Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Free speech and political correctness

 A few scattered thoughts on free speech, political correctness, and censorship:

  • Learning about people different from ourselves is lifelong learning. We never get to a point where we can be quick to judge a group of people we just learned about.
  • Lifelong learning also means we need to show each other grace about actions and words that harm or offend people. (This doesn't mean staying silent when someone says or does something inappropriate, but it does mean giving people time to learn and not expecting them to reach exactly the same conclusions as us.)
  • Free speech is a bedrock principle of free and democratic societies and it must be protected.
  • Free speech has never meant entitlement to a platform. Newspapers publish a variety of opinions in the Letters to the Editor, but they have always had the right not to publish everything they receive. Public venues have never been required to rent their stages to absolutely everyone who wants it.
  • When social media allows misinformation to spread unchecked, it leads people to make dangerous decisions, and deepens divisions in society.
  • When social media flags or censors misinformation, people complain about censorship and move to platforms that allow misinformation, deepening divisions in society.
  • We do not have a fundamental right not to be offended.
  • Words can cause deep offense, intended or not. When we find out someone is offended by our words, we should not be quick to criticize them; we should listen and carefully consider their experiences and feelings. There are times when offensive things must be said anyway.
  • A few of the most vocal free speech defenders don't appear to care if their words cause deep offense to some.
  • A few of the most vocal defenders of minorities are very quick to judge anyone who disagrees with them on even the smallest details, and will try to ruin careers over the smallest offense.
  • There will never be a complete set of hard and fast rules about which ideas get a platform and which don't. The debate over which ideas should get debated publicly will never end. This is good.

Overall, I appreciate the voices that value free speech and greater understanding of people different from ourselves. These are the voices that can build unity between very different people. Personally, I want to be a good listener and to articulate clearly what I think. This takes lifelong learning.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alberta fighting division with division

Since the federal election in October 2019, there has been a clear increase in separatist sentiment in Alberta and other parts of western Canada. I recently blocked Wexit ads on Facebook because I was getting sick of them.

Many feel like we're under attack by the federal government and other provinces. Across our country, our health and quality of life are quite dependent on fossil fuels, and a significant chunk of that comes from Alberta. Yet in 2017 Justin Trudeau said, "We can't shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out." Even though he backpedaled on that comment, it gave many Albertans the impression that he doesn't care about our jobs and prosperity. The federal government passed laws that many in the resource industry think will make it harder to get resource projects done. And they created a national carbon tax.

So Albertans get the impression that Trudeau is against us, he has numerous scandals involving questionable ethics and competence, and then much of the rest of the country re-elects him. Yes, his party is reduced to a minority, but the balance of power is held by other parties that want more restrictions on fossil fuels, and the Bloc Quebecois that appears openly hostile to Alberta.

Justin Trudeau says he's been trying to build unity nationwide, but we've become more divided.

But as Albertans, we should not fight division with division.

First of all, let's acknowledge that human-caused climate change is serious and we need to work toward net-zero global carbon emissions in the coming decades. If you read through my Facebook feed, it's no secret that I support major action on this.

When people predict bad things in the future, the worst predictions are rarely right. In this case the worst predictions are human extinction or even the extinction of all life of earth, and I (with my limited understanding of the subject) consider these extremely unlikely. But predictions of 100 million premature deaths this century, even more in coming centuries, and accelerating extinction of other species are not the worst predictions; they represent mainstream science.

If you or someone you love works in the fossil fuel industry, it is certainly hard to support government policies that would eliminate these jobs in the coming decades. I get it. Renewable energy development, retrofitting of buildings, and transportation infrastructure construction will create many jobs, but I understand the fear of forced change. People don't know if change will help them get ahead or leave them behind.

For all of Justin Trudeau's faults, he actually brought in the most pro-Alberta climate policy of all the parties that support a carbon tax. The rebates all go to the province that the money came from; since Alberta has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions and hence the highest costs, we get the biggest rebates. If everyone in Canada simply got the same rebate, that would be another net flow of money out of Alberta. The Liberals are also the only party to support both a carbon tax and a new oil export pipeline so that we can get a better price for our oil while we can still sell it.

As for the economic effects of a carbon tax, I challenge you to find a jurisdiction that has had a carbon tax for several years where the economy has done badly. I'll mention Sweden as a success story--it has the highest carbon tax on earth, and its economy has done just fine in that time.

