Wednesday, September 30, 2020

How accurate are the different coronavirus tests?

I looked recently into the accuracy of forehead thermometers and, while I concluded that they were useful as an initial screening tool, they are not equivalent to an actual COVID-19 test.

There are two main types of tests for the coronavirus: the molecular real-time polymerase chain reaction nasopharygeal  test (usually shortened to "RT-PCR test" or just "PCR test", for obvious reaons), and the antigen test. Antibody (or serology) tests also exist, but they do not indicate an active virus, and are of more limited use for diagnosis. Some 130 different tests have been approved by the US's Federal Drug Agency (FDA) under its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) protocol, which allows '"unapproved uses of approved medical products" in emergency situations like this, but none of them are fully approved by the FDA, with all the rigorous testing and vetting of new procedures that normally happens. And, as we shall see, some tests are definitely better than others.

The PCR test is still considered the gold standard, and here we are talking about the familiar image from countless television reports of a white-coated healthcare worker poking a long swab deep into a testee's nose. The test searches for the presence of the virus' genetic material deep in a person's nasal cavity. Done properly (i.e. deep enough to cause discomfort, to where the nasal cavity meet the pharynx at the back of the mouth), the PCR test is almost 100% accurate and effective, even in the absence of symptoms. 

However, ideally, the test should be done least 8 days after infection to ensure that sufficient viral particles are present (i.e. a test performed soon after infection is less effective and more likely to produce a false negative result). Less invasive, more shallow swabs of the nose, or of saliva from the back of the mouth,which have been authorized recently in the US, are also typically less accurate, although still quite good. False positive results, where viral particles remain long after a person has recovered from the disease, are possible, but not that common.

PCR tests must be analyzed in a lab on large specialized equipment, and it can take several days for results to become available, or even up to a week or more (theoretically, they should be available the same day, but in practice this does not happen). The other issue that is arising with extensive PCR testing is a shortage of reagents, the chemicals that are needed to analyze the tests, which in many cases is proving to be the limiting factor on how many and how fast tests can be performed. "Pooled testing" may speed things up, whereby batches of tests are analyzed together: if the result is negative, no more needs to be done, while, if the pool result is positive, individual tests can then be re-analyzed. 

The FDA has also recently approved saliva or spit tests under its EUA protocol, such as the SalivaDirect test developed by the Yale School of Public Health, among others. This is a PCR test, but using the quick and simple expedient of spitting into a container, rather than the invasive and time-consuming nasopharyngeal swab method using trained personnel. These newer tests appear to be very accurate (Yale claims 94% accuracy compared to nasopharyngeal PCR tests), as well as quicker, cheaper and less instrusive, and home kits are expected to be available soon.

The other main COVID diagnostic test, antigen testing, on the other hand, produces results within just a few hours, even minutes. However, the compromise is that that they are substantially less accurate, mainly because they require large amounts of viral material to yield a positive result. Antigen tests use nasal or throat swabs to look for the presence of certain proteins on the surface of the virus. If the test is positive, it is generally reliable, but false negatives, where the virus is present but not picked up, can occur in 20-30% of tests, even as high as 50%, making it much less effective than the PCR test.

There are also antibody tests available. Antibody tests are not diagnostic tests: they do not indicate that someone has the virus, merely that they had it at some point. They require blood samples not nasal swabs, and results are typically available within a few days, or less. 

However, COVID-19 antibodies can take several days or even weeks to develop after an infection, and the jury is still out on how long they remain active (probably just several weeks), and to what extent they would be effective on a mutating virus. Long-term T-cell analysis would be better in this regard, but no such test is easily or commercially available. 

Antigen tests are subject to false positive results, as the antibodies may occur in response to a different coronavirus. False negative rates of 20-30% have also been reported. So, the antibody test is not considered very useful or reliable, and may give a false sense of security. The presence of antibodies may not mean that a person is immune to a different (or even the same) strain of the virus.

So, it's PCR all the way, despite the slowness of results and the existence of other alternative tests, which are better used as confirmatory tests. But new saliva-based PCR tests are much quicker and cheaper, less invasive, and almost as reliable, and may be the way forward. Amid reports of 6-7 hour-long waits for traditional testing, this may be just what we need, but don't expect Canada's highly cautious and creaky old approval system to authorize them any time soon.

UPDATE

Well, I shouldn't speak too soon. Canada has just announcing that it is ordering nearly 8 million rapid tests from Abbott Rapid Diagnostics ULC, despite Health Canada not having approved the technology yet.

ID Now is a PCR test that has been available in the USA since March, but it yields results in just 5-13 minutes using a portable machine the size of a toaster. It still requires a qualified  health professional to collect a sample using a throat or nasal swab, but it could still speed up testing significantly. There was some concern early on in the US that the tests yielded many false negative results, but Abbott maintains that these problems have been fixed and that tests perform well when administered soon after symptoms appear.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

How accurate are forehead thermometers, really?

I've seen several articles (like this one from the New York Times in February) suggesting that the now-ubiquitous forehead thermometers (aka infrared thermometers, temporal scanners, or just "temperature guns") are quick and easy but not actually very accurate. Now, that article also talked about how useless masks are (this was February, remember?), but my physiotherapist said the same thing just this week, so it's clearly a pretty widely-held view. Is it actually true, though?

Well, yes and no, but mainly no. There are several different types of thermometer, and they can give slightly different readings. Rectal temperature readings are generally considered the most accurate, although the drawbacks are obvious, and this method is rarely used in practice. The more usual oral thermometer tends to give a reading about 0.3-0.6°C (0.5-1.0°F) lower than a rectal thermometer, and the oral reading is the most often used (yielding the familiar 37.0°C or 98.6°F "normal" temperature). Tympanic or ear thermometers give very similar readings to rectal thermometers. Armpit thermometers tend to give temperatures 0.3-0.6°C (0.5-1.0°F) lower than oral thermometers. And so, as it turns out, do infrared forehead thermometers. 

So, while they are not 100% accurate, they are still pretty good. They are unlikely to give a reading that is wildly inaccurate in either direction. And, if they are predictably half a degree lower than oral thermometers, it is easy to make an adjustment for the discrepancy. 

Of course, whether a fever is a reliable marker of COVID-19 is another question entirely: the presence of a fever is a good (but not definitive) indicator of the virus, but the absence of a fever does not equate to the absence of the virus.

Forehead thermometers remain the easiest, quickest and least invasive test for COVID-19, and so should not be dismissed out of hand when you encounter them at a barbers or a nail salon or a school or a restaurant. But they are not reliable or definitive enough to serve as the arbiter of health at an international airport in my opinion. They are a useful initial screening tool, but no substitute for a proper COVID-19. But how accurate are THEY?

Donald J. Trump State Park is a polluted wasteland - significant?

A Guardian journalist has reported on the glories of Donald J. Trump State Park in New York state. There are some lovely state parks in New York; Donald J. Trump State Park is apparently not one of them.

It's actually just a couple of tracts of muddy, overgrown wasteland, about an hour or so north of New York City, straddling Putnam and Westchester counties. It's not easy to find - signage disappears after one on Taconic State Parkway - and, if you do find it, there's not much there, other than an empty gravel patch that serves as a parking lot, and a noticeboard warning against ticks. There is not even a bench or a trash can. A half-hearted attempt to develop it as a dog park was abandoned some years ago after asbestos was found in the decaying structures on the land. I guess it never did turn into "one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in the world" as Trump predicted back in 2006, when he donated the land to New York state.

Because this was surplus land that Trump couldn't make any money out of. His initial plans to build a golf course foundered when permission was refused on environmental grounds. So, Trump donated it to the state so that they could get the maintemamce bills and he could get the tax write-offs. He did, of course, specify that the land should always bear his glorious name. And now New York is stuck with it, although they are too embarrassed to actually list it along with their other state parks.

You can see it as an ironic statement on the state of Trump's America. Or you can see it as a piece of polluted wasteland. Luckily, you will probably never be able to find it anyway, so you may not have to see it.

Why I won't be watching the presidential debates

I don't plan on watching the first presidential debate tonight, or any of the others for that matter. I have high blood pressure, and watching Donald Trump in full flight is only going to make it worse. I tried watching daily Trump's pandemic addresses many times back in those distant, early days of April and May, when he thought that he could squeeze some political capital out of such appearances, but I usually had to move away at some point. The guy just makes me really angry.

I don't expect Joe Biden to do particularly well in the one-on-one debates. The best I am hoping for is that he holds his own and does not make any howling mistakes. This is Trump's territory. He will talk more, he will talk louder, he will goad and slash, he will make endless unsubstantiated claims, he will lie through his teeth and do it in such a way that many people will believe him. And, in the absence of any fact-checking, he will no doubt score lots of points, and may well sway some undecideds (although this apparently only makes up a surprisingly small 3-5% of those expected to vote).

