Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Wind power inspires Trump to unprecedented flights of rhetoric

Donald Trump's speeches are often indecipherable streams of consciousness (or perhaps unconsciousness), although his supporters seem to like them. Gone are the days of oratory and rhetoric - and not that long gone: Barack Obama produced a few speeches for the ages. Indeed, gone are the days of whole sentences and coherence.
A recent campaign speech to young conservatives in Florida (yes, apparently the next election has already started) was one of his most incomprehensible and amusing. Wandering at random, over about an hour, the "speech" - reminiscent of a Rick Mercer rant without the pithiness, humour or political sophistication  ranged and raged over the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi, the impeachment process, and the Republican so-called Never Trumpers, whom Trump summarily dismisses as "the dumbest human beings on earth".
Pride of place in the speech, though, and the subject that brought him closest to apoplexy, was devoted to that scourge of the earth, wind power. No-one is entirely sure just why Trump has decided that wind turbines (or "windmills", as he calls them, possibly in an attempt at satire) deserve such unrelenting attention, although some believe it stems from a wind farm in Scotland that had the audacity to blight one of his golf courses. Be that as it may, the subject yielded some howlers at the speech earlier this week:
  • "I've studied it better than anybody I know."
  • "I never understood wind. You know, I know windmills very much. They're noisy. They kill the birds. You want to see a bird graveyard? Go under a windmill some day. You'll see more birds than you've ever seen in your life."
  • "They're made in China and Germany mostly ... But they're manufactured tremendous, if you're into this. Tremendous fumes. Gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So, the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon foorprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right? Spewing. Whether it's in China, Germany, it's going into the air. It's our air, their air, everything, right?"
  • "You see all those [windmills]? They're all different shades of colour. They're like sort of white, but one is like an orange-white. It's my favourite colour, orange."
  • "You know what they don't tell you about windmills? After ten years, they look like hell. They start to get tired, old."
Positively Shakespearean, and evem more difficult to follow. Cicero is probably doing cartwheels in his grave right now.

The P-word probably stands for pusillanimous

I came across a delicious little off-the-cuff article by David Sedaris in The Guardian about all those word that have become too politically incorrect to be spoken out loud, and and have to be rendered as "the initial-word" in polite conversation.
The N-word was probably the first to be given this treatment, and is probably still the most sensitive and sacrosanct, despite the fact that the majority of the black population of North America seem to positively over-use it. The C-word is perhaps not far behind, and while it is usually used for that part of the female anatomy that remains to this day the most shocking and risqué swearword, it is also used to stand for "cancer", "Chink", even, apparently, "commitment". D is for "divorce", E for "evolution" in some rarefied circles. F does not usually stand for "fuck", except in the more prudish parts of the mid-west, but is more likely to be used for "faggot" in New York City. The G-word is, I am assured, "gypsy", which is now pejorative and deprecated. And L? No, not "lesbian", which is still an acceptable term, for now at least, but "love", the feeling that dare not speak its name.
Ah, the power, and occasional pusillanimity, of language...

Hilariously, Burger King has just been called out by a bunch of Conservative American moms for using another D-word in an ad. The culprit. You probably won't guess it, so I'll tell you: "damn". Is that even a curse word any more? What lives these people must lead..

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Ontario tries to kill yet another wind farm for spurious reasons

Ontario's renewables-killing government is at it again, this time attempting to cancel an almost-completed wind farm on flimsy and spurious grounds.
The Nation Rise Wind Farm, just southeast of Ottawa, was approved by the previous Liberal government, after a full environmental assessment completed in January 2019, and construction began this last May. 16 of the planned 29 turbines are fully or partially built, and the project owners, EDL Renewables Canada, have already spent or committed $230 million to date.
Now the Ford government is calling for the entire project to be summarily cancelled, their stated reason being - wait for it - that it poses a threat to endangered bats in the region. So, Doug Ford has suddenly developed a concern about wildlife and endangered species? Well, no, but that is the stated rationale for the challenge. This is despite the fact that EDP's approval noted that the company had gone "far beyond industry standards amd provincial requirements" in this respect, including a requirement to monitor bird and bat deaths, with additional measures to be taken if bat deaths exceed 10 per turbine annually. They have also pledged to shut off turbines in low winds during the bats' migration period.
Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek now says that this is inadequate, despite advice fron bat experts who maintain that EDP is doing a pretty good job of protecting the relatively fee bats which do call the area home for at least part of the year. And this is the government, remember, that recently amended and weakened the Endangered Species Act to allow developers to pay a fee instead of implementing mitigating measures to protect an endangered species... And the government whose first action in power was to cancel 758 renewable energy contracts at huge cost to the taxpayer, and then another wind farm in Prince Edward County at a cost of $231 million.
Cancelling the project at this stage could cost the province's taxpayers as much as (another) $200 million, to say nothing of weakening investor confidence in the province (again!) The company is taking its case to the courts. But, really, what a government this is!

American economic success comes at a great cost

If Donald Trump is re-elected in 2020, it will be because the US economy is doing well. From GDP to unemployment to the stock markets, it seems incontestable that the US economy is going through a boom period, at least in general terms (the poor quality of the jobs being created, and the unequal distribution of the new wealth are matters for another blog). Trump, of course, maintains this is entirely down to him and his policies, although there is a good case to be made that he is to some extent still riding on the coattails of Barack Obama and the economic turnaround he achieved during his presidency.
Be that as it may, the elephant on the room is that it is not so hard to preside over a successful economy if you do away with most of the safeguards and regulations that have been instituted over the years to protect the environment, the longer-term health of the economy, and the social fabric of the country.
Trump rode to power promising to get rid of as many regulations as possible - what he characterizes as "red tape" that is strangling business, even though American business was actually doing very nicely thank you, even with the regulations - and he is doing a pretty "good" job on that score. Conpanies are, predictably, taking full advantage of the lack of regulation, and making hay (and profits) while the sun shines, the result being an apparently booming economy.
But those regulations were put there for a reason, even if not a reason that Trump would recognize. For example, if businesses do not have to pay or account for the environmental externalities of production, whether in terms of its carbon foorprint, pollution profile, or whatever else, then clearly it is much easier to make larger profits, to sell more abroad, and to generally appear successful. Other countries will see how well America appears to be doing and look to emulate its success, at the expense of their own environment, income equality and social safety net (looking at you, Canadian Conservative party). In a race to the bottom, ethics take a back seat to economics, and the world rapidly becomes a worse, more unsustainable and unstable place.
In addition, giving successful businesses tax cuts may encourage businessmen to fight even harder for higher profits, but if that comes at the expense of workers, they won't think twice. And, of course, less tax revenue means more national debt and/or cuts to government services, all of which gets overlooked in the simplistic GDP measurement we are used to: more hidden costs.
For all of this, we have Donald Trump to thank: for single-handedly lowering the tone of political debate, for making "caring" a dirty word, and for encouraging short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability. But, mark my words, those hidden costs will come home to roost eventually. Probably long after Mr. Trump is comfortably retired, but roost they most certainly will.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Trump is impeached, and still nothing has really changed

As the news comes in that President Trump has been impeached by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the reality also sinks in about how little this really matters.
Indicted on both counts (of abuse of power and obstruction of justice), the vote went, predictably enough, almost exactly along party lines, with not a single Republican daring to risk Trump's displeasure by voting with their conscience rather than with their party leader. The self-same thing happened at Bill Clinton's impeachment, even if the charges in that case were relatively paltry. And the same thing will happen when the second part of the impeachment process takes place, the vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. (Incidentally, many people, including Republicans, think that the result would be very different if senators were allowed a private or secret vote, but Republican senators are too scared of Trump's retaliation to vote agaist him publicly). So, the chances of Trump actually being removed from office are slim-to-none.
While the impeachment process may have been the right thing to do ethically, if only to remind the President that he is not above the law (not that he cares!), do not confuse this with political expediency. We are in much the same position now as we were before: the Democrats can justifiably call Trump out on his actions, and Trump can play the martyr. Few, if any, votes will change in 2020. Sad, but true.
Oh, and watch for Trump to double down on retaliation against Democrats (and any Republicans who dare to oppose him). If you think he's been pretty nasty so far, my preduction is: you ain't seen nothing yet.

