Friday, June 18, 2021

Vaccine lotteries make no sense

I have been reading for some time now about various sweeteners and incentives that several US states (and even a Canadian province) have been instituting, purportedly to overcome vaccine hesitancy and encourage more people to get themselves vaccinated in the pursuit of herd immunity. Free booze, free trips, free baseball tickets, free cash, free guns (in West Virginia, go figure!) and, perhaps most commonly, free lottery tickets. 

It always seemed a rather ridiculous ploy to me, and it left me, at best, non-plussed. But, I figured, it was harmless enough, wasn't it? Setting aside the ethics of rewarding people for doing what is already the right thing to do, what had never occurred to me was that the lotteries, for example, were extended to people who were ALREADY vaccinated, i.e. the majority that had already done the right thing. 

I understand that the idea is that some people will get the vaccine just so they too can participate in the lottery, thereby increasing the vaccination rates by, well, some undefined little bit. As for free beers and free spliffs, the same but much less so. $5 of free beer is hardly going to overcome the ingrained attitudes of a firm anti-vaxxer, and probably not even the scruples of a fence-sitter

My assumption had always been that vaccine lotteries were being offered to people who were NOT vaccinated but would agree to do so in order to participate. That at least would make some logical sense. The current ploys are just a waste of millions of dollars that could better be spent targeting, educating and persuading laggards, providing transportation, etc.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Annamie Paul may be undoing years of progress for the Green Party of Canada

The quite recently elected leader of the federal Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul, appears to be presiding over the party's very public implosion. There are loud howls for her to resign, but she is having none of it. The Green Party is teeing up a vote on the matter and she may end up being removed against her will. It's all getting quite nasty. Ms. Paul is fighting for her political life, and it's not pretty.

After one of the Greens' three MPs defected to the Liberals, and first two, and now five, of the Party's central governing Council  resigned, Ms. Paul has been on her back foot, especially given that it is her leadership style that is being blamed for the exodus.

Ms. Paul has not, however, just rolled over and taken it. She has come out swinging, and in the process has thrown even more oil on the fire. Not willing to accept that her own actions may be to blame for Jenica Atwin's defection, Ms. Paul has claimed that the Liberals actively poached her ("shady backroom deals" in her words). While it is true that the Liberals did reach out to Ms. Atwin - and why wouldn't they? - she claims that she was already definitely and actively looking for an out, feeling that she (and particularly her position on the Israel/Palestine conflict) was not respected within the Greens. Ms. Atwin is outspoken in her belief that Israel is an apartheid state, illegally repressing the Palestinian people. She insists that her defection is not merely an opportunist action, but says that she expects to find a more respectful debate within the Liberal Party. Well, good luck with that...

Ms. Paul lashed out at Justin Trudeau in particular, declaring with a look of thunder that "you are no ally, you are no feminist!" In fact, her response to almost all of the allegations against her from other Greens seems to be to call them "racist" and "sexist", even though there has been no mention of race or gender as far as I can see. She has a huge chip on her shoulder about being the first black, Jewish woman to lead a major Canadian party, and her response to criticism seems to be to hide behind appeals to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. In today's political climate, these are guaranteed conversation-stoppers, with little or no recourse allowed. But they are overused and often misused, as I believe in this case.

Ostensibly, the whole ruckus arose when Ms. Paul refused to repudiate one of her staffers (evidently a strident Zionist) who accused Green MPs of anti-semitism. But that is really only the proximate issue that has brought the divisions within the party to a head. In internal documents, the party council talks about Ms. Paul's "autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection", and claims that she has "displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues". Pretty strong language, that. They also say that donations are down, and that many rank-and-file members have been calling for her to step down. This is a full-blown crisis achieving a head of steam.

