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Playing in the Age of Mistrust

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“Fake News” and Gambling on Cynicism.

In my last post I reported on a class action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. Punters in Newfoundland mistrust ALC’s video lottery terminals believing  they are rigged to lose. Lottery games are, of course, designed to do this very thing. You have to be aware that any number or symbol will only pop up randomly, and matching any three is three orders of magnitude more random. You can dream about getting lucky, but you can’t plan on it.

Apparently the locals have lost faith in their friendly neighbourhood government monopoly. The judge surely understands the odds against winning but believes there is merit in the case. Players aren’t looking for a needle in a haystack; they are looking for a haystack, on a comet, circling another star!

I have to believe there is something more at work here. It’s frustrating when the river card turns against you  in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em but the cards are physical. We believe though in digital malfeasance when a video screen spins up a useless fruit salad of unrelated symbols. It just seems more infuriating when a machine refuses to offer at least some solace after producing an endless string of losses.

I’ve explained previously, (“Winning the Lottery: Luck of the Draw”, June 29th, 2016), how draw lotteries like Canada’s 6/49 or US Powerball draws work. Carefully balanced balls careen inside a drum until the required number tumble down a chute. It’s random, unpredictable but it’s tactile and visible. Even computer scientists don’t know exactly what’s going on inside a computer and the public is growing leery of all the ways computers can be hacked and manipulated. This unease can be forgiven if it involves an unco-operative slot machine, but an epidemic of mistrust is breaking out over something we rely on daily: being informed.

The World’s Most Mistrusted Media Source.

There are many institutions that are suffering from steady declines in trust. Election polls have taken a beating, not least because pollsters have suffered a stream of spectacular failures. Public opinion of government waxes and wanes but has declined fairly steadily since the 1950’s. The news media, which once meant your local newspaper, now encompasses streaming, broadcasting and a wild west of digital vulgarity blasting 24/7. We have the most sources of information in 5,000 years and we hate it. To be more accurate: you hate the person I like and I hate the person you like.

The recent US election made a cottage industry of ‘fake news’. Web sites world wide published the most heinous accusations against all candidates. Fans of one side would gleefully re-tweet their favourite “news” about the other side and then engage in ferocious invective against what the other side claimed to be true. Apparently, teens in Macedonia made great money pumping out colourful material for US consumption. Of course, Russia had some sort of influence; hacking sites or, in some obscure way, “influencing” the election result.

If you’re on the losing side, your belief in magical intervention comforts you. If you backed the winner, you discount every suggestion that victory wasn’t inevitable from the beginning. We are at the dawn of the age of mistrust and the twilight of nuance.

Maybe something even more insidious than hacked emails and broadcast rumours has been at work on our society. Perhaps a foreign agency has been trying to convince us for decades that free market capitalism is somehow a failure. By feeding disinformation, misinformation, or just a flood of too much information, the foes of Western civilisation have taken us all for a horrible ride.

Or maybe the CIA planted the whole story.

The Oxford English Dictionary announced “post-truth” as their word for 2016. The OED folks pick words for the frequency of use as well as utility. Post -truth is defined as a state when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” Political careers rise or fall based on how blocs of voters feel. A blizzard of “sunny ways” buries successful policies like low taxes, restricted government and individual freedom with responsible citizenship. Secret funds pay advocacy groups to hold angry marches. Self-interest is raised above public interest as a political goal.

With the verbal temperature turned up on even the most inconsequential issue, debate is cancelled prior to discussion. It has reached a point that holding an accepted opinion isn’t enough. You have to believe in all the same facts with fervor equal to the looniest adherent.

I hope that enough people will step back and give due respect to their fellow citizens. However, if one of your tactics to “win” arguments is using excessive volume rather than reasoned information…you’re on your own.

 

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Prima Facie is Only where the Story Starts

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Lotteries Investigated Because Players Lose

I first encountered the term “prime facie” during Parliamentary proceedings. An MP would accuse a fellow member of some transgression and the Speaker of the House would decide whether there was a prima facie case for the issue to be examined further. This would mean that on the face of it, or at first glance, more investigation was required.

Two recent civil suits brought this to mind. In Canada we are apparently not immune to the belief that someone else is responsible when faced with undesired outcomes.

The National Post recently reported that an Ontario woman was suing Walmart Canada because her shopping cart rolled away. She chased the cart and fell.

