Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Naked mole rats are very cool, but they may not be immune to cancers

Naked mole rats are curious things, and undeniably cool. With their hairless, wrinkly bodies, oversized teeth and tiny eyes, they have been described by one scientists as "sabre-toothed sausages". Their physiology is also unique in the animal kingdom: they live exceptionally long lives (for their size); they don't feel certain kinds of pain; they can survive for long periods without oxygen, using a system previously only observed in plants; they live in complex, multi-generational colonies similar to ants and bees; and it is thought that they may be immune to cancers, and certainly show much fewer cancers than other animals as they age.
It is this last feature which has made them so interesting to scientists, but those cancer claims are now under fierce debate. Most of the claims date from a 2013 US-led study which found that cancer-causing genes introduced into naked mole rat cells did not result in cancers, whereas when introduced into mice they did. However, a new University of Cambridge study published in the journal Nature, using those same genetically-engineered naked mole rat cells, showed that cancers did develop when they were transplanted, throwing the initial conclusions into doubt.
The Cambridge study's conclusion was that the original 2013 study used problematic cell selection techniques. The US-led team have fired back that the Cambridge study introduced new variables into the test, and is thus unreliable. They further argues that using the original 7-year old cell cultures is also misleading as mutations may have accumulated over the years. It's all getting a little heated, and the jury seems to be out.
It does, though, show the value of constantly re-evaluating science, and the risks of trusting one-off studies.

The inexplicable (and increasing) popularity of Fox News

Donald Trump may be doing badly in the polls at the moment (and in every other way, come to think of it), but don't count him out, if for no other reason than the inexplicable popularity of Fox News.
In fact, Fox News Channel is more popular than ever at the moment and, for the first time EVER, has been the most popular prime time channel for three out of the four weeks in June, taking into account both broadcast and cable channels.
So, what is happening here? Is this confused Republicans looking to see what they should be thinking as Mr. Trump appears to self-destruct? Is this serious beer drinkers at a loss for what to do while their favourite bars are still closed? Is it wary Democrats checking out the opposition?
The two most popular individual shows are those of alt-right pundits and demagogues Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Although both have had their differences with Trump at various times over the years, he is still most definitely their man, and the power of these viewing numbers should not be underestimated.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

We know what leads to new COVID spikes, so why relax airline restrictions?

Many countries that thought they had beaten the pandemic virus are frantically backtracking at the moment. Most of the new outbreaks have resulted from failures in certain specific areas: in China, it's a market in Beijing (yes, markets again! Seeing a trend?); in Japan, karaoke bars; in South Korea, nightclubs; in Spain, large family gatherings and birthday parties; in Germany, religious services; etc, etc.
In the USA ... well, let's not talk about the USA. Suffice to say, the USA is a mess, and should be used as a case study in what not to do in a pandemic. Top doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is now expecting 100,000 new cases a day!
Within Canada, British Columbia, poster province for best pandemic reponse, and long with hardly any new cases, has just seen two new outbreaks, one in a care home and one in a small hospital. And here in Ontario, the city of Kingston, which has been exemplary in its response until now, let its guard down and has seen a sudden spike in cases traceable to a specific nail salon (although its response to this new challenge has also been exemplary).
So, we have oodles of real-life evidence that opwning up after this particular virus outbreak is really difficult, and should be approached very slowly, and with plenty of controls and restrictions (masks, for God's sake!) still in place. Give it any opportunity at all, however small, and this virus will come raging back. This is not even the second wave of the virus - we have that still to look forward to! - this is just an extension of the first.
With all that in mind, then, why the hell are Air Canada and Westjet (and other airlines) relaxing restrictions and ending their physical distancing requirements, contrary to Transport Canada guidelines and recommendations? Well, I know the answer is profit or, as they might term it, solvency. But is the federal government, which has, sensibly, just extended its ban on most foreign travellers until July 31, not able to stop them?
There is an avoidable spike just waiting to happen, right there.
Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu has been all over the media recently, fulminating at the restrictions imposed by governments which are not allowing him to reach his full God-given capacity for profit-making. But what is a responsible government to do? Go down the American road? If we have to return to full lockdown, how is that going to affect his bottom line?
I understand that airlines, like so many other businesses, are just leaking red ink at the moment. But that doesn't mean that we should just throw caution to the wind and risk having wasted the last three or four months of privation. The government has thrown billions of (present and future) tax-payers money at various measures to help businesses survive in these times. They should be grateful for that, and not just whine about unfair government restrictions on the free market. That just makes them sound like Donald Trump, and non-one wants that.

This is what the abolition of the police might look like

Getting rid of the police force, which is now the goal of many of the more radical defunders is probably not going to work. For evidence, you only have to look at the experience of Seattle's "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" (possibly now called "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" until they can come up with a better acronym), a specifically un-policed region of the city.
The zone has now seen four shootings amid the supposedly peaceful protesters in just the last ten days. Openly-armed "watchemen" now patrol the area at night, and the whole zone is classified as "not safe for anybody". Not a good advertisement for the cause.
Abolishing the police has never been done, anywhere, to my knowledge, not even in the most progressive reaches of Scandinavia. Even the much touted dismantling of the police force in Camden, New Jersey, in 2012 (ostensibly due to the corruption in the old force, although as a result the city was one of the most violent in the country) was not actually an abolition. Likewise with the Republic of Georgia's police "dismantling" in 2003. Basically, they just dismantled the old police force and then reconstituted a new one (including many of the old officers), with better rules. This is otherwise known as "reform", albeit a radical one. There are definitely lessons that can be learned from this experience, though, and Camden NJ is certainly a much pleasanter place today than it was eight years ago.
People who want to abolish the police say that reforms have never worked in the past, why should we expect them to work now? It's true that minor reforms have only had minor success, and in the meantime other aspects of policing have got worse. But if we think big and look at major reforms - and there is now an appetite and a will for major reforms, I think - there could be major successes.
The author of this abolish-the-police piece says that, "We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing healthcare, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place." While this shows a touching faith in humanity, I think that faith may be misplaced. Call me cynical, but just because housing and healthcare improves, drug dealers, gang members and rapists are not suddenly going to change the habits of a lifetime, and mental health issues are not going to just disappear. And all those noise complaints, parking and traffic citations, drunk and disorderly tickets, etc, will still be there and need dealing with, however many jobs are available.
These ideas sound appealing in the abstract and, when I was younger and more idealistic, I would probably have been right behind them. As I got older, I became more cynical, but also more realistic, I think. Now, I just find that kind of idealism misguided and even annoying. I would love to be proven wrong, but I'm still waiting.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Where did all the monarchs go? (again!)

It's not so long ago - September 2019, just nine months ago - that I was writing about how the populations of monarch butterflies were suddenly booming, after a severe dip the year before. Well, guess what, they're back in the doldrums again this year. We have seen a total of ONE monarch this year here in Ontario, and we are nearly into July!
I'm not saying that all is necessarily doom and gloom, and that extinction is surely nigh - we have already seen how quickly their numbers can bounce back. But what is normally our commonest sunmer butterfly is suddenly a rarity, and psychologically that's hard to deal with.
So, where did they all go to? The latest survey of the over-wintering population in central Mexico (and we were there in February, as it happens!), shows that the area of forest occupied by monarchs was down 53%, from 15 acres in 2018-19 to a measly 7 acres in 2019-20. They were certainly harder to see when we were there in February than usual, apparently, although it was still a splendid sight.
The best explanation that the researchers could come up with is that temperatures in southern Texas were substantially lower than usual in March and April 2019, leading to slow growth for the migrating monarchs' eggs and larvae, and fewer monarchs in the following generations that continue the migration up to Canada. Therefore, there were fewer making the big migration back south to Mexico in the fall of 2019, and therefore fewer butterflies over-wintering in Mexico this year. That's the official story, according to the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas of Mexico and WWF Alliance-Telmex Telcel Foundation, which conduct the count each year.
EXCEPT THAT... that was definitely NOT our experience here in Ontario. Rather than a dearth of monarchs in the summer of 2019, we experienced, at least anecdotally, a bumper year - as good as, if not better than, the big bounce-back summer of 2018. So, that explanation makes no sense to us, although the poor over-wintering populations does explain why we are seeing so few here this summer.
It makes you realize that, much as we now know about the once mysterious monarch migration, there is still much we don't know, even now. The only good thing we can say is that we do know, from past experience, that those resilient little insects are capable of bouncing back from a dire situation.

