Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"That's a great question!" is not a great answer

We have probably all watched more medical question-and-answer sessions in the last few weeks than ever in our lives before. And, if I hear one more medical expert say, "That's a great question!" one more time, I think I'm gonna SREEEEEAM!
I've been watching Parkinson's Disease and environmental Q&As for years, and I've seen the "That's a great question!" bromide arise and become the sine qua non of interviewing techniques. But 1. it's patronizing, and 2. it's just totally redundant.
Can we just take it for granted that questions have been pre-vetted, and the stupid ones pre-deleted? So, all questions are great questions, and there is no need to put on false humility, or to build up the possibly fragile egos of unknown or anonymous questioners.
Just answer the question, already! That's what we're all there for.

During the pandemic, Trump continues his roll-back of environmental regulations

In case you thought that President Trump has been sitting on his hands throughout this major global crisis, making the odd ill-informed and non-sensical pronouncement from time to time and then walking it back the next day, take heart: he has still been pursuing what he sees as his God-given mandate - to reverse out every good thing that Barack Obama ever did for the country.
The latest? He plans to drastically water down Obama's  changes to fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. This will have the effect of pumping nearly a billion more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the lifetimes of these less-efficient vehicles, hurt public health, and significantly worsen the effect of America's leading source of carbon pollution at a time when we really need to be reducing it. A former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official calls it the "first time an administration has pursued a policy that will net negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings".
With a fine sense of irony, the EPA is claiming that it "will improve the US fleet's fuel economy", a claim they can only make at all because the change doesn't roll back the original Obama measure ALL the way, just MOST of the way. And, in an added irony, Trump and his emasculated EPA is using the COVID-19 pandemic as his excuse, defending the move as a much-needed boost to an economy crippled by the coronavirus outbreak.
This is just one of several moves to weaken environmental regulation in America that the Trump administration is pursuing while most people's attention is focussed on dealing with the fallout from the pandemic. Also, in the pipeline are moves to weaken regulations on toxic ash and mercury emissions, ensuring that future federal infrastructure projects will not have to take climate change considerations into account, removing punishments for oil and gas companies that "incidentally" kill birds during their operations, and limiting what scientific studies the EPA can use when writing or revising public health rules.
And finally, in what is being billed as a temporary emergency measure, but one that actually  has no time limit imposed on it, the EPA has completely suspended its enforcement of environmental laws during the coronavirus outbreak, giving companies carte blanche to pollute the air or water willy nilly so long as they can claim in some way that the violations were made as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. You can expect companies to take full adavantage of this measure, which is also being touted by the administration as being in the interests of public health.
I wonder if the EPA will ever recover from this time in the wilderness during the Trump years?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Belarus soccer is now the only game in town

Weeks after all other professional sports across the world have been put on hold indefinitely in an attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belarus Premier League continues.
Players roughouse each other, and fans pack the stadiums to capacity. A few fans are wearing masks, but most are just pretending that the world has not changed. It's like nothing ever happened there.
In fact, very little has happened in Belarus, with just 150 cases of the virus reported, and no deaths. Then again, I'm not sure how far I would trust any official figures coming out of Belarus. And their problems may be just beginning: according to the respected Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, the number of cases in the country went up 50% OVERNIGHT, so it will be interesting to see how things progress from here.
"Strongman" populist President Alexamder Lukashenko is not at all worried about the virus, calling it a "frenzy and psychosis", and suggesting that people take to the sauna and drink vodka to protect against it, and then just get back to work. Lukashenko himself recently took part in an ice hockey match -taking a leaf out of Putin's playbook and then taking it a step further - continuing to insist that "there is no virus here".
Meanwhile, soccer-starved fans throughout Europe and Asia are getting into the Belarusian games in a big way, and television rights for live games have been sold to Russia, Israel, India and several other countries. The quality of the soccer is not great, but it's the only game un town. Somehow, I don't think we should be encouraging these people...

UPDATE
Ten days later, Lukashenko continues to deny the existence of the virus in his country, and the Belarus Football League continues to play its games. Except, the crowds in the stands are getting sparser and sparser... You don't suppose all those missing supporters are sick, do you?

How does the coronavirus make the leap from one person to another?

