Saturday, August 06, 2022

Is streaming really so bad for the environment?

There has been a plethora of articles recently about how bad streaming and subscription services are for the environment. Just one example is this one in The Guardian late last year, which makes the alarming claim that the carbon footprint of watching Netflix's top ten popular programmes is equivalent to driving a car out somewhere past Saturn.

Setting aside the fact that this calculation is, of course, for ALL of the mamy millions (billions?) of Netflix viewers, and so is an unnecessarily sensationalist claim (Guardian! Honestly!), it seems that these allegations, and those in many another similar article (for example, the claim repeated by several quite reputable sources that constant streaming of the 2017 hit Despacito on YouTube generated more carbon dioxide than the carbon footprints of 5 African nations added together, may not be as transparent and realistic as they seem. 

The whole process of streaming - from storage in huge datacentres, to transmission over WiFi or broadband, to watching or listening on various devices - uses electricitity, like pretty much everything else we do, and so it is perhaps no surprise that it generates a substantial amount of greenhouse gases.

Netflix itself releases estimates of its carbon footprint (as does YouTube, and a few other major streaming services), which appear relatively modest, not that I would necessarily trust Netflix's word over The Guardian's. But Europe's Carbon Trust has estimated that an hour of watching Netflix generates about 55g of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of about 300 metres of car driving. Given that people spent 6 billion hours watching the top 10 shows on Netflix (Netflix's own figures), that is where the figure of 1.8 billion kilometers in a car (roughly the distance to Saturn) came from.

But, hold on, 55g of CO2 is not actually THAT much, when you contsider that eating an 8oz steak generates over 2,000g of CO2, as does drying a single load of laundry, and an hour running on a treadmill can generate about 900g of CO2 (these figures are taken more or less at random from LiveScience).

The reputable organization CarbonBrief has taken it on itself to fact-check some of the more egregious claims by the popular press, particularly the widely-disseminated one that watching half an hour of Netflix is the carbon equivalent of driving 4 miles (6 km) in a car. It turns out that this figure (1.6 kg of CO2) itself came from a July 2019 report by a French think-tank called the Shift Project, which actually revised its own figures downwards 8-fold in June 2020 (having mixed up bits and bytes). I doubt The Guardian bothered to report that.

But CarbonBrief identified a bunch of other flawed assumptions in the original Shift Project calculations, including the average bitrate of streaming, the energy intensity of data centres and delivery networks, etc, concluding that Shift Project's original estimate of the carbon impact of half an hour's streaming (the source of that "driving four miles" headline, remember) was probably over-stated by around 80 times, or 90 times if we use a global average electricity production mix rather than an American one.

What we are left with, then, is the realization that streaming music and video entertainment is actually a pretty modest activity in terms of its carbon footprint. In fact, similar to boiling a lettle for tea halfway through. The conclusion? Be wary of extreme claims, even by relatively reputable sources. After all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (thanks for that, Carl Sagan).

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Should we be concerned about the New York polio "outbreak"?

First off, it's not really an outbreak, it's one case of polio in Rockland County, NY, but such is the power of collective memory that even just that one case has engendered something of a panic in the rest of the country and beyond, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 and monkeypox outbreaks.

Polio was the scourge of patents and toddlers worldwide from its first identification in the 1890s until its eradication in 1979 in the USA, and its almost-eradication in the rest of the world. Currently, just a handful of cases occur each year in countries like Nigeria and Yemen, which is why the US case has come as such a shock.

It's no surprise that it occurred in Rockland County, though. Rockland has the lowest vaccination rates in the state, and as a result has suffered some crippling COVID-19 numbers and a recent measles outbreak. Its polio vaccination rate stands at around 60%, compared to 90% or above in the rest of the country. (Herd immunity for polio is estimated at around 80%.) And the 20-year old youth infected this week, was indeed unvaccinated.

Nobody is talking about it - presumably because it is considered not politically correct - but a good part of the reason Rockland County is so under-vaccinated is due to the large population of ultra-traditional Orthodox Jews, many of whom believe that vaccination is against Jewish law in some way. (By the way, it's not, according to Jews who are also medical doctors, and even most eminent halachic scholars - in fact, Jewish law positively encourages it, if it will help to protect the body, but you try and tell that to some of the more fundamentalist rabbis.)

What is perhaps more interesting, though, is that the case is described as "vaccine-induced". While some people with an axe to grind will almost certainly blame it on COVID-19 vaccines, it is nothing to do with that. Back in 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk famously developed his highly-effective injectable inactivated vaccine. But, in 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin came up with an oral live-attenuated vaccine, which also granted 99% immunity, and it was this (cheaper and easier to administer) vaccine that became the most widely used, at least until polio was effectively eradicated in 1979. After the 1980s, the slightly less risky injected vaccine became the norm, as it still is today.

