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Please Vote on Proposed Change to RTH Comment Policy

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 30, 2010

A couple of days ago, an anonymous commenter posted some really offensive comments on RTH that were utterly lacking in veracity, relevance and content - they were nothing more than unfounded insults.

A few RTH readers asked me to delete the comments, but the current RTH policy is only to delete comments that are obviously spam. In response to these requests, I posted a blog entry asking if it's time to change the policy on deleting comments and expressing my concerns about taking on the power to delete comments.

The following suggestions came out of the discussion that followed:

Please note that some of these suggestions are contradictory but others could work in tandem. For example, we could delete comments that are obviously offensive and content-free and at the same time allow registered users to see why their comments were deleted.

For myself, my preference is to leave the current system (because that way I don't have to do anything!), but I'd be willing to accept a fast deletion of offensive, value-free comments if we can agree on a straightforward, objective definition and if the community clearly favours this.

I'm definitely opposed to comments being deleted automatically, since that could result in the deletion of comments that are merely unpopular. I'm also opposed to a "Report Abuse" button, since the purpose of the down-arrow is already to report inappropriate or unfair comments.

I'm also opposed to restricting commenting to registered users. Many RTH readers have valid reasons for wanting to stay anonymous, and a strong majority of anonymous comments are respectful and add to the discussion. It would be seriously damaging to the site to block those valuable contributions.

Further, while I like the idea of "disemvowelling" negative comments, I'm not sure it's materially different from fading the text colour of highly downvoted comments, which the site already does.

So that really leaves two options:

  1. Leave the current system in place.

  2. Come up with a clear definition of comments that are content-free insults and delete them in the same manner that we currently delete spam.

I'm going to post two comments on this article: Option 1 and Option 2. Please vote for your preferred option (note: I'll only count upvotes, not downvotes) over the long weekend. Next week I'll count the results, and if there's a clear and strong preference for Option 2 with no really strong, deal-breaking objections, I'll agree to implement it.

One last thing: if you prefer Option 2, please help provide a clear, objective definition of a comment that qualifies for fast deletion on the basis of value-free offensiveness. I'm also a big fan of accountability, and I'd be happy to hear suggestions on how to make this policy accountable as well.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

33 Comments

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:39:42

Option 1: Leave the current system in place.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:40:02

Option 2: Come up with a clear definition of comments that are content-free insults and delete them in the same manner that we currently delete spam.

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By race_to_the_bottom (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:56:30

Well no one can accuse RtH of not being careful enough. I'm one of those anonymous commenters but if I could vote I'd vote for #1. The comments that triggered all this didn't make Dave Kuruc look bad at all, and his supporters all came out of the woodwork to cheer him on and celebrate the great work he's doing. That's a win if I ever saw it - give the assholes enough rope and they'll hang themselves every time.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 13:44:18

I voted Option 2. As far as a definition goes, it should certainly cover anything: libelous, inciting or encouraging criminal behaviour and violence, defamatory, racist, and anything that can reasonably be defined as hate speech.

However, I'm not entirely sure that a 100% clear definition is needed; I think that the famous judicial comment on obscene content that said, "I know it when I see it," can serve to make a judgment whenever a definition doesn't quite apply.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 14:19:11

I'll advocate for #2. I can't believe the crap that was being spewed in that thread; it's off-topic garbage that has no place in a forum like this. Publishing anonymous and potentially libelous comments directed at anyone, let alone a guy like Dave who's been one of downtown's best boosters, seem contrary to the intent of these discussions on RTH. I'm all for open and free exchange of ideas, but let's not pretend that the type of unprovoked, bilious commentary on display there are in the same category as most of the (mostly) reasonable debate and argumentation found elsewhere throughout the site.

Hell, stuff like that should come down for liability reasons alone.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 14:54:19

This post, although insulting and offensive, makes an attempt at uhm… "dialogue" and should not be deleted.

This post is just insulting and creepy and I would have no problem with it being deleted.

I think adrian is right:

you know it when you see it.

But I also have no problem with doing nothing because I also agree with race_to_the_bottom:

give the assholes enough rope and they'll hang themselves every time.

Perhaps we delete only anonymous posts - because we really don't know who the asshole is in that situation - but let the registered assholes hang themselves?

Maybe I'll just pull an Iggy and be absent for the vote ; )

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2010 at 15:19:15

While the little series of attacks against Dave Kuruc was useless and offensive - and kudos to Dave for just staying out of it - I'm in favour of option 1 until and unless things get out of hand more than monthly.

I do like the idea of ...