SNC-Lavalin guilty plea achieves pretty much what a DPA would have

Well, l'affaire SNC-Lavalin petered out with something of a whimper yesterday as the company's construction division pled guilty to a charge of fraud related to its activities in Libya back in the early 2000s. It will pay a $280 million fine (which many analysts consider unexpectedly cheap), and is subject to a three year probation order. This comes just days after the former SNC-Lavalin executive Sam Bebawi was convicted for his personal part in the fraud.
The other, potential more damaging, charge of bribery under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act was dropped, and the company thereby avoided a criminal prosecution that might have resulted in the company as a whole being barred from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years (this, under a OECD anti-bribery comvention that Canada signed onto in 2012). This would have been a potentially ruinous outcome for SNC-Lavalin, and one that Prime Minister Trudeau and many others in the Liberal caucus were keen to avoid, if only because of the huge employment footprint the company carries. Justice has seen to be done, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, and the company can now pick up the pieces and resume business as usual. SNC-Lavalin shares surged with the news.
Sounds a mite cynical perhaps, but such is the nature of big business. These kinds of legal cases and deals are being entered into all the time. In the end, Mr. Trudeau was not able to swing his preference for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the company. But the net result was actually pretty similar - a fine, a bit of probation, and business as usual.
So, arguably most the political unpleasantness of the last year could have been avoided by allowing the company the take advantage of a DPA. But a certain MP, now sitting as an independent, decided to go nuclear on principle (or in promotion of her own political career, depending on your outlook and your level of cynicism), which probably also cost the Liberals their majority in the last election. In the end, Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not really get what she wanted either, even though she got her way at the time. And at what cost? Her loyal sidekick, Jane Philpott, definitely did not get what she wanted as she lost her seat completely at the last election.
Personally, I'm still not convinced that the PM exceeded his authority - the ethics commissioner's report notwithstanding -  and I'm still not entirely sure about Ms. Wilson-Raybould's motives. Neither am I convinced that the best interests of the country were served by her crisis of conscience. But anyway, it's all over now. Can we please get on with the important stuff.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Canadian show jumping team to miss Olympics due to a coca tea

I am all for the recent clampdown on illicit substances in sport, but occasionally you can't help but feel that the powers-that-be are being a little over-zealous.
A case in point is the rather harsh decision against the Canadian equestrian show jumping team, based on a positive drug test at the PanAm Games in Lima this last summer. One of the team of four, 26-year old Nicole Walker, tested positive for cocaine after drinking a coca tea in a Lima hotel. Coca is a widely-available and perfectly legal tea in Peru, and while it is techically made from the same leaves that are used to manufacture cocaine, the effects of coca tea are very mild. To add insult to injury, Ms. Walker, a big tea drinker, apparently intended to drink green tea, but the coca and green teas come in a very similar packages.
The worst part is that the whole team of four (and, arguably four horses!) will be disqualified from next year's Tokyo Olympics as part of this decision, which seems a bit ridiculous. The Canadian team placed fourth in the PanAm Games, and would be considered as medal contenders in Tokyo. Shades of 1995, when a four-person Canadian rowing team lost their PanAm gold medal because one member took an over-the-counter cold remedy!
I know we need strict rules against drugs because there are s lot of people out there abusing them (looking at you, Russia). But surely testing is sophisticated enough to distinguish between performance-enhancing drugs and coca tea or Robitussin! And why ban the whole team for the dubious sins or misjudgements of one member?
The team will appeal the ruling, and feel that they have a good case to make. Don't hold your breath, though, and definitely don't take any Benedryl.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Biosimilars instead of biologics? Why not?

So, what's with all this talk of biologics and biosimilars recently?
Biologics have been around for a while now. They are a type of drug or medication made of living cells that are injected or infused into patients by IV. They are typically used for chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, diabetes and to increase the white blood count of patients receiving chemotherapy treatments. And they are expensive. For example, one popular treatment for rheumatoid arthritis costs almost $1,000 per vial.
Biosimilars are near-copies of original biologic drugs whose patents have expired, making them much cheaper than the equivalent biologics. They are perfectly safe, having passed all the same tests as biologics, and in the vast majority of cases they will do the same job as the biologics they replace.
The reason these drugs are in the news is that Alberta (yes, Alberta again) is in the process of passing a law to replace biologics with the much cheaper biosimilars, in cases where patients are on government-sponsored drug plans (i.e. not covered by private insurance, and not patients who pay their own drugs out-of-pocket). Pregnant women and children are also excluded from the law. The province says it expects to save between $227 million and $380 million over four years (a huge spread, which suggests they don't really know), money that can be applied elsewhere in provincial healthcare. British Columbia and several European countries already have very similar laws.
This sounds pretty sensible at first blush, but some specialists in the affected medical fields are crying foul, saying that some patients will be adversely affected. The bulk of the  international evidence, though, suggests that biosimilars are just as effective as the biologics they mimic, and the Alberta plan does include a provision that a patient can apply for an exemption if their doctor can prove that there is a medical reason why switching would be inadvisable.
It seems to me that the law has thought of most possible drawbacks and made provision for them. So, much as I hate to offer support to an Alberta government that is getting so much so wrong, this is one case where it seems to be getting it right.
But another question I have is: what are these "government-sponsored drug plans"? Do Alberta and BC have some kind of provincial pharmacare system that I knew nothing about? If so, why doesn't Ontario?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Collatz Conjecture is a little closer to being proved ... say, what?

Now, I'm no mathematician (although, after producing my History of Mathematics website some years ago, I still get emails from earnest, presumably young, mathematicians asking for my professional opinions on their latest revolutionary theorem or solution...), but I do find some of this stuff interesting.
For instance, I just found out about an interesting conjecture, posited by German mathematician Lothar Collatz way back in the 1930s. The Collatz Conjecture is sometimes called "the most dangerous problem in mathematics" or "a siren song" because it appears so simple, but it has confounded the best mathematicians ever since. Many a mathematician has been tempted to solve it, only to disappear down its rabbit hole for years on end, to the exclusion of other, more profitable or more meaningful, work.
In essence, the conjecture asks you to pick any starting number and, if it is odd multiply it by 3 and add 1, and if it is even, simply divide it by 2. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum. For example: 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1. Or: 320, 160, 80, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1. The conjecture is that, given that you start with a positive whole number, the series will always run down to 1, and not spiral away to infinity. In fact, it will always end up at 4, then 2, then 1. Which is certainly what seems to happen, but the trick is proving it (which is where the serious mathematics and algebra comes in).
Anyway, the reason, this came to my attention at all is because an Australian-American mathematician called Terence Tao has managed to get a little bit closer to proving the conjecture, by proving mathematically that the conjecture is "almost" true for "almost" all numbers. While this sounds like a distinctly underwhelming and unimpressive cop-out to us non-mathematicians, apparently this is considered one of the most significant proofs on the conjecture in decades, and the kind of thing that may open the floodgates to a complete proof one day.
So, there you go, a little glimpse into the obscure world of pure mathematics.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Alberta blackens its image still further after protests over elementary school project

If an example were needed of how far Alberta (and you could easily add Saskatchewan into the sentence) has gone wrong, how far it has strayed from Canadian normalcy, you could do no better than a quick perusal of the recent shenanigans over a school social studies project.
A teacher at a Blackfalds, Alberta, elementary school gave a Grade 4 social studies class a project that involved showing two videos about Alberta's oilsands, one (suitably positive) from the provincial government, and the other (predictably negative) from Greenpeace. Wow, you might think, maybe Alberta does have its shit together. That's a great project, with lots of scope for analyzing the different approaches, the different interpretations of "the truth", and the different ways in which videos can be used for propaganda and indoctrination.
Well, maybe, but what then transpired could only have happened in Alberta (or Sakatchewan, or some of the more redneck states south the border). Some parents of the Grade 4 class started to complain about the project on a Facebook group, alleging that the project is biased against the oilsands. Protests were mounted, culminating in some veiled, and not so veiled, threats of physical violence against the teacher, and more specific threats that resulted in the cancellation of the school's upcoming Christmas dance event.
To its credit, the local school district has come out strongly in support of the teacher, and the parent who made the strongest threats has received an RCMP ticket for "disturbing or interrupting the proceedings of a school". But the damage is done: the kids are traumatized, the dance has been postponed, and Alberta has cemented its reputation as a head-in-the-sand, backward-looking dinasaur with anger management issues. Way to go, Alberta.

