Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Elections Canada moves to suppress free speech - wait, what?

Elections Canada has drawn a rather problematic line in the sand just two months before the Canadian federal election. It has ruled that any discussion or advertising by third parties of climate change may be deemed "partisan activity", and subject to various onerous and costly bureaucratic rules and requirements. This might seem surprising and faintly ridiculous to most people, but it appears to be a serious position taken by the independent election body.
Five out of the six main parties contesting the election agree - to greater or lesser degrees - that anthropogenic climate change is real and presents a pressing problem requiring urgent action. However, Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada, a new fringe hard-right political  party barely deserving of the description "main party", does not. Bernier is on record as saying things like, "The main reason for climate change is not human activity", "There is no climate change urgency in this country" and "CO2 is not 'pollution' ".
For this reason, Elections Canada argues, with some rather twisted logic, that any third party, like the charity Environmental Defense for example, that promotes climate change as real and/or an emergency could be considered partisan, i.e. anti-PPC. This would require them to register as a "third party" for the election, including all the various onerous and expensive requirements that this carries with it. It also might jeopardize a group's charitable tax status.
This is a rather ridiculous state of affairs. Climate change, and Canada's response to it, is a bona fide election issue in this election, especially given that some parties want to play it down and not take it too seriously and others want precisely the opposite. So, to hamstring the participation of outside pressure groups in this way, because of the unsupported views of one minor fringe party, is itself tantamount to partisan election interference - even suppression of free speech - if you ask me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What do the Hong Kong protesters want now?

If you thought that the Hong Kong protesters had achieved what they wanted, and are not sure why they are still protesting, then you are not alone.
The initial mass demonstrations were in sponteneous opposition to Carrie Lam's administration's plans to allow extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China for trial in the Communist Party-controlled Chinese courts, which was widely seen as an erosion of the "one country, two systems" policy and of the civil rights of Hong Kong citizens. So large and so successful were these demonstrations that the administration backed down and suspended the extradition bill. So, that's it, right? Job done, back to work.
Not so, say the protesters. They want:

  • The complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, not just its (possibly temporary) suspension.
  • The resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam for even considering the bill.
  • The official withdrawal of the use of the word "riot" by the government in relation to the protests.
  • The unconditional release of all arrested protesters, and the dropping of all charges against them.
  • An independent inquiry into police behaviour during the protests.
  • The implementation of genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Now, you might think that some (even all) of these demands are fanciful and unlikely ever to be acceded to, and you may well be right. You might think that the protesters are pushing their luck, and that they should have stuck after their initial victory and crystallized their gains, and you mighte right there too. But the protestors obviously see this as their last best chance to rectify a whole bunch of grievances, while.they are still on a roll.
Me, I understsnd to where they are coming from, but I think they may have overstepped the mark in practical terms, and now risk bringing down the prodigous weight of China on their heads, and possibly even losing everything they have gained thus far. But maybe that's just me being a timid old fogey.

Bianca Andreescu's pleasing bedside manner

Watching the Rogers Cup women's tennis final the other day, we, like many others, were shocked when American veteran and favourite Serena William's had to pull out after just four games due to a nagging back injury. Her opponent, 19-year old Canadian rising star Bianca Andreescu, could have just sat back and relished being the first Canadian to win the award in 50 years. But no, she went straight over to her hero, threw her arms around her, and tried to console the sobbing superstar the best way she knew how.
There were enough microphones around the court to pick up Ms. Andreescu's bedside manner pretty clearly. I thought I must have misheard, but she definitely said, "I've watched you your whole career. You're a fucking beast!"
Not being familiar with the phrase, I was unsure whether this counted as a compliment, but my 24-year old daughter assured me it was, and added that it was just the most Toronto thing she could have said. It certainly raised a smile on the face of the distraught celebrity.
It was notable that, when interviewed about it later, Ms. Andreescu offered an expurgated version: "I just said, 'Girl, you're a freaking beast' ". Now, that's what I call classy, and not bad for a 19-year old on the spur of the moment.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Are blackface morris dancers rabid racist bigots?

It has been many years since I have seen English morris dancers perform, but my memory is of a bunch of quirky but harmless white dudes with bells on their ankles skipping around to folk music. I never saw any, but apparently there is also a long tradition of morris dancers painting themselves black for their perfomances (note that I deliberately avoided saying "performing in blackface", because that automatically confers a pejorative connotation, as though it is deliberately done with racist intentions aforethought).
Now, I have no reason to suspect that morris dancers are a thoughtless, racist bunch. They just have a much more developed respect for old English folk traditions than I do. But, of course, anything involving "blackface" automatically becomes a political hot potato. There have been heated academic debates over whether the tradition in question (a very minor and rare variant of what is anyway an obscure and uncommon pastime, let it be said) originally developed long before black people - and therefore racism - were even known in Britain, or whether this particular variant of an ancient artform was actually influenced by American minstrel shows, and even if it was does this then make it racist in intent or in effect.
Some researchers argue that the tradition arose from performers dressed as chimney sweeps or miners, or that they were agricultural workers disguising themselves to avoid recognition by their bosses. And then, of course, there is the argument, put forward in this article, that the historical of the tradition is entirely irrelevant, and that the practice should be banned anyway, just in case it causes offence. But do we know whether black people even find it offensive in the first place?
I am in no way advocating deliberate racist offensiveness, which I have lambasted many times in this very blog. But this seems to me to be just another example of bleeding heart liberals - and I count myself among them, for the most part - twisting themselves in knots over an issue that may not be that important in the scheme of things, and that may even be misplaced entirely.

The logic of weakening the protection of endangered species

I was trying to understand the logic of the Trump administration's deliberate weakening of the USA's laws on endangered species. The changes include allowing the economic cost of protection to be taken onto account (previously specifically denied on the grounds of possible political interference in decisions), ending blanket protections for threatened (as opposed to endangered) species, and a stipulation that climate change not be considered a reason for a species' endangered status.
Why would anyone make protecting threatened and endangered species more difficult and less effective? Sure, not all endangered species are cute and cuddly, but to do anything that increases the likelihood of a whole species dying out seems just bizarre and indefensible to me.
But it turns out that I was just not thinking on the same wavelength as those folks in the White House. The Trumpian logic is that any kind of environmental regulation makes it more difficult for businesses - particularly oil, gas and coal producers - to make profits, and so must be eliminated, or at the very least hamstrung. If a few species go by the wayside in the process, then so be it; there are plenty more. It's kind of the same logic that underlies conservative opposition to action against climate change: if it costs money without any immediate, tangible economic benefit, then it is to be opposed.
This was not a logic that even occurred to me, basically because I don't think of wildlife and the environment in those kinds of economic cost-benefit terms. That said, I'm not sure I feel any better for knowing the reasoning behind such a crass, ignoble and mercenary measure.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

US redefines antisemitism in its own interests

The State Department of the USA has a guideline definition of antisemitism accompanied by several examples for additional clarity. A few days ago it added a further clarification example in direct and undisguised response to a recent motion by one of the so-called "Squad" of radical Democratic representatives.
A few weeks ago, Democratic representative Ilhan Omar introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Rashida Tlaib and John Lewis, supporting the right to boycott Israel known as BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction), a movement that looks to end international support for Israel's illegal occupation of parts of Palestine and its oppression of the Palestinian people. As part of her motion, she compared the BDS movement to previous boycotts of Nazi Germany, among others. In the end, an opposing Republican motion rejecting the BDS campaign was overwhelmingly passed by a large majority from both sides of the house.
Note that Ms. Tlaib did not actually compare Israel with Nazi Germany, but that is how many outraged pro-Israel member of Congress are portraying it. In response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has added an additional example to the official State Department definition of antisemitism which says that "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israel policy to that of the Nazis" is another example of antisemitism (you can see the State Department definition and the full list of examples here).

  1. Personally, I see this as a conflation of the state of Israel with Jews as a race or a religious group. I'm not convinced that this example actually has anything to do with discrimination against the semitic race (although, as I have argued before, the whole idea of a semitic "race" is problematic anyway).