American anti-mask protests bemuse the rest of the world

As Texas, Florida, Arizona and some other largely Republican, southern states that have seen huge spikes in COVID-19 cases since relaxing lockdown conditions, start to re-impose some restrictions on restaurants and bars (as well as odd things like rafting and river tubing) and make masks mandatory in some indoor circumstances, anti-mask demonstrations have also, predictably, sprung up.
One example is yesterday's protest in Austin, Texas, led by Info Wars leader Alex Jones. Jones and fellow Info Wars contributor Owen Shroyer, speaking through a megaphone from his trademark armoured car, railed against the ordinance to wear masks, calling it "illegal" and "unconstitutional", and (incorrectly) claiming that masks have "scientifically" been shown to be ineffective against the virus.
It's fascinating, if depressing, to observe these events from the outside. The mask is seen in some quarters as representing an infringement on individual liberty, as being just plain "un-American". I wondered for a while whether some of it comes down to a feeling of inadequacy or denial as they see how effective masks have been in places like South Korea and Singapore, "foreign" places that demonstrate a very un-American willingness to submit to authority. But, on reflection, these are not people who spend much time looking outside of their own back yard, and are not prone to deep contemplation or analysis.
The world is watching in disbelief and sadness - and not a littele schadenfreude - as America embarrasses itself on the international stage again. The obsession with "liberty" and "freedom" of many Americans is all well and dandy until it starts to agitate against the common good (or common sense). The average European or Asian watches these overweight, bearded, American stereotypes yelling for death rather than masks with with absolute incredulity. And where it will all end? Well, we are starting to get a sense of that now.

Media reporting of assault case unconsciously stirs anti-police sentiment

The language being used around the recent sentencing of an off-duty Toronto area police officer for the assault on Black man Dafonte Miller some three-and-a-half years ago is interesting, and possibly instructive.
Mr. Miller was caught by Michael Theriault, and his younger brother Christian inside one of their cars, either trying to steal it or to steal something from it (Miller denies this part, insisting he was just walking along, but the judge ruled that the evidence shows that Miller and his friend were in fact "car-hopping"). The Theriault brothers gave chase and and beat up Miller horrifically, Miller losing an eye permanently in the process. Charges of aggravated assault were brought against the two brothers, although in the end Michael was found guilty of the lesser charge of assault and Christian, who played a lesser role, was found not guilty.
Anyway, whatever the facts of the case, and whatever you feel about the verdicts, it is the language used in the press that I have found interesting. Because Michael Theriault, 24 years old at the time of the incident, was a police officer of two years standing, and, although he was off-duty at the time, every single report I have read has stressed that he was a police officer. Often the headline specifies "off-duty cop" (e.g. CTV, Durham Region News, Toronto Sun, The Star), while other outlets have chosen to label him simply a "Toronto cop" or "Toronto police officer" (e.g. CBCGlobe and Mail, Global News, National Post, even the BBC).
So, this fits neatly into the recent news cycle about police violence against Black people. But it occurred to me that other assaults and killings hardly ever mention the perpetrator's occupation, and certainly not in the main headline. The press does not talk about an "off- duty welder" or a "Greek baker" carrying out a crime. Why, then, is the occupation of this particular criminal of such central concern, if not to fit in with the police-assaulting-Black-people narrative?
So, who is looking good here? Not Mr. Miller, who should not have been poking around in someone else's car. Certainly not Michael Theriault, who had no call to batter anyone, black or white, in such a horrific way (he should have called the police!). And not the media either, who can reasonably be accused of having abandoned journalistic objectivity and having chosen a "side", deliberately or otherwise stirring anti-police sentiment by the way in which they have reported the incident.
Possibly the only bright spot may be, perhaps surprisingly, the judiciary, which seems to have been able to keep its head (and its impartiality) in the heated circumstances. Justice Di Luca realized that this was a specific case to be judged on its own merits and the available evidence, and not an opportunity to investigate institutional racism or policing procedures. He managed to keep the facts of the matter separate from public opinion and from the heated discourse currently underway. Full marks to him.
And I say this, not because I am particularly pro-police or anti-Black, but because it would have been very easy for the judge in the case to blindly follow the anti-police Zeitgeist.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Politicians take note, K-pop is a political force to be reckoned with

K-pop fans, including the formidable worldwide BTS Army who follow established Korean sensations BTS, have been turning more and more political in recent months. And they are seriously well-organized.
When BTS expressed support for Black Lives Matters movement recently and donated $1 million to the cause, the BTS Army responded by raising an equivalent amount. And it took them little over  24 hours to do it, which, considering they are mainly teens and twenty-somethings, is pretty impressive. They also flooded social media with anti-racist supportive messages, for example drowning out racist tweets on hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter.
American K-pop fans, along with TikTok aficionados, also took much of the credit for the punking of Donald Trump's Tulsa rally, by reserving tickets en masse to an event they had no intentions of attending, resulting in a two-thirds empty stadium and a seriously disgruntled Donald Trump.
Although K-pop in general tends to be quite a small-c conservative movement, strong on squeaky-clean images and "nice" stars who do and say the right things, it has always taken a social stance, even if not a political one. K-pop stars are expected to be positive role models, and have always emphasized the importance of  volunteering in the community, donating to good causes, self-love, and caring about disadvantaged populations. So, politically, it is no surprise that its artists and its fans are progressive in their outlooks, and strong on anti-racism and social justice. BTS, still the biggest band K-pop has produced, are probably more outspoken than most, politically, and their legions of overseas fans in particular have taken this and run with it.
And these young people are products of the social media and internet age, quick to share tweets and petitions, and have shown themselves to be highly adept at chain messages and taking little actions and comments viral. They are a force to be reckoned with, so politicians should take note.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A second wave of locusts is already decimating the farms of Eastern Africa

It's now about two-and-a-half months since I was commiserating with countries in Eastern Africa that were dealing with a major infestation of locusts was well as COVID-19.
Well, two-and-a-half months later, Africa's worst fears are starting to come to pass, and a second, larger wave of locusts may be coming. Local scientist are still trying to battle the problem, with innovations like the eLocust cellphone app, and government-run pesticide sprayings (supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization).
But it is increasingly looking like their efforts may be too little, too late, and another generation of locusts has already hatched, and is already hard at work decimating the crops of the hard-pressed subsistence farmers of the region. And their cries for help are almost certainly going to get lost amid the pandemic crisis.

