I tried to go to the Snowdentalk at McGill a couple weeks ago. The lineup was too huge for us to get in, so we went to Thomson House, the McGill grad students’ pub, and hooked a laptop into a TV there to watch.
On the way back, in a pile of stones upturned by the construction between the Leacock and Brown buildings on the McGill campus, I found a little medallion marked with strange symbols. It has a pentagram on one side and Death on the other.
I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was left for me by the fairy folk, and that it’s a good omen?
This summer, I took a two-week long course on systematic reviews and meta-analytic techniques for which there was some required software, in this case, Stata. As a McGill student, I was encouraged to buy the student version, which was about $50 for “Stata Small.” Not bad. I’ve paid more for textbooks. So I got out my credit card, bought the license, installed it on my computer, and ran the very first example command of the course. I immediately got a string of red letter error text.
The error message was telling me that my license did not allow me enough variables to complete the command. I checked the license, and it said I was allowed 120 variables. I checked the “Variable manager” in Stata, and I had only assigned 11 variables. (I checked the variable limit beforehand in fact, and made sure that none of the data sets that we’d be working with had more than 120 variables. None of them came close to that limit.)
So I emailed Stata technical support. It turns out that the meta-analysis package for Stata creates “hidden variables.” Lots of them, apparently. So many that the software cannot accomplish the most basic commands. Then they tried to up-sell me to “Stata SE.” For $100 more, they said, they would send me a license for Stata that would allow me to run the meta-analysis package—for realsies this time.
I asked for a refund and decided that if I really needed Stata, I would use the copy that’s installed on the lab computers. (Now I’m just using the meta package in R, which does everything Stata does, just with a bit more effort.)
For the record: I am perfectly fine with paying for good software. I am not okay with a one-time purchase turning me into a money-pump. I thought that the “small” student license would work. All their documentation suggested it would. If I had upgraded to “Stata SE,” would that have actually met my needs, or would they have forced me to upgrade again later, after I’d already made Stata a part of my workflow?
It probably would have been okay, but the “gotcha” after the fact soured me on the prospect of sending them more money, and provided all the incentive I need to find a way to not use Stata.
A few years ago, I bought a number of pieces of classical music through the iTunes Store. I shopped around, compared different performances, and found recordings that I really liked. This was back when the iTunes store had DRM on their music.
I’ve recently switched to Linux, and now much of the music that I legally bought and paid for can’t be read by my computer. Apple does have a solution for me, of course! For about $25, I can subscribe to a service of theirs that will allow me to download a DRM-free version of the music that I already paid for.
This is why I won’t even consider buying television programmes through the iTunes Store: It’s not that I think that I will want to re-watch the shows over and over and I’m afraid of DRM screwing that up for me. It’s because I’ve had some nasty surprises from iTunes in the past, and I can borrow the DVD’s from the Public Library for free.
For the record: I do not mind paying for digital content. But I won’t send you money if I think there’s a “gotcha” coming after the fact.
I’m really trying my best
People who produce good software or music should be compensated for their work. I don’t mind pulling out my wallet to help make that happen. But I don’t want to feel like I’m being tricked, especially if I’m actually making an effort in good faith to actually pay for something.
Since DRM is almost always fairly easily circumvented, it only punishes those who pay for digital content. And this is why I’m sympathetic to those who pirate software, music, TV shows, etc.
Judge Eliana Marengo recently told another human being that she had to be stripped of her identity and publicly humiliated in order to have her case heard in a court in Québec. That is to say, the judge refused to hear the case while she was wearing a hijab.
For clarity, Article 13 of the regulations of the Court of Quebec make no reference to headscarves. This was just one judge’s decision to make life harder for another human being. And it was racist.
Wait, how was it racist?
This is a point that people keep refusing to understand. I have written previously about how you can be substantially racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. without ever actually making reference to a person’s race, sex, orientation, gender, etc. This is exactly the same thing.
A policy that makes life harder for one group of people is discriminatory against that group, regardless of how obliquely that group is singled out in the wording of the policy itself. And it’s still discriminatory even if that policy contains an ostensibly non-racist/non-sexist/etc. counter-example to ward off suspicions of racism, sexism, etc. (Cf. the Charter of Values and conspicuously large crucifixes).