Why most of those Christmas song were written by Jews

A new movie/dramatization/documentary celebrates the little-known factoid - which I did actually know, but had forgotten - that most of those schmaltzy, ultra-American, inescapable Christmas songs that take over stores, shopping centres, even whole radio networks for two months every year, were actually written by Jewish songwriters. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas investigates how Christmas became a staple of Jewish songwriters who didn't even celebrate Christmas.
And we are not talking here about a few Chritmas songs: most of the famous ones that you'll know, and either love or hate, were penned by Jews. I failed to find a definitive list, but songs wholly or partially written by Jews include (Jewish writers in bold):
  • White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells)
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks)
  • Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith)
  • The Christmas Waltz (Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne)
  • Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish)
  • It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (George Wyle and Edward Pola)
  • Silver Bells (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
  • Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (Johnny Marks)
  • I'll Be Home for Christmas (Walter Kent and Buck Ram)
  • A Holly Jolly Christmas (Johnny Marks)
  • There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays (Robert Allen and Al Stillman)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie)
  • Let it Snow (Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne)
  • Santa Baby (Joan Javits and Philip Springer)
  • You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch (Albert Hague)
  • Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector)
  • Silver and Gold (Johnny Marks)
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? (Noël Regny and Gloria Shanyne Baker)
And why, you ask? Well, no particular reason. It's just one of those odd cultural phenomena that seems like it should have a good, satisfying explanation but it really doesn't. It's not like a bunch of Jews set out to co-opt a popular Christian institution. It just so happens that many popular American songwriters in the post-War years happened to be Jewish, and songwriters would write whatever was popular, or whatever they were commissioned to write.
And it's not like these are deeply spiritual Christian songs. With the possible exception of Do You Hear What I Hear (which was actually written during the Cuban missile crisis as a peace song)they do not deal with "the Christmas story". They are not Christmas carols, which is a whole other genre of songs. They are generic songs about the Christmas time of year, as it is lived in America - winter, presents, parties, food, etc.
Which is why they have been taken up with such aplomb by schools in our politically correct, secular, inclusive times. Which I, as a secularist, should welcome. I just wish they were not so schmalzy and schlocky (good Jewish words both). And I wish they were not so ubiquitous and so pervasive.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Canadian LNG exports are no solution to climate change

New Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has injected an element of realism into the Liberal climate change plan when he plays down the prospect of Canada's being able to use exports of liquified natural gas (LNG) to produce carbon credits for Canada, despite what the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers may think.
Canada and some other countries have been feverishly  working on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which holds out the possibility of one country earning emissions credits when it exports a lower emissions fuel to another country. If that sounds to you a bit like smoke and mirrors and creative accounting, you may be right. Ex-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna seemed very keen on the idea, but new recruit Wilkinson is furiously back-pedalling and reducing expectations.  He has been quite clear that, in his view, Article 6 offers Canada no immediate promise for LNG.
And quite rightly too. There is little to no evidence that Canadian LNG exports will ever be accepted by the UN framework as a source of carbon credits. When British Columbia (which is where most of our LNG comes from) produces LNG, it substantially increases Canada's carbon emissions. LNG may create less greenhouse gases than coal per unit of energy - although even that is debatable, given that LNG produces much more methane than coal, in addition to carbon dioxide, and methane is a much more potent, if less long-lived, greenhouse gas than CO2 - but it is far from a zero-emission solution.
As the Globe's editorial today points out, if Canada exports LNG to say China, can we argue that we should get credit for reducing China's (and the world's) greenhouse gas production? Can it not be just as easily argued that it has increased the world's greenhouse gases by discouraging Chinese investment in zero-emission renewables? And why anyway should Canada and not China get that credit? And good luck negotiating such an issue with China in particular.
Anyway, I have always found BC's narrative on LNG - that it is environmentally-friendly, and the best option as we wean ourselves off coal - as disingenuous. Kudos to Mr. Wilkinson and the new Liberal administration for at least starting coming to terms with this, and for moving away from some of the more fanciful solutions to the climate crisis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Yes, Trump is still being impeached, it's just taking a while

The Trump impeachment process grinds on its weary way. Yes, it's a major and disruptive undertaking, and there needs to be checks and balances. I get it. But how many times now have we seen headlines like today's: "House Democrats expected to unveil formal charges in Trump impeachment".
Didn't they already do that? At least once before? The process seems interminable, composed of a near-infinite number of all-but-indistinguishable steps, apparently designed to string the process out as long as possible, maximising the chargeable time of lawyers, and tying up elected law-makers for the maximum possible time.
Just do it already, and let's move on. Throughout all this legalistic navel-gazing, the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and all of the needy domestic issues that have been on hold for months now remain on hold.

Russian athletes banned - again

Well, Russia has been banned from international athletics competitions due to its egregious doping habits. Again. If it feels like we've been here before, you're not wrong.
So, there will be no Russian flags at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But, just as in the last Olympics, there will be Russian athletes, competing under a "neutral" banner. The same will probably apply for the FIFA World Cup, if Russia were to qualify. And, just like all the previous times that Russia has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), there will be appeals, so don't even assume that this ban will stick.
Even some WADA personnel (including outgoing vice -president Linda Helleland) admit that the current ban is just not enough to deal with "the biggest sports scandal the works has ever seen".

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Who's two-faced now, Donald?

If Donald Trump calls Justin Trudeau "two-faced" and then adds innthe same breath that he is "a very nice guy"' doesn't that make him even more two-faced?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cheap renewables AND expensive electricity? What gives?

Ontario's notoriously renewables-averse Conservative government is using Germany as an object lesson in why NOT to pursue renewable energy.
Now, granted, Energy minister Greg Rickford was caught out in the embarrassing act of using using unreliable stats from climate change-denying website, Climate Change Watch, which he described as one of his "favourite periodicals". But what is the truth behind the great German experiment in Energiewende (energy transition)?
Well, it turns out that Germany, as well as fellow renewables pioneers Denmark and the state of California, are all paying for some of the highest-priced electricity around. This seems irrefutable. But, just as irrefutable, renewable energy from wind and solar is in fact among the cheapest energy options available, and their prices have been plummeting in recent year. So, cheap energy AND expensive electricity? What gives?
The answer is far from simple, but it seems likely that the problem lies in the inherent  unreliability of renewables, the very complaint that opponents have been flinging at the new technologies all along. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine and, when it does blow and shine, it is not necessarily at the time when electricity is most needed. This therefore requires relatively expensive electricity generation from gas (and even coal) plants to take up the slack, as well as the still-expensive option of battery storage. And, if too much renewable energy is produced, it may need to be offloaded on to neighbouring countries, AT A COST rather than at a profit. All this can have the effect of substantially increasing the cost of delivered electricity, and the greater the share of renewables the greater this problem rears its ugly head.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheap energy can prove expensive in the end, something that German economist Leon Hirth predicted some years ago. This is not to say that the renewables route should be abandoned. The point is to to generate CLEAN electricity, not necessarily the cheapest electricity. We may need to tone down the "renewables is cheap" rhetoric a little, and clearly much more work needs to be done on how to fix these teething problems (for example, Califormia has already figured out a fix for the complex problem of how the use of batteries can increase carbon emissions). But renewables still remain our best bet for generating electricity in an environmentally sustainable way. That part hasn't changed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Why did Toronto get stuck with the YYZ airport code?

Have you ever wondered why Toronto ended up with such an unmemorable airport code as YYZ? Probably not, but I have. Miami has MIA, Berlin has BER, Vienna has VIE, London Heathrow has LHR, and Toronto has ... YYZ. What gives?
Well, if you look it up, the explanation goes that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is responsible for such things, decided, in its infinite wisdom, that all Canadian airports should have a code beginning with Y. Thus, Vancouver is YVR, Winnipeg YWG, etc. I have never seen a good explanation for exactly why this first letter requirement applies to Canada, and not to the USA, Spain, Japan, etc. I understand that there are many more countries than the 26 letters of the alphabet, but why Canada should have this stipulation and not other countries, I have no idea.
So, given the initial Y, I can see why YVR works for Vancouver, and YOW for Ottawa. But YYZ? Well, the explanation given is that YZ was the old telegraph identifier for Malton, Ontario, which was the nearest town to where Toronto airport now sits. An explanation perhaps, but not a very convincing one. YTO does exist, but it is the umbrella identifier for all airports in the Toronto area, including Toronto (YYZ), Billy Bishop City Airport (YTZ), Hamilton (YHM), and Waterloo (YKF).
And, in case you were wondering, TOR also exists, and it is the code for Torrington Municipal Airport, which is just outside Torrington, Goshen County, Wyoming! Seems kind of unfair, don't you think?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Leeches, leeches, leeches

