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My wife is “kind of/sort of” retiring at the end of this month and has accordingly begun the process of identifying new activities to fill the leisure hours she hopes to discover.   Her first of what I expect will be many new pastimes that she has endeavoured to master is the impossibly complex game of Contract Bridge.

To that end, she and a few friends signed up for a series of lessons on the grand old game at a local community hall.  Fearing being left in the dust in this potential passion, I have begun revisiting and upgrading my knowledge of the game as well.  It is not entirely new to me; in both her early days as a stay at home suburban Mom and then again later as a then active Senior, my mother had been quite keen on bridge, and through both a little osmosis and some actual instruction, the game is not entirely new to me.

Not only is it not new to me, but it is also an activity that is well suited to some of my more instinctive problem-solving skills.  Having worked in Structured Finance for 30 years, using basic probability calculations to predict future events is not a new concept to me.  When a few weeks ago I downloaded a very simple Bridge application for my iPhone and iPad, I quickly became addicted with the bidding and card playing strategies that it tested, and I began to think I was pretty good at it.

My wife, meanwhile, continued to attend her lessons, and was increasingly frustrated by the arcane and non-intuitive bidding conventions that she was not only being taught, but also asked to memorize.  I understood her frustration; while some of them are obviously attempts to create rules to replace the basic math of predicting expected distributions of cards among four hands, others are simply inexplicably arbitrary.  It seemed that the lessons were unduly complicating what was simply an exercise in dynamic probability calculations.

And then I got the new and more advanced app.  The one that not only facilitated play, but also provided both instructions and evaluation of each and every hand that I played.  That was when I discovered that I was not only not pretty good at it, I was in fact pretty bad.  At the end of each game, even when I made my contract, the program would critique both the optimization of my bids and how I played each trick.  And it invariably concluded that I fell well short of maximizing the points available to my computer partner and I by under- or incorrectly bidding, and that some obscene percentage of teams holding the same hands as my partner and I would have won at least one more trick than we had.  It was humbling, frustrating and puzzling.

So I set out to understand why this was so.  After all, although hardly a quant, I was pretty sure that I was properly evaluating the probable distribution of cards based on both math and the bidding process, and my ego could not accept that I was that far below average in my ability to do that.  I then began playing games in which I was using the apps ability to critique each potential bid prior to locking in any such bid, thereby optimizing my bids to reflect the standard to which the post-play review of the hand would subject me.  And that was when I discovered “the problem”.

Bridge is indeed about calculating probabilities and optimizing bidding and card play in the context of uncertainty as to the actual composition of the collective hand you share with your partner.  You do get some transparency into your partner’s hand through the bidding process, but it is limited in its specificity.  If your partner passes after your 1♣ bid , it is reasonable to assume that he has fewer than three clubs, because he almost certainly would have responded with 2♣ if that were not so.  If he responds to that bid with a bid of 1♥, you can reasonable assume that he has five or more hearts and that that is his longest suit because that just makes sense.  All helpful, and pretty much the best one could do in the context of the game.

Or so I thought.  When I started using the program to evaluate my bids before locking them in, I discovered that the program suggested a far less intuitive bidding pattern.  Each suggested optimal bid, I learned, has a meaning that is entirely untethered to any intuitive logic but rather to a convention that allows partners to effectively convey far more specific information about the composition of each other’s hands.  As a result, the performance that the program compared me to after each game was that result that would be obtainable if I had complete transparency with respect to my partner’s hand, which is only possible on the basis of the full memorization of a complex array of bidding conventions.

An example is the Stayman convention.  Where any player has opened with a bid of 1 no trump (NT), a player may respond with a bid of 2♣ that reflects nothing about what clubs may be in the bidding partner’s hand but is instead a coded question to his or her partner as to whether he or she has four or more cards in a major suit (♥or ♠).  If the answer is no, the convention dictates that the partner bid 2♦; if yes, 2♥or 2♠, as the case may be.

This is only one of many such conventions, the use of which can allow partners to effectively establish a complete and specific understanding of the other’s hand and therefore optimize both their bidding and, since the other partner’s hand is only revealed to the players generally when they are the successful bidder, their card play when they are seeking to thwart a bid by their opponents.  It is ingenious, but I hate it.

Why do I hate it?  Because it lionizes and rewards in a harmless way the inescapable tendencies in our society that, in more critical contexts, warp the meritocracy that is critical to social cohesion and productivity.  Bridge purports to be a game of skill in which players must use their calculation of probabilities in the context of high uncertainty to bid and fulfill contracts, but in fact it is far more critical to success to know the conventions that dramatically reduce those uncertainties and simplify those probability calculations.   A more expert holder of the skills that this activity purports to test that is not aware of the conventions that negate that advantage will perform more poorly than one who is demonstrably less expert but more in the loop on the coded communications that have developed around the game.