Saturday, August 10, 2019

British power blackout NOT caused by over-reliance on renewables

I notice that some of the less reliable and trustworthy British media outlets (yes, Daily Mail, I'm looking at you) are blaming yesterday's hour-long power outage on Britain's increased reliance on renewable energy, and particularly on wind power.
However, the National Grid Electricity System Operator has issued a statement specifically denying that: "The events we saw yesterday really have nothing to do with changes in wind speed or the variability of wind". That's pretty clear.
The National Grid is blaming the blackout on the extremely rare event of two large power stations going out of commission, for unrelated reasons, within minutes of each other. One was a gas-fired power station, and the other was an offshore wind farm. And note that the wind farm did not stop generating because of too much, or too little, wind either - the turbines continued turning but the transmission link to the grid was disrupted for as yet unknown reasons. The grid system did operate to compensate for the power station losses, as it should, but it was not able to make up for the loss of two such large generators.
The Daily Mail, though, managed to find an "expert" willing to assert that the real problem was Britain's over-reliance on renewables, and the inherent inflexibility of generating sources like wind power.
The moral of the story is: be careful who you get the story from. Not everyone tells you the whole objective truth, at least not if they think they can sell more papers or online ad space by taking a particular political viewpoint and making the story fit that line of thought.

Can you trust cannabis stocks? I can't

If, like me, you thought that the ineluctable rise of cannabis stocks was a bubble or a scam or some other variety of fantasy, you likely now have more evidence for your case.
CannTrust Holdings Inc, one of the biggest players in Canada's "legal" pot market, have been reeling recently from various allegations of wrongdoing, including providing inaccurate information to regulators and growing cannabis without government approval. The board has fired its CEO and asked the Chairman to resign, and the Ontario Securities Commission had announced a joint investigation with the RCMP into the company's operations. Yesterday, auditors KPMG withdrew its report on CannTrust's 2018 and first quarter 2019 financial results, and issued the bald statement that the audited results can't be relied on to be accurate.
All pretty damning, you would think (not to mention embarrassing for KPMG). And how did the market respond? After a minor dip, CannTrust stocks ended the day UP 40.8%! As a Globe article laconically commented, "It was not immediately clear what prompted the surge". I'll say!

Friday, August 09, 2019

Trump plastic straws mind-boggling their political incorrectness

I heard about this on the radio, but didn't believe it, so improbable did it seem. But apparently it is no joke, and the Donald Trump 2020 election campaign is indeed selling plastic straws with the Trump name emblazoned on them, and the sales tag lines, "Liberal paper straws don't work", and "Making straws great again". The straws say they are recyclable, except they actually aren't recyclable in most jurisdictions.
Leveraging his usual anti-environmental stance, which still seems remarkably popular with his core supporters, the straws sell at $15 for 10, plus shipping, but have still managed to raise the Trump campaign nearly half a million dollars in their first week alone.
Chutzpah doesn't really cover it. You almost have to admire the guy. Almost.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

#FillThe Bottle campaign a laudable start to demonizing cigarette butt littering

Kudos to a group of French teens who are trying to viralize (is that a word? well, it is now...) their campaign to stigmatize cigarette butt littering. The #FillTheBottle campaign encourages people to fill a water bottle with cigarette butts collected off the ground, and to circulate the "yuck" photos on social media, and it has already been taken up by thousands of people around the world.
Cigarette filters (or butts) have been described by a recent scientific study as "the most abundant form of anthropogenic litter on the planet". The filters are made from cellulose acetate, a synthetic product commercially derived from wood pulp. British American Tobacco claims that the filters take a few months to three years to biodegrade; the Keep Britain Tidy charity says it is more like 18 months to 10 years. They also say that plastics, lead, arsenic and nicotine leak from the filters over that period, affecting the environment and particularly doing harm to fish and other marine life. A photo of a seabird feeding a cigarette butt to its chick went viral quite recently.
It's certainly a pet peeve of mine, and I find it extraordinary how cavalier people are about throwing out butts, even when there is a good alternative disposal option nearby (which is rare, I have to say). You see people throwing them on sidewalks and roads without a thought, many of them people who would almost certainly not litter in other ways. Interestingly, the butts can actually be recycled, and the #FillTheBottle campaign is working with a French company called MéGo that processes and recycles cigarette filters. There is a proposal in Germany to charge a deposit on cigarettes, which can be reclaimed once the butts are returned, although it is still far from a working model.
I know that taking pictures of cigarette butts in plastic water bottles is probably not going to save the world, but here's hoping it makes a few people think twice before they do it. And would someone please tell my next door neighbour who goes though the process many times a day right in front of our house.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Why is Kashmir part of India anyway?

India's unilateral decision to scrap Article 370 of its constitution, which allows a limited independence ("special status") to its Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, has attracted international condemnation and outrage in almost equal measures (and, I suppose, a certain amount of praise and tub-thumping within Hindu circles, although there have been protests against the action even within India). This effectively downgrades the region from state to territory, and reduces its semi-autonomous decion-making ability. Local Kashmiris are bewildered, frustrated and angry, and nuclear-armed Pakistan next door is threatening reprisals. The region is in lock-down with a strict curfew, and all communications with the outside world, including the internet, have been cut off. An already tense region, therefore, just became a whole lot tenser, and the situation could go in any number of directions.
There are various reasons why Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi has decided to make such a contentious move at this time, although his claims that his intention is to free Kashmir from decades of turmoil and violence are clearly disingenuous. But, to be fair, Article 370 was only ever mean to be temporary - despite having lasted 70 years! - and Kashmir remains one of the most militarized and unstable regions in the world, a situation that is clearly not sustainable in the long term (not that 70 years is exactly short!)
Anyway, make if it, and Modi's justification for it, what you will. My question was: why is Jammu and Kashmir in that position in the first place? Why did Hindu-majority India end up with a Muslim-majority province at all?
A little potted history: when British India was partitioned in 1947, generally speaking the Muslim-majority areas became West Pakistan (later just Pakistan) and East Bengal (later East Pakistan and then Bangladesh), and the Hindu-majority remainder became modern India. However, despite its clear Muslim majority (about 77%) and unequivocal claims from Pakistan that the region was theirs, the Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was undecided as to whether to join with Pakistan or India. In the resulting power vacuum, Pakistani fighters entered the region, intent on claiming it for Pakistan. Kashmir (in the person of Maharaja Hari Singh) then agreed to an "accession treaty" with India, in return for Indian troops pushing out the Pakistani invaders, and the region's uneasy relationship with India was begun. Arguably, then, it was the dithering of the Maharaja, and his failure to determine the future of his state before the transfer of power took place, that has led to all the bloodshed and uncertainty that has plagued this beautiful region ever since.
As a result of that first Kashmir war, both Pakistan and India came to control different parts of the zone, and a ceasefire line was established, although neither country surrendered its claims. A 1948 UN resolution, calling for the demilitarization of the area, was never acted upon, and the "reference to the people" (plebiscite) that was required as part of the Indian accession agreement likewise never happened, so its status remains anomalous (and, arguably, illegal). When India drew up its constitution document in 1949, Article 370 allowed Jammu and Kashmir to have its own separate constitution and its own flag, along with some limited autonomy over the internal administration of the state, particularly over citizenship and property rights (which, importantly, allowed it to block Indians from other states from moving there). 
Two inconclusive but bloody wars have since been fought over the state, which remains a potential flashpoint between the two nuclear-armed powers. Modi's precipitate actions this week might just have set the stage for a third.

RIP Toni Morrison, a great writer of any colour

American author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has died, after what her family calls a "long well-lived life". She was 88.
She was a great author, that much is undeniable. However, most of the accolades and eulogies after her death seem to revolve around her writing of the black American experience, particularly about slavery and its consequences. But surely that is not what made her writing great? She was not the first to write about black lives, although she was maybe the first to bring them, and particularly black female lives (and even more specifically, young black female lives), to a mass multicultural audience, and this is indeed an achievement worthy of celebration. But this, it seems to me, is not the same achievement as the quality of her writing - her use of language and her gift for piecing together a good compelling yarn - which reaches a level of greatness regardless of the social and political import of her subject matter. She was a great writer, not just a great black writer.
That said, to claim, as Dionne Brand does in today's Globe and Mail, that Ms. Morrison "was the greatest writer in English of the 20th century and the 21st", and that she "changed the texture of English itself" (whatever that might actually mean), is a clear case of excess and hyperbole. James Joyce changed English literature, as did Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and a (very) few others; hardly any individuals since Shakespeare can be said to have changed the actual language. Toni Morrison didn't really change literature or the language, but she used it very well for her own purposes.
So, let's celebrate her life and her art. But let's not wander off into the realms of, well, fiction.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Ten years later, Android still outsells iOS by nearly 6 to 1

