Are pronouns up for debate or not?


There’s been a lot of ink spilled recently about the use of pronouns and preferred names in academia. At U of T, one professor in particular is kicking up a fuss about having been asked to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. A CBC editorial on the subject by Neil Macdonald recently provided an entertaining example of a baby boomer throwing a sputtering temper tantrum over the fact that he’s being asked to think about other people.

I could begin demanding that my colleagues refer to me as “blort” or “zonge” with the expectation that they would respectfully begin doing so.

(Imagine wanting to be treated with respect! Hilarious! Also, for the record, the singular “they” is not some newfangled invention of “those damn SJW’s.” There’s at least one example of it in Shakespeare. See A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3.)

It’s almost not worth saying that this is a generational thing, and when the boomers have passed on, their faux indignation over being asked to be a decent human being will die with them. In a couple decades, this debate will seem as weird to us as a prof who insists that freedom of expression means that he has the right to use the n-word to refer to students who are people of colour.

But let’s take the question of whether we should debate another person’s pronouns at face value, just for fun. Academia is supposed to be an anything-goes bare-knuckle cage-match of ideas, right? Are there legitimate reasons why we might not want to have a debate over pronouns?

I’ve come up with two.

Intellectual honesty

Let’s start with the example of smoking and lung cancer. I’ll get back to the debate at hand, I promise.

Smoking causes lung cancer. This is a fact.

Yes it’s a probabilistic thing; yes, it’s true that not all smokers get lung cancer; yes, it’s true that not all people with lung cancer smoked. But the causal link between smoking and lung cancer is so well established that it is now beyond doubt.

If, in 1950, there was a formal debate at McGill called “Does smoking cause lung cancer?”, that might have been an appropriate debate to have. There was genuine uncertainty over the issue at the time.

However, if I saw a poster on campus today in 2016 for a debate with the same title, I would take it to be a major failing in terms of either scientific judgement or intellectual honesty on the part of the organisers. I would question either their motives or their competency. For a person who wants an answer to the question of whether smoking causes lung cancer, the appropriate response is to point them toward the library, where there are reams of good data on the subject. A debate would not be appropriate.

The reason for this is that a formal public debate presupposes a certain equipoise between the sides being debated. Just framing certain issues as needing to be discussed by academics in the manner of a debate can be dishonest, like in the smoking/lung cancer debate example.

And so sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” it’s not because that the person is some insecure authority whose policies cannot bear scrutiny and they wish to stifle dissent by barring discussion. Sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” they just mean that it would be irresponsible and dishonest to use the machinery of academic “debate” to introduce unwarranted uncertainty where the issue has already legitimately been settled.

As academics, of course we need to be ready to defend any position we take. If there is anywhere that debates should happen over difficult, offensive or extremely technical subjects, it’s within a university. And yet, not all debates are intellectually honest ones to have. Sometimes when a person says, “Let me play devil’s advocate,” the correct response is, “The devil has enough advocates.”

Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre

Not all speech is benign. The famous example is that if you falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, you could kill people.

The same goes for other forms of speech, including academic or political “debates.” After Harper dredged up the niqab debate in the 2015 election, there were violent physical attacks on Muslims in Montreal. The Brexit and Trump campaigns also both arguably brought about spikes in hate crimes in the UK and the US. If you have debates like, “Should we ban Muslims from our country?” those can—and we have seen recently that they do—incite violence against Muslims.

Other sorts of speech can cause harm even more directly. Let’s imagine the example of a trans student in a small class who doesn’t want to be outed as trans to her peers. Imagine that the student goes to the teacher on the first day of class and says, “I know the class list has my name as ‘John,’ but I go by ‘Jane,’ and I’d like you to use ‘she/her’ when referring to me.”

Let’s further imagine that the professor is of the type who refuses to respect a student’s preferred name and pronouns on principle. Just by exercising their “right to freedom of expression,” this professor could out the student to their peers against the student’s will, which could directly put them at risk of harm. This student might be threatened or harmed, but even if the student is lucky and nothing bad happens, she might just feel threatened by this behaviour, which is a harm in itself.

Part of the problem is that discussions that can cause harm or risk of harm to others are often initiated by people who don’t bear any of that risk themselves. So for example, when Harper decided to “have a debate” on the niqab for his own narrow political ends, he did so knowing that he would never be the target of the anti-Muslim violence that followed. Similarly, a cis prof who refuses to use preferred names and pronouns will never be on the receiving end of violence against trans people, and they aren’t even in a good place to evaluate the level of risk that they may be imposing on other people against their will.