When we get criticized for pipeline building, oil sands mining, and stuff like that, let's not pretend that cutting the emissions from our oil production or converting our coal power plants to natural gas is enough. Yes, let's talk about the progress we've made, but let's be just as vocal about our commitment to achieving net-zero emissions in the coming decades.

As a province and as individuals, let's:
  • Invest in much more renewable energy, grid energy storage systems (pumped storage hydroelectricity is just one option that doesn't need a single new invention), and maybe nuclear power.
  • Finish converting our coal power plants to natural gas.
  • Invest in carbon capture, both from industrial stacks and from the atmosphere. (Carbon Engineering has a promising technology to convert atmospheric CO2 to hydrocarbon fuels. If it can run on 100% renewable energy, then it would produce carbon-neutral hydrocarbons.)
  • Produce oil as cleanly as we can, to sell to the world for as long as they use oil.
  • Actively work toward net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 (with a possible exception for industries exporting to countries that haven't achieved net-zero emissions by then).
  • Diversify our economy so that when the world won't buy our oil--or anyone else's--we still have a strong economy.
  • Support political candidates who show strong integrity and leadership skill, and support the kinds of policies (in many areas, not just climate change) that you think are a good idea. Speak out against hypocrisy, abuse of power, and neglect for our future.
  • Don't insult people we disagree with especially if they're motivated by love and compassion; respond intelligently and respectfully. (I'm getting tired of the insults directed at Greta Thunberg on Facebook.)

The coming decades will bring an unprecedented level of change to the world. Much of it can be positive. Do we want to isolate ourselves and become an economic also-ran, or do we want to work with the rest of Canada and the world to meet this challenge head-on?

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Robocalls and mass texts

It's election season here in Alberta. So here's a thought: what if robocalls, mass text messages, and similar forms of automated campaigning were banned? Would anyone be disadvantaged from this?

If political candidates have to rely on volunteers, paid staff, and paid advertising to get their message out, then the number of people they can reach is roughly proportional to how well they engage everyday people in the political process, whether as volunteers or donors. If they can write a computer program to mass text or mass call a huge list of randomly generated phone numbers, they really don't need to actively engage the rest of us; they can annoy get their message out to massive amounts of people without a lot of money or help.

So would banning robocalls and mass texts get more people engaged in the political process? And maybe reduce people's cynicism and distrust in the whole political process?

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Identity theft tips for Canadians: my story part 2

In 2008 I found out that I'd been a victim of identity theft. Now I'm writing about my story and providing some tips. Part 1 of my story is here, and today I'm posting part 2. Tips for dealing with identity theft will come later. As I said last time, my goal is to help you feel empowered to detect and address identity theft yourself.

Repeating my quick disclaimer: All opinions here are my own non-expert opinions. They are informed by personal experience and some reading on the subject. But I haven't discussed this with other people with experience in this, and I haven't studied the subject in depth. Also, I'm Canadian. Different jurisdictions have different laws and customs that could affect how this goes for you. This information will be most applicable to Canadians.

My Story Part 2

The foreign company with a horrible reputation

I received another collection notice, this one on behalf of an American company. I found out the company leases credit card point of sale equipment to retailers, and they thought I'd rented equipment and never returned it. Through a web search I also found out they have an absolutely horrible reputation--people accuse them of fraudulently adding pages into contracts after they're signed making it very difficult to end a lease. I just checked their Better Business Bureau rating today--they have an F rating, and in 2016 the attorney general of New York filed a lawsuit against them.

After a few times contacting them and maybe getting a few collection notices, they sent me an affidavit to fill out. It was fairly detailed, and they wanted me to include copies of a few cancelled cheques that I had written. I felt pretty reluctant to send copies of cheques to a company with a reputation for fraud, so I thought I'd leave that part out.

Also, they wanted the affidavit notarized. When I went to get it notarized, I mentioned to the notary that they had requested copies of cheques, and my reluctance to include those. He suggested blacking out my account information. So I downloaded a few cancelled cheques from my bank website, blacked out my account info on the computer, and printed them to send with the affidavit. (Tip: If you're ever blacking out information on a document on your computer and then emailing it, make sure the recipient can't just move the box out of the way and see what was under it. With some file formats and drawing programs this is possible. I was printing these documents, so this wasn't an issue.)

I received one more collection notice from this company, so I called to confirm they received the affidavit. The person I talked to found my affidavit, compared my signature on the cancelled cheques to the signature on my supposed lease agreement, and confirmed they were quite different. The collection notices stopped.