Bloomberg Businessweek has produced an excellent potted history of the smartphone, and in particular, the ongoing battle between Apple/iOS and Google/Android. It outlines, in words and graphs, the precipitous growth of cellphone technology - the iPhone only came out in 2007 for god's sake, and Samsung popularized the Android platform soon after.
What I found particularly interesting, though, are the graphs showing iPhone and Android usage in different countries. Here in North America, we are used to thinking about Apple and Android phones as pretty much on a par, and the stats do show a 53% iOS and 46% Android split in both the USA and Canada (more iPhones than I expected, I confess). In Japan, Apple has even more of a lead, with 70% iOS and 30% Android, and Australia shows 57% iOS and 43% Android. But these are the only four countries IN THE WORLD where iOS outsells Android (the only other country where it comes close is the UK, which is split 49% IOS and 51% Android).
Everywhere else, Android has a massive market share, and what is noticeable is that the poorer the country the feebler the hold of Apple on its cellphone market. In most poor countries, Apple's market share is in single ďigits, sometimes as low as 1%. Which makes perfect sense, because the iPhone remains an expensive option, often more of a status symbol than a practical communications device. Richer countries outside of North America, like France, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia tend to have iPhone adoption in the mid-20%s, as do a few other outliers like Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Morocco and, perhaps surprisingly, China. Everyone else, though, below 20%, often below 10%. Overall, the world's smartphone users, prefer Android 85% of the time.
Basically, Android has democratized communications; if it were left to Apple, most of Africa, Asia and South America probably still wouldn't be able to afford a smartphone. I have to say, I find it quite gratifying, because for some reason I have always disliked Apple as a company. There's something just too slick about them, which grates, and I always hated their condescending and supercilious older advertising campaigns. When Steve Jobs' ranted "I'm going to destroy Android!" back in 2010, Andoid already had 85% of the smartphone market share. Well, it's exactly the same today.

Trade diplomacy as schoolyard bullying

More and more, high-level international trade diplomacy is starting to look suspiciously (and dispiritingly) similar to playground antics: a lot of shouting and bluster, the occasional underhand trick, and the even more occasional violent action. Like playground antics, it's discouraging and depressing.
As the USA and China face off like two schoolyard bullies unwilling to yield, and play around with hundreds of billions of dollars like they were Monopoly money, the playground parallels are hard to igore. "I'm going to slap tariffs on you!" Whack! "Tariffs right back at you!" Whack! "You're manipulating your currency - I'm telling teacher!" "Not so! I'm not buying any of your agricultural products unless you say sorry!" Whack! Whack! "So, meh!" In the meantime, bruises and wounds accumulate, and innocent bystanders are getting caught up in the fracas. It's not an edifying sight.
Unfortunately, there are no strong teachers patrolling the playground who can knock some sense into either of them. And neither of them is willing to compromise, let alone give in, even as their economies, and the world as a whole, pays the price. Come on guys! Grow up a bit!

Monday, August 05, 2019

Blaming mass shootings on mental illness is a red herring

I know I tend to do posts about gun control whenever there is yet another mass shooting in America (there have been many over the years - both shootings and posts), and really I'm over it. But I thought it worth commenting on Donald Trump's latest foray into the subject, in which he calls the latest shooters "twisted monsters", and tries to make a direct link between mental illness and gun violence: "Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun".
This, of course, is to try to take the focus off gun control in order to protect his gun-toting rural constituency. But it's a false conclusion. And don't even get me started on Trump's other solution to the problem: to extend the death penalty.
The mental health connection often comes up after mass shootings, but it's a red herring according to mental health experts,  researchers and criminologists. Some gunmen are indeed mentally unbalanced to some degree, but most people with mental illnesses are not violent, and are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Research shows that a country's rate of gun ownership is a much better predictor of mass shootings than mental health. Even the US Secret Service has concluded that "mental illness, alone, is not a risk factor" in public mass attacks.
I don't have mental health statistics at hand, but there is a stark differences in the rate of gun violence in the USA and other Western countries which are not dissimilar in many ways. In 2017, for example, the USA saw 4.43 deaths from gun violence per 100,000 population. Now, this may pale into insignificance in comparison with ultra-violent countries like El Salvadora and Venezuela, which have rates almost ten times as high, and several other Central American and Caribbean countries are substantially worse, as do countries like the Philippines, Lesotho and Brazil. But these countries are beset by social and economic difficulties (not to mention gang and drug cultures) that put them in quite a different league to America.
When we look at other more comparable western democracies, though, the real differences appear. Canada, which arguably has a similar gun culture in some demographics, although much less so than America, has a rate of 0.47 per 100,000, an order of magnitide lower. And we think things are bad here! Denmark has a rate of 0.15, the UK 0.06. Most developed Asian countries have rates even lower. Clearly, there is something very wrong in the USA, and the big difference is not in mental health, but in gun ownership and gun culture.
So, in fact, it is the gun that pulls the trigger after all, Mr. Trump. And branding shooters as monsters, loonies or any of his other non-PC epithets is not going to help anything.

Prayers are clearly not going to help stop Amercian mass shootings

As El Paso and Dayton recover from the latest American mass shootings, the usual platitudes and bromides are being offered, including that good old chestnut "our prayers are with the families".
So, how are those prayers working for you, America? Maybe time to try a different tack? Or maybe you could pray in advance of the shootings, that might be more beneficial (but don't hold your breath on that one).
So, kudos to Rashida Tlaib (yes, that radical and refarious member of the infamous "Squad") for calling out First Daughter Ivanka Trump for her formulaic prayers tweet: "Your prayers aren't working. Try checking your dad on his tweets. 251 mass shootings in the U.S. in 216 days."

Thursday, August 01, 2019

526 teeth extracted, all at one time

Well, put this one firmly in the "weird" category. A 7-year old boy in the south Indian city of Chennai has had 526 teeth extracted - all at once!
Young Ravindranath had complained of a sore and swollen jaw for years and, when it continued to get worse, he finally went to see a dentist and then a maxillofacial surgeon. When his jaw was opened up, the surgeon found a kind of sac which was filled with over 500 tiny teeth, ranging  from 0.1mm to 15mm, many malformed, but all exhibiting the usual crown, root and enamel coating of regular teeth.
Apparently, this is a rare condition known as compound composite odontoma, where abnormal teeth can form inside a mouth tumour, but scientists have never seen anything like this many superfluous teeth. Ravindranath is now pain-free, and apparently relishing all the attention his teeth has brought him.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The simple math problem that stumped the Internet DOES have an answer

Apparently, Twitter is all a-twitter over a simple-looking equation, 8÷2(2+2), which no-one can agree on. Some say the answer is 1; others say 16. Even math graduates can't agree on it.
Some say that it all comes down to which system you were taught for the order of operations: BODMAS or PEMDAS. BODMAS stands for Brackets, Orders, Division, Multiplication, Addition and Subtraction; PEMDAS stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Mutliplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction. The USA tends to use PEMDAS, while the UK (and most of its ex-colonies) tends to use BODMAS (Canada and New Zealand typically use the hybrid BEDMAS). Now, given that parentheses is just another way of saying Brackets, and Exponents another way of saying Orders, the two methods are essentially the same, except that Division and Multiplication are in a different order. Thus, under BODMAS (Division before Multiplication), the sum becomes (8÷2)(2+2) = 4×4 = 16. Under PEMDAS (Multiplication before Division), it becomes 8÷(2×(2+2)) = 8÷(2×4) = 1.
The conclusion might then be that the problem is poorly framed, and should make use of more brackets (parentheses) to make the meaning clear. Except that ... I think that this interprets both PEMDAS and BODMAS wrongly. My understanding, backed up by Wikipedia, is that, under both of these systems, the Division and Multiplication operations actually have the same level priority, as do Addition and Substraction. So, whether we are talking about PEMDAS or BODMAS, they are better written as Division/Multiplication and Multiplication/Division. If there is any ambiguity - for example, consecutive Multiplication and Division, as is the case in the problem originally quoted - then the convention is to go from left-to-right, i.e. as it reads. Therefore, under either PEMDAS or BODMAS, the sum becomes (8÷2)(2+2) = 16. Unambiguously. Definitively.
My confidence is boosted by the fact that my calculator gives the same answer. My daughter, however, thinks I am wrong because it relies on a rule or convention that many people don't know about. This does not seem to me to be a valid objection: math is full of rules and conventions that the average guy on the street doesn't know about, but that in no way invalidates them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Beyond Meat - a tasty compromise