The prof at U of T wants to paint himself as the brave intellectual, bucking the orthodoxy and asking questions that no one else has the courage to ask, while his opponents won’t even meet him for an honest discussion. All I see is a guy who doesn’t have any skin in the game, who can afford to debate the level of respect owed to other humans because it will never affect him personally.

What does it mean when someone says their pronouns aren’t up for debate, then?

When a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they are not saying that there is no defense for the position they’re taking. There is a field of study that has considered, among other things, the question of pronouns and preferred names. In a lot of academic institutions, it’s called “Gender Studies.” You’ve probably made fun of it. But the fact that you’re ignorant of an entire academic discipline and decades worth of research doesn’t mean that there is a genuine question to be considered. It might just mean that you need to go to the library.

And when a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they might mean that what seems like an abstract, academic discussion to you could mean harm or the risk of harm to them. They’re not saying, “My position cannot stand up to criticism.” They’re saying, “I don’t want to be a casualty of this discussion.”


Everything should be open for debate—in principle—but not all debates come from a place of intellectual honesty, and not all debates are benign.


    title = {Are pronouns up for debate or not?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-11-20,
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Are pronouns up for debate or not?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 20 Nov 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Nov 20). Are pronouns up for debate or not? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

A gift of the fae folk, I assume?


What is this thing?

What is this thing?

I tried to go to the Snowden talk at McGill a couple weeks ago. The lineup was too crazy huge for us to get in, so we went to Thomson House, the McGill grad students’ pub, and hooked a laptop into a TV there to watch.

Seriously, what?

Seriously, what?

On the way back, in a pile of stones upturned by the construction between the Leacock and Brown buildings on the McGill campus, I found a little medallion marked with strange symbols. It has a pentagram on one side and Death on the other.

I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was left for me by the fairy folk, and that it’s a good omen?


    title = {A gift of the fae folk, I assume?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
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    date = 2016-11-14,
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "A gift of the fae folk, I assume?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 14 Nov 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Nov 14). A gift of the fae folk, I assume? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Break-in data from the SPVM


Montreal Break-ins Week-by-Week

Montreal Break-ins Week-by-Week

Just today, the SPVM released some crime statistics for the island of Montreal.

CBC already did an interactive map, so I took the data set and made a histogram of break-ins by date!

It’s a PDF and you can download it and look at it RIGHT NOW. There’s also a version where it’s lumped by month, which is also instructive.

And then, I made a week-by-week animated GIF of the locations of the break-ins! (Click the image attached to this post to see.)


    title = {Break-in data from the SPVM},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-04-27,
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Break-in data from the SPVM" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 Apr 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Apr 27). Break-in data from the SPVM [Web log post]. Retrieved from

It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem.


Figure 1

Figure 1

It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review your knowledge of Bayes Theorem. Here’s a fun exercise to do: Calculate the probability that a gay man is HIV-negative, given that he tells you he’s HIV-negative.


First, let’s define our terms.

h: Does not have HIV
~h: Does have HIV
e: Says he does not have HIV
~e: Says he does have HIV


So let’s imagine that you’re a gay man, and you’re going to hook up with a guy for Valentine’s Day. You might be interested in calculating the following: P(h|e)

This expression, P(h|e) represents the probability that a gay man does not have HIV given that he says he does not have HIV.


The base rate of HIV infection among gay men who have sex with men is 19%.1

Hence: P(~h) = 0.19; or P(h) = 0.81

See Figure 1 for a graphical representation. The entire square represents all gay men who have sex with men. The blue rectangle takes up 81% of the square, which is proportional to the CDC’s best estimate for the number of gay men who are actually HIV-negative.

From the same source, we can also determine that the probability that a person says he does not have HIV given that he does have HIV to be 44%.1

Hence: P(e|~h) = 0.44

In Figure 1, this is represented by the green rectangle. Given that a person is HIV-positive, there’s a 44% that they don’t know, and so they would likely say that they are “negative.”

The remainder, the yellow rectangle, is the proportion of gay men who are HIV-positive and who know that they are HIV-positive.


I am considering only the population of gay men who have sex with men.

