Friday, December 02, 2022

Germany beaten by ... parallax

If you've been following the World Cup, you might know that perennial favourites Germany crashed out in the early rounds yesterday. Although they beat Costa Rica 4-2, they had to win AND Japan had to lose for them to go through, and Japan shocked the world by beating Spain 2-1.

But what a contentious winning Japanese goal! Most people saw Japan bring the ball back into play from over the dead-ball line before stuffing it into the net. Social media lit up with outrage over the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) decision to allow the goal. But it turns out the VAR was quite right.

The reason? Parallax. A ball viewed from the side can look like it is fully out of bounds, but seen from above, it can look quite different. In this case, a view from above shows that not ALL of the ball was over the line, and soccer rules clearly dictate that 100% of the ball has to cross the line to be considered out.

That's also why Canada was denied a goal in their last World Cup game against Morocco, as the ball bounced down off the crossbar in the 71st minute, but failed to cross the line, although this one was much less contentious.

Annoying, yes, but them's the rules.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Qatar is the new poster boy for "sportwashing"

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup, and the incredible sums of money they have thrown at it (officially $229 billion, but some estimates run to $300 billion or even $400 billion) is perhaps the most extreme example of what has become known as "sportswashing", an attempt by an authoritarian pariah regime to buy international goodwill. Russia and China have tried recently with their Olympic bids, and Saudi Arabia is trying it in several different sports (Formula 1 racing, golf, tennis). 

None of these countries expected to make money out of these sporting events. Qatar will never use the seven huge new soccer stadiums again, and most of the new roads and accommodation will languish unused when the foreign soccer fans go home. The only lasting benefit Qatar can hope for is reputational, an expensive advertisement for the country's desired international image as a shining example of modern oasis in the desert, a prime location for foreign investors to park their money.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this high-risk strategy is likely to fail, as it has to greater or lesser extents in the cases of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. While many people now know more or less where to find Qatar on a map of the world, and while the hosting of the events has actually gone pretty well, with relatively few hiccups, most people have not really liked what they have been introduced to.

They now know how to spell Qatar, even if not how to pronounce it properly. But they also know that the country only has about 300,000 native residents, the other nine-tenths ofnrhe population being foreign workers from South Asia brought in to do the menial jobs that are considered below the dignity of the Qatari overlords, forced to work in brutal conditions under what looks for all the world like modern-day slavery. 

They also know that Qatar is a deeply conservative country, where alcohol is strictly regulated, and free speech and the media are strenuously repressed. It is a country where women need permission from their male guardians to marry, travel abroad, study, or go into certain jobs. Qatari laws punish same sex relationships with harsh prison sentences, and soccer fans are denied entry into stadiums for wearing t-shirts or armbands with rainbows colours.

Tempted yet? 

There are those who believe that Qatar's foray into sportwashing is working just fine. After all, viewing numbers look good, and there are all those social media posts of people having a good time in Doha, despite all the restrictions. But I'm pretty sure that the movers and shakers (sheik-ers) in the country are not just looking for some warm-and-fuzzy feelings; they are looking for hard cash. And that, at least, will probably elude them. This may be Qatar's coming out event, but suitors may prove to be hard to find.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Danielle Smith ventures into sovereigntist fantasy land

If you thought that Jason Kenney was a monster and a loose cannon, get used to Alberta's new Premier, Danielle Smith. She got herself elected (barely) as United Conservative Party leader on promises of defending Alberta's interests against what she perceives as a meddling and coercive federal government in Ottawa. And now she is following through with some coersion of her own.

Smith has introduced the fancifully-named and oxymoronic Alberta Sovereignty Within A United  Canada Act, presumably with a straight face. Bill 1 is not really about sovereignty at all, but the act purports to allow the province to disregard any federal laws or policies that the Alberta government deems to be unconstitutional or "harmful" to the province ("harmful" being left undefined). It would also allow the provincial government to direct provincial entities like municipal and regional police forces not to enforce specific federal laws or policies. It would give the provincial cabinet powers similar to those in emergency situations, such as the ability to amend legislation by order in council rather than going through the assembly, but without the emergency.

Mr. Kenney and all the other leadership candidates all panned this idea as unworkable and a gross overreach (although they seem less opposed now they several of them have been granted cabinet positions). The NDP opposition are calling it "dictatorial, unconstitutional and undemocratic, and are voting against it to a person. Indigenous leaders have unanimously expressed their oppostion to the act. The federal government has chosen not to comment, probably content to watch Ms. Smith slowly destroy herself (there will be a provincial election next April).