So, there's one thing about this coronavirus pandemic that I've been trying to get my head around, and for which I have not seen a good explanation online (or at least not broken down into a logical set of steps that I can understand), namely the physical mechanism for how the virus is transferred from one individual to another. I don't mean at a cellular or biochemical level. I mean at a gross, human activity level.
Bear with me here. I understand that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is generally transmitted through droplets (respiratory droplets and droplet nuclei), and typically not by viral particles that are not atached to water droplets of any kind (airborne transmission), which can therefore stay suspended in the air for much longer. So, yes, I can visualize, at least theoretically, how a person could sneeze and a droplet of saliva or mucus containing the virus could, with a microscopic probability, land directly in another person's mouth, from where it is ingested into the respiratory system, where it then multiplies massively and infects the second person with the virus.
But that is clearly not how it works in practice, most of the time. It can linger in the air for a short time, but the vast, vast majority of infections arise from surface-to-hand-to-mouth/nose contact. So, a virus carrier touches a doorknob, for example, and then another person touches the same doorknob, transfers the virus to his/her hand, which he/she then uses to pick his/her nose or bite his/her nail, and ... voil√°! Infection transferred.
My question is how that virus actually gets from the infected individual to the doorknob. I have this cartoon image of swashbuckling virus characters swinging around, leaping and yelling, and grabbing hold of any passing medium of transfer. But how does the virus even get onto the infected person's hand, for one thing? Isn't the virus deep in his/her internal organs, creating havoc and doing damage? Or is the virus also in their sweat or skin oils? Or is it in ALL the cells of their body?
Well, in the absence of other useful resources, I consulted our daughter, in self-isolation in the next city over. She is not a medical doctor, but she is a biology PhD student, and a pretty bright spark, and what she suggested makes pretty good sense to me.
So, no, the virus doesn't really live on your hands or your sweat; it resides in your lungs and throat, where it can inflict maximum damage. It only gets onto an infected person's hands (and later that doorknob) through a sneeze or a cough, or through blowing the nose or, conceivably but less likely, just from talking or breathing messily. (A sneeze typically puts up to 40,000 droplets into the air, coughing 3,000, and talking just 600 per minute). A sneeze or cough can transfers viral particles onto the hands, from where they are transferred to the doorknob. Or an unprotected sneeze or cough can leave a cloud of virus-carrying droplets hanging momentarily in the air, before they fall onto the ground, or onto any surface (or doorknob) that happens to be in the way.
The virus can live without a host for a few days, max (longer on hard, non-porous surfaces than on porous ones). During that time, if people are not dilligent about hand-washing and the sanitizing of surfaces, someone else could then touch the doorknob, smear the droplets onto their own hands, and later transfer it to to their mouth, nose or eyes (how your eyes are connected to your respiratory system is a whole other mystery to me, but apparently there are mucus membranes in the eyes too).
So, yes, that kind of makes sense now. And remember, it's not just a single virus particle in that droplet, it's probably millions. So, what seems like an improbability with an infinitesimal chance of reinfection becomes a bit more plausible. (Incidentally, while we are about it, I also found out that that viruses are not cells, nor are they even composed of cells: they are a set of genes bundled up within a protective fatty lipid shell - a shell that can be easily broken down by soap or alcohol, leaving the proteins inside to degrade and "die").
And one final thing: if Person 2 picks up a glob of virus from that doorknob, and scratches their nose or kneads their forehead, the virus just stays on their skin, and does not infect them. It does not crawl dramatically and inexorably from side of nose to nasal passage. But the problem is that there are more globs of them still on the person's hands, which can then be inserted up a nostril or used to rub tired eyes, at a later time. Or they could scratch their nose again, putting it back onto their hands, etc, etc.
There are just so many permutations and possibilities, which is precisely what makes it so contagious, and such a pain. Hence all the advice, repeated ad nauseam: wash your hands (and face, I now realize) with soap and water, use hand sanitizer whenever soap and water is not available, clean down surfaces and "high-touch areas" regularly with alcohol-based wipes or soap and water, make a conscious effort to not touch your face, avoid unnecessary contact with other people, etc, etc.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Some good, practical, day-to-day advice from a New York doctor

Here's some good, practical, day-to-day advice on how to live in a COVID-19 world from a New York hospital doctor who spends all day dealing with coronavirus patients:
COVID-19: Protecting your family by Dr. David Price (3/22/2020)
It's long, at nearly an hour, but, hey, what else are you going to do?


