The Worst Form of Government

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”

Winston Churchill

Tomorrow we go to the polls.  As of right now, I’m still undecided as to who I will vote for.  But I do know a few things for sure.

I’m glad that I live in Ontario.  Yesterday, up to 500,000 people were forced to flee Mosul in the wake of sectarian attacks.   Here, our political candidates have been trading verbal barbs.

In China, the government has been engaged in a massive exercise to remove all mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre from online discussion.  Here, I’ve been able to engage in email and Twitter conversations with several party candidates, and express my political frustrations quite freely on Facebook and on my blog.

In Syria, a civil war has been ongoing for the past three years, destroying homes, infrastructure, lives, and hope.  Hear, we experience one of the highest standards of living in the world, excellent healthcare, opportunities for social mobility, vast natural resources, and a peaceful society.

On Friday, we will have a new Provincial government.  Some people will be happy.  Others will be deeply disappointed.   The new government will, certainly, get some things wrong.  They will mismanage funds, there will be political scandals, taxes will not be as low as we might like, and there will not be the funding for every social programming that we think is deserving.

But despite all that, we will still have a functional, representative, democratically elected government.  My MPP will still be someone who lives in my city, who walks the same streets as I do, who I can actually reach out and speak to.  We will still have functioning schools, hospitals, roads, emergency services, and provincial parks.

We have these things because countless ordinary Canadians worked tirelessly for generations to build these institutions.  I’m glad for all the people from every party who think that the future of Ontario is worth fighting for, and who have engaged in this round of political discussion.  And regardless of who ‘wins’ tomorrow, I hope that every Ontarian wins, and gets a government that will continue to work for the best interests of the entire province.

A Letter in the Mail

After having spent days complaining about the lack of engagement in genuine conversation from our politicians, I feel duty bound to celebrate when one of them talks to me. Rod Jackson, our PC candidate and the current MPP for Barrie, responding to my tweets with an invitation to discuss things further via email; and then sent me a page-long message with specific responses to each issue I raised with him.  Frankly, I’m impressed.  For him (or even for one of his staff) to take the time to engage directly with a single voter in the week before the campaign is a good indication of politician who actually takes his role as a representative seriously.

I certainly don’t see eye-to-eye with his party on every issue, but as I’ve said before, I deeply believe that we should be sending people with competence and integrity to Queen’s Park.  The ability to run an efficient campaign is actually a pretty good test of the former.  I’ve yet to formulate a satisfactory test for the latter, unfortunately – I suspect it requires taking a lot of time to actually get to know our candidates as people.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about ‘declining your vote.’  This is pretty much the only option that voters have for expressing their dissatisfaction with the available candidates in a way that actually gets counted.  Whether anything is done with that count is open to debate.  It’s certainly better than not voting at all, and probably worse than voting for a third-party candidate.  But either way, I’d much rather say ‘this is the person I want to represent me’ than ‘what can I do to stop that person from representing me.’ In an ideal world, as a voter I’d feel like an HR manager at a successful, popular candidate, interviewing a number of talented, qualified candidates, and having to pick the one who would be the absolute best fit.    Part of the problem is that a vote only records a tiny amount of information – a single check in a single box.  If there are 4 candidates in the riding, that information could be encoded in 2 bits.

  • Candidate A: 00
    Candidate B: 01
  • Candidate C: 10
  • Candidate D: 11

Which can only go so far in capturing the hopes, fears, aspirations and concerns of the average voter.  This is why we need to be engaged politically beyond simply voting.  We actually need to do the work of democracy – reading upcoming bills, understanding the mechanisms of government, writing to our representatives, learning about the issues facing our city, our province, and our world.

We could also start encoding more information in the ballot.  A Single Transferrable Vote system would go some way towards doing that.


According to,  Barrie is poised on a knife edge for the upcoming provincial election.  The leading candidate is predicted to get 39.2% of the vote, the next candidate, 39.1%.  In other words, we’re the tightest race in Ontario.  For once, I’m genuinely living in a swing riding.

In 2011 the election was decided here by 2,500 votes.  I suspect this time round it will be much closer.  My vote, and the votes of my fellow residences,  may actually make a significant difference to the local and provincial political scene this year.