UPDATE
The locust swarms have even spread from east Africa across to the Indian subcontinent, and are now being seen ravaging cross in the Delhi area. Locusts are an increasingly common problem in India, and some experts are blaming climate change for the change.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

What purpose did I serve in your life? is a head-scratcher of a book

Well. I just finished Marie Calloway's book what purpose did I serve in your life?, and I know I'm supposed to have a reaction - no other book I've read is quite so transparently designed to elicit a reaction - but I'm still not sure what that reaction is.
Did I enjoy it? No, I'm pretty sure of that. But I'm also pretty sure I wasn't supposed to. Was it illuminating, then? Kind of, although I'm not sure I really wanted to be illuminated about such things. Thought-provoking, then? Sure, let's go with thought-provoking. Or maybe just provoking.
I bought the book because I had seen reviews about it being "controversial", "shocking" and "profoundly contemporary", but also "a great work of courage and art". It's an example - probably THE example - of so-called "alt-lit", a contemporary literary movement strongly influenced by the internet, social media and online self-publishing. It is not given to flowery descriptive flows or deep insightful characterization. Indeed, it is debatable whether it is literary at all in the commonly-understood meaning of the word.
In Marie Calloway's case, she writes about her own sordid, and often extreme, sexual experiences as a teen and a young twenty-something in great and merciless detail. This is not transcendent, beautiful sex; this is gritty coupling and thrashing, often involving violence, masochism, degradation, humiliation and debauchery. She wants to experience the depths of physicality, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and she seems able to find plenty of men willing to oblige her. Much of it just reads like a sub-par submission to Penthouse or Hustler magazine; some of it may make you a bit queasy. It is more autobiography than fiction, and her intactions with well-known figures are only barely disguised by pseudonyms.
She intersperses these bouts of carnal excess with some deep but inconclusive instrospection, about her own fragility, self-loathing and submissiveness, about feminism, about pornography, and about life in general. All of it is written in the flat, deliberately unliterary, alt-lit style, much of it in the form of prosaic conversations and bland "I did this then I did that" narration. Whole sections are in the form of screenshots or transcriptions of social media posts.
It is a self-consciously unedifying book and hard to like, but I guess it gives us a glimpse into a world that most of us know little about. Although Ms. Calloway has something of a cult following, largely among like-minded young people, she leads a life that is totally alien and incomprehensible to me (and probably also to most of her Gen Z contemporaries). what purpose did I serve in your life? is not "a great work" as advertised, and it is not going to set the literary world on fire. But then that doesn't seem to be the point of it, as far as I understand it.
It didn't take long to read, and I don't regret reading it. But I am not going to rush to my computer and seek out the back catalogue of Muumuu House and HTMLgiant any time soon. Indeed, I am still not sure what purpose the book served in my life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is artisanal mining a real thing?

I was reading an article about how Tesla is protecting their supply chain for electric car battery components by signing a long-term deal for cobalt with Glencore PLC, when I came across the phrase "artisanal mining".
At first, I thought it may have been a typo or a subtle joke, but it turns out that artisanal mining is in fact a real thing. In fact, it turns out that about 90% of the world's mining workforce is engaged in it, over 40 million people, mainly in the global south.
All it means is small-scale, subsistence mining, with individuals and families working independently and not directly employed by mining companies that control the world markets. It usually involved hard, dangerous, manually-intensive work with hand tools, and it is often seasonal, with miners farming for their own food during the wet season and returning to mining during the dry season.
Artisanal mining is largely unregulated. Most of the allegations of child labour, squalid conditions and environmental degradation that constantly beset the mining industry come from this sector. I guess that someone thought that calling it "artisanal" - with the gentrified, middle-class, squeaky-clean image that it invokes - was a neat way of papering over and disracting from the more disreputable and immoral side of the business.
Anyway, it turns out that good proportion of gold, diamonds and other gemstones, tin, and apparently also cobalt from the Republic of the Congo, is mined in this way. I'm not saying that Tesla is investing in the cobalt equivalent of blood diamonds (although the phrase "blood batteries" has been used); their deal was with multi-national mining company Glencore (which has admittedly had its own PR problems over the years). I just thought it was interesting that such an apparently oxymoronic term had been developed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Maybe we shouldn't get refunds for our cancelled flights

Canadian MPs and others continue to call for Canadian airlines to repay customers who had flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
We are some of those customers, and we had to cancel several flights with three different airlines for two separate trips that we had planned and booked. After jumping through a bunch of hoops, we have eventually managed to get credits for all of the cancelled flights, and either credits or refunds for all the accommondations we had booked, so we were actually feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
But many people say that they are not likely to to be able to re-book trips any time soon, so they should get a full refund of their money, not just a credit. They argue that airlines still have plenty of cash and are able to repay cancelled bookings (I don't know about the internal finances of aviation companies, but my impression was that most of them were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy), and that most European and American airlines have been pressured by their governments into full repayments, so who is Canada to buck the trend?
Except, I am not even convinced that we should get our money back. Yes, it's annoying and inconvenient, but, in 99% of cases, people who are in a position to book airflights are probably in a position to stand to have their money sit on ice for a while longer. Plus, most people who had flights cancelled were actually unwilling to fly during a pandemic anyway - I know we breathed a palpable sigh of relief when our flights were officially cancelled - so it was pretty much a joint decision, and not just something foisted on us by some feckless airline.
With that in mind, maybe a credit is the better option. That way, there might actually be an airline still in business when we do want to fly again.

Monday, June 22, 2020

A weekend of beach parties, and Ontario responds by opening up further

After a weekend of beach mayhem and zero social distancing, how does the Ontario government respond? It's obvious! Relax the rules, and open things up!
The pictures of our local beach this weekend made it on to the news for all the wrong reasons (Cherry Beach, just down the road, was even worse). It was a zoo! And, anecdotally, as I've remarked before, 95% of these people are under 30 (and probably 50% under 20).
I feel like an old codger, but somebody does have to do something about these young people. The government and the city keeps saying how disappointed they are, but don't expect teens and 20-somethings to listen to or read mainstream news sources - they get their "news" from Facebook and Twitter (or even, increasingly, TikTok now). They show no signs of responding to exhortations by politicians; I'm sorry, but the time has come for some (non-violent) police action - or city by-law enforcement officers would be fine, I'm not wedded to the idea of police - and some serious by-law infraction fines. We have the by-laws, we just need to enforce them.
But what does the Ontario government do instead? It says that things are progressing swimmingly, and Toronto should relax its lockdown rules still further, and move to Stage 2, like much of the rest of Ontario, despite the disparity in regional coronavirus figures. This means that malls will open, along with hairdressers and barbers, splash pads and swimming pools, restaurant patios, etc. But we still need to practise physical distancing and wear masks they say...
Mixed messages? Inadvisable permission to drop our guard? The people who are taking this thing seriously will continue to take it seriously. It's all the others I worry about. And people are still dying - fewer, granted, but a death is still a death. So, don't come complaining to me when this thing goes awry. I'm only going to say, "I told you so".

China's prisoner swap offer puts Trudeau in a tough bind

Well, finally China has put it in black and white: they have offered a direct prisoner swap between Meng Wanzhou and "the two Michaels".
Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested on trumped-up charges in direct retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of the Huawei CFO in December of 2018, pursuant to an American request that Canada had little choice but to carry through. Since then, Ms. Meng has been under luxurious house arrest in one of her Vancouver homes, while the two Michaels have been holed up in horrible Chinese jail cells and denied consular or any other visits. Just last week, China finally brought official charges against them, again in direct retaliation for a Canadian court confirmation that Ms. Meng could legally be extradited to the USA.
And now, China has dropped all pretence that the arrests of the two Michaels were linked to the plight of Ms. Meng (this suggestion, understood by all the world, has up till now met with outrage protestations from China that the arrests were purely internal judicial actions, completely unrelated to the wider world).
So, to mix metaphors, the gloves are off and the ball is now back in Canada's court, and in a horribly tempting easy position. Some advisers - mainly ex-Liberal ministers and ex-senior judges, with the added impetus of the Michaels' families, who are beginning to be more vocal in their requests and demands - are saying that this may be the best last chance to get the two Michaels released (they could be facing life imprisonment or even the death penalty under China's draconian legal system).
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau feels obliged to follow the sacrosanct "rule of law", and to protect the integrity of Canada's "strong and independent justice system".
Contrary to what the Liberal government has been claiming for some time now, Canadian legal experts have confirmed, if there ever was really a doubt, that Canada CAN legally release Ms. Meng and just abandon the extradition order at any time. But the real issue has always been not COULD we, but SHOULD we?
It's a really tough call, and you can see both sides. I would hate to be gambling with the lives of individuals in this way, but Trudeau is very much between a rock and a hard place right now. Give in to Chinese hostage diplomacy (in the hope that China reciprocates and does as they say they will), risk alienating the Trump administration even more, and give China carte blanche to go around kidnapping the citizens of any middle powers like Canada with whom they take umbrage; or take a hard line, risk the lives of two Canadian citizens, and further alienate a retributive China.

