Saturday, January 25, 2020

Canadian craft breweries - too much, too fast

If you're having trouble keeping track of all the new microbreweries in your city, you're not alone. There was a time when a new craft brewery was a big event; nowadays, it's hard to even try out the new ones before they disappear. There are four or five craft breweries within a few kilometres of our house that have sprung up in the last couple of years alone, and we still haven't got around to visiting them. Occasionally, we will try out new names while in a bar or restsurant, but it's easy to lose track of who's who and who's good, what with all those wacky names and hyperbolic descriptions.
So, it probably doesn't come as too much of a surprise to read in the Globe and Mail that, over the last decade, the number of breweries in Canada has burgeoned from a little over 200 to nearly 1,000, the majority of that increase occurring between 2013 and 2017.
Neither does it surprise me greatly that funding for new breweries, which at one time was an easy sell, is much harder to come by these days, as investors see a market which is starting to look over-saturated. We are starting to see breweries closing down or being put up for sale (often with the Labatts and Molsons of the world snapping up some of their smaller competitors). According to Statistics Canada, only about 50% of Canadian breweries were actually profitable in 2017, with most of the others being labours of love. It can take 5 to 7 years for a craft brewery to generate cash flow, and many just don't make it that far.
It almost makes me want to go out right now and visit a couple of my local watering holes. But then I look out and see it is raining, and put it off for another day.

Homero Gómez's kidnapping just the latest of many in lawless Mexico

You would think that being a butterfly conservationist would be a relatively serene and safe vocation, would't you? Not in Mexico, apparently.
Homero Gómez, an outspoken environmental activist and manager of the world-renowned Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán state in the mountains of central Mexico, has been reported as missing, almost certainly kidnapped by illegal logging interests in the area. Local loggers have been incensed at Mr. Gómez's constant activism against logging for some years. He was last heard from on January 13th but, according to the usual MO of these incidents, he is unlikely to ever surface again.
Rosario is a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, and its pine forests are critical for the survival of the monarch butterflies that we see migrating south from Canada every fall. Logging in the region is mainly clear-cutting for the establishment of cash crops like avocados - you might want to think about that the next time you buy Mexican avocados, I know I will. Much of it is run by criminal gangs and cartels, the likes of which are rife in increasingly lawless rural Mexico, and their activities range from drug and human trafficking to extortion, logging and mining. An estimated 60,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006, mainly due to drug cartels and organized crime groups, but also apparently to the security forces themselves. Western Michoacán state - where we are due to visit just next week in order to see those very same monarch butterflies - is described by the BBC as "notorious for its violent criminal gangs". Could be an interesting trip.

Wild animal markets in south-east Asia must be closed down

As yet another potential global epidemic makes its way out of China and into the rest of the world, the elephant (almost literally) in the room is the issue of wild animal markets.
After the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2003, China imposed a temporary ban on wildlife markets, when they were fingered as the probable source of the outbreak, and health officials and scientists both in China and elsewhere issued grave warnings about the risks involved in allowing the trade and consumption of wild meat. (Remember, ebola also came from the consumption of wild monkeys in Africa.) But the ban was temporary, for some reason, and it wasn't long before wild animal markets opened up again in China, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia.
And so, here we are: the latest outbreak of a coronavirus very similar to SARS has been traced back to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also has a substantial wild animal section where live and slaughtered animals were for sale. There you could buy wild wolf pups, golden cicadas, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, porcupines, salamanders, turtles and crocodiles. And the diseases come for free.
Wild meat is an expensive, luxury item in China. Rich businessmen take their colleagues to wildlife restaurants. Some people think it has some ill-defined health benefits, and the rarer the animal the better.
The longer China (and the rest of south-east Asia and Africa, for that matter) panders to these obscure and benighted tastes, the more it puts its own population at risk, not to mention the populations of some animals. In our rapidly shrinking, ultra-connected world, the rest of us do not want to share those risks either, thank you very much.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Rugby star Sonny Bill Williams' bizarro religious beliefs