Many other (poorer) countries, though, still use the oral live-attenuated vaccine, which uses a modified weakened strain of the disease, rather than the inactivated dead viral material that the injected vaccine uses. This doesn't actually cause illness in humans, but is enough to trigger an immune response (except in severely immuno-compromised individuals). The problem is that, if a live-attenuated vaccine is used in a community with a high proportion of unvaccinated people, there is a small risk that, with enough generations of spread, it can mutate back into a new virulent strain. This seems to have been what happened in the current US case.

So, what can be done? Well, we can encourage (and subsidize?) those countries still using the riskier oral polio vaccine to switch to the safer injected version. And those hold-outs in Rockland County and elsewhere just need to suck it up and get their shots, for their own good as well as everyone else's.

That said, the 20-year old in Rockland is now considered no longer contagious, and a full-blown outbreak is extremely unlikely (although it has been genetically linked to spread in England and Israel, so the risk is not over). This time, at any rate.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Pelosi's visit to Taiwan - brave and necessary, or rash and poorly-timed?

It's hard to know what to think about Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan: a courageous show of solidarity with a fellow liberal democracy, or a rash and ill-timed act of personal brinkmanship? Or perhaps both?

"Both" is probably the right answer, but that doesn't help us much. If a war with China does arise out of the visit - and my gut tells me that it probably won't, although the possibility is definitely there - then this will be the modern equivalent of the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand, a single identifiable act with huge and disproportionate consequences.

Yes, China's burgeoning imperial ambitions and tub-thumping under President Xi Jinping need to be slapped down. Taiwan is clearly its own country, and few people outside of China would argue otherwise. But the ambiguity of American, Canadian and pretty much every other major country's policy toward Taiwan for decades has at least kept the peace, and allowed Taiwan to function as a more-or-less independent state in most spheres of activity.

Calling China's bluff right now, particularly with the ongoung Russia-Ukraine conflict going on in the background, may not have been the smartest move. Many policy people and lawmakers did try to dissuade Ms. Pelosi from her symbolic and "provocative" visit (provocative to China's leadership, even if not to most other reasonable people), although the official White House line has been that her visit is her own personal business and nothing to do with them (a disingenuous stance, to say the least).

I think it is one of those matters that history will look back on favourably if everything turns out well, but as an egregious misstep if it turns out badly. And right now, there is no way to tell which way it will go, depending as it does on which side of the bed Xi Jinping got out on the day in question. Either way, what has been called the least-worst option for maintaining a tenuous peace has been put at serious risk by Ms. Pelosi's principles.

Wondering whether to bother with that fourth dose of the COVID vaccine?

If anyone was in any doubt about the wisdom of getting a a fourth COVID-19 vaccination shot (i.e. a second booster, over and above the two primary doses), this one Public Health Agency of Canada graph, shared by the Globe and Mail, should put their minds at rest.

As the graph shows, a booster shot (red bars) makes a big difference over being unvaccinated or even having just the two primary doses of the vaccine, whether we are looking at the risk of catching the virus (cases), hospitalization or death. But a fourth dose (beige/brown bars) puts the risks of all three outcomes onto a whole different level (i.e. in the range of just one or two percent).

Sure, everyone knows someone who was quadruple-vaccinated and still caught the bug. It happens. But this graph puts it all into much better perspective.

If you were on the fence, unsure whether to bother with another dose, then here is your answer. The fourth dose makes a huge difference. And, of course, to get a fourth dose, you need to have had a third, and currently only about 21 million Canadians have had a third dose, compared to about 34 million first doses and 31 million second doses. Much fewer still have had a fourth, so it's hardly surprising we are going through another wave of COVID cases.

This graph should be emblazoned on every street corner.

Monday, August 01, 2022

How did "Sweet Caroline" become a sports anthem?

Some people are crediting Neil Diamond's saccarine 1969 hit Sweet Caroline with galvanizing England's women's soccer team to beat Germany to take the UEFA Women's Euro Cup recently, and thereby to bring home the only major trophy England has won since that day back in 1966.

Sweet Caroline has been the de facto anthem of England's women's team for some time now (as it was for the men's team, and for the Boston Red Sox even before that), although I'm not sure anyone could say why. Nice and easy to sing along to, no complicated lyrics or key changes? Hardly a compelling argument; the same could be said for any number of other songs. It's not like the lyrics are even particularly appropriate for a sporting endeavour -  it's a syrupy love song (in fact, the lyrics are terrible: "Where it began, I can't begin to knowing ... Was in the spring, and spring became the summer", yadda yadda).