My wife just bought some Beyond Meat shares, somewhat belatedly - although the shares have increased by a huge 780% since going public in May of this year, they just lost 12% since my wife bought in, on news that a second share offering was in the works. Typical! We're not too worried long-term, though, as the current love affair with plant-based foods, particularly the very "meaty" ones like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers, looks set to continue for a good while.
Now, we've been vegetarian for nearly 40 years, and so we've consumed a lot of burgers in that time. But I'm not convinced I like the ones that purport to taste, and even look, just like beef (which is Beyond Meat's philosophy) any more than the others. I'm not a purist who eschews anything that pretends to be meat completely, but I am just as happy with a black bean burger, or a cheaper basic burger like Yves or Presidents Choice. And I do wonder whether operations like Beyond Meat aren't sacrificing healthiness for mass marketing and the bottom line.
So, can a burger that processed really be healthy? Is it actually healthier than a beef burger? Beyond Meat's publicity insists it is, but the objective jury is still out.
Beyond Meat burgers are designed to look and taste just like meat, that's the point of it, and they are reeling in oodles of meat eaters who like the taste, but want to feel that they are pursuing a healthier option. As Beyond Meat's website explains, what it calls "animal-based meat" (and beef in particular) has been shown to be an unhealthy option, as well as environmentally unfriendly to boot. They argue that "plant-based meat" can only be an improvement, both in terms of health and the environment.
And that's probably true, but there is as yet little or no hard scientific data to prove that. With over 20 ingredients, including any number of flavour enhancers, acids and starches, Beyond Meat is definitely a highly-processed food - such as we are constantly enjoined to avoid - as well as being high in sodium and (non-animal, from coconut oil) saturated fats. It has much more sodium nd nearly three times as many total calories as an average veggie burger, and MANY times more fat. Indeed, it has more calories and sodium than some beef burgers, and as much fat. It is almost like they have gone out of way to make it as "sinful" as a beef burger.
Other nutritionists, though, argue that, regardless, it is still way safer and healthier than a "real meat" option, given the cancer and heart disease associations of processed meats, and the environmental benefits of pea protein isolate over beef farming are indisputable. It has 20g-22g of protein, putting it in very much the same protein league as beef, but with zero cholesterol, a good level of fibre, and the addition of most of a day's worth of Vitamin C.
Me, I will keep eating it, although not to the exclusion of other burgers. It's good, but not THAT good, and I don't eat burgers that often anyway. It may be less healthy than some other veggie burgers, but I don't have to eat healthy ALL the time, do I? However, I'm just waiting for the backlash, or the damning scientific study. Because it will surely come, and the panicky meat industry is probably working on it right now.

Is planting trees really the solution to climate change?

I often read articles suggesting that planting more trees is the miraculous solution to climate change (such as this one and this one, for a random selection). It's a comforting and pleasant thought. And then I read other articles pointing out that, while this might help to same small extent, just planting trees, even on a massive scale, is not going to be anything like enough to address the problem, and whether such a plan is anything like practical is far from certain. So, I decided I needed to understand the carbon process, as it relates to trees and other vegetation, a bit better.
I found an excellent article explaining the real relationship between trees and carbon dioxide, as well as the various models of understanding that regular folks have about them (and how close to reality they actually are). The article points to six main conceptions that people have about how trees affect our climate, some of which are more accurate than others:
  1. Trees filter carbon dioxide from the air - this is perhaps the least useful or accurate one: it suggests that trees take the "bad" things out of our air, giving the impression that the CO2 is just destroyed in some way, and there is no suggestion that destroying forests can release that CO2 back into the air.
  2. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide - this is a slight improvement over number 1 in that it includes the idea that trees temporarily store carbon dioxide, which will then be released again when the tree dies or is destroyed. However, trees do not really store CO2, they convert it into the other carbon-based compounds they need to survive and grow (sugars, cellulose, lignin). In fact, while trees do absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through the pores in their leaves during the day, the opposite occurs at night, albeit to a lesser extent, as well as during the metabolism of sugars by plant cells, and when it sheds its leaves (however, even given all that, trees do remain a net absorber of carbon).
  3. Forests are the lungs of the planet - the analogy with human or animal lungs is a little misplaced in that our lungs take in oxygen and expel other gases, including carbon dioxide, the opposite of what happens with plants and trees. But, as a metaphor, this model may be useful in that it emphasizes the idea of a gas exchange. But again, it suggests that the CO2 is essentially eliminated rather than stored or used by the plants. Also, it is NOT the case that trees provide all our oxygen, as is sometimes implied - if all our trees were killed, it would be an environmental catastrophe, but we would not suddenly find ourselves without oxygen. Cutting down a tree, or even a whole forest, does not suddenly release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as is sometimes claimed or implied. However, burning down a forest, e.g. for farming land, does release its carbon.
  4. Green plants use sunlight to convert CO2 and water into sugar - this is all true as far as it goes, and an understanding of the process of photosynthesis is essential. It provides the reason why trees and other plants take CO2 out of the air in the first place: the sugars they manufacture from it serve as food and building materials, and they only give off oxygen as a coincidental waste product of that process. However, bear in mind that, while the tree is actually using the sugars in its cells, it is doing the exact opposite: taking in oxygen from the air and expelling CO2, as it also does at night. 
  5. Green plants create biomass, while animals and decomposers break it down - although trees do use the sugars that they produce from the CO2 and water they take in to power their metabolic processes, the majority of it is actually used to produce cellulose and lignin (the "woody" parts of trees), for which other compounds like nitrogen are needed and obtained via the root system. This biomass therefore contains a lot of stored chemical energy (think firewood, coal, etc). But, yes, all plants are biomass, as are the undergroud roots and fallen leaf litter.
  6. The forests of the world are a huge carbon sink - a "carbon sink" is anything that absorbs and stores carbon in one form or another, so the carbon-rich biomass of trees (particularly tropical trees, which store even more carbon  than temperate trees) does represent a significant carbon sink. However, when fallen leaves or dead trees decompose, or when they burn, they yield carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. However, soils, particularly peatlands (which are prevented from decomposition by their acidity and moisture), as well as grasslands and mangrove swamps, are an even greater carbon sink: worldwide, there is more organic carbon stored in the top metre of soil than in all the above-ground biomass, including forests. Our fossil fuel reserves of oil, gas and coal are another such carbon sink, being just a buried source of compressed, undecomposed vegetation, so that when we burn it, we release stored carbon back to the air. Even limestone contains stored carbon, which releases CO2 to the atmosphere when we use it to make concrete, for example. And, given that carbon dioxide is water-soluble, the world's huge oceans are an even more important carbon sink than any of these land-based sinks.
A combination of the last three of these thought models is perhaps the best way of thinking of forests and their relationship with carbon and climate. But the complexity of the systems involved are a good indication of why the whole greenhouse gas/climate change issue is so fraught.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Is the real Excalibur in a chapel in Tuscany, Italy?

At the same party, an Italian friend told me about the existence of a real-life medieval sword-in-the-stone near a small town in Tuscany.
As an Englishman, I am well familiar with the Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur embedded in a rock, which only the young Arthur was able to extract, marking him out as the true king of all England. I am also aware that although the putative King Arthur is supposed to date from around the 5th - 6th centuries CE, the Arthurian legends only achieved popularity with Geoffrey of Monmouth's histories, written in the 12th century, possibly based on some unreliable reports from the 9th century, i.e. we are very clearly in the realm of legend here, and not history.
However, it turns out that there is a bona fide sword-in-the-stone in Montesiepi Chapel, near Chiusdino, Tuscany. The story goes that a wealthy 12th century knight called Galgano Giudotti had a vision of the Archangel Michael, who called on him to renounce all his worldly possessions. Giudotti replied that this would be about as easy as splitting a stone with his sword, but when he pretended to plunge his  sword into a nearby stone, it did indeed easily sink into the rock. Some time later, Giudotti found himself by accident at the very place he had seen in his vision, and he really did embed his sword into a rock, just as he had in his vision. For this, he was promptly made a saint, one of hundreds in Italy beatified over the centuries for totally unsubstantiated miraculous actions.
But, in a chapel built around the scene of the miracle, there is to this day a sword embedded almost to the hilt in a rock (see picture, right). No-one knows quite how this is possible or when it might have happened, but the sword design and its metal have been shown to be consistent with a 12th century weapon of the region, and ground-penetrating radar reveals a cavity below the sword that could be a burial chamber of some sort.
Some Italian academics have hypothesized that the Montesiepi sword-in-the-stone could have been the original inspiration for the English Excalibur legend. Certainly, medieval historians were not above the odd bit of colourful embroidery to make their histories a little more exciting, so who knows? As far as I know, no-one is suggesting that Arthur was in fact Italian, but this part of the story could well have been borrowed from Italy.

Why 40% of worker ants do absolutely nothing

At an afternoon party recently, a Swiss friend of ours, who is a bit of a science geek, mentioned a study he had heard about, which I found fascinating. A University of Arizona study from a couple of years ago found that as many as 40% of worker ants in a colony do absolutely nothing.
We are used to seeing ant colonies as a veritable whirlwind of activity and efficiency, almost machine-like in its single-mindedness and emphasis on productivity. But, on closer inspection, it turns out that nearly half of the workers actually just stand around doing essentially nothing - maybe a little grooming from time to time, a bit of brood care here and there, but most of the time nothing at all.
It turns out, after a laborious exercise of tagging and identifying individual ants in a colony, that these slacker ants are effectively substitute workers, who only perform useful work when the active workers are taken out, be it by predators or natural disasters (or, in this case, curious scientists). This reserve labour force appears to be an essential part of the colony, and if a colony is forced to relocate for whatever reason, the replacement workers are taken with them as though they are an indispensible part of the complex social system of the colony. Fascinating.

Don't drink wine, look at it! (POTUS)

Oenophiles take note: sage advice has come down from no less a personage than the President of the United States, in one of his most astute pronouncements: "I've always liked American wines better than French wines. Even though I don't drink wine. I just like the way they look."
So, there you have it, M. Macron. You (and everyone else) have been doing it wrong all these years. Jeez, when will this end?

A ban on climate change-causing glass buildings in Toronto unlikely

As the high-rise building spree in downtown Toronto continues unabated (in other areas of the city too, but downtown is the most obvious example), many major architects around the world are calling for new buildings to eschew the now-standard all-glass façade because such buildings are just too hard to cool in our increasingly hot summers.
Certainly in Toronto, that is just not happening - you only have to look at the impenetrable glass wall that surrounds you when you drive through downtown along the Gardiner Expresseay, for example. Those buildings are mainly triple-glazed, to reduce noise as much as to protect against frigid winter temperatures ("solar heat gain", in the industry jargon). That's a lot of glass, and don't expect it to be recycled glass either: it needs to be of the highest quality for such purposes. Some of it may be special laminated glass that darkens in bright sun conditions, much like polarizing sunglasses, to reduce air-conditioning requirements, but such glass is much more expensive and almost impossible to recycle. Bear in mind also, the double- and triple-glazed and laminated glass used in high-rise buildings typically needs to be replaced very 40 years or so.
With all this in mind, and given that around 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from the construction, heating, cooling and demolition of buildings, a small, tentative movement against the glass construction Zeitgeist has begun. New York mayor Bill de Blasio shocked the construction industry earlier this year by vowing to ban new glass-only buildings (as well as to make existing buildings more energy efficient), although he later qualified that to a ban on the "excessive" use of glass in buildings, and even that has gone ominously quiet since. There are certainly no signs of that happening in Toronto, though, and am I not aware of any movement in that direction, either now or any time soon.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Latest US Supreme Court decision more proof that it is a political not a legal body

The US Supreme Court has voted 5 - 4 to allow Donald Trump to use $2.5 billion in funds (funds that were originally approved by Congress for the Pentagon) to build his controversial border wall with Mexico. This comes after a California court ruled that the money could not be so used because it was not specifically authorized by Congress for that purpose.
Well, agree or disagree with the ruling as you like, it does raise the question of the extent to which it was a judicial or a political decision. The five Supreme Court members who voted to allow the revised use of the funds were all Conservatives, and the four who voted against it were all Democrats. Is it possible that all five Conservatives interpreted points of law differently than the four Democrats? Or did they just vote with their political convictions, regardless of the underlying legal issues? If the latter, doesn't this make the Supreme Court all but useless as an objective legal body, and merely a puppet of the ruling political party?
Bear in mind that Donald Trump appointed a new member to the court, giving it a 5 - 4 Conservative majority, after President Obama was prevented from filling the vacant poition towards the end of his administration. It also comes hard on the heels of another blatantly political decision when the Supreme Court ruled at the end June that it could not stop states from political gerrymandering by redrawing voter districts to the clear disadvantage of Democrat candidates. The margin? Yes, 5 - 4. It's an ugly conclusion, but an inescapable one.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Doctored US seal finally gets a worldwide audience

It turns out that the guy who created the false presidential seal that was the backdrop to Donald Trump's speech the other day actually used to be a Republican until Trump's election in 2016.
Image result for doctored presidential sealGraphic designer Charles Leazott became well and truly disillusioned with the Republican party after the election of Trump, whom he hates, and he uploaded the satirical doctored seal - which features a two-headed Russian eagle holding gold clubs and a wad of cash instead of arrows and an olive branch, along with a tongue-in-cheek Spanish motto in place of the original Latin - to an online marketplace along with a whole host of other images mocking Trump. And there it sat for years, until right-wing youth organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA) needed a backdrop for its Teen Student Action Summit, at which Donald J. Trump was to speak. They found Mr. Leazott's work online, thought it perfect for the speech backdrop, and apparently didn't study it too carefully. The image has since become a viral sensation.
Somebody from TPUSA will probably end up in a gulag or something for their error. But Mr. Leazott couldn't be more chuffed that his work has finally reached an appreciative worldwide audience.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Alberta has it pretty good, so stop whining already

The last few years have seen an awful lot of whining from one province in particular, Alberta. It seems we are constantly listening to complaints about how hard the province is having it due to low oil prices, and how the rest of Canada owes it a huge debt.
Well, it turns out that, even in an era of low oil prices, Alberta actually has it pretty good, certainly compared to the rest of Canada. The latest StatsCan figures of median household incomes for major Canadian cities show that Calgary households earn $99,583 in constant 2015 dollars before tax, and Edmonton $94,447, as compared to Toronto's $78,373, Vancouver's $72,662, Halifax's $69,533, and  Montreal's $61,790.
These are median figures, so obviously some do better and some do worse, but they are a pretty good comparison across the country, and they show what most people outside Alberta already thought: Alberta has it pretty good and should stop whining.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Kosher certifier sacked for.having the audacity to have a privae life

A legal case is currently going on which gives a bit of a glimpse into just how restrictive - and how ridiculous - orthodox Judaism can be.
Shimon Lipovenko is a Toronto mashgiach, a guy whose job it is to certify that food served at banquets, hotels and wedding venues is kosher according to the complicated Jewish dietary rules or kashruth (and don't even get me started on how daft, indefensible and random some of these are). Mr. Lipovenko, though, was sacked from his job after a rabbi found out that he was - shock horror! - living with a non-Jewish woman. She was apparently in the process of converting to Judaism, but clearly not fast enough or  far enough along to satisfy the Kashruth Council of Canada's "director of community kosher", who summarily fired Mr. Lipovenko on the spot,  on the grounds that his private life violates the organization's religious norms.
Lipovenko has already complained to the Ministry of Labour to obtain thousands of dollars in termination and severance pay, as well as overtime and vacation pay due to him. But he is also applying to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), asking for $30,000 for "hurt feelings, emotional stress and anxiety", as well as an official apology, a letter of reference for future job applications, and a requirement that the Kashruth Council of Canada (which goes under the acronym COR) be monitored for five years in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. The onus appears to be on the COR to convince the tribunal that its rules are reasonable, although frankly I have little patience with either side in the case.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hungary is an exasperating, if highly successful, outpost of social conservatism