Built into this is the assumption that men who have HIV and don’t know it would report themselves as HIV-negative, or that there wouldn’t be anyone who just says “I don’t know.”

I am also assuming here that 100% of gay men who don’t have HIV will say that they don’t have HIV. Put another way, there is a 0% chance that someone will say he has HIV if, in fact he does not have HIV. This is a simplification, It’s possible that someone is confused about his status, but very unlikely. Hence:

P(e|h) = 1; or P(~e|h) = 0

Bayes Theorem

To calculate our desired value, P(h|e), we should use Bayes Theorem.

P(h|e) = P(h) / ( P(h) + P(e|~h) * P(~h) / P(e|h) )

P(h|e) = 0.81 / ( 0.81 + 0.44 * 0.19 / 1 )

P(h|e) = 0.81 / ( 0.81 + 0.44 * 0.19 )

P(h|e) = 0.91

To illustrate this graphically, in Figure 1, this would represent the chance of your prospective hook-up being in the blue area, given that the only thing you know about him is that he’s either in the blue area or the green area.


Your risk of HIV exposure can be informed by your prospective sexual partner’s response to whether or not he is HIV-negative.

If a person tells you that he’s HIV-positive, he knows his status. No one goes around claiming to be HIV-positive unless they’ve been tested and got a positive result. The best evidence we have indicates that HIV-positive people with an undetectable viral load do not transmit HIV.2 So with a sexual partner who’s HIV-positive, you’re not getting any surprises.

If you don’t even ask about your prospective sex partner’s HIV status, you can be 81% certain that he’s HIV-negative, just because of the base rate of HIV prevalence. If you do ask and he tells you that he’s negative, that is a useful piece of information—it allows you to update your estimation of the probability that your prospective sexual partner is HIV-negative to 91%, but there’s still about a 1 in 10 chance that he’s HIV-positive, has no idea, and is not being treated for it.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!


  2. Attia S et al. Sexual transmission of HIV according to viral load and antiretroviral therapy: systematic review and meta-analysis. AIDS. 23(11): 1397–1404, 2009.


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    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem." Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 14 Feb 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Feb 14). It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test.


Background info

There are 3 million in the U.S. currently living with prostate cancer. There are approximately 320 million people in the US today, roughly half of whom will have prostates. Hence, let us take the prevalence of prostate cancer among those who have prostates to be approximately 3 in 160, or just under 2%.

The false positive (type I error) rate is reported at 33% for PSA velocity screening, or as high as 75%. The false negative (type II error) rate is reported as between 10-20%. For the purpose of this analysis, let’s give the PSA test the benefit of the doubt, and attribute to it the lowest type I and type II error rates, namely 33% and 10%.

Skill testing question

If some random person with a prostate from the United States, where the prevalence of prostate cancer is 2%, receives a positive PSA test result, where that test has a false positive rate of 33% and a false negative rate of 10%, what is the chance that this person actually has prostate cancer?

Bayes’ theorem

Recall Bayes’ theorem from your undergraduate Philosophy of Science class. Let us define the hypothesis we’re interested in testing and the evidence we are considering as follows:

P(h): The prior probability that this person has cancer
P(e|¬h): The false positive (type I error) rate
P(¬e|h): The false negative (type II error) rate

P(h) = 3/160
P(e|¬h) = 0.33
P(¬e|h) = 0.10

Given these definitions, the quantity we are interested in calculating is P(h|e), the probability that the person has prostate cancer, given that he returns a positive PSA test result. We can calculate this value using the following formulation of Bayes’ theorem:

P(h|e) = P(h) / [ P(h) + ( P(e|¬h) P(¬h) ) / ( P(e|h) ) ]

From the above probabilities and the laws of probability, we can derive the following missing quantities.

P(¬h) = 1 – 3/160
P(e|h) = 0.90

These can be inserted into the formula above. The answer to the skill-testing question is that there is a 4.95% chance that the randomly selected person in question will have prostate cancer, given a positive PSA test result.

What if we know more about the person in question?

Let’s imagine that the person is not selected at random. Say that this person is a man with a prostate and he is over 60 years old.

According to Zlotta et al, the prevalence of prostate cancer rises to over 40% in men over age 60. If we redo the above calculation with this base rate, P(h) = 0.40, we find that P(h|e) rises to 64.5%.