But I don't feel that it would be edifying to watch this kind of bear-baiting contest. Add to that the fact that this debate is hosted by Trump's pet news channel, Fox News, which will lob him some easy partisan topics, and I think my time will be better spent reading a book or surfing Netflix. Anything really.

UPDATE

I'm feeling extremely vindicated right now. My wife tried to watch it and gave up after about half an hour. I'm sure I wouldn't have lasted that long.

The debate has been almost universally panned, even by conservative media outlets. Trump was completely out of control, no policies got discussed, the moderator was ineffectual, and the American public got shafted. Again.

It's tempting to think that such a shitshow can only have damaged Trump's chances. But his supporters don't tend to operate in a logical manner, and even that is not assured. All we can be thankful for is that Joe Biden survived and did not have a heart attack, although there is serious debate around whether it is in his, or anyone's, interest to go through two more of these things.

Monday, September 28, 2020

British pub curfew causing national trauma - which points to another major problem

The new 10pm curfew in Britain, a desperate attempt to reduce the alarming surge in COVID-19 cases there since lockdown has been relaxed, seems to be creating a national existential crisis.

The country is now at around 6,000 new cases a day, worse than during the dark days of April and May, snd some authotities are predicting this may go up to as much as 50,000 a day next month unless strong measures are taken. Something clearly has to be done, and the latest solution, both in Britain and elsewhere - and one which I am very unconvinced by, I have to say -  is to reduce the length of time that pubs and restaurants can serve alcohol, alcohol being one of the things that cause people to drop their guards and forget to observe social distancing rules. Ontario has also put a time limit on drinking in bars recently - last orders at 11pm, close at 12 - and this has also met with vocal opposition, despite the even less strict rule in this case. Does anyone really nees to be still drinking at midnight?

Pub owners often maintain that pubs are not the problem, and that virus transmission os more likely to happen in the home, but the evidence points to a lot of transmission in newly-reopened bars and restaurants. Socializing in an enclosed, poorly-ventilated, loud, crowded place is just not a good idea during a pandemic. The alcohol-fuelled drops in inhibitions and attention, as well as the effects of music snd dancing, only make things worse.

Many opppnents, pub owners and local politicians in Britain are arguing that if they force pubs to close at 10pm, then they are actively encouraging people to go to each others' homes or into the streets to continue the party in a more crowded and totally unregulated environment, which is only going to make the problem worse. As one politician explained, people are "coming out of a pub or restaurant at 10 o'clock, and thinking what to do next", to which I would respond, "go the hell home, don't you know there's a pandemic on. for fuck's sake?"

Many people seem to think they have a God-given right to party and to get smashed. But in a time of national, even global crisis, I'm sorry, but they may have to curtail their cosy, privileged lifestyle in the interests of the common good. I like a beer as much as the next guy - although perhaps not as much as the next guy in Britain, which has a major national alcohol problem anyway, which frankly needs to be addressed, pandemic or no pandemic. But if pubs and restaurants are part of the problem (and no-one is saying they are the whole of the problem), and people can't control their urges - yes, millennials, I'm looking at you! - then they need to allow the authorities to do what little they can to regulate those variables they can control, and not whine about how their lives are not quite perfect. 

These are non-essential activities, get used to it. 10pm last orders is not a human rights violation, it's a minor inconvenience. And maybe we need to just suck it up, and accept a bit of short-term pain to avoid long-term pain, both economic and social. Otherwise, this damned pandemic is going to go on forever!

Ooh, I didn't intend that to come out quite so stridently. I guess that's how I really feel.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

What is QAnon, and are they serious?

You may have heard passing reference to QAnon recently, probably in relation to anti-mask or anti-lockdown protests, and wondered what it is. Well, the answer probably won't satisfy you very much, but that doesn't mean the movement, if movement it can be called, can be written off as a bunch of harmless cranks.

QAnon is essentially a conspiracy theory, that seems ludicrous at first, or even second  glance, but it is apparently growing and making new connections among far-right wing groups, particularly in Gilead-style Republican America. Its base belief is that there is a shady international cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that has been secretly abducting and sexually abusing children, and harvesting their blood to make a serum for eternal youth. 

The conspiracy theory maintains that this cabal, which supposedly includes high-profile individuals like Hillary Clinton and financier George Soros, is part of a secret government, or "deep state", that is controlling American and world affairs behind the scenes. Unlikely as it may seem, Donald Trump is considered by believers to be the knight in shining armour, the saviour that is leading a righteous war against this deep state. Trump, of course, is quite happy to play long with it, and has retweeted several QAnon posts in the past. There are various other ancillary beliefs to QAnon, many of them anti-semitic, and the movement is a deliberately vague, cryptic and ill-defined protean entity that can take on any shape or flavour it sees fit.

It all began in October 2017, on the sketchy social media site 4chan, the work of a single anonymous user labelled "Q". Q claimed to be a secret service operative, and he/she worked to spread a rather random and unlikely conspiracy theory, that appeared out of nowhere during the 2016 US election, that Hilary Clinton was operating a child sex ring out of a Washingto DC pizza parlour. Somehow, Q's posts struck a lodestone of interest, even after Trump was elected, and took advantage of the magical thinking that many far-right and Trump supporters are prone to. The rest, as they say, is history.

In fact, the movement has been getting more and more active on social media in recent months, and has even spread outside its American heartland. Britain is now its second-largest support base, followed by Canada, Australia and Germany. In Britain, Boris Johnson has been hailed as a potential co-saviour, along with Trump.

I know, sounds cracked, eh? And so it is, but its adherents, like the anti-vaxxers and other odd alt-right groups, can be seen popping up at any right-wing protest, and lending their support to all manner of anti-progressive causes, and so it cannot just be ignored. The FBI has gone so far as to identify QAnon as a potential terrorist threat, and you can see why: anyone that divorced from reality could potentially be capable of just about anything. Twitter and Facebook have been busy blocking QAnon-related accounts but, hydra-like, they just pop up again elsewhere.

Some acts of violence have already been linked to the belief, including the mass shooting in Hanau, Germany, in February of this year, and several QAnon supporters are even running as Republican and independent Senate candidates in the upcoming US election, which could conceivably see it move more fully into the real, offline world. Not so funny now, is it?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Horgan plays cynical politics in calling early election in BC

British Columbia Premier John Horgan has called an early election for October 24th 2020. This is a full year before his four year term officially expires and, despite his protestations, it is a cynical exercise in playing politics.

Horgan's minority NDP government has been held together for the last three years by an agreement with the BC Green Party, with which it has much in common. And a pretty successful partnership it has been too. Back in 2017, when thisnagreement was struck, Horgan specifically promised that he would not look to dissolve the legislature until the next scheduled election

But now, as he basks in a 19-point poll lead over the second-place Liberals, largely due to a generally favourable view of his and his government's COVID-19 management (although that could change as a second wave begins to hit BC), Horgan wants a majority. He says he "struggled mightily" with the decision, but that 19-point lead suggests otherwise. He says it is to allow the NDP a freer hand in dealing with the pandemic and the economic fallout therefrom, but his reliance on the two Green Party MPs does not seem to have hampered his policies much.

This is just a cynical power grab, pure and simple.

Canadian EV sales hampered by ... car dealerships

If the increased adoption of electric vehicles is to be a major plank in our fight against global warming, then we need to at least make sure the damned things are available. Sales of all vehicles have plummeted during the pandemic of 2020, but one of the main reasons why the take up of electric vehicles is so low is that Canada has a supply problem, and demand for EVs is outstripping supply and stocks in dealerships.

Two-thirds of Canadian dealerships had no EVs in stock at all, even before the pandemic struck. Outside of the three largest provinces - Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia - EVs are almost impossible to find. Quebec and BC still offer attractive rebates for the purchase of EVs; Ontario does not, thanks to Doug Ford's cancellation of the previous Liberal government's rebate scheme. There is also a federal financial incentive available countrywide.

There are various reasons for this, including a shortage of battery components, and manufacturers prioritizing shipments to China and Europe over North America. But there are other, less honourable, reasons too: many dealerships choose not to stock EVs because of the extra consumer education involved, the need for battery-charging infrastructure, and the loss of potential service and repair revenue, i.e. ironically, because EVs require much less service than ICE vehicles, dealerships make less money off them.

Waiting lists for EVs run from a few months to over a year, which is a ridiculous situation to be in. This in itself is another reason for dealerships not to stock EVs - why would they want to pursue a purchase with a year's delay when they can sell other cars immediately? This catch-22 situation is of their own making.

