Friday, August 14, 2020

Are stock market investors completely out to lunch?

I know I have talked about this before, but this week's figures have thrown it into even sharper relief. The S&P 500 stock index has just reached the record levels it last achieved in February of this year. Other stock markets are also looking pretty rosy, even if not quite to the same extent.
So, the stock markets are at record highs even though millions of Americans are out of work, and smaller companies (and even many bigger ones) are struggling to stay afloat. It all seems very wrong. But, as this article notes, "The stock market is not the economy".
Family restaurants, hair salons and pet stores are not listed on the stock market; big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook are (in fact, those five companies alone make up 22% of the S&P 500's total value). And those big tech companies have done pretty nicely out of the pandemic, thank you very much.
The other thing is that stock markets tend to reflect how the business community thinks the future will go, not necessarily how things are at the moment. So, the S&P's 34% plunge started on February 19th, well before the USA went into lockdown, based on future expectations. By the same token, if investors think that the future will be an improvement over what we have now - and God knows, it couldn't be a lot worse - then prices will tick upwards.
So, it doesn't necessarily mean that American and Canadian investors are completely out to lunch. But it does mean that they are way more optimistic about a vaccine, the potential for international travel, and the way the general economy is going to go over the next several months than I am.

What are all these wacky craft beers?

Walking into a beer store used to be a pretty straightforward proposition. Since the much-vaunted "craft beer revolution", though, life has become much more complicated. There are thousands of craft beers to choose from now, coming to us from thousands of tiny unknown breweries, that seem to breed and multiply by the hour.
And it's not just different breweries: there are now a whole host of different kinds of beers, with names that may mean little or nothing to most of us regular folks. Saison? Gose? Radler?
The internet is full of beer. There are detailed guides like this one that list a ridiculous 75 dfferent styles of beer, or more general guides like this one from Time magazine. I'm just going to touch on a few that I happen to have noticed and occasionally been confused by. Read on.
  • Dark Lager: a lager is usually a pale-coloured, bottom-fermenting beer (i.e. the yeast accumulates at the bottom), considered an easy introduction to beer-drinking, as compared to the darker, more complex, stronger-flavoured, top-fermemting ales. Lager is "lagered", i.e. matured for weeks or months at near-freezing temperatures to give it the crisp, clean taste that lager-drinkers expext. Dark lager (Dunkel in Germany) is just a lager that looks more like an ale, but without all that challenging and confusing complexity.
  • Bock: a dark, malty, lightly-hopped style of lager from Germany, with a dark amber to brown colour, and a higher alcohol content than most lagers.
  • India Pale Ale: IPA is the archetypical "difficult" beer: strong-tasting, high-alcohol, often very bitter and/or hoppy, and it comes in a huge variety of different brands and flavours and finishes. English-style IPA (as opposed to English Pale Ale!) tends to be even maltier and bitterer, while American-style IPA (which comes in New England and West Coast styles, just to confuse things) is typically fruitier snd less bitter. But still complex and "difficult". If you want extra difficulty, go for an unfiltered IPA, which is cloudy, extra-strong-tasting, and usually ridiculously strong
  • Pale Ale: not necessarily the same as IPA, pale ales like American Pale Ale, English Pale Ale, American Blonde Ale, American Amber Ale, even English bitter, are hoppy and malty, but medium-bodied and relatively easy to drink. But ... they can be dry-hopped, double dry-hopped, single hopped, fresh hopped, imperial, fruited, "milk-shake", brettanomyces-yeasted ... it's complicated.
  • Session ale: a lower-alcohol IPA, with plenty of flavour but less alcohol (although still usually around 4-5%), allowing you, I suppose the derivation is, to have a good old session without getting too drunk. Not too strong, not too bitter, not too hoppy, not too malty - Goldilocks ale.
  • English Bitter: confusingly, often not particularly bitter at all, English or British Bitter is actually a kind of Pale Ale. In England, Bitter is the alternative to lager, and considered both more of a working man's drink and also a more cultured, gastronomic choice. Confused? Yeah, me too. But that's partly because it covers a bewildering number of different ales, ranging from the sweet to the sour to the bitter to the hoppy to the strong to the downright anodyne. The point seems to be that it is some sort of ale made in England.
  • Saison: not to be confused with Session ale (saison is French for "season", not "session"), Saison is a refreshing, highly-carbonated, fruity, spicy beer. Traditionally, it used to be low in alcohol, but these days it is more likely to be medium, even high, in alcohol.
  • Pilsener: I always thought Pilseners were just Eastern European lagers, but apparently they are closer to a pale ale, but crisp and drinkable. Czech Pilseners tend to be darker and more bitter than German ones.
  • Stout: surprisingly sweet, black-coloured beer that is thick and creamy, stout is not as "difficult" as you might think. American stouts tend to be stronger, bitterer, hoppier and maltier (i.e. less stout-like) than the original Irish and English stouts.
  • Porter: very dark in colour, like stout, due to common ingredients like dark-roasted malt and (yes) chocolate, porter tends to be more chocolatey and less coffee-y than stout. And yes, we are still talking about beer.
  • Belgian beer: there is a whole category of beer called "Belgian", because it comes from, well, Belgium, but this can encompass anything from pale ale to dark ale to fruity wheat beers to sours, so it is not a very useful label. Supposedly, Belgian beers are fruity, spicy and sweet, with high alcohol contents and low bitterness, but in practice there is a huge variety of tastes. Trappist beers, made by Trappist monks in Belgium, are very popular but very strong and definitely "difficult".
  • Wheat beer: "witbier" in Belgian or "WeiƟbier"  German, wheat beer uses malted wheat instead of malted barley as the main ingredient (or a combination of the two), giving it a light, almost bready, flavour, and typically low alcohol levels, making it a good light summer quaff, especially when combined, as they often are, with citrus and other fruits.
  • Sour ale: sours are, yes, sour and citrussy, and increasingly popular in North America. Even my daughter likes them. Their tartness comes from the encouragement of "wild yeasts" and bacteria, usually discouraged in the normal beermaking process, as they are fermented in open barrels, in order to create more acidity (lactic, acetic, citric) in the brew.
  • Gose: not a new beer at all, but newly-trendy, gose (pronounced goes-ah) is a millenium-old German style of sour wheat beer that has added salt and coriander to produce a slightly spicy sour beer that some find refreshing and others find absolutely disgusting.
  • Lambic: a beer from (where else?) Belgium, lambic - and the related gueuze, kriek and framboise styles, the latter fermented using raspberries - is a kind of sour ale, relatively light on the alcohol, cloudy, with a "thick mouthfeel". Often described as "funky".
  • Radler: considered by some to be not beer at all, but a species of pop, radler is the German equivalent of English shandy (beer mixed with English-style lemonade, which of course is not actually lemony). It is beer liberally mixed with citrus fruit juice, usually grapefruit, to give a refreshing summery drink with a low alcohol content of 2-4%.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Trump's USPS shenanigans still has the power to shock