The bill seems unlikely to stand up to legal scrutiny, and parts of it certainly seem to be unconstitutional. Although the act feels the need to explain that "Nothing in this Act is to be construed as ... authorizing any order that would be contrary to the Constitution of Canada", the rest of the text goes on to do exactly that; indeed, that is the whole point of it. Smith insists that "we need the power to reset the relationship with Ottawa", which in her opinion requires setting provincial authority above federal authority. She also says, "I hope we never have to use this bill". Yeah, right.

At the time the bill was announced, Jason Kenney also announced that he was standing down and leaving politics for good. You can kind of see why.

You can now get a government job as ... falconer

Well, who knew. It seems our esteemed federal government has spent almost $10 million over the last seven years on ... falconry.

This is not Justin Trudeau entering into his Genghis Khan phase. This is federal departments and even the Canadian military utilizing the ancient craft of falconry to control bird pests around sensitive government facilities. Whether it is airfields, helipads, research stations, and coast guard bases, it is apparently not an unusual sight to see trained falconers patrolling with Harris' hawks, American buzzards or peregrine falcons, which they use to scare off pigeons, gulls and other nuisance birds, and stop them from nesting on federal buildings or around sensitive military airfields.

Apparently, they never actually catch the birds, just scare them off. And they are NEVER set on endangered species.

An impossible number of ticket requests for Taylor Swift

Associate Press is reporting today that there were 3.5 BILLION ticket requests when tickets became available for Taylor Swift's Eras tour of the USA.

Well, I thought, that can't be right. There are only about 330 million people living in the whole of the United States!

Turns out that, if you check with TicketMaster, there were in fact 3.5 MILLION pre-registrations on its Verified Fan system. Which is still a ridiculous number - 10% of the entire population? - but not an impossible number. And an unspecified number of those were from bots, which has even prompted the US Congress to get involved. 

I guess fame has its drawbacks.

Floatovoltaics, an efficient use of an under-utilized resource

Here's interesting proposition: why not cover the world's irrigation and other canals with solar panels (and maybe also reservoirs, aqueducts, waste water treatment ponds, and other bodies of water with little or no particular tourist, environmental or cultural value, while we are about it)?

Solar panels can be installed on rooftops, on farmland, even on roadways, but non-controversial space for siting panels is (and will become even more so) an issue. Canals are an under-utilized alternative, and there are some compelling reasons why it would make a lot of sense. Welcome to the world of floating solar panels, or "floatovoltaics".

Apparently (and I certainly didn't know this), the current design of solar panels works most efficiently at temperatures under 25°C. That's fine in Canada (most of the time), but not so much in India, the Middle East and California, and as the world continues to heat up, this will become increasingly problematic. Locating solar panels over water can help cool them, and lead to increases in efficiency of 15% plus.

There are a lot of other advantages too. In addition to utilizing otherwise unused surface area (thereby saving valuable land that can be used for other purposes), water bodies like canals and reservoirs are generally calm, relatively easy to access, and unlikely to host much in the way of sensitive wildlife or plant life. Solar farms on existing water infrastructure can be installed quickly and more cheaply, with less red tape than on land. 

Covering canals and reservoirs with solar panels also significantly reduces water loss through evaporation (up to 82%), which, in our warming and water-scarce world, is an increasingly acute problem, particularly in hot regions. The quality of the water can also be improved, as the panels block sunlight and reduce weed growth, algae blooms and harmful microorganisms, reducing maintenance costs substantially.

The benefits in potential power production are not to be sneezed at. By some estimates, covering just 10% of the world's hydro dams with solar panels could generate 4,000 gigawatts, equivalent to the electricity generation of all the fossil fuel plants in the world! Countries like Brazil and Canada need only cover 5% of their reservoirs to meet their electricity needs.

Yes, there are some challenges. Wind speed, water current, and the direction of the sun all have to be taken into account, especially on winding, meandering canals. Canals also need to be of the right width, not too wide to make installation difficult, nor too narrow to make the installation economically worthwhile. Maintenance access needs to be ensured, both for periodic cleaning of the panels, and for monitoring potential silt build-up in the water below. Canal-top solar panels can be 10-15% more expensive to install than their land-based counterparts, due to the need for things like rust-proofed galvanized supports, anchors and mooring set-ups, etc.

Taking all that into account, though, water-based systems still tend to have a higher net presence value than land-based systems, of the order of 20-50% more. Payback times are a pretty reasonable 8 years.

Some large-scale canal-top solar farms are already under way in Gujurat, India and in California, USA, and the results look very promising so far. A major University of California project (Project Nexus) is keeping more detailed stats on everything from water usage, power production, environmental factors, etc. 

So, saving water, utilizing under-used space, producing clean energy? What's not to like?

Monday, November 28, 2022

Russia's latest tactic in conscripting Crimean Tatars is yet another war crime

A lot of bad things have been happening in Ukraine, many of them illegal and some qualifying as crimes against humanity, even genocide.