It is laughable that Marengo invoked equality to justify her racist abuse of power. She deigned to instruct us in righteousness by telling us, “The same rules need to be applied to everyone.” To get an idea of how the rules are applied to everyone in Québec, I have compiled Table 1, below.
White people do religious stuff in the public sphere in Québec all the time. Nobody minds. Nobody gets upset. Certainly nobody refuses to give them the basic justice that all humans are due. But when one private person of colour wears a hijab to court, suddenly a) it’s fair game to publicly humiliate them and strip their identity, and b) it’s hitting below the belt to call it “racist” when it happens.
Table 1: A convenience sample of conspicuous religious accommodations in the province of Québec, indexed by race
Private or public?
Who did it? (Race)
Is it okay in Québec?
Prominent crucifix in legislature
Giant cross overlooking biggest city in province
Big white cross dominating the provincial flag
Nearly every street and city named after a Christian saint
Private person wearing hijab in court
“This is unacceptable! Religious people are always demanding more and more accommodations. This is not about race at all!”
I keep getting fan-mail from people asking me how it is that I’m so good at Christmas. I can’t give away all my secrets, but this year I’ve made a conscious effort to tweet when I have a good holiday tip that other people can use to make this terrible season a little bit better.
Buy a Christmas tree that branches into two at the top. That way, you can put an angel on one branch and a devil on the other. (Dec 8)
When a Christmas song includes “fa la la la la,” that means the original lyrics were censored. Add your own obscenities back in! (Dec 9)
Tired of Christmas already? Get in a fight with family now and cancel it—then, take the money and have 2 Christmases next year! (Dec 11)
Wrapping up a gift of a pair of mittens in an old iPad or MacBook box is an economical way to spice up your gift-giving! (Dec 11)
Next year, Christmas falls on Friday the 13th—tell your friends and family about it now, before you think it through very clearly! (Dec 13)
Nephew asking for a new PS4? Wrap up an old PS2 and give it to them with instructions to play it twice! (Dec 18)
Express strong disapproval of anyone who doesn’t like Christmas! Nothing says “holiday spirit” like stifling dissent. (Dec 21)
Unwelcome holiday houseguest? Play on repeat and discuss the homoerotic potential of the Michael Bublé version of “Santa Baby!” (Dec 22)
Need a costume for your Christmas party? Nothing says “Christmas” like “pregnant out of wedlock!” (Dec 23)
Hurry and clean up as fast as you can before they arrive or your family won’t love you as much! (Dec 23)
Mass infanticide, although part of the Christmas story, is best left to fantasy only. (Dec 24)
Of course, by the time this post is published it will be too late for you to abort your impending holiday failure, but if you heed my suggestions next year, you may also be able to Christmas like a pro and win the respect and adulation of your peers and familial relations!
In the past few weeks, there have been high-profile legal cases on both sides of the border involving unpaid interns taking legal action against their former venue of unpaid work. (I hesitate to call them “employers.”) Recently, a US judge ruled that the interns working on Fox’s Black Swan should have been paid for their labour. Bell Canada has recently been accused of breaking labour laws with regard to its unpaid interns. This has sparked a great deal of debate, and in what follows, I will respond to the most common defence of unpaid internships: That the intern consented to it. I will not be making a legal argument, even though I will be talking about laws. I am not a lawyer. I am a philosopher by training. I will be making a moral / political / economic argument.
What is the point of a minimum wage law?
The point of a minimum wage law is that we have decided as a society that even if the job market were to deteriorate to the point where a prospective employee was willing to agree to be employed for wages lower than the minimum wage, such an agreement would not be legal. That is the point of a minimum wage law. That is what it means. It is a law. It is not a suggestion or a guideline that can be ignored if both parties agree.
