Sunday, February 27, 2011

Brakeless Trains - My Take

(Note to philosophers: this represents only my take on the brakeless trains example, and is not intended to be a full and accurate depiction of Russell's argument (and does not even mention Strawson's response). I am concerned here not for exegetical accuracy, but rather, a clear tracing of my thinking on the subject.)

On 02/25/2011 2:26 PM, Savoie, Rod wrote, referring to:

“there is the case where the object does not exist, and yet the word continues to have meaning. For example, 'brakeless trains are dangerous', to borrow from Russell. The whole area of counterfactuals in general. Which, if we follow the inferential trail, would have us believing with David K. Lewis that possible worlds are real. So *minimally* the meaning of the word, with respect to the object, must take place with respect to a theory or theoretical tradition.”

Is there a word in that sentence (“brakeless trains are dangerous”) that continues to have meaning whereas the object does not exist?

I replied:

Yeah - there's no such thing as a 'brakeless train' - all trains, and all; trains that have ever existed, have had brakes. So there is nothing that the noun phrase 'brakeless trains' refers to.

When you combine symbols (brakeless & trains), it is more a logic problem than a symbol/object problem.

The quick answer is to say we can just combine the terms. But when we are trying to understand the meaning of the sentence, combining terms is insufficient.

Let me explain (again, loosely following Russell):

When we say "brakeless trains are dangerous", are we saying "there exists an x such that x is a brakeless train and x is dangerous"? Well, no, because we are not saying "there exists an x such that x is a brakeless train."

So, how about, "there exists an x such that x is brakeless and x is a train and x is dangerous"? This is the 'combining terms' approach. But no, because we are not saying "there exists an x such that x is brakeless and x is a train."

Therefore, the statement "Brakeless trains are dangerous" cannot be rendered as an existential statement.

What we really mean by the statement is the counterfactual: "For all x, if x is a brakeless train, then x is dangerous." But what could we mean by such a statement? If meaning is what the sattement refers to, or what makes the statement true, then the statement is essentially meaningless, because

"For all x, if x is a brakeless train, then x is dangerous."

is equivalent to

"For all x, x is not a brakeless train or x is dangerous."

which means that our meaning is satisfied by reference to all things that are not brakeless trains, that is to say, everything in the world. Which means that our statement has exactly the same meaning as "The present king of France is dangerous," as the two sentences refer to exactly the same set of entities.

Perhaps, you might think, what we are talking about is not a union of the two sets, but an intersection. But the intersection of the set of 'brakeless trains' and the set of 'things that are dangerous' is empty, because there are no brakeless trains. Creating a three-set Venn diagram does not help either, because the intersection of 'things that are brakeless', 'things that are trains', and 'things that are dangerous' is also empty.

But what does it mean to combine symbols, if it does not mean to create the intersection of sets of objects denoted by the separate symbols? This is especially the case for a philosophy in which all statements depend on reference to experience for their truth. But even if you allow that some statements do not depend on reference to experience for their truth, the problem nonetheless remains, because there is no apparent way to create an inference to the conclusion 'brakeless trains are dangerous' that is not derived from the empty set, ie., derived from a contradiction.

Symbols are not limited to physical objects (because you seem to make that inference in your argument, but I do know that you don’t necessarily think that).

Quite so. Symbols are not limited to physical objects. But for those symbols that are not limited to physical objects, where do they get their meaning? In semiotics generally, it must be something that is not the symbol itself; it must be from whatever the symbol signifies. Because it is the state of affairs in whatever the symbol signifies that will, for example, allow us to determine whether a statement containing the symbol is true or false.

You can make stuff up. You can give 'nothingness' a sense. (Sartre) Or 'time'. (Heidegger) Or 'history' (Marx). Or 'spirit'. (Hegel). Or space-time. (Kant) Or the self. (Descartes) But to philosophers who base their meaningfulness in experience, such as the positivists (and such as myself), the philosophies thus created are literally meaningless. What makes a statement involving one or the other of them true or false? The appeal is always to some necessity inherent in the concept. But necessities are tautologies, and from a tautology, nothing follows.

So what do symbols mean, if they do not refer to physical objects? This now becomes the basis for the issues modern philosophy. By far the primary contender is this: the symbols derive their meaning from a representation, where the representation may or may not have a direct grounding in the physical world.

For example, i - the square root of -1. It is clear that i does not refer to any number, because the square root of -1 does not exist. Nonetheless, the symbol i has a meaning - I just stated it - and this meaning is derived from the fact that it is postulated by, or embedded in, a representation of reality, ie., mathematics.

But what is the grounding for a representation? If we say "i has meaning in P', where does the representational system P obtain its meaning? It must have some, if only to distinguish it from being a 'castle in the air'. But more, if there is to be any commonality of representation, any communication between people using representational systems, then the representational system must in some way be externally grounded. Because, if i derives its meaning from its being embedded in the representational system, then, so does the symbol '1'. Because if you allow parts of your representation to have their meaning derived totally by reference to the physical world, you're right back where you've started, with essential elements of the system (like time, negation, self) without any external referent.

There are some options:

- picture (early Wittgenstein) - the representation is a picture or image of that which is represented
- coherence (Davidson) - it is the internal consistence of the representation itself that guarantees its truth
- cognitivism (Fodor) - the representation is innate
- possible worlds (Lewis) - the representation is grounded by reference to possible worlds
- pragmatism (James) - the representation is useful
- use, or pragmaticism (Peirce) - the effect of the meaning on action, or (later Wittgenstein) the use of the representation

In special cases, there are even more options. In probability theory, for example, there are three major interpretations:

- logical (Carnap) - the probability is the percent of the logical possibilities in which p is true
- frequency (Reichenbach) - the probability is the observed frequency in which p is true
- interpretive (Ramsey) - the percentage at which you would bet on p being true

As you can see, any of these could be applied to the statement that 'brakeless trains are dangerous' and we would have a story to tell, everything from the idea (from Davidson) that it is consistent and coherent with our understanding of trains, if not derived from it, that brakeless trains are dangerous, to (James) the usefulness of posting a sign to that effect in a train factory, to (Ramsey) how much an insurance company would be willing to cover you for were you to ride on a brakeless trains.

Which of these is true? They all are. Or to be more precise: none of them are. There is no external reality to which any of these 'representations' needs to set itself against in order to be true (or effective, or useful, etc). They are each, in their own way, a self-contained system. And each of our representations of the world is a combination of some, or all, of them. The meaning of any given term in a representation is distributed across the elements of that representation, and the meaning of the term consists in nothing over and above that.

The entities though so vital to the determination of truth in a representation - external objects, self, time, being, negation - are elements of the representation. The representation represents - no, is - the sum total of our mental contents.

So we come back to the initial question:

Is there a word in that sentence (“brakeless trains are dangerous”) that continues to have meaning whereas the object does not exist?