COVID-19 can be seen as a trial of Western democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic is becoming something of a trial of our Western democracy. Various elements within China, Iran and Russia (and particularly Russia) are using the worldwide health challenge to question whether liberal democracies are capable of dealing with a crisis of this proportion.
In addition to the more puerile claims that the whole thing is a germ warfare exercise by the dastardly Americans, and embarrassing attempts to hide the real origins of the outbreak, suggestions that only a strong authoritarian regime like China's or Russia's can possibly deal with a crisis of this magnitude are making the rounds of social media.
And, when you stop and think about it, China's remarkably successful policies in controlling the outbreak, including draconian measures that Western society would probably balk at, could only have happened in a society inured and trained over decades to respect and trust their leaders implicitly, and to toe the line whatever they are told to do. And in the West? News reports of teenagers partying on the beaches of Florida and Australia...
That said, if we can get through this without having to resort to authoritarian edicts, and without too much more loss of life - and I have to believe that IS possible - then I see that as a win for democracy. But at this point, with what has already happened, it's only ever going to be a qualified win.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bolsonaro is even more of a crisis denier than Trump

If you think that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson's leadership of their countries' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is bad, spare a thought for the poor Brazilians. Populist leader Jair Bolsonaro was always going to be bad news for Brazil, and he has proven pretty disastrous so far. But he has managed to outdo himself by his response (or lack thereof) to the coronovirus outbreak.
He has consistently downplayed the virus, calling it "a little flu", and insisting that Brazil's tropical climate and Brazilians' "natural immunity" will protect them. He has said that measures to contain the virus are quite unnecessary, and has called efforts by the state governors to protect people "criminal", and is blaming them for wrecking the country's economy. Like Donald Trump - and he has made no bones about the fact that he models himself on Trump, and he clearly takes many of his cues from the American president - he has touted the benefits of the malaria drug chloroquine in combatting the virus, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, and indications that it may actually be just plain dangerous.
It's hard to know whether Bolsonaro is actually stupid, or whether he just has an incredibly oversized ego and really poor judgement. He is essentially in complete denial about the virus that is ravaging the planet, and his own country (Brazil already has nearly 4,000 cases and 100 deaths, despite a relatively late start). And the Brazilian people - despite having voted in Bolsonaro - are not stupid: according to polls, 73% support total isolation to deal with the virus, and many more support the efforts of thise state governors who ARE trying to deal with it than support Bolsonaro's policies. 25 of the 27 state governors are in favour of strong anti-virus measures, and have instituted bans on public gatherings, closed schools, and called for strict social distancing, regardless of their president's exhortations.
So, what is Bolsonaro's game? Some commentators think he is just trying to shift the blame for a poor economy from himself and onto the state governors. But some believe he is looking towards the next election, which is still more than two years away, and that he is banking on voters being more impressed with a strong functioning economy at the cost of x lives (fill in the blank) than a basket-case economy and fewer deaths. This seems like a foolish and dangerous gamble, and the likelihood is that there will be both many deaths AND a decimated economy to deal with, whatever Bolsonaro says right now.
So, maybe it comes back to the previous question: maybe he is actually stupid.

Kudos to Steph Curry for spreading the word

Kudos to Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry for hosting a Q&A on his Instagram account with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US's leading expert on infectious diseases, who is a bit of a superstar himself these days.
It is essential that the message gets drilled into younger people because, from what I have seen anecdotally, it is mainly young people who are not taking the whole pandemic thing seriously enough.
Whether it is because they think themselves to be bullet-proof, whether it is because the disease tends to affect older people more than the young, or whether it is just because they are excessively concerned with looking cool, I don't really know. But any groups I have seen of people hanging around, ostentatiously flouting the social distancing rules, have been high school jock types or early twenties hipster types, almost always male. Oh, and construction workers  any age. These people, of course, then go back to their families, and spread their newly-acquired (and oh-so-cool) germs around.
So, anything that teen icons like Mr. Curry and their ilk can do to set these people straight is entirely welcome.

The boom industries in a time of crisis

It's interesting to see what are the boom industries during the COVID-19 crisis:
Grocery stores and supermarkets (logical, given the downturn in restaurant meals), pharmacies, dollar stores, delivery services, medical supply makers, cleaning and security services, and IT firms that enable temote work are all currently hiring extra personnel. All quite logical, I guess.
And then one that is not quite so expected: flour and sugar mills, as home baking takes off in an unprecedented way. And, apparently, astrologers.

Algorithmic stock trading is annoying but doesn't call for for machine breaking

I'm not a big financial guy but, like may others, I have been glumly tracking our investment portfolio - our retirement fund - in its inexorable downward spiral throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.
It does seem to be the case that the stock markets are more volatile than they used to be. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and simularly, during the good times, the markets tend to react excessively (which is not such a big problem, but it's still a problem).
One reason for this increased votality is the advent of computerized, or algorithmic, trading. Thousands of computers initiate and execute stock market trades automatically, based on preprogrammed algorithms that follow market changes on a second-by-second (or even micro-second) basis. High-frequency algorithmic trading is an even more extreme version, where compters place thousands of orders at blindingly fast speeds, looking to cash in on many, many tiny individual profits.
This is much quicker, cheaper and more reliable/consistent than human trading. But, despite advances in AI, it lacks the subtlety, imagination and lateral thinking of human involvement. It also lacks a sense of perspective and restraint, and when the markets are falling, as they have been recently, computerized trading will tend to exaggereate and exacerbate the downward trend.
Given that anywhere from 60% to 80% of trading is now algorithm-based, the effects of algorithmic trading are huge, and the markets can swing wildly as a result. In technical jargon, it amplifies systemic risks, and it increases uncertaintly in already uncertain times. It can also react mindlessly to fake orders, or"spoofing", and sometimes algorithms can, and do, go wrong, which can lead to large errors in stock pricing.
Of course, the flip side is that, in a bull market, computers exaggerate trends in the other direction, although we tend not to complain about it then. So, we end up with an unnecessarily exaggerated roller-coaster ride of a stock market.
And what is my point in making these observations? Nothing really. I'm not proposing a Luddite-style machine-breaking. Not just yet. Our investments are (mainly) long-term, and the market will come back up again eventually. But is a bit annoying that when we have to liquidate funds for spending money, stock prices may be unnecesarily depressed because of a load of unimaginative computers.

Britain's COVID-19 reponse devolves into farce

The British government's response to COVID-19 has been checkered at best.
The news that the British Prime Minister, Health Secretary and Chief Medical Officer - the three men leading the country's response to the outbreak - have all gone down with the virus and are self-isolating, puts it firmly in the realm of farce.

Looking at the map for some weekend travel plans

As crises often do, the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned its share of humour. One of my favourites remains this image, shared with us by our daughter:



A fascinating COVID-19 race graphic

Probably my favourite of the many graphics and "visualizations" of the spread of COVID-19 is this one from the BBC (good old Beeb), based on data from Johns Hopkins University, which has established itself as the go-to resource for coronavirus data.
It show the number of new COVID-19 cases outside China over time, from mid-Febrary to date. It is a kind of animated bar chart, and appears as a race of sorts (albeit a race to the bottom).
At first, the Diamond Princess cruise ship (our original petri dish, which achieves country status for these purposes) is way out in front. As the Diamond Princess outbreak subsides (or reaches its physical limits), South Korea moves well ahead for a time, but gradually Italy and Iran sneak up and then overtakes it. By mid-March, Spain and Germany start to move up the table, but as March progresses the United States makes a late run and just blows everyone else away.
It's a fascinating graphic, and way more fun than it should be.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Western countries should be doing to control the COVID-19 outbreak

China is almost the only country that has successfully controlled the COVID-19 outbreak (and, to a lesser extent, South Korea). Granted, they had a significant head start on everyone else. But we should still listen very carefully to what George Gao has to say.
Dr. Gao is the director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the point man for the remarkably sucessful Chinese response to the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
When asked what should Western countries do to better deal with the pandemic, he says that the biggest single mistake that North American and European countries are making is that people are not wearing masks. According to Dr. Gao:
"This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others."
Well, that sounds pretty clear. For what it's worth, I remember questioning the current wisdom that masks are useless way back on March 4th. There is a cultural barrier to overcome - Asians, wherever they live, seem to have no problem walking around wearing a mask, the average caucasian would be either embarrassed by, or downright resistant to, the idea. One Korean-Canadian explains how he felt perfectly comfortable wearing a mask in Seoul, but self-conscious to the point of non-compliance when in Vancouver. In South Korea, he would feel like a freak not wearing a mask; in Canada, he feels like a freak for wearing one.
The other important thing that Dr. Gao mentions that Western countries are not doing is the aggressive use of thermometers at the entrance to all stores, buildings, transportation stations, etc (and making sure that anyone with a fever does not enter).
And finally, people who tested positive but had only mild symptoms, were not just sent home, but were quarantined in large central facilities and not even allowed visits from family.
These are reasonably simple, common-sense measures that we could have (and probably should have) been employing for weeks now. They may be quite intrusive measures and many people may not like them, but I think we are probably past those kinds of considerations now. What we need is something that works.

