Friday, April 22, 2011

The Case for Voting

Why should people vote? It's a question I've been asked to answer, especially when confronted by people in my age group who don't understand why the franchise is important, though I am sure there are others.

There's many reasons to vote, and some of them are conditional. In the current Canadian election, it is a possibility that Stephen Harper's Conservatives might get a majority government, giving them the right to rule as they see fit for four years. I choose not to judge here on whether or not this would be a positive thing - it depends on your political preferences, but the choice of whether or not this happens should be partially up to you and your vote.

In Canada, sometimes you live in a riding where the incumbent is going to win. This happens a lot, but your vote is never meaningless. If you vote for a party, that party gets funding for the NEXT election from your vote. Just by voting for the party you favour, you can help them do better next time. In Canadian politics, $2 million dollars is a lot of money - the Reform Party of 1993 won over 50 seats, and they started with $2 million dollars, which is what a million votes for a party would get them next time out.

Sometimes you live in a riding where it's close. That way you can directly affect Parliament. You can help choose if someone makes it or doesn't. If 1000 people had voted differently in 1997, the Liberals wouldn't have won a majority government. 1000 people spread throughout 5 ridings. Your vote has power.

Sometimes you want to show that a national party's platform has traction. The Green Party has gained traction based on their popular vote performance, despite not winning any seats. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians vote Green, and as a result, they get increased screen time. Your vote can show discontent with the current parties and help a new one take form.

But the best reason to vote is that if you do not vote, you do not matter. The government will not put out programs for you, they will not change their habits based on your opinion. They will not see that you exist, and they will ignore you. If you complain, your complaints fall on deaf ears. They will look at you, and your age, and gender, and your race or religion and the statistics, and say, "I know that people your age and location and gender generally don't vote, so...fuck off."

That piece of paper is the power for which regimes have toppled this very year. Every time a vote is cast, you are empowering everyone, including, and especially, yourself.

I don't care who you vote for. Just do it, because democracy always needs you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Canadian Politics Primer

Okay, I'm sorry if you're one of the Americans who followed me during last night's leadership debate. In case you were wondering what the hell's going on, I'm pleased to present a primer on Canadian federal politics for you, so you too can follow in the fun-filled democratic process in "America's hat". I don't know what kind of country you are to wear a hat that's bigger than all of you, but hey.

Canada has a constitutional monarchy that uses a bicameral parliament in which only one house is elected via direct election using a first-past-the-post system, and the other house is appointed but is mostly ceremonial. If you understand this sentence, I'm pleased to know that you've taken some political science courses! You can stop reading now and interpret the news on your own.

Alright, now that all the political scientists have stopped reading, I can really explain what's going on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yuri's Night

We can shed our skins and swim into the darkened void beyond
We will dance among the worlds that orbit stars that aren't our sun
All the oxygen that trapped us in a carbon spider's web
Solar winds are whispering, you may hear the sirens of the dead

-Starblind, from the Iron Maiden album The Final Frontier

April 12th, 1961, we took our first small baby steps towards shedding ourselves of this earthly skin and learning to swim in the vast emptiness that is space, the final frontier. A Soviet pilot, Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, rode his Vostok-K modified ICBM from Baikonur Cosmodrome to make one single lap around the earth. He went faster than anyone had ever gone. He went higher than anyone had ever gone. And Yuri Gagarin proved that we, as a species; that our advanced breed of chimpanzees on a boring world orbiting a star considered smaller and less impressive than average; that we have a chance, an opportunity, a real capability to leave this pale blue speck and step into the cosmos beyond.

The Earth is infinitely small in a vast and awesome universe, to steal a phrase from Carl Sagan, and we are infinitely small beings upon it, yet we have found a way to leave this tiny spot of safety and refuge, and in it, we have become greater beings. It is entirely possible that no intelligent species flourish in this universe, but it is more possible that some do, and manage to find only their destruction as they harness new power and abilities. We have split the atom and not found total failure, despite possessing for over fifty years the ability to strike our civilization asunder and damn it to failure. Gagarin rode a rocket into space and proved that we can take a weapon of war and make it into a mission of science and peace.

The true battles of the Cold War were not won in the hills of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam but in the minds of people who watched how the West rose above the USSR's space challenge and conquered the moon, but instead of sticking a star-spangled banner into the Earth and claiming it for the United States and capitalism, the Americans who went chose the words "In peace and hope for all mankind" to leave behind. Gagarin was a Soviet pilot, trained to kill other men in aerial combat, yes, but that doesn't lessen his impact to peace and greatness, and indeed, our ability to survive beyond our fragile Earth.

This man was brave. He was heroic. He looked at something designed to explode and kill thousands and sat atop it, pointed it high, and rode it where it was never designed to go: into a future where Russians, Americans, Europeans and Asians and all the good folk on this blue dot can communicate peaceful, exchange information, friendships, and work a little more towards not being Chinese and Australian and Mexican and Egyptian, but being humans.

When Gagarin was in orbit, he wasn't just the Soviet Union's representative in space; he was humanity's representative. He was one lonely man in a small capsule that represented our hopes and dreams. He was a hero back then, but is more forgotten today, thanks to his sad, premature death in 1968, the inherit politics surrounding his launch, and the supercession of his legacy in 1969 by three other brave explorers named Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.

I urge you to remember him. Remember Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd and the other early explorers of the Final Frontier; and I dare you to find ways to emulate his bravery and accomplishments.

