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.