I'm not sure why anything that Donald Trump does still has the power to shock, after all the shocking things he has done thus far, but his open admission that he is starving the US Postal Service (USPS) of needed funds in a deliberate attempt at voter suppressionhas done just that: shocked me.
In an interview on Fox Business, Trump admitted that he is holding back funding of USPS in order to thwart Democrat efforts to have widespread mail-in ballots for the November federal election. He is doing this because he has convinced himself, improbably and inexplicably, that mail-in voting somehow benefits Democratic Party at the expense of the Republicans, and that, equally inexplicably, it is a source of wholesale electoral fraud (although the latter seems to be a lesser problem for him).
This kind of open tinkering with the democratic process is something you might expect from Turkmenistan or Belarus. But it retains its power to shock when we see it a suposedly civilized and democratic country, as we still think of the USA.

Why should we care about rare earth metals?

For decades now, China has had a stranglehold on the production of rare earth metals, and it is far from clear how the rest of the world is going to ever break that stranglehold. But as we have seen repeatedly, over-reliance on China is always a bad idea, and breaking that stranglehold is probably in everyone's (but China's) interests.
Rare earth metals or elements are a group of 17 broadly similar metals that have unique properties making them uniquely useful for a range of commercial purposes, particularly in the technology sector, and even more particularly in military and "clean" technologies. Mobile phones, wind turbines, electric cars, light bulbs, solar panels, high-temperature magnets, lasers, fibre optics, MRI machines, and military drones all use them to some extent. They are used for polishing optical-quality glass, for air pollution control, for illuminated screens on electronic devices, and many other essential 21st century uses.
Most of the names may not mean much to you: cerium, dysprusium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. Although not actually rare in the global scheme of things, it is rare to find them in economically-extractable quantities, and they are produced in vanishingly small amounts compared to more mainstream mining products like copper or zinc.
Up until the 1980s, the USA was the main producer, but in the 1990s Chinese production surged, and today China produces around 80% of the world's output, mainly in the Inner Mongolia region, followed by the USA and Australia. China also has by far the greatest reserves, followed by Brazil, Vietnam, Russia, India, Australia and Greenland (see why Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland now?)
In order to compete against China on the uneven playing field they have built up over the years, Western countries are going to have to beat China at their own game, with government intervention and capital commitment on a large scale to beef up their industries in order to compete. Chinese rare earth companies, with state help, can produce at prices low enough to drive most competitors out of business.
Companies (and consumers) that use rare earth metals may also have to suck it up and pay more for their supplies, or possibly even accept compromises on the environmental front, which would be an unfortunate development. A substantial proportion of China's production comes from small, rural and illegal opertions with little or no environmental regulation, and even its main official production in Inner Mongolia has led to major environmental damage and degradation. By its very nature, rare earth mining produces a lot of toxic and radioactive wastewater and tailings, which can leach acids, heavy metals and radioactive elemwnts into the groundwater.
Another avenue to explore is the recycling of rare earths from existing products, an area that Japan in particular is pursuing. There are challenges, but as prices of rare earths rise, recycling is becoming an increasingly economical option.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Retirement homes? Long-term care homes? Nursing homes? Confused?