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Military Spending

Let's face it, the F-35 purchase program from the Harper government is one of the big triggers of Canada's current election. Military appropriations is a very difficult issue south of the border as well, especially given the United States' current debate over budget reductions. This contentious issue needs to be considered carefully, and I don't think that military appropriations should be considered with the same "axe" that often guts other programs.

Both Canada and the United States maintain our levels of defense by waging a qualitative war; we have accepted that, in the pursuit of a professional, non-conscription based army, we will not outnumber our foes in any hypothetical conflict. As a result, our military expenditure per soldier is significantly higher than other nations. Canada spends around $191,000 per soldier per annum; the United States $236,000 per soldier, while a country like China spends approximately $21810 per soldier. We do this to ensure that the few can protect the many. We have to ensure the hardware that is deployed is better than what our likely foe deploys.

This means staying current. If we fight a war against a major foe, such as Russia or China, they will have current-generation fighters (5th generation fighters and 4++ generation fighters) that can match our fighters (the CF-18, a 4++ generation fighter). We don't actually expect to fight Russia or China, but if we do, we will expect pilots to die fighting a foe capable of putting a qualitative match in the air. What the Canadian Forces has been used for over the past twenty years, however, isn't fighting a qualitative equal - it's fighting a second-or-third world ruler such as Qaddafi or Milosevic.

In this case, we are outnumbered, but we win because our fighters are better than their fighters and air defences. If we keep our current 4++ generation fighters, the people we are most likely to fight in 10, 15 years will start getting their hands on surplus 4++ generation craft from countries like Russia, China, and Pakistan. When we lose our qualitative advantage, we put our military's ability to participate in international missions like the Libyan No-Fly Zone at risk; we lose a lot of our diplomatic clout, and most importantly, Canadians die.

There is also the fact that military hardware has to be replaced over time. I won't deny that our Cold War-oriented military isn't properly prepared for the combat tasks of today, and appropriations need to be altered to reflect this. But with the Liberals promising to scrap the F-35, the NDP talking about "re-evaluating" the process without mentioning alternatives, and the Bloq Quebecois not really being a federal party, I am reminded of the need for a Sea King replacement in the 1990s. This isn't a pleasing reminder. Canada's CH-124 Sea King helicopters were ordered in the 1950s and deployed in the 1960s and remain in current service with the Canadian Forces, despite being 48 years old and having exceeded their service life by almost double. Our Labrador helicopters also need replacement. Several of these two chopper types have crashed, and Canadian service personnel have died since the Jean Chretien government cut the early 1990s replacement program.

If you cut a program, you have to have a replacement, because people's lives are riding on those hardwares. Sure. You don't like the F-35 at $150 million a pop. There's options out there - the F/A-18E Super Hornet at $55 million an airframe, or the Eurofighter Typhoon at $125 million an airframe. What the Liberals and NDP aren't saying is that the CF-18 we currently fly is at the end of its lifespan. They've already started to crash and break up, and 9 Canadians have died in them. This number will increase if the replacement program is cancelled.

If you outright cancel the fighter replacement program, Canadians will die. Period.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In which @ZOMGitsCriss gets me to blog again.

I think Cristina Rad is awesome. Her YouTube channel is fantastic (I'd link to it, but I'm at work currently, and can't get on YouTube from here), and she has a lot of really awesome things to say on her Twitter feed. But comments like this one just make me riled up:

Kinda hard to maintain a positive attitude when the entire world is falling apart.


I don't know how much more emphatically I can say this. No. The entire world is not falling apart. Now, this might be in reference to some personal issues, and I can appreciate that. When your entire personal world is falling apart, life is pretty horrible.

But the world? The wide world, the grandiose world of humanity?

Let's be honest: we're doing okay. In fact, I would argue that the human condition is, today, better than it has ever been.

Sure, we have horrific campaigns of slaughter, torture, death and disease going on throughout the world. People are being murdered, raped, bombed. Riots are tearing apart Kabul over a book getting burned. And if you look at things on the outside, the world is a pretty shitty place. I won't deny that.

But the fact of the matter is that it was a shittier place yesterday. And an even shittier place ten years ago. And 10,000 years ago, it was absolutely undeniably horrific. Life used to be short, brutish, and violent, and the human condition was often plagued by terrifying diseases that left you dead at best and horrifically maimed at worst. Wars were frequent, and civilian casualties as a percentage of populace were much higher. Entire cities were systematically slaughtered with only a handful of survivors. Disease was a prevalent weapon.

So ask yourself this: when was the last time an entire city was destroyed by Christian crusaders, with over 90% of the people killed and the rest remaining mostly raped girls between the ages 12-16, forced into becoming wives (aka: slaves) for the conquerors?

When was the last time someone you knew died of polio, cholera, bubonic plague, or the measles?

When was the last time an entire race of people was systematically eliminated and the world didn't find some way to care?

Sure, some of these horrors are recent and still terrifying, your chance of dying in a violent or diseased manner is low. Much lower than it was a hundred years ago; a thousand years ago, dying of old age was almost unheard of. The quality of life everywhere in the world is getting better and better. Slowly, a crawl, in some places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, but a crawl is better than nothing.

The world's not falling apart. It's got a lot of horrible things that we see on a daily basis due to the nature of information exchange. But we have lived at relative peace for the last 65 years, thanks to the Pax Americana; my generation, and my parents' generation, hasn't known a sustained, violent war that has truly destroyed nations.

Things still suck, but they aren't falling apart. They are getting better. Even the fact that we know more about how terrible the human species can be is in itself a victory, because the only real way to getting away from the things that make us sad is information exchange and education: two things easier to find now, than ever before. Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel...