Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Toronto's council is actually about the right size (shock horror!)

Doug Ford's contentious plan to slash the number of councillors that represent the city of Toronto from 47 to 25 halfway through a municipal election campaign has incensed the majority of people, from politicians to electors, and has prompted protests, court cases, and a general condemnation from anyone even slightly left of hard right.
What's interesting is if one looks at the populations represented by each councillor, and how that compares to other cities in Canada and elsewhere. Toronto's 47 councillors represent a diverse city with a population of 2.73 million, giving a population of about 62,000 per councillor (this is based on the increased council size this year, changed to accommodate new population increases and distributions). Under Mr. Ford's scheme, the 25 councillors would represent an average of 109,000 citizens.
Internationally, this compares with:

  • Chicago, which has a very similar population and a council of 50 members, or about 54,000 per councillor on average; 
  • Brisbane, Australia, which has a slightly smaller population of 2.35 million and 26 councillors (about 90,000 in each ward); 
  • Rome, Italy, which has a population of 2.87 million and a council of 48 members (60,000 per ward); 
  • Madrid, Spain, with a population of 3.14 million and 57 councilors 55,000 per councillor); 
  • Osaka, Japan, population 2.67 million, 87 councillors split between 24 wards (31,000 per councillor). 

Within Canada:

  • Ottawa, population 934,000, has 24 councillors (about 40,000 per ward); 
  • Winnipeg, population 705,000, 14 wards (50,000 per ward); 
  • Calgary, 1.27 million, 14 councillors (82,000 per councillor); 
  • Vancouver, 647,000 and 10 councillors (65,000 per councillor); 
  • Edmonton, population 899,000, spread over 12 wards (about 64,000 per councillor);
  • Montreal, population 1.7 million, 46 councillors and 18 borough mayors (37,000 per councillor, or 26,000 depending on how you calculate it).

So, generally speaking, Toronto's current councillor load is about normal, or if anything slightly high. In none of these examples are councilors expected to deal with populations of over 100,000, as Mr. Ford is suggesting. Tellingly, the only comparison Ford made was with Los Angeles, which has a population of about 4 million and just 15 seats on its council (about 267,000 per councillor!), although the city also has a system of 90 semi-autonomous neighbourhood councils.
Conclusion: leave the city council as it is; get rid of the loose-cannon Premier.

Globe's obituary headlines are disingenuous and pointless

Call me an old curmudgeon, but I find the Globe and Mail's obituary headlines disingenuous to say the least.
To head up an obituary "Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Artist" (an example ftom today) is presumably an attempt to show that the person in question had a full and reasonably normal life, and was not defined by their occupation or sole claim to fame. But the reason they have an obituary in Canada's national paper is not because they were someone's mother or grandmother (like so many millions of others), but because they had some public success as an artist or a business person or a philanthropist or whatever. I'm sure that the "wife", "mother", etc, part is very important to the person's immediate family, but frankly it is not really important to anyone else.
Now, I don't actually know how the Globe picks their obituary candidates from all those who died in that particular week. But to give the impression that to a person's major achievement was motherhood or being married to someone is, frankly, borderline insulting.
It is also another example of a practice that, once begun, takes on a life of its own and becomes self-perpetuating, like referring to someone "passing" instead of "dying" or, to use a totally unrelated example, having an army of young children accompany soccer players into World Cup games. It's not actually excessive political correctness, but an adopted custom that has no compelling raison d'être.

Tech stocks falls show how ridiculous stock market can be

Now, I'm not a financial guy, not a serious investor or a stock market mover and shaker. But I do despair sometimes at what I read about the stock market world.
Some members of the FAANG group of big tech companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google)  - which has been largely responsible for propping the stock market up in recent years, and smoothing over the worst of the roiling - are taking some big hits over the last week or two, with billions being wiped off their valuations almost overnight. However, this is not because they are doing badly, not because they losing handfuls of money, but merely because they are not doing quite as well as some people think they should, because they are not meeting their own wildly ambitious earning targets, and basically not growing fast enough.
This seems a bit ridiculous to me, a self-professed non-financial guy. Essentially, they are being punished for doing well ... but not well enough. I know that in the longer run, they will make up their share price (and more). But I just wonder whether the actual stock market movers and shakers ever sit back from time to time and look at just how ridiculous their own ground rules are, and at what an illogical and vaguely absurd model of commerce they are holding up.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Trump Jr.'s claims about GDP are not even close to being true

Like his father Donald Trump Jr. just can't let a good thing alone. The US economy grew by a healthy 4.1% last quarter, so of course Trump feels the need to gloat and to make political capital out of it. However, in doing so he makes some pretty gross mistakes and makes the whole thing worse.
He tweeted yesterday that: "Just because Obama never broke 2% doesn't mean that someone with great policies can't". I'm not sure where Trump got that particular false factoid from, But it's not even close to being true. In fact, US GDP grew by over 2% no fewer that 15 times during President Obama's tenure, and it exceeded Trump's 4.1% four times: 4.5% in Quarter 4 of 2009, 4.7% in Q4 of 2011, 4.9% in Q3 of 2014, and 5.1% in Q2 of 2014. Mr. Trump and his supporters have never admitted it, but Obama actually left the US economy in pretty good shape.
Despite being alerted of the discrepancies, Trump Jr. has not bothered to withdraw or correct his tweet, which has now been retweeted over 10,000 times and liked 31,000 times by other people who would like to believe it but who are not too fastidious about the truthfulness of their claims. So, political capital had indeed been made, but not in a legitimate way.
Regardless of the "mine's bigger than yours" comparisons, though, most economic commentators do not see last quarters figures as representative or sustainable. In particular, last quarter benefitted from a flurry of panic exports of soy beans, aircraft, steel and aluminum in advance of the retaliatory tariffs that are expected to take effect this quarter, an effect that is likely to reverse in future quarters, especially given the high US dollar value. It also benefitted from the one-off effects of the tax cuts that were brought in recently. There may be another one-off benefit this quarter as the $12 billion in economic aid to farmers (to recompense them for Trump's own rash policies) clicks in, at huge cost to the country's debt. But sustainable? Probably not.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Can we ever show causality between social media use and mental health issues?

Yet another study has just been published linking social media use with anxiety and depression in young people, particularly in girls. The correlation is now undeniable, as study after study shows it. But, as my 23-year old daughter immediately countered when I mentioned it to her, is it causal?
The most recent Canadian study shows just how much the mental health of girls seems to be affected by cellphone use, and by social media use in particular, and the extent to which girls are affected more than boys. It is just the latest in a string of such studies. And logically it makes good sense, and thoughtful articles like this one from the Child Mind Institute explain how the phenomenon might work, and how it might be more than just a coincidental case of mental health deteriorating year on year at the same time as social media usage is also increasing year on year. But even the fact that girls tend to use social media more than boys, and girls' mental health tends to be more fragile than that of boys, is not enough to definitively make the correlation causal (as the Child Mind Institute also grudgingly concludes).
But it's SO close, especially when we consider that a major exception to the social media - mental health correlation tends to occur in those girls that are avid users of social media but who also keep up an active real world social life, suggesting that it is the lack of face-to-face engagement that may be causing the youth depression we are seeing (although social media may well be exacerbating that movement away from physical socializing and exercise in young people). My own daughter has managed to carry on a pretty active physical social life and a good exercise regime and still has ended up some anxiety and depression issues. Also, she had managed to apply herself academically and get good school results, despite her social media habits, although the intense pressure to perform in school is probably another candidate for the mental health issues thst beset today's youth.
In fact, so tangled is the whole issue that we may never be able to prove causality. Do people who are socially isolated spend more time on social media, or do users of social media develop "perceived social isolation"? Is the fear of missing brought on by artificial or "curated" social feeds causing anxiety and depression, or are depressed individual more likely to perceive FOMO?
But the correlation is so strong as to be as near causal as we are ever likely to be able to show. Not that this helps us much anyway. What are we going to do? Deny cellphones to our teens? Monitor all their social media usage? That is not going to end well, we're it even practicable or possible.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Exclusion of CNN reporter is press censorship pure and simple

Even Trump lackeys Fox News has joined in the blanket condemnation of the White House's banning on a CNN reporter from a White House briefing that was supposedly open to all media.
CNN's Kaitlan Collins has been a thorn in the side of the Trump administration from day one. But, when she was told by White House staffers Sarah Sanders and Bill Shine that she was being excluded from an important press briefing with Trump and EU head Jean-Claude Junckers, CNN other media outlets called foul. The explanation for the exclusion was that Ms. Collins had asked "inappropriate" questions at a previous press meeting with Mr. Trump and M. Juncker. In addition to the complaints of press censorship by various media companies, the White House Correspondents Association also issued a strongly-worded condemnation.
Trump would dearly love to muzzle CNN, which has been almost obsessively critical of his administration, but press censorship is not the way to go about it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Thai soccer boys get religious sentence after their cave ordeal

The poor Thai junior soccer team that just lived through a two-week underground nightmare are having their heads shaved and temporarily becoming novice Buddhist monks in the interests of "spiritual cleansing" and "for their own protection" in some way.
They will spend 9 days praying, meditating and cleaning the temple(!) in various different Buddhist monasteries (not even all together). Apparently, this is a common thing for young Thai men to do, especially those who have suffered adversity, but somehow I have a suspicion it is not really what the boys would like to be doing right now.
The 25-year old coach - you know the one that got them into the mess in the first place, but who was then instrumental in helping them survive- is also serving out the religious sentence, but as a full monk, not a novice (having spent some time in a monetary previously). But then he probably does have some penance to serve...
It just seems so typical that religion gets dragged into the story, and my heart goes out to the boys. One boy has managed to avoid the monastery stint - he is a Christian - one of the rare cases where Christianity seems positively sensible, at least by comparison.

Trump gives $12 billion in relief for his own trade policies

So, Donald Trump is going to offer American farmers $12 billion in agricultural relief aid, to reimburse them for losses incurred due to retaliatory tariffs imposed on the US as a result of Trump's own unilateral tariffs. Duh!
Apparently, financing for the relief package will be handled through the USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation, and will therefore not require congressional approval. Which is just as well for Trump, because politicians of all political stripes are making no bones about their disgust with the way the trade file is being handled. "We have to do it", says Trump, meaning that he has to keep happy the farm states that voted him in, states like Kansas, Illinois and Iowa.
Democrats have been predictably vocal in their condemnation. But so have some Republicans: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska opined, "This trade war is cutting the legs out from under farmers and the White House's 'plan' is to spend $12m on gold crutches", and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted, "Tariffs are taxes that hurt American consumers and producers. If tariffs punish farmers, the answer is not welfare for farmers - the answer is remove the tariffs".
Ouch! With friends like that...

Chick-fil-A is coming to Canada - get ready for some protests

The controversial American fast-food franchise Chick-fil-A plans to move into Canada in a big way next year.
The fast-growing Atlanta-based company, apparently best known for its breaded chicken sandwiches (yes, that's bread inside bread!), is now the 7th biggest fast-food chain in America, despite my never having even heard of it, and has now set its sights on the lucrative Canadian market. It actually already has a foothold here, having quietly opened a location at Calgary Airport back in 2014, but the company plans on opening 15 locations in the Toronto area over the next five years. Each restaurant is slated to have a mind-boggling 50-75 employees.
But Chick-fil-A (what sort of a name is that? what does it even mean?) is far from controversial, despite it's success. It is owned by the billionaire Cathy family, ultra-conservative evangelical Southern Baptists, who have been outspoken against gay marriages, and who do not allow their stores to open on Sundays. The chain has already seen protests by LGBTQ activists in America, and I can well imagine more protests here if they were to open up in Toronto.
Their franchises, while relatively cheap at $15,000, are notoriously restrictive and controlling. Only 0.4% of franchise applicants are selected, and they should be very clear that this is not just an easy investment to make a bit of cash out of. The franchise rules specifically make the point that franchisees do not actually have to be Christian, but it is debatable how a company whose politics are better known that it's food will fare in Canada. The petitions have already started.

UPDATE
It was only when I can across a letter suggesting that the company name be changed to Chick-fil-Eh in Canada that I even realized that the name is a play on "chicken filet" (I had thought it was pronounced more like "chick fill ah" or "chick filler" or something).
What a stupid name!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Firearms for Toronto's Summer of the Gun don't all come from the US

As Toronto stumbles through another Summer of the Gun - this is shaping up to be its most violent year since 2005 - and another rogue gunman walks through a busy commercial street spraying the summer evening crowd with bullets, everyone is still aghast at how many guns there are sloshing around this erstwhile peaceful and safe city.
Canada has always prided itself on being "Not America", and certainly our gun control laws are much more stringent than those in the US. The perceived wisdom is that the guns used in Canadian crimes and gang activities are shipped here by criminals and gangs in the States. The truth about Toronto's and Canada's guns, though, is not so simple.
According to the RCMP, there are over a million prohibited and restricted guns in Canada, most of them pistols (handguns), and 375,000 of these can be found in Ontario (and most of those presumably in Toronto). This is well over twice the number reported just 13 years ago, in 2005, the last time we had a national crisis about gun ownership. In total, there is an estimated 12.7 million long and short guns in Canada, equivalent to 35.7 for every man woman and child. This represents one of the highest rates of firearm ownership in the world. More than 2 million people are licensed to possess and buy guns (which means that some individuals have a LOT of guns).
The number of firearms-related incidents in Canada has been on the increase over the last few years, and 6 in 10 violent firearm crimes are now committed with a hand-gun. About 42% of the gun-related crimes were for unlawfully firing a gun, 40% for pointing a weapon, and most of the remainder for "the use of a firearm in the commission of an indictable offence".
Toronto, with by far the largest population of any Canadian city, is of course the location of the most shootings and homicides: there were 92 homicides last year, compared to 52 in Vancouver, 49 in Edmonton and 46 in Montreal, and there have already been 58 homicides in Toronto in the first 7 months of this year, 29 of which were shootings, which is on course to rival 2005, the original "Year of the Gun", which saw 53 deaths by shootings (there were just 17 gun homicides in Toronto last year). There have been 228 shootings in total this year in Toronto, compared to just 84 last year, although some simple arithmetic shows that the vast majority of them were not fatal.
If we look the average rate of homicides, though, Toronto's 1.47 per 100,000 people is way below places like Thunder Bay (5.8), Abbotsford (4.7) and Mission (4.7), and even well below the national average of 1.8. Toronto is always well down Statistics Canada's Crime Severity Index. Nevertheless, the recent Danforth shootings this has of course led to more calls for a handgun ban, and a general tightening of gun control in the country, after the ill-advised relaxation of various elements of our gun control legislation under Stephen Harper. This seems like an obvious first step of many that need to be taken, and this idea is apparently being taken quite seriously by the federal government.
But where do all these guns actually come from, anyway? Yes, a lot of guns do come into Canada from the US. However, although statistics suggest that 91% of the guns seized at the USA/Canada border are taken from American residents, those that are seized from Canadians after a short trip over the border are apparently much more likely to be associated with illicit use. There are also "ghost guns" or 80% weapons", unfinished firearms with no identifying marks or serial numbers, usual bought over the internet and thus unregulated, which can be converted into working guns by the addition of other parts (also available on the good old internet). It's a whole world of intrigue and skullduggery I had no idea existed.
A recent report for the British Columbia government found that up to 60% of guns used in BC crimes were in fact purchased, traded or stolen in Canada, usually obtained by people with no criminal record and then sold to gangs on the black market, all within Canada. According to the Toronto Police, the equivalent statistic in Toronto is around 50%, sharply up from about 30% not many years ago. So, half of the guns being used in the city are indeed "home-grown".
So, although Canada does not have the same kind of rampant gun culture as the USA, it's pretty clear that we do need to clean up of our own house before casting aspersions and laying blame south of the border. And let's not kid ourselves that banning handguns will miraculously solve the problem (Washington and Chicago banned handguns for years to little or no effect), although we should probably still do that (the experiences of Australia, Germany and Britain suggest that it CAN be effective). And anyway, if Faisal Hussein had not had access to a gun, he could still have just driven a van along Danforth Avenue, or obtained a machete or something.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sorry, complementary medicines won't cure your cancer

Largely due to media hype and exaggerated claims by practitioners, complementary medicines and therapies like homeopathy, naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, massage, yoga and meditation, are often NOT used as a complement to conventional "scientific" medicine, but as an alternative, and that is where the trouble begins. Patients pursuing such avenues are more likely to refuse or just not bother with potentially life-saving treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and even surgery. The study of 1.9 million cancer patients diagnosed with non-metastatic breast, lung, prostate and colorectal cancers, showed that patients that used some forn of complementary treatment had TWICE the likelihood of death compared to patients who stuck to the normal "Western" path.
The moral of the story, then, is: by all means explore alternative medicine regimes to help with pain suppression, mood regulation, etc, but please don't expect it to cure your cancer - it won't. However cynical you may be about conventional invasive medicine, it does work in many cases, and is still by far your best bet.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

EU's $5 billion fine on Google may not be in the consumers' interest

The European Union (EU) has just slapped a huge $5-billion anti-trust fine on Google for automatically bundling its own browser and search app on phones that use its Android operating system (i.e. the vast majority of phones in the world, an estimated 2 billion of them).
Donald Trump is furious, but then Donald Trump is always furious, and nobody really cares about that. Google, though, is definitely miffed, especially given that this is the second record-breaking fine the European Commission, the regulatory body of the EU, has served Google with this year - the previous one concerned Google's practice of highlighting its own comparison shopping links within its own search results, which sounds pretty reasonable to me, but with which the European Commission also saw fit to take issue - and it intends to contest this latest decision, just as it did the previous one. The EU decision only applies to European phones, but the ruling could affect how Google bundles its apps elsewhere was well. The company has just 90 days to implement the required changes.
Margarethe Vestager, the EU's competition chief argues that bundling its own apps with the Android operating system gives Google an unfair advantage, and in a way it does, because hardly anyone bothers installing competing apps in place of Chrome and Google Search and other preinstalled apps like Play Store and Google Maps (known as "status quo bias"). And why would they? They are still the best on the market, even if they do support Google's ravenous appetite for advertising revenue. It seems to me that, when you buy an Android phone, you know what the deal is (wall-to-wall Google), just as you know what the deal is when you buy an iPhone. If anyone really objects to Google's quest for world domination, they are welcome to download alternative apps under the current system.
I just wonder whether Ms. Vestager bothered to ask consumers whether they actually cared. Certainly, if the ruling means that Google will start charging for its operating system or its apps (or both), I'm pretty sure where the consumers' loyalties will lie. I know where mine do, and I too will be miffed if an EU legal ruling affects the ease and seamleasness of Google's systems and apps on MY phone.
There's also a good argument to be made that Europe's competition commission under Ms. Vestager is not actually as objective and impartial as it needs to be in a system where it represents judge, jury and executioner. The commission is politically appointed and under pressure from large European tech companies to take a protectionist approach (although Ms. Vestager insists that she is not doing so). And shouldn't the bottom line be whether the consumer suffers from the practice. I don't see too much suffering.

UPDATE
$5 billion is about 2 week's revenue for Google, so it's no surprise that the company just shrugged off the fine (while continuing to contest it on principle).
A couple of weeks later, Alphabet Inc (Google's parent company) announced it beat quarterly profit estimates as advertising sales continue to soar, and its share price took a nifty little up-tick.

Andrea Horwath needs to be careful how she wields the word "racist"

Much as I dislike standing up for Conservative politicians, something needs to be said about the response to comments by Michael Tibollo, Conservative MPP for Vaughan-Woodbridge and the new Community Safety Minister in Doug Ford's Ontario cabinet.
Tasked with the need to "actually see what it's like" in Toronto's violence-prone Driftwood neighbourhood at Jane and Finch, Tibollo reported to the legislature that, "Personally, I went out to Jane and Finch, put on a bullet-proof vest, and spent 7 o'clock to 1 o'clock in the morning visiting sites that had previously had bullet-ridden people killed in the middle of the night". He wore the vest on the advice of the local police division after a standard safety assessment for the politician's "ride-along".
NDP leader Andrea Horwath, though, called this "inexcusably racist". The Jane Finch Action Against Poverty group also called Tibollo's comments "racist and discriminatory".
Er, no. There is nothing racist about what Tibollo said. Jane and Finch IS a dangerous and violent area, that's just an unfortunate fact, and I'm not sure I would want to be wandering around there after dark either. But there is nothing inherently racist or race-based about Tibollo's report or its phrasing, which makes no mention of race of any sort, even if a good proportion of the people who live in the area are in fact black. Horwath's throwaway comment is kind of like calling white soldiers on duty in Syria racist for wearing armour and carrying guns.
The word "racist" has attained substantial power in this day and age, but it needs to be used judiciously and correctly, and not just to score cheap political points.

Trump approval rating unchanged after Putin meeting fallout - what, what?

As Donald Trump continues to unravel in the aftermath of the Helsinki Putin meeting, and his White House aides desperately try to cover up for his gaffes, and even Republican politicians start to turn on him, you might think that the American electorate would finally be over their little populist "strong-man" crush. You'd be wrong.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll just a couple of days ago reveals that 40% of Americans still approve of Trump's performance in office, broadly consistent with the 40-44% approval rating throughout the month of July so far. The poll found that, while 55% of voters (86% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans) disapprove of his handling of Russia, and 51% (77% of Democrats and 19% of Republicans) think it's likely that authorities will find evidence of an illegal relationship between the Trump administration and Russia, Trump's overall approval rating has not even changed.
If you think this is bizarre, you are not alone. I don't think I will ever understand America.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Cameroon deserves better than more Paul Biya

It's not often that the West African country of Cameroon breaks into the mainstream news cycle (the last time I remember even hearing about the country was when they were doing unexpextedly well in the FIFA World Cup, and that wasn't this year's World Cup!)
But it seems that 85-year old Paul Biya, the current and long-time President of the country, is planning to stand for his seventh consecutive term in office.
Biya has controlled the poor country for 36 years already (second only in longevity to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago of Equatorial Guinea). You'd think that was enough. But he has managed to bleed a very comfortable life out of the poor beleaguered country. He is sometimes referred to as the "President of the Hotel Intercontinental", after his preferred Geneva hotel, where he and his entourage of 50 spend up to a third of the year at an estimated cost of around US$40,000 a day.
Meanwhile nearly half of the population of his country subsist on less than $2 a day, and the military has been responsible for dozens of cases of torture and killings according to Amnesty International, as well as its involvement in a brutal war against an Anglophone secessionist uprising in one region of the country and an ongoing struggle against Boko Haram extremists in another. It is a text-book example of a basket-case African republic.
The country deserves better, but realistically it will probably not get it.

By far the most important thing you can do to fight climate change

You've probably seen several similar articles and studies: what's the best and most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. You know: switch to an electric car, turn vegetarian, change your light-bulbs, that kind of thing.
Here, though, is a similar study that includes an option not usually considered. A joint study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden and University of British Columbia in Canada looks at lifestyle choices with the greatest potential to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions. Here you will find the usual solutions live car-free (an annual saving of 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalent), avoid one transatlantic air flight a year (1.6 tCO2e), but green energy (1.5 tCO2e), switch to a more efficient car (1.2 tCO2e), adopt a vegetarian diet (0.8 tCO2e).
But the elephant in the room is right at the top of the chart: have fewer children (58.6 tCO2e). So, bringing one less kid into the world is nearly 25 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the next best choice, and significantly more effective than all the other choice combined (I assume it is based on a standard developed "Western" lifestyle - one fewer child in Africa or Asia, while perhaps desirable for other reasons, would not have anything like as much effect on our carbon footprint).
It's interesting that this is the first study I have seen to account for this most basic of decisions. And it is a decision over which we have direct control, generally speaking. It's not an option for me personally at this point in my life, although I am responsible for just a modest single child (and an environmentally responsible one at that). But it is good to finally bring such facts out into the open.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What was the point of Doug Ford's ouster of Hydro One's CEO and board

He seems to think that, by doing so, he will somehow save the humble Ontario taxpayer some money and make electricity cheaper, even though electricity rates are not actually set by Hydro One. In particular, he thinks that respected CEO Mayo Schmidt earns way too much money - sour grapes? - even though his pay appears to be in line with market rates (and downright cheap compared to American ones).
Anyway, the board has resigned en masse, under the not-so-subtle threat of having their contracts shredded by Mr. Ford's pre-prepared emergency legislation, and so Hydro One now needs to appoint a new board, presumably vetted by Mr. Ford for their political views (otherwise what was the point?) This amounts to unprecedented government meddling in the affairs of a private company (the Government of Ontario is, after all, merely a 47% minority shareholder).
And Mr. Schmidt is out - I can well understand why he might not want to continue with Ford's oversized shadow constantly looming over him - which means that the company is in need of a new high quality CEO, one who does not mind open political interference, and preferably for cheaper than Schmidt's $6.2 million a year (otherwise, again, what was the point?) So, the province may save, what, a million or two per year? Oh, and the outgoing CEO is eligible for a $9 million payout, so he is probably not too displeased by the turn of events. The Ontario taxpayer? - not so much. The other directors will also get an estimated $4.9 million for their expiring stock holdings and options.
In the meantime, Hydro One's share price has taken a beating, as several analysts have downgraded the company, what with all the uncertainty and all, falling 6.2% to a record low early Thursday before making up about half of that by the end of the day. This still represents a huge decline in Hydro One's market capitalization, and gives the provincial government a paper loss of about $180 million in one day. Compared to savings of - what was it? - a million or two a year. This is yet another example of Ford (and the Ontario electorate who voted him in) shooting from the hip and not thinking things through.
So, remind me again - what was the point?

And you thought Donald Trump wasn't delusional?

Just in case you were in any doubt at all that US President Donald Trump is delusional and not quite all there, you need look no further than his statements after the recent NATO meeting.
Mr. Trump apparently thinks that the NATO meeting "made a tremendous amount of progress", that NATO members had "substantially upped their commitment" (Trump has been agitating for a 4% of GDP financial commitment from NATO members), and that "they agreed to pay more, and they agreed to pay it more quickly". In fact, all that happened is that the members reaffirmed their commitment to spend 2% of GDP within a time-scale ending in 2024, a commitment that was made back in 2014, long before Trump arrived on the scene.
So, how do we account for this major discrepancy in understanding? Well, you tell me.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ford's cancellation of wind farm just one of many false steps

If you needed any more evidence as to how new Ontario Premier Doug Ford is going to govern this poor beleaguered province, then yesterday provided it. And we haven't even had the Speech from the Throne yet!
After summarily cancelling Ontario's cap-and-trade greenhouse gas system that took years and millions of dollars to negotiate and institute (in the full knowledge that all provinces need to have a carbon tax system in place, and leaving in the process over $2.8 billion in stranded emissions allowances with which he has no idea how to deal), after scrapping rebates for electric vehicles and the GreenON program for energy efficiency rebates, after rolling back progressive changes to the province's sex education curriculum (back to the 1998 version), and after forcing out the whole of the board of a private company (Hydro One) on the erroneous premise that this is somehow going to save tax-payers some money, his latest wheeze is to cancel an almost completely-built wind farm because ... well, I'm not sure why, really.
Ford just seems to have some vague idea that wind farms, and climate change mitigation in general is "bad", but the main reason being put forward publicly is that the contract for the 9-turbine 18.5-megawatt White Pines project was agreed and approved just a few days after the Ontario election was called (or "in the middle of an election campaign", according to Ford's spokesman), which the Ford camp argues is naughty, because it was technically finalized during an election period when major government decisions are traditionally put on hold. So, of course it has to be cancelled!
Reading between the lines, though, one of the biggest reasons for the cancellation is the fact that Prince Edward County MPP Todd Smith (who also happens to be Ford's House Leader) is against it, and that Prince Edward County is a region of rich conservative hobby farmers, who just don't like those newfangled things in their manicured back yards. There has been a lot of local opposition to the project by a lot of influential people, and there are any number of oppositional websites with names like Mothers Against Turbines, County Coalition for Safe and Appropriate Green Energy, Wind Concern Ontario, Save the Bees, etc, not to mention all the local newspapers.
The construction company in charge of the project, German-owned WPD Canada Corp, pledges, as it is well within its rights to do, that it will be claiming about $100 million in damages for the cancelled contract, which received its official go-ahead this May from the arm's-length government agency Independent Electricity System Operator, and not from Kathleen Wynne personally, as Ford tries to imply. This money will come straight out of taxpayers' pockets (and not just those of the well-heeled Prince Edward County taxpayers).
The project, ten years in the making (it was originally approved back in 2009), is already well under way, with one turbine already installed and the others just weeks away from completion. To cancel it now is even more cynical than whatever Mr. Ford believes the Wynne government got away with. As the construction company spokesman notes, also quite rightly, this will look very bad from a commercial point of view, and may well put off potential international investors in a newly flaky Ontario investment environment. And, as well as being on the hook for at least $100 million, the cancellation will of course mean that we will not be able to reap the cheap, clean electricity benefit from the wind farm after all those years of planning. Lose-lose-lose.
But then the Ford government doesn't see it that way. The same spokesman claims that, "Cancelling the project will be a net benefit and result in savings for Ontario's ratepayers, after they will no longer be on the hook for this overpriced wind power". In fact, it has been many years since wind power has been considered an expensive energy option, even ignoring the environmental benefit.
Doug Ford's agenda is demonstrably clear, and he has made very little attempt to conceal it: he wants to roll back anything even vaguely progressive that has happened in recent years, especially anything that might benefit the environment, regardless of the costs to Ontario or its people. Like a certain Mr. Trump, he would like to see a return to the '90s, or even the '70s if possible. This is the essence of conservatism: a resistance to change, however laudable. Although I have a suspicion that many conservatives would take issue with the idea that Ford is pursuing traditional conservative ideology, or indeed ANY ideology other than just a knee-jerk reaction to reverse out anything the Liberals did. His approach is just a constant howl of "NO!", without any constructive "yes" to put in its place.
Anyway, you voted in a Ford-led Conservative government, I certainly didn't. So, get used to this, and worse. If you couldn't see it coming, then you were deliberately blinkering yourselves, or hiding behind your single-issue hobbyhorses. Use as many equine metaphors as you like, this is the new reality, and it's not going to be pretty. Ontario may end up an economic basket case, and will almost certainly become an international environmental pariah. Get used to it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