Take-home messages

  1. Humans are very bad at intuiting probabilities. See Wikipedia for recommended reading on the Base Rate Fallacy.
  2. Having a prostate is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a man. Just FYI.
  3. Don’t get tested for prostate cancer unless you’re in a higher-risk group, because the base rate of prostate cancer is so low in the general population that if you get a positive result, it’s likely to be a false positive.


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    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test." Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 18 Nov 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Nov 18). It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Why Christians shouldn’t vote Conservative


Holy Bible

Holy Bible

I have spent quite a bit of time among conservative Christians in my day, and one of the things that I didn’t understand even when I counted myself among the super-conservatives was the single-minded political alignment of some of them with the Conservative party. I remember having conversations with people—smart people—who would tell me that they couldn’t vote for anyone but the Conservatives, and for religious / moral reasons, primarily that they were against abortion and against gay marriage. Below, I will give two arguments that run counter to this widely held view among Christians.

I will begin by arguing that it is irrational to vote Conservative if your reason for doing so is to vote against abortion or gay marriage, and my second argument will focus on the abuse of Christianity by Conservative politicians.

1. Moral issues that seem to be most important to conservatives are not even a part of the Conservatives’ agenda

For whatever reason, super-conservative Christians have chosen abortion and gay marriage as two big political issues that influence their voting. I do not want to start a debate about the moral permissibility of abortion or about the rights of LGBTQ+ people. I’m just going to take it as given that many conservative Christians see these as legitimate issues that are informed by their interpretation of Christian theology. That is to say, for whatever reason, whether anyone agrees with them, super-conservative Christians are against abortions and against LGBTQ+ rights.

So let’s imagine a voter who wants to vote along these these moral lines (without passing judgement on whether or not this is the sort of thing that we should be using the machinery of government to regulate, or even whether or not Christian theology supports these positions). For whom should this voter cast their ballot?

Not the Tories. Or at least, not for that reason.

Practically speaking, the Tories are indistinguishable from the NDP or the Liberals on these issues. Regardless of what they say in their platform about “traditional marriage” or opposing abortion, the only policy that matters is the one that gets voted on in parliament, and despite having a majority government since 2011, gay marriage and abortion are still 100% perfectly legal in Canada. The Tories had 4 years to pass a law against abortion and gay marriage, and they didn’t do it. At this point, it is safe to say that they will never do it.

No matter how much the Tories want to manipulate you into thinking that they are the righteous and moral party to vote for from a super-conservative Christian perspective, they are undeniably, from a practical perspective, exactly the same thing as the NDP or Liberals as far as abortion and LGBTQ+ rights go.

To re-iterate, abortion and gay marriage are political non-issues in Canada, and it is irrational to think that a vote for the Tories is somehow a vote for “traditional marriage” or a vote against abortion. I’m not saying anything about whether it’s rational to be against gay marriage or abortions. I’m just saying that if your goal is to elect a party that will pass a law against them, you might as well vote for the NDP or the Liberals, since they are equally likely to do so, but they’re not insulting you by pretending that there’s any chance it will happen.

2. The Tories are getting into the habit of twisting the Scripture for political gain

There are some things in [the apostle Paul’s writing] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

2 Peter 3:16

When the House of Commons was sitting, the Conservatives seem to have gotten into the habit of pretending to cry in order to atone for their sins.[Source] [Source] Now that we’re in full campaign mode, the go-to seems to have become explicitly contorting the Christian faith in order to serve narrow partisan ends.

For example, in July, Tory MP Wai Young told Harvest City Church—with a straight face—that passing the recent controversial bill C-51 was what Jesus would have done.[Source] Last week, Nigel Wright, Man-In-Blue-Suit’s sometime lieutenant compared his actions, namely the giving $90 k of hush money in a cover-up of a political scandal, to those prescribed in Matthew 6:3.[Source] For the record, Matthew 6:3 is rendered in the ESV as “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

As Man-In-Blue-Suit would say, let’s be clear. We’re talking about a pair of politicians who, within weeks of each other, decided to spin something politically unpopular as Christian virtue.

Regardless of what you think of Wright’s actions regarding the $90 k cover-up cheque (it’s currently before the courts for bribery etc., so make of that what you will), and no matter what you think about bill C-51 (it was recently denounced by the UN for being a human rights problem but maybe you’re into that sort of thing), it is non-controversially wrong for politicians to abuse a religious group’s holy text in order to justify their own questionable political actions and manipulate the members of that group.