And it follows that, if the phrase 'brakeless trains' does not refer to, or even represent, some external reality, none of the words in that sentence does. There are not special cases where some words refer and other words do not; all the words are, as it were, in the same boat. The case of 'brakeless trains' illustrates a case that applies to all words, even if it is only most evident in this particular example.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Moncton's Future

I attended an open house to discuss the city planning exercise with various city officials on Wednesday at the city's L'Odyssée High School (they let the students name the school and that's what they picked; they haven't let the students name a school since, which I think is unfortunate).

I had a number of good discussions with officials on trees, road placements, the transit system, and the city's economy in general. I also had a long discussion with a reporter from the Times &Transcript, Yvon Gauvin. And in the article that followed Thursday, he devoted five paragraphs to the conversation.

Let's go through them one by one.
"Stephen Downes agreed [that the downtown part of Main Street should be closed]. Turn part of Main Street into a pedestrian mall with St. George Street and Assumption Boulevard as main thoroughfares, he suggested. Additions like a convention/activity centre, multi-level parking garages, movie theatre, museum, arts centre, night clubs and more would provide the attraction to draw the crowds."
I did. Main Street should be a mall, and St. George and Assumption - two streets that parallel Main - should handle the east-west traffic flow. But I also said in the same sentence that there should be a transit corridor in between, running along Queen and Gordon Street. I also said there should be pedestrian access from the transit corridor to the mall via shorter pedestrian routes along Robinson Court and Orange Lane. I mentioned Ottawa and Calgary as examples of this structure. I drew a little map on a piece of paper:

The sentence about the 'additions' was the product of a number of separate remarks made in a back and forth conversation. Gauvin raised two major issues he wanted me to address: first, the (perceived) lack of parking downtown, and second, a way to restore the retain sector downtown.

With respect to the parking, I said that the problem is that downtown Moncton is mostly parking already. Look at a Google Map, using the satellite view, straight down on Moncton downtown, I said. It's mostly parking! There's actually no room for retail outlets to locate, and because there's so little room for actual buildings, there aren't enough people downtown to generate the critical mass.

We didn't have the Google Map handy, but I can make the point here (the yellow blocks represent parking spaces):

So what I said was, that if we built a downtown events centre or convention centre, we should build a five-story parking garage. St. Paul does this, I pointed out, and even Saint John has one. I argued that what actually enables the holding of so much land in speculation, using it as parking space, is existing tax law that encourages parking lots and discourages the building of buildings downtown. We had a bit of a discussion on this point.

Gauvin asked, what about the free market? I replied that there's always going to be some tax system, and that the city should look at their tax policies and ask themselves, what is the free market going to do in the light of different tax policies. He said people aren't going to walk downtown, and I pointed out that a parking garage would be more convenient - go down the stairs and step out on Main Street, instead of searching all over for a parking spot and then hiking back to Main.

Additionally, I argued that the proposal to encourage retail development downtown is misguided. Moncton has two very well established retail areas, Champlain Mall, which is right at the edge of downtown (just to the right of the area in the parking photo above), and Trinity Drive / Plava Bvld. These places are where people will continue to shop. A downtown - not just in Moncton, but in any number of cities you care to name - are the home to attractions people want to visit - not just bars and cafes (though it's odd that every coffee shop downtown closes after 5) but theatres (there's no cinema downtown. Why?), museums, art galleries, a concert hall, and an arena or events centre.

Downes also agreed that public consultation was a good idea. Moncton needs input on planning. They don't always get it right by themselves, he quipped.

I did say that. I also said that it would be true no matter who is in charge. I also said that I had more faith in city officials than the newspaper has.

On the negative side are the sidewalks he calls pedestrian-hostile, and the transit system. Both need to be rethought, he said.

I did, including using that exact phrasing. I pointed to the example at Trinity Drive, walking across the bridge at Mapleton going toward Costco, where your sidewalk ends and you're faced with a 20 foot wall instead of access to the mall. And at the other end of the same mall, the area where it is impossible to use sidewalks to go to Old Navy, even after the city admonished people for not using the crossing lights to go to Old Navy.

I expressed support for the city's program of building bike lanes and bicycle paths. The newspaper has complained that some bike paths simply stop at intersections, and therefore should not be built or continued, but I noted that you cannot build an entire system in an instant and that the city should proceed, eventually closing these gaps. Building the bicycle network has been slow going, we both agreed.

I suggested that larger retail developments should be required to have sidewalks. I pointed to the work being done in Dieppe where the reconstruction of Paul includes nice wide sidewalks on both sides, correcting a longstanding problem. I also said there should be better ways to cross Wheeler. The sidewalk over Hall's Creek on Main is a death trap (I didn't mention the 50 foot missing link that's just a dirt path between Main and Champlain Mall, though I should have). I said there should be a pedestrian bridge (and maybe a transitway) over Wheeler and Hall's creek connecting Superstore (and the rest of downtown) and Champlain Mall. Maybe some other places. Other cities actually have pedestrian bridges over freeways. Even Riverview has one!

I spent quite a bit of time on the transit system. It's badly designed, I said, has bus stops that strand people in the middle of nowhere (like the stop near the Kent at Trinity, that forces people to walk on a roadway to go anywhere). I expressed astonishment at the fact that it is not possible to obtain a system-wide transit map, and mentioned that I had created one of my own:

View Moncton Transit in a larger map

I explained that the routes had not been updated for years and treated Moncton like a small town, not the largest city in New Brunswick. I drew a little diagram to illustrate how the system was designed:

The 'flower' design is typical of a small city with one central area, but in a larger city means it takes forever to travel point to point outside downtown. Also, it seems that the system evolved by simply creating a new loop whenever a new subdivision was added. There is significant evidence of transit routes being designed in response to calls or favours. There is no updating; the route to the airport still runs to the old terminal five years after the new terminal, at the opposite side of the airport, has been constructed.

There should be a transit commission, I said, and possibly other commissions to over see things like this, because the size of the city makes it too much for City Council to run all by itself. Hence, as written in the article:

More civic involvement was also suggested, including the creation of commissions to oversee some of the services for residents.

That's also where the following quote came from:

Moncton isn't a community of 20,000 people anymore. It's grown to become an important economic base by capitalizing on transit systems leading to the city, on its retail shopping appeal, its entertainment, even its thriving medical services system with two major hospitals and a number of after-hours health clinic springing up.

This actually combines my responses to two separate questions, the one on sidewalks and transit, in which I alluded to the complexity of managing a city, and the second in response to prodding, after all this discussion, on whether I had confidence in city officials, whether I thought they had the right strategy.

I replied to the latter by saying that overall I thought the city government was doing well. They have overall positioned Moncton to take advantage of recent improvements in transportation (not transit) infrastructure, and in particular, the development of freeways in the 80s and 90s, and infrastructure like the Confederation bridge. They've been adding to that through things like airport redevelopment, which gives us a state of the art facility.