  • labelling the up- and down-vote buttons something like "fair/unfair" or "appropriate/not appropriate"
  • a default fade-to-hide setting for comments voted below a certain threshold

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-06-30 14:19:42

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 16:28:02

If I'm not mistaken the original intent of the up down voting system was to show agreement and eliminate the need for posts like "I agree with [insert name here]" and I actually like that. How about adding a button with notation beside it whereby a comment can be flagged as inappropriate by users and the notation can say "This comment has been flagged as inappropriate by XX registered users" and add a threshold for that in user accounts as well?

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-30 15:29:58

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 16:32:47

Oops, I mistook this for the same entry as the other one. I'm with option #1 then cuz after a while I can't see the insulting comments anyway.

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By kevins (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 16:42:32

Dave, don't pay the cowardly sack of crap any mind. But, if you ever get hands on him... It could be a new reality show, "Art Vendors Gone Wild!" (The last part was a joke (kinda).)

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 18:21:59

Frank, I hope that was sarcasm since that was the exact opposite of the intent of voting. The bar was up to the uset, but a particularly insigful comment or one with useful information was supposed to be upvoted and those that weren't (or were the kind that are being discussed as being deleted) would be downvoted.

Ryan, do anonymous users get the comments hidden at some threshold? I know I can set the cutoff for myself, but that might actually be useful automatic feature for anonymous users (if it isn't in place already). Blank out the junk, people could register if they were really curious and anonymous trolls wouldn't be able to look back at their crap with any sense of satisfaction (in particular if they are ignored).

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By Steely (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 19:56:17

At SSP there's a report button and if someone has an issue with a post, he/she can click on the button. The post than gets reviewed by moderators and there's a healthy debate. Action is taken depending on the deliberation.

It's a really difficult situation because once action is taken you've satisfied one side of the camp, “delete the crap”, “creep”, etc and isolated the other side of the camp, with claims like “censorship”, "bias", “same-think mentality”, etc. Plus once you’ve taken whatever kind of action it’s impossible to go back.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 20:10:55

Those who are voting for option 1: there is no doubt that certain comments should be deleted, such as those that put the site's operators in legal jeopardy due to their libelous nature.

Ryan, I don't think you should have labeled choice #2 as comments that are simply "content-free insults". What about a comment that is clearly defamatory? What about a comment that threatened somebody?

A line has to be drawn somewhere. If the RTH community doesn't want to delete insults, fine. Sticks and stones and all that. But hate speech, libel, threats, and so on, are indefensible and ought to be removed.

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By Moderatrix (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 22:12:35

"If I'm not mistaken the original intent of the up down voting system was to show agreement and eliminate the need for posts like "I agree with [insert name here]" and I actually like that."

This is why comment voting is broken. The whole fade-to-nothing approach is supposed to to get rid of the inappropriate comments, not to be a means of expressing your opinion. This is how good, constructive, on-topic, but simply disagreeable comments are faded to oblivion, yet the otherwise reigning public opinion shines through. If RTH truely wants an open forum it will have to remove this feature and find another way of moderation.

If you truly want something like this, then a simple thumbs up/down with a counter for each is the way to go. It's a good way of gauging the popularity of the comments among the user community without becoming a form of censorship.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2010 at 22:47:39

Ryan, do anonymous users get the comments hidden at some threshold?

Yes. For anonymous visitors, comments with a score of -5 or lower are hidden by default. However, they can be unhidden with a button click.

This is why comment voting is broken.

It's by no means perfect, but IMHO it's hardly broken. The overall quality of discussion has improved tremendously since community moderation was introduced. Having said that, you're right that there's a lingering misperception about the purpose of the comment voting. That's why I'm seriously considering changing it from upvote/downvote to "fair"/"unfair" or "appropriate"/"inappropriate".

This is how good, constructive, on-topic, but simply disagreeable comments are faded to oblivion

If you look at the comments with the lowest scores, they're all offensive insults and shameless trolls. Also, at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam, comments emphatically do not fade to oblivion.

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By birdie (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 23:18:26

At SSP there's a report button and if someone has an issue with a post, he/she can click on the button. The post than gets reviewed by moderators and there's a healthy debate. Action is taken depending on the deliberation.

Sorry to say but I stopped visiting SSP because the moderation was so heavy handed.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 23:45:05

Ryan >> If you look at the comments with the lowest scores, they're all offensive insults and shameless trolls

By A Smith (anonymous)
Posted October 09, 2009 11:34:52

Elizabeth >> Hamilton's proposed Light Rail Transit (LRT) must travel along Main Street.