However, in tracking me down, this company had checked my credit report, bringing down my credit score a little bit. I asked the credit bureau to investigate as before, but this time, the leasing company claimed the credit checks were not fraudulent. I called the same person at the leasing company and she said she'd address it. I eventually called the credit bureau again, they said they'd investigate again, but once again the leasing company replied to the credit bureau claiming the credit checks were not fraudulent.

Once again I called the same person at the leasing company. She didn't seem to be aware that credit checks like this can bring down a person's credit score, and didn't seem to care either. She asked me, in an insulting tone, "Are you bored?" wondering why I was pursuing this. I felt angry, told her not to insult me, and asked to speak to her supervisor. "I am the supervisor," she replied.

I didn't manage to talk to anyone else there about this, and I didn't pursue this one much further. The credit bureau didn't give me any further help in disputing the leasing company's claim. I kind of felt bad about not pursuing this as a matter of principle, but at the same time, I knew the effect on my credit score was small and the credit check would disappear from my file in a few years anyway (maybe even less than a year later by this time). Still, I remain a bit disappointed that I didn't find a way to completely clear this up.
Cost to me: Fuel for a trip to a notary, lower than usual notary fee ($30 or 40, maybe), and some postage stamps.
Emotional cost and inconvenience: Filling out a several-page affidavit, several phone calls, and a visit to a notary. Frustration at dealing with a horrible company and lack of a clear process for me to dispute their claims with the credit bureau.


I've been requesting my free credit report from the credit bureaus almost once per year, and diligently checking my bank statement and credit card bills each month. There haven't been any further signs of fraud. My tax refunds have come on time, and in the correct amount, and I can submit them online now.

I never did find out how the identity thief found my Social Insurance Number. As I said last time, I've never had my SIN card go missing. (I used to carry it in my wallet, but some time before all this identity theft started, I stopped carrying it.) I don't know if my police reports (I didn't mention all of them in my story) led to any arrests or if they contributed to statistics that motivated law enforcement to take more action on identity theft. I don't know if my information is still out there with the potential to be misused again.

My life is essentially the same as it would be if this had never happened, just with a little more worry and a little more diligence about protecting my information. Meanwhile, life with all of its joys and challenges continues.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps anyone who may be experiencing something similar. I'll get into some subjects like credit monitoring, how to clear up identity theft, and identity theft insurance in future posts.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Identity theft tips for Canadians: my story part 1

In 2008 I found out that I'd been a victim of identity theft. Once in a while, I tell some people my story, and a while ago I was thinking I should write out some tips based on my own experience. With the recent Equifax hack, I decided it's time to start posting what I've written. My goal is to help you feel empowered to detect and address identity theft yourself. I plan to cover the following topics:
  • My story
  • How to detect identity theft early
  • How to clear up credit reports and other records
  • Identity theft insurance.
I haven't started writing the last three topics, so this could take a while. The good news is that I've started writing part 2 of my story

Now I'll give a quick disclaimer: All opinions here are my own non-expert opinions. They are informed by personal experience and some reading on the subject. But I haven't discussed this with other people with experience in this, and I haven't studied the subject in depth. Also, I'm Canadian. Different jurisdictions have different laws and customs that could affect how this goes for you. This information will be most applicable to Canadians.

Also, if it comes across like this didn't really bother me all that much and it wasn't all that scary, I would like to mention that memories of how I felt have faded over the years since this happened. Many people have had it worse than me too, but it certainly caused some worry when I experienced it.

Identity theft is a serious issue, but with confidence, calmness, and some basic knowledge of the credit reporting system and your rights, I believe most people can deal with it.

My story


In 2006 I noticed one fraudulent transaction on a credit card bill--a plane ticket worth hundreds of dollars. This was pretty easy to deal with. I called my credit card company. They sent me a pre-filled affidavit for me to sign, and the transaction was removed from my bill. The affidavit was basically a sworn statement saying I didn't make that transaction, I didn't authorize it, and I didn't benefit from it in any way. They also cancelled my existing card and sent me a new one.

They also advised me to contact the two credit bureaus Equifax and Transunion to request a fraud warning on my file. The fraud warning states that I have been a victim of fraud in the past, and that anyone issuing credit to me should call me to confirm that it's really me applying for credit.

The real stuff starts

In 2008 I received a letter in the mail from a collection agency saying I owed a large Canadian bank several hundred dollars. My last name was spelled wrong. I have no accounts with this bank but I deal with their insurance division. I contacted the bank and found out that this letter had nothing to do with my insurance.