But despite it being such a tight race, so far none of the candidates feel like engaging with me on Twitter.  Maybe I should just vote for the first one who replies to me; on the principal that at least it indicates that they understand something about technology; and as a software architect I might want to be represented by somebody who understands my field?

Or maybe not.  I still feel that it’s important to select candidates based on their qualifications, competence and integrity.  Less so on their promises;  I think of electoral promises and manifestoes as interesting works of fiction.  Candidates love to promise more jobs and  economic growth, but I suspect that government has far less power over these matters than most MPs would be willing to admit.  Politicians are quick to claim responsibility for improved unemployment numbers, or an uptick in GDP; but the same politicians in times of recession will be quick to point out that the poor economic news is due to factors beyond their control: inflation, foreign exchange, trade deficits, climate.

The problem is: economics is an inexact science.  It’s very good at providing a narrative explanation for why things happened in the past; it’s far less good at producing predictive power for the future.   Before becoming he Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown famously promised to bring an end to the cycle of “boom and bust.”  He then presided over the biggest financial crisis in three generations.

So I’m cautious of politician’s promises to increase jobs or reduce debt.  because their ability to affect these matters is probably less than they think.   But I do care about how they will handle the responsibilities that they have been entrusted with.  And I believe that the best way to predict future performance is to look at past performance.  A wise man once said, ” Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with a lot. Whoever is dishonest with very little is dishonest with a lot.”

So when you come to make your choice, ask yourself – ‘what has this candidate done in the past?  How well have they acquitted themselves of the responsibilities they’ve been given? ‘

And if you can’t come up with good answers for those questions, vote for somebody else.


Refusing to Talk

Another day, another missed opportunity.

None of our local candidates felt like answering my question about our provincial parks.  Canada is blessed with some of the largest and richest wilderness areas in the world; we owe it to the planet and our children to tend and protect them.  I’d like to see the candidates talk about this more.

In other social media news, the CIA joined Twitter

I can only speculate that this is another example of a political leader still thinking in terms of push-media and message discipline.  I wonder what the meeting looked like when they were planning this move.

Spy #1: “Hey, people don’t seem to like us very much.”

Spy #2: “Strange that.  I wonder why?”

Spy #1: “Do you think it has anything to do with the way we’ve assassinated people, lied repeatedly, performed chemical experiments on unsuspecting victims, overthrown elected governments and  used torture, kidnapping and murder as standard practice?  The way we’ve committed war crimes with impunity?

Spy #2: “Maybe – I suppose it could be because of the way that we managed to get ourselves appointed in charge of censoring the official report that describes the way we repeatedly tortured to death those in our custody?

Spy #1: “Doesn’t really sound plausible, does it?”

Spy #2: “No.   I bet it’s just because we don’t have a Twitter account.  We should get one of those things.”

Spy #1: “Good idea!  And make sure that our first tweet is an attempt at humour – that will show everyone that really we’re just a bunch of fun-loving guys, and not at all cold-blooded killers with no respect for the rule of law.”

I’m not sure that this is going how they expected.   The New York Review of Books is taking the opportunity to regularly ping @CIA with extracts from a damning Red Cross report on the agencies use of torture and secret prisons.  In an ideal world, the CIA would actually take this opportunity to enter into a balanced dialog; maybe explain some of their actions of the past 50 years; and who knows, even come to some comprehension of the horrific impact their human rights violations have had.

I suspect that’s even less likely than a politician responded to my tweets.  But I live in hope.

Conversations Require Listening

So far only the Green party (@BarrieGreens) has responded to any of my tweets, so I’ve been thinking about the nature of political conversations.

The essence of any conversation is that it goes both ways. Social media gives us the opportunity to have good, serious political conversations with MPs and candidates, but it doesn’t guarantee that we will.  Frankly, I see failings on both sides of the table.

The politicians are failing by still thinking in terms of push media.  Twitter is seen as one more way to promote today’s sound-bite.  For a cohort of political animals who grew up in the era of message-control, the idea of going off-script to engage in genuine dialog must be terrifying.  I got a phone call just now from the Liberal party asking if they had my support; I told them that I was still on the fence, and took the opportunity to ask them their position on affordable housing – a critical issue here in Barrie.   The caller had no idea how to answer my question apart from directing me to their website.  Even a ‘thank you, I’ll convey your concern to Ann Hogarth‘ would have been valuable.