UPDATE
Interestingly, in a recent poll, 72% of Canadians think that Justin Trudeau is taking the right approach, and only 28% believe that the prisoner swap should be pursued.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Petition to remove Gandhi statue called a "massive distraction" from BLM

The current worldwide trend for tearing down the statues of racists and slave owners has extended, once again, to Mahatma Gandhi. There is a petition to remove the statue of Gandhi in Leicester, England, on the grounds that he was "a fascist, racist and sexual predator".
This is not the first time that Gandhi has been in the cross-hairs of the fierce British anti-racism movement: less than a year ago, there was a vociferous call to disallow a Gandhi statue in Manchester.
If all this surprises you, and you have difficulty reconciling this with your image of the little wizened old man doggedly pursuing a path of peace and non-violence in his fight to release India from the yoke of British imperialism, then you should know that the young, unformed Gandhi, who lived in South Africa from the age of 24 to 43, and campaigned there for the rights of Indians in colonial Africa, was not quite the paragon he later became.
Gandhi in South Africa campaigned for Indian within the paradigm of British rule, and was not above throwing the local Africans under the bus in the process. Among other things, he was wont to call the local Africans "dirty", "savages" and "Kaffirs" (a pejorative term).
Of course, many other people, both black and white, British and South African, are countering that, although Gandhi's record may have been flawed, particularly in his early years, his overall legacy remains positive, and indeed he inspired many African leaders, including Nelson Mandela in South Africa, as well as black activists like Martin Luther King in America.
Local Leicester MP Claudia Webbe (a black woman) calls the petition a "massive distraction" from the real issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. That sounds about right to me.

UPDATE
As more and more statues are threatened - the latest such are the moves to topple the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in Central Park, and that of Ulysses Grant, who technically inherited slaves on his estate, but who actually worked to protect the civil rights of freed slaves, and extend voting rights to Black people - and street and even city names are being reconsidered, it was refreshing to hear a thoughtful contribution from a well-regarded radical Black American painter.
His stance is that, if the choice is a binary one of leave them up or tear them down, then sure, tear them down. But Kaphar recommended thinking outside the box a little, and suggested leaving the statues (with a suitably altered explanatory text), and pairing them with a new, contemporary work of suitable power and eloquence that would serve to put the dusty old bronzes into historical and artistic perspective, presumably along the lines of the Fearless Girl statue outside the New York Stock Exchange.

Naomi Alderman's The Power looks at how women might wield real power

Naomi Alderman's speculative fiction novel The Power is based on a pretty simple premise: how would the world change if all the women suddenly realized that they had a new electric power in their fingertips, a power strong enough enough to kill, but subtle enough (with practice) to elicit exquisite pleasure, or even enable a limited kind of mind control.
The nitty-gritty of how this power arose does not have to be spelled out or agonized over in too much detail - that is not the point of the novel; it's not that kind of novel. It's more in the ball-park of allegory than science fiction.
Emboldened by not feeling constantly threatened by superior male strength, centuries of patriarchy crumble almost overnight. Whole countries, with female populations inured to, and ground down by, domeatic violence, subjugation and human trafficking, reinvent themselves as strong, progressive, female-led republics. New matriarchal religions spring up. Party politics is redefined. Dating becomes a whole new paradigm.
But this is no simplistic femtopia. The new religion quickly falls into the trap of many of the old patriarchal religions, full of charlatan miracles and money-making schemes. Some women go over to the dark side that lurks behind every power, indulging in revenge, punishment, lax morals, humiliation, cruelty and sadism. New-found confidence evolves into hubris and nepotism; ambition spirals into madnesss; criminal enterprises pass into female hands, essentially unchanged; paranoid female dictators arise, and pro-male terrorist groups grow up to oppose them; men are tortured and killed, and their deaths go unreported; male repression morphs into female repression; one hierarchy replaces another, almost imperceptibly.
It's a novel about human fallibility. It's Animal Farm without the animals. It's a reverse Handmaid's Tale. It's actually a bit depressing and dispiriting. But it's certainly an interesting read, and the unexpected addendum, from a remove of 5,000 years in the future, is a real thought-jerker.

"Black" is the new "black"

I have been noticing for some time now the gradual trend towards capitalizing the word Black. Many newspaper and internet articles have already made the switch from "black" to "Black", and now the influential Asscociated Press Stylebook has officially made the change.
The point, apparently, is that "black" is just a colour, while "Black" is a race, ethnicity, culture or community.
And this seems to be a big deal for many Black people. For example, a representative from the Brooking Institution commented that, "Not having a capital letter has felt disrespectful". This recalls a campaign from way back in the 1920s to capitalize the "N" in "Negro" on the grounds that a small "n" was a sign of disrespect and racism. "Negro" itself is now considered pejorative, as is "coloured" (but not "of colour"), as the Zeitgeist changes over time, and now the debate revolves around "blakc" and "Black".
"African-American" has always been capitalized, but mainly because both "Africa" and "America" are considered proper nouns under the grammatical rules of the English language, and therefore should be capitalized. So, it's arguable less about respect than it is about grammar. Is "Black American" the same? Well, not really, but I guess the argument is that, while a "black American" is just an American who happens to have black skin, a "Black American" is a member of a specific cultural group. Which presupposes that there is a single, readily-identifiable Black American cultural group that all Americans with black skin identify with, which is probably a bit of a stretch.
It does also seem to me to be a very American thing, somehow. I may be wrong but it's difficult for me to believe that people in Africa would care whether they are described as "black" or "Black". And quite where it leaves brown people, I'm not sure (Latinos already have their capital, and "Indigenous" has already gone through the capitalization metamorphosis recently). But, hey, if it does anything to break down barriers during this rather fraught time in race relations, I say go for it!
Interestingly, Associated Press are apparently still debating whether "white" should be capitalized too, which, under the same logic, it probably should, although I would think this will be a much more diffficult political decision for AP. Indeed, I imagine that white supremacist organizations are already lobbying for it as we speak.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Is it ableist to want a cure for your severely disabled child?

I read an interesting article today about a line of ethical thinking I had never considered in any depth before.
It was written by the father of a severely handicapped 13-year old who suffers from GRIN Disorder, a rare mutation of the GRIN1 gene that leaves him with the cogition level of a toddler, unable to walk, talk or feed himself, and prone to alarming violent outbursts.
The father and author sounds like a veritable saint, deeply loving and absolutely devoted to his son, despite the almost complete absence of feedback and responsiveness from his charge. He spends most of his waking hours pursuing a cure for his son's affliction, advocating for disability rights, running a podcast series called Unlocking Bryson's Brain for the parents of other GRIN kids, and acting as CEO of CureGRIN, an organization specifically focused on finding a cure for GRIN Disorder.
And it is this obsessiveness with curing his son that now has him reconsidering his motives and his ethical stance, after an anonymous reviewer of his podcast left this review: "I'm sorry, but this guy's not a disability advocate. He's an ableist who is obsessed with transformation".
The "ableist" label - a label I had heard of but not really thought about much before - really stung the boy's father, and this man, who had previously devoted himself to trying to make his son's life "better", and in spite of a whole load of positive feedback for his podcast, has suddenly started to second-guess himself, and wonder whether he has been doing the wrong thing completely all these years.
Ableism is, in general, discrimination against people who are disabled. But this particular ableist taunt came from a disabled person who believes that, if you are disabled, then that is the way you should stay, and that to look for a cure implies that disabled people are less than human and need fixing. There are disabled people who say they would not accept a cure for their conditions even if one were available, even if it meant they could leave their wheelchairs forever. This is an argument I have heard with respect to Down Syndrone and autistic individuals, but I imagine that it is an extreme ot radical viewpoint, and not necessarily representative of the majority, although I don't really know. Nor am I willing to wade into the debate too far.
But it seems to me that this is an argument that is just not applicable to the case in point anyway, because this 13-year old is not cognitively able to make his own decisions on this, or any, matter. So, how can it be so wrong for a doting father to want what he sees as best for his son? Is it so wrong to want to be (or to want your child to be) neurotypical, to want to be "normal"? That he wants, against all the odds, for his son to one day be in a position to make his own decisions on things, to be able to write reviews of podcasts, etc. Because without a cure, this is not just going to happen.
I also feel very sorry that this father, so laudable in most people's eyes, is now in a stressful moral quandary about something he has devoted most of his adult life to.