And they've built on that through three waves of economic activity. The first was the encouragement of retail at Champlain and Trinity, among other locations, and especially the encouragement of a diversity of outlets (so we have Home Depot in addition to Kent, Superstore in addition to Sobeys, etc.). Second was the development of a medical services sector. We had a natural strength in that area with two hospitals, not just one. But we had to grow infrastructure around it - ten years ago there were only two after-hours clinics, open only a few hours in the evening, where you still had to make appointments, now there are many clinics of all kinds. And then third, the entertainment and events sector, with the promotion of major shows and events, and the development of infrastructure, such as the facilities at Magnetic Hill, and eventually a downtown presence as well.

There were things I didn't say, but which could be seen in the comments left by other people. A lot of support for parts, green spaces and especially trees. Support for improved transit, sidewalks and especially better snow clearing on the sidewalks (including from the wheelchair user, who must use the roads as the sidewalks are impassable). Support for a more proactive approach to development - one city official comments, "We want to use this policy to give developers more flexibility," and the resident commented, "No, that's what we don't want - don't put those apartments in residential areas, locate higher density development downtown." All of which I support, but didn't say because others were saying it.

I finished by criticizing the newspaper. I advised council members, I said, to do the opposite of what the newspaper recommends. The newspaper promotes various "loopy" policies that actually run counter to the best interests of the city. Among them:
- opposition to public art, when public art actually supports the strategy I've just described
- opposition to quality materials on city buildings, favouring vinyl siding rather than stone
- opposition to the development of sidewalks and bicycle paths, and especially bicycle lanes
- opposition to any expenditures not among its favoured projects - an events centre for the company-owned hockey team to play
- opposition to traffic circles, and other systems of moderating the speed and recklessness of city traffic - there's one person on the paper who cannot stand anything that stops him from speeding through the streets, I said
- opposition to cases where the city leads by example, as for instance the garden it maintains on the roof of City Hall (instead of just a plain roof)

"No, No," said Gauvin. "You can't mean that." I said that the newspaper very much has its own agenda and presents news and opinion that matches this agenda, to the detriment of truth and accuracy. The newspaper is one of the major factors holding the city back.

So anyhow, we see what Gauvin's article looked like after writing and editing, overall a pretty good job, clearly dropping the stuff that the editors are known to oppose, but maintaining a generally accurate record of the conversation.

The kicker, though, is that the article never actually appeared in the newspaper. This sort of coverage - generally supportive of the direction the city is taking, and heavy on proper transit, pedestrian malls, a diversified economic strategy, and the rest - is just what we do not see in the newspaper. It is as though this consultation never happened, because when the people speak, they do not say what the newspaper's masters want.

And that, Yvon Gauvin, was my point.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Easy RSS

RSS is ridiculously easy to create. It should be available to everyone, without the need for a specialized blogging application.

Here's a Perl script that will create an RSS feed from a tab separated document.


Here's a file to test it on:


title link  description
Stephen's Web    Stephen's Web home page & stuff "
Half an Hour The place I write stuff
Let's Make Some Art Dammit The place I store my artistic stuff


Here's a demo link to see the script working:


-- Stephen

Note that this is plain Perl, without any modules (you could actually write it in a tenth of the space using Perl modules) because I want the script to just work, without worrying about how your Perl is set up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Six Tweets on Self

Downes : Thinking:Our concept of 'self' is not created through internal reflection. It is created via our perception of self from the external world.

Downes : 'self' is a concept, like 'bacon' or hope', created through the production of artifacts in the world. We access this concept thru experience

Downes : 'self' is a concept, like 'bacon' or hope', created through the production of artifacts in the world. We access this concept thru experience

JeffreyKeefer : @Downes Doesn't this depend on one's locus of control?
10 minutes ago via TweetDeck in reply to Downes

Downes : This *especially* applies to the modalities - when we see ourselves *as* something - "I see me as a teacher" or "as I will be in the future"

Downes : Our control over this process is limited, non-existent while very young, and akin to growing a plant by watering, fertilizing, in later life.

Downes : Learning 'self' is like learning language, an internal response to public phenomena, it's just a word; it is not a distinct mental entity.

Downes : (I imagine someone has already said all this, but it's new to me)

djakes : @Downes Imagine that.
2 minutes ago via web in reply to Downes

PatParslow : @Downes Hm, would say we 'create' self through experience; not necessarily (ever?) consciously (includes interaction with others)

JaneDavis13 : @Downes "the world is in the person, just as the person is in the world" (Lindesmith et al, 1999, p14)

Downes : @PatParslow I think that what mechanisms there are for 'creating' self are indirect.

Downes : @PatParslow It's like our concept of 'Paris' - we *could* 'create' our own concept, but it's basically impossible, too many other factors

PatParslow : @Downes Oh yes, certainly. But we don't just access it, I think, it is "emergent" (for some value/interpretation of emergent)

Downes: @PatParslow : Emergent, yes. Exactly what I'm thinking. There is no entity 'self' in the mind, just a dense set of connections, a pattern

PatParslow : @Downes And no other 'entities' as such, either, though I still wouldn't rule out the concept of 'states' (semi-persistent patterns)

Downes : @JaneDavis13 @PatParslow 'Multilayered phenomenon' is where we go off the rails, I think - why postulate a structure like layers?

intrepidteacher : Not sure I could articulate what that last @Downes Tweet means, but I know I like it and get it on some level.

PatParslow : @Downes @JaneDavis13 I think impose is strong. There does appear to be hierarchical processing (e.g. visual cortex) (plus shortcuts)

JaneDavis13 : @Downes @PatParslow are we saying that mind = self? Are we imposing or recognising. Surely denial is as rigid a construct?

PatParslow : @Downes though, there, of course, I am conflating mind with brain ;-)

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes I'm /not/ saying mind isn't self ;-) how well are either really 'defined'?

AlanaCallan : @Downes have bn thinking abt self & work-based learning & planning - need 2 have awareness of self in order 2 frame learning tht makes sense

JaneDavis13 : @PatParslow @downes I agree Pat. There has to be clarity before positing in relation to either surely?

Downes : @JaneDavis13 @PatParslow Ya, there aren't neat categories, 'mind', 'brain', 'self' - I prefer to think of physical structures & concepts

JaneDavis13 : @Downes @PatParslow I am tending to look more at (social) processes, behaviours and social outcomes

Downes : @JaneDavis13 @PatParslow ...where the physical structure = the body & brain, concepts = emergent patterns in a net of artifacts in the world

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes Problem is, you will never get people to agree on meaning of those terms. Well, I can't. If you do, let me know!

JaneDavis13 : @PatParslow @downes interesting discussion though ;-)

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes I tend to look at phys structures & systems and how they work with processes, behaviours and social interactions :-)

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes I was trying to figure out the 'folk view' of the meanings, but a philosopher told me that was pointless :-S

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes I tend to look at phys structures & systems and how they work with processes, behaviours and social interactions :-)

PatParslow : @JaneDavis13 @downes I was trying to figure out the 'folk view' of the meanings, but a philosopher told me that was pointless :-S

Downes : @JaneDavis13 @PatParslow I'm sympathetic - there will never be agreement on the folk view, each new theory becomes part of that view

Downes : @JaneDavis13 @PatParslow and when someone says, eg., 'a concept of self is essential to learning', I don't know what that means. Literally.