The Toronto Wolfpack rugby league team has been super-succesful in their unlikely foray into the top British leagues, achieving-to-back promotions over the last two seasons. They now find themselves in the "big league", the Betfred Super League, along with the best of the British rugby league sides.
Instrumental in their success have been their two superstars, New Zealander Sunny Bill Williams and Australian Ricky Leutele. Sunny Bill, however, has been a bit of a prima donna since he got religion some ten years ago - or, more specifically, since he converted from Christianity to Islam. And the way he manifests his deep spirituality is to refuse to wear the team's jersey because it bears the logo of Betfred, a major British bookmaker, which just happens to be the league's main sponsor.
So, it sems that Williams is happy to play in the Betfred league, and to take Betfred's money. He just doesn't want to wear a rugby jersey saying so. The Toronto Wolfpack management, desperate to retain his services, is tying themselves in knots trying to accommodate him, talking about him maybe wearing an alternative jersey, or just covering up the offending logo in some way. Could he not have figured this out when he joined the club this last year? Why did he even agree to play in the Betfred League if he is so philosophically opposed to gambling?
Apparently, he has done this kind of thing before, when he was playing rugby union for the New Zealand All Blacks, and with the Aukland Blues. He refused to wear a jersey with the logo of the Bank of New Zealand, because banks are, well, they're evil, arent't they? I'm sure he didn't mind investing his substantial earnings in a bank, but apparently he had a "conscientious objection" clause in his contract, which he explained as follows: "My objection to wearing clothing that markets banks, alcohol and gambling companies is central to my religious beliefs".
I'm sure Mohammed would be proud of him, but everyone else finds it downright puzzling, especially the apparent double-standards he seems able to reconcile in his mind.

Wanted (desperately): a leader for the Conservative Party of Canada

Three prominent names have now dropped out of the running to replace the hapless Andrew Scheer as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada: Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, and now Pierre Poilievre.
After the surprise announcements earlier this week by Ms. Ambrose and M. Charest, M. Poilievre was seen as the best, and perhaps only, challenger to the rather unpleasant Peter Mackay, who now looks to have a straight path the leadership. The only other challenger is Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, who is not expected to show very strongly in the vote.
But it's interesting to see just how little interest there is in being boss of the Canadian conservatives.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Israel, under pressure from the ICC, falls back on charges of anti-semitism

Benjamin Netanyahu is playing the anti-semitism card yet again.
Fatou Bensouda, the Gambian chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has declared that there is a "reasonable basis" on which to proceed with a war crimes case against Israel for various of its military actions in the Gaza Strip and the construction of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
Netanyahu is clearly incensed by this, especially given that he has been personally responsible for most of the said actions, and he has been looking for support from his "friends"in the international community. Donald Trump has spoken up (no surprise there). But there has been a deafening silence from most other quarters. Natanyahu's specific appeal to Justin Trudeau - based on the supposed "special relations" between Israel and Canada - has met with a notable silence, unlike the much more sympathetic hearing he was used to from Stephen Harper and the previous Conservative administration (what is it with Conservatives and Israel?)
So, of course, Netanyahu has fallen back on the tried and trusted ploy, which has worked for him so often in the past, of calling the court - which Israel does not recognize anywhere, not being a member of the organization (I wonder why?) - anti-semitic.
Ms. Bensouda has reacted with admirable phlegmatism, calling the assertion "particularly regrettable" and "without merit". But what a tired old trope that is, calling any action or comment even slightly critical of Israel anti-semitic. Netanyahu (and why is he even still there, for God's sake?) debases and degrades the whole concept every time he over-uses it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Tax the rich! - the rich say it's OK

Here's something you don't see every day: a bunch of rich, old, white guys who want to pay more tax.
As a movement, the Patriotic Millionaires still in its infancy, but in the wake of this year's Davos meeting, they are becoming more vocal. It's an American operation - hence the "patriotic" part - this far, but they want to go international.
So, these are people who have made it, and who want to give back. Examples include Disney heiress Abigail Disney, ex-Blackrock managing director Maurice Pearl, Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer, real estate developer Jeffrey Gural, Oscar Meyer heir Chuck Collins, MOM's Organic Market co-founder Scott Nash, etc, etc.
Some of them just feel that it is unpatriotic for rich people to evade taxes; some see the growing inequality as a threat to a healthy society (what you might call "enlightened self-interest"); some want to see a wealth tax, some just an increased income tax on the rich; some think it is just plain wrong for rich people to salve their consciences by making splashy charitable donations, because spending priorities should be set by the people (or at least their elected representatives) and not by rich folk who want to see their names up in lights; and some see a huge irony in the fact that "the Trumps, the Zuckerbergs, the Buffets of this world pay lower taxes than the teachers and secretaries".
In 2018, American billionaires paid 23% of their income in federal, state and local taxes, while the average American paid 28%. If you were wondering how, there are several different ways in which billionaires can reduce their tax burden: by mainly taking their income as lower-taxed capital gains rather than as earned income, by taking tax write-offs for charitable donations, by employing highly-paid tax lawyers and accountants to look for loopholes and schemes, by taking advantage of tax breaks for job creation, and by voting in fellow billionaires like Donald Trump, who substantially reduced corporate taxes and introduced billionaire-friendly perks like the bonus depreciation of fixed assets.
So, while "Patriotic Millionaires" doesn't immediately sound like something I would approve of, it actually sounds like a worthy enterprise, and long overdue.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some of Australia's most valued nature has been razed, but some survived