Someone had opened a bank account in my name in Ontario (I live in Alberta), deposited a counterfeit cheque at an ATM, withdrew the money immediately, and then closed the account. By the time the bank realized the cheque was counterfeit, the money was gone. The bank or its collection agency sent multiple letters to the address registered on the bank account to demand payment. When that didn't pan out, they looked up my real address on my credit report and sent the letter to me.

After talking on the phone with the bank several times (more than I should have had to), they set up an appointment for me to visit a local branch to sign an affidavit something like the one that I had signed for credit card fraud. In the meantime, I got the occasional voice mail from the collection agency. Each time, I called back and explained the situation. Soon after the affidavit was signed, the calls stopped.

I found out that my identity thief had used a fake Social Insurance card and a fake Canadian citizenship card in signing up for that account. The Social Insurance Number (SIN) is what linked that account to my credit file despite the misspelled last name. By the way, I was born in Canada, so I have a birth certificate, not a citizenship card. And I've never had my Social Insurance card stolen either.

I reported this information to the police. They took a police report and I never heard back from them.
Cost to me: Fuel for a trip to a bank, and a trip to a police station.
Emotional cost and inconvenience: The initial "What's happening to me?!" worry, followed by several phone calls, a trip to a bank, and a trip to a police station.

Digging for info

What else had my identity thief been doing? I ordered my free credit reports from both credit bureaus by mail. I found that the bank that I had recently been dealing with had checked my credit file for identity verification (not for creditworthiness) in 2007, and another big bank that I don't deal with had checked my credit file (again for identity verification) the same day. (Why hadn't the first bank noticed the fraud warning on my file and called me to confirm the applicant was really me? I don't know. It could have saved me some headache and saved them hundreds of dollars.)

I called this other bank and found out that someone had tried to open an account in my name in Ontario. Sensing a pattern here? I made an appointment to visit a local branch to look into this further. At the local branch, they showed me the file for the fraudulent account.

There was a "Comments" field that said, "Suspected fraud. Do not tip off client." No transactions had ever taken place on that account. The bank closed that account, and I thanked them for being proactive in preventing fraud.

My credit file showed a couple other credit checks that I hadn't authorized, one from a credit card company and one from a cell phone carrier. The credit file shows phone numbers for every company that checks your file. So I was able to call both companies pretty easily. Neither company had called me after seeing the fraud warning, but neither company had actually allowed anyone to set up an account in my name. They recommended that I contact the credit bureaus though.

When someone checks your credit file for creditworthiness purposes (including for credit cards and cell phone contracts), it drops your credit score just a bit, and other companies that check your credit file can see that credit check. But when someone checks for identity verification, only you can see it on your file; others who check your credit report can't. So both of those credit checks were bringing down my credit score a little bit. When I talked with the credit bureaus on the phone, they said they would investigate. They contacted the companies that checked my credit file, confirmed that the credit checks were fraudulent, and removed them from my file within a month or two.
Cost to me: Fuel for a trip to another bank, two postage stamps.
Emotional cost and inconvenience: Filling out credit check forms, several phone calls, and a visit to a bank


After I did my taxes in 2008 or 2009, it took an unusually long time to get my refund. When I finally received my refund, they paid me some interest on it because of the delay (and reminded me that I'll have to pay taxes on that interest the next year--sigh). There was no explanation for the delay.

Later that year I received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency explaining that they'd received two tax returns in my name from different addresses, and had determined that my address was the correct one. The letter was to inform me that I'm experiencing identity theft.

I called CRA on the phone to discuss it. They said I could apply to change my SIN, but it's optional and doesn't necessarily prevent my old SIN from being used fraudulently in the future.

I decided not to take the time to change my SIN. Several years later, I have not had any further incidents with my taxes. However, for several years I was not allowed to file my taxes online, and they stopped mailing my personal tax package to me for fear of sending my online access code to the wrong person. I just had to go to the post office to pick up the package. I could still use tax software, but I'd have to print my return and mail it in.
Cost to me: Several stamps for filing my taxes over the next few years, but probably more than offset by the interest the government paid to me.
Emotional cost and inconvenience: Phone call, loss of the convenience of online tax filing (which I actually wasn't using before this), and a little bit of annual worry--wondering if it was a mistake to not change my SIN.

Coming soon-ish

Part 2 will discuss what was probably the most aggravating and costly part of this whole ordeal, although I'm pretty sure it still cost me less than $50.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Kids and religious violence

I haven't written much about my kids in a while. Ok, I haven't written much about anything in a while. And yes, the word "kids" is plural--we have a son now too!

