Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What does Putin really want in Ukraine

As Vladimir Putin plays soldiers along the borders of Ukraine, I have to stop and wonder just what it is that he wants and why he wants it. Granted, it's a little difficult for me to put myself into the head of a megalomaniac dictator but, try as I may, I still just really don't get it.

Putin has now moved over 100,000 troops and a whole load of heavy machinery to the borders of neighbouring Ukraine, including some into adjacent puppet-state Belarus. His intentions appear to be either to invade sometime soon, or to pretend he is going to do that for whatever twisted reasons he may have.

But why would you want to rule over a population that you know is going to hate you (in the main). Yes, there are a good number of ethnic Russians (about 17%, maybe 8 million individuals) in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of the country, but the 77% ethnic Ukrainians that make up most of the country are not going to welcome a return to a Russian-led pseudo-Soviet Union. So, why would you want to put yourself in that position? What would make it worthwhile?

The best analysis I could find comes from  the Council on Foreign Relations website. Historically, Ukraine was the second most populous and second most powerful of the 15 Soviet republics, after Russia itself, and the home of much of the Soviet Union's agriculture and its military and defence industries. Since independence, thirty years ago, though, Ukraine has been very clear in its determination to steer its own course, and a noted preference for alignment with the European Union and NATO, rather than with Russia (and now we can see why that might have been wise).

To us in the West, Russia looks to be the clear aggressor in the current situation, particularly in the aftermath of the unilateral (and illegal, in the eyes of most non-Russian observers) 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. For its part, Russia argues that it is merely responding to Western aggression in its backyard, particularly the 2017 acceptance into NATO of the ex-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 90s, it was not actually promised a "sphere of influence" going forward, but President Putin has been very vocal in claiming such a "guarantee". Neither was there any promise that NATO should not expand not expand own influence in the region. Of course, most ex-Soviet republics don't actually want to be in Russia's sphere of influence and, quite rightly, don't trust Russia. What Russia really wants to avoid in particular is larger countries like Ukraine and Georgia also joining NATO - what Putin refers to as the "eastward expansion of NATO" (as though NATO is invading Russian territory), and the "red line" that must not be crossed.

As a matter of principle, the USA and NATO will not give into Russian demands that it guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO. But it's far from clear that NATO actually has any intentions of allowing Ukraine to join, for a variety of reasons, however much Ukraine may want to.

So, is that really what Putin is after? Or is he just hung up on re-creating the Soviet Union, come what may (despite official protestations to the contrary)? I also have yet wonder whether he has not had his nose put out of joint by the increased attention on China in recent years - Putin likes to be top of the news cycle, likes to consider himself the USA's principal bugbear. Might it not be, in the end, all about personal legacy and delusions of grandeur. In which case, there may be no logical, strategic grounds for Putin's military moves at all, and no amount of negotiation is going to make any difference.

Prince Andrew retains one, highly appropriate, title

A canny Globe and Mail letter-writer points out that, although beleaguered royal Prince Andrew has had most of his various titles rescinded, one title he does retain is that of Vice-Admiral. Which seems poetically appropriate given his circumstances and the allegations he faces.

(Actually, it seems he is still technically a Prince and he also retains the title of Duke of York, as these were not conferred titles but his due by birth.)

Monday, January 17, 2022

China blames Canada for Beijing's first Omicron case

The first ever case of the Omicron variant to be discovered in Beijing (other Chinese cities have also seen cases) is a big deal for China. Alone among major countries, it is still chasing the elusive target of zero COVID cases, particularly with the Winter Olympics just around the corner. In a typical example of Chinese overkill, the whole office block where the infected individual works was immediately locked down, and everyone was essentially locked in with zero notice (pillows and bedding were seen being delivered to the office tower).

The 26-year old women in question has apparently not travelled outside of Beijing recently, nor had she had any contact with anyone else who has tested positive. So, China had to come up with an explanation, preferably one that implicated dastardly foreign powers.