I've written very little about the Australian wildfires, except to remark on how large an area was affected, relatively speaking. No diatribe on climate change, no character assassination of Scott Morrison.
But I did read an article today cataloging some of the natural devastation it has wreaked. Specifically, at least 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Site has burned, which may have impacted the diversity of eucalypts for which it received its WHS designation. Also, at least 50% of the Gondwana World Heritage Site, with its pristine protected rainforest, has also been torched.
On a brighter note, Wollemi National Park was miraculously saved, after some sterling work by firefighters. Just 100 miles from Sydney, the park protects a rare species of pine that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. Just 200 of these "dinosaur trees" exist in their natural habitat, and they were thought to be extinct until as recently as 1994. A muted cheer for the wollemi trees (and the firefighters)!

Putin goes full dictator mode

Vladimir Putin continues his trajectory towards dictatorship, and the Russian government apparently aids and abets him all the way.
In his latest state-of-the-nation speech, Putin proposed changes to the Russian constitution that would effectively allow him to retain power even after term limits disallow him from another term as President in the next election in 2024. Not content with 20 years in power, the increasingly unpopular Putin wants more, and has proposed giving parliament, which is controlled by his party, more power, and the incoming President (which will not be him) less. He is also calling for unspecified additional powers  to be given to the Politburo-style State Council, which Putin just happens to chair.
While this should set alarm bells clanging for most people, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev responded by announcing that he and his whole cabinet would be resigning in order to "provide the president of our country with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this", i.e. they are going to abdicate all responsibility and just let the power-mad Putin do whatever the hell he wants. Putin's pick for Prime Minister to replace Medvedev, Mikhail Mishustin, a hockey buddy of Putin's with no real top-level political experience - was sworn in with no dissent (a few abstentions, but not a single vote against) from the State Duma.
Opposition activists are calling this "a full-fledged constititional coup d'état", and it's hard to see it any other way. Putin, who clearly hankers for the glory days of the Soviet Union, may have been technically voted in by the people again in 2018 (although with the main opposition politician under arrest on trumped up charges, and a atmosphere of fear and distrust permeating the whole election, it was hardly a democratic vote). But I'm pretty sure that the people did not vote for this outcome.

Rogers rolls out 5G tech - where is the opposition?

As Rogers Communications announces its initial rollout of its 5G network in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver, I'm still surprised at just how little opposition there is to 5G.
Apparently there is some opposition, but this is almost all on health grounds (or in some cases aesthetic grounds!), and the tech companies just respond that there is as yet no scientific evidence that the millimetre (and close-to-millimetre) wave radio waves present a danger to human health, although it should be noted that this is not at all the same thing as saying that there is definitely no risk from the technology, new as it is.
As I have already argued elsewhere in more detail, my opposition is more on grounds of economics and need. 5G networks would require an unprecedented investment by tech companies in new infrastructure - all those thousands of new cell towers are expensive, even if they are smaller than the current 4G ones - and you have to know that it will be us schmucks who will end up paying for it, not Rogers, BCE and Telus, whether we use the new facilities or not. Plus, we'd also need to buy new phones in order to use it anyway!
Moreover, the improvements in service will be marginal at best, and we probably won't even notice the difference. This is because the superfast service that has all the technophiles salivating would require millimetre wave technology that even the aficionados admit would require boosters on literally every street corner, and even then would be prone to interruptions and blockages from every tree, building and passing bus. And do you really think that reducing transmission latency from 100 milliseconds to 1 millisecond is going to change your life?
Rogers have apparently opted for the mid-range 2.5 GHz spectrum for now, which is expected to offer users speeds "a little bit better than they have at 4G", while many US cities are using even more conservative spectrums in the 600-800 MHz range, which offers very little advantage over 4G networks. Rogers say they will probably also gravitate towards the 600 MHz spectrum later this year, as this will carry wireless data across longer distances and through denser urban areas. Net result? Next to no difference in service, big investment.
Rogers has chosen to use Swedish supplier Eriksson for its 5G network equipment in order to avoid the contention of using Chinese company Huawei, which the Canadian government has not yet decided to allow (for security reasons). BCE and Telus have made no secret of the fact that they would prefer to use the cheaper Huawei, but how long will they wait to find out whether they will be allowed?
And anyway, why do we even need faster service in the street? Remember, we are not talking here about wifi in homes and offices, which is where most of out internet usage takes place, but service out in the street, outside of wi-fi. When was the last time you felt the need for a faster connection while making a phone call or checking emails in a taxi?
To my mind, this is a prime example of technology for technology's sake - we have it so we'll use it, even if we don't actually need it - otherwise known as the tail wagging the dog. But also, these decisions are being made without anyone asking us consumers whether or not we want them. Come on people, where's the opposition?