Reparations are the latest call in racialized America

The latest development in the anti-racism protests roiling America is talk of reparations for centuries of discrimination and slavery.
Hard on the heels of police reform, police defunding (and complete police disbanding), come calls for financial reparation and restitution. And, while the political and social momentum is in their favour, this makes a lot of sense. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he is willing to at least study the possibility, which doesn't really mean much in itself, but might guarantee him a few more black votes perhaps.
The post-Civil War promises of "forty acres and a mule" for all freed slaves were never actually realized. But how anyone is going to come up with a figure for reparations for millions of black people, some of whom are the descendants of slaves and some of whom are not, I have no idea. But that's not necessarily a reason not to try.

Praying mantises shown catching birds

It's hard to imagine, but there is now lots of evidence that praying mantises catch and eat small birds as well as other insects. There is something rather disturbing when the natural order is reversed and insects start eating birds.
Some 12 species of mantis in 13 different countries covering every continent have been seen in this activitity. In the USA, the majority are European and Chinese mantises that were originally used for pest control, but now hang out at suburban hummingbird feeders laying in wait for unwary hummingbirds.
In fact, hummingbirds seem to be the preferred prey, presumably for their size (and notwithstanding their great speed), with the ruby-throated hummingbird being a particular favourite. But these birds are still substantially bigger and heavier than the mantises, and it's extraordinary that the insects are able to hold on to their prey.
Maybe we should now be calling them preying mantises.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Why are the stock exchanges so buoyant at this horrible point in time?

I've made several posts over the years about just how random and illogical the stock exchanges are, and we are in another such position now. The Dow, the S&P, even the TSX, are all pretty much back at their pre-pandemic record levels, with a 40% rise over the last couple of months since the huge (exaggerated) losses of March and April.
So, those clever people who trade millions of dollars on the world's stock exchanges think that everything is rosy in corporate-land? That we are in a strong bull trading position? How can they think that, given that: the USA and many other countries are still roiled by !anti-racism street demonstrations and protests with no real end in sight; the Trump presidency continues to implode in slow motion (with no doubt more to come with the release of John Bolton's tell-all book); the COVID pandemic continues apace, with the accompanying deep worldwide recession, huge unemployment, and many companies large and small teetering on the brink of disaster (all of this also with no end in sight); the US-China trade war continues with, guess what, no end in sight; etc, etc.
So, how does the market respond? Buy, buy, buy! Upward, ever upward! Unbelievable!

The pandemic might finally improve living conditions for migrant workers

A few good things might ultimately come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of them might be changes to the conditions suffered by migrant workers in Canada.
The Liberal government has pledged that it will establish national standards on living conditions that would need to be met for farmers to qualify for the temporary foreign worker program, something that should have been done decades ago. About 25,000 migrant farm workers come into Canada each spring under the program, mainly from Jamaica, Mexico and Guatemala, with about two-thirds of them employed in Ontario. The poor conditions they live and work in have been well known for some time (although obviously some employers are worse than others).
The announcement comes after a bunch of coronavirus outbreaks among migrant workers has threatened our food supply, and highlighted the overcrowded accommodation they have to endure, as well as undue pressure to keep working when sick, lack of official sick days, non-existent government monitoring, and poor facilities (including personal protective equipment).
Two Mexican migrant farm workers have died, and some 600 more are now infected with the virus. Mexico has put a hold on more Mexicans coming to Canada under the program until conditions are improved, a move that has probably forced Canada to sit up and pay attention to the problem.
It's just an announcement right now, but here's hoping that this is one of the pledges the Liberals actually follow through with.

UPDATE
After a third Mexican agriculture worker died in Ontario, Mexico actually removed its hold on Mexicans travelling to Canada for work, after securing more protections and health-and-safety inspections for its workers. This might not seem very logical at first blush, until you also realize that Mexico's own COVID situation is even worse, with the seventh highest death rate in the world, and is now all but out of hand.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Where was John Bolton during the Trump impeachment hearings?

I haven't read John Bolton's new tell-all book, and I'm pretty sure I never will (not my idea of enjoyable bedtime reading).
But, with all the revelations that have already been leaked to the press from it, my question would be: where was Bolton during the Trump impeachment hearings? The answer presumably is: writing this book. This kind of testimony could well have swung the decision the other way, and yet Bolton refused to testify. I guess that might have impacted on his book sales...
All we can hope now is that Americans read it before the election date. The Trump administration's attempts to block the book's publication "on national security grounds" (AKA censorship) will probably help sales roll along nicely.

At least 20 dead in China-India skirmishes using fists and stones

The image of Chinese and Indian soldiers fighting with bare hands, sticks and stones in the Himalayan wastes of Ladakh is a bizarre one, almost reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch.
Both countries have high-spec guns and tanks in the area, but guns and explosives have been prohibited in the region since 1996. The border skirmish was therefore limited to fisticuffs, stone-throwing and the odd iron bar, for which I suppose we should be grateful. But somehow, 20 Indian troops still died (Chinese casualties, in typical closed-mouth Chinese style, are unknown). Most of the dead either lost their footing and fell on the precipitous rocky cliffs or into the fast-flowing, icy Galwan river, or they were pushed.
Either way, the increased rumblings of discontent on both sides of the disputed border is ominous to say the least.

UPDATE
New pictures are emerging which put a bit of a different complexion on this story. An Indian military official has shared pictures of iron bars studded with nails, like something out of the Middle Ages, which he claims were used by the Chinese aggressors.
Of course, China will deny it, and who knows what is the truth of the matter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The gömböc, a weird self-righting three-dimensional solid

This is interesting, in a geeky kind of way. A Hungarian mathematician, Gabór Domokos, has found a solid, homogeneous, three-dimensional shape that only has two equilibrium points, one stable and one unstable. Previously, it had been thought that there could be no three-dimensional shape with fewer than four equilibrium points.
Because it has only one stable equilibrium point, the gömböc, as it is called (which may or may not mean "dumpling" in Hungarian), tends to self-right itself to the same position every time. And, interestingly, there are three species of turtles that have developed shells very similar to the gömböc, and indeed they use it to right themselves when they are flipped.
Cool!