While we're on the subject of clinics and healthcare, I had to do a bit of research on long-term care homes and retirement homes. This was not in the context of COVID-19 and the fact that the vast majority of Canada's pandemic deaths have been in care homes, but in relation to a friend who is probably going to have to make that decision sometime soon (yes, I've got to the age where friends are going into care...), and I realized that I really didn't know the difference between a retirement home and a nursing home and an assisted living home, etc, etc.
I found a good basic resource and ascertained that therefore are three main categories of senior care:
  • Long-term Care Homes - also called nursing homes (which I think is more of a British term), these are group homes where seniors can live and receive 24/7 nursing and personal care, inclusing help with daily activities like eating snd bathing. These are more suited to people with more severe needs who are not able to direct their own care. Costs vary depending on whether the rooms are private, semi-private or basic (3-4 people per room), and short-stay terms are also offered. The government covers the costs of the actual nursing and personal care; residents just pay the accommodation costs.
  • Retirement homes - privately-paid residenc for seniors who can direct their own care. Best for people wbo want to maintain a reasonably independent lifestyle in a safe, comfortable home-like atmosphere, but who need a bit of help with their daily living activities. They typically don't provide 24-hour nursing services, but they do usually provide two or more of: meals, bathing assistance, help with medications, incontinence care, early-stage dementia care, some nursing. doctor and pharmacy services. Within the retirement home category, though, there are four main types of care available: Independent Supported Living: a home-like environment, with the option for extra services as needed (charged separately); Assisted Living: a home-like environment with some care services (e.g. dressing, bathing, grooming and medication) included in the price, and others available at an additional cost; Specialized Dementia Care: the retirement home experience with extra services included (e.g. social, recreational and fitness activities) for those with mild dementia; Short-term Stay: for those who want to try out retirement living first, or for those leaving hospital needing a bit of extra help for a short while. Typically, retirement homes are a bit more expensive than long-term care homes, and Assisted Living (and Dementia Care in particular) are even more expensive.
  • Home Care - living at home and having a care provider visit your home regularly to offer healthcare-related services like personal support, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social work, meal preparation, wound dressing, dietetics, nursing, etc. This is usually a cheaper option than long-term care homes or retirement homes, but is only suitable for someone that is still reasonably independent and largely able to manage their own care.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How is it legal to have private clinics in Canada?

We have been looking into private clinics here in Toronto, to extend the options for our daughter, who has been to a succession of public system doctors and specialists over the years, and still lacks a definitive diagnosis and treatment for her (rather obscure) problem.

Both she and I are a little shamefaced about this, as we both harbour some generalized left-wing misgivings about private medicine, and believe that healthcare should be free and universal, as indeed it is here in Canada. And yet there ARE peivate clinics here in Ontario, and in most other provinces. How is this possible? How is it legal?

Saskatchewan introduced a universal hospital care plan back in 1947, but it was not until the 1984 Canada Health Act that private healthcare aas effectively outlawed throughout the country, mainly to guard agaist the wave of extra billing, user fees and copays that swept the country in the 1970s. However, it turns out that there is no blanket ban on private medicine in Canada, and technically any doctor that wants to set up a private practice can do so, provided they completely opt out of the public system. They must choose one or the other. The Canada Health Act seeks to remove any conflicts of interest (e.g. the temptation to siphon patients away from the public practice to their more lucrative private practice). In addition, most provinces ban private health insurance, making it difficult for a private sector doctor to find business, and some provinces also restrict private doctors from charging more for procedures than they can charge under the provincial healthcare plan.

However , there is a small Canadian private sector for medically necessary healthcare, estimated at aroud 1%, and many doctors are agitating for a more Euroean-style hybrid system. Because they are operating in something of a legal grey zone, private clinics tend to open up up quietly, and fly as far as possible under the radar of the press.  I was actually surprised at the choice that was available to us, right here in Toronto. I still don't really understand how they are able to offer these services privately - it is not really something that the piblic system is not able to offer (unless you argue that their ability to offer a complete 5-hour medical assessment, complete with immediate medical tests, snacks and gourmet coffee, is something the public system cannot offer, limited as they are to ten minute consultations by harrassed, overworked doctors).