Imagine our surprise, though, when the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to finger a piece of mail from Canada as the culprit. The Beijing woman apparently received a letter from Canada (via Hong Kong and the USA) about a week before her positive test. So, there you have it - obvious isn't it?

Predictably, pretty much every Canadian doctor, health organization and politician has pointed out in no uncertain terms that this is a ridiculous claim. Which, of course, it is. Calling the claim "implausible" and "ludicrous", and warning that it "doesn't sound credible" and "doesn't add up", Canadian health specialists and epidemiologists point out that has been many months since we have unduly worried about transmission of the virus on contaminated surfaces (fomites) - it is definitively an airborne disease, spread through relatively short-lived aerosol particles - and the chances of such particles surviving that length of time on piece of paper are exceedingly slim.

So, good try, China, but really not very convincing. Maybe the contamination actually did occur in China after all. Maybe your system is not perfect. Maybe it's not all part of a despicable foreign conspiracy.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Is the Omicron variant really going to burn itself out

I've read several articles like this one recently, discussing the theory (or, rather, hypothesis) that the fact that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is so contagious but relatively benign could be the best thing that has happened recently. The idea is that the variant will rip through the global population, conferring a level of immunity on those who catch it (including - indeed, especially - unvaccinated people), while leading to relatively few deaths and hospitalizations. Like some fires, it could burn through relatively quickly and then put itself out.

Well, it's a nice theory, and perhaps a comforting one, but it's essentially speculative. We have no idea whether this virus has yet more curve balls to throw at us, or what new variants have yet to be unleashed (and remember, the more cases there are circulating in the wild, the more the likelihood of new variants arising, even though some scientists seem willing to overlook that).

The other thing is that protection from vaccination is up to 5 times more effective than "natural immunity" from having caught the virus, so relying on natural immunity is a pretty unreliable and risky idea. Some anti-vaxx politicians, though, are taking it to heart and setting policy around it, horrible Florida Governor Ron DeSantis being a case in point. DeSantis believes that natural immunity is much stronger than vaccination immunity, based on a cherry-picked Israeli study that backs up his own beliefs. (It does, however, seem indisputable that the combination of vaccination and natural infection is the best protection against current and future variants.)

The bottom line seems to be that relying on natural immunity is a risky and unproven solution, and one that is mainly used by people with a political point to make, not medical experts. It may or may not prove impossible to hide from Omicron, but health advisors are pretty much unanimous in cautioning that it is never a good idea to deliberately court the virus in the hope of acquiring immunity (in the same way as it was never a good idea to go to "chicken pox parties" back in the day). This will only lead to overloaded hospitals. Plus, there is a chance you could end up with Long COVID. Plus, you will probably pass it on to others who may be more vulnerable than you. Oh, and you could die...

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Ford takes greenwashing to a whole new level

If you want a textbook example of "greenwashing", then Ford Motor Company has just provided it.

Ford is making a big song and dance about a new development: it is to make wire harness clips for the Bronco Sport out of recycled discarded fishing nets found in the ocean. Yes, that's one tiny plastic clip weighing around five grams, and it is to be used only in Ford's gas-guzzling Bronco Sport SUV model (fuel efficiency between 17 and 21 mpg, depending on the model, or 11-14 L/100km for us Canadians).

Ground-breaking? Well, maybe. Significant? Not at all. Cynical? Absolutely.

Is it time for the filibuster to go?

Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema (aided and abetted by - of course - pseudo-Democrat Joe Manchin) has decided, in her wisdom, to vote down the Democrat's attempt to remove the filibuster rule, even in isolated cases. The existence of the legislative filibuster effectively requires a 60% majority to pass any kind of legislation. Given the current evenly-balanced Senate, that effectively rules out passage of the hugely important Democratic legislation to protect voting rights in the USA.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are both essential pieces of legislation to counter the rash of state-level legislation passed by Republican states recently, which are aimed at deliberately disenfranchising whole segments of the populace, and thereby ensuring Republican electoral victories. But Republicans in the Senate have already filibustered the two pieces of legislation - which have already been passed in the House of Representatives - four times, and look set to repeat that just as many times as needed until it goes away. Meanwhile, mid-term elections are coming up in 2022, which, thanks to the recent undemocratic Republican legislation changes, may mean that the Democrats lose any chance of passing ANYTHING at all for the rest of their administration.