Can we (and should be) put a value on people's life?

As Donald Trump proposes, in direct contravention of the advice of his health advisors, that American workers should go back to their jobs because the economy is suffering, calculations and models of the value of life come into play.
It's a moral grey area that economists hate to get involved with, but there is in fact something called the "value of statistical life" (VSL), also sometimes referred to as the "value of preventing a fatality" (VPF) or the " implied cost of averting a fatality" (ICAF). While you might think or believe that a human life is priceless and impossible to pin a financial value on, there are some economic, insurance and political decisions where such a price is used, at least in a theoretical way.
Note that this is not the value attributed to a particular individual; it is a statistical tool based on very generalized considerations. The simplest way to think of it is: how much would a person in a population or sample (of, say, 100,000 or 1 million) be willing to pay so that they could expect one fewer death in that population? That amount times the population size is then the value that can be put on a statistical life. There are also various other ways in which the amount can be estimated, such as the present calue of a person's earning potential, but the price people are willing to pay to save a life is the classic model.
It turns out that this comes out to around $9-$10 million in a rich Western country like America, and comparatively less in poorer and less "free" countries. There is also a "senior death discount" as people tend to value an older person's life lower than a younger one's.
Now, I'm sure that Mr. Trump is not using these kinds of models as a guide when he opens his mouth or his Twitter account - he is just not that analytical or logical. But it's interesting that there even exists an economic concept of the value of human life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Trump is receiving evangelical advice on the COVID-19 pandemic

So, at last we have it, the real reason behind the COVID-19 pandemic. It's all those gay people, environmentalists, and the godless Chinese. Well, of course...
Ralph Drollinger, the evangelical minister and ex-basketball player who - I kid you not! - leads a weekly bible study group for Donald Trump and some of the more wacko members of his cabinet like Mike Pompeo, Ben Carson, Betsy Devos and Alex Azar, has produced a "study guide" on the coronavirus from a biblical perspective. Carson and Azar, remember, are members of the coronavirus task force guiding (or not) the federal government's response to the pandemic.
Drollinger's wisdom on the subject suggests that the pandemic that is currently ravaging the planet is God's wrath upon the world, not an "abandonment wrath" or a "cataclysmic wrath" like the flood or Sodom and Gomorrah, but a milder "sewing and reaping wrath" (this apparently is an important theological distinction). This wrath is a consequence of China's "recklessness and lack of candor and transparency", but also a divine response to the "religion of environmentalism" and those with a "proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality".
So, fear not, the American government is receiving good, sound advice from a reputable source, and the pandemic will be over by Easter.
Oh. My. God.

Call for emergency powers a dick move by Trudeau

Justin Trudeau has handled the whole COVID-19 thing reasonably well, I think, certainly compared to some Western leaders (who will remain nameless, but they know who they are, and so do you).
Making earnest pronouncements, in a schoolma'am-ish but entirely necessary way - with just the occasional, finely-controlled temper flare - he has been a pretty steady and reliable presence in a crisis where things could so easily have gone completely off the rails.
But he has blotted his copybook a bit with his latest demand for sweeping unregulated emergency powers. He tried to combine a bill proposing much-needed fiscal relief measures to deal with the economic and social fall-out from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic - which would almost certainly have been passed with a minimum of fuss, especially given the official opposition's pledge to pursue a more conciliatory path in the face of the national crisis - with another which would grant the minority government sweeping powers to spend, borrow and tax without parliamentary oversight until December 2021.
Trudeau insists that the powers are needed in order act quickly and decisively in a crisis situation where speed may be of the essence. But this is disingenuous and unnecessary, and it may, in the process, have just wiped out any opposition goodwill that may have existed.
The Conservative opposition and the NDP are both insisting that the two issues be separated into two separate bills, and to concentrate on the much more important and urgent fiscal rescue package. In the interests of expediency, that is entirely the right thing to do.
There are indications that Trudeau may be walking back the poorly thought-out and badly-timed proposal, with a terse tweet that "The legislation will be tabled without clause 2". But what a dick move at a crucial time!