Monday, January 13, 2020

Iranians always seem to be wishing death to somebody-or-other

It's funny how Iranian demonstrations are reported from time to time, and they always seem to involve frenzied chants of "Death to..." (fill in the blank here). It used to be "Death to Israel" or "Death to America, the Great Satan".
Most recently, they have turned on their own administration for a change, and the chant is "Death to the liars", "Death to the leader" and "Death to the dictator".
Don't get me wrong, this is an almost unprecedented volte face to be sure, for them to be openly questioning the ruling theocracy, and I welcome it. But the form is always the same: death, death, death. Maybe they are just excessively passionate people - they certainly seem that way - or maybe the Persian language lacks subtlety, or  maybe they are just missing a little imagination in their sloganeering.
But, really, can we talk about this? Can we not have at least a little build up? Do we have to go straight to the ultimate death penalty? It all seems a little black-and-white.
And so much for Islam being a religion of peace and compassion...

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Sorry Republicans, Obama never actually met Iranian leader Rouhani

As US Republicans sink to ever more abysmal depths amid the Trump impeachment circus, here is a Republican political tweeting out fake Photoshopped pictures to support their narrative and "prove" their point, namely that everything wrong with the world, and with America, is Barack Obama's fault.
Republican Representative Paul Gosar tweeted out this picture, showing a smiling Obama shaking hands with Iranian leader, Hassan Rouhani. The text reads, "The world is a better place without these guys in power". Except that, as the Washington Post explains, Obama never actually met Rouhani, and actually Rouhani is still in power in Iran...
It turns out that the image was actually produced by a Republican superpac backed by Senator Ron Johnson back in 2015. The real photo was of Obama and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
And, anyway, as the Twitter feed points out, what actually would have been wrong with Obama meeting with Rouhani, as part of ongoing negotiations around the Iranian nuclear program? It woumd certainly have been better than Trump's policy of effectively declaring war.
And how is it any worse than Trump shaking hands with a certain murderous North Korean dictator?

Monday, January 06, 2020

Now I understand just how big the Australian wildfires really are

An article in the Globe and Mail brought home for me in a very graphic way the extent of the Australian wildfires.
I knew they were bad, but a map of the extent of the fires really struck me. And, even more so, the graphical representation of the Australian fires as compared to previous American and Canadian forest fires puts them well and truly into perspective. For example, the current Australian fires are about three times larger than ALL of the wildfires in the United States in 2019, nearly six times ALL of the Brazilian fires in 2019 (and remember how much we panicked about those), and over eight times larger than the horrendous Fort McMurray fires of 2016.
Wow, the power of a simple graph.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Shootings in Toronto reach an all-time high, although deaths don't

Another violent year in Toronto comes to an end. There were a record 490 shootings in Toronto in 2019, and a record number of shooting-related injuries at 248. This compares to 428 shootings and 185 injuries in 2018. Interestingly, though, the number of deaths resulting from those shootings actually went down in 2019 to 44, from 51 in 2018.
For another comparison, the oft-quoted "Year of the Gun", 2005, resulted in 53 deaths (still the highest on record, just!) from 262 shootings.
The conclusions are inescapable: Toronto criminals are much worse shots than they used to be.