But there are failing on the other side of the table too.  We, the voter, owe it to the candidates to actually be informed about their jobs.  If we truly believe in representational government, then that means that politicians work for us.  We, the people, are in charge.  And a good boss is acutely aware of what he expects his employees to do, how well equipped they are to do it, what issues they are struggling with and how best to motivate them.  If we only tune in to politics for a couple of weeks before the election, we can’t really complain if the parties treat us as consumers of a product rather than their employers.

Only an informed citizenry can make wise decisions.  We owe it to ourselves and to each other to understand the basic mechanisms of parliamentary government, the provincial budget, and the upcoming issues.   But more than that, we need to decide what we are trying to achieve.  Companies have mission statements.  Google is trying to ‘organise the world’s information.’   Charity:Water exists to bring safe water to people in developing nations.

If we are to thrive as individuals, we need to know what story we are telling.  And if we are to thrive as a group of individuals, as a province, we also should know what story we want to tell, what we want to achieve, and what we want our shared future to look like.

Selling, Competing, or Serving?

The great thing about living in the era of social media is that political conversations no longer need to be one way.  You can reach out to candidates through Twitter and enter into a productive discussion about policies and experience.

Of course, this relies on the candidates actually replying, as opposed to simply treating Twitter as yet another ‘push’ channel.  No one replied to me, so I’ll have to talk about something else.

Specifically, the ways that we misconstrue elections.  I have this strange ideal that elections are an opportunity for the citizenry of the province to have a serious discussion about our common goals, and the ways in which we intend to reach them.  I like the metaphor of a conversation.   However, there are two other metaphors that seem far more prevalent.

Firstly, the metaphor of sports.  Some people support their party with the same fervour that they support their local sports team.  The fact that the Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in nearly half a century doesn’t deter thousands of people from supporting them, cheering for them, and avidly following them.  Real fans are emotionally attached to their team, regardless of their actual performance.   The way we identify with sports team is a strange phenomenon.  None of the Toronto Blue Jays are from Toronto, or even from Ontario.  And in the same way that we root for our sports team to win, we root for our favourite politicians to win.  Predictably, immediately after the debates last night, there were claims that this or that candidate had ‘won’.

The other metaphor that is common is that of sales.

Candidates and parties are advertised and sold.  And that would only make sense if we thought of voters as consumers.   But I am a citizen, not a consumer.  I don’t want to buy something from the candidates.  I want them to represent me and my fellow Ontarians.   As I’ve said before – an election is like a job interview.  I don’t want the candidates commercials, I want their resumé.

Tell me what you’ve done.  Don’t make empty promises about the future.  Show me that you’re already working to improve the lives and the environment of people in this province.   And then maybe I’ll consider voting for you.

Oh, and replying to my tweets would be nice, too.  Let’s actually have a conversation!


Following the Debate on Twitter

Apparently our wise and benevolent party leaders had some kind of a debate this evening.

debateI expect that it went something like this.

In keeping with my goal of engaging with this election purely through social media, I didn’t watch the televised debate.  Instead, I followed its impact on Twitter.   In doing so, I learned a few things.

Firstly, the parties are waking up to the power of social media.  All three main parties kept up a steady stream of message-reinforcing tweets throughout the debate.

Secondly, elections are not optimistic events.  Around half of all the tweets from the parties and their representatives were attacks on each other.  And nearly all the tweets from everyone else to #ondebate were complaining about the behaviour of the debaters.

I didn’t see a single instance of someone tweeting “ah, one of the candidates just made an excellent point and changed my mind on an issue of policy.”

Because it seems that debates aren’t really about bringing Ontarians together to make good plans for the future of the province.   Instead, we treat them more like a team sport.  There are endless attempts to score points, and prevent the opposing team from doing so.  And then afterwards there will be the predictable stream of claims that our preferred candidate ‘won’ the debate.

But I don’t want a candidate to win.  I want Ontarians to win.

I believe that elections are a little like job interviews.  When I’m interviewing a candidate, I want to know two things.  Are they competent enough to do the job, and do they have enough integrity that I’d want to work with them.