The Green Party of Canada is not a huge party. It boasts just two MPs (now), both in its heartland of British Columbia, representing less than 1% of elected members. But their small parliamentary representation belies their popular vote (nearly 7%), and pre-election voting intentions (over 10%). The Party had amassed a good and increasing following under previous leader Elizabeth May, and was finally starting to be taken seriously as a national political force and as a respected voice of conscience. Ms. Paul's recent shenanigans, and the media circus around it, could well undo those years of hard work and progress, almost overnight. 

They may say that any publicity is good publicity, but I don't think this applies to politics; this is unwelcome, negative attention.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Vancouver's abandonment of gifted programs will not have the desired effect

Vancouver School Board has set the cat among the pigeons by cutting advanced  honours courses in math and science for gifted students on the grounds that they are somehow discriminatory. Honours courses in English were phased out some years ago.

The Board says that such classes do not comply with its equity and inclusion goals because not all students can participate in them. Well, duh! The Board says that it is moving to a more inclusive model of education so that "all students will be able to participate in the curriculum fulsomely". (A gifted student would probably know that "fulsomely" actually means "excessively flattering" or, alternatively, "disgusting and offensive", and that the word the Board was grasping for is actually the much simpler "fully".)

So, the Vancouver School Board is actually deliberately dumbing down their education system in a vain and over-zealous attempt to be politically correct. George Orwell's Animal Farm comes to mind. 

Do they not want to encourage high-performing kids? Do they not realize that ultra-bright kids also tend to have a horrible time in school and are often bullied and picked on in regular educational streams? And what about special needs programs? Are they not also exclusive and prejudicial, and do not allow all students to participate?

Sigh!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How effective are vaccines against the Delta variant really?

There seem to be many different figures flying around for the effectiveness of various vaccines against various variants of the COVID-19 virus. It's hard to get a clear picture.

According to The Guardian, a source that I trust, there seem to be three main British studies:

  • Public Health Scotland says that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 92% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 79% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant. Two doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, on the other hand, is only 73% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Public Health England says that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 93.4% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 88% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is 66% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Another, more recent, study by Public Health England concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 88% effective against the Delta variant, compared to 67% for the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

There are some minor discrepancies here, but the general view is the same: Pfizer is very good, AstraZeneca just good. Moderna's results are likely to be in the same ballpark as Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen is likely to be similar to AstraZeneca. All appear to be very good in guarding against hospitalization and death from the virus (the figures above relate to the likelihood of catching, and potentially re-transmitting, it)  In all cases, a single dose is not very effective at all (Public Health England suggests as low as 33%) against the Delta variant, which is now establishing itself as the dominant one, and is the main one we need to be worrying about.

The jury is still out on whether it is advisable for people who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca to get a second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines, although the odds are looking good that this would be preferable to a second AstraZeneca dose, in terms of efficacy at least (NACI is now advising that a second mRNA dose is preferred for those who got a first AstraZeneca jab). That ship has already sailed for me, but I'm still happy to have had two doses, even if they were both AstraZeneca. (The only silver lining might be that some studies are showing that AstraZeneca creates a better T-cell response than mRNA vaccines, thus potentially giving better long-term protection).

Why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy

Finally, a good basic article on why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy.

You often read about how the worldwide creation of bitcoins uses as much energy as a country like Argentina, and how, if it were a country, it would be in the top 30 of energy users. But bitcoin "mining", despite its name, is essentially just a computer transation, so I have never fully understood how it can be so energy-intensive. Well, here's how.

When someone buys a bitcoin, multiple computer systems then swing into action in a race to create a new 64-digit hexadecimal number, or hash, which can then be entered into an online ledger or blockchain. The impetus for this competition is that the creator of this new hash number receives a "reward" of 6.2 Bitcoins, worth about $225,000 at the ridiculous current prices.

The problem is that generating a new hash of this size is an onerous task, even for a bank of computers. The computers involved are not just standard PCs like we know, but stripped-down machines with multiple graphics cards (GPUs) which require high wattage power supplies, and which are run 24 hours a day. As an example, a rig with three graphics cards uses over 1,000 watts of power, about the equivalent of running a domestic air conditioning unit, and rigs may have many more than three cards. 