Losing a seat on the UN Security Council not a national disaster for Canada

It won't make any major ripples in the flow of international relations, but Canada just lost a vote in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, for the second time in ten years.
Canada was up against Norway and Ireland for the two 2-year seats available in the "Western Europe and Others" group of the ten temporary elected seats on the Council (replacing Belgium and Germany as their 2- year terms expire). Canada received 108 votes from the 192 countries, but Ireland received 128 votes and Norway 130 (the threshold was 128, or two-thirds of the possible votes).
Apparently, the election all works through a rather convoluted vote-swapping system, where deals are struck in return for later votes on other issues. It involves cozying up to dictators, and making deals with countries with which we have very little in common. It doesn't sound exactly wholesome to me, I have to say.
Various excuses and explanations have been offered, including Canada's comparatively late start in its campaign (2015) compared to the others (2005 and 2007), and the way in which Canada's US-Mexico free-trade negotiations has sidelined international engagements over the last few years, but these do rather sound like lame excuses. Questions have been asked as to whether China involved itself, whether we remain too close to the delinquent USA, or whether Canada's hard line on Israeli illegal settlements were an issue (both are considered unlikely, but, hey, in politics anything is possible).
That said, this was hardly an embarrassing debacle nor a resounding denigration of Canada's political manhood. It was, though, still a loss, and an unexpected one in most people's eyes. And it was pretty clear that Justin Trudeau, who considers himself a strong internationalist, had really set his mind on it. His 2015 slogan that "Canada is back!" looks a bit feeble right now, and it may be time to tone down the "The world needs more Canada" chant, because clearly it doesn't.
The Conservative opposition is, predictably, making hay from it, calling it a failed Trudeau vanity project. But it was no more a vanity project than it was when Conservative Prime Minister Stepher Harper pursued (and lost out on) a seat ten years ago. The NDP are calling it a wake-up call and an indication that Canada is not doing enough internationally (e.g. in international development and peacekeeping missions), which is probably about right. Norway outspends Canada hugely in international aid on a per capita basis, and Ireland makes one of the world's highest per capita troop contributions to UN peacekeeping missions. Fairly beaten, I'd say.
Countries see a seat on the Security Council as a big deal, as a way of flaunting their national brand on the international scene, and as a way of pursuing issues close to their own hearts in a most public visible way. But the reality is that the Security Council is completely dominated by the five permanent members - USA, Russia China, UK and France - which have veto rights on anything that goes through the Council, and are not afraid to make use of it (particularly China and Russia). Partly for that reason, it has been a perennially under-achieving arm of the UN, and possibly not the most important international club Canada could belong to anyway.
And what company would Canada have found itself in anyway? The current temporary elected members of the Council are Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia, and Vietnam. It's not really a must-join club, and membership is clearly not a reflection of power and influence in the world.
So, a setback to the Canadian brand perhaps, but, in the scheme of things, not a national disaster. And, no, it doesn't mean that the world hates Canada. And a final thought: would we really desperately want to belong to a club run by bullies like Russia, China and the USA anyway?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Canada improves position in World Competitiveness Ranking

I confess to having been a little surprised to find Canada in 8th spot in the latest World Competitiveness Ranking, a substantial improvement from 13th place in 2019.
That puts us above the USA, which fell from 3rd place to 10th, and well above China which fell from 14th to 20th. However, it still leaves us well below the likes of Singapore, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands and Hong Kong, which make up the top five in this year's listing.
The index is compiled each year by the Institute for Management Development, and compares countries based on four metrics: economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency, and infrastructure, and overall it purports to measure the best places in the world to work and do business.
The big news of the report was the precipitous fall of the USA and China. But it is nice to see Canada doing well, despite the regular newspaper reports of how we are struggling to remain competitive in a changing world.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Playing national anthems before sports games makes no sense

I have a lot of respect for the Globe's sports commentator Cathal Kelly, who tends to write witty and nuanced articles on all manner of different sports. So, it was no surprise when he hit the nail on the head yet again the other day with an article about national anthems in sport.
Mr. Kelly's conclusion was that national anthems have no place in professional club sports at all, something I have always believed myself. Anthems only started to be played during (and, only at a later time, before) as a sort of patriotic musical interlude in the aftermath of the First World War. The first time it ever occurred was during the 1918 baseball World Series and, as much as anything, it was an attempt to enthuse a small and distinctly lacklustre crowd. It became an ongoing tradition by default and for no good reason, and has now become almost sacrosanct for a small minority of ardent patriots.
But national anthems are stirring, nationalistic and militaristic dirges originally designed for use in wars and international crises. The lyrics, when used, tend to be along the lines of "Country A is the greatest, and we're coming to decimate your tin-pot state". They don't have much to do with a competitive, but generally reasonably civilized, sports match.
Even greater cognitive dissonance ensues when you consider that, unlike in the 1918 "World Series", modern professional sports teams are composed of players from all over the world. So, the Swedish, Russian and Canadian members of an American city's hockey team are supposed to look engaged and respectful (unless, of course, they are "taking a knee") while the US anthem plays. And the predominantly American and Latino players on the Blue Jays baseball team have to listen to the Canadian anthem AS WELL AS the American one because, well, Toronto's in Canada, right?
And the fans? Most of them use it as a good opportunity to buy a beer or a hot dog, although there are those (mainly Americans) who take it very seriously, who doff their hats and and stand to attention with fist on heart, and cast threatening glances at others who choose to engage more with Twitter or the cute guy next to them.
It's one thing playing a national anthem to celebrate the victory of a certain country's athlete or team in the Olympic Games - at least they are proudly representing that country, and that country alone - but entirely another (and a distinctly lesser) thing to play it BEFORE a club game, where it is not even celebrating a victory. In that context, it is purely a rote thing, following a tradition that is no longer relevant or appropriate.
It's not even appropriate before an international fixture, in my humble opinion: everyone knows which teams are playing and don't need to be reminded. Play the anthem of the winning team afterwards if you must, or preferably after the final. But before the game, it has no relevance or justification.
Hell, even ex-US national team soccer coach Bruce Arena agrees, and he says he's "the most patriotic person you're going to be around".

Sunday, June 14, 2020

What does "systemic racism" really mean - Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this multi-part post, I kind of set the scene with a look at some recent interviews and press coverage. But none of that has helped me to understand what "systemic racism" actually means (only that it may not be as simple and straightforward as many people think).
So, a dictionary definition. Well, there isn't really one, "systemic racism" being a phrase and not a word. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "racism" as:
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles.
2b: a political or social system founded on racism.
3: racial prejudice or discrimination.
A Missouri woman was recently surprised to learn that her request for Merriam Webster to update their definition had been accepted. She wanted the dictionary definition to reflect the existence of "the systemic and institutional racism that, among other things, perpetuates police violence and over-incarceration in Black and other racialized communities".
So, the official definition of "racism" is changing even as we speak. But it still doesn't help us to understand "systemic racism", which is the specific phrase that is currently under debate.
Wikipedia, then? Interestingly, Wikipedia doesn't have a specific entry for "systemic racism"; it just automatically redirects to "institutional racism", which it says is synonymous (although I think some people may dispute that). The page does say "This page has multiple issues. Please help improve it", and its main definition is "a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions", which is not particularly helpful. But it does go on to identify what I think is probably the key characteristic of  institutional/systemic racism, that "while individual racism is often identifiable because of its overt nature, institutional racism is less perceptible because of its less overt, far more subtle nature", and that it "originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less condemmation" (the latter actually comes from Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton's 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation).
For me, one of the best attempts to pin down the intrinsic nature of system racism comes from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, which says that, "Systemic racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which results in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups", and that, "it differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary". ACLRC goes on to say that systemic racism manifests in two main ways, institutional racism ("racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society") and structural racism ("inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from participation in major social institutions"). It goes on to list examples of systemic racism in certain old laws of Canada (since repealed), in education curricula established mainly for the majority white middle classes, business hiring and advancement practices, and access to sports and recreation.
The American organization Race Forward, on the other hand, takes a less academic approach and chooses to illustrate the various effects of systemic racism, rather than trying to define it, which it illustrates with a series of short videos on the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration policy, and infant mortality. This is a good way of showing the results of racism, but not much help in identifying the difference between the racism of institutions themselves and the actions and influences of "a few bad eggs" within a variety of organizations and institutions.
The idea of racism as a result of "a few bad eggs" is usually portrayed as a denial or repudiation of systemic racism. However, by denying that racism is perpetrated by individuals, is the implication is that EVERYONE (or, presumably, all white people?) are actively engaged in racist acts? Is this part of the definition of systemic racism? Is there the possibility of "a lot of bad eggs" rather than "a few bad eggs", but still not absolutely everyone? If so, is that still systemic racism, or just a lot of individual racism?
And the idea that systemic racism means that the rules and systems of our institutions are deliberately framed so as to ensure that discrimination and racism occurs (such as in apartheid-era South Africa or segregation-era America) is also presumably not part of the modern definition of "systemic racism". If that were the case, there would presumably be absolutely NO possibility of a black man becoming US President or Commissioner of the Toronto police or President of the Inernational Criminal Court, or of brown men becoming CEO of huge companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM, etc, etc. Or is just the fact that such people have to try harder, and overcome more obstacles, than white people (in which case you get into some rather tricky value judgements and non-measurable factors) sufficient to qualify as systemic racism?
And here's another, more recent, situation to consider: a Mi'kmaq man is killed by New Brunswick police. How do we know that a white guy acting in the same way in the same circumstances would not also have been shot? Is this just the police being trigger-happy and excessively violent and not knowing how to de-escalate a tense situation, or is it the result of racist attitudes and practices? Because these are two quite different things. In fact, can any one individual event, taken on its own, be put down to racism? I understand that several individual events taken together comprise a trend, which is what we are seeing here, and a trend CAN be evidence of underlying systemic problems. But an individual event?
I'm just thinking aloud here. And I repeat that I am not saying that racism does not exist, or that systemic racism does not exist, and I am not even trying to downplay a major problem (in policing and elsewhere), but just trying to understand what it actually means, and how it differs from general, garden-variety racism. In a heated atmosphere like at present, it does get a bit fraught and complicated, and we need to keep our thinking straight. And this is not just semantics for semantics' sake: if people are being asked to admit and acknowledge something, they need to be very clear on exactly what they are being asked to admit and acknowledge.
I think I'm a bit closer to understanding systemic racism  now, but still to say that it's a simple matter, and that semantics should not be used as an excuse for not acknowledging the existence of a perceived problem is at best disingenuous. As I used to get told at school, "first, define your terms". And preferably define them in a way that everyone understands and can agree on.
I think what most people mean by "systemic racism" is not that racism is baked into the actual rules and procedures of the systems of our institutions (which, I must confess, is what I used to think it meant), but that racism is pervasive and widespread IN SPITE OF the system's rules, and that there are insufficient checks and balances built into our systems to root out individual racism where it exists.
In which case would we not be better off calling it "pervasive racism" or "widespread racism"or something? I don't think that such terms mininize or gloss over the problem, or at least no more than calling it "systemic". And it may help people to better understand what we are all talking about.