A better idea is to scrap public transportation altogether and let the market decide the type of transportation that needs to be built. If the people of Hamilton want mass transit, a business will provide it, if they don't, it won't get built.

Allowing the government to spend money on services that can't produce a profit PROVES that public transit is not valued by the people of Hamilton. If it was valued, it wouldn't need subsidies to survive.

( Permalink )
Comment Score: -14 (14 votes)

...

Ryan, could you explain what is insulting about a comment arguing against public subsidies for transit in a post that is arguing for public subsides for transit? Isn't that just a dissenting opinion, something you have explicitly said is not to be downvoted?

Let's take a look at the highest voted comment...

By z jones (registered)
Posted May 06, 2010 15:15:22

@TreyS if you think Burlington's going to fork out $60 million to build the TiCats a stadium I've got a nice pier you might be interested in buying.

( Permalink )

...this was a rebuttal to this comment...

By TreyS (registered)
Posted May 06, 2010 15:12:08

Say hello to the Halton TiCats. and a useless 15k bleachers closely resembling a stadium. Because there was no extra money for upscale amenities and food & beverage business. At least Mayor Fred gets what he really wants, which is a cleaned-up brownfield paid for by the province. This city is beyond stupid... the City will blow this because council thinks they know how to operate a pro sports franchise better than the people that operate pro sports franchises and businesses. Thank you Chad Collins for wreaking this in the first place by eliminating Confederation Park as an option. You didn't even allow it to be explored.

( Permalink )
Comment Score: -12 (18 votes)

As you can clearly see, the comment in favour of the west harbour site is strongly upvoted, while the comment that questions the wisdom of building there is downvoted.

Ryan, could explain why a voting system that seems to attack simple dissent is a positive thing? Thank you.

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By Steely (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 23:49:59

It has about 22,000 members so you can imagine the mods have been tested with all kinds of issues such as copyright violations and defamation lawsuits, which I believe RTH got a good taste of that with Andrew Dreschel (resulted in deleting the letter).

I know it sucks but no webmaster wants to be a liability.

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By TB (registered) - website | Posted July 01, 2010 at 07:32:58

If you're going to provide a soapbox then you shouldn't be surprised when all manner of people decide to use it. Why don't you use this as your guide: "The constitutional provision that guarantees Freedom of expression in Canada is section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_...

Comment edited by TB on 2010-07-01 06:47:17

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 11:07:49

… explain why a voting system that seems to attack simple dissent is a positive thing? Thank you. - A smith

You eagerly and mindlessly worship a false idol many here have rejected and from what I have seen, no attempt to interact with you has ever been constructive. So people just down vote you and move on.

Is it a positive thing? Maybe not.

But as I have posted for you before:

“It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” - Voltaire

That's why I don't usually bother with you anyway.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 14:05:21

Kiely >> no attempt to interact with you has ever been constructive.

I like watching MSNBC. I do, not because I agree with what they say, but because I enjoy the debate. As Rachel Maddow was saying last evening, it makes one's arguments better when you can put ideas under fire. Unfortunately, most lefties on this site hate dissent and feel the need to eliminate it. An attack against their beliefs is not seen as a challenge to improve one's own argument, but an excuse to downvote and hide.

Then again, this is what leftie ideology is all about, running to the government (in this case, Ryan and his voting buttons) for protection, rather than doing the work themselves. Have a nice day. :)

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By JonC (registered) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 14:30:49

That would be fair if you ever attempted debate, rather than repetition.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 15:06:59

See that's my point A smith. You're a wearer of flags, a compartmentalizer of ideas and a speaker of absolutes and I believe in none of that.

Writing others off as "Lefties", or conversely, "Neo-cons" although tempting at times, is not constructive. Insisting people disagree with you because of some flawed ideology that prevents them from seeing the wisdom of your ways is not constructive. And simply "attacking" other people's opinions may make for good cable news but it is not going to garner you much respect in this forum.

Insisting (as you often do) that all our problems are based on leftist ideals, when no true leftist government has ever seen power in North America, is disingenuous at best. Show the benefits of what you believe, don't just say this is wrong and it is all the fault of government and lefties. Justifying a belief system by pointing out the perceived flaws of a different system is not sufficient. If you want people to convert to free market ideologues start making your case. But be warned, after the bailouts and the enormous cost greed, free market economics and uncontrolled corporate interest has just run taxpayers and our society (do you even believe in the concept of society?) you have a high mountain to climb. Because I think most people here are going to (accurately) believe the mess they see around them, is your ideals at work… not the results of some socialist plot.