There was an interesting article in today's Globe and Mail about a country that doesn't get too much media attention: Hungary.
The usual context of what media attention there is tends to be with reference to its clampdown on immigration and the autocratic tendencies of prime minister Viktor Orbán. In polite Canadian conversation, both are usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes. The only Hungarian I know talks of his birth country in disparaging and apologetic terms, usually with the same eye roll.
And yet ... Budapest is a beautiful and booming city, much beloved by weekend trippers from elsewhere in Europe and more serious culture vultures from further afield. In addition to its medieval and Hapsburg architectural heritage, modern Budapest is a hot spot for craft beers and vegan restaurants, full of trendy cafes and hybrid cars. It is undergoing an economic boom that is the envy of many another European city, and unemployment is at a record low.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Viktor Orbán is repeatedly voted in with substantial majorities. Yes, he has a penchant for suppression of the press, and a strident line on immigrants, both legal and illegal, but let's not forget that he has been democratically elected in to power four times now. Even though the country has very few immigrants, and is actually suffering from emigration and demographic decline problems if anything, the electorate regularly cites immigration as their main concern. So, arguably, Orbán is just providing the people with what they want, however ill-advised that may be.
Hungary is a profoundly socially conservative region, in part because it was hidden behind the iron curtain while the rest of Europe and North America was liberalizing during the sixties and seventies, and partly because it has chosen a much more conservative and Christian route even after it was freed from Soviet rule in 1989. A favourite slogan of Orbán's Fidesz party is "Ebbol nem kerunk", roughly translated as "we don't want any of that", meaning liberal values represented by the European Union and enlightened and influential Hungarians like George Soros (against whom Orbán has been waging an ideological war for years).
The day will probably come when Orbán is voted out of office, but that day does not look likely to be soon, as his Fidesz party has broad support from all sorts of demographics, from Christian grandmothers wary of a return to Soviet atheism, to well-heeled businessmen happy with the coumtry's economic stability and low corporate taxes, to the traditionally socially conservative Roma community who have seen some substantial government handouts, to the poorer end of the working class who have seen the minimum wage almost double in the last decade.
Orbán may be a nasty piece of work in some respects, but he has also done a pretty astute piece of political manoeuvring over his long tenure. Hungary remains, then, an interesting, if exasperating, place. You can just imagine Donald Trump peering enviously at its record and its political strategies. It is no coincidence that former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has described Orbán as "Trump before Trump".

Friday, July 19, 2019

Now we know exactly who Andrew Scheer is, and it's not pretty

The conventional wisdom is that "Canadians don't know Andrew Scheer" or his policies. It's a phrase that pops up regularly in the press and given that he is relatively new and what policies he has put forward are extremely light on details, that is probably true.
However, the more he opens his mouth, the worse things look, and I think we have now heard enough from him to know him quite well enough. Conservatives always have a tendency to want to turn back the clock to what they think of as the good old days, and what most people realize were actually the bad old days (c.f. Donald Trump, Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, to name just a few currently in power), and Scheer is no exception. It is for this reason that most of their policies tend to involve undoing what progress has already been made, rather than introducing anything new or positive.
Scheer's latest target for negativity is Canada's recently updated Food Guide, which has garnered much praise from scientists and policy-makers at home and abroad. Specifically, he objects to the lack of emphasis on old-style food groups in the new Food Guide, and even more specifically the downplaying of the meat and dairy groups (well, he was talking to the Dairy Farmers of Canada lobby group at the time). Quoth he: "Canadians know that meat and dairy products are an important part of a balanced diet". We-ell, yes and no. "Canadians" now know that the saturated fat in meat and dairy is pretty unhealthy, and that there are many other sources of protein that are just as good or better. Of course, that's not what the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Meat Council want to hear, but that's what the science tells us, and that's what the Food Guide tells us.
Scheer seems to find it impossible to believe that the new Food Guide can be accurate because it did not take into account the points of view and wishes of lobby groups like the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Meat Council. "The process was flawed - complete lack of consultation". Not actually true, but anyway, that kind of axe-grinding is exactly what the Food Guide people tried to avoid, for the first time EVER, and quite rightly too. As the director of the World Health Organization's Collaborating Centre for Nutrition policy for Chronic Disease Prevention (also a practising professor of nutrition sciences) commented in response to Scheer's allegations of partisanship, "It's irresponsible of him ...What does he want it based on? Not evidence? Lobbying?"
Scheer went on to make the shocking assertion that, "I truly believe that chocolate milk saved my son's life" (that's chocolate milk which has 50g of sugar in a 500ml carton, of which 28g are added sugars).  He says that the Guide is "ideologically drive by people who have a philosophical perspective and a bias against certian types of healthy food products". Er, no.
Scheer has vowed to "review" (read, "scrap") the Canada Food Guide at his earliest convenience, as well as to scrap the Liberals' plan to make front-of-package labels mandatory for foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat, arguing, "The idea that these types of products we've been drinking an eating as human beings for millennia, that now, all of a sudden, they're unhealthy? It's ridiculous!" How scientific is that?
So, whoever Andrew Scheer is, he is clearly in the pockets of industry and lobby groups, to an extent that even Justin Trudeau can't be accused of, and science and common sense obviously have no place in his world view. Do we really want to know him better?

Monday, July 15, 2019

The origins of the weird scoring terminology in tennis

Listening to a tennis umpire, or even the TV commentary, can be a bit of a bewildering experience until you get used to it. Even once used to it, it can be a bit puzzling until you know a little of the history of scoring in tennis. But even then much of it remains unexplained and mysterious.
Fifteen-love. Fifteen-all. Fifteen-thirty. Fifteen-forty. Deuce. It doesn't seem to make much sense. It's tempting to assume that fifteen, thirty, and forty (as shorthand for forty-five - there are mentions from the fifteenth century of forty-five, not forty, in tennis scoring) are based on the quarter hours on a clock, with a game marking a complete hour on a clock face. But minutes on a clock were not used until the late 16th century, and did not become common on clocks until substantially later than that, so that theory does not hold water.
Tennis developed from the French game jeu de paume, played with the palm of the hand rather than a racquet, and dating back to the thirteenth century, before morphing into real (royal) tennis and, ultimately, lawn tennis. In jeu de paume, a player winning a point moved forward fifteen metres for the next point, and then again for the next, and then ten metres for the final point of the game, providing a possible better explanation of the fifteen, thirty, forty progression. But even this is disputed.
As for the used of "love" to mean zero, a common supposition is that it is from the French l'oeuf for egg, to represent a zero. Or some say it is from the Dutch lof, meaning honour. "Deuce" to mean a score of forty-forty, is almost certainly just an anglicization of the French deux, for two, like in playing cards, or deux de jeu, meaning "two points from the game", to indicate that two clear points are needed to win the game. And "ace" to  mean an unreturnable (or at least unreturned) serve is probably also adopted from the ace in cards to mean unbeatable, although why the connection with cards is anyone's guess. As for "all" to indicate a tied score? No idea.
It is surprisingly difficult to pin down the origins of the strange terminology that we now take for granted in tennis scoring. Even the word "tennis" itself is of uncertain origin, although it probably comes from French and Anglo-Norman words like tenetz, tenez and tenes meaning "hold!" or "take!", which may have been called out before a serve, rather like "fore" in golf.
So, any wiser? Nah, thought not.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Unproven stem cell treatments may end up in court

Stem cell therapy is being touted as the latest cure-all by some of the more unprincipled members of the medical profession. The procedure involves removing cells from a patient's body, manipulating them, and then re-injecting them into the patient, supposedly to promote regeneration and healing. The scientific consensus is that the treatments are unproven and not ready for public consumption, and that in some cases they may even be dangerous.
Nevertheless, there are now hundreds of stem cell clinics across North America, despite the lack of scientific evidence of their efficacy, other than in a few very specific areas like bone marrow stem cells to treat some forms of blood cancer. This has not stopped stem cell clinics marketing regenerative treatments for any number of conditions, from multiple sclerosis to congestive heart failure to autism to spinal cord injuries, from pain relief to anti-aging treatments to orthopedic injuries.
Not only is there no evidence of the efficacy of stem cell treatments in these areas, there is a distinct risk of actual injury from them, and there have been numerous reports of serious injuries - including blindness, infections and tumour growth - as a result of ill-advised stem cell therapies. Gullible patients are wasting large amounts of money on treatments that may be no more effective than a placebo, and in some cases may even cause injuries. The media, always keen to be in on the next big thing, is complicit in boosting the spurious claims of stem cell therapists, and of course the even less reliable social media is even more to blame (just look at the steady stream of patient testimonials and unproven anecdotal claims on YouTube).
But doesn't the health system have built-in controls over this kind of thing, you say? Well, yes and no. The Food and Drug Administration in the USA has belatedly started to clamp down on the unproven claims of stem cell clinics, and Health Canada has also issued warnings against them too. There are various class action lawsuits going on in the USA against some prominent clinics. But reversing the hype will not be easy, after years of pop-culture enthusiasm, and much more needs to be done.
And then there are cases like the Sudbury doctor (yes, let's name names: Dr. Scott Barr at the Ontario Stem Cell Treatment Centre) who says he plans to defy a Health Canada injunction and continue giving stem cell injections to desperate people for all manner of ailments, despite the complete lack of high-quality scientific evidence. Dr. Barr claims they are effective against ALS, MS, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn's disease, and many other conditions, and he claims it is "the right of patients to have these procedures".
Health Canada has recently served injunctions on dozens of clinics performing stem cell treatments, as well as the equally dodgy practice of platelet-rich plasma injections. It also issued a policy statement stating that cells extracted from patients qualify as drugs, and so must submit to rigorous clinical trials and federal approval like any other drug. This seems pretty clear to me, but Dr. Barr seems intent on his lonely crusade, and the case will presumably end up in the courts.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Making do is a good alternative to today's rampant consumerism