Defenders of the single-tier system argue that expanding private medicine would siphon talent and resources away from the country's already over-stretched public health system (although that's actually not what has happened in European countries with two-tier systems). Some argue that private healthcare clinics tend to push unnecessary, even dangerous, testing, although it is not quite clear what the evidence is for that.

Proponents of a two-tier system counter that allowing those who can pay to take advantage of private medicine would free up more space in the public system for everyone else, resulting in shorter wait times for everyone. They point out that the existence of private clinics does not violate the principle of universal healthcare for everyone regardless of incomes, it is merely supplementary. They say they offer managed and preventative healthcare, rather than reactive event-based care, like in the public sector. They also give examples of people whose medical problems have become worse while they waited for procedures in the public sphere, in some cases leading to deaths, deaths that could have been avoided by the existence of private clinics with lower wait times. 

You can kind of see both sides of the argument, and you can also see where the arguments fall down. The bottom line, though, for us at least, is that, if the public system has let us down in this particular case, then we will explore all available alternatives, principles be damned. And, luckily for us, we can pay. Most of our dealings with public healthcare have been excellent, I would say, but we will do what we need to in order to safeguard the health of our family, even (God forbid!) to travelling to the States if need be.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The pandemic will probably mean global population peaks even lower

Whenever there is a major catastrophe or a persistent power failure or even just a big winter storm, there is often a kind of conventional wisdom, often accompanied by adolescent sniggers of the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more, squire" variety, that "Oho, in nine months' time, there will be a baby boom".
But in fact, studies show that the precise opposite is true: major blackouts and closed borders actually result in a baby bust as families think twice about bringing a new life into an uncertain and possibly hostile world. And the extended COVID-19 lockdown is expected to have this effect is spades. In fact, it could well have a material impact on the world's population as a whole. A Brookings Institute study suggests that up to half a million planned children will not be born in America alone, as parents delay increasing their families during uncertain financial times. Furthermore, once delayed, most of those babies will NEVER be realized. As the article expresses it, "A baby not born during a downturn stays unborn".
The newer population models are much less apocalyptic than older ones anyway, as I have already discussed in a previous post. Current predictions of global population see our present 7.8 billion increasing to just 9, maybe 10, billion by mid-century, before falling. As education and access to contraception for women (and for racial minorities) continue to improve, women are choosing to have fewer children, and to have them later in life. Most countries already  have a birth rate below replacement levels, and the others are expected to join them in the coming decades.
Millennial and Gen Z women are already having much fewer babies than even the models anticipated, and the pandemic will only exacerbate this effect. The long-term effects of all this on climate change and the environment (positive) and on society and the world's economy (probably negative) should be interesting to observe for our kids, and maybe even for some of us.

Was the Nagasaki bombing (or Hiroshima, for that matter) really necessary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world's second nuclear bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9th 1945. The first was dropped three days earlier, on August 6th 1945, on Hiroshima. The first one killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people, and the second between 39,000 and 80,000.
I have often wondered whether, even if the first bomb was justifiable as a "shock and awe" tactic that ultimately shortened the war and saved many lives overall (and that's a big if), was the second one necessary at all?
An interview with q Japanese historian and the daughter of two hibakusha (survivor of the nuxlear blasts) has made me seriously doubt that, and the argument is not the usual one about the horrors of war and the immorality of death on such a huge scale, but a strategic argument about the military history of the times.
It's no secret that Japan officially surrendered on August 15th 1945, just 6 days after the Nagasaki bombing, and Emperor Hirohito apparently came to the decision as early as August 10th, the day after Nagasaki, so it is easy to conclude that the surrender was a direct result and consequence of the bombing(s). What I hadn't realized, though, is that, at midnight on August 8th, i.e. between the two bombings, and just hours before the second bomb was dropped, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
Many (non-American) historians feel that the entry of Russia into the fray was more important in the Japanese decision to surrender than the American bombs. After the Hiroshima bomb, Japanese leaders had already started seeking Soviet mediation in talks with the US aimed at bringing hostilities to a close, and when the Soviets declared war, that was seen as the end of any possible mediation process, and the final nail in the coffin of Japan's war effort. The Nagasaki bomb, and maybe also the Hiroshima one, it is argued, was therefore redundant, and more of a war crime than a saving grace.
It's not clear to me to what extent the Americans were aware of the Soviet situation, and we should probably remember that communications were not as efficient in those days as they are now, but hell, they had phones didn't they? It potentially puts a while new complection on the final events of the war, doesn't it? But I suppose we will never really know.