PatParslow : @Downes @janedavis wrt internal/external I think it is a mix. We always reflect on external stimuli, (subcon, at least)

PatParslow : @Downes @Janedavis13 Ah yes, I tend to answer with "learning is about creating self" which I believe true, but prob equally meaningless

PatParslow : And, I have to say, what better way of spending Sunday than discussing mind, self, learning et al with @Downes and @janedavis13?

JaneDavis13 : @Downes @PatParslow I'll try and come back to that when I've finished my research :-)

PatParslow : @Downes @janedavis13 I normally think in terms of consciousness, but that is badly defined too. Emergent property of agent in social groups

PatParslow : @Downes same as 'self' I think. Form model of self (emergent property) from engaging with society/environment.

fvandenburg : @Downes agreed, it may not be created by reflection, but isn't reflection a possible means to consciously modify our self concept?

edCetraTraining : @mrch0mp3rs @Downes to be self conscious is to be aware of everybody but yourself.

mrch0mp3rs : @edCetraTraining @downes isn't talking about self-consciousness. Self-awareness relates the self in context of others

edCetraTraining : @mrch0mp3rs @edCetraTraining @downes classic phenomenology. Was just throwing in an adjunct thought to the one already out there. Back2work

Friday, February 11, 2011

Success Verbs

A 'success verb' is a verb that refers not only to an action or set of actions, but also tacitly to the outcome of that action. Such verbs are often used to imply that one hopes to achieve the outcome.

For example: "I'm convincing my mother to come along." The expression of this sentence implies the expectation of a certain outcome, specifically, that the mother will be convinced. This outcome may be caused by the action, but occurs independently of it. What a person may be doing to convince is to beg, plead, cajole, argue or urge. It is the combination of these actions, together with the hoped-for outcome, that creates the full meaning of the verb 'convince'.

Numerous verbs are success verbs, among them including:
   - to con
   - to attract
   - to repulse
   - to translate
   - to cure
   - to grow
   - to understand
   - to know
   - to learn
   - to teach
   - to win

Len Holmes, Reframing Learning: Performance, Identity and Practice

Turning to present-tense usage of the verb 'to learn', we should note Ryle's argument that there is an important class of occurrence or episodic words which, because they are active verbs, have tended to make us oblivious to their logic. These are, he argues, success or achievement verbs; the examples he gives are 'win', 'unearth', 'find', 'cure', 'convince', 'prove', 'cheat', 'unlock', 'safeguard', 'conceal'. These correspond with task verbs, with the force of 'trying to'. Sometimes we use an achievement verb as a synonym for a task verb (or verbal phrase):
" 'Hear' is sometimes used as a synonym of 'listen' and 'mend' as a synonym of 'try to mend'." (Ryle, 1949:, p. 143)
A major difference between the logical force of a task verb and its corresponding achievement verb is that, in using the latter,
"we are asserting that some state of affairs obtains over and above that which consists in the performance, if any, of the subservient task activity." (ibid.)
Thus, for a doctor to cure a patient, she must both treat the patient and the patient must be well again. Ryle notes that there may be achievements without a task performance: for example, success may also be ascribed to luck. In addition, we may use a success verb in anticipation, with the possibility that we will revise the usage in the event of failure (p.144)
Our language has a range of task verbs and verbal phrases associated with learning. In educational settings we say we are 'studying' a subject (Note 3). Other terms include 'exploring', 'practising', 'researching', 'trying to', 'having a go at', 'working at', 'looking into', 'reading up on', and the like. There are also passive formulations: 'being taught', 'being shown', 'receiving instruction' (Note 4). Such task verbs and verbal phrases carry no necessity, in their meaning, that success has been achieved: 'He practised the bagpipes every day but he still can't play a single tune', 'She studied biology at school, but failed the exam'.
The key point to note is that the use of both a task verb and a success verb together does not describe two different activities:
"When a person is described as having fought and won, or as having journeyed and arrived, he is not being said to have done two things, but to have done one thing with a certain upshot." (ibid.)
As Ryle says, success verbs belong, put crudely, 'not to the vocabulary of the player, but to the vocabulary of the referee' (p.145). So too, we may argue, with learning. An undergraduate studying motivation theory and learning Herzberg's two-factor model is not doing two separate things, but one thing (studying) successfully. To say she has learnt is to say she has studied successfully. We can also apply this to teaching (demonstrating, explaining, telling, etc.) and the increasingly fashionable notion of 'facilitating learning'. The use of the latter is as a phrase to indicate success in teaching; it is neither the same as teaching (which may be unsuccessful) nor a separate, superior activity.

There may be many attributes of a verb over and above the task itself; the successful outcome is only one of these. The wider set of attributes are grouped together under the concept of the performative, creating what J.L. Austin called 'speech acts'.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Enabling Economic Development in New Brunswick

Responding to David W. Campbell, this post, in which he refers to this column and asserts "We need a new approach – see the column for a few ideas."

Update: It looks like David W. Campbell has removed my reply from his post.

Update: my reply is back again.

There's actually just one central idea in the column. It is this:

"In my view, both the provincial and federal governments need to refocus their economic development efforts away from being primarily a source of capital (a kind of bank) for small- and medium-sized businesses and toward being enablers of a broader set of factors that will make New Brunswick a place where companies will be more likely to invest."

This is all very fine, and I support this as written. But as usual, we need to get to the specifics of the "broader set of factors" that will be enabled, and how they will be enabled.

To my observation, the most significant enablers have been infrastructure projects:
- creating the four-lane highway network in NB
- the bridge to PEI
- investment in the internet backbone
- Moncton airport development
- Port facilities (Cruise ship docks, harbour dredging in Sydney)

There have been some failures as well, the refurbishment of Point Lepreau being right up there among them.

We should be talking about what sort of infrastructure we should be pursuing and how to evaluate the economic activity and (government) return on the investment. Right now, these are talked about almost entirely as though they were expenses, which means they are the subject of government largess, and become the targets of companies wanting lower taxes.

We should be talking about the sorts of investments we can make as a province. Because we are a major enterprise, we do have access to capital, and can make strategic investments. Some areas of infrastructure investment include:
- energy investments, and especially in our wind capacity
- entertainment facilities, such as an events centre in Moncton
- additional internet and ICT infrastructure
- a rail link to NE U.S. (connecting the Noreaster to Via in Moncton)

Additionally significant enablers have been cooperative ventures between government and some partners. For example:
- City of Moncton attracting high-profile events (note that these also have an infrastructure spin-off)
- Development of the Cranberry farm with Ocean Spray
- Moncton Flight College

There have been some spectacular failures as well. For example:
- Bricklin

The risk of failure (and not the inherent betterness of small-scale or large scale enterprises) dictates that the size of the projects be such that governments can pursue several at once. This is simply a recognition that it is not wise to place all our bets on a single investment.

