scientific advances such discoveries make possible!

There are plenty of practical reasons why we shouldn’t be basing human biomedical research on experimenting with other species; it turns out that relatively few important scientific advances have been dependent on research conducted on non-human subjects—and that such research has not infrequently brought with it costs for humans as well as for non-humans. (See, for example, But just as important as the practical arguments are the arguments from first principles—as a little exercise of our moral imagination may help us to see.

*Religions ask us to Imagine how we would feel if another were doing the same thing to you. Immanuel Kant advised that, if we can imagine an action justified as a universal law, then we may be confident it is ethical in particular circumstances. John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance, unable to know whether the persons affected by a possible action are rich or poor, black or brown or white, male or female; behind such a veil we can discern whether a given action is right or wrong in itself.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Humans Do To Other Animals Before Eating Them--and What a New Government Can Do to Make Things Better

Maureen and I today sent some variant of the message below to every NDP and Green MLA in British Columbia. In the long term we have both believed for some years now that the best solution to these sorts of issues is for we human animals to give up eating non-human animals. But given that such an outcome will almost certainly not come in our lifetimes, it is surely imperative for vegans to join with concerned omnivores in trying to do everything we can to reduce the cruelty that has grown and grown over the past half century with the spread of "intensive" farming methods. If you agree, please join us in encouraging the new government to take meaningful action to improve the lives of animals, to improve human health, and to improve the environment too.
Dear [MLA]

First of all, congratulations to you; it’s great to see a change of government!

We’re writing you about an issue that involves human health, the health of the environment, and the welfare of animals. When a Mercy for Animals video in 2014 ( exposed what was really going on behind the doors of BC’s largest dairy farm, the government responded (at the recommendation of the SPCA) by incorporating national guidelines (from the Dairy Code of Canada) as to what constitutes “generally accepted practice” into the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

This spring, a Mercy for Animals video ( has exposed what is really going on in an important segment of BC’s broiler chicken industry—and again, it’s been suggested that the SPCA will work with the government towards incorporating national guidelines (this time regarding the treatment of broiler chickens) into the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

That’s not nearly enough.

Such a move might remove any possible doubt that pulling the legs off a live chicken is not generally accepted practice. But it would further entrench into our laws the systemic cruelty that currently is generally accepted practice.

Take the issue of overcrowding on chicken farms. The Code of Practice for the National Farm Animal Care Council has lovely words in it. Here is how the “Stocking Density” section opens: “Birds must have enough space to move freely…” It sounds pretty good. But what does it actually mean? You need to look at the numbers, not the words. The requirements are that “stocking densities for broiler chickens must not normally exceed 31 kg/m2 at any time.” That phrasing (“must not…at any time”) makes it sounds like quite a stiff restriction—until you do the math. The average broiler chicken is slaughtered at 2.4kg. live weight; translate that into inches and you realize that, in the view of the “Care Council,” each bird need have no more “space to move freely” than an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper. Not quite that much actually—you need to shave an inch or so off the side. It works out to almost 17 birds per square metre. Imagine a five-pound bird living in less space than an 8.5x11 sheet of paper for her entire life.

Numbers matter too with the National Farm Animal Care Council. Much as they welcome among their members “any national or provincial association that accepts the use of animals in agriculture (e.g. Canadian Federation of Humane Societies),” a voting majority always rests with the vested interests of industrial farming, as represented by the “National Farmed Animal Associations.” Such a group cannot be expected to strike any sort of humane balance that gives adequate weight to the welfare of non-human animals—or to the importance of environmental concerns, or to the importance of human health.

The “Raising and Handling Broiler Chickens” guidelines of the BCSPCA (on which the BC Liberal government has largely relied for setting standards in such matters) are already virtually identical to those of the National Farm Animal Care Council: the BCSPCA’s recommended maximum density is 30 kg/m2; the BCSPCA also specifies “no more than 17 birds per square metre.” A density level of 30/m2 is not the world’s worst (the unspeakable cruelty allowed by some jurisdictions entails densities of 40 or more kg/m2), but it’s considerably worse than the “Freedom Food” recommendations of the RSPCA in Britain (no more than 12 birds per square metre), and it’s almost unimaginably worse than the sort of environment in which truly happy chickens can be raised; the Happy Chicken Coop website recommends a density of less than one bird per square metre—about 15 square feet (1.4 square metres) for each bird.

With a new government, British Columbia has an opportunity to become a world leader in limiting cruelty in animal farming, in limiting the damage that poorly regulated industrial farming does to the environment—and in limiting the damage that industrial farming does to human health.

More than that, we have an opportunity to provide an unanswerable response to Donald Trump’s demands over agricultural trade. If here in British Columbia we create a renewed agricultural sector based on taking animal welfare seriously and on mandating strict environmental and health standards for all agricultural products, we will prevent a flood of low-cost, low quality animal food products from swamping our markets—at the same time as we are improving our own lives and those of the animals on which we depend. If BC regulations mandate standards that other jurisdictions can’t meet, we will have an unprecedented opportunity to become exporters of products that are high value in every conceivable respect. Much as some businesses are sure to resist such a path, in the end, the long-term profitability of BC’s agricultural sector will be protected just as much as will be our animals, our environment, and our own health.*

We ask the new government to think of the birds in BC, the cows in BC, the other farm animals in British Columbia—but also of our environment, and of our own health. We ask the government to design a new system, from the ground up. British Columbians deserve nothing less.

Don LePan, CEO and Company Founder, Broadview Press Inc.

Prof. Maureen Okun, Chair, Liberal Studies Dept., Vancouver Island University

* There is one negative to seriously addressing animal welfare, human health, and the environment in this way, and it should be faced squarely: such an approach would inevitably mean some increases in the cost of food from animals. Such costs have, in real terms, decreased by more than half over the past half century as industrial farming methods have ratcheted down costs and ratcheted up cruelty; it’s not unreasonable to ask those with good incomes to pay a bit more now for a system that will improve the environment, their own health, and the lives of animals. But in the case of those with low incomes, it would surely be appropriate to provide some financial consideration to compensate for increased prices.