I don’t know everything about what it takes to run a province, but if a candidate spent their entire interview badmouthing the other candidates, and then immediately bragged that they had ‘won’ the interview, then I certainly wouldn’t hire them.

The one thing that we do learn from debates is what issues politicians think that we care about.

I care deeply about our environment, about affordable housing, about a strong social system, a fair justice system, and quality healthcare.

I also care that we are represented by leaders who can work effectively with each other, who recognize their own limitations, and who recognize that they are hired to serve the needs of their constituents.

So far, none of the party leaders have given me a good reason to vote for them.  I’ve seen many discussions on Facebook and Twitter in the last couple of days about the best way to register a protest vote – whether to abstain completely from voting, or refuse the ballot, or vote for a third party.   One thing this social media experiment is telling me is that we’re experience a high degree of cynicism with the existing status quo.

It could be worse, I guess. We live in one of the richest, healthiest, safest, fairest societies in the world.  And we do have the opportunity to engage with the political system to a degree unheard of in many parts of the world, and for that I am profoundly grateful.  I hope this weeks political discussion can be about more than expressing dissatisfaction – I hope it can be genuinely productive.

Provincial Elections in the Age of Social Media

So the Ontario Provincial elections are rapidly approaching.  And with little over a week to go, I realise that I have no idea who I will vote for.

Earlier today I had an interesting and slightly frustrating conversation on facebook with someone who was convinced that the best way to effect political change in the province was to abstain from voting.  To me, this feels like thinly veiled apathy masquerading as action.   Not least, while neglecting to vote, (or refusing your ballot, a far better option) may indicate your displeasure with the current state of political affairs in the province, it doesn’t broadcast any information at all about your desired state of affairs.

Elections are, in part, information gathering exercises.  They are not perfect, as each individual can only register a very small amount of data – a single tiTrillium_ovatum_ssp_ovatum_2ck in a single box.  And yet they are one of the best mechanisms we have so far for divining the wants and desires of the province or country as a whole.  And I am profoundly grateful to live in a country that believes in free and fair elections, and believes in open, unfettered political discourse.  I was reminded today that this isn’t the case everywhere.

So, given that we live in an era of instant communications, I shall spend the next 10 days seeing whether I can gather enough information to make an informed choice.  I will start by following my local and provincial candidates on Twitter, and then I will try reaching out to all of them with some simple questions about policy and experience.

I believe that elections are like job interviews, with the voting public in the employers seat.  A good candidate should demonstrate their suitability for the job, their credentials, their experience, and their character.  I also believe that integrity and competence are far more important than policies.  I have no interest in what a candidate claims that he or she will do if elected if they have not demonstrated both their integrity and their competence.  Without integrity, their promises mean nothing, and without competence, I can have no faith that they will actually be able to carry out their plans.

So how will we judge these two character traits?  I submit that the best predictor of future performance is past performance.  An individual who has shown themselves to be an honest and competent administrator will make a good MPP.  Conversely, an incompetent or dishonest individual should not be allowed anywhere near Queen’s Park.

Bleeding Heartbeats

So, like systems administrators across the planet, I spent the day making sure that the various servers that I’m responsible for are not vulnerable to the “Heartbleed” bug.   Now that it’s all over, I’m still quite shaken by the severity of this issue and its long term implications for the security of the internet.

There are already a number of good technical explanations of this bug, such as this one.  The flaw can be boiled down to the following:

  • heartbleedMany webservers use something called OpenSSL to encrypt communication between the browser and the website.
  • Recent versions of OpenSSL include a feature called heartbeat, which allows an end user to send a packet of data and the server sends it straight back.
  • However, if you lie to the server, it can get confused.  If you tell it you’re sending a packet of, say, 1000 bytes, but don’t send it any, it will still send you back 1000 bytes of data.  And that data will contain all sorts of random stuff that happens to be lying around in memory on the server.
  • Stuff such as user names, session ids, and query strings.

It was a very, very sobering experience to query a vulnerable webserver and see it return information from another user’s session that would be sufficient for me to impersonate them.  This is not supposed to happen.