There's a much wider range of possibilities here. Some things that strike me as promising (at least for the Moncton area):
- wider investment in inland & salt-water fish farming
- projects combining medical services and ICTs - helath informatics
- destination resort capacity in Shediac, Hillsborough, Alma
- wood products and furniture (we should be building stuff with our forests, not pulping them)

At one time I would have wanted to see more projects involving high tech, knowledge economy, etc., but we do not have the labour force to support that. The development of local human capacity has to form the third pillar of an enablement strategy, without which we will not be able to attract and develop a workforce:
- hospitals and health care - there are structural issues in the NB system; we need to improve patient records, scheduling and planning, drop-in and storefront clinics, and wellness support.
- education - which is improving, but has suffered (c.f. Moncton High) from a woeful lack of investment; also needed are better adult learning opportunities, expansion of adult education and evening classes, online learning support and infrastructure, and daycare
- immigration and immigrant support - we do almost nothing to directly recruit people to the province; we should be actively recruiting (people who are not related to us), even to the point of managing our own immigration policy as Quebec does, and providing significant immigrant support (it is *much* more efficient to help an immigrant adapt than to grow and educate a child from birth)

Again, these are typically depicted as net expenses. This misapprehension should be corrected. Investment in these sectors is essential for several reasons:
- people won't move here if these are not well-supported; they want to raise their children in good systems, not poor ones (NB should be able to market itself as the place where you can move to to put your child in a "good school" without having to buy a home in Rockcliffe Park)
- we need to expand the knowledge and skills of the population that is already here, especially that part of the population currently working in unskilled occupations

Now - you may think these are all poor ideas, either individually or collectively. Not the point. What I would like to see is some discussion of an overall development plan that is *at least* to this level of detail. I am so tired of reading over and over an economic strategy consisting of lower taxes and handouts to Irving. There has to be more we can do, I know that the governments, past and future, have done this piecemeal, and we should put all of these on the table, debate the merits, and then make the investments.


Commentary on Confusing urbanization and NB’s northern challenge

I also think that the statistics may be a bit misleading. Urban areas typically attract a ring of sub-urban rural population around them. Though defined as rural, they are an effect of urban development.

But the main point still holds. The growth of cities like Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver was not as a result of rural depopulation. They attract immigrants, become stronger in their own right, and actually feed development out into their rural hinterland.

So I am in agreement with the main argument of this column. New Brunswick needs to look hard at immigration per se, and *not* immigration as migration from rural to urban areas, and not even immigration as repatriation of people who have left the province. None of these will do anything to address the major economic issues of the province.

I remember my wife saying, after Katrina, that New Brunswick should have reached out to people from New Orleans, letting them know that there is a home here for them. When you look at other regions suffering natural and civil strife - Bangladesh, Sudan, etc. - there are people who would find New Brunswick a paradise. Why can't we create a subindustry in this province specifically designed to attract and adapt immigrants?

People always say, "well you need the jobs before people will immigrate." But the attraction of immigrates *creates* the environment in which these jobs can be created. With the *current* population, there is almost nothing that can be done to simply create jobs - your labour pool is effectively that 10 percent of NBers that are unemployed. Because, how attractive is NB to a company if, after it locates here, it has to somehow figure out how to *import* labour? Why not just locate where the people already are.

The immigration comes first. The jobs come later. That's why we have to talk about immigration in NB.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Discovered Intersect

I discovered Intersect today and I’m exploring it. So far I think it needs a little pop-up calendar in the ‘enter time’ field.That said, it picked up on ‘today’ just fine, and knew what I meant my Moncton.

Anyhow, Moncton is my home. I live here.

Comments on this story
20 comments | Add a comment

Stephen Downes - about 1 hour ago
After I submitted the first entry I was taken to the timeline view. The trimeline right now shows exactly one day, divided into hours, but I can step forward and backward to other days.

Right away I wanted to import my Google Calendar to it, or better, sync Google Calendar with it.

Stephen Downes - 42 minutes ago
OK, I got the timeline by clicking ‘home’. Now I’m trying to find people. I don’t think there are many people here yet. I found out about Intersect by reading an article from Madeline Moy on Intersect, which was linked in a page for Alan Levine’s Twitter.

I suppose if I had signed in with Twitter I’d have more people I could find, but I’m really wary of mixing my contacts from one service into a new service. Call me old-fashioned.

Now – since I wanted to link to Madeline’s article, I’m wondering how to link to articles.

Stephen Downes - 42 minutes ago
Also, I wanted to edit the original submission, but there seems to be no way.

Stephen Downes - 41 minutes ago
Test link to my home page…

Stephen Downes - 41 minutes ago
OK, so it accepts links – I really don’t like the no-edit thing – so here is Madeline Moy’s article.

Stephen Downes - 40 minutes ago
Sorry, that wasn’t the article, that’s her life – this is her article.

Stephen Downes - 37 minutes ago
OK, so I went to her story line, to the story, clicked ‘thank’ and thanked her (no indication of why – I’d like to “thank, with an explanation” (to cite Luba). Then I clicked on ‘borrow’ and now her article in on my timeline. Hm, that wasn’t really the intended effect. I didn’t intersect with her story then, I intersected with it now.

Timelines are complicated. It’s really hard to get stuff like this right.

Stephen Downes - 37 minutes ago
Oh nice, it takes words surrounded by ‘’ and automatically italicizes* them.

Stephen Downes - 36 minutes ago
… words surrounded by the star character, that is, this: *

Stephen Downes - 32 minutes ago
In ‘places’, if you click ‘find this location’ (at least in Chrome) it pops up a dialogue asking if Intersect can track your location – I allowed it (because I’m testing – not sure if there’s a way to repeal that yet) and found it very accurate, down to the block.

Stephen Downes - 31 minutes ago
Also, I notice that when I ‘borrow’ the author borrowed from automatically becomes a ‘contributor’ to my timeline. No ‘friending’ or any such silly thing that I can see so far. But I think there is a follow feature…

Stephen Downes - 27 minutes ago
OK, I picked someone at random and tested following. I can see her timeline, map, etc.

We can create ‘family’ and ‘circles’, so I imagine we can keep events private to smaller groups of people.

Stephen Downes - 25 minutes ago
I also invited some people. I wish I had access to my address list, because I always forget email addresses. Then again, there’s no way in the world I’d share my email list with an online service like this.

Stephen Downes - 24 minutes ago
I see now that I can delete comments.

Patti Aro - 19 minutes ago
Welcome to Intersect, Stephen.
You can edit your story after submission. Look for the green Edit button just below the Search Stories field at the top right.

Stephen Downes - 19 minutes ago
Went to my ‘you’ screen. Uploaded a photo and created a bio (edited from my home page). Now I see on the ‘you’ screen where I can create stories of other events, and upload photos. I don’t want to upload, but maybe I can connect to Flickr?

Stephen Downes - 18 minutes ago
OK, I’ve added 14,111 photos from Flickr… heh

Stephen Downes - 6 minutes ago
Creating an event – loaded photos, entered a description, found the location – the map kind of grayed out when I tried to specify the location but then it game me a popup, and found Moncton Colosseum without difficulty. Video load failed; it was an ‘unsupported site’ – Google Video. Then I went to save, and nothing happened. All the buttons were broken, clicking them did nothing. Except, ‘cancel’ worked. I checked before I left the page (in another tab) but the event had not been saved. Had to back out and start over.

Stephen Downes - 4 minutes ago
OK, this time when I clicked ‘publish’ (not ‘save’) it worked fine, creating this event.

What would be really neat would be if I could see all the other timelines that intersect at this point. Maybe it supports this, and I just don’t see it because I’m the first to record this event.

Stephen Downes - 2 minutes ago
OK, that’s it, I’m done for now. Let’s see what happens when people see this. Now… how can I export my story and comments, with all the metadata….

Yeah. Thought not.


That said, I really like Intersect, a lot. At this point I would consider using it as a primary event content entry point, assuming it allows easy access to upload sites like Flickr or It is elegantly designed, potentially very powerful. It turns out that I can edit, though the edit button is located in some faraway place (I still haven't seen it as I write here but I'll take the comment as a given). The one glaring weakness is the lack of an export function. I'm happy to create my content here, but I want to be able to house it anywhere.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Connectivism, Peirce, and All That

I was asked:

You drew a black box, and typed the words Black Box over it. You then started to talk about that more when I typed in the IM something about C.S. Peirce's triads, to which you responded vocally: "I'm trying to get away from that" (or words very much like that).
I really need to understand why you are trying to get away from Peircian representations of the triadic relation between the signs and symbols we use for things in our knowledge bases.

Off the top of my head (so my wording may not be precise, recollections not exact, etc)

From where I sit, the picture from word to object is fraught with difficulties.

- there is the case where the object does not exist, and yet the word continues to have meaning. For example, 'brakeless trains are dangerous', to borrow from Russell. The whole area of counterfactuals in general. Which, if we follow the inferential trail, would have us believing with David K. Lewis that possible worlds are real. So *minimally* the meaning of the word, with respect to the object, must take place with respect to a theory or theoretical tradition.

- there is the case of indeterminacy of translation. The meaning of the word, with respect to the object, may be for one person very different from that of another person. Quine: the word 'gavagai' may refer to the rabbit itself, or the rabbit-stage of adulthood, or something else. Our inferences regarding meaning must be based on 'analytic hypotheses', which are themselves tentative.

- the skeptical argument. Inferences based on words are underdetermined with respect to the reference of those words. Nelson Goodman, for example - the extension of 'green' is the same as 'grue', yet the next instance of an object is 'green' but not 'grue'. Therefore the meaning of 'green' and 'grue' are different, despite being established through the exact same set of experiences and/or objects in the world. This argument is similar to the private language argument as depicted by Kripke in his account of Wittgenstein's thesis of 'meaning is use'.

And so on..

So, the approach to meaning I have adopted and understand to be a better way of thinking about it:

- the meaning of the word does not lie in anything distinct from actual instances of the word (by analogy: the colour 'red' does not lie in anything distinct from instances of the colour 'red'; the quantity '1' does not lie in anything other than instances of the quantity '1').

- these instances occur in two separate environments, a personal environment, composed of neurons and connections, thoughts, perceptions, etc., and a public environment, composed of people, artifacts, architecture, other objects in the world, utterances, radio transmissions, etc.

- in each of these environments, instances of the word are embedded in a network of non-meaningful entities. In a person, thoughts (beliefs, memories, knowledge of, etc) the word are contained in a network of neurons, no one of which (or identifiable set of which) comprises the word itself or the meaning of the word. Similarly, in the public environment, instances of a word appear in a wider network of non-meaningful entities (marks on paper, audio waves, digital data).

- our perception of the word itself, and of the meaning of the word (for that's what it is) is a form of pattern-recognition. Meaning is emergent from a substrate of non-meaningful, but connected, entities. In the personal environment, the meaning of the word is the perception of the word as an emergent phenomenon; in the social environment, the meaning of the word is the use of the word. (Thus, conversely, any emergent phenomenon, any artifact that is used, can have meaning, but again, the meaning is nothing more than the perception and use of that artifact). There is not a 'stands for' relationship; words are 9as they could say in database theory) 'content-addressable'.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

On Populist Social Media, Twitter and Egypt

Source: For the Right to Look

Good observations:

the members of the various lists you mention are among the smartest and most attentive people i know in the world. Obviously nettime, idc, aoir, etc., are not forums for discussion of world politics. Yet their transient dips into such topics (like those of mass media pundints) come to seem both interested and strangely quietist. "we're interested in your revolution/catastrophe/big political change if it is fueled by twitter/facebook/AJAX and if one government or another uses the internet to access or block parts of the huge political conversation; otherwise, don't care much."
I think there’s a couple of different aspects to this:

- the first is the rebellion itself (whether it emerges as a full-blown revolution is something we have yet to see) and the delineation of the causes and conditions facilitating that revolution. While there is a certain sphere of interests suggesting that the rebellion is fomented via SMS, Twitter and Facebook, the reality is no doubt much more complex, and the conditions that have led people to want to demonstrate probably have little to do with Twitter (etc) at all. If anything, from where I sit, al Jazeera is probably the most significant conduit, as it was primarily via mass media that protesters in Tunisia first learned of individual protest, and protesters in Egypt first learned of the Tunisian protest.

- but second, and probably more appropriate to this group, is the commodification of the rebellion (or at least, of discussion, images and video of the rebellion) by new and old media. As with other events, after the first wave of breaking news, we saw almost immediately (beginning on the first day) the wave of posts and articles and reports using the public’s interest in Egypt to drive traffic to their own posts. Thus we have “how to teach the Egypt rebellion as a lesson”, “tips for travelers to Egypt”, “the political motivations of the protesters,” “how NGOs are responding to the human need in Egypt,” etc, depending on whether these sites covered education, travel, politics or charities. It is in this group I would add the posts drawing out the Twitter-Rebellion connection; the mention of ‘Twitter’ is a perennial traffic-driver, especially from Twitter. The purpose, in other words, of saying that “Twitter caused the Egypt rebellion” is not to aver that Twitter caused the Egypt rebellion, but rather, to leverage two popular topics, ‘Twitter’ and ‘Egypt rebellion’ to drive traffic to their sites.

Now what’s significant is that this second aspect is largely driven by mass media. What I mean by that is that what makes a term like ‘Twitter’ or ‘Egypt’ the object of so much traffic is that it has been captured as a mass media meme and thereby enters a widespread consciousness (to a secondary degree, Twitter itself acts as a mass media in this way, which the result that Twitter is able to consistently reinforce itself as a mass media meme – we used to see the same thing with Digg, where the secret to getting your article to the top of the tables on Digg was to write your article about). So, we see several waves – first, the event, which may or may not have been triggered by social media, second, the mass media coverage, and then third, the commodified social media traffic-driving coverage (which has a self-interest in pretending that the second step of the process did not happen).

With Egypt, though, this chain is a bit disrupted. For the last 30 years or more, we have been more or less told by mass media that Egypt is a democracy, that there are regular elections, and, most of all, that Egypt is our ally in the cause of peace and democracy in the Middle East (not one of those rogue anti-democratic states like pre-war Iraq or Syria). There is still a substantial element in mass media that is pro-Mubarak, an element that sees the existing government as stable and as a guarantor of peace in the Middle East. And there is the unspoken truth, probably the most evident in Palestine, but present everywhere in the region, that a genuinely democratic government would be anti-Israel, and probably anti-peace. So whether or not the rebellion was motivated by social media, for a variety of reasons, it is stalling as a mass-media meme. There is not the unqualified support for it that we saw, for example, in the 1989 revolutions, or in the more recent uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine.

Hence we see attention to Egypt in the mass media fading or turning against the protests. We see, for example, the recent violence very evidently caused by Mubarak supporters being blamed on ‘foreign interests’ on CBS news. [1] Egypt has been almost complete removed from the ABC news coverage. [2] Egypt has fallen off the main headlines on MSNBC (which are now focusing on Ft Hood); only a secondary story remains, this directed at the attacks by ‘mobs’ on journalists. [3] Fox news, too, is emphasizing the violence. [4] CNN is also focusing on Ft. Hood, with a sidebar article advising Americans to leave Egypt. [5] Any support that there was in American media for the rebellion has evaporated, with the result that the rebellion is no longer an effective driver of social media traffic. Hence the silence, as all the pundits look for the next media wave. I expect to see “Using football in your lessons,” “travel tips in Dallas”, “Republicans cheer a lunchpail Super Bowl” and “raise money at your Super Bowl party” over the next few days.

Real social media – which is very different from what we see on Twitter and on these traffic-driver social network sites is very different. There is never so much discussion coalescing around a single issue. Or, there is a deafening silence on all topics, not just Egypt. These movements all exist locally – they don’t disappear, but they don’t flare up either (except with the help of mass media). Protests in Greece (and the other so-called PIGS nations) have been ongoing, but mass media these days is not interested in covering popular uprisings against cuts to social programs in order to pay for state subsidies to multinational corporations.

The phenomenon of ‘social media movements’ are mis-labeled. They are not the products of social media. They are mass media movements, commoditized by commercial social media to drive traffic to advertising, but not represent of actual social media, and genuinely social media.

Posted to the iDC list, February 3, 2011.

(p.s. the title of this post is actually 'On Populist Social Media' - I just added 'Twitter and Egypt' to drive traffic to it. ;) )

The Argument Against Usage Based Billing

Responding to David Eaves

Well, I don't agree with you that the roads should be tolled, and for the same sort of reasons I don't support usage based billing for internet services.

But before that main argument, let me reiterate the point made by some commenters, that what has transpired in the era of UBB in Canada thus far is blatant gouging by the ISPs. As reported in the Globe and Mail today, the cost for ISPs is as low as 3 cents per gigabyte, while providers like Rogers are turning around and charging consumers $5 for that gigabyte. They could raise their rate $10 a month, thus allowing consumers an additional 300+ gigabytes a month, a limit that would never likely be reached.

Additionally, a secondaryt point to the main argument is that the charging of bandwidth fees are in response, not to the cost of providing bandwidth, but rather, their desire to eliminate the competition. ISPs in Canada are content providers as well. So services like Netflix pose direct competition to the content end of their business. So the rates are increased in order to establish an ISP content monopoly. Such conditions are not conducive the creation of new industry, especially in internet content and services, and this will have a double impact when the inevitable happens under the current realm of CRTC-non-regulation and the ISPs are sold to American interests.

But the main point about UBB, as with tolls on the roads, is that it's an inefficient cost-allocation mechanism that creates a drain on the economy, with no gain in productivity. The imposition of tolls on roads requires the creation of an infrastructure to collect these tolls. This infrastructure does not produce any wealth; it merely drains it.

Moreover, it makes the roads less usable. That's why tolls are actually used only in a few places, on major highways. Anything like an actual toll on all roads would be so cumbersome as to render road traffic entirely unusable. Similar tolls on the internet, which while they may appear to be simple and straightforward, like a highway toll, risk becoming a cumbersome overhead, as providers in our un-regulated and non-net-neutral internet reach special deals with various providers. This means that each stream of internet traffic would be billed differently, which in turn entails an entire overhead for monitoring and managing those streams.

Finally, because of the overhead, and because of borrowing costs required in order to acquire and establish a UBB internet, the tolls may never actually serve their purpose. Just like highway management companies (or manyother private enterprises that begin as privatizationb but evolve into PPPs) the proprieters will return to the government well for subsidies and additional funding again and again. Like the managers of the Saint John Harbour Bridge toll, they will collect money for 25 years and actually lose ground, the entire total having gone to pay back overhead.

David Eaves replies:

Stephen - I confess being surprised to read this from you. I think the idea that tolls are inefficient as a system is a weird logic - especially when applied to roads! (I'm open to the possibility that they may be inefficient for monitoring internet traffic). But electronic tolls on highways have made the system very efficient, and London's downtown toll is one of the great success stories of modern urban planning. THat said I can't speak to the Saint John harbour toll... but when you have a scarce resource you need to find a way to allocate it (or create incentives to increase the amount of it) and I don't see that part of the discussion taking place.

I think we are aligned though around wanting a fair price for access - so I'd love for their to be a fair usage based billing rate. Indeed, looking at the Globe article you referenced, that fact was raised by the commentor who talked about the price. Yes, it only costs a few pennies to deliver a gigabyte, but it doesn't cost a few pennies to deliver an additional gigabyte.

Scotia Capital analyst Jeff Fan said that if the government tears down the usage-based billing decision, it would essentially break the link between Internet traffic volume and revenues, and could discourage network investments by large telecom and cable companies.

Mr. Fan added that current estimates – that it costs less than a penny to transport a gigabyte of data, while companies such as Bell want to charge as much as $2.50 per gigabyte when customers go over their limits – may not hold true as traffic increases on networks where there is no investment.

“Without building more capacity, that math, or that cost-per-bit, probably wouldn’t be sustainable,” Mr. Fan said. “It’s become political, but I’m not sure the politicians have thought things through.”
Again, I think we are mostly aligned. And I'm open to the possibility that tolling on the internet may not be efficient, but haven't seen evidence of that yet, and I"m not finding the claim that isn't efficient for roads persuasive.
My response

The London system isn't exactly an example of usage based billing. It doesn't measure, for example, how many kilometers you drive, so a fleet-based vehicle making deliveries pays exactly the same amount as a vehicle driving a block into the ring and then parking (actually, the fleet vehicles pay less). Traffic that originates and stays within the zone is not (apparently) billed at all.

Meanwhile, we could question how efficient the system is. "TfL's annual report for 2006–7 shows that revenues from the congestion charge were £252.4m over the financial year, representing 8.5% of TfL's annual revenues. More than half of this was spent on the cost of running the toll system, at £130.1 million. Once other charges were deducted, the congestion charge brought in an annual operating net income of £89.1m for TfL." Certainly, as a mechanism for *paying* for roads, it would be a miserable failure.