I love a good debate, just ask Bob Innes… but you've got to bring more to the table and in a more civil fashion.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 15:44:19

JonC, the things that Ryan talks about are the benefits of LRT, densification and less reliance on oil. Is he repetitive, yes. But if he's correct, should he change his message just to make me happy? No. But he should be willing to answer questions, such as...why is Burlington's downtown more prosperous, even though it has less transit service than Hamilton? If he can't do that, which he hasn't, then why should anyone believe that more public transit will do any good?

Kiely >> Show the benefits of what you believe, don't just say this is wrong and it is all the fault of government and lefties.

I have on many, many occasions, but people don't want to hear the truth. For example, under Bill Clinton, the government spent LESS in real dollar terms than George Bush II. Curiously enough, the economy did much better under Clinton.

Or, during the Great Depression, total government spending went from 9.46% of GDP in 1929 to 17.21% in 1932. During this time period, when the government nearly doubled it's role in the U.S economy, it produced the worst contraction of private investment in modern history. Those are FACTS.

If you would like to debate these facts, I would like that. Please explain to me why I should believe in more government spending if the lesson from the Great Depression is that larger government equals bad economic growth. Where is the evidence that supports the idea that higher non military spending increases GDP or employment? If you could show me numbers in favour of big government, then I will gladly look at them. Don't just downvote and move on, that just proves you are incapable of using facts to defending more government spending.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 01, 2010 at 16:27:27

Forum moderation when it works optimally — requires very few editorial interventions or up/down voting tools - 'to achieve cooperative outcomes'.

On Open Salon, multiple discussions and comments seem to be working in harmony for a long time — [ ...more on Open Salon, and the genesis of blogging, and what it is becoming...]

While trolls do often damage discussions, silencing them by the less common approach of leading/teaching by example with dogged persistence, is a far better way to achieve progressive outcome in conversations.

Locally we have many people who get easily fatigued by reading full paragraphs. Our local journalism in response invented 'one sentence paragraphs' as a response - which in turn, over time, has reinforced a tragic way of thinking and responding in our city — as often seen in the many wise 'one-liner' responses on our many local blogs.

A lot of the spiraling in our conversations in Hamilton springs from this rapid response 'one-liner mentality' — which provides triggers for competing viewpoints or trolls to jump in and do the damage.

The Nash equilibrium could help us in developing an approach that takes us beyond this cyclic action-reaction, tit for tat play — towards a deeper understanding of crowd behavior, its predictability, and how predictable conflicts can be mitigated to achieve progress.

One approach if I may suggest, that could lead to interesting results is to show all the "comments" made by registered users on the corresponding existing 'Author page' (below their Articles & Blog entries).

This compilation, easily searched by Google, would act as a self-enforcing factor for registered writers who continue to post comments in an irreverent or negative manner. (Very few would want to see their silliness neatly compiled on one page). This solution would be quite simple to auto-implement, given that each comment is already tagged with the user ID.

A similar approach could be taken with some clear thinking (i.e.voting down threshold), for unregistered comments that categorically spiral a conversation — by simply compiling them on a new 'RTH Graveyard page', which would be fun to read on a slow day!

Over time, this simple approach could also provide some good research insights into how collective positive behavior comes to impact deviant individual behavior on this forum.


"The Nash equilibrium is used to analyze the outcome of the strategic interaction of several decision makers. Nash equilibrium has been used to analyze hostile situations like war and arms races and also how conflict may be mitigated by repeated interaction."

"It has also been used to study to what extent people with different preferences can cooperate, and whether they will take risks to achieve a cooperative outcome."


Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2010-07-01 15:35:15

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 16:33:22

under Bill Clinton, the government spent LESS in real dollar terms than George Bush II. Curiously enough, the economy did much better under Clinton. - A smith

Clinton got to ride the dot com wave. Saying it was simply less government spending is a stretch.

Bill Clinton also had oral-sex in the oval office, George Bush did not. Using your reasoning I could say oval-office-oral-sex is the reason the economy did better.

I believe governments have less control over the economy than you think.

Those are FACTS. - A smith

No they're statistics you use to justify your beliefs. It is akin to saying "the sky is blue the grass is green, the grass must be green because the sky is blue".

Please explain to me why I should believe in more government spending - A smith

For the record I don't believe in big government or increased government spending... and I've never said I did. So I'm not going to play devil's advocate.

This isn't just about government spending I happen to agree our governments need to reduce their spending, but I doubt we agree on what should be reduced. You don't believe in public education or transit, or governments spending money on much of anything from what I have read (yes I do read your posts and no I do not always down vote them); while I believe we simply have too much government waste.