The consent of both parties does not make it okay, and as I will argue below, if a person could just consent to waive her right to a minimum wage, making it optional, that would undermine minimum wage law entirely. Defenders of unpaid internships routinely point to the fact that such programmes are “voluntary,” and that the intern went into the arrangement with her eyes open, knowing that she wouldn’t get paid, and that the interns agreed to work without compensation. They argue that the consent of the unpaid internship voids her right to claim a minimum wage.
While it is true that these programmes are voluntary, consent doesn’t get Bell out of its moral obligations to its employees. The fact that the interns weren’t slaves—kidnapped and locked in an office building to work for Bell against their will—doesn’t mean that what Bell did wasn’t exploitative.
The argument boils down to the proposition that if a person decides to work for $0 per hour (or “for job experience” or “for the networking opportunities”), she has every right to do so. After all, what business is it of ours to say that she can’t spend her time the way she likes?
The economics of hockey helmets
Economists and game theorists call these sorts of things “coordination problems.” A famous example identified by Thomas Schelling is the Hockey Helmet Problem which goes as follows: In the 1970’s, NHL hockey players were allowed, but not required to wear helmets, and most did not wear them. A secret ballot of these hockey players confirmed that they would prefer to wear them, but did not because they worried about losing the competitive advantage of peripheral vision as well as a certain “tough guy” image. As Teddy Green of the Bruins said in 1969, “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t—because the other guys don’t. I know that’s silly, but most of the players feel the same way. If the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” (Schelling, “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17(3):381–428, 1973.)
By making helmets mandatory, NHL players no longer had to choose between their personal safety and their hockey performance. By making the helmet rule, the NHL was saying that players shouldn’t even have to make that choice and that it was wrong to even ask them to do so.
Let me emphasise—now that the rule about hockey helmets is in place, NHL players can’t just choose to play without helmets, even if they want to. If that were allowed, it would make helmet-wearing optional again, and it would undermine the point of having the rule in the first place. This is a good analogy for minimum wage.
Analogy to minimum wage
In most cases, we rightly take what a person would consent to as a pretty good proxy for that person’s own idiosyncratic values. That is to say, in most cases where a person is willing to consent to something, she has made a subjective appraisal in favour of it, according to her own values. This is why we think it’s paternalistic to impose many restrictions on what a person can consent to do with her time / money / body / etc. This intuition is what gives the “it was voluntary” argument its moral force. A person’s self-interested behaviour is usually well-aligned with her own values.
In the Helmet Problem, the self-interest of NHL players was actually working against their own values, and so, a restriction that could have been framed in terms of a loss of freedom on the part of the players (“Who are you to tell me that I have to wear a helmet?”) was actually necessary to enable the players to coordinate and allow them all to do what they wanted to do. Put in moral terms, it was wrong to even make the NHL players choose between them in the first place.
Similarly, the self-interest of unpaid interns has been used against them in a morally problematic way and coordination through regulation will best respect their values and best interests. If a company is allowed to get away with offering an unpaid internship, a prospective intern has to choose between getting job experience / networking on the one hand and supporting herself financially on the other. If anyone is allowed to get away with working for less than the minimum wage (like at an unpaid internship), the minimum wage becomes optional for everyone. This defeats the purpose of having a minimum wage law in the first place, which is to ensure no one has to compete in a job market with free labour.
By having a minimum wage law, what we are saying is that in the same way that a hockey player shouldn’t be made to choose between his personal safety and his performance, an intern shouldn’t be made to choose between getting job experience and getting paid. Further, by having a minimum wage law, we are saying that an intern doesn’t get to make that choice, even if she wants to. That’s the whole point of the law.
I still disagree with you
If you don’t want to live in a society where there is a minimum wage, that’s fine. We have a democratic process for passing legislation that allows us to change laws as we see fit, but at least in 2013, in Canada and the US, the law is that work must be compensated with a minimum amount of money per hour, whether you’d be willing to work for less or not.
This morning, I brought two brand new Mark 3 quidditch hoop bases to campus via the métro. The McGill Quidditch Team now has a full set of 6 freestanding quidditch hoops! They are reasonably easy to carry and just the right weight to prevent tipping. They are also made of ABS pipes, joints and couplings, and so they look awfully suspicious.
I’m still working on updating the construction manual so that it reflects the most up-to-date version of the base.