Electric vehicles are expected to become more and more popular as their battery range increases and their prices come down. For example, California has just committed to phasing out gasoline-powered cars by 2035, and where California leads, Canada usually follows eventually. But the car industry here is certainly not making things any easier, and more governmemt intervention would help there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The US Supreme Court was not always this partisan

Us non-Americans are perennially bemused at just how partisan and party-political the US Supreme Court system is.

The Canadian Supreme Court works very similarly to the US one in many ways, but it is not as politically partisan. Judges are appointed to the Court by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, but the process is much more informal, and any legislative hearings related to the appointment are voluntary and not constitutionally mandated. And, interestingly enough, it is quite common for a liberal-leaning judge to be appointed by a conservative government, and vice versa. Thus, it is not uncommon for a Supreme Court judge to rule against the political party that appointed it, something that is almost unimaginable in today's American system. There is also a 75 year age limit on the Canadian Supreme Court judges, as opposed to the job-for-life system in the USA.

Similarly, the UK system is also much less partisan than the American one, and it too has an age limit (as does pretty much every European country). America seems to have a peculiarly lartisan top couurt

Interestingly, though, it wasn't always like that in the USA. It is only since 2010 that US Supreme Court judges have been a appointed in such a strictly party political way (although some would argue that it has been moving in that direction since the 1970s). For instance, a conservative judge was appointed by John F. Kennedy in 1962; a liberal justice was appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975; a liberal-leaning judge was appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990; etc. And, while there has always been dissent within the SCOTUS judges, it did not always coincide with party lines.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Black American academic dares to opine that Back lives are not inherently different from white lives

Here's a brave man. Black American "cultural critic" Thomas Chatterton Williams, in an interview with the BBC, opines that the way to get multi-ethnic society to work, which should be everyone's goal, is not going to be "by doubling down and reinforcing the mistaken notion that we are separate races", based on what he calls "pseudo-scientific relics of conflicts past", but rather by "actually trying to live up to the idea of a transcendent humanism". 

Now, this is diametrically opposed to the views of Black Lives Matter, which is currently steering the narrative in America and elsewhere. Chatterton Williams does say that he understands, and indeed agrees with, BLM's protest movement aimed at fixing the culture of police brutality in the USA. He does not deny that there is racism and injustice at work on a large scale in American society. But, he says, "as far as they believe that there are actually Black lives that are fundamentally, inherently, essentially different than white lives, then I don't get on board with that rhetoric".

And finally, "I don't think that we are going to get to a better future by fracturing ourselves into ever more hyper-specific identity categories".

Like I say, brave man. I have to say that I agree with him in principle, although I don't see how that fine theory is going get translated into a practical approach.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Notorious RBG should not be replaced with 1½ months of Trump's administration left

Everyone else is talking about it, so I guess I should too. The death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not have come at a more inopportune time. I was so hoping that she could have held on for a whi le longer, preferably a long time longer, because she was a giant of US lawmaking, and a voice of reason in an institution that has often demonstrated a complete lack of empathy and appreciation of how the world really works. 

But, with just a month and a half remaining in Donald Trump's lame duck administration, RBG's untimely death has thrust America into a maelstrom of political intrigue and moral ambiguity. Conservative voices in the Supreme Court already out-number liberal ones by 5-3 (in the absence of RBG), and a new conservative appointment by Trump would tilt the balance into a unprecedented 6-3 right-wing bias, probably for the best part of a generation, putting many heretofore sacrosanct legal rulings in some jeopardy. 3 of the 6 Republican judges would have been appointed by Trump in just one term.

Because, make no mistake about it, the US Supreme Court is a political institution first, and a legal one only a distant second, and its ability to constrain some of the more egregious actions of presidents and Congresses is almost wholly dependent on its political leanings, leanings that have become much more partisan and extreme over time.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died in March 2016, then President Barack Obama was technically within his rights to appoint his own choice of replacement, but the Republican-controlled Senate, led at that time, as now, by the weaselly Senator Mitch McConnell, ruled that appointing a new Supreme Court judge so close - 9 months! - to an election, would be morally wrong, and deprive the voting public of a say in the make-up of the court. 

Now, however, one-and-a-half months before another election, McConnell's concern for morality and the voting public seems to have swung 180°, and he is positively salivating at the prospect of a Supreme Court stacked with fellow Republicans. He argues, disingenuously, that the current situation is different from that in 2016, because now both the President and the majority in the Senate are of the same party. And that matters how? The fact that the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats is not relevant because the House has no influence over Supreme Court appointments. Those are just the rules. 

Back in 2016, a time that seems like a an earlier, more naive, era, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham went so far as to say, "I want you to use my words against me. If there's a Republican Senate in 2016, and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsay Graham says, 'Let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination' ". Graham who is now leading the charge to back Trump, is, of course, having his words used against him.

Possible hold-out (and no friend to Trump) Mitt Romney has justified his support on the grounds of historical precedence, by cherry-picking occasions where the President and the Senate are both of the same party (although there are exceptions to even that rule). Many other Republican Senators who made definitive statements about filling SCOTUS positions in an election year back in 2016, are now struggling to justifiy their change of heart.

It was RBG's dying wish that she not be replaced until after the election. Trump, of course, maintains that the Democrats just made that up, and indeed that he is "constitutionally obligated" to do.so. Fox News' Tucker Carlson opined that, " If it were true, it would be pathetic". That's the kind of attitude Americans are up against. Trump's justification that, "I think it would be good for everybody to get it over with" makes no sense at all, like most of the pronouncements that leave his mouth. If he is so supremely confident of winning the 2020 election, then he has no reason not to delay the nomination.

Anyway, the outcome is not quite a foregone conclusion. There are still some reasonable voices on the Senate, even if sleazy McConnell is not one of them. But how I wish it were different. A Democratic/liberal appointment to replace RBG would still leave a narrow 5-4 Republican majority on the Court, after the two buddies that Trump has already appointed, but a 6-3 majority would be unconscionable on so many levels.

The idea of "court-packing" remains - if the Democrats were to recover control of Congress in the next election, they could vote to increase the number of Supreme Court judges from nine, and pack the new positions with Democrats. But it's a desperate, retaliatory stategy, that risks the Democrats sinking to the same low ethical standards as the Republicans, and Joe Biden is probably wise to be wary of it. 

There is still a moral high road in America - it's a pretty low high road, granted - and Democrats have to make sure they at least try to take it. Otherwise, they are no better than the worthless Republicans.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Mass bird die-off in southwestern USA probably climate related

Hundreds of thousands, even millions of songbirds heve been literally falling out of the sky in the southwest of the United States. Birds migrating south from Canada and Alaska to their overwintering grounds in Central and South America, have been dying off en masse in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska. Inititially, the cause was a mystery, but increasingly it looks like a combination of climate change and the raging wildfires along the west coast of America (arguably also due to change) are to blame.

The dead birds appear to have little remaining fat reserves or muscle mass, and are quite literally starving to the point where they can no longer fly. It is thought that the birds have had to alter their migration route away from the resource-rich coastal areas, which are now a deadly conflagration of flames and smoke, and head instead through the resource-poor desert lands in the interior, which are particularly dry and hot at the moment due to a long-lasting, climate crisis-induced drought. It is also possible that their lungs are suffering some damage from all the smoke along their route. There are some reports that migrating birds have also been behaving erratically (e.g. tree-dwelling birds hopping along the ground in search of insects). Local resident birds do not seem to be affected.

Just another Biblical, weird happening. We should be used to them by now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Energy giant BP suggests that peak oil demand may have already passed

A major report by energy giant BP is predicting peak oil demand is coming soon, or may even have already passed.
The forecast in their 2020 Energy Outlook looks at three different scenarios: a rapid transition scenario, in which carbon emissions from energy use is reduced by 70% by 2050; a net zero scenario, in which decarbonization is pursued even more aggressively; and a business-as-usual scenario, in which government policies and societal behaviour evolve in a manner similar to the recent past. In both the rapid transition and net zero scenarios, oil demand has already peaked, and will continue a precipitous downward trajectory henceforth. Even under the business-as-usual scenario, oil demand is expected to peak around 2030 at a level barely above the current demand, and start to gradually decrease theeafter.
If this seems like a radical and pessimistic outlook coming from an oil company, bear in mind that BP has been ramping up its investments in renewable energy for some years now, and has already off-loaded its global petrochemical business, and is openly looking at selling many of its oil and gas assets in the near future.
So, the writing is on the wall, as even the industry itself admits. Do you think that Alberta is listening? Are you kidding?

The second Wave is hitting Canada and the politicians just hesitate

It looks like the long-awaited Second Wave of the coronavirus pandemic has officially hit Canada.
Yesterday, there were 1,350 new cases across the country, including 418 in Alberta, 317 in British Columbia, 313 in Ontario and 276 in Quebec. Obviously, there is no official definition of what constitutes a second wave, but I think that those stats, and the continued upward trajectory of "the curve" is evidence enough. The 1,000 threshold is probably as good a point as any at which to call it a second wave.
So, what happens now? Probably nothing. Politicians at all levels and health authorities alike have been telling us for months now that they "will not hesitate" to lock provinces and municipalities down again if the numbers worsen. Well, the numbers have worsened big time, and all I am seeing is hesitation.

Google first company to offset ALL its greenhouse gas emsission, EVER

Google claims to be the first company to have offset all the greenhouse gas emissions it has ever created, by purchasing high-quality carbon offsets to match all the emissions ever produced by its data centres and campuses. Love 'em or hate 'em, that's pretty impressive.
Going forward, it will continue to offset its emissions, while moving towards 100% carbon-free renewable energy by 2030, using wind, solar, increased battery storage, and optimizing its demand forecasts and management using its own AI algorithms.
OK, I'm impressed.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

These Festive Nights - no punctuation, no paragraphs, no problem

I have been ploughing, assiduously and laboriously, through Marie-Claire Blais' These Festive Nights, the English translation of the Quebec writer's well-regarded 1995 novel Soifs.
"Ploughing" suggests that this is hard work, and indeed it is. Ms. Blais has won accolades and prizes for her expansive oeuvre, of which These Festive Nights is often considered the pinnacle. But beach reading it is not. This is dense, stream-of-consciousness stuff, often going off on flights of poetical fancy, but as often as not consisting of a rather turgid series of thoughts, memories and snippets of conversations. The prose is rife with repetitions, non-sequiturs, and scattershot trains of thought. There is a bewildering parade of characters, locations across the world, and small story arcs that may or may not be related to the main one. Ostensibly, it is about a multi-day festival in a tropical location, but really there are only occasional references to that - it is more about love, grief, family, age, war, gender, racism, art, and a whole slew of other abstract concepts.
Much of it is undeniably well-written (and/or
well-translated by Sheila Fischman), but it is heavy going, and not least because of the punctuation, or lack hereof. There (almost) no periods, quote marks, or paragraphs, just lots and lots of commas in a single unbroken 260-page paragraph. Funnily enough, there is the odd period, every few pages or every twenty pages or so, seemingly at random, and there are a few question marks, and even one semi-colon that I have noticed. Is there some deep plan behind all this? What it does mean is that reading the book requires more attention and  concentration, and something about the massed, unbroken text seems to make it even harder to digest than it would otherwise be.
This is not a new technique - Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett were experimenting with this approach almost a certury earlier, and many authors since have gone down that route for one reason or another, including William Faulkner, Jose Saramago and, more recently, Lucy Ellmann's 1,000-page novel Ducks, Newburyport - but it is presumably a very deliberate decision on the author's part. I'm still not very sure what Ms. Blais feels it adds to the book, though, aside from maybe making it appear more erudite and deep than it actually is. Personally, I think it detracts from the overall appeal. But then I don't get the impression that Ms. Blais is overly concerned with her potential audience. She is clearly an intense, driven personality, almost totally divorved from commercial and populist considerations.
Anyway, I will finish the book, if only out of obstinacy. But will I have enjoyed it, will I be a better person for it? Probably not.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Trump gets another Noble (sorry, Nobel) Peace Prize nomination

While most people were disgusted with Donald Trump's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, one should remember that pretty much anyone can be nominated (any head of state or politician serving at the national level can make a nomination, not to mention university professors, heads of foreign policy institutes,  past Nobel Prize winners, and Nobel Commitee members), but few get to win.
Trump was nominated by far-right Norwegian politician Christian Tybring-Gjedde (yes, the same guy that nominated Trump in 2018, that time for his great "success" with North Korea), ostensibly for his work in promoting a "peace deal" between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, although, as I have already commented, this is highly unlikely to create any peace in the region, and may well inflame tensions still further. America's pet project Israel may well benefit, but all it really does is set Arabs against Arabs in a region where Arab solidarity is the only hope for beleaguered Palestine, and the chances of a two-state solution (the only solution that will work on a long-term basis) look ever further away.
Perhaps more amusing is the fact that the Trump administration, in a series of Facebook ads that trumpteted that "President Trump achieved PEACE in the MIDDLE EAST" in Trumpian capitals, managed to mis-spell "Nobel" as "Noble". That probably tells you as much as you need to know.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Naomi Osaka, the accidental activist (oh, and top tennis player)

I've been enjoying watching Naomi Osaka recently, both as a tennis player and as an interviewee. The 22-year old comes across as so fresh and pleasant, it's a nice antidote to the usual Djokovic/Medvedev-type intensity and bombast
Naomi Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan, to a Japanese mother and a Black Haitian father, but she moved to the USA at age 3, and sounds for all the world like a typical (if slightly more thoughtful) American teenager. Although she is no stranger to media attention - she has already won several major competitions - she still has a kind of bemused, deer-in-the-headlights presence, as though she is still unsure why anyone is interested in her and her opinions. She is thoughtful, candid and self-deprecating, and not prone to the stock "he/she's playing really right now, but I'm just going to go out there and stick to my game, and give 110%"-type bromides that most tennis (and other sports) players tend to resort to.
There seems to be a certain amount of disinformation swirling about her. I have heard tennis commentators explain auhoritatively the she took the name of her birth-town because her father's French name was too difficult for the Japanese to pronounce, whereas in fact Japanese family registration laws require children of a foreign parent to be registered under the name of the Japanese parent, and Osaka is Naomi's mother's maiden name. More than one American commentator has also explained that Naomi represents Japan (not America or Haiti) because Japan outbid the USA by throwing oodles of money at her, whereas her parent have actually been at great pains to explain that financial gain and the lobbyings of national tennis federations were not involved in the decision. She even gave up her American citizenship recently in order to represent Japan.
Anyway, Ms. Osaki is very much flavour of the month during the current US Open, partly because she is playing some very good tennis, but partly because of her very open Black Lives Matter stance. She unilaterally followed the lead of the NBA by boycotting the major competition before this (Western & Southern Open), causing the whole conpetition to be put on hold (for a day ay least). During the more prestigious US Open, she is wearing a different mask each day emblazoned with the names of Black Americans who have died at the hands of the police.
When asked about her protests, she is kind of apologetic and almost dismissive, although every now and then she makes a comment that demonstrates that she is actually settling into her new status as a role model, and that, as a successful Black (and Asian) woman, she is in a position of some influence in the world, despite her tender years. It's fascinating to watch it happen.

UPDATE
Ms. Osaka went on to win the US Open, for the second time in her still short career. In the post-game questions, on the biggest stage of her young life, when asked what was the message from her mask-wearing - perhaps a bit of a daft question - she still had the wherewithal not to lecture and hector, but responded, "What was the message that you got ... The point is to make people start talking".

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Why does Putin favour an apparently inefficient poison

I've been trying understand why Putin and his lackeys persist in using a very inefficient Soviet-era poison.
Poison has long been a favourite Russian tactic, dating back to the 17th century and even earlier, and the Kremlin in particular has employed it to great effect since the 1920s. The Novichok nerve agent, which was used recently against opposition politician Alexei Navalny, and against defected military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, was developed by the Soviets back in the 1970s. In both of these recent cases, the poisonings were not fatal, and moreover were easily identifiable as of Russian state origin. So why would Putin use such an obvious and apparently inefficient means to attack his enemies. Wouldn't a good old fashioned gun do the job better? Or even a more effective, or less identifiable, poison?
Well, it seems that identifiable is just what Putin is aiming for. Novichok is often fatal (the most recent victims were lucky to have good, fast medical attention), and anyone who is treated to it is left in no doubt (and in a very public way) that Vladimir Putin wants them dead, and could easily bring that about at any time or in any place. It is more a threat than an earnest assassination attempt. It sends a very clear message, delays investigations, and sows confusion.
Poisons often work excruciatingly slowly and painfully, adding whole theatrical aspect to the deed. And, while pretty much everyone knows that Putin is behind the attacks, there is no smoking gun (so to speak) that can openly be attributed to him. There is a "veneer of plausible deniability", and it is relatively easy to blame existing health conditions or environment factors or on other agents seeking to discredit the government.
Putin is supremely confident of his position and his international strength, and is not unduly worried about a bit more bad press. Neither is he worried about whether his actions are perceived as honourable or not Plus, we are not talking about a death, merely a major inconvenience (and possibly lasting medical issues), which arguably dials down the stakes a little.
As one unidentified European functionary commented,"Putin is confident he can take more pain than they can. Until that changes, I fear he can kill all the Russians he wants."

How Trump gets away with his incoherence

If you've ever wondered why or how Donald Trump manages to get away with being quite as incoherent as he is, there are probably two main reasons:
  1. The media tends to interpret and paraphrase him as far as possible, because his verbatim speeches are too long-winded and too scattershot for readers to understand or bother with; and
  2. He tends to deliver them with such gusto and animation that the actual content becomes almost secondary (people think that anyone talking with such conviction must have a good point, even if the point itself makes no sense).
This is interesting psychology, presumably learned from years as a vapid entertainer. Certainly, if you read, rather than listen to, some of his speeches, they are arrant nonsense, but he still manages to get his point across to those who are politically aligned, and therefore willing to excuse his ramblings. A couple of recent examples:
"If you get the unsolicited ballots, send it in and then go, make sure it counted, and if it doesn’t tabulate, you vote. Just vote. And then if they tabulate it very late, which they shouldn’t be doing, they’ll see you voted and so it won’t count. So send it in early and then go and vote, and if it’s not tabulated, you vote, and the vote is going to count. You can’t let them take your vote away. These people are playing dirty politics—dirty politics. So if you have an absentee ballot, or as I call it a solicited ballot, you send it in, but I would check it in any event. I would go and follow it and go vote—and everyone here wants to vote—the old-fashioned way."
"I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. We have the best people in the world. You see that from the study. We have the best-prepared people, the best people in the world. Congress is willing to give us much more than we’re even asking for. That’s nice for a change. But we are totally ready, willing, and able to—it’s a term that we use, it’s “ready, willing, and able.” It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger. It may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we’re totally prepared."
Mind you, Joe Biden is not exempt from such gobbledygook. Old Joe is knocking on a bit too, and is definitely an old windbag:
"Look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure we are in a position where—look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend, from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal raise of getting out of the $60,000 level. No. 2, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home. We need—we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are—I’m married to a teacher; my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have to make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school—school, not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes with parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help; they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone—make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school—a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there."
Phew! Giving Trump a run for his money. Ah, how we miss Barack Obama, who spoke in  complete paragraphs, and was never at a loss for sensible comments.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Towns on the wrong side of the US-Canada border effectively cut off

There are a couple of anomalous towns that straddle the US-Canada border that are finding things pretty tricky right now, with the border being closed for the foreaeeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Campobello Island belongs to the Canadian province of New Brunswick, but the only access to the island is a bridge from the US state of Maine (or during the summer only, a ferry from mainland New Brunswick to Deer Island, and then a second ferry to Campobello Island).
Over on the west coast, the American town of Point Roberts is technically part of Washington state, but it is actually located at the tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula in British Columbia, and can only be accessed by driving about 40 kilometres through Canada.
Campobello Island has a permanent population of under 1,000, and Point Roberts has a population of about 1,300. But both settlements are almost totally reliant on the other country for its tourism trade, and indeed for their general livelihoods.
I understand that Point Roberts ended up in the "wrong" country because of where it lies on the map, being just below the 49th parallel, which was the border agreed between Canada and USA in the mid-19th century. But could they really not make an exception? They managed to bend the border around Vancouver Island, for example, otherwise Victoria would be part of the US - imagine that!)
Campobello Island does not even have that excuse. It is one of several islands in the Bay of Fundy, some of which belong to Canada and some to the USA. Campobello is much closer to Maine than to New Brunswick. Could they really not see their way to allocating them a bit more sensibly?
Mind you, I've always thought that Alaska (and probably Maine too) really ought to be part of Canada... (Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why Alaska was sold to the USA and not to Canada, you can read about it here. Essentially, at the time the sale was mooted, Canada was was still a UK dominion, and Russia and the UK were very much at loggerheads politically, whereas the USA was actually secretly aiding Russia against the UK).

Saturday, September 05, 2020

The tyranny of lawns

I am heartily glad not to have a lawn to maintain. Our garden really is not big enough anyway, but, even if it were, I would be loath to turn any of it over to boring old grass. We don't have a sheep or a cow to feed, and I don't have any fond childhood memories of playing on a verdant sward to sway me, so why would we want a lawn? And yet, for many, a perfectly manicured lawn is still a thing of beauty, a statement of success, prosperity and respectability.
There is a lot not to like about lawns. Lawns are a colonial import from Europe, and a tribute to 19th century colonial attitudes on the subjugation and control of nature, the exact opposite of the attitudes of North America's native peoples: they are a definitive statement that the land belongs to us, not we to the land. Lawns are repositories of vast amounts of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and require huge amounts of scarce water to maintain in pristine condlition. Lacking in native plantlife, they are biodiversity deserts, and rely on imported (invasive) species of plants like Kentucky bluegrass, Canada bluegrass, rye grass, and tall fescues, all of which (despite their names) are originally European imports and not native species. Research shows that lawns don't even mitigate heat in the same way that trees do, making the urban areas where they thrive an uncomfortable heat sink in summer. Furthermore, they need constant mowing, and who will admit to enjoying mowing the lawn?But, militating against all these cogent and convincing arguments, there are all sorts of societal pressures, and even legal rules, that keep that green desert in our back yard as the default design in urban planning (see a recent blog of mine about municipal laws on cutting down "overgrown" wildflower gardens). We do have a choice, though, and if you care about the environment at all, that choice should be to ditch the lawn.

Ontario court case reminds us what an idiot Doug Ford really is

Well, it's taken a long time, but finally the Ontario Supreme Court has ruled that it was unconstitutional and illegal for Doug Ford's Conservative government to force gas stations to display stickers claiming, "Federal carbon tax will cost you". I wrote about this in some detail at the time (a year-and-a-half ago!)
The court called the stickers "misleading", "a partisan argument", " not very truthful" and "unconstitutional".
It comes as a timely reminder that Doug Ford is, and will remain, an idiot, just in case his (impassioned and empathetic, but ineffectual) leadership during the pandemic has led you to think more sympathetically towards him.

The vast majority of BLM protests are entirely peaceful - who knew?

You wouldn't know it to read the papers or to listen to Donald Trump, but a new report has shown that 93% of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are entirely peaceful, meaning no violence, no serious injuries, no looting, no property damage. The report comes from an NGO called Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) - which usually focuses on civil wars and civilian deaths at the hands of repressive African regimes - and the Bridging Divides Initiative of Princeton University.
On the other hand, most of these protests attract a heavy-handed and often violent response from law enforcement and, increasingly, from armed, individual wanna-be vigilantes. The report found that BLM protests were much more likely to result in intervention by government authorities than other protests, and much more likely to feature violent means like teargas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and batons. This did not - surprise, surprise! - result in a de-escalation of the protests, but in increased violence.
Obviously, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the violent protests receive the most media attention, particularly from the right wing press which likes to portray them as violent actions by the ultra-left, and as domestic terrorism. But it gives a good insight into how effectively media reporting can influence our perceptions, and colour our attitudes.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Facebook is only hurting itself by banning Australian news articles

It's funny how there always seem to be things happening in the news that make absolutely no sense to me. Now, maybe that says more about me than about the news, but take this for instance: Facebook is planning to block news articles from its platform in Australia because Australia is now insisting that Facebook pay for the news articles it shares.
Now, setting aside the fact that it seems entirely reasonable that Australian publishers charge a fee when Facebook shares its articles, how is this actually a "threat" by Facebook? All it is doing is pissing off its own members, no? And why would Australia and its news publishers worry if Facebook "bans" news articles from its platform? Surely, people would then just go directly to the news websites for their news, which is hardly an inconvenience for anyone (except Facebook, which is no longer providing one of the services its members expect from it).
Yes, in theory, under the current system, Facebook shares may drive some traffic to news publishers' websites, but in practice how often does that actually happen? Meanwhile, Facebook is benefitting from improved advertising opportunities, not the news outlets, and the relationship with tech giants like Facebook is far from equal.
Maybe I'm missing something in this analysis, but I don't really see why anyone but Facebook should be upset.