If only the Brexit vote could be taken today

As UK Prime Minister Theresa May survives a tricky week in Parliament, and "hard leave" politicians like Boris Johnson and David Davies resign from her cabinet (which she will not be too sad about) in protest at her "soft leave" negotiations, it is worth bearing in mind that the mood of the nation has in fact changed substantially in the intervening couple of years since the fateful Brexit vote in June 2016. Then, a tiny majority voted to leave Europe (51.9% to 48.1%). If a new vote were taken today, a small majority would vote to stay.
A Guardian poll, for example, suggests that 51% would vote to remain, and 49% to leave. The leave vote is much stronger among retired and "not working" people, and among Conservatives, whites and males; students and working people, non-whites, women and non-conservatives would vote to remain. Of course, this is not dissimilar to polls before the 2016 referendum, and we all know how that turned out in practice. The difference is partly due to the fact that over a million older people have died in the intervening period, and well over a million new young voters have joined the electorate. But, it is also due to the belated realization on the parts of some voters that a mistake was made, and the reality of what leaving Europe might entail is already starting to sink in. For example, the same poll shows that a sizeable majority (49%, compared to 36%) of people think that Brexit will have a negative effect on Britain's economy.
An Independent poll at the end of last year put the opposition to Brexit much higher, with 51% saying they would vote to remain, compared to just 41% voting to leave. Also, The Independent reports that 13 of 14 YouGov polls on the subject indicate that more people think that the 2016 referendum decision was wrong than those who still think it was right..
Anyway, all this is just academic and wishful thinking. That horse has already bolted, and there will not be another vote (even if 58% believe that there should be). But maybe a "soft" exit, with some kind of a customs arrangement with the EU, as Ms. May is now proposing, is more in line with the views of the populace, despite the blustering of hard-liners like Johnson and Davies.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Scott Pruitt fired for all the wrong reasons

Pruitt, who is a climate change denier, and who made his name mainly by taking the EPA to court, was, at the time, a surprise nomination to the EPA (although in retrospect, it falls entirely within Trump's MO, and his obsession with deregulation, anti-environmentalism and the systematic undoing of any of the good things Barack Obama did for the country). Here are just some of the reasons why Pruitt (and his beliefs) were always gping to be a bad match for his position.
The reason he was fired, though, is nothing to do with the contrariness of having a climate-denying coal enthusiast leading the federal institution that is supposed to be improving the American environment (Environmental PROTECTION Agency, remember?). Here is a reasonably good, even if not comprehensive, analysis of some of the damage Pruitt has wreaked on the American and worldwide environment during his short term at the EPA.
No, he was essentially pushed out because he had racked up too many ethics investigations over spending abuses, iffy business travel, and his cozy relationship with various lobbyists, as well as his intervention in helping his wife to a fast food franchise. The last straw may have been his stated desire to replace Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department (not the ambitiousness of it, just the fact that his ambitions were made public - this kind of finagling is supposed to go on behind closed doors). Basically, he was starting to make Trump's own PR machine uncomfortable, and that obviously takes precedence over personal loyalty, common sense, and the good of the country.
Pruitt's replacement in this key position will be the current deputy leader of the Agency, Andrew Wheeler, who is - go figure! - a climate change-denying former coal lobbyist, who according to some, may be an even worse choice than Pruitt.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

What does Justice Kennedy's retirement actually mean for Roe v. Wade?

Whoever thought we'd still be talking about threats to women's rights to an abortion in this day and age. Isn't it all debated, settled and enshrined in law anyway?
Where abortion is concerned, nothing is ever settled, and, with the ill-timed retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the US Supreme court, and the prospect of a second Donald Trump nomination, the perennial issue has raised its hoary head once again in the Land of the Free.
Not that it ever really went away. The landmark Roe v. Wade case, that gave women the constitutional right to a choice on abortion, happened way back in 1973. But the substantial percentage of Americans who still maintain that the rights of the unborn trump the rights of the already living have been chipping away at it ever since, with a surprising amount of success.
There was a flurry of media attention about a year and a half ago, after the death of Norma McCorvey (the "Roe" in Roe v. Wade, who championed abortion rights for many years, but who then "got religion" and started to oppose abortion), and President Trump's controversial nomination of anti-abortion candidate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Much of the reporting then was along the lines of, "ooh, this is not good, but the make-up of the court is still such that a challenge to Roe v. Wade is not possible".
With Justice Kennedy's retirement, things could be about to change (the guy is 81, I get it, but could he really not hang on for a couple more years?). Kennedy is not exactly a Democrat, but he is considered to be a "swing vote", a reasonable man who votes with his conscience. In practice, this has meant that, over the last 30 years or so, he has voted to protect Roe v. Wade, as well as to champion progressive issues like gay rights. During his election, Trump campaigned quite openly on a platform that included a promise to select Supreme Court nominees who would "automatically" vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. Almost no-one expected him to get TWO such opportunities.
With an anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court, what will probably happen is that various right-leaning States will enact abortion laws that challenge the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, requiring a final decision from the Supreme Court. This could well result in an overturning of the law, or at least a significant erosion of its scope and effectiveness.
Perhaps the only thing standing in the way of this trajectory is the fact that Justice John Roberts is still Chief Justice of the Court. Roberts is a man of deep integrity, and a big believer in the idea that the court's decisions should be consistent with case precedent. Interesting times, as they say.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