In addition to the energy used for the processing power of these crypto mining rigs, they also generate a lot of heat, and so each rig will typically need multiple cooling fans to ensure the components do not melt down. Where there are many such rigs gathered together in a factory, external cooling is also required, all if which requires more and more energy. Crypto mining businesses can have hundreds or even thousands of these rigs in operation 24 hours a day (one in Kazakstanstan reportedly boasts 50,000 units).

So, taking all this into account, it is estimated that creating one Bitcoin used 1,544 kWh of electricity, about the equivalent of 53 days' worth of power for a typical American household, creating an energy bill of about $200 (depending on local energy costs) and a pretty ugly carbon profile (again depending on the energy production in particular jurisdictions). And remember, we are not talking about just Bitcoin here: there are many other cryptocurrencies these days - Etherium, Dogecoin, Litecoin, Monero, and many, many others - all of which use a similar production process. So you can see how it all adds up.

One-time cryptocurrency fanboy Elon Musk has recently made a point of refusing to accept Bitcoins for Tesla purchases, after his earlier high profile espousal of the cryptocurrency, and he did so because he has belatedly realized the true carbon footprint of the technology. And bear in mind that some US states with struggling coal sectors are going out of their way to attract bitcoin mining operations. It's a messy old business. And for what? Yet another avenue for speculative investments for the already-rich? Do we really need that?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Heat pumps - an idea whose time might well have come

I like to think of myself as a responsible citizen, particularly as regards environmental matters. Hence, I am pretty careful with our energy use; I have solar panels for hot water and electricity production; I drive an electric car; I choose to live in province with a largely green electricity production profile; I subscribe to Bullfrog Power (which uses an additional levy on power bills to reinvest in renewable energy projects). I try to walk the talk, as they say.

One thing that really rankles, then, is our need to rely so heavily on natural gas for winter heating and for the very few occasions we need recourse to air conditioning in Toronto's increasingly hot summers. Gas is one of our largest single bills each month but, more than anything, it is the unavoidable hit to our carbon footprint that rankles.

But is it unavoidable? Just recently, I have been looking into electric heat pumps. There's a whole lot of technical stuff to get my head around, an the more practical aspects of installation, cost, payback periods, etc. It does look promising, though, at least in principle (I have not even started to look into costs, etc, yet).

So, what is a heat pump?The simplest explanation I have come across is one on The Conversation, although a more detailed, and more Canada-centric, explanation can be found on the Province of Ontario's guide to heat pump technology. In fact, I seem to be seeing more and more articles about heat pumps just recently, but that may just be because I am primed to do so.

A heat pump works on the same general principle as a refrigerator: it extracts heat (or cold) from the outside air, concentrates it, and then transfers it, using a small amount of electricity, to the inside of the house to provide space heating (or cooling). While traditional furnaces and boilers convert fuel into heat with much less than 100% efficiency, heat pumps actually operate at efficiencies of well OVER 100%, and are an estimated three to four times as efficient as furnaces.

More specifically, a very cold fluid circulates through coils of tubing in an outdoor unit similar to an air conditioning unit, absorbing energy in the form of heat even in winter conditions (at least up until outdoor temperatures fall VERY low). The fluid vaporizes and circulates in a compressor, which generates heat (compressing any gas heats it up). This heat is then transferred through the walls of the house, and circulated through indoor coils of tubing or  the existing vent system to heat the house. The same system can be used in reverse, taking heat from inside and transferring it outside, very much like a refrigerator does.

This, at least, is the model for an air-source heat pump, the cheapest and most commonly-used technology. In areas of more extreme cold, a ground-source or geothermal heat pump system may be more appropriate. This uses the more stable temperatures underground as a source of heat in winter and as a reservoir for rejected heat in the summer. The need for drilling makes this a substantially more expensive option, though.