You must have some reason for believing our corporate masters can save us all, for the life of me I can't figure out why anyone would believe that; but if you would like to explain to me why you think that way, why don't we start there. Is it something you were told growing up, something you learned, something you've experienced, what formed this world view? No debate, no accusations towards Ryan or anyone else... just lay out for me why you believe what you do. No facts required.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 19:05:23

Kiely >> Clinton got to ride the dot com wave.

Which was a result of allowing the private sector/market to make more of the economic decisions than they do today. Why is this difficult to figure out? If you want more private sector activity, jobs, profits, then the best way to do this is to allow the private sector to grow, which means not allowing the government to tax, borrow and otherwise draw away all the private capital that the private sector needs to invest in new operations.

>> It is akin to saying "the sky is blue the grass is green, the grass must be green because the sky is blue".

No, it's more like saying, if you want green grass, you should probably treat it kindly. This means ensuring it has water, fertilizer and not too much traffic.

>> You must have some reason for believing our corporate masters can save us all

I think that corporations, to the extent that they shield owners from prosecution, are a bad thing. All shareholders are part owners of companies and therefore should share full responsibility when things go wrong. This is not the case today and it allows individuals to get off the hook when things like giant oil spills happen.

As far as my general outlook on life, the world starts and ends with individuals. I don't believe in collective rights/responsibilities and I don't like when the majority tramples the minority, just because they can. We should be free to live as we want, just as long as we don't directly infringe on other people's property (excessive noise, smells, etc), which includes one's person.

Other than that, we should be able to trade with whomever we want and keep the profits that flow from these trades. This is not the case today, not even close. Almost 40% of each dollar spent in Canada is done by some level of government, rather than the people who earn it in the first place. I believe this reduces the ability of our society to allocate capital to those who will produce the most benefits and in the long run, hurts the very people the government claims it is trying to help.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted July 01, 2010 at 23:27:26

That sort of 'debating', which you've written hundreds of times and never responded to the answers provided, is the exact sort of reason your comments get downvoted. Because you aren't worth responding too. Two data sets at two points is in no way, shape or form proof of anything and to counter, again, use your same shitty logic to compare Burlington to Toronto, achieving the opposite answer. In contrast, Ryan's articles tend to be about recent studies or news articles and well reasoned.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2010 at 01:01:53

JonC >> never responded to the answers provided

In the last post, I responded to three of Kiely's points. If there was one I didn't that you would like me too, tell me which one it is and I will.

>> use your same shitty logic to compare Burlington to Toronto

sigh.

>> Two data sets at two points is in no way, shape or form proof of anything

Okay, then you shouldn't be upset if the government cut health care spending to 1% of it's current level. If the amount of health care spending is just one data point amongst many, using your logic, there is no way to prove that this change would be harmful to people's health.

>> Ryan's articles tend to be about recent studies or news articles and well reasoned.

I have never heard Ryan explain why downtown Hamilton, which has the highest concentration of transit in the entire city and more than Burlington and Oakville, is also the poorest amongst those areas. If he can't do that, why should anyone believe that more subsidized transit will improve the situation?

In contrast, one could make the argument that lower tax rates, which Ancaster, Burlington and Oakville all have in comparison to Hamilton, may have something to do with their greater prosperity. If not proof, at least it is a positive correlation, unlike the transit theory, which is negative.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 02, 2010 at 09:21:05

Would you guys PLEASE stop feeding the troll? "The only thing you get from p*ing into the wind, is a wet leg." - Nick Devlin.

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By MarkState (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2010 at 11:29:35

In most periodicals, there is a publication statement that tells commenters that their contributions will be read before publishing and edited if need be.

If you have time to eliminate the naughty ones, then you have time to check them out before publishing and remove them if they are offensive or libelous in nature.

Mark State

2010 Toronto Mayoralty Candidate

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2010 at 12:16:26

3 strikes & you're out rule. Objectionable posts should be subject to basic guidelines. No swearing, no personal abuse, comment must relate to the subject of discussion, &... whatever other criteria the moderator deems applicable.
(I couldn't post this a.m. because my post was deemed to be 'spam'. This might have been caused by references to a sir name that is uncommon, & declared a spelling error each time used-?

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2010 at 12:32:45

Also the "No misquoting God!" rule should apply here.

(He/she/it may take you to task (or not) when/if there is an afterlife, &/or judgment, or something like it or nothing at all. It's not fair to have people here waiting for your demise & subsequent punishment, or reward, or oblivion.)

The Creator recently whispered this in my ear, T.C. being a devoted reader of RTH, & I defy anybody to prove that statement false...& that's the whole problem with these kinds of statements. :D

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