Ontario's back-to-school plan just became even more of a shambles

A week or two before Ontario's schoolkids head back to school (and aren't I glad not to have school-age kids any more!), and it has slipped out, seemingly in passing, that many classes may need to be combined ("collapsed") because there are not enough kids to fill them because so many have chosen to elect for online home tuition.
Wait, wasn't that a big part of the reason for the online schooling option, so that there would be fewer kids in the classrooms, allowing them to physically distance, and hopefully avoid transmitting the coronavirus (remember that?) Isn't that why various levels of government have been throwing money at the problem?
And now, after parents have made that difficult decision, they are being told that "ministry directives" dictate that school boards do not have the option to maintain lower class sizes, and that class sizes must remain the same, regardless of the online opt-outs. Many parent are understandably confused and flummoxed by the news, and even our hands-on premier Doug Ford seemed to be blindsided by it.
What a shambles!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The ubiquitous and incredibly annoying "like"

It was probably only a matter of time until I got around to commenting on the ubiquitous amd excessive overuse of the word "like", mainly by millennials and Gen Zers, but increasingly by everyone else. I'm not exactly a grammar nazi, but I guess I'm old school, and I do find it annoying, mainly I think because it seems so redundant in most cases. I don't mind that the English language is changing, and that new words are being introduced all the time - thus has it ever been. What I object to is when grammatical errors become acceptable and mainstream - that is just sloppiness - and when words are introduced that just don't MEAN anything, that don't add anything. I could rant about the millennial phrase "I feel like" in the same way, and don't even get get me started on "literally" and "vocal fry" and "uptalk" and a whole bunch of other millennialisms that even millennials know they should rein in.
So, what's it all about, then, this "like" business? Luckily, the ever-reliable Grammar Girl got there before me, and has done all the hard work.
In addition to what might be called the "legitimate" uses of the word, as in "I like that" and "I feel like an idiot", no less than four novel uses have been identified, one of which I must admit I don't really understand. The first and third of these, coincidentally the ones that I really don't like, are predomimantly used by women, apparently (which does NOT make me a misogynist, by the way).
Probably the most ubiquitous and, for me at least, the most egregious, is the "quotative like", e.g. "I was like, who do you think you are?" Most of the time, it just means "say" or "said", but it can also mean "think", and it can even mean "behaviour suggestive of". And yes, it really did start with the Valley Girls of California in the early 1980s (remember them?) - Frank Zappa's Valley Girl, featuring his own teenage daughter, came out in 1982 ("OK, fine, fer sure, fer sure, She's a Valley Girl, and there is no cure". And of course it is still growing today; it really is almost impossible to avoid nowadays. I still don't really understand it, or how it arose, though: it doesn't actually make any literal sense.
The second usage is called the "approximative adverb like", e.g. "it was, like, two years ago". In this sense, it means "about" or "more or less", and this sense was first used soon after the Second World War, but became much more common in the 1970s and thereafter. I don't find it quite as annoying as the quotative like - I think I probably use it myself sometimes - but why not just say "about"?
Next is the "discourse participle like", as in "there is, like, nothing I can do". It can go before a verb phrase, an adjective phrase, or any kind of phrase really, because it does absolutely nothing in the sentence: it serves no purpose whatsoever. It is therefore a usage that particularly annoys me. Interestingly, it has been used in this sense for some 60 years now, although, as with the others uses, it has really taken off in the last 20 or 30 years.
Finally, there is a fourth use, technically called the "discourse marker like", which is similar to the discourse participle like, which comes at the start of a sentence, e.g. "Like, I've been doing this for years". Supposedly, it is an alternative for "well" or "so", but I can't say I have noticed it being used much. And anyway, isn't it basically just the same as as the discourse participle like. I'm not sure I understand it. Supposedly, it has been in use since the 1940s and 1950s but, once again, has become much more prevalent in the last 60 years. Like.
None of this, however, explains why "like" has become quite so ubiquitous. One theory is that it is just a filler (or "crutch word") used when people are not sure what to say, similar to "um" and "er". This is particularly useful given that younger people tend to speak so quickly (another millennial/Gen Z tendency), sometimes faster than their brains can process their sentences. It can be fixed by just thinking more carefully about what we say, or simply pausing where we might otherwise say "like" as a short-term fix to get us out of the habit.
To some extent, though, and probably a large one, it is just a fashion statement, an attempt to sound as though one belongs to the youthful clan (which is why you hear middle-aged hipsters doing it). The logic is: if everyone else is doing it, then who am I to buck the trend, and sound like a language snob. The push to comform is strong, especially among younger people.
Of course, there are those who claim that the novel uses of the word "like" are a good thing, that they enrich the language and empower women, but they are in a small minority. For instance, it is claimed that using the quotative like allows for a quote to be used in a non-verbatim way, such as something that a person wanted to say or should have said. And this is a good thing? Another justification is that speech without "likes" in it tends to sound stilted, unnatural and overly formal. This is a ridiculous argument and will lead, logically and over time, to a complete dumbing down of the language, an unconscionable loss to all and sundry, a wilful destruction of a vibrant language.
And just so the author of this article knows, no we don't "blame" young girls nd teens for this - it is a societal movement and has been going on since long before these young girls were born. It's just that it is getting worse, and these young girls (and boys) are the latest and most egregious offenders.

Toronto police's body cams can be switched off

Toronto, perhaps belatedly, is in the process of rolling out body cameras for its police officers. Whatever you might think about that idea in principle, it's interesting to note some of the fine print involved, in particular the scenarios when it would be considered acceptable for an officer to turn off their body cam.
Toronto Deputy Police Chief Shawna Coxon explained to the press yesterday that police officers might turn off their body cams when dealing with minors, when dealing with a naked or exposed person, or, critically, when "people don't want to be filmed [in] a sensitive situation".
This all seems impossibly coy. If a situation requires a police officer's attention, however sensitive, then surely whoever has to review it, in the unlikely event that such a review is necessary, would also be authorized to view it (and be able to cope with it). It's not like this stuff is being streamed directly to YouTube. In fact, the presser also made clear that, in Canada, unlike in the US, body cam footage can not be released immediately, due to different privacy rules. The vast majority of it will just sit hidden on some anonymous server forever (or until its statute of limitations passes).
Theoretically, if a police officer is shown to have switched off their body cam unnecessarily, they can be fined (one day's worth of pay cut, i.e. not enough to make anyone think twice). But, to me, it kind of defeats the object of objectivity if they can be switched off at all.

Monday, August 31, 2020

What is the difference between grasshoppers and crickets?

It started with an innocent Google search to try to identify the common flying crickets/grasshoppers that we see around here (I'm pretty sure they are Carolina grasshoppers). But then I went down a rabbit hole, as happens so often, over the difference between crickets and grasshoppers.
I was always under the misbegotten impression that grasshoppers are green and crickets are brown (which is why I always thought that Carolina grasshoppers were actually crickets). But of course, like the whole butterfly/moth dichotomy, it's nothing like that simple. It never is. Anyway, here goes.
Both crickets and grasshoppers are part of the insect order Orthoptera, which covers grasshoppers, locusts (which are actually just grasshoppers that have a migratory phase), crickets and katydids. Grasshoppers and locusts are in the sub-order Caelifera, while crickets and katydids are in the sub-order Ensifera. So, grasshoppers and crickets are closely related, but as cousins rather than siblings, so to speak.
They both have those long back legs that allow them to jump huge distances, but there are various differences between the two, as a picture of a generic grasshopper and a generic crickets shows:
A grasshopper is typically bigger and has a more rectangular body, while a cricket has a more streamlined (teardrop-shaped?) body, and many look almost beetle-like. Grasshoppers have relatively short antennae, while crickets have long antennae, often as long their entire body.
Other differences? Grasshoppers are mainly herbivorous and can be quite a pest for farmers, especially when  they swarm in their billions like African locusts; crickets are mainly predatory or at least omnivorous. Grasshoppers are mainly diurnal (active during the day); crickets are main nocturnal. Grasshoppers "stridulate" by rubbing their hind leg against their forewing, producing a kind of buzzing sound; crickets rub their forewings together, to produce a more chirping or trilling song. And, if you happen to get close enough, grasshoppers have their auditory organs on their abdomens, while crickets have theirs on their forelegs, and grasshoppers have short ovipositors compared to the long, extended ovipositors of crickets.
And yes, most grasshoppers are in fact green (although some are not), and most crickets are brown or a paler green (although some are bright green). Oh, and most types of grasshoppers do actually fly, not just hop (they use those huge, strong back legs to push off before they start to use their wings); but most species of crickets also fly, although some species fly much better than others, and some are short-winged or actually wingless and therefore hop rather than fly. Confused yet?