In the mid-altitude rainforest of Sinharaja in Sri Lanka, leeches are at the top of the food chain.
We were warned before we came here about the leeches, but we were blasé and heedless. Not for long though. After a quick half-hour birdwatching walk along a paved road in the nearby village, I had already picked up two leech wounds, completely unawares, which proceeded to bleed copiously for the next two hours, all over the lodge bedsheets as well as my clothes.
When we finally entered Sinharaja Rainforest proper the next morning, they were absolutely everywhere - millions of them, probably even billions in total - noodle-thin and only a couple centimetres long in the main, unlike the big fat Canadian leeches we are more used to, but making up for that with sheer numbers.
And by their persistence. You don't even need to be stationary for them to latch on to a boot (and we were stationary much more than I wanted, thanks to some avid, over-achieving birders in the group). If ever we stopped for more than a few seconds, you could see them heading in our direction, like something out of a horror movie. Once given an in, they somersault and cartwheel their way into your socks, or up your pant legs, even all the way up to your stomach, shoulder or neck, in no time at all. Our guide gleefully regaled us with stories of someone who had one attached to his tongue (don't ask me!). Tucking clothing in seems to make little or no difference to them. They even found their way around (through?) the official "leech socks" some people were wearing - yes it's a thing, look it up.
You can pluck them off before they do to much damage if you are quick enough, but then you will find them happily sucking on your fingers, however quick you think you have been. You can end up shaking them off one hand and then the other for some time. The only real way to get rid of them is with a brisk flick of the finger nail, which I soon perfected, although by that time of course two more will have started their journey up your boots... By the end of the day, we were all semi-paranoid, and I must have flicked away many hundreds (even thousands) of them over the day.
And they are nigh on indestructible. I'm not proud of it, but at one point I was desperate enough to set about completely destroying them, rather than just removing them, and believe you me, it's not easy. I ground one under my boot heel for almost a minute, and somehow, inexplicably, it was still wriggling and coming back for more, a little slower perhaps but nevertheless undaunted. I have no idea how that is even possible. I flushed one, which had hitched a ride back to our room, down the toilet: it just effortlessly latched on to the slick, smooth procelain, and then continued its inexorable progress back in the general direction of my blood. It was a depressing sight, and not a little alarming.
I know that leeches are not actually dangerous and do not carry infectious diseases, and they are actually pretty cool animals in their own way. But, by the end of the day, our outdoorsy group of birders and nature-lovers was reduced to a collection of anxious, twitchy, leech-haters. There were barrel-loads of leech jokes and plenty of banter and bravado that night, but pretty much everyone was surreptitiously scratching and checking their ankles. I don't think any of us were sad to leave that beautiful but blighted place the next day.

Birders - a breed apart

The mind of the serious birder is a strange thing.

Birders, Udawalawa National Park
Our current Sri Lanka trip is billed as "Culture and Wildlife", but as two out of the four of our group are pretty serious birdwatchers, birding has become the main (though not sole) focus of the trip. So, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe the mind of the birder in action, as I have on a few other similar trips in recent years.
And a fine mind it is, typically. They are genned up on a myriad small factoids and details concerning bird descriptions, behaviours, habitats and much more. They tend to have an encyclopedic memory, although mainly for bird-related data - birds they have seen (and when and where), birds they want to see, birds that night possibly be found in the particular area of the particular country they happen to find themselves in, etc, etc.
Birding guides are even more finely-tuned data machines, and also have enhanced senses capable of definitively identifying a small bird from a fleeting fly-past or a brief distant snippet of song, or spottong a stationary camouflaged owl in a dead tree. It's really quite extraordinary to observe. Guides, however, at least have the advantage of years of experience with the local bird population, and often higher degrees in the subject. And they are at least principally doing it to earn a living wage. Arguably, they are just doing their job - very well - but for most it is most definitely also an abiding passion.
And single-minded? While we would be taking in a cliff-top view of a sweeping bay, or a two thousand year old temple, the birder is quite likely to be looking the other way with a pair of binoculars glued to his eyes (and yes, it's usually a he). The holiday becomes an exercise in competitiveness and goal attainment: to "get" all 34 endemics, to meet or exceed the total bird count of last year's equivalent trip, etc. Entire expensive vacations are planned around adding to the birder's list of "lifers". I guess it's all harmless enough, admirable even. I'm just not sure I understand that level of single-mindedness.
Don't get me wrong. Birders are, in my experience, "nice people": affable, intelligent, gentle. It's just their intensity and their single-mindedess that slightly worries me. But that's probably becuae I have never had that kind of all-consuming passion for anything. You could consider that a blessing or a curse.

How to drive in Sri Lanka

After almost 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, the local driving habits still give me the willies.
We started off our holiday with a few days in the bustling hectic capital city, Colombo, which, as regards coping with traffic, was something of a baptism of fire. Cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes and the ubiquitous little three-wheeled tuk-tuks, even the occasional horse-and-cart, all vie for dominance in the cut-throat game of chicken that is Colombo traffic. Road markings, where they can be made out, are moot, pedestrian crossings likewise, and many of the traffic lights are not actually working. Vehicles of all kinds nip into any available space, as though to fill a vacuum, and the air resounds with the sounds of horns of various tones and tunes, creating a constant barrage of ambient noise.
At first, we were very tentative pedestrians, scuttling across roads in the shadows of other, more confident, local pedestrians. But, after a while, we realized that, in Colombo at least, fortune favours the brave, and, if you walk out with enough chutzpah, cars and even tuk-tuks will in fact stop to let you cross (buses less so, and you do risk life and limb walking out in front of one).
It was quite noticeable that the various taxi and tuk-tuk drivers we used were remarkably calm and unperturbed by all the chaos around them, and remained zen-like even when cut up unashamedly by a tuk-tuk driver on a mission. All the hooting and horn-blaring is not in anger, but merely to say, "Look out, I'm coming through" or simply, "I am here", or sometimes just, "Hello". The driving appeared aggressive to us, and it is certainly a dog-eat-dog road culture where giving any quarter is clearly seen as mere weakness to. But everyone seems hyper-aware of the vehicles around them, and, improbably enough, I don't think we actually witnessed a single accident the whole time we were in Sri Lanka.
In more rural areas, the traffic moves faster, and appears to the outside eye to be equally aggressive and chaotic. Here the buses, both government and private, rule the roads, and you don't mess with them. Overtaking on blind corners is perfectly normal, and other vehicles just lurch onto the shoulder or grass verge if necessary, with nary a backward look or a bad word. On the many miles of steep, winding, often single-track, roads we traversed, passing (both oncoming and same direction traffic) is achieved by whatever means necessary, and somehow, miraculously, it all seems to work. Wild animals and, particularly, the massive population of stray and feral dogs present added obstacles on rural roads, and drivers have to be constantly on guard for the occasional elephant, water buffalo, wild boar or monitor lizard to amble across the road around any corner. Whole herds of lazy cows wander around on the roads, with no apparent human supervision.
But it was the dogs that really stressed me out. There are thousands of them, mainly around villages, but sometime out in the middle of nowhere. The early mornings are particularly tricky, as most dogs seem to acually sleep on the roads, and only grudgingly move for traffic, if at all. Some dogs appear to be able to continue sleeping while traffic whizzes past within centimetres of them. "Let sleeping dogs lie" seems to be the watchword, and Si Lankans deal with them with great sang-froid.
One particularly bizarre part of the road network is around Hambantota, on the south coast, which is where the current (outgoing) president hails from. He has authorized a huge network of brand new, beautiful, four-lane highways around the town (finished just in time for the November elections) even though the roads see very little traffic. It feels almost spooky to drive over a large clover-leaf intersection - top-notch engineering worthy of North America or Europe - with hardly any vehicles to be seen. The locals, though, particularly motorbikes and tuk-tuks, have already learned to improvise, and now drive both ways down both carriageways. Sri Lankan traffic drives to its own rules.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The fantastical makeup creations of Mimi Choi

I recently came across a Vancouver-based makeup artist called Mimi Choi. Here is a sample of her three-dimensional makeup work (taken from a Google Images search):

Some of it (most of it, actually) I have no idea how it can possibly be non-photoshopped. Some of it is just plain insane. Apparently, she suffers from a condition called sleep paralysis, in which she wakes from sleep but cannot move, and at these times she sometimes experiences vivid and often frightening  visions, which inspire some of her stranger and more fantastical creations. Some of them take four or five hours to create.
If you want more, there are more photos on Mimi's website, some even stranger and more puzzling than than these.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Who are the Kurds, and why does everyone seem to hate them?