Moreover, this does not take into account much of the inefficiency that has simply been offloaded. Leaving aside the financial encumbrance of paying the toll (which can be significant - 2,000 pounds for 200 days of work-day travel in a year) drivers must also manage to pay tolls their own way, paying the charge online, by SMS text message, in certain shops, or by phone. If you don't pay, you have to pay a fine - and a significant percentage of the revenues are based on fines, a testament to how inefficient the payment system is. And if you pay but were not detected as having used the road, there's no refund.

Of course, the *purpose* of the London toll isn't to pay for the roads, it's to reduce congestion. That's why it can be so inefficient and still be claimed to be a success. Indeed, it becomes successful by being inefficient, as it forces a higher toll, resulting in less traffic (and I would imagine a significantly different demographic of traffic as well; no doubt it keeps the riff-raff out).

Now this seems to resonate with what you say: "when you have a scarce resource you need to find a way to allocate it." Quite so. Economics wouldn't exist without such a requirement. But there is scarcity, and then there's scarcity. It is arguable that space for traffic in downtown London was genuinely scarce - you couldn't alleviate it by building more capacity, do it becomes necessary to regulate it by other means. But bandwidth, it could be argued, is not scarce, at least, not in this way. The current supply of bandwidth is such that it costs only 3 cents a gigabyte to provide. Traffic levels are nowhere what they would need to be in order to justify metered-billing at all, much less the current rates being charged by ISPs.

It is arguable, therefore - and I would argue - that insofar as there is a scarcity of bandwidth, it is an *artificial* scarcity. It is in the interests of ISPs to ensure that there is a limited supply of bandwidth, in order to be able to justify charging higher rates.

But even more to the point - ISPs traditionally charged for band *width* - that is, for a pipe of a certain size. That is what I (ostensively) buy when I buy internet access at home; that is what subcontractors literally buy. It was like buying a cable package, or telephone service. It didn't matter how much or how little TV you watch, or how many phone calls you made, you were paying for the *channel*

But what has happened is that ISPs started charging more than one customer for the same bandwidth. Using technoiques like traffic shaping, throttling and metering, they could *say* they were selling x bandwidth, but actually allocate less than x bandwidth per customer. This worked fine until customers started to actually use the bandwidth they were paying for. Then the ISPs were caught in their own practices, and that's where the bandwidth 'shortage' originated.

The suggestion now seems to be that ISPs should be rewarded for this practice. Fair enough; we could raise the cost for band *width* up to what it actually costs to provide that bandwidth. Nobody would complain about that. Except - the rates charged to consumers are *still* well above what it actually costs to provide the bandwidth, 10 to 40 times as much.

The other argument is that non-UBB would create a disincentive on the part of ISPs to invest in new bandwidth. Of course, utterly anything that increases costs and reduces revenues is interpreted by business as a "disincentive", so the flat "disincentive" argument is a bit disingenuous. The real question is whether it is *enough* of a disincentive to cause ISPs to cease investing in bandwidth.

Well, suppose it is. Then we (as a nation) could provide the next bit of bandwidth the way we provided the last bit - by building it as a government infrastructure project (a la CANARIE and similar programs, or via crown corporations, a la the old government telecoms). Because the reason the "additional gigabyte" costs so much more than the current gigabyte is that there was a significant social investment in bandwidth, which was inherited by the ISPs (that's why a lot of people feel that UBB is to a certain degree a betrayal of trust).

There was a proposal, in the last days of the Chretien administration, before we got the pro-business Martin and Harper governments, to engage in a national broadband program. As I recall, the pricetag was $10 billion. Cheaper, in other words, than the much less useful F-35 jets. This was shelved when Martin took power, and we never did see the expected expansion of capacity that we expected. ISPs simply reaped the windfall until usage increased. Then they said there's a bandwidth shortage.

Meanwhile, ISPs were not deterred from *investing* during this time. Rather, they decided that they didn't need to invest in bandwidth; for them, it was effectively free (for consumers, of course, it was a rapidly increasing expense). Instead, they borrowed and spent billions acquiring each other. The empires of Bell-Globe, Rogers and Telus were built almost entirely on credit. And it is *that* rather than infrastructure that we are being asked to subsidize.

If the same logic could take place in roads, it would be as though the government gave me a freeway system, which I sold to municipalities as 6-lane freeways, but actually delivered 4-lane freeways with a reduction in speed limit to 45 mph, and then borrowed money to acquire additional freeways from other owners (who got their freeways from their governments), spent nothing on the construction of new freeways, and then, when traffic on the freeway network threatened to approach what I was selling it for, demanded that a system be put into place to charge individual drivers for each kilometer they drove (with the entire cost of the metering system also to be borne by the drivers), so I wouldn't actually need to increase capacity, on the grounds that it would be a 'disincentive' to invest in new capacity to do otherwise.

It's a very bad idea, and UBB rewards ISPs for some very questionable business practices, meanwhile punishing the taxpayers who basically funded this entire infrastructure in the first place.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Purpose of Learning

For me, an education was not a given. Yes, I was born and raised in one of the richest nations in the world, a country where schooling is not merely available, but required, and yet my education was still not a given. I rebelled early, and then had to scratch and claw my way through four high schools and three colleges before finally getting a degree.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. The same way? I'm not sure - it would depend on what options are available. I didn't have many choices. I took what I could get. I paid for it with promises and IOUs. And I never did quite finish my PhD. Almost everything the education system stood for, I opposed. And in many ways, I made my own education, spending at least as much time learning outside the formal system as within.

It's ironic that what ultimately led me away from my studies was the experience of standing in front of students, mostly adult and disadvantaged, teaching in northern Alberta. This wasn't planned; I didn't set out to 'do community work' or any such thing; that's a luxury allowed people who had more financial freedom than I. But it was immensely rewarding, not the least because I could see my face among the students in those classes, and I knew exactly what I was trying to provide for them.

It's hard to state what that is without becoming a bit hackneyed, but there's truth in every cliché. With the basic tools of literacy, critical literacy and reasoning skills, combined with a whole dose of self-confidence, these students had at least a chance to make something of their lives, to shape their own futures, to be something more than flotsam in the currents of social change and disorder.

It's no magic pill, and it's altogether too little for both those people who have to struggle out of poverty just to get their foot in the door, and those born out of affluence who have no comprehension of the work required to become a person of strong character and self-determination. Yet in the right meter, and in combination with the right experiences, an education is sufficient to lift a person into a life of self-awareness and reflection. It is the great liberator, and even should an educated person never rise out of poverty, that person will never again be poor.

John Stuart Mill said that the principle of liberty is the right of each person to pursue their own good, in their own way. But he never intended this right to be given only to a nation of sheep, and he understood that the highest principle of liberty was in fact both the right and capacity to actually define one's good, to freely chose one's ambition and purpose in life, and to enact the means and mechanisms to carry it out. Freedom is not merely the absence of restraint, but the right to live meaningfully.

An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.

Submitted as my contribution to Purpos/ed