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Toronto ecologist told she needs to cut down her pollinator garden

A woman in the tony Hillcrest area of Toronto has received a notice from the City Council that her garden contravenes the Toronto Municpal Code's rules on grass and weeds.
Nina-Marie Lister is an urban planner and ecologist and her garden is full of milkweed, goldenrod, black-eyed susans, and other mainly indigenous flowers that are like catnip to butterflies, bees and other pollinators. To some of Ms. Lister's neighbours, however, it is just plain scruffy - "a challenge to lawn order", as the Globe article has it - and they have called on the City to issue a notice to the woman, on the grounds that the city Code calls on householders to "cut  the grass and weeds on their land" when they grow above 20cm.
Ms. Lister, however, argues that her garden is full of flowers, not weeds, a label which is not actually defined anywhere, but essentially refers to plants that grow up unintentionally (or, as Ms. Lister says, "plants that someone doesn't like"). Her plants are most definitely not unintentional, and Ms. Lister is willing to take the issue to court. A couple of previous similar court cases have both resulted in vindication for the creative, environmentally-conscious gardeners, so it seems likely that Ms Lister's will go well too, particularly given than the City of Toronto is also in the business of offering $5,000 grants for pollinator gardens.
Maybe time to update the City's Municipal Code?
On a related matter, a homeowner in Windsor, Ontario, was told recently that he needs to cut down his beloved sunflowers on the grounds that they are too tall and obsctruct sightlines for commuters, traffic and safe access to city property, all of which sounds slightly ridiculous. Mr. Allossery has filled his tiny front garden with giant sunflowers, which he and his 5-year old daughter love. He sounds remarkably equanimous in the face of the demands, and says he plans to package up sunflower seeds and offer them to as many neighbours as possible, "to share the love", as he says.

The term "Latinx" is so awkward - what's wrong with "Latin"?

I heard on the radio for the first time today the term "Latinx", the supposedly gender-neutral word designed to replace the use of the gender-specific "Latino" and "Latina" to describe people of Hispanic background. I also found out that it is pronounced "Latin-ex", not "Latinks". Who knew?
It is, I think, one of the more awkward among many awkward gender-neutral neologisms. It is used almost exclusively in the USA, and is not recognized in any Spanish-speaking country. It is also used extremely infrequently, even in the States, principally among young politically active student and academics, and has not achieved mainstream recognition.
But it occurred to me to wonder: why not use the equally gender-neutral and much simpler "Latin". It would be pretty clear in context that this does not refer to the language of the ancient Romans. Apparently, the word "Hispanic" has also accumulated baggage and negative connotations over the years, although I am still not entirely clear why. But Latin is safe (and gender-neutral), isn't it?

Friday, August 28, 2020

Sports boycott against police violence on Blacks an attention-grabber

Thursday 27th August was quite a day in sports, as most major North American leagues shut down in support of protests against the continued plague of police killings and maimings of unarmed black men. It was an unprecredented and more-or-less-spontaneous response, galvanized by initial unilateral actions by the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and by black Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka on Wednesday. Most other sports either joined the bandwagon or were shamed into action on Thursday, although things look as though they will be more or less back to business-as-usual on Friday.
It was a powerful spontaneous action, quite effective in creating a conversation on the subject, as well as an indication that sports is becoming more and more politicized. The general support the boycott received, from the professional sports bodies and from fans, is an indication of just how much the politcal landscape has changed in the USA since the rather bemused reaction to Colin Kaepernick's protests in 2017. It has also annoyed the hell out of Donald Trump, which is always a good thing.
Ms. Osaka, for one, seems to think that the job is done. When she pulled out of the Western and Southern Open (a second rank competition anyway) on Wednesday, she issued a combative statement, saying that she was "ready and prepared to concede the match". (The statement also said that her boycott was "in support of racial injustice and continued police violence", which was a bit unfortunate, but we know what she meant. Calling it a "continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police" is also an extremely loaded phrase that is going to do her no favours with people who have connections to historical genocides.) A further statement on Thursday, though, indicates that she will continue with the competition on Friday, giving the impression that she was persuaded by the tennis authorities. Her comment that, "in my mind, that beings more attention to the movement" makes very little sense, though - how can giving up on a protest and going back to the status quo bring more attention than carrying through with the protest and depriving a major sports competition of its world number 4 ranked competitor?
Anyway, enough kvetching: her initial action was one of the most attention-grabbing moves in what is proving a very interesting period in professional sports, and she deserves full credit for that.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Korchinski-Paquet case is not one that merits protests

The SIU investigation into the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet back in May has published its final report, and some people are predictably upset.
Coming as it did just two days after the very public death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet's death was always going to be highly politicized, and there were immediate accusations that her case was another example of systemic anti-black racism and police brutality, even though the immediately-available facts made that seem extremely unlikely.
The SIU report makes it clear that Ms. Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death while trying to hop from one balcony to another from her 24th floor apartment, well away from any police officers or their influence. If anything she was trying to escape from being taken to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which is what her mother was requesting. The report confirm that the police officers involved did not inflame the fraught situation, and indeed tried their level best to de-escalate it, and were nowhere near the woman when she fell to her death. There was no evidence of bullying or peremptory behaviour on the part of the police.
So, no police brutality, no obvious racism at work. But that will clearly not satisfy some people, though, who see this as a racism issue regardless of any evidence to the contrary. There will probably be protests and demonstrations and expressions of outrage regardless. There has been no shortage of recent events, both in Canada and the USA, where the police are quite clearly at fault, and these should be called out and protested. This, however, is not one of those events.

UPDATE
Given all that, what was NDP leader Jagmeet Singh thinking when he tweeted, "Regis Kochinski-Paquet died because of police intervention. She needed help and her life was taken instead. The SIU's decision brings no justice to the family and it won't prevent this from happening again."
This is tone deaf, inflammatory talk, ignoring the finding of what appears to be a well-run and comprehensive investigative report. If Singh persists with this line, he merely comes across as anti-police, and decreases his own credibility.

Painting one wind turbine blade black significantly reduces bird deaths

Research by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research has produced some pretty convincing evidence that a simple expedient like painting one blade of a wind turbine black can have a huge effect on the number of birds killed by the turbines' spinning blades.
Scientists have been trialling this idea at the Smøla wind farm in Norway since 2013, and their results show that turbines with one black black result in 70% fewer bird deaths than all-white turbines. The spinning white blades of a turbine can confuse birds and blur their vision due to "motion smear". Simply painting one of the blades black (or presumably any other colour) breaks up the smear and makes the turbine more visible to birds, giving them time to avoid a potentially fatal encounter.
While bird deaths from turbines have often been overstated (and it certainly pales into insignificance as a source of bird deaths when compared to cars and cats), it has been a sticking point for many environmentalists. This simple, cheap idea could significantly help the cause of renewable energy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

RNC video of "Biden's America" is actually "Trump's Spain"

The 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) has been a continuing source of amusement and embarraassment. It is essentially a distillation of the last four miserable years of Trump's mismanagement, with all the lies, mistruths and misleading statements that have made it up. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and any number of Trump relatives and hangers on, have expatiated at great length on the wonders of Donald Trump and how his policies have improved the lives of the American people and made the world a better and safer place. They say it all with such apparent conviction, and with no reigning in by fact-checking, that many people will probably believe them. Trump's own concluding speech was a tour-de-force of barefaced lies, unjustified speculation and interminable repetition.
One of my favourite parts of the RNC, though, was the video clip of rioting and burning streets which the voiceover tells us is a "taste of Biden's America" (given that Trump, not Biden, has been president for the last four years, wouldn't it actually be a vision of Trump's America?)
Even better, though, it turns out that the video footage was actually from Barcelona, Spain, taken during the 2019 Catalonia separatist riots, and freely available on Shutterstock.
Way to go, guys!

Those leggy insects in your kitchen sink are not all bad

I've been planning for years to look up those many-legged insects you see so often scuttling around the house. They are not quite as alarming as cockroaches, but they can still give you a bit of a shock when they scurry away from you when you open a door or switch on a light.

Well, it turns out they are called house centipedes, or scutigera coleoptrata if you are Roman or an entomologist. They are originally from the Mediterranean region, but can be found pretty much worldwide now, and have made themselves quite at home in the human world. They have fifteen pairs of legs, two very long antennae, and two equally long appendages at the back, so you can't quite tell which way they are facing until they set off.
They eat spiders, bed bugs, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ants, and a bunch of other beasties much less desirable than they are. So, they may be a nuisance as they wander around your kitchen sink of a morning. But don't just squash them: catch them and put them outside if you must do something. They do serve a higher purpose.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Kimberly Guilfoyle goes "North Korean propaganda lady"

Kimberly Guilfoyle is not someone I had ever heard of before (apparently she is an ex-Fox News broadcaster - and Donald Trump Jr's girlfriend, good luck with that, Don - so that might account for it). But she has certainly distinguished herself by delivering what may be the most over-the-top, shouty speech ever delivered as part of the Republican National Convention.