You just don’t do that.

Far from being the party that supports and aligns itself with the Christian faith, the Tories are unique among the major political parties in their attempts to paint the corpse of their jaded partisan politics with the make-up of false Christian piety. If you are a Christian who cares at all about politicians abusing your faith—if you want your faith to inform your vote at all, the Tories are the last party that you should vote for.


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    date = 2015-08-15,
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Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Why Christians shouldn’t vote Conservative" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 15 Aug 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Aug 15). Why Christians shouldn’t vote Conservative [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Things that I wish were the election issues for 2015


Whenever you hear politicians talk in the run-up to an election, everyone already knows the sorts of things they’re going to say:

“No, you would be a worse fiscal manager! The state of the economy is your fault!”

“No, truly, you would be a worse fiscal manager! The state of the economy has always been your fault!”

What they say is always so disconnected with what I feel is important, that I made a list of things that I wish we could start talking about honestly as a country. These are my “dream election issues,” and with a few exceptions, they’re not the things that politicians (of any party) really like to talk about too much. I’ve divided these things into four broad categories, and I have included a “tl;dr” at the bottom for those who don’t want to read my very wordy ramblings about Canadian politics.

Broadly speaking, I wish that we could be talking about human rights, the state of Canadian democracy, corporate influence on politics, and a guaranteed basic income.

1. Canada’s human rights record, and what can be done to help make things better for our country’s First Nations

The current government is embarrassingly bad at these sorts of issues, despite Canada having a reputation to the contrary.

The Harper Government’s reaction to the Truth and Reconciliation report, for example, was shameful. Canada is a country that literally committed a genocide against a racial group, and the minister in charge of that portfolio decided to stay sitting during a standing ovation for a call for a national inquiry on missing missing and murdered aboriginal women. The lack of movement with regard to an inquiry is inexcusable.

The government’s passage of C-51, with the help of the Liberals, has also recently been deemed a human rights problem by the UN. Naturally, the Tories have shrugged off any such criticism.

And as long as we’re talking about human rights, trans rights are human rights. Considering how smug we as Canadians like to be about LGBTQ+ stuff, (“We have gay marriage, so everything is perfect here, right!”) we’re pretty bad at actually making things better for trans people. A promising trans rights bill was killed by the senate, because … “Meh. Can’t be bothered.”

(Don’t get me wrong, gay marriage is great and all, but if there was such a thing as a Maslovian pyramid of Things that LGBTQ+ People Need In Order To Be Equal To Everyone Else, gay marriage would be pretty much at the top of it. Sure, it makes things better, but mostly for people who have got things pretty good in the first place.)

It would be healthy to finally have an honest national conversation about what kind of a place we want Canada to be. How do we want history to judge us, when they look back at the way that we have treated our First Nations? Wouldn’t it be better if we were talking about the details of an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, or even making plans to help preserve the culture of the First Nations, by making their languages official?

Or maybe we should sit down and talk about what kinds of powers we want to grant to a peacetime government. Do we want to be constantly at war with “terror,” or to have a government that demands 3 terror-related statements per week in order to keep us properly terrified? (How about this for a rule regarding the powers of the police and our country’s spies? If a police officer in 1950 would have probably needed a warrant to get access to that detail about your personal life, spies and polices officers in 2015 aren’t allowed to scoop it up in mass surveillance, or obtain that detail of your life otherwise through electronic means.)

2. Re-establishing some semblance of democracy in Canada

Over the past little while, democracy in Canada has gone downhill, fast. Before some neckbeard tries to say, “We are a democracy. We have elections, and that makes us one,” democracy is something that a country has in degrees. Just because a country has elected leaders doesn’t make it an ideal and perfect democracy. There are a number of institutions, practices, conventions and expectations that all work together to ensure that a country has a government of/by/for the people. The simple fact of an elected government, while a cornerstone of democracy, does not exhaust the meaning of the word.

This means that a number of changes to things that seem to be unrelated to whether or not Canada is a democracy can become real threats to Canada as a democracy. For example, the muzzling of Canadian scientists. If Canadian scientists can’t communicate their findings, or if only findings that can be spun to support the government of the day are released, then that eliminates a legitimate means that Canadians have to make their own opinions about how the country is run, what they communicate to their representatives, how they vote, etc.