Since Donald Trump summarily pulled American forces out of Syria, we are seeing more and more pictures of downtrodden Kurdish families trekking into Iraq as refugees as Turkey declares open war on the whole Kurdish people. But why, and who are the Kurds anyway?
The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. In fact, with a population of some where between 25 and 35 million, they make up the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after the Arabs, Persians and Turks), and one of the world's largest peoples without a state. Their ancestry in the region stretches back to at least the 3rd millennium BC, although their ethnographic origins are heterogeneous, incorporating several different predecessor ethnic groups in the region. Their homeland straddles the mountainous regions of a whole bunch of countries, with the main populations living in southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southwestern Armenia, an area usually referred to as Kurdistan (land of the Kurds), although such a name is not to be found on any official map.
That's because the Kurds don't have an official homeland. After World War 1 and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies did in fact make provision for an independent Kurdish state as part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevre. However, just three years later, at the Treaty of Lausanne, when the boundaries of Turkey and its neighbouring states were finally set, there was, inexplicably, absolutely no mention of a Kurdistan, and the Kurds were split up and isolated as minority groups in the various countries where they still find themselves today. They have been suppressed and denied basic rights in almost all of the countries in which they have a presence.
Since then, various attempts have been made to establish a Kurdish state. For example, in 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to fight for a Kurdish homeland within Turkey, and an armed struggle has been raging there ever since, with an estimated 40,000 casualties and hundred of thousands displaced. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and by the USA. The nearest thing there is to an autonomous Kurdish state is the Kurdistan Regional Government within Iraq, which was established in 1991 and has long had it's own military force, the Peshmerga, which played a prominent role in the Iraq War of 2003-9, and was instrumental in bringing down both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
More recently, beginning in 2013, Islamic State targeted Kurdish areas in northern Syria, and the Kurds were drawn into the war that has roiled the Middle East ever since. Fighting independently, as well as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces and as a partner with the US-led Western coalition, they distinuished themselves as fierce and reliable fighters, and they helped drive the IS "caliphate" out of the region almost completely.
Since the US pull-out in October 2019, though, Turkey's huge military has moved into the region, and the Kurdish inhabitants have been forced to flee for their lives. Trump's actions and rhetoric have all but sanctioned a move by Turkey against the Kurdish minority, and the ultra-nationalist Turkish President Erdogan needs a little encouragement to pursue such a course.
The Kurds speak their own language (albeit with several different dialects that almost constitute separate languages), and have many distinctive traditions, although many different tribal affiliations and political interests mean that they have never had a unifying national allegiance. There has been, and continues to be, a lot of political infighting within and between different  Kurdish interests. The Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Syria have significant oil deposits, which further complicates the political situation, and maps have been drawn and redrawn many times over the last decades as a result.
Kurds are mainly Sunni Muslims, with a sizeable minority of Shias, Yazidis, Yarsans, Zoroastians and Christians. Physically, they are indistinguishable from the other populations in which they live. But, despite making up 15-20% of countries like Turkey, Iraq and Syria, they have never been accepted into mainstream life there. Except for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, most Kurds are essentially refugees in their own land, and the driving force behind all this appears to be nothing more than the racism of the majority against the minority. Turkish ultra-nationalisn and "Arabization" policies in other countries have resulted in a backlash against Kurds verging in genocide in some cases. The latest Turkish incursions are being called ethnic cleansing by some; at the very least least, Ergogan's reckless and destabilizing move is a fully-fledged invasion, complete with brazen attacks on civilians and allegation of war crimes.
And all this could have been avoided by a little more forethought by the conquering western forces back in 1923.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

UN plans to reverse desertification to help with climate change

In the aftermath of a UN conference on desertification, 196 countries have signed on to a scheme to reverse desertification with a view to sequestering more carbon in the soil, which UN climate scientists say should provide a 15-20 year buffer in which to look for more permanent solutions to the world's climate crisis.
The scheme, which the scientists estimate will cost around $300 billion (about equivalent to the GDP of Chile, or the world's military spending in just 60 days), is being billed as an affordable short-term solution, which will have the added benefit of increasing the food-producing land of many countries currently struggling to feed it population due to desertification.
Note that this is not making deserts into productive agricultural land - deserts are viable and valuable natural ecosystems in heir own right - merely returning land previously lost to encroaching desertification back to productive status. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, of the 2 billion hectares of productive land lost to desertification, through misuse, overgrazing, deforestation and other human activities, 900 million hectares could be recovered and revitalized through a judicial use of fertilizers and irrigation and improved agricultural practices.
It certainly sounds like a win-win situation. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Raptors' championshio rings - too many diamonds, too little class

All of Toronto, and most of the rest of Canada, was overjoyed when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA basketball championship back in June. We don't win much in the big leagues of sports here, and people were more than ready for a big celebration.
But the Raptors just unveiled their 2019 championship rings - a ridiculous tradition at the best of times - and they may just have jumped the shark. The huge rings, about the size of a clunky watch, break all sorts of records: most diamonds (640), highest total carat weight (14 tcw), largest single diamond (1.25 carats), etc. Various Toronto landmarks and symbolic numbers from the winning season are picked out in diamonds and rubies in the design, which was made by Windor, Ontario-based company Baron Championship Rings, and designed, at least in part, by point guard Kyle Lowry. But the overwhelming impression is that they are excessive, tasteless and just plain ugly.
I don't know if it's something to do with the apparent predilection for tasteless bling in hip-hop culture, but the whole concept has clearly spiralledout of hand. Time to dial it back, guys.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Why does the Bloc Québécois even exist?

The Bloc Québécois has always been an anomaly in Canadian politics. But, in the current federal election, the indications are that they are undergoing something of a resurgence, after being relegated very much to the sidelines in the last (2015) election. So, anomaly or not, we have to take them seriously, because they may be in a position to influence policy in the expected minority government.
The Bloc is shameless - it is unapologetic in supporting any party that allows it to gets it own way on issues that it thinks important, regardless of where that party may be on the left or the right. It does have some policies of its own on a whole host of issues, but arguably the only philosophy, the only ethics, it recognizes is the preeminence of the province of Quebec. That is its raison d'être and its ultimate mandate, and anything else is negotiable or ignorable.
But what really rankles is that the Bloc, in the current environment, is no longer even a separatist movement. After the separatist radicalism of the 1980s and 1990s, Quebec today no longer really even wants independence. The pragmatic message seems to have sunk in, and most Quebeckers have come to accept, whether they would say so out loud or not, that an independent Quebec would be economically disastrous. The Bloc itself can never say so in so many words, but what it aspires to now is "autonomy" not "independence". Even "increased autonomy" would do, in its less ambitious moments.
So, what they are saying is that Quebec deserves more say in the way national/federal politics affects their beloved province. This seems to me to be a particularly precious and indefensible viewpoint. Any province could say the same (Alberta often does, although it does not have a specific political party devoted to it like Quebec). If Quebec is just another province - and it is, notwithstanding any bluster about it being a separate "nation" or a "distinct society". The majority of people just happen to speak French there, not English, but Quebec "culture" and "society" is no different at heart from the culture of any other Canadian province. They eat pizza and watch Netflix just like everyone else.
Quebec is convinced that it is "special" and merits some kind of enhanced status, over and above that of other provinces, in defiance of the constitution and the Charter of Rights and common sense. My simple question is "why?" I have yet to see a convincing argument.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Regional politics even inserts itself into the latest kids' blockbuster movie

Politics manages to worm its way into pretty much everything. The latest casualty is the Universal Pictures animation Abominable, which is about a Chinese girl who discovers and befriends a magical yeti, or abominable snowman.
Sounds innocent enough, no? But Vietnam has just pulled the movie from cinemas, and both the Philippines and Malaysia have ordered a  certain scene to be cut before the film can be shown. The culprit? No, not a full frontal shot of a yeti, not a salacious depiction of Mohammed or Jesus Christ. The problem is one short scene in which a map of China is shown which includes the U-shaped dotted line used on Chinese maps to include a controversial group of islands in the South China Sea.
The movie was produced jointly by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and the American DreamWorks Animation. Somebody in Shanghai obviously figured that was the right map to show, and nobody in America had any idea that it might not be. Of course, if they had shown a different map, China would probably be boycotting the film right now, so you really can't win.