Really, the only good thing about this whole episode was watching how fast the sysadmin community reacted.    There were excellent, in-depth technical discussions on Reddit, Hacker News and elsewhere.  Several people wrote and published vulnerability testing software in a matter of hours, such as from Filippo Valsorda.  It was inspiring to watch him build, refine, publish and support an incredibly useful tool overnight, and then scale it out using Amazon Web Services to support the sudden huge demand for the tool.

The longer term implications of all this are unclear.  We’ve now had several worrying encryption bugs in the space of a few weeks, including Apple’s embarrassing GOTO fail.

Encryption is the bedrock of the modern internet, and yet we’re learning time and time again that writing good encryption software is hard.

Part of this must have to do with the tools that we use.  C is an excellent language for systems level development, but was never designed to be used in a hostile environment.  So many security breaches over the years have been caused by the way C requires the programmer to manually manage memory space.  The promise of Open Source Software is that with many eyes checking source code, bugs will be found quickly.  But the OpenSSL source code is, by all accounts, a mess.  Just have a look at the actual lines of code responsible for the heartbleed error and ask yourself whether you would have found the vulnerability while performing a security review.

I’m not sure what all the answers are, but I have a strong feeling that a key response is to start writing more readable software.


Fundamentally, we need a more secure web.  The internet is central to our lives, our societies, and our economies.  Today I saw what a shaky foundation it all rests on.

Autism and God

I am on the autism spectrum.  I am also a committed Christian.

This makes me a bit of an anomaly.  According to Catherine Chaldwell-Harris at the Boston University Department of Psychology, people with autism spectrum disorder are far more likely than their peers to reject religious belief and identify as atheist or agnostic.  The chair of a national autism organization has gone as far as to say that autistic children will automatically be atheist because they “lack a section for faith in their brains.”

A quick survey of people I know on the spectrum found this statement deeply offensive.  It is frustrating at two levels – it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of religious faith and it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of autism.

To understand the challenges that the church has when engaging with autism, let’s talk briefly about what autism is.  Autism is fundamentally characterized by difficulties in understand the mental and emotional state of other people, and a tendency towards systemizing behaviour.  In my case, this means that I struggle to know what other people are thinking and feeling; indeed I sometimes struggle to know what I am feeling.

And there we have a problem. Because faith is often talked about in terms of emotions, and specifically in terms of God’s emotions.   I’ve frequently heard people say “I really felt that God was telling me to change jobs”, or “I feel that God wants me to tell you something”, or “I felt a leading to go on a missions trip.”  

trinityIn the evangelical world this is a very normal way of speaking.  Historically, we have placed a deep emphasis on the personal nature of faith, on the idea that a relationship with God is something that is open to everyone, without the need for mediation through an institution or a priesthood.  And we have taught that the individual believer can receive direction and instruction from God.

And here is where I struggle.  Because when people say “I really feel that God wants…”, they’re telling me that they are intuiting the wants and desires and emotional state of a divine being.

But  I have difficulty intuiting the wants, desires, and emotional states of everyday people.  I have difficulty figuring out the emotional states of my friends and family.  I have difficulty sensing the emotional states of my wife.  Frankly, I have difficulty seeing my own emotional states.

So if active participation in my faith requires being able to sense how some Other is feeling, then I have a problem.  It’s almost like telling someone with club foot that running a marathon is a necessary entry requirement to this club that we call the church.

Before I started writing this article, I did some research to see what had already been written on the subject of autism and religion.  Unfortunately, there’s very little.  There is the study I referenced above that saw the correlation between autism and atheism.  There are a few articles that talk about how to bring your children to church without triggering a meltdown.  And there are a few resources that note that the churchgoing experience has the possibility to trigger some of the sensory processing issues that are so common in people on the spectrum.  Loud noises, large crowds, a requirement to sit still for an hour, strange sounds, smells and tastes; all of these can trigger sensory overload.  Going to church can become an exercise in crisis management, not an opportunity to engage in a faith community in a profound, transformative way.

But I believe that autism is a theological issue.  How we talk about it, how we describe it and how we think about it will affect how we treat people on the spectrum.  And it will affect how we learn from people on the spectrum.  Fundamentally, we will have to decide whether we see autism as a disease to be cured, or a difference to be cherished.