And so it is in may contexts.  Hiring decisions in business have long over-weighted a candidate’s knowledge of and comfort with social conventions above directly applicable subject matter expertise.  These sorts of conventions are what contribute to the over-representation of white heterosexual able-bodied males in, well, pretty much everything.  Like the Stayman convention, white males know that the question “what are your hobbies?” posed by another white male in a job interview generally means “do you golf?’, and that the response “I am an 8 handicap and I love to golf” really means “ I will be willing and able to assist you and our clients in justifying your and their golf outings during business hours”.   This convention permits the applicant that knows the convention to gain an advantage in both getting the job (bidding) and being effective with clients once they get it (playing the cards).

You might ask where the harm is in all of this.  I can learn and memorize the bridge conventions, and anyone can learn to play golf. But in both cases, that is not the skill set that the activity is meant to test and reward and is accordingly a drag on the utilization and development of the more relevant skills and knowledge that would best advance productivity.

I have stopped playing on my bridge app.  The knowledge that I would need to master to perform better is too narrowly applicable to waste my time on any further.  And when I am part of a hiring process, I will be more mindful of evaluating applicants solely on subject matter expertise and directly-relevant personal characteristics rather than their knowledge of and compliance with irrelevant conventions.  Less bridge, more bridges.


Say what you will about the gender binary world that people my age grew up in.  Yes, it was myopic, oppressive, small minded and hurtful to many, but it was simple.  That is the attraction of categories; they allow for sorting, which is what we yearn for when we are trying to “sort out” a complex world.

That being said, for a time, just sorting things out between the binary genders presented issues.  Take athletics, for example.  In almost all competitions recognized as sports, women were just not competitive with their male counterparts.  Accordingly, sports began as competitions in various activities conducted among men and teams of men only, with women rarely competing, even among themselves.  In time, women demanded, and the world accepted, a comparable though unequal range of competitions for and among women, although the process of expanding and supporting the nature and number of these competitions has been slow as society has unwound its presumptions about what is both becoming and safe for the fairer sex.  Fast forward to 2019, in which, notwithstanding this ingrained resistance to the participation of women in sports, there is virtually no category of athletic competition open to men in which women are not competing among themselves.

Into this world steps Caster Semenya, a 28-year-old middle distance runner from South Africa, who has recently emerged as a dominant force in the 800-metre distance in women’s track.  Caster’s dominance in her chosen event has been impressive, but not unprecedented.  There have been women athlete’s in various Olympic sports who have been more extraordinarily dominant over the years.  What made Caster more noteworthy was that she shared with a small number of those dominant women’s athletes: a subtle but unmistakably more masculine build and appearance.

In the past, this observation has been associated with speculation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs that altered the hormonal chemistry of the athlete to mimic, to some extent, that of males.  Suspicion of the use of such drugs by a generation of East German women’s athlete’s in various disciplines during the 70s and 80s has since been confirmed, and their strikingly androgynous appearance is accordingly reflexively associated with cheating.

Caster Semenya, however, is entirely different.  Her apparent androgyny is neither denied nor vilified.  It has been widely reported that she is in fact intersex, possessing the XY chromosome characteristic of male gender but, by virtue of unique complications in the expression of that genetic coding, she is without external male genitalia.  She has been raised as a female and self-identifies as such.  She is not a cheater; she is just Caster.

Caster Semenya creates a vexing problem for women’s sport.  Women sport was created as a protected category of competition because of the profound and intractable differences in biology between men and women.  Adjusted for differences in height and weight that can almost as easily occur among men, elite women athletes are profoundly challenged in terms of their athletic capacity relative to their male peers.  Without the protected category of women’s sport, no women, including Caster Semenya, would have any ability to meaningfully compete for local, national or world titles.  This is not a construct of the patriarchy; women’s sport was demanded by and created for women in defiance of the patriarchy.  It is the voices of Caster’s competitors that has raised the issue of Caster’s status, not the reactionary whining of misogynists, homophobes and transphobes.

So, like it or not, and regardless of the political incorrectness of the concept, the athletics world finds itself faced with the task of defining what a woman is in the context of athletic competition.  However respectful it would be to ask only how one identifies oneself in the oversimplified gender binary construct, in the context of elite athletics, where even women enjoy financial opportunity as a deserved consequence of achievement, that clearly can’t be the test.  The genetic division drawn between individuals possessing ‘XX’ and ‘XY’ chromosomes can generally be defended, but, in exceptional examples like Caster’s, the expression of this seemingly categoric genetic difference can be significantly muted.  The presence or absence of male genitalia is equally inapt; what ever advantage it is that men enjoy as athletes I know for sure that it is not that appendage that accounts for it (or if it is, I somehow haven’t yet figured out how to use it to help me run faster).