What the Unknown Pleasures album cover actually shows

Somehow - inexplicably - it has been 40 years since the release of Joy Division's first album Unknown Pleasures. I was a callow university student at the time, and I was dutifully blown away by it, different as it was from anything that had gone before, reaching a level of intensity few albums before or since have matched.
And then there was that album cover - stark, white on black, mysterious, textless, supremely evocative of the skittering, disquieting music inside. It has since come to be considered one of the most iconic album covers ever, in the august company of the Pink Floyd prism, the Velvet Underground banana, the Rolling Stones hot lips. It has wormed its way into the DNA of popular culture, and even today it can be found on t-shirts, tattoos, even oven glovers (apparently), spoofed and mashed up with any number of other icons including Star Wars and Mickey Mouse, and featured surreptitiously on The Simpsons and Ready Player One.
Some people think it represents music, some a medical image like a pulse, some an alien mountain range. One theory pegs it as a representation of a mathematical Fourier analysis. I listened to an interview, re-broadcast on CBC, with the album cover's creator, a (then) unknown young English graphic designer called Peter Saville, who explained that it was actually based on an astronomical image found in an encyclopedia by one the band members. The image is actually a representation of radio waves from a pulsar designated CP1919, a mysterious, powerful and distant astronomical phenomenon discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, originally nicknamed LGM-1 (for "Little Green Men"). Saville describes as "a dead star whose signal seems to transit forever", an eerie foretoken of the death of band leader Ian Curtis less than a year later.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A dying Canadian teen's plea to use your vote

I know it's been shared and re-tweeted countless times and, as usual I am late to the party, but who am I to ignore this. I refer to the viral video posted to Twitter by 18-year old Maddison Yetman, in which she uses some of her precious last moments to encourage Canadians to vote in the upcoming federal elections.
Ms. Yetman was diagnosed with terminal cancer just last week and was given just days to live. Yet she still found time and energy to vote in the first election in which she was eligible to cast a vote, and to make this simple but profound video. In it, she explains her condition with home-made placards, ending with "If I can find the time to vote, you can find the time to vote", and the Twitter hashtag #WhatsYourExcuse.
The video has been viewed over 730,000 times (and counting), and has attracted the attention and comments of at least two party leaders. Perhaps a strange choice of priorities for her last few days of life but, as she says in her tweet, "This is my last chance to make a difference". And she has certainly made her mark, I'd say.

The logistics and implications of a minority government in Canada

As Canada's depressing federal election lunches towards a conclusion, the word "minority" is much more in the air. The two main parties, the distinctly un-progressive Progressive Conservatives and the only-vaguely-liberal Liberals, are neck and neck at around 31-32% each in the polls - although poll can of course be wrong, and in recent often are - with the (left-leaning but basically liberal) NDP making a late bid at 18%. So, unless things take a very strange hop over the next few days, we seem destined for a minority government of some kind.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been surprisingly vocal about being open to a coalition with the Liberals, which is not too surprising as the two parties are not that far apart politically, and as his main goal is to avoid a Tory government at all costs. Many people see an NDP-supported Liberal government as a best-case scenario. Singh has also been equally clear that he categorically will NOT work with the Conservatives, who have no real support options in the event of a minority government (neither the Bloc Quebecois nor the People Party seem interested in forming a coalition with the Conservatives). Canada has seen minority governments and even semi-official coalition agreements before, but they are not that common, given our first-past-the-post electoral system. How might this work, then?
Well, what's interesting is the possibility that, even if the Conservatives do win more seats than the Liberals, the Liberals are still in a position to form a winning coalition, snatching a (qualified) victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. Technically, in the case of no clear majority, Trudeau remains Prime Minister after the election, and is not bound to step down until Parliament is recalled and he faces a no-confidence vote on a budget bill, or on the Speech from the Throne.
Contrary to what Mr. Scheer would like us to believe, there is no "convention" that the party who wins the most seats, but not enough for a majority, gets first dibs on trying to form a government with a working majority - that right always goes to the current Prime Minister. Either Scheer was ignorant of that, or he was trying to pull over our eyes for some obscure reasons of his own.
Therefore, if Mr. Singh is willing to play nicely, and it seems like he is, then Mr. Trudeau gets to stay as Prime Minister. It does not have to be a full-blown official coalition, just ad-hoc support is sufficient: so long as Trudeau is able to persuade Governor-General Julie Payette that he has the confidence of the House, he can continue to lead a majority government. This is not a particularly common outcome in Canadian elections, but neither is it unprecedented. And Conservative leader Andrew Scheer certainly does not seem to be in a position to convince the Governor-General that the Conservatives are able to maintain the confidence of the House.
So, all is not lost yet...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Yams? Sweet potatoes? A quick primer

While cooking a white sweet potato for Thanksgiving lunch today, I thought I should figure out, definitively, once and for all, about the different kinds of sweet potatoes and yams.
Yams are the easy part. The confusion arises in that many people, and even many stores (in North America, at least), call some varieties of sweet potatoes "yams", and the two labels are considered pretty much synonymous in many people's eyes. Yams originally come from Africa and parts of Asia, and are related to lilies, palms and grasses. They have a tough, hairy, dark brown skin, rounded ends, and usually a hard creamy white flesh. They are starchy and dry and not particularly sweet to eat. There are some additional varieties of yam, including yellow- and purple-fleshed ones, but the only ones we are likely to encounter here in North America are the brown skinned white-fleshed ones, and even these are quite hard to find. Most of what you see marked as "yams" in the supermarket are actually sweet potatoes. You have probably never actually eaten a yam.
Sweet potatoes are more complicated, mainly because there are more varieties, and these are more widely available. Sweet potatoes originally hail from Central and South America (although many new cultivars have been developed in the United States in recent decades), and are actually in the bindweed/morning glory family, and only distant cousins to the nightshade family (which includes regular potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers). They come in a variety of smooth skins from tan to brown to copper to red to purple, they usually have tapered, pointy ends, and they sport a variety of different flesh colours and textures, from white to yellow to orange to purple.
The very sweet, soft, orange-fleshed ones that most people associate with sweet potatoes are actually most likely to be jewel, garnet or Beauregard sweet potatoes (although, of course, they may be labelled as "yams"), which are among the more recent American cultivars. They typically have brown to red smooth skins.
And, if you are interested, we had a purple-skinned white-fleshed sweet potato (no idea what the cultivar is), much less flavoursome than the orange-fleshed ones, but very nice all the same mashed with some pepper and butter.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

2-hour marathon barrier falls at last

Well, it had to happen: the 2-hour marathon barrier has been breached. and of course it was Kenya's Eliud  Kipchoge who made it happen. 35-year old Kipchoge, the current world record holder and widely considered the greatest marathon runner ever, has been dominant in recent years, winning 11 of his 12 major races with gradually improving times, and it seemed only matter of time before the barrier fell to him.
The race was in Vienna, Austria, and, although it was an officially-timed race, it won't count as a new world record because of the stringent rules around such things, specifically the use of 42 pacemakers (including some world elite runners in their own right) who rotated in and out throughout the race, and the delivery of water and energy gels by bike rather than the traditional method of picking them up from a table. This might seen picky-picky, but in the cut-and-thrust world of elite sports such rules are important to make sure that the conditions are equal for everyone.
Whether it counts or not, though, Kipchoge has shown that it is in fact possible. When you consider the history of marathon records, it is salutary to consider that the 1896 Olympics was won in a time of 2:58:50 (and the distance was probably well short of the official 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometres, at that), the 2-and-a-half hour barrier was broken in 1925, and the 2-and-a-quarter hour fell in 1963. It is quite an achievement, as Kipchoge himself is not slow to acknowledge, comparing the feat to Roger Banister's 1954 four-minute mile, and even the first man on the moon!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Finally, a common writing system for all Inuit languages and dialects

I always thought it was as simple as to say that the Inuit of northern Canada (in fact, all the indigenous people from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland) speak a language called Inuktitut. But, although there is only a shockingly small population of 47,000 Inuit in Canada, their language profile is actually extremely complex.
For one thing, in addition to Inuktitut, there is also something called Inuktut, which is the word used to represent all the Inuit dialects, or at least those spoken within the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, which is where the majority of the Inuit live. This includes Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and others. In fact, it turns out that there are 5 different dialects of Inuktut, and no less than nine different writing systems. The dialects are distinct, but they are related, so that speakers of different dialects can usually more or less make themselves understood. The writing systems, though, which were mainly developed by well-meaning Christian missionaries from the 17th century onwards, are less consistent. Some make use of syllabics (characters to represent syllables), and some use the more familiar Roman alphabet.
So, finding - and agreeing on - a common written system for all Inuit has become something of a linguistic holy grail, especially given that consensus is an important part of Inuit culture. But, after eight years of negotiation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the main "national" Inuit organization, has managed to come up with a new writing system, created by Inuit for Inuit, called Inuktut Qaliujaakpait. The system uses Roman letters to represent the sounds in all five dialects.
Of course, even with a consensus, not everyone is happy about it. Some still prefer the old system(s), even if it was a colonial imposition, and a "long transition period" is anticipated. Me, I will miss the aesthetically pleasing characters of Inuktitut syllabics, which I got to know and love on canoe trips to the Northwest Territories.