Further, our prime minister is inaccessible to reporters and journalists. This is actually a problem for democracy itself. The media exists in part to hold the government of the day accountable, and the less accountable a government is to its people, the less democratic it is.

Same thing goes (in principle) for Question Period. The nearly comic performance of “Crocodile Tears” Calandra wasn’t just an exercise in partisan buffoonery. The whole point of parliament is that one of the mechanisms by which laws are made in our system is by talking about them. This is why omnibus bills are also fundamentally un-democratic. The process by which bills become law is supposed to be one where a government has to answer publicly for why it is making the rules that it is. An omnibus bill skips over that whole process, and is antithetical to democracy itself.

3. Corporate influence, intellectual property and protecting the public domain

As long as we’re talking about omnibus bills, let’s talk about what the Tories slipped into the last one and hoped we’d never notice. Up until recently, recordings were protected by copyright in Canada for 50 years after the death of the artist. Harper has quietly upped that figure to 70 years after the death of the artist. There was no debate on this issue. I have never heard a good justification for it. But now it’s law.

For books (at least for the time being) copyright still only extends to 50 years after the death of the writer, and after that point it falls into the Public Domain. (In the US and the UK, it’s already 70 years for books.) The fact that books eventually become Public Domain is why Project Gutenberg can exist. Project Gutenberg is an initiative to make available online—for free—books whose copyright has expired. You can download them, share them, edit them, make fanfiction, whatever. The books are free in every sense of the word.

The fact that copyright expires 20 years earlier in Canada is why Project Gutenberg Canada can exist. Authors like Ian Flemming, CS Lewis, George Orwell, etc., who died more than 50 years ago, but less than 70 years ago, can be downloaded legally for free in Canada, since there are no laws here protecting their copyright. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

There is absolutely no reason, other than corporate greed, to extend copyright after the artist has died. I mean, if copyright is protected for 70 years after the artist has died, everyone that artist ever loved or ever knew would also likely be dead before the copyright expires. The rationale, I take it, for copyright is to encourage new creative works. I am extremely sceptical that the profits of recording or publishing companies, decades after an artist’s death, is a motivating factor for any artist.

Copyright extensions are just one fairly minor issue, but they are like the canary in a coal mine. Copyright extension laws don’t try to pretend to be about the public good. They are absolutely not about the public good, and they are so transparently against the public good that they have to be snuck into law through the use of omnibus bills. The reason they are being legislated is because of corporate influence on our politics. There is no other reason. And that’s why they should be opposed—not just because I like free books (although there is that too), but because as a law that has absolutely no basis in the public good, they stand as a really simple metric for how corrupt our politics are.

4. Guaranteed basic income for all Canadians

I would love to see a guaranteed basic income as a part of a party’s election platform. To me, the phrase “make a living” is absolutely abhorrent. I just can’t justify in my mind the idea that if a human being doesn’t contribute enough to our economy, then that person literally deserves to die of exposure or starvation.

We act like poverty is an intractable problem that we can never solve. Meanwhile, the city of Medicine Hat recently eliminated homelessness by just … giving houses to those who need them. It’s supported in principle by the current mayors of Edmonton and Calgary, and by economists from all political stripes, including ones as far to the right as Milton Friedman. Basic income is not some lefty fantasy.

A few decades ago, Canada didn’t have socialised medicine, and now it’s a point of national pride that no Canadian has to stress about going broke from a healthcare emergency. I would love to see a party campaign on a promise to introduce a guaranteed basic income for Canadians, so that in a few years, it’s a point of national pride that no Canadian has to stress about going broke, ever.


The things I’d love to see become “election issues” for Canada in 2015 are the following:

  • Missing and murdered aboriginal women
  • First Nations languages as official languages of Canada
  • Trans rights
  • The powers of a peacetime government against private liberty
  • Muzzling of Canadian scientists
  • The legality of omnibus bills
  • Copyright extensions as a proxy for corporate political influence
  • Guaranteed basic income

Edit (2015 July 27): Added item #4, basic income.

Cross-posted to:


    title = {Things that I wish were the election issues for 2015},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-07-25,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Things that I wish were the election issues for 2015" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 25 Jul 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Jul 25). Things that I wish were the election issues for 2015 [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi


Short story prompt: la cizra mensi

The hero of your short story has found a way to summon the Weird Sisters of Macbeth fame to inquire after the future. Worried that the witches will try to trick your hero by giving a prophesy that can be favourably and plausibly read one way, but that also has an alternate, surprising and terrible interpretation that is consistent with the words of the prophesy, your hero finds a way to force the witches to speak in Lojban.