At first glance the average person would likely experience schadenfreude because a face plant is funny when it happens to someone else. Experts shot down her original claim blaming the design of the parking lot. The plaintiff entered a new claim that the shopping cart was at fault. “On the face of it there is some argument for the plaintiff that there may be some liability” (by others) the judge is quoted as saying.

So, million-dollar lawyers and valuable court time will determine who is to blame for this woman’s unfortunate injuries.

In Newfoundland-Labrador, a judge certified a class action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. The issue, at first glance, is that the video lottery terminals operated by ALC don’t allow players to win. In particular, these machines take all the most insidious features of casino gambling: colourful, active visuals with ease of play and a repeated (deceptive) representation of ‘near’ winning, and turbo charge the activity in an environment that includes alcohol service. One plaintiff admitted to secretly spending $500 per day on the VLT habit. He offered no explanation where he got that kind of money or how he kept the activity from his wife.

At first glance we would say the causes of problem gambling are self-inflicted. By failing to appreciate odds against the player, people irrationally believe that their personal pay-off is one more click away. The Universe is a big, cold place that doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you’ve been playing the game for two minutes or two years. The next symbol to pop up is still a million-to-one shot every time you place your bet.

Yet, million-dollar lawyers and valuable court time will determine whether lottery corporations are responsible for people believing the hype that “anyone can win” or “you can’t win if you don’t play”. (Most insidiously these statements are ‘true’, on the face of it!).

If the lottery corp.’s are guilty of anything, it’s putting these rip-off machines in a place people can play with them.

On the other hand, a learned judge believes the machines could be liable for bankruptcy and family breakdown. Most provincial gambling control programs are voluntary and therefore useless. When does an addict behave so responsibly that they report to authorities when they exceed their limit? Does a lottery corporation know when an individual has become obsessed with the idiot concept of winning a lottery? Where is the evidence that they give a shit?

No matter how things turn out, we are left with an eternal truth: you are responsible for your choices. You are responsible for being aware of conditions that affect your well-being. You should be aware that governments, corporations etc. can and will manipulate those conditions to line their own pockets. This doesn’t mean you are a helpless victim unless you choose to be.

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This is Your Brain on Gambling…

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Science Finds Brain Parts that Like the Odds

I’m dating myself with the reference in the title about an old anti-drug campaign (Partnership for a Drug-Free America). We’ve all run out of new things to say anyway and what’s old is new again.

While we search the heavens for signs of intelligent life, we struggle to confirm its existence here on Earth. Fortunately we have instruments that can peer into the darkest recesses of our own brains.

Before we go too far I wish to direct readers to another reference from the 1980’s: Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer J. Adler. Now, I’m no philosopher but I’m thankful Dr. Adler was on the job fixing wrong ideas from the past. I explored the persistence of some ideas in a previous post, (“The Persistence of Bad ideas” December 9, 2016).

I’m offering this aside to provide context for the science that we’re examining today. In his section entitled ‘The Intellect and the Senses’, Dr. Adler wished to fix a problem raised by seventeenth century philosophers John Locke and David Hume. By failing to distinguish between the experiences perceived by our senses and those concepts arrived at by intellect, the philosophers led people to believe the only things we can have in our heads are versions of things that come to us from our ears and eyes.

“In all these statements, two errors are compounded: one is the error of regarding our perceptions and images, miscalled ‘ideas’, as the immediate objects of our consciousness; the other is the error of reducing the human mind to a purely sensitive faculty, able to be aware of nothing but what can be perceived through the senses or can be imagined as a result of our sense perceptions.”

While it’s true we react to sights, sounds, tastes and the pain of handling frayed wires, we are an order of magnitude beyond Bobo the gorilla making finger signs for a banana. We can conceive of, and enact constitutions guaranteeing rights and freedoms, (and undermine them with kangaroo courts mislabelled “Human Rights Tribunals”), and design buildings and machines that can mess up or clean up our environment.

It’s what I take from it and I’m able to cogitate on these and other concepts while craving spicy Doritos

As I pondered my first post of 2017 I came across this article regarding problem gambling. On January 3rd the CBC reported, (“Problem gambling triggers same part of brain as substance addiction.”), the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Gambling Research, used MRIs to show a region of the brain known as the insula, lit up at the very sight of gambling machines. Researcher Eve Limbrick-Oldfield is quoted as saying the insula is a “mysterious and poorly understood part of the brain [but it] has been identified as key hub for craving in past research.”