I'm just in the early stages of my research, but heat pumps are looking like an interesting possibility at this point.

Netanyahu finally bows out, but now look what we've got

It's going to be so nice not see Benjamin Netanyahu on the news and listen to his wheedling complaints that anything that is not exactly as he want it is somehow "anti-Semitic". After 12 years in power, he has failed to corral enough of Israel's plethora of political parties into a coalition, and has had to relinquish his position as Prime Minister of one of the world's most fractious countries.

The "opposition" - meaning everyone who hates Netanyahu more than they are willing to put up with him - has managed (barely, by a margin of 60 to 59, with one abstention) to establish a coalition of eight different parties, ranging from the ultra-nationalist right to the left-wing, even a small Israeli Arab party for the first time ever. At least two of the parties are openly pro-settlement (i.e. occupation of the Palestinian West Bank), and I have no idea how such a loose can be expected to agree policy.

Naftali Bennet, once a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party and now leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party (which actually won only a handful of seats in the latest election), gets to be Prime Minister for the first two years. (And don't ask me to explain how he was chosen.) He is almost as nasty a piece of work as Netanyahu. A tech millionaire and former commando, Bennett has described himself as "more right-wing" than Netanyahu, so don't expect any liberal policies any time soon. He is pro-Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, does not believe in Palestinian statehood, and wants Israel to annex even more Palestinian lands.

After a couple of years, he will be replaced as PM by Yair Lapid, leader of the more centrist Yesh Atid party. But in the chaotic rough-and-tumble that is Israeli politics, who knows if the current coalition will even survive that long?

UPDATE

We got a little glimpse at where Israel may be going when thousands of flag-waving ultra-nationalists marched through occupied East Jerusalem over the last few days, chanting "Death to the Arabs" and "May your house burn", and other fun little slogans. A couple of far right MPs joined in the parades. Centrist leader Yair Lapid denounced the protests, but we're still waiting to hear from Naftali Bennett.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ford's use of the "notwithstanding clause" is inexcusable

The very fact that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is even considering using the "notwithstanding clause" shows just how little he values the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Don't forget that when provincial election time rolls around next year.

When the Ontario Superior Court ruled earlier this week that Ford's proposed Election Finances Act infringes on Charter rights, most governments would respond by either appealing the ruling or redrafting the legoslation so as not to contravene the country's laws. Not Ford. His response is to "go nuclear" by reconvening the legislature and forcing the issue by invoking the notwithstanding clause (also known as Section 33 of the Charter).

That is technically his right; the possibility is enshrined in the law itself. But this recourse is considered by almost everyone to be a last resort, to be invoked only under extreme circumstances. That is made quite clear in the wording of the Charter itself ("extraordinary circumstances"). The clause has only been used very infrequently in the past, mainly by the province of Quebec, and never by Ontario. Doug Ford wants to use it to force through a relatively unimportant and ill-advised law that he believes will favour him in the upcoming election. That is really not what the provision was created for (as several of the Charter's original architects have made clear, warning that it should not be used merely to evade due process of law).

The proposed Election Finances Act is designed to limit third-party spending outside of an election year, and it widely believed that Ford is worried about union and corporate PAC advertising against his Conservative government. The Superior Court, though, ruled that several sections of the proposed Act were unconstitutuonal, unnecessary and excessively repressive of rights to free expression. Doug Ford, though, for whatever reason, sees the bill as absolutely essential for Ontario (read, himself), hence his recourse to the entirely inappropriate remedy of the notwithstanding clause.

As much as anything, Ford's response is a good indication of the shaky ground his re-election prospects lie on. But he must not be allowed to ride rough-shod over our rights and freedoms in this way. And, if you ask me, the whole notwithstanding clause loophole needs to be plugged: maybe its original intentions were honorable, but it is just too open to abuse by over-ambitious and overreaching politicians.