What does "systemic racism" really mean - Part 2

Just two days after her much reported interviews in which she admitted to having struggled with the meaning of "systemic racism" (which I discussed in my previous post), RCMP Commissioner Lucki clarified her position, saying in no uncertain terms that she DOES indeed believe that there IS systemic racism in the RCMP, just in case there was any doubt there: "I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included". Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki also issued his own mea culpa. So, pretty much what she said before, but even clearer. Whether she was pushed to make the additional statement (for the sake of her job security, perhaps) is a moot point.
But even the serious press like The Globe and Mail is calling this back-tracking, claiming that, in her original interview with the paper, she said categorically that "we don't have systemic racism". What she actually said was much more nuanced: "If systemic racism is meaning that racism is entrenched in our policies and procedures, I would say that we don't have systemic racism", a very different thing, as I think the Globe should recognize.
As I understand it, Ms. Lucki is saying that, although there may be some racism in the force, there are no specific policies explicitly built into the organizational rule book that deliberately exclude black people (in the way that black people used to be excluded from golf clubs or certain restaurants, for example), or explicit policies that say "thou shalt stop or follow every black person you see, because they may be guilty of something", which is certainly one valid way you can interpret /the phrase "systemic racism". If there were such rules, then presumably all police officers would be going around harassing, beating up and killing black people, which is manifestly not the case.
She is saying that the RCMP does not have official rules like those, but that some officers can still interpret the rules and procedures that do exist in a way that allows them to perpetuate racist acts and attitudes. She is saying that she is not sure that this is the same thing as "systemic" or not, which I think is a reasonable response, and possibly more nuanced than a blind, unthinking, "Oh, you want me to say we have systemic racism? OK, we have systemic racism".
God knows, we need a bit more nuance in this conversation. So, let's look at what systemic racism really means in Part 3.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

What does "systemic racism" really mean - Part 1

I suppose it was only a matter of time before I felt obliged to tackle the question of what is "systemic racism". The phrase has been bandied around so much recently that its meaning might seem obvious, but I'm not so sure.
I have no intention of trying to show that there is no racism in this country - clearly there is - I just want to make sure that we are all on the same page and talking about the same thing when we are discussing the problem, because I'm not sure that is the case. Call it a concern over semantics if you like, but sometimes semantics and language can be important, as I'm sure anti-racism campaigners would agree.
Every Canadian government, corporation and organizational leader has been almost obliged to make a public statement admitting to, not just racism, but systemic racism. It has become almost an article of faith, part of a new anti-racist catechism or credo. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has, predictably, not even entertained the idea. Over-achiever and inveterate virtue-signaller Justin Trudeau has admitted to the existence systemic racism "in ALL our institutions, including in all our police forces". I know this is something that black people are calling for - the official recognition of the problem - although I still don't really see how that is helping to fix the problem.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, on the other hand, has attracted a whole lot of opprobrium and not a little scorn when she admitted in a live interview that has been "struggling with the definition of systemic racism". She comes across a bit of a ditherer in this interview, which is not really what you need in a police chief, I admit. But what she says seems to be no more than the truth.
As she says in a different interview, "I'm struggling wiith it because I've heard five or six different definitions" ("five or ten" in another interview, "fifteen or twenty" in yet another interview). There is no shortage of letters to newspapers and websites calling her an idiot, and saying, "it's obvious, I can tell you exactly what systemic racism is", and then proceeding to give different (often radically different) interpretations of it.
And just while we are still on the hapless Ms. Lucki, she has been a bit maligned by the press, I think. For example, iPolitics has a blazing headline, "'We don't have systemic racism' RCMP comissioner says", but that's actually not what she says at all, despite the headline's misleading use of speech marks. What she does do in that interview, and what has so incensed people, is to qualify her answer, by saying, "If it refers to an unconscious bias that exists ... we definitely have that in the RCMP and we are not immune to it at all". She is basically trying to be careful in a situation where rashness can lead to dangerous misunderstandings. Or to meaningless virtue-signalling. In another of her many recent interviews, however, she says, "I think systemically there's racism in most organizations and I don't think the RCMP is immune to that". That seems reasonably clear to me, and definitely not what iPolitics is claiming.
I see that, after all that, I have still not even touched on what "systemic racism" actually means, so I will leave that for another day, and Part 2.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Wittgenstein's Mistress is an infuriating read

I have been reading David Markson's book, Wittgenstein's Mistress, and I can't for the life of me decide if it's good or bad, whether I like it or not, or anything about it at all.
It's an "experimental novel" and an infuriating read, but that's not in itself a bad thing, is it? The closest I can come is that, if you don't like Samuel Beckett, you probably won't like Wittgenstein's Mistress, because there is a distinctly Beckettian (or sub-Beckettian) vibe to it, stylistically.
There is no real plot to the thing. A woman (yes it's a man writing from the point of view of a woman - stop reading now if that is a trigger for you), who may or may not be the last person alive, wanders around an apparently empty world, sleeping in major art galleries and beach huts. As she wanders, she muses on the art, philosophy, literature and music she comes across or remembers (or misremembers). She corrects herself constantly, her shifting memories and her grammar and even what she has only just written. It is a kind of stream-of-consciousness piece, but a very deliberate one, complete with transparent edits. It is replete with non sequiturs, false starts, circular arguments and obsessive meanderings.
To give a reasonably representative sample:
To tell the truth, it has actually already gotten to be the day after tomorrow.
Or even more probably the day after that.
Moreover it is raining.
In fact it has been raining since the morning on which I threw out my red roses, which I did not put in either.
By either, of course, I mean also not having put in the days.
Either.
See what I mean about infuriating?
Some of the snippets and factoids she gives about artists and writers are actually quite interesting, but unfortunately you are never quite sure if they are true or not, as she herself freely admits.
Somehow, I would also appear to know that Bach had eleven children, however.
Or perhaps it was twenty children.
Then again it may have been Vermeer who had eleven children.
Though possibly what I have in mind is that Vermeer left only twenty paintings.
Leonardo left fewer than that, perhaps only fifteen.
Not one of these figures may be correct.
See? Infuriating.
We do get to hear a little bit about the real history of the woman, even if obliquely, and mainly towards the end of the book. But I don't want to give too much away...