As someone who can often be found darning socks or glueing broken furniture or jewellery, and who gets all his books from secondhand book stores and all his clothes from Value Village, an article on the art, or rather the philosophy, of making do was bound to catch my attention.
We seem to be living in a disposable age of built-in obsolescence. Resourcefulness, and making the most out of resources, is not a valued attribute in this day and age. The article mentions in passing a few eye-popping statistics about our shopping behaviour: the average Canadian buys about 70 new pieces of clothing each year, only 10 of which get recycled through thrift stores; the average article of British women's clothing gets worn just seven times before being discarded; Canadians spend about $9,000 a year on consumer packaged goods, about twice as much as we did 25 years ago; we replace our smartphones every 25 months on average; average Canadian homes have doubled in size over the last generation, despite the average family size shrinking. And remember, these are just averages: correcting for people like me, who do mend and make do and don't really care much how scruffy I look, then many others must be leading a ridiculously profligate and wasteful life.
One solution to this madness may be the trendy Marie Kondo method of decluttering, although this does not seem to preclude buying new things at the same rate as before, and may lead to even more wastefulness than currently. And asking "does this item spark joy in me?" seems like a particularly ludicrous benchmark by which to judge things - some things just need to be useful and effective; they don't have to bring me joy.
Making do is a much more pragmatic approach. Instead of asking whether something brings me joy, all I need ask is "does it fulfill its intended use for me?" It is about using things well, using them up, making them perform to their limits. It also reduces the urge to buy things we don't really need, and teaches us to think about the real value of things. It's also the environmentally responsible solution to owning "stuff". Oh, yes, and it saves us money.
It behooves us, then, to ask "do we really need that new car, that new computer?" when the old one still works fine. It behooves us to get a little more mileage out of clothes, furniture and appliances. And don't even get me started on kids' toys... We don't have to take it to extremes - any extreme behaviour is almost certainly ill-advised or at least unsustainable. But putting a bit more thought into what we buy and what we throw away can help the planet, and it can help us too. And if I and my 24-year old daughter can do it, it can't be that hard.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Canadian Plastic Bag Association succeeds in making the world a worse place

Who knew there was such a thing as the Canadian Plastic Bag Association? Their raison d'être seems to be to make sure as many plastic bags are produced and used as possible. They are the implacable energy of any moves by municipalities or provinces looking to reduce, or even prohibit, single-use plastics, or any other environmental improvements that might result in fewer plastic bags being used. It's kind of an embarrassing job to admit to at a party.
Their latest "success" is a decision by the BC Court of Appeal to deny the city of Victoria's ban on single-use plastic bags, instituted last year. The court's justification (and the wedge issue that the Association made use of) is that provincial legislation requires that the provincial Minsister of the Environment sign off on any municipal by-law that deals with environmental protection (don't ask me why - it sounds like a ridiculous law).
So, good job Canadian Plastic Bag Association! You have successfully made the world a worse place. Way to go! And they are not done yet: they are currently gearing up to oppose the federal government's plan to ban single-use plastic nationwide.

Canadian premiers on a power trip at the expense of the country and the people

The current crop of Conservative premiers here in Canada are so intent on protecting their own little fiefdoms - what they refer to as "jurisdictional issues" -  that they are losing track, or just plain don't care about in the first place, the greater good. 
The federal climate change initiatives and carbon taxes are one such example, with Quebec recently citing those same "jurisdictional issues" as it's main concern, even though it is supposedly in favour of climate change. National pharmacare, which clearly needs to be national in order to be effective, is an even more egregious one, with some provinces willing to throw all the potential benefits of a national pharmacare program under the bus so long as they get their own fix of power and control.
I don't remember a time when such a collection of petty, tin-pot dictators were in power, and showed such disdain for the country as a whole and its people. Hanging onto, and increasing, their own power, and pushing their own narrow little agendas, at the expense of anyone and everyone else, is all they seem to be interested in.
Just as an aside - or maybe it actually goes to the heart of the problem - it was noticeable that, at this year's meeting of Canadian premiers, there were no - zero! - women at the table, this for the first time in many years. As recently as 2013, six out of the ten premiers were women, and now ... none! The premiers made much of the sense of unity they felt this year but, if they are all middle-aged white guys, why would they not? Whether it bodes well for the country is another matter entirely.
Somebody somewhere voted for these premiers, but they probably weren't thinking that things would turn out like this. In fact, they probably weren't thinking much at all.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Do Conservatives really have to resort to Trump-like tactics to win these days?

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is playing the populist card to the hilt, and taking a leaf out of Donald Trump's playbook when it comes to playing fast and loose with the truth.
In a recent open letter and tweet (well, of course he is sharing this stuff over Twitter, like his mentor!), he claims that Trudeau and the Liberals are instituting a "secret fuel tax" which will "increase the cost of gas by at least 4c/l". In fact, he is referring to the Liberals proposed clean fuels standards, a far from secret measure that is intended to help Canada (belatedly) achieve its goals and commitments under the Paris climate change accord.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, a business-at-any-cost organization if ever there was one, estimated that the clean fuel standards move could add about 1.5c to a litre of gasoline and 3.7c to a litre of diesel. So, Scheer's figure of 4c/l is a little disingenuous to say the least. Even worse, though, is his claim, or at least strong implication, that poorer families could suffer by as much as $100 a month because of the changes. At 4c/litre, this would mean that these poor struggling Canadians were using 2,500 litres of gas a month, which, assuming an average fuel efficiency of 10l/100km (for the sake of convenience), would require a monthly drive of 25,000 km, and be costing them over $3,000 a month in gas costs. Hardly surprising that they are living paycheck to paycheck in that case!
This is just the latest howler by Scheer, and you know it will be far from the last in this election season. Is this the only way that Conservatives can get themselves elected these days? What's depressing is that it does seem to work - witness Donald Trump, Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Brexit, and several other campaigns in recent years. It seems like you have to go back a good few years before you find a conservative elected on their own merits, without resorting to these kinds of underhand and nefarious tactics.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

British ambassador to USA forced out for telling it like it is

Much as I hate to mention the name again, Donald Trump has forced the British ambassador to the USA to resign after having a hissy fit in response to leaked emails from the ambassador.
Respected British career diplomat Sir Kim Darroch resigned after Trump petulantly tweeted that he and his administration "will no longer deal with him", putting Darroch in an untenable position. And Darroch's crime? Daring to criticize the Trump administration in private internal emails, including comments like, "We don't really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal, less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept", and bemoaning the "infighting and chaos" within the White House.
So, really, just what everyone else had been saying for years now. Is Trump really unaware that the rest of the world, and at least half of America, hates him, and has zero confidence in his administrative and leadership abilities? Does he not realize that people talk about him like this (and much worse) all the time? Is no criticism now permissible? And is he really that thin-skinned after his years in power? Trump's response - not private, but tweeted for all the world to see - was much more offensive, as he called Darroch "wacky", " a very stupid guy" and "a pompous fool", as well as laying into Theresa May and Britain in general. But this is apparently not grounds for  resignation in his case.
And then, of course, there's the whole issue of how all this came to light. An internal inquiry has been called into the leak, and the possibility of a criminal investigation has been raised. Why would anyone have leaked such private emails, knowing full well that an international incident was almost certain to be provoked? Money, I can only conclude. And, of course, it was the Mail on Sunday that published it (paid for it?), not a reputable paper, and they have a good deal of responsibility for the whole fracas.
But the biggest culprit? I have to say Donald J. Trump, for his wild and excessive reaction, his narcissism and his bullying tactics.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