How do referees communicate in international soccer games?

Have you ever wondered what language referees and international soccer players use to communicate with one another? "Anything that works", is the short answer.
Watching the World Cup, it is clear that there is an awful lot of talking, shouting, swearing and explaining going on on the field of play. But, when Brazil plays Croatia with a Japanese referee, how does that even work? (Actually, in that particular game, it DIDN'T work very well, and there were complaints that the players could not understand the referee...)
The official languages of the FIFA organization are English, French, German and Spanish, but that does not mean that World Cup referees have to speak all those languages in order to officiate, much less that the players are expected to speak them. It was only in 2006 that FIFA brought in a requirement for referees to have a working proficiency in English, which, in soccer, as in almost every other sphere these days, is the closest thing we have to a universal language. Before that, they were just expected to muddle through using any smatterings of different languages they had managed to pick up along the way, and for the most part they did just that, although there definitely were muddles at times, and occasionally quite awkward ones (for example, the sending off of the Argentine captain in the 1966 World Cup game against England).
Having said that, experienced referees are actually a pretty cosmopolitan bunch, and many of the players at these exalted international levels are also surprisingly polyglot, especially given the macho, doltish, hard-man image that still adheres to most soccer players. For example, Belgium's Romalu Lukaku reportedly speaks Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Swahili, and team-mate Vincent Kompany speaks five languages. Many other big names (e.g. Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Arjen Robben, Edin Dzecko, Cesc Fabregas, etc) speak at least four. Remember, modern European club soccer, particularly in the high-profile premier leagues of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, relies heavily on imported talent, and it is not at all unusual for a German to be playing in France, and a Brazilian in Spain, and then for those players to be traded for millions of dollars to other clubs in England or the Netherlands. Some top-flight teams (like Arsenal, for example) may not contain a single player from that country! That said, the Belgian national team (bear in mind that Belgium has two official languages, French and Dutch/Flemish) is still as likely as not to speak English to each other in practice, as the safe, common lingua franca.
So, if a Greek referee is able to use some Spanish to placate an irate Uruguayan player, he will do so; otherwise he will default to English and hope for the best. The few conversations that are audible (e.g. the coin-tossing and pre-game administration) are almost always in English, from what I have heard. But remember, they are unlikely to engage in an actual conversation - they are dealing in relatively simplistic exchanges. Sign language and body language are also employed extensively, which is partly why many of those exchanges look so melodramatic and histrionic. All the major fouls and decisions have a pretty obvious sign language indication, which transcends any language barriers, and if a player objects to it (and he ALWAYS does, on principle), then the referee's usual response is simply to wave him away, and maybe smile wryly.
After the shenanigans of a nasty, high-stakes game like England v Colombia yesterday, in which the referee all but lost control of the game for extended periods, it makes you wonder why anyone would even want to get into refereeing. Maybe it pays well? Who knows?

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Mexico is going through a very messy election

Maybe I have been looking in the wrong direction - Donald Trump tends to suck up most of the media oxygen, as well as most of our limited stocks of outrage - but I seem to have completely missed much of the bad stuff that has been happening in Mexico in the run-up to today's general election there.
It seems that this election campaign has seen some of the worst political violence in Mexico in decades. Over 130 candidates and political workers have been killed in the 9 months or so since campaigning started in September of last year. Another two died just today during the actual polling.
If such a body count had occurred in Canada or the USA or in any European country, there would have been a huge international outcry. But it occurred in Mexico, and so I have only just found about about it, and that almost by accident.
Mexico in general has become a very dangerous place in the last few years. There were an estimated 25,000 murders last year, a good proportion of them drug-related, and over 200,000 have been killed or disappeared since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels and gangs back in 2006. More journalists die in Mexico than in any other country at "peace".There is much that has to change in the country, and this election is probably where that process must start. It's a pretty big deal.
 
UPDATE
The charismatic and controversial left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador ("Amlo") has handily won the election, with almost double the votes of his nearest challenger, although quite what that means for the healing that has to happen in Mexico is far from clear. Amlo has vowed to respect civil liberties and to wipe out the corruption that has hamstrung Mexico for years, but some worry that he will turn the country into "another Venezuela". And how he will deal with Donald Trump (of whom Amlo has been quite outspoken and critical) and NAFTA is anyone's guess at this point. Watch this space...