I got off the métro at station Peel and crossed the path of two uniformed police officers. They looked at me, they looked at the mess of ABS pipes in my hands, and they looked up at me again. Although they didn’t say anything, I could tell from their expression that they were thinking something like, “If this guy wasn’t blond with blue eyes, we would totally preemptively arrest him under the brave new anti-terrorism legislation that just passed.”
The Psychopath Test is worth the time to read. Jon Ronson, the author, took Hare’s standardised test (Hare, 1991) comprised of 20 questions, each scored from 0–2, and applied this test to a number of corporate CEO’s and other such leaders. The prevalence of psychopathy is around 1% in the general population (Coid, 2009), but since psychopaths tend to be very goal-driven and often very successful, they show up at even higher rates in the upper echelons of business or politics or other such endeavours.
The author’s idea was that a lot of the bad things that happen in the world are due to a lot of greedy, power-hungry, scary people, and these people suffer from psychopathy. And this becomes apparent when they end up in places like CEO’s offices at major financial institutions, bankrupt them, break the law and yet still demand large bonuses, for example.
This dovetails nicely with some of the things that I’ve recently read in a couple of other books. I just finished reading Harperland (a book about the rise and consolidation of power in Canada under the Harper regime) and The End of Wall Street (a book about the people and policies that brought about the 2008 financial crisis), and I’ll let you make your own guesses about who I suspect of psychopathy now.
Psychopathy and religion and Deep Space Nine
While reading through the book, one of my first reactions (after the obligatory, “I hope I’m not a psychopath!” response) to the descriptions of the psychopaths was that they reminded me of Kai Winn. My apologies for making an obscure Star Trek reference, but Kai Winn is one of the best recurring characters in Deep Space Nine. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite of a religious leader. What’s great about her, is that she’s not a typical villain—there are shades of grey in her character—she can charm and manipulate you at times into thinking she is not the bad guy. But in the end, she’s a pathological liar with a grandiose sense of self-worth, who has no ability to empathise with others or feel remorse or guilt. When she lashes out at her political enemies, it’s not out of the passion of emotion. It’s cold. Calculated. She’s just very good at mimicking certain behaviours to benefit her own self-interest.
Modern evangelicalism would make a great hiding place for a psychopath
I think that psychopaths like Kai Winn exist in real churches in real life. Evangelical Christianity would be a great place for a psychopath to “hide out,” especially at the top of a modern evangelical mega-church. Let me explain.
Item 1 on the psychopath checklist (PCL) is “glibness or superficial charm.” Psychopaths, when you meet them, are very like-able. They have an ability to ape the emotions of normal people, and they are often very successful at speaking publicly and in very endearing ways. They are good at telling jokes and influencing other people. The pulpit would be very attractive to certain psychopaths.
Item 2 on the PCL is “grandiose sense of self-worth.” What better place to have your ego stroked for your entire life than in a church where you can be taken seriously when you say things like, “God placed it on my heart to tell you …” or “God gave me a vision that …” Evangelicals eat that stuff up. Even if it’s ridiculous, if you say something like that at a prayer meeting or Bible study, you’ll never hear anyone say, “God didn’t tell you that. You made that up.” I guarantee it.
In this way, a psychopath could claim the authority of God Himself and it wouldn’t even seem strange to anyone else there. I know I have personally witnessed a great many people saying things like that (none of whom I would suspect to be psychopaths), but many examples of such behaviour I would have called manipulative (which turns out to be item 5 on the PCL). Even stranger claims—that God has given explicit instructions, foresight or the like—have been made by evangelical Christians in high positions of leadership, and sometimes more famously (e.g. Harold Camping) and sometimes less famously, these turn out to be lies. (Pathological lying is item 4 on the PCL.)
Item 13 is “lack of realistic long-term goals.” A psychopath who said that he wanted to “change the world for Christ,” or that he was “sent by God to call the nation back to Him” would not raise any eyebrows among evangelicals.