So, the stakes are high, as Sinema and Manchin both know. Senator Sinema has made no secret of her love for the filibuster, which she sees as enhancing democracy, ensuring bipartisanship, and easing "the underlying disease of division infecting our country". Fine words perhaps, but impossibly naive and even disingenuous, especially at this particular political juncture. 

With the spectre of post-Trump Republicans pulling out all the stops to ensure future election victories by whatever means possible, this is not the time to be pursuing airy-fairy notions of how things should be. There is important work to be done, and the filibuster rule is getting in the way of democracy right now.

filibuster is, essentially, a way for a relatively small group of Senators to (legally) block an action by the majority. US Senate rules allow one or more Senators to speak on any topic they wish, for as long as they wish (thereby delaying the vote on a bill, potentially forever), unless three-fifths of the Senators bring the debate to a close by invoking "cloture".

Legal? Yes. Democratic? Maybe. But the American Founding Fathers certainly never envisaged a Congress where a 60% vote was needed to get anything done; the regular 50% simple majority is what is built into the Constitution. In fact, the filibuster rule was a 19th invention invention employed only sparingly over most of America's political history (and not always for defensible reasons - it was used extensively to prop up the racist Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, for example). In the late 20th and early 21st century, though, it suddenly became a much more popular ploy, used, it should be noted, by both parties, and again, not always for commendable reasons.

"Filibuster" is actually an old 19th century word for a plunderer or pirate, which gives a good idea of how it was seen when it was first introduced. How has it now become an indispensable part of democratic discourse? Given the partisan gridlock that characterizes American politics right now, it is, in my opinion, doing Democracy a disservice, and people like Sinema and Manchin need to wake you to that before it is too late, and the Republicans impose their ugly right wing vision for good and all.

It's by no means certain that, even without a filibuster, the Democrats would be able to pass the much-needed legislation (particularly given the presence of mavericks like Sinema and Machin). What's abundantly clear, though, is that it is never going to pass while the filibuster exists.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

It's official! Masks make you more attractive

You may not particularly enjoy wearing masks, but take some solace in research that shows that face masks make people more attractive.

It's true! Researchers at Cardiff University followed up recently on a previous (pre-pandemic) study which found that medical face masks made people less attractive, presumably because of the association with illness or disease. After a year or two of pandemic, however, both men and women find members of the opposite sex MORE attractive if they are wearing masks. This is partly, it's thought, because masks tend to direct attention to the eyes, but presumably partly because of the association with common sense and social responsibility.

Interestingly, any mask at all helps to make a person more attractive, but the most attractive? Those cheap blue disposable surgical masks. Maybe we've all watched too many hospital dramas on Netflix.

Cuba develops its own COVID vaccines

Shout-out to much-maligned Cuba for independently developing several COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccinating almost 90% of their population.

It's easy to forget that Cuba has always had a well-developed healthcare and medical sector. They have had to forge their own path for decades in the face of ongoing trade sanctions by the USA and other countries, and a remarkably good job they have done of it too.

It took a while, compared to the well-funded Pfizers and Modernas of this world, but Cuba now has no fewer than five working home-grown vaccines, all of which which have an effectiveness of around 90% with three doses. They are all "subunit protein vaccines" (similar to the Novavax vaccine), which are cheap to produce and do not need special deep-freeze storage. They could prove to be a game-changer for many poorer countries in Africa, Asia and South America, once they are peer-reviewed and approved by the World Health Organization (which seems to be taking an inordinately long time).

The tiny Caribbean country has already inoculated over 86% of its own population with three doses, with another 7% partially vaccinated. This is one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and includes kids from the age of two.