What's involved when charging an electric car? A beginner's guide

If, like me, you have been considering an electric car but are not quite there, either in your head or in your wallet, then information is gold. I have reached the hybrid level of auto evolution, but a combination of range anxiety, sticker shock and general ignorance has prevented me from going the whole electric hog thus far.
As electric cars improve their ranges, and prices come down (and maybe you are lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that offers government grants and discounts for EVs), I have been doing a bit of research into the practicalities of owning an EV or PHEV (plugin hybrid electric vehicle). One thing in particular that worried me, perhaps unaccountably, was the actual process and logistics of charging. So, I went out and got me some knowledge, because knowledge is power, apparently.
I found a few good videos and websites that show in detail how to charge an EV, and explain about the various options available. It seems there are three main methods: just plug it in to a regular mains socket; plug it in to a fast charger, either at home or on the road; or plug it in to a super-fast rapid charger of the type that can be found in various public locations in most developed countries. The first two of these utilize one type of connector port, the latter a separate special port (your EV will have both of these). You will often see charge times to 80% quoted; this is because, after 80%, the charging usually slows down so as not to risk overcharging the battery, so charging to 80% is the most time-efficient part of charging. Level 3 chargers typically only allow charging upto 80%, after which they shut off.
The good thing about being able to use a regular electricity socket (120v here in North America) is that you can charge up pretty much anywhere, whether or home or, say, at a B&B or a campsite (although I am not sure how a B&B or hotel would deal with such a request or how they might charge you). The bad news is that this kind of Level 1 charging is painfully slow, and can take anywhere from 8-20 hours for a full charge. Obviously, it takes less time for a lesser charge - you don't actually need to fully charge it each time - and the time for charging also depends on the battery size, which varies between different models of EV.
A 240v fast charger socket (Level 2)  is something you can install at your home (for a sum of money, as it has to be installed by a professional electrician), and this brings down the time required for a full charge to about 4-6 hours. This is also the most commonly encountered type of public charging station, although bear in mind that, in practice, the average EV driver does about 80% of their charging at home.
And then there are the Level 3 480v Direct Current Fast Chargers (also known as CHAdeMO) which can be found at some public charging stations - this is not an option for home. With a Level 3 charger, it only requires half an hour or so for an 80% charge. For this you would use the separate rapid charge port on your car, and not all EVs come with this facility. Some manufacturers like Tesla have their own "superchargers", using propriety connectors, but they will also charge to 80% in as little as half an hour.
There are various networks of charging stations (in the same way as there are various brands of gas station), some more widely available than others, some with the super-fast rapid charging facilities and some not. Also, not all EVs are compatible with all charging stations, and there may be different rates and payment methods involved (e.g. flat rate, by the hour). Some are even free! I guess it wouldn't take too long to figure all that out. Also, you can subscribe to more than one charging network (or.even all of them, to be safe). Typically, you tap a charge card to operate them, and pay off the card periodically, just like a credit card, or some are more like prepaid cards that you can top up as needed. Most EVs have an option where you can either lock the charger in place until you come and release it, or you can set it to automatically release when fully charged, so that someone else can use it for their car at a public charging facility.
There are a variety of phone apps that will show you where charging stations can be found, and which ones are currently free for use. You can pre-plan long-distance trips this way. With some you can even book chargers in advance for specific time periods using the app. You can check the progress on your charging on your car's dash, and often on the charger too.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but apparently you get used to it pretty quickly (remember the first time you had to fill up with gas, and how daunting that was?) You basically have to adopt a whole new mindset around charging, as compared to filling up with gas, and a fair bit more forward planning is required (depending on your car usage, of course - if you typically just drive a short distances around town, you may never need to use a public charger, and you may only need to charge at home every few days, or even once a week). Bear in mind, though, that the car's range and the chargers' speed both take a hit in cooler weather (which can means anything under 20°C!), and a significant hit in a Canadian winter.
As for how much it costs to "fill up" an EV, that obviously depends on the cost of electricity in your area, and that can get complicated. For example, you can take advantage of substantially cheaper off-peak electricity rates at night in some provinces, like here in Ontario. One analysis by Autotrader.ca concludes that a reasonably basic EV like the Chevy Bolt costs anywhere from $1.16 to $4.21 to drive 100 kilometers (based on the cheapest and the most expensive electricity in Canada), as compared to $8.40-$9.24 for an equivalent efficient gas car like the Honda Civic (i.e. anywhere from eight times to twice as cheap). A luxury EV like the Tesla X might cost between $1.55 and $5.63 per 100 kilometers, as compared to around $18-$20  for a more-or-less equivalent Range Rover.
By way of corroboration, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation estimates that an average EV would cost about $300 a year ($0.78 a day) in "fuel", as compared to $1,000-$2,500 for a gas car.  So, looking at these studies, very roughly and taking an average, you can probably count on an EV costing around one-fifth of the cost of an equivalent gas car for its fuel.
The carbon footprint of your "fill-up" is a while other issue, and it also depends on the electricity generation energy mix in your area. Here in Ontario, about 34% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and almost 98% from non-carbon emitting sources (including nuclear), so the carbon footprint would be minimal. I also have solar panels on our roof, so I would feel even better about charging up at home.
So, am going to go out and buy an EV right now? Well, not right now, but when our trusty Prius starts showing its age, yes, probably.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How the English language has changed in 50 years

I came across an article called "9 grammar rules that have changed since you were at school". It assumes that "you" were at school in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (quite rightly, in my case), and the data on the rule changes comes from no less an authority than Brian Garner of Garner's Modern English Usage fame.
As for what consitutes "correct" English grammar, that is of course a subjective and highly contentious assessment, but Garner side-steps this by using a determination of the extent to which old rules have become redundant in regular (American) speech. He utilizes his own five-point Language Change Index, with 1 being misspellings or mistakes that are generally rejected as incorrect (e.g. "arguement" for "argument"); 2 being usages that have spread to more people but are still generally considered non-standard (e.g. using "baited breath" for "bated breath"); 3 being incorrect usages common even among well-educated people but avoided in careful usage (e.g. using "I better" for "I had better"); 4 being usages widely accepted by almost everyone except a few "linguistic stalwarts" (e.g. using "who" for "whom" for the object of a sentence - I think I must be a linguistic stalwart there); and 5 being usages fully accepted by everyone except eccentrics (e.g. using "contact" as a verb).
Obviously, you can quibble with the definitions, and even some of the examples used above, but among the level 4 and 5 changes that Garner has identified as being now acceptable usages, are:
  • "None" with a plural verb (e.g. "none of them are mine").
  • "Fine-tooth comb" instead of "fine-toothed comb".
  • "Graduate from" rather than "be graduated from" by an educational institution.
  • "Run the gauntlet" instead of the original "run the gantlet".
  • "Reason why" with the redundant "why" (e.g. "the reason why we took the trip").
  • "Over" to mean "more than" (e.g. "there were over 400 applicants for the job").
  • "Hopefully" to mean "I hope" and not just "in a hopeful manner" (e.g. " hopefully, they will let me in").
  • "Dove" for "dived" as the past tense of "dive" (making it consistent with words like "strove", "drove", etc).
  • Split infinitives ("to boldly go where no-one has gone before" finally achieves respectability).
It's difficult to argue that these have become almost universally used. But correct? Well... Phrases like, "the thing is, is that ...", "I will be there momentarily", "I must of fallen asleep", etc, are other examples of clear errors that have become widely used, but I still don't accept them. But then I'm a linguistic stalwart, aren't I?