Item 6 is “lack of remorse or guilt,” item 7 is “shallow affect,” and item 16 is “failure to accept responsibility for own actions.” If you want a good excuse for not feeling remorse or guilt and for not taking responsibility, you can hardly do better than “Jesus died for my sins, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about them.” A spiritual leader who skips over his own personal failures without missing a beat could attribute it all to the grace of God, and this wouldn’t raise suspicion in the slightest.
Item 8 is “callous / lack of empathy.” You might not think this would go very well with Christianity, but modern evangelical Christianity can have a very pronounced mean streak. Just talk to one of today’s neo-Calvinists—a disciple of Piper’s or Driscoll’s—and I can guarantee you that they will all-too-gladly be able to explain why it is very good news that a literal physical hell of eternal conscious torment awaits those who do not accept Christ. Or think about the drive to “win” people through evangelism—it is highly praised among evangelical Christians. Imagine a psychopath who goes around telling complete strangers that they’re going to hell unless they say a prayer, and more-or-less treats them as objects to be collected and scared into submission, in a display of a complete lack of empathy. If the psychopath was able to do it with the requisite amount of charm and sophistication, this person would likely become a superstar in a local evangelical church in short order.
Item 9 is “parasitic lifestyle.” Among young evangelical males looking for a potential wife, one of the most often cited criteria is that the wife must have “a servant’s heart.” When you ask most evangelicals what they mean by that, they usually don’t have anything quite as misogynist as this initially sounds like it would mean. That said, if there was a psychopath hiding among evangelicals, he could honestly say, “I want a wife who has a servant’s heart,” and mean that he plans to take advantage of her for her entire life.
Item 11 is “promiscuous sexual behaviour”, item 17 is “many short-term marital relationships,” item 12 is “early behaviour problems,” item 18 is “juvenile delinquency,” and item 20 is “criminal versatility.” These four might seem difficult for a psychopath hiding among Christians to mask, but then there’s nothing an evangelical likes more than a shocking conversion story. Evangelicals teach their children from a young age to polish and prepare their “testimonials” (story of how one became a Christian), and visiting guest speakers at a church often begin their testimonials by waxing eloquent over the depths of their depravity before their conversion. What this means is that for an evangelical, a history of sin and evil can be spun into the mark of a great dispensation of the grace of God. A clever psychopath could very easily convert a fairly clear mark of their mental illness, “early behavioural problems,” into a compelling part of his conversion story.
All you have to do is find a person who has all the character traits I described above, and you’re already at a score of 28 out of 40 on the PCL. Generally speaking, 30 is the “cut-off” that’s generally used for research purposes to say that someone is likely to be a psychopath, although pretty much everyone agrees that psychopathy occurs along a spectrum, and every case is, of course unique. But it’s remarkable to think that a person could not only get away with having all these classic marks of psychopathy, but actually use them to his advantage and rise to considerable influence within a church because of them.
An exercise for the reader
Choose a public figure. Here’s a few suggestions:
Look up Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (it’s on Wikipedia, I think)
Using quotes from the figure you choose, make your best argument that the public figure in question is, in fact, a psychopath
Post what you find in the comments, if you like!
For bonus points: what are the dangers/downsides that might be associated with using a psychopathy checklist to decide who is a psychopath and who isn’t?
Weird thing about the copy of The Psychopath Test that I borrowed from the Bibliothèque Nationale
The ebook was formatted weirdly. I think that every single page in the book was an image—a picture of the published book, rather than a text file. I couldn’t increase the font size, and I couldn’t select text on the page, which would make sense if it was actually just a series of images of text. It was a little hard to read on the Kobo due to the tiny font, but zooming in on every page on my Kobo was a frustrating and terrible prospect, so I just sucked it up and read the tiny text on each page.
Just weird is all.
Ronson, Jon (2011). The Psychopath Test. United Kingdom: Picador.
Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
Coid, Jeremy et al (2009). Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32:2, pp.. 65–73.
Since my sister’s move to Montréal, she watched a lot of Téléfrançais. In an effort to keep up with her level of French, I have been watching it as well. Téléfrançais is an educational TV show designed to teach French to elementary school students. It stars a talking pineapple named “Ananas.”