I've been thinking about how we teach kids stories from the Bible and what to do with the violent ones.

Our three-year-old has heard the story of David and Goliath--a shorter, toned down version anyway. One day, she wanted to play David and Goliath. She was David and I was Goliath. Fortunately, she didn't sling a rock at my head; it was just pretend. But after a few times acting out that scenario, she wanted to switch places.

So when I was David I paraphrased a few lines that I remembered from the Bible. When she said I couldn't defeat her, I said, "I have God's help!" Then after I defeated her we switched places again.

This time she said "I have God's help!" before defeating me. And it got me thinking...

I want to teach her to trust God. But how will she understand what that means, especially when some important stories of God's people involve God-ordained violence? When she thinks about trusting God, I certainly don't want her first thought to be, "God will help me succeed at violence." So how do we respect scriptures and not sanitize them too much, while guiding her away from this kind of thinking?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Church search: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote #2

Part of my "Church search" series...
What might surprise you or perhaps even worry you would be my theological thoughts and where they are leading, and here is where I really miss you very much. I don't know anyone else with whom I can talk about them and arrive at some clarity. What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words--whether with theological or with pious words--is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" aren't really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by "religious." But our entire nineteen hundred years of Christian preaching and theology are built on the "religious a priori" in human beings. "Christianity" has always been a form (perhaps the true form) of "religion." Yet if it becomes obvious one day that this "a priori" doesn't exist, that it has been a historically conditioned and transitory form of human expression, then people really will become radically religionless--and I believe that this is already more or less the case (why, for example doesn't this war provoke a "religious" reaction like all the previous ones?)--what does that then mean for "Christianity"? The foundations are being pulled out from under all that "Christianity" has previously been for us, and the only people among whom we might end up in terms of "religion" are "the last of the knights" or a few intellectually dishonest people. Are these supposed to be the chosen few? Are we supposed to fall all over precisely this dubious lot of people in our zeal or disappointment or woe and try to peddle our wares to them? Or should we jump on a few unfortunates in their hour of weakness and commit, so to speak, religious rape? If we are unwilling to do any of that, and if we eventually must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there a such thing as a religionless Christian?...
The questions to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God--without religion, that is, without the temporarily conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, the inner life, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we can no longer even "speak" the way we used to) in a "worldly" way about "God"? How do we go about being "religionless-worldly" Christians, how can we be those who are called out, without understanding ourselves religiously as privileged, but instead seeing ourselves as belonging wholly to the world? Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly lord of the world. In a religionless situation, what do ritual and prayer mean? Is this where the "arcane discipline" or the difference (which you've heard about from me before) between the penultimate and the ultimate, have new significance?...
The Pauline question of whether circumcision is a condition for justification is today, in my opinion, the question of whether religion is a condition for salvation. Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion. I often wonder why my "Christian instinct" frequently draws me more toward non-religious people than toward the religious, and I am sure it's not with missionary intent; instead, I'd almost call it a "brotherly" instinct. While I'm often reluctant to name the name of God to religious people--because somehow it doesn't ring true for me there, and I feel a bit dishonest saying it (it's especially bad when other people start talking in religious terminology; then I clam up almost completely and feel somehow uncomfortable and in a sweat)--yet on some occasions with nonreligious people I can speak God's name quite calmly, as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when they're too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails. Actually, it's a deus ex machina that they're always bringing on the scene, either to appear to solve insoluble problems or to provide strength when human powers fail, thus always exploiting human weakness or human limitations. Inevitably that lasts only until human beings become powerful enough to push the boundaries a bit further and God is no longer needed as deus ex machina. To me, talking about human boundaries has become a dubious proposition anyhow. (Is even death still really a boundary, since people today hardly fear it anymore, or sin, since people hardly comprehend it?) It always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety. I'd like to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness. When I reach my limits, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can't be solved unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the "solution" to the problem of death. God's "beyond" is not what is beyond our cognition! Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God's transcendence. God is the beyond in the midst of our lives. The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village. That's the way it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we don't read the New Testament nearly enough in the light of the Old. I am thinking a great deal about what this religionless Christianity looks like, what form it takes, and I'll be writing you more about it soon.
 --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his letter to Eberhard Bethge on April 30, 1944, from a Nazi prison less than a year before his execution (Published in the book Letters and Papers from Prison), bold text emphasized by me.