Unfortunately for the hero of your story, a witch’s prophesy can backfire in unexpected ways that still respect the letter of the prophesy itself, even if it’s delivered in a language that’s syntactically unambiguous.

Macbeth 1.3

In the spirit of this short story prompt, I have rendered the first part of Macbeth, act 1 scene 3 into Lojban for your enjoyment. Corrections and suggestions welcome. :)

termafyfe’i 1: [1] .i doi lo mensi do pu zvati ma

termafyfe’i 2 .i lo jai bu’u lo nu catra lo xarju

termafyfe’i 3 .i doi lo mensi do zvati ma

termafyfe’i 1 .i lo fetspe be lo blopre pu cpana be lo galtupcra ku ralte lo narge

[5] gi’e omnomo gi’e omnomo gi’e omnomo .i lu ko dunda fi mi li’u se cusku mi .i lu ko cliva doi lo termafyfe’i li’u lo zargu citka cagna cu se krixa .i lo nakspe be lo se go’i pu klama la .alepos. gi’e bloja’a la .tirxu. .i ku’i ne’i lo julne mi lo te go’i fankla

[10] .ije mi simsa be lo ratcu poi claxu lo rebla ku co’e gi’e co’e gi’e co’e

termafyfe’i 2: .i mi dunda do pa lo brife

termafyfe’i 1 .i do xendo

termafyfe’i 3 .i mi co’e pa lo drata

termafyfe’i 1: [15] .i mi ralte ro da poi drata .i je’a lo blotcana cu bifca’e ro da poi farna be fi lo makfartci pe lo blopre ku’o zi’e poi se djuno .i mi ba simsa be lo sudysrasu bei lo ka sudga ku rincygau

[20] .i lo nu sipna ku ba canai lo donri ku .a lo nicte ku dandu za’e lo galtu dinju canko gacri .i zo’e ba dapma renvi .i ba ca lo tatpi jeftu be li so pi’i so cu jdika lo ka stali .e lo ka pacna .e lo ka gleki

[25] .i zu’u lo bloti to’e pu’i se daspo .i zu’unai lo go’i vilti’a se renro .i ko viska lo se ralte be mi

termafyfe’i 2: .i ko jarco fi mi .i ko jarco fi mi

termafyfe’i 1 .i mi nau ralte lo tamji be fi lo blosazri

[30] poi ca lo nu zdani klama ku bloti janli morsi

[.i ne’i damri]

termafyfe’i 3: .i damri .i damri .ua .i la .makbet. je’a tolcliva

ro da poi termafyfe’i: .i lo cizra mensi noi xance jgari simxu zi’e noi klama be fo lo xamsi .e lo tumla be’o sutra

[35] cu klama fi’o tadji tu’a di’e .i ciroi klama lo tu’a do .i ciroi klama lo tu’a mi .i ciroi ji’a klama .iki’ubo krefu fi li so .i ko smaji .i lo makfa cu bredi

[.i nerkla fa la .makbet. .e la bankos.]


    title = {Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-07-1,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 01 Jul 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Jul 01). Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]


I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) last week. I wasn’t planning on it, but then I heard that a bunch of Men’s Rights-type dudebros hated it for attempting to undermine the patriarchy or something, so I kinda had to. I didn’t remember it until after the fact when my little sister pointed it out, but the vain cry of “liberal brainwashing” also seems to have been the reason I went to see The Muppets (2011). Apparently the ire of conservative loud-mouths is all it takes to get me to go see a movie. Take note, Hollywood.

Warboy Nux and Gonzo the Great

“Oh what a day! What a lovely day!”

This is not the only parallel I found between Mad Max and The Muppets. Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great, reimagined as a brainwashed member of a post-apocalyptic automobile cult.

Like Nux, it would not be out of character for Gonzo to stand on a moving vehicle, throw an exploding spear at something and cry “Witness me!” as he performs a stunt that is very likely to kill him. Gonzo and Nux are both creatures of the extreme. This is why we like them. They are interesting because their characters feel things so deeply, and the storytellers, in both cases, know that the way to highlight this depth of feeling is by making them care—and care strongly—about things that seem absolutely strange to us.