"Cakeism" as a model for public policy

I was introduced this week to the concept of "cakeism" -  as in "have your cake and eat it too" - which is used to describe politicians who see no problem with wanting, or believing in, two totally irreconcilable things.
It is most often applied to Boris Johnson, and the pro-Brexit movement in general. This probably dates back to Johnson's 2016 witticism, "My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it", which works fine as a witticism, but less so as a model of public policy. It pretty much sums up Johnson's impractical, populist, pie-in-the-sky brand politics.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that the phrase "have your cake and eat it too" only dates from the early 19th century (the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have used it after the Battle of Waterloo, for example). But it is actually a misstatement of a much earlier phrase (recorded in the 16th century, from the hands of John Heywood and Jonathan Swift among others, but probably in use much earlier than that), "to eat one's cake and have one's cake too". Which, when you think about it, is a more logical description of irreconcilable ambitions than the later, reversed, version. But maybe that's just being pedantic.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Indonesia's nascent #MeToo movement receives a body blow

If we think things are going badly here - or in America or in Britain or whatever you like - spare a thought for poor benighted Indonesia.
Rarely mentioned in the press, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country (and the fourth most populous country of any kind), and a horribly conservative and repressive society. It has only found its way into the news now thanks to the work of some brave women, and the patriarchal backlash against them.
Specifically, Baiq Nuril Baknun, a teacher on the Indonesian island of Lombok, who reported the abusive and lewd phone calls from her school principal, resulting in his eventual dismissal, has had the tables turned against her, and had been convicted herself of violating Indonesia's strict pornography laws. The Supreme Court of Indonesia overturned her earlier acquittal by a lower court, after the disgruntled principal brought a case against her, and has jailed Ms. Baknun for 6 months and fined her over $46,000, all for recording her superior's phone abuse in support of her own allegations.
The court decision can apparently not be appealed. The only possibility is of a grant of amnesty by President Joko Widodo, but don't hold your breath for that particular outcome.
So, here we have a censorious patriarchal society closing ranks, and closing down dissent from Indonesia's nascent, but very tentative, #MeToo movement before it even gets going. It does not bode well.

Women's soccer, in an age of American dominance

Throughout the recent FIFA Women's World Cup of Soccer, people have spent a lot of effort and journalists' time inspecting and reassessing their attitudes towards the team from the United States of America. We try to love them, but they make it very difficult.
The US women's soccer team is big and brash and beautiful (some of them anyway). As far as playing the game goes, they are just seem to be in a different league, so to speak, from everyone else. But they do seem - at least to everyone else - to have a bit of an attitude problem. From their 13-0 crushing of poor old Thailand in the opening rounds (and the excessive celebrations that met every single goal), they just make people bristle. In their defence, they argued that, hey, this is the World Cup, why would they not try their best to score as many goals as possible, whatever the competition looks like, but STILL...
Some of the players' comments after games have been, well, lacking in subtlety, humility and respect. And then, or course, every time star and captain Megan Rapinoe opens her mouth, she seems to offend someone, notwithstanding her outspoken hatred of Donald Trump, which most people around the world CAN relate to and sympathize with. That's just who she is: openly gay, and the loudest voice on the team calling for equal pay with the men, she is a larger than life presence both on and off the field. She is the Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez of the women's game. But STILL...
England had a good team and had a chance to beat them, at least theoretically. But some bad luck, a few iffy refereeing decisions, and some largely unwelcome and unfortunate interference from the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) put paid to that. Hell, even Canada might have done OK on a good day, had they not been knocked out by the Netherlands at an earlier stage, so we'll never really know. And even European Champions the Netherlands were not even able to hold the USA back when it came to the finals.
It seems like the USWNT will get their ticker tape parade through the streets of New York, but Megan Rapinoe has famously refused to go to The White House, even were they to be invited. Mr. Trump says she lacks respect, and she does. But it still might be quite fun to see two disrespectful braggarts going at each other.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Does Kawhi know he could pay less tax in Ontario than in California?

As all of Toronto (and most of the rest of Canada) continues to obsess over whether Kawhi Leonard will re-sign with the Raptors for another year (or five!), I wondered what the financial implications if the decision might be. Everyone automatically assumes that he will be taxed much more highly in Canada than he would be in California, but I know that is not necessarily the case, and that Canadian and American taxation is not that different overall. Anyway, luckily, someone has done the math for me (of course they have, it's the INTERNET).
Tax guru and advisor to the rich and famous Tim Cestnick, with help from cross-border tax specialist Mark Feigenbaum, has looked at the income and tax implications of Kawhi's decision, and it seems like all is not lost. There may be some other minor professional and personal issues to take into account, but if it comes down to money, Mr. Leonard can sign on the dotted line tomorrow.
Toronto's offer is for US$146 million over 4 years (yeah, I know!), which is the equivalent of US$36.5 million a year. The Lakers and Clippers are offering a similar, but slightly lower, US$140 million over 4 years, or US35 million a year. Paying tax in Ontario, Canada (and the additional US taxes required) on $36.5 million would leave him with a paltry $17 million a year after taxes. However, California is also quite highly taxed, and paying taxes in California on $35 million would leave Kawhi with $17.4 million after tax, essentially on a par.
The kicker might be, though, that, under the NBA collective bargaining agreement, the Raptors could pay Kawhi a signing bonus of up to 15% of the total compensation, which would only attract a tax rate of 15%, if properly handled, which would effectively bring his take-home pay above that offered by the two California teams.
So, slam dunk!

Slam dunk? Not so much. Kawhi Leonard signed with the LA Clippers yesterday, (Danny Green also moved on). Probably nothing to do with the Canadian tax system, and probably nothing to do with the city itself. As the ever-wise Cathal Kelly advised just yesterday, we should not take this personally and, who knows, it may even be for the best.

Trump's Fourth of July military parade just par for the course now

Ah, America. What are we going to do with you?
I honestly thought that Donald Trump's extravagant and embarrassing Fourth of July military spectacle - a feat of personal hubris worthy of Azerbaijan or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War (the first one) - would be enough to give even his rabid supporters pause, to think that maybe the man has overstepped the mark. But no, they just lapped it up, teleprompter gaffes notwithstanding. Trump's approval ratings may be down in the low 40s, but those that do like him, like him a lot. Interviews with attendees suggest that they saw nothing inappropriate, experienced no cognitive dissonance, in the event.
In fact, cognition barely came into it at all. This was all about emotion, and the conviction that God-given America is under siege from outside forces who speak a different language. Yes, they want abortion rights repealed. Yes, they've drunk the unlikely Cool-Aid about trade protectionism and tariffs, secure in the belief that this will somehow benefit them in the long term (and sod the rest of the world who may be pushed into recession). But mainly people whonwere interviewed talked about immigrants - dirty, thieving, lazy immigrants, who come to the United States to sponge off the state, rape the blonde beauties of Middle America, and generally wreak havoc.
It's a fascinating narrative, trotted out like scripture or some moralistic ancient folklore, and they believe it implicitly, despite the evidence to the contrary. Hell, even the Cato Institute, that Koch-funded bastion of libertarianism and right-wing bluster, has been showing, year after year, that undocumented migrants are substantially less likely to break the law than native-born Americans (why would they risk being deported, after all the effort and emotional strain they experienced to get there?) But that's not the story Trump supporters are fed, and heaven forbid that they should check the facts.
So, a parade of military hardware, tanks and fighter planes, and an hour-long speech about American military superiority and the hordes at the gates, at a taxpayer-funded and traditionally apolitical celebratory event is just, well, par for the course (to use a golf reference that Mr. Tump may approve of). Dear god, how long will this nightmare last?

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Serving in tennis - it's all about the balls

I've been watching Wimbledon, and wondering why players study a bunch of balls before rejecting most of them before they serve. Well, it seems like the question has been asked before, and The Guardian has come up with a convincing answer.
It's all to do with hairy balls. Newer, less-used tennis balls tend to be smoother, with flattened-down hair, while balls that have been bashed around for a while are fluffier. Smoother, newer balls go faster, but it is harder to get a "grip" on the ball, so accuracy may suffer. This is the kind of ball most players would choose for a first serve, where some risks can be taken in the hope of a quick, easy point. The older, fluffier balls will often be chosen for a second serve, where accuracy and control is more at a premium, and there is less room for error.
So, there you go: study your balls before you serve. You know iplpppp
 makes sense.