While the folks at UBC continue to do excellent research into our stupid behaviours, (e.g. buying lottery tickets), I am leery of the conclusion of the article. It suggests naltrexone, an opoid antagonist, might be useful in suppressing gambling addiction.

In the first place our “therapeutic society” insists we treat every misbehaviour and deviance with some sort of chemical, (except the ones backed by wealthy advocacy groups!). The implication seems to be that your bad behaviour isn’t your fault and it’s nothing a little shot of elixir can’t ‘cure’.

In the second place, we seem comfortable pumping powerful chemicals into our brains hoping they will be effective and not offer too serious side-effects. We take drugs to handle one issue only to find we need a third drug to deal with the side-effects of the first two! Recent research suggests there may be a link between taking antidepressants and a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. (Don’t get down over that though. Science could “prove” a link between any disease and any substance if they tried!).

I do not mean to diminish the deleterious effects of problem, as opposed to periodic, gambling, nor the real cognitive issues that may prevent people from leading pleasant, productive lives. I just hope that research into why we do stupid things does not lead to the belief we can administer behaviour drugs to control people…or populations.

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Life Imitating Art

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No sooner had I posted “Picture This” (December 17, 2016), featuring a thought exercise involving an imaginary highway, then the most despised government in Ontario’s history decided to announce more lanes for highway 417 (aka the Queensway) that runs through downtown Ottawa. As I said in that post, infrastructure spending is all the rage and otherwise useless backbenchers or do-nothing ministers are trotted out to read turgid press releases declaring a government’s love for the ‘little people’ who pay the bills. The government; local, provincial or federal, will unabashedly pat itself on the back for being “strategic”, prescient and beneficent. According to the December 19 announcement MP David McGuinty claims more highway lanes “will foster long-term prosperity for years to come.” And all for a measly $95 million.

Actually the highway widening was already announced in May of this year by provincial minister Bob Chiarelli although at that time the dollar amount was withheld. The latest iteration is no doubt the result of backroom arm-twisting that goes on between governments who are rarely on the same page or in the same desperate part of the election cycle. The federal government and its provincial counterpart both have massive, unaffordable infrastructure schemes on the books and so taxpayers can expect to see announcements and re-announcements of the same paving jobs and playground structures until our sewers are clogged with cut ribbons.

This is not to say that urban highways don’t need attention but it does seem that a lot of taxpayer money gets splashed about with very little consideration of whether it’s terribly useful. Ottawa is years behind North American urban centres in constructing an efficient light rail system. We insist on carrying one commuter each in thousands of passenger cars, rather then thousands of commuters each in rail cars. After having torn up downtown tracks and re-purposed a beautiful train station in the 1960’s, the city is dropping over $2 billion on a train system under the downtown that will carry passengers from a nondescript shopping centre on one side of town to a depressing collection of Stalinist government buildings on the other; a classic “bridge-to-nowhere” public project. Of course there is a “stage 2” for another $3 billion and years more into the future.

When Chiarelli announced highway widening in May, local columnist David Reevely wrote: “One thing we can be sure of:It won’t reduce congestion. Widening highways never does.”

It’s an old saw in politics that if you subsidise anything, you get more of it. Widen a highway and more cars will want to use it. Each of the cars on your new highway will do exactly what they do now: propagate waves of varying speed and clog up on/off ramps as everybody tries to use the limited access points at the same time.

Experts know this and some of them work for government so politicians know it too. The Chiarelli/McGuinty press releases drone on about ‘strategic’ investments, job creation and middle class utopia so it’s clear they don’t want to talk about putting the $95 million anywhere useful. Since Ontario is one of the most indebted sub-national jurisdictions in the western world and their federal Liberal cousins have already blown out the budget for years to come, neither one is going to care much about a few million dollars.

Aside from being bothered by the insistence of different levels of government to brightly declare that there is a ‘federal’ share of the project and a ‘provincial’ one (as if there was different groups of taxpayers chipping in), how does this accord with the stated objective of both Liberal governments that they are going to get us out of our cars for environmental reasons? On the one hand Ontario’s highway department admits that people have to get to their jobs, meetings and to deliver goods. On the other hand a provincial energy tax is being imposed on January 1st that will hit gasoline and heating fuels in the name of “fighting climate change”. The purpose of taxing is to get less of something (emissions); the purpose of building highways is to get more of something (driving).