Maybe she was confused by the empty room she was addressing (COVID, you know). Maybe she was channelling "North Korean propaganda lady", as one Twitter feed claims. It was certainly a bizarre piece of political theatre, and worth a giggle if you have the stomach for it.

Who are these people who still support Donald Trump?

Interesting article from an American pollster and political analyst on CNN. If you can't get our head around why some people (lots of people, in fact) still support Donald Trump after all the proof the last four years has given us that he is singularly unsuited to be a president of any country, let alone the United States, and still less can you understand who these people actually are, read on.
These are people who believe, against all the evidence, that a businessman is the best person to run the country economically. They believe that COVID-19 was not Donald Trump's fault (hard to argue with that), but that he's doing his best to contain it (argument there!) They are people who do not distinguish between genuine Black Lives Protesters and the looters and rioters who are taking advantage of them. They don't want historical monuments torn down, and they think that defunding the police in any way is ridiculous and shouldn't even be discussed. And, yes they really do want America to be first in everything, whether it deserves it or not. The oppose immigration completely and utterly, as well as any other policies that they see as giving foreigners benefits at their expense. And, perhaps most importantly, they want a non-politician who will fight for them relentlessly, and who will "tell it like it is", as the phrase goes (even if "telling it like it is" actually involves lying constantly).
Note that there is noting here about supporting someone who will do the right thing in a tough situation, about someone who will look out for the poor and the downtrodden. That's because these people truly believe that they ARE the downtrodden, even though they are generally speaking not. They are Mid-Western middle-class middle-of-the-road regular folks.
Another important factor is that these are not necessarily Fox News-watchers - that's a whole different type of Trump supporter, and there is nothing that can be done about them. These are not even national cable network watchers. These people typically get their news from local television, regional websites and Facebook. They don't see even a small part of the vast amounts of media coverage of national and international politics that is available, and they care even less. They care about having a job, and they care about being better off than they were yesterday, however that advance may be achieved.
The only possible saving grace in all this depressing news is that most of these people have zero loyalty. Many of them voted for Obama, and may actually be Democrat "by nature", but changed to Trump in 2016, for the reasons described above or just for no particular reason ("a change"). And if they can swing the almost inconceivable distance from Obama to Trump, they can just as easily swing back to a more middle-ground Joe Biden.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Canada's "Minister of Everything" gains a new portfolio

In the wake of Bill Morneau's resignation debacle, Chrystia Freeland has been named as the new Finance Minister of the beleaguered Liberal government.
Indeed, it could hardly have been anyone else. Trudeau does not have any ministers available of the appropriate seniority who also have a finance background. Ms. Freeland does not have a finance background either, but she is perhaps Trudeau's most trusted and loyal minister, and has the enviable reputation of being able to adroitly handle anything she is presented with, whether it be NAFTA re-negotiations as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, or holding the country together in what could have proved a larticularlt fraught and fractious time of pandemic as Minister of Intragovernmental Affairs. She has also been Deputy Prime Minister since the government's re-election in November 2019, and the de facto minister in charge of the government's COVID-19 response. In fact, she has earned herself the moniker "Minister of Everything" (and "Warrior Princess" from the Globe and Mail).
So precipitous has been her rise, it's easy to forget that Freeland has only been an MP for 7 years, and that she's only 52 years old. Prior to 2013, she was a journalist, writing for the Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, and Thomson Reuters, working her way up to become managing director of the latter. She is also, if that is not already apparent, a smart cookie: from humble beginnings in Peace River, Alberta, she earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and has degrees from Harvard and Oxford.
And, furthermore, she seems to have the happy knack of getting on with pretty much everybody, on both sides of the political divide. Even arch-Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford is a big fan, and commented recently, "I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland. She's amazing." Perhaps even more importantly, she is baggage-free, and seems to be able to avoid scandals (so far, at least).
Is her lack of financial experience going to be a problem in her new role? Probably not. She seems to be able to take most things in her stride. Most commentators, including people who have done the job before her, seem to think that her political experience, and the invaluable experience of negotiating the new NAFTA deal will stand her in good stead. And all that goodwill is probably not going to hurt.
In fact, most people are just assuming that she will be the next leader of the Liberal Party, when Trudeau has finally pissed enough people off and got fed up of apologizing. After all, as Elizabeth Renzetti notes, "If she is so good at fixing things, why isn't she in charge of ensuring that things don't get broken in the first place?"

Friday, August 21, 2020

The vocabularies of rappers

I'm not a big hip-hop/rap guy, but I do listen to some from time to time. I found it interesting, though, that someone has gone through all the trouble to analyze the lyrics of a whole lot of popular rappers and has produced this ranking of rappers' vocabularies, based on the number of unique words used in their lyrics.
Perhaps not surprisingly, egghead rapper Aesop Rock (still my favourite rapper, as it happens, Long with, perhaps, Shabazz Palaces  and Run the Jewels) is way out ahead of the pack with 7,879 unique words used. Not too far behind him, though, comes Busdriver (whom I've never even heard of) with 7,324 words. A good jump further back come Jedi Mind Tricks (6,424) and GZA (6,390), whom I've also never heard of, and then, perhaps surprisingly, the Wu Tang Clan (6,196) and MF Doom (6,189), whom I have heard of.
After that the field starts to thicken. The really popular guys tend to be in the middle of the pack, like Jay-Z (4,275), Eminem (4,480), Kendrick Lamar (4,017), 2Pac (3,815), Snoop Dogg (3,797), Kanye West (3,760), Nikki Minaj (3,616), Drake (3,347), etc. "Middle of the road" in many ways, then.
Down at the other end of the list are Lil Uzi Vert (2,556), NF (2,472) and DMX (2,936). And yes, this does include swear words, which probably make up a good proportion of the total. The bottom ten also includes Lil Baby, Lil Durk and Lil Yachty, so if you see "Lil", you probably have a good idea of what to expect.
Now, just to put all that into perspective, the average 20-year old American has a vocabulary of about 42,000 words, depending on how you count them, although that does not mean that they USE that many words on a regular basis (their "active vocabulary is probably closer to 20,000). Even the average 8-year old has a vocabulary of around 10,000 words, and a 5-year old 5,000 words. For further context, Shakespeare supposedy used 17,000-20,000 different words in his very wordy plays (not the often-quoted 30,000, which includes all the different parts of speech derived from the same words).
But to put it in possibly a better perspective, a different version of the same study (available as a screenshot) also marks Shakespeare and Herman Melville's Moby Dick on the same scale, using the first 5,000 words of seven of Shakespeare's top plays and the first 35,000 words of Melville's opus (35,000 words is the what the rappers' analyses are based on). This puts Shakespeare at 5,170 words, and Melville at 6,022. So, in the upper echelons, to be sure, but not up in the rarefied atmosphere of Aesop Rock ad Busdriver. There again today's rapper have a lot more works to choose from - hell, Shakespeare had to invent a whole load of words, although around 400 of them, not the 1,700 often ascribed to him - and, arguably, Rhymezone rhyming dictionary or Theseaurus,com.
And, just for good measure, here's a little taste of Aesop Rock's weird and wonderful oeuvre: (this from 2012's Leisureforce):
Postcards from the pink bath paint leisure
As a cloaked horse through a stained-glass Saint Peter
Hack faith-healer, cheat death to the very end
Cherry wooden nickels on his specs for the ferrymen
X, o, zodiac a pentagram expo
Pet cemetery in electric fresco
Abaddon threshold flesh-forged in the galley
With undead orcs pulling oars through the algae
Smash cut to a smoke-bombed quarantine
Guards like "all signs correlate with sorcery"
It's more a dormant cell of valor as awoken by the smell of sordid power
And defecting shortly after
Fist bump dry land, brackish, cat nap 15
Back to swiss-cheese the flagship, uh
Blue in the menacing grip of a day for which you're manifestly unfit 
Final answer "not to be", "not to be" is right!
Next question - to build winged shoes or autophagy
Silk screen band tees, take apart a VCR, ringer off, canned peas
Cabin fever mi amor
Patiently adhering to the chandelier ta key-in-door
To usher in the understated anarchy of leisureforce
Led a purple tongue and ratty caballeros
Up over the black rainbow into the house of mirrors
To become a thousand zeroes
Echoing a twisted alchemy, freak flags, fluttering to circadian free jazz
Sleep apnea scratching "bring that beat back"
I doze off, clothes on, noise in the feedbag
Shhh. om nom nom, blinds drawn
Compost thrown to the spine pile, bygones, mangy
Intimately spaced pylons on a plot of inhospitable terrain
Hi mom!
Quite... Probably not too many rappers have "autophagy" in their repertoire. Or, for that matter, "vivarium", "terraforming", "scoliosis" or "sussurus".