Alas, we are then tossed into the murky world of hormone levels to draw this critical line.  What track officials know is that while women, like men, differ widely within their gender-specific range of testosterone levels, it is among successful women’s middle-distance runners that higher testosterone seems to be most relevant.  As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations has determined that in these events (and, for now, only in these events, despite similar findings with respect to certain field events), an individual seeking to compete in the women’s category must not have a testosterone level higher than a specified maximum.  That maximum, it is worth noting, is at a level that is far outside of the high end of the normal range for women but beneath the low end of the normal range for men.

Caster Semenya’s testosterone level exceeds that stipulated maximum.  She is the first athlete to be required to take performance- (and likely health-) detracting drugs to participate in her best event in her chosen sport as a member of the gender with which she identifies.  Is that fair to Caster?  Absolutely not. But is there an alternative solution that both protects Caster Semenya’s right to compete as she is and preserves women’s sport as a protected category of athletic competition?


Today is the first day of argument in the court proceedings brought by the Ontario government challenging Ottawa’s constitutional authority to impose a carbon tax in this province.  The constitutional question is an interesting one, and it is certainly one upon which reasonable minds can differ.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the public policy arguments against the concept of the carbon tax itself.

The court challenge will focus on the important but decidedly wonkish question of whether a carbon “tax” is within the taxing powers granted to the federal government under our Constitution.  On the actual substantive policy question that the federal carbon tax purports to address, the Ford government has not taken the position that climate change is a hoax, or even that it is an issue that is too intractable to merit legislative action in Ontario.  Instead, they have asserted that it is an issue that is better addressed through “smart” regulation than the creation of a market solution.

And that is fair, although, as Preston Manning has already observed, it is counterintuitive to hear a conservative (or Conservative) government espouse a preference for a prescribed regulatory solution over a solution that puts the creative problem-solving capacity of the market to work.  The problem is that regulatory solutions cannot be anything but the cloaked version of market solutions.  To be effective in reducing carbon emissions, regulations must either make low carbon alternatives less expensive, or incumbent high carbon technologies more expensive.

The Province of Ontario has already tried the former. The Green Energy initiative introduced by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty was just that; strategic subsidies that would quickly scale up the supply of renewable energy that would result in a costless transition of the Ontario economy to Green Energy.  The result: the creation of a network of inefficient wind and solar capacity that has added a large long-term cost component onto t a power grid that was already serviced with low carbon nuclear and hydroelectric sources.  No one can seriously propose trying that again.  And if these regulations are created to do the latter, how can they be fairer or more efficient than a revenue-neutral carbon tax?

If we are then left to choose a market solution, there are only two market mechanisms to reduce the burning of carbon: tax it or reduce supply to drive the price higher.  As the Ford government has already realized, taxes that nudge us away from ingrained and popular lifestyle practices are never popular.  Ironically, on this point, Doug Ford can find common cause with the environmental lobby.  It seems apparent that those looking to influence the public policy agenda have already conceded this reality.  Far greater noise and heat has been expended in supply side solutions (opposing pipeline approval or extraction projects) than on demand suppression (decrying consumer behaviour and habits).  Neil Young has never visited Pearson Airport at March Break to join protestors in the shaming of sun-bound airline passengers.  Vilifying corporate suppliers has long been a more marketable PR strategy than guilting consumers.

The only problem is that Canada is not Saudi Arabia.  Our oil sector is the high cost producer.  Making it more expensive to get our high cost oil to market will have no effect on the market price of oil.  At best, all it can do is defer the carbon-intensive extraction activities of producers in Western Canada to a day on which the marginal cost of extracting conventional oil rises closer to that of Oil Sands production.  No Canadian let alone American, European, Asian or African will fill his or her tank less frequently or turn down his of her gas furnace one degree because Oil Sands oil did not make it to tidewater other than those families in Alberta that must do so to stretch their EI cheque.

The Liberal government in Ottawa may have little to recommend it of late, but on this point, they are indisputably right.  Their simultaneous embrace of carbon pricing and ownership and development of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is both principled and farsighted. If Canada is to take a global leadership role in addressing climate change, let it be in addressing demand for carbon by imposing revenue-neutral taxes on consumption.  Undertaking a Quixotic and counterproductive supply-side assault on resource development has and will only unfairly victimize and alienate Western Canada without making any meaningful contribution to reducing carbon generation here or anywhere else.