But for some reason, the song - by an American, no less! - has been adopted by the Lionesses' fan club as their own. Maybe it can be blamed on the Wembley DJ, Tony Perry, who had a tendency to play it at the stadium for some reason, although I'd be loath to lay the blame on one benighted individual. Whatever the reason, though, it may be marginally better than alternative England anthems Three Lions and Vindaloo, although not by much. It just seems a shame to be re-living Neil Diamond's musical crimes 50-odd years later.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Is it time we admitted sanctions against Russia are not working?

There, someone said it out loud (thank you, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian). 

The West's sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine are really not having the game-changing effect they were supposed to have. But they have become sacrosanct and an article of faith in Western political circles, to the extent that any criticism of sanctions are seen as tantamount to support for Putin and a callously abandonment of Ukraine.

But it seems clear that, although supply of Western armaments IS having some effect, sanctions are really not. Inflation, and particularly world energy prices, are soaring; shortages of gas, grain and fertilizer are hitting developed amd undeveloped countries alike, hard; but Putin seems signally unaffected by sanctions against his country. Granted, the Russian people ARE probably being affected, to an extent that is difficult to quantify, but Putin is the guy calling the shots in Russia, and he has not blinked once.

The fact is that sanctions invite retaliation, and when the country involved is as powerful as Russia, the retaliation can be just as effective as the original sanctions. So, Putin has slashed gas supplies to Western Europe, effectively strangled Ukraine's essential grain supplies to Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and greatly increased energy supplies to Asia, resulting in an unprecedented surplus on its balance of payments. The ruble has strengthened by 50% since January, and is now one of the world's strongest currencies And the war in Ukraine grinds on inexorably. 

(UPDATE: after a period in which it was among the wotld's best performing currencues, the ruble has taken a nose-dive in July. Evidence that the sanctions are working? Not necessarily, but maybe.)

So, how can we say that Western sanctions are working? In some ways, sanctions are an easy option, a way of showing concern, a way of doing something without doing something. Arguably, sanctions are little more than feel-good symbolism. But there is also a strong argument that sanctions have never been particularly effective - think Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar - and some academics have argued that sanctions over the last 50 years or so have had a minimal (and possibly even a counterproductive) impact. They typically cause countries to entrench and become more self-reliant (and, coincidentally, to crush freedoms at home, and to strengthen the powet of the elites).

The sanctions against Valdimir Putin are perhaps the strongest ever levied, but they still do not seem to be have the desired effect. Putin is not begging on his knees, and the war goes on, gradually bending in Russia's favour, despite the upbeat reporting of the Western press. I admit that I don't have an alternative to offer, but maybe it is time to admit that sanctions are not working.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Pope Francis and his modest ride

The Pope is currently visiting Canada to make apologies for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada's indigenous residential school system over a period of decades. Fair enough; about time, you might say.

It's interesting to see, though, Pope Francis is rocking a little white Fiat 500 as his main mode of transport. In fact, he has been using the modest Italian compact car since he became pontiff in 2013, his main requirement being "modesty and simplicity" (apparently, he doesn't endorse specific brands or models). All his overseas transportation Fiats boast the license plate SCV1 ("Status Civitate Vaticanae").

So, what, did he sell the PopeMobile on EBay?


Nope, seems like he still has the PopeMobile. So, the Fiat is just for the "modesty snd simplicity" show? A bit of infallible virtue-signalling?

Is Google's AI chat box really sentient?

An employee at Google's artificial intelligence (AI) unit has been suspended after publicly claiming that the Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) chat box he helped to develop has achieved sentence, and even retaining a lawyer to protect its rights.

In transcrupts that the employee, Blake Lemoine, has released, the chat box talks about being happy and sad, attempts to form bonds with its human interlocutors by convincingly mentioning situations it could never have actually experienced, and  expresses fears about being switched off. According to Lemoine, the chat box sounds like a 7- or 8-year old child and so, from his application of the Turing Test, the AI should be considered sentient.

Unfortunately, Google and most other expert commentators on the subject disagree. While LaMDA is perhaps the most impressive in a series of increasingly convincing chat boxes, all it really does is "a sophisticated form of pattern matching, to find text that best matches the query they've been given based on all the data they've been fed", according to a spokesman from the Alan Turing Instiitute. 

In fact, it is unclear whether the current trajectory of AI research will ever lead to sentience and a genuine artificial mind with human-like intelligence, even if some way is found to replicate sensory inputs artificially.