Yes, children need socialization and contact. But ALL the time?

I've seen several articles arguing that children, especially young children, need to be allowed to go back to school physically, because physical social interaction is essential for their healthy development into well-balanced adults.
I'm sure this is true, and I'm sure there are no end of studies proving this. What I am less sure about is how much difference TEMPORARY isolation makes to child development, and I have struggled to find studies that deal with this. So, while I am sure that children do need physical interaction, peer play and socialization, and that a child that never gets that will struggle to develop healthily and normally, is there a significant difference between a 3-month hiatus (which is where we are right now, in Ontario at any rate) and, say, a 6-month hiatus (which would take us to September, and the start of the regular school year)?
My educated guess is that there would not be a significant difference, and that a temporary period of isolation of this kind is unlikely to have a material effect on the mental and social development of children.
If that is the case, then the urgings of these so-called child development experts - such as the petition of over 1,000 Quebec physicians, and the statement from the Canadian Paediatric Society - is surely misplaced, and could end up causing more harm than good if it leads to a spike in COVID-19 cases, and even associated deaths.
Many people have their own little area of expertise and concern, and they are keen to get the best for their "own" people. They are essentially single-issue lobby groups. But not everyone thinks through the consequences, or looks at the big picture. I guess that is the job of the Chief Medical Officer, but unfortunately not all Chief Medical Officers are truly independent or immune to pressure from lobby groups, and I worry about what is happening here in Ontario during our rather precipitate re-opening of the economy.

Bizarrely, you can travel from Canada to US by air but not by land

There have been all sorts of inconsistent and illogical rules established throughout this pandemic, but one particular howler that very few people seem to know about (including me, until today) is that it is in fact entirely possible to fly from Canada to the USA, even though land travel between the two countries is banned, a restiction that will remain in place until at least June 21st.
In fact, so few people seem to know about it that people who have done it suggest you book online, because if you try to book by phone you may well get refused because many agents don't even know about it. In some cases, people only found out about it from US border security guards who had to refuse land access to Canadian travellers.
It's a bizarre situation.
Another such anomaly is that Americans can travel through Canada (by land) if they are in transit to Alaska. In this way, several Americans have been seen wandering around the tourist areas of Banff and Jasper, totally ignoring social distancing and mask-wearing protocols in that peculiarly self-confident American way, much to the alarm of the hunkered-down locals.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Trump in denial about latest opinion polls

I tried, but I just can't do it. I can't resist calling out that man Donald Trump for his latest stunt, the flailings of an increasingly desperate man.
Mr. Trump took exception to the latest CNN/SSRS poll that shows him trailing Joe Biden by 14 percentage points (55% - 41%) among registered voters, calling it fake news (or fake poll, in this case). Other recent polls by other pollsters have shown him trailing Biden by 8% - 10%. The CNN poll also shows the President's approval rating down at 38%, comparable to the approval ratings of one-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush at this point in their re-election years.
Trump's senior legal advisor wrote that, "It's a stunt and a phoney poll to cause voter suppression, stifle momentum and enthusiasm for the President". (Momentum?) This was accompanied by a formal request to retract the poll and to publish "a full, fair and conspicuous retraction, apology and clarification to correct its misleading conclusions".
You really can't make this stuff up. I'm almost going to miss him when he's gone. Almost.

Tories still appealing against pay equity ruling for care home workers

Back in 2019, long before COVID-19 was even a twinkle in a horseshoe bat's eye, the Ontario Divisional Court upheld a ruling that would ensure pay equity rights for workers in long-term care homes.
Because over 90% of workers in these institutions are female, the ruling called for "proxy pay equity", whereby female workers should be paid in line with comparable make municipal workers. Even though the 2019 decision specifically mandated that women's wages don't later fall behind those of their male proxies, and despite the temporary "pandemic pay" increases for front-line workers, unions warn that a gap has been opening up again, and nursing home owners are reluctant to close it.
What is less known is that, despite what has happened since (and is continuing to happen) in our long-term care homes, Doug Ford's Conservative government, as well as a bunch of private care homes (Extendicare, Chartwell, Sienna and Revera, to name names) are persisting in an appeal against that equity ruling, apparently unwilling to accept that the largely female workforce in these grim places are underpaid.
It beggars belief that, with all that has been going down in long-term care homes, and the toll it has been taking on the personal support workers and nurses there, the Tories should persist with this egregious appeal.

States that opened up earliest show big spikes in in COVID-19 cases

Well, surprise, surprise. Most of the US states that opened up earliest and most comprehensively are now seeing new surges in COVID-19 cases.
Texas is setting new case records, but it nevertheless continues to push forward in relaxing restrictions, opening more businesses, and increasing the capacities of those that are already open. This is not how things are supposed to work.
Among 20 states seeing large recent increases in new cases, particularly in the west of the country, early-opening states like Texas, Arizona, Arkansas and California are seeing particularly big spikes, and some are now worried that their health systems will not be able to cope. Only a few states still have active stay-at-home orders in place, although the extent to which different states have opened up varies greatly. Interestingly, most of the new wave of cases is among younger people, in the 20-44 year age range (and we still have the anti-racism march infection spikes to come...)
The USA continues to lead the pack in coronavirus cases and deaths, and continues to show how not to deal with a pandemic. Long live the land of the free!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Will this affect how trans activists view J.K Rowling?

I don't know if you've been following it, but superstar author J.K. Rowling has made a lot of enemies recently in the LGBTQ community due to her apparent fixation with trans women, whom - or at least some aspects of whom - she sees as potentially endangering some of the successes feminists have made in recent decades.
This includes aspects such as allowing trans women to use women's public washrooms, for example, which Ms. Rowling sees - as I understand her argument - as setting the dangerous precedent of opening female washrooms up to all males (although why she would think that, and why she would see a trans woman as a potential rapist anyway, I'm not sure - this is not where rapes occur). It also includes the even more contentious issue of whether a lot of young people are transitioning due to peer pressure, and not a person's innate gender identity.
Anyway, copious amounts of virtual ink have already been spilled on this topic on Twitter and elsewhere, the crux being that many transgender people latched onto the Harry Potter books as kids because they saw in Harry an outsider they could relate to, which I've always seen as a bit of a tenuous connection, but who am I to speak? Since Ms. Rowling's very public pursuit of a feminism that seems to exlude transgender individuals, although she claims not to be a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist - yes, it's a thing), many trans individuals are feeling hurt, betrayed and deeply disappointed by her apparent transphobia (which she also denies, incidentally).
Setting aside the whole issue of separating the art from the artist, which is actually VERY germane in this case, this is a controversy that is huge on social media, and it shows no signs of petering out any time soon.
Following her latest Twitter outburst (against the use of the trans-inclusive phrase "people who menstruate", which I find awkward, weird and a little dehumanizing, although not particularly offensive), and the furore that greeted it - including from Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, and Newt Scamander, AKA Eddie Redmayne - Ms. Rowling obviously felt the time had arrived to explain in a bit more detail where she is coming from.
So, this notoriously private person has now publicly shared a whole load of information about her traumatic childhood and her violent first marriage dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), domestic abuse and sexual assault. She says she is not looking for sympathy, merely trying to explain how she ended up a radical feminist (although perhaps not how she then took the route towards TERF-dom).
Frankly, I'm not sure that this will go very far at all in placating Ms. Rowlimg's pro-trans detractors - I know that from talking to my own daughter, who has very strong (and unchanged) views on the subject . In fact, she may have dug herself in even deeper in some people's opinions. But maybe some people will look on her a little differently now, who knows.
I just thought it was worth reading her side of the story in a bit more detail. Because it seems to me that at least part of the problem is Twitter itself, which leaves no room for nuance, and positively encourages off-the-cuff, throwaway remarks and poorly thought out, knee-jerk responses.