While Gonzo is less likely to be actively trying to hurt someone with his antics, even Nux seems to be less motivated by malice than by a heartfelt (albeit misguided) desire to live a life that is remarkable and meaningful. These characters both have an exterior of explosions, chrome and spectacle, and it takes barely a scratch to reveal an interior of adorable, sometimes-pathetic, but utterly non-ironic, earnest longing. In The Muppet Movie (1979), the most touching moment is Gonzo’s I’m going to go back there someday. If you’re going to cry during The Muppet Movie, this is when it will happen.1 Nux’s whispered “Witness me” in his final few seconds is similarly and unexpectedly emotional. Nux gets a finale that’s as climactic as he could have ever dreamed of. And most heart-wrenching, after an earlier failure in the eyes of his god, he expresses his redemption among his new friends in the language of the cult he came from.

I think that’s what’s so great about Nux and Gonzo: They feel, believe and act in extreme ways. They don’t do things by half-measures and they don’t try to hide their passions under a layer of irony or sarcasm. This makes them very vulnerable, and this is what makes them great.

1 Recommended reading on the subject of Gonzo the Great: Joey Comeau’s Lockpick Pornography.


    title = {Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-06-25,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 25 Jun 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Jun 25). Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers] [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Gotcha! This is why piracy happens



This summer, I took a two-week long course on systematic reviews and meta-analytic techniques for which there was some required software, in this case, Stata. As a McGill student, I was encouraged to buy the student version, which was about $50 for “Stata Small.” Not bad. I’ve paid more for textbooks. So I got out my credit card, bought the license, installed it on my computer, and ran the very first example command of the course. I immediately got a string of red letter error text.

The error message was telling me that my license did not allow me enough variables to complete the command. I checked the license, and it said I was allowed 120 variables. I checked the “Variable manager” in Stata, and I had only assigned 11 variables. (I checked the variable limit beforehand in fact, and made sure that none of the data sets that we’d be working with had more than 120 variables. None of them came close to that limit.)

So I emailed Stata technical support. It turns out that the meta-analysis package for Stata creates “hidden variables.” Lots of them, apparently. So many that the software cannot accomplish the most basic commands. Then they tried to up-sell me to “Stata SE.” For $100 more, they said, they would send me a license for Stata that would allow me to run the meta-analysis package—for realsies this time.

I asked for a refund and decided that if I really needed Stata, I would use the copy that’s installed on the lab computers. (Now I’m just using the meta package in R, which does everything Stata does, just with a bit more effort.)

For the record: I am perfectly fine with paying for good software. I am not okay with a one-time purchase turning me into a money-pump. I thought that the “small” student license would work. All their documentation suggested it would. If I had upgraded to “Stata SE,” would that have actually met my needs, or would they have forced me to upgrade again later, after I’d already made Stata a part of my workflow?

It probably would have been okay, but the “gotcha” after the fact soured me on the prospect of sending them more money, and provided all the incentive I need to find a way to not use Stata.


A few years ago, I bought a number of pieces of classical music through the iTunes Store. I shopped around, compared different performances, and found recordings that I really liked. This was back when the iTunes store had DRM on their music.

I’ve recently switched to Linux, and now much of the music that I legally bought and paid for can’t be read by my computer. Apple does have a solution for me, of course! For about $25, I can subscribe to a service of theirs that will allow me to download a DRM-free version of the music that I already paid for.

This is why I won’t even consider buying television programmes through the iTunes Store: It’s not that I think that I will want to re-watch the shows over and over and I’m afraid of DRM screwing that up for me. It’s because I’ve had some nasty surprises from iTunes in the past, and I can borrow the DVD’s from the Public Library for free.

For the record: I do not mind paying for digital content. But I won’t send you money if I think there’s a “gotcha” coming after the fact.

I’m really trying my best

People who produce good software or music should be compensated for their work. I don’t mind pulling out my wallet to help make that happen. But I don’t want to feel like I’m being tricked, especially if I’m actually making an effort in good faith to actually pay for something.

Since DRM is almost always fairly easily circumvented, it only punishes those who pay for digital content. And this is why I’m sympathetic to those who pirate software, music, TV shows, etc.


    title = {Gotcha! This is why piracy happens},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-05-22,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Gotcha! This is why piracy happens" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 22 May 2015. Web. 20 Feb 2017. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, May 22). Gotcha! This is why piracy happens [Web log post]. Retrieved from


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