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

One study on red meat does not invalidate decades of other studies

A recent health study in the respected journal Annals of Internal Medicine has received an awful lot - probably too much - of media attention. That's because it goes against pretty much every other related study over the last 20 years. To call it controversial is putting it mildly and, of course, controversial sells papers, TV time, and internet advertising.
The meta-analysis (combining many different published studies and reinterpreting the result) was led by researchers at McMaster and Dalhousie Universities in Canada, and was commissioned, produced and paid for by an organization called NutriRECS, a little known outfit that purports to be "an independent group with clinical, nutritional and public health content expertise". It has resulted in headlines like "Eat less red meat, scientists said. Now some believe that was bad advice", "A study says full speed ahead on processed an red meat consumption", "Is it time to put red meat back on the menu?", "No, beef isn't bad for you: scientists conclude there is no need to eat less red or processed meat", etc, etc
What the study actually concluded was that, "Most people can continue to eat red and processed meat as they do now. The major studies have found that cutting back has little impact on health". It essentially found that the evidence it looked at was too weak to say for sure that there was a link between eating red and processed meat and life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Now, this is not quite as dramatic as some of the headlines, but it still flies in the face of most other studies and the advice of organizations like the World Health Organization, the US Federal Government, the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Canadian Cancer Society, Harvard University, Public Health England, Health Canada, etc, etc. The very fact that it contradicts so many other studies and august scientific bodies is a good indication that something is probably wrong with it, and a little further research indicates that MANY things are probably wrong with the study.
A WebMD article quotes one major nutrition expert as saying, "It's the most egregious abuse of data I've ever seen .. there are just layers and layers of problems". Several groups have requested that the journal postpone publication for further investigation. Among the "grave concerns" of these scientists are:
  • Omitted studies (that would have significantly changed the results and conclusions);
  • Incomplete picture (particularly as regards what other foods the participants were eating);
  • Inappropriate analysis (especially the absence, even the impossibility, of randomised control trials, and the use of observational data);
  • Contradictory data (using different assessment methods on the same data results in very different conclusions);
  • Confusing message (drawing conclusions nd making recommendations diametrically opposed to every other study can only result in confusions for consumers, especially given that there IS a consensus in the scientific community);
  • Unusual inclusions (such as a review of attitudes towards eating meat, which obviously resulted in a slant towards eating meat among meat-eaters);
  • Ignoring the environmental impact and animal welfare considerations (although, frankly, one would not expext these to be included in a nutritional study).
Anyway, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle. However poor the actual science, the comvenient conclusions will probably lodge in people's minds, and confirmation bias will probably take hold, much like the discredited but still often-quoted study on the link between vaccinations and autism. Hell, Donald Trump will probably get in on the act at some point.
The other conclusion we can draw from all this is that nutrition research is hard and emotive, and some people are always going to disagree.  Also, pulling together several studies with different methodologies and parameters and objectives is even harder, and more subject to misinterpretation. Plus, even if people can agree on the science carried out, some people will always disagree with the conclusions drawn (for example, if reducing red meat consumption results in 6 fewer heart attacks or seven fewer cases on cancer, should we conclude, as this study does, that the effect is minimal, or that it is substantial?) Kudos to the Globe and Mail (and specifically André Picard) for making this clear to their readers.
But, make no mistake, whatever this study suggests, you should probably still avoid it reduce your consumption of red and processed meats. As the BBC concludes, "The weight of scientific opinion falls on the side of reducing red and processed meat consumption". And if we can't trust the BBC, then what can we trust in this world?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Taxes on foreign online streaming services no longer politically toxic

It seems like a "Netflix tax" is finally becoming a politically acceptable concept to the mainsteam political parties.
Currently, foreign online streaming services without a physical presence in Canada, like Netflix, Google, iTunes, Amazon, etc, do not have to charge federal sales tax on their sales in Canada, something that local digital companies like Bell, Rogers, etc, argue is an unfair advantage. And it certainly does seem that way when you stop and think about it. But it has long been considered politically inexpedient - at least since Stephen Harper made it so as part of his election platform, even at a time when no other party was even considering it - to tax these digital behemoths.
Over the last year, a couple of provinces - Quebec and Saskatchewan - have been charging provincial sales tax on foreign digital streaming, and the sky hasn't fallen. Other jurisdictions, including Australia, South Korea, Japan and the European Union, have also taken the plunge and required foreign streaming companies to collect sales tax. The consumer market has not dried up overnight, and no major retaliation has been brought to bear.
With this in mind, presumably, Justin Trudeau has decided to reverse his opinion on the matter and has proposed a 3% tax on foreign digital sales, joining the NDP and the Greens, who have also already proposed taxing foreign streaming services. The Liberal plan will affect advertising and digital companies with sales of over $1 billion worldwide and over $240 million within Canada (i.e. all the major players like Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon), and is being billed as "making multinational tech giants pay their fair share". Why 3%? I am not sure, presumably so that they can be seen to be acting on the issue without pissing off the "multinational tech giants took much".
So, it may have become politically acceptable (unless you are a Conservative), but only 3% acceptable.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Who to vote for in the Canadian elections if you're an environmentalist

If you're concerned about climate change, who do you vote for in the upcoming Canadian federal election? A quick comaprison of the various platforms suggest that it is not an easy choice.
Well, first, if you're NOT concerned about climate change, then your best option is Andrew Scheer's Progressive Conservatives. Scheer was the only leader of a major party not to attend a climate walk yesterday and, although his party claims to have a climate change policy (i.e. they are not actually denying climate change), it is by far the weakest. They would cancel the current carbon tax and  clean fuel standards, and, although they say they want to uphold Canada's commitments under the Paris climate treaty of reducing carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, it is not at all clear how their recipe of weak regulations would achieve anything like that (independent fact-checkers suggest it would miss by anywhere between 109 and 179 megatonnes of carbon, or possibly even rise).
The Liberals - who are currently neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the polls, despite the leadership of Justin Trudeau - say they will not increase the rate of the carbon tax past the top rate scheduled for 2022, despite frankly admitting that this is not enough to achieve out Paris goals (their own figures suggest a gap of 79 megatonnes in 2030). So, although they have made some progress over the last four years (that gap was around 300 megatonnes when Trudeau took office!), substantially more than any Canadian government before them, arguably it is still nothing like enough.
The Liberals have proposed (in addition to keeping the carbon tax and clean fuel standards) new incentives for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles, tax breaks for clean-tech firms, interest-free loans for fuel efficiency home retrofits, and planting 2 billion trees over ten years. This will still leave the Paris goals very hard to achieve, and the Liberals still have the cognitive dissonance of  support for the Trans Mountain Pipeline hanging over their heads. Their latest salvo was to declare a goal of a completely carbon neutral country by 2050, a laudable goal perhaps, pand one that needs to be stated, but, even by their own admission, they currently have no idea how to achieve that.
The other two parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party, have stronger climate change platforms, but suffer from the fact that, in the absence of any huge changes, they will not become the ruling party, at best only acting as a prop for a minority Liberal government (and even then, the Greens say they will not support the Liberals while the Trans Mountain Pipeline is still ion their books; neither party says that they can work with the Conservatives, who are out on their own, come what may).
The NDP's stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, not just 30%, and the Greens go even further, promising 60%.  The NDP would energy retrofit half of all Canadian homes by 2030, and ensure that electricity production is net-zero, also by 2030. The Greens would also remove all fossil fuel electricity generation, and pledge to make ALL buildings carbon neutral by 2030. Both have the same net-zero-by-2050 target as the Liberals. But critics complain that even these parties do not have much substantive detail in their platforms about just how these laudable goals might be reached.
Whichever party you vote for still has the unenviable task of dealing with a bunch of intractable, climate change skeptical, and largely Conservative provincial premiers, which will make any meaningful progress on climate change difficult at best. The other conundrum is whether to vote for a party with a stronger climate change platform, and risk splitting the vote and allowing the Conservatives - by far the worst option for anyone with an environmental bent - to slip in through the back door. Personally, I am risk-averse, and willing to hold my nose and vote Liberal rather than risk such an outcome. However much I would like to vote Green on principle, and however much I feel that Justin Trudeau has been a disappointment, the spectre of four years of Conservative government is enough to drive me to hard-hearted decisions, not only for environmental reasons, but also for other social justice and economic reasons. (Actually, this is such a safe Liberal seat, I could probably still vote Green, secure in the knowwdge that the Liberal candidate will win anyway.)
The other aspect of all this is that what we actually vote for is not a party or a leader but a local representative, one that would usually accept and support most of the party platform, but who might still have some individual views on the matter. And that individual must also fit our requirements for a good, thoughtful and approachable human being.
So, like I said earlier, not an easy choice.