Governments announce “job creation” schemes, then tax and regulate jobs out of existence. The winner of a one-off popularity contest decries our industrial economy one day, then approves vital pipelines the next. ‘Leaders’ pay lip service to liberty then quietly pass laws making it illegal to hold any views contrary to the pandering elitists of a few urban areas.

If it isn’t clear already it should be apparent that any government is a many-headed Hydra of competing agendas. If you belong to a government that insists on layering further agenda items on to a bloated schema of interfering in citizen’s lives and treating their personal incomes simply as tax money that hasn’t been seized yet, then you are in for decades of economic and social chaos.

If you vote for politicians that promise you ‘prosperity for decades’ based on their contradictory policy choices then please don’t be surprised when the prosperity collapses in a heap within a year.

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Picture This

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According to the Bank of Canada, household debt in this country is a rising threat to the health of our economy. Though mostly a phenomenon of bloated housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto, many Canadians across the country are loading on mortgages and other debts to the point the amount owing exceeds their incomes by a frightening margin. With Christmas bills coming due in the months ahead, it’s doubtful this picture will improve any time soon.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising our country would embrace this style of fiscal lunacy more warmly than other economies. Though we are all personally responsible for our choices, our national and provincial governments promote the idea that we can live like Midas while the sun shines and pay with somebody else’s money at some imaginary future date. Why wouldn’t the electorate adopt a similar outlook that credit and debt are infinitely elastic?

Ontario is a province of 13 million souls but time is running out on our provincial “debt clock”. Now at $314 Billion, it seems that ever paying it down has completely slipped the minds of anybody in charge at Queen’s Park. Nationally, Canada’s total public debt exceeds $1.3 TRILLION dollars but I assume this does not ‘net out’ the value of all our wonderful forests and lakes and public buildings. Of course, if a country like Canada was going to go bust, its neighbours would likely also be facing some cataclysmic melt-down so who would we sell your trees and bridges to?!

I’ve discussed before how numbers like these are too big to really have a concrete meaning to average citizens, (and apparently citizens who get themselves elected don’t bother to grasp them at all). We can imagine stacks of bills reaching to the moon and so forth but billions and trillions just fade into obscurity. Politicians like it since they’re all about promising more stuff not less. Talk of repaying the debt makes one the proverbial skunk at the wedding.

But households like yours and mine do not have the near-infinite capacity of governments to borrow and spend. Our incomes are finite and our credit ratings determine whether anybody would be stupid enough to lend us more. We make only so much from jobs, investments, pensions or inheritances and that’s our resources. We don’t have the force of law granted to government to arbitrarily raise taxes and confiscate wealth.

Of course we have the option of seeking more lucrative employment to raise our income. Since this could involve time and treasure spent on training and education, or moving to another city, our efforts may prove to be a bit of a gamble.

And then there’s actual gambling! Millions of us spend a few dollars per week trying to hit that one lucky co-incidence that might pay off bills, reduce the mortgage, or take the risk out of some other investment. We ignore the “millions-to-one” odds malarky and all the “play-for-fun” attempts to reduce expectations and exchange real money for hopes at local lottery retailers.

I was thinking of an analogy for this futile pursuit. Since infrastructure spending is all the rage, even among governments throttled by multi-billion dollar debts, we can picture a lunatic government building a twenty-lane highway from say, Toronto to Whitehorse. Since it’s government and there’s a lunatic ‘make-work’ imperative on Parliament Hill, a lottery retailer is mandated to be constructed every kilometre on both sides of the super highway, some 10,000 or so. In order to find a winning lottery ticket, you eventually have to buy at least one ticket from each of them as you drive back and forth along the entire 5,400 km distance.

But wait! Not only do you have to buy all the tickets of which 99.9% give you nothing, you also have to be at a particular retailer, on the day, and time, when a white Corvette with the licence plate “SUCKER” is in the parking lot…

Which is to say, as always, good luck with that.

I wish all Canadians a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah etc. and a Happy New Year. May your friends and families be well and good fortune attend you.

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