Spare a thought, though, for the native Tatars of Crimea. These are not the 500,000 to 800,000 Russians that moved (or were moved) to the Crimean Peninsula since Putin's annexation in 2014 in order to solidify Russia's claim of ownership of the peninsula. This is the ethnic Turkic Muslim minority that has lived in Crimea since time immemorial, a persecuted minority in their own land.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Tatars of Crimea are being disproportionately targeted for mobilization and conscription into the Russian army. So, although these people are, and have always been, opposed to Russian rule in Crimea andď in Ukraine generally, they are being told to fight for Russia in an illegal and unfounded war against their Ukrainian compatriots. And you have to know that they will be utilized in dangerous frontline positions as what used to be (and apparently still is) called "cannon fodder". 

This is Russia taking revenge on the unruly Tatars, who have been a thorn in his side since 2014 (and before). Those that can are choosing to flee their homeland to the relative (and I stress " relative") safety of Kyiv or Lviv. Many others, though, have no such opportunity and will indeed become cannon fodder. 

This kind of targeted conscription with a view to the scattering and extermination of an ethnic minority can be seen as genocide. Certainly, it is an international war crime and  against the Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits an occupying state from compelling an occupied population to serve in its ranks.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Boycotting the Qatar World Cup would be pointless now

Well, I've been watching the World Cup. There, I said it, out in the open. Should I have been watching the World Cup? That's an open question, and one that has already engendered much discussion and dispute. It is already being called the "most controversial World Cup in history".

This is the first time that Canada has qualified for the World Cup since 1986, when it exited rather ignominiously with no wins and not even a goal to show for its efforts. This time, Canada has a pretty good team, and has recently beaten the likes of USA, Mexico and Japan en route to the last 32 in what is the biggest sporting event in the world. So, yes, I really wanted to watch them.

Unfortunately, the World Cup 2022 is being hosted by Qatar, a tiny speck in the Arabian Desert that just happens to possess large quantities of oil and gas, making it one of the richest countries in the world. It is the first Muslim country to host the Cup, which is fine in principle. But, in practice, it is a hardline Muslim regime with an abysmal human rights record, which suppresses women's rights, denies freedom of expression and assembly, and considers homosexuality a mental aberration attracting fines, imprisonment and even execution in same cases.

Furthermore, its medieval labour practices are close to modern slavery and indenture (despite some last-minute changes due to vociferous international disapproval), and an estimated 6,500 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are reported to have died in the ten years of construction of the infrastructure and stadiums needed for the event..

And, finally, Qatar is not even a great footballing nation. The only way it was able to swing the vote to host the World Cup was by throwing vast amounts of money at its bid, Qatar has reportedly spent an astonishing $229 billion on stadiums, hotels, transportation and other infrastructure for the World. By comparison, the most expensive bid before this was about $15 billion in Brazil in 2014, and $12 billion in Russia in 2018. Some estimates of Qatar's spending puts it closer to $300 billion or even $400 billion (the Qatari system is not exactly transparent), which would make it more expensive than ALL the other World Cups added together, plus all of the Summer and Winter Olympics too! It is a truly humungous sum of money.

Because of Qatar's inhospitable climate, the competition has been moved from its usual midsummer to the slightly cooler winter, and even then the stadiums need to be air-conditioned to make them bearable.  Despite extravagant claims by Qatar and FIFA, the Qatar World Cup is like to be an environmental catastrophe.

Whether large amounts of money changed hands in order for Qatar to secure the vote back in 2010 is unclear, but it is widely believed that FIFA, which has been reeling from a succession of corruption allegations for some time now, may well have preferred Qatar over Australia, Japan, South Korea and the USA for all the wrong reasons, and there is a reasonable amount of solid evidence pointing to "financial irregularities", shall we say.

All of this is to say that, no, Qatar should not ever have hosted the World Cup, and that, yes, FIFA needs a complete overhaul. But is stoically staring at a blank TV screen going to fix any of that? Unfortunately not. Most people watching on TV or live in those air-conditioned stadiums will not even have given these considerations a thought, so caught up are they in the spectacle and the pageantry. Which is sad, perhaps. But is it right to take it out on soccer players who have worked most of their lives towards this moment? Some players and some fans have engaged in some limited and rather ineffectual demonstrations, but nothing happening now is going to make any concrete changes to Qatar or to FIFA.

Much as I hate to agree with Piers Morgan on anything, the time for protests was 12 years ago when Qatar was given the go-ahead after a highly suspect FIFA vote, not now. If it makes you feel any better Qatar has spent $229 billion in an attempt to be take seriously on the world stage; all it has achieved is to go from a complete unknown to an international pariah. And who was it who claimed that any publicity is good publicity?