Inspired by Téléfrançais, I have been working on a digitally remastered version of Ananas in Blender. Tonight I did a little camera tracking test and put Ananas on the kitchen table with my sister and boyfriend. It turned out okay. Click the thumbnail of the image attached to this post to see an animated GIF of Ananas waving at you creepily.
I feel like this creepiness is definitely in keeping with the spirit of Téléfrançais. Next up, time to do some writing. I’m not planning a feature-length film, but perhaps a (series of) short film(s)?
Recently, my father was hospitalised for schizophrenia in the psychiatric ward at the Stratford General Hospital. This was good news. It was a welcome change after months of increasingly abusive and dangerous behaviour on his part that affected the entire family. Not only was he suffering from disordered thoughts and paranoid delusions, he lost his impulse control with regard to money (and some other things as well). Due to his condition he lacks the ability to deal with his own finances. He was admitted to the Stratford General Hospital and shortly thereafter, a medical tribunal determined that he was not competent to make his own medical decisions. My mother was assigned to be his medical decision-maker and power of attorney.
Yesterday, we found out that some unscrupulous lawyer visited the Stratford General Hospital to arrange the papers so that my dad could transfer his medical decision-making and power of attorney away from my mother, and give it to another patient on the psychiatric ward. As far as we know, this other patient is just some guy that my dad met less than two weeks ago when he was admitted. The name sounds made-up, though, so for all we know, it’s not his real name. This “other patient” could even be a delusion of my dad’s.
Needless to say, we were upset.
We contacted the lawyer to ask him what he thought he was doing. He said he didn’t do anything—that it was my dad who made it happen, and that he had training to determine when someone was competent to make such decisions. We will be inquiring about what legal options we have against this individual.
When we told our own lawyer about the problem, his administrative assistant broke out laughing, because it was such a ridiculous turn of affairs. He advised us to get a letter from dad’s psychiatrist, and on the basis of such a letter, it would be possible to have this transfer of power of attorney reversed. This seemed reasonable. On contacting the doctor, we were told that he could not release such a letter, since my dad has requested that his medical information not be shared with us (one of his paranoid delusions is that we’re out to get him), and my mother no longer had her status as his medical decision-maker and power of attorney.
In the face of this Catch-22, we’re not sure what to do next. As of today, the doctors at the Stratford General are still refusing to provide a letter indicating my dad’s condition, because they are afraid of being sued.
I’d like to emphasise at this point that the unscrupulous lawyer got paid for what he did. Paid with money. He came in to the locked ward of the Stratford General and walked out substantially richer, thanks to money he took from a person who was determined by a medical tribunal to be incapable of making his own medical decisions.
If someone walked into a hospital and found an old woman with dementia and exploited her condition for his own financial gain and gave her nothing in return, that conduct would be reprehensible, but it still wouldn’t be as bad as what this lawyer did to my dad yesterday. Not only did he take money from someone whose mental condition renders him incompetent to handle his own financial affairs, but he made it a thousand times harder for us to get my dad back on his meds to stop the paranoia and abuse.
So, Andrew Williams: When do your doctors plan on doing the right thing for their patient and his family?
(Edit 21h00—the original version had more cursing, but as my friend advised, “Try not to swear so that your interlocutor doesn’t have an excuse to dismiss you.”)
I make it no secret that I have a hard time understanding the lyrics to most music. Usually, Christmas music is an exception. Christmas songs are the same, year after year. Even more helpful, if you’re in a choir or if you attend church, often the lyrics of Christmas songs are printed out and handed to you so you can sing along. Even with all that help, though, Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a song that took me a long time to figure out.
One part of the song goes as follows:
In the meadow, we can build a snowman
And pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, “Are you married?”
We’ll say “No man!
“But you can do the job when you’re in town”
As a child, I thought “Parson” was some guy’s first name. I figured he was some famous person I hadn’t heard of in other contexts. Clearly I didn’t think about it too hard.
But if you don’t realise that “Parson” means “member of the clergy” and “do the job” means “officiate your wedding,” you might think that the singers of this song were a bunch of floosies, and that they had another “job” in mind for him to “do” while he was in town.