UPDATE
In my defence, I wrote this before reading almost the exact same words in today's Globe and Mail editorial.

UPDATE UPDATE
And that is in fact what happened. The bill to approve $82 billion in emergency spending and tax deferrals to deal with the coronavirus chaos was passed in the early hours of the morning. One (unnecessary) crisis averted.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore show why we should not let down our guard

I confess to being rather obsessed by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, which seems to be the best and most authoritative guide to the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I go there most mornimgs for a daily fix of data and depression.
It's interesting to see how China and South Korea are about the only countries that have been able to really flatten their curve and bring their incidence of new cases right down. Most other countries, including Canada I have to say, are still showing steep graphs and increasing daily cases, in some countries exponentially so.
It's also interesting, and not a little salutary, to look at what is happening recently in some of the poster countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which used strict quarantine laws and high tech monitoring to jump on the epidemic early, and very successfully kept their case load down. Their totals are still relatively low but, since mid-March, are showing signs of an inexorable increase. This is partly due to the gradual repatriation of citizens living abroad in the last couple of weeks, but one has to wonder whether that explains away all of the sudden increases.
Hong Kong specifically has seen its case load increase dramatically in the last week, almost doubling, albeit from a pretty low base. It seems to be an object lesson in not letting your guard down, as Hong Kong saw fit to relax its early strong anti-virus measures near the beginning of March, allowing people to go to work, use the subway, celebrate weddings, gather in larger groups, etc. This seems to have blown up in their face somewhat, as they now face a second wave of infections, and are having to double down on new, even more draconian, quarantine rules.
The moral of the story? Even if it looks like the coast is clear, don't relax, and don't let down your guard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Are bearer shares a real thing, and are they legal?

Having just watched The Laundromat - a strange and slightly surreal movie by Steven Soderbergh about tax evasion and money laundering - I now know about something called a "bearer share", which I originally thought was fictional, but which turns out to be all too real.
Bearer shares (and bearer bonds) are financial instruments that show ownership of property, usually a company, but which are entirely unregistered and unrecorded, so that ownership of the property is completely anonymous. As the name suggests, whoever physically holds the piece of paper is assumed to be the owner of the property, along with any bank accounts, dividends, etc, that come with it. I own it, pass it over, now you own it, pass it back, now I own it, etc. It's kind of like a check made out to "cash", but potentially for millions of dollars each.
Sound unlikely? That's what I thought, but apparently it is a real thing. And you can just imagine how well it lends itself to criminal undertakings of all sorts.
And, yes, up until very recently they were in fact legal, at least in some countries. An increasing number of countries have declared them illegal, or at least imposed prohibitive costs or restrictions on them so as to make them impractical or undesirable. It's salutary to consider that several major countries only made them illegal in the last ten or fifteen years, including several states in the USA, Canada, Britain, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
The Marshall Islands was the last country in the world where bearer shares are both legal and can be shared and transferred without any problems or additional costs, but even they caved to international pressure in
2017. You can, however, still legally use "immobilized" bearer shares in places like Bulgaria and in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

What are Ontario's "essential services"?

It's interesting to see what businesses the Ontario government consider to be "essential services", which will be exempt from the coming lockdown against COVID-19. (The official Ontario list can be found here, but it's a long, dry read.)
Pharmacies and supermarkets, fine, I can see that. But convenience stores and "other similar retailers" could mean almost anything. Liquor stores and beer stores? I can maybe see why you'd want to keep them open, but to call them "essential services" is a bit rich. And cannabis stores? The same but more so.
Newspapers, yes, I get that. Taxis and ride-sharing services, sure. Gas stations, OK. Phone and internet services, banking and financial services. But the essential services start getting less obviously essential as we go through hardware stores, pet stores, laundromats, hotels and motels, dry cleaners, car and bike repair shops, construction workers and real estate agents. Restaurants seem to make the cut as "essential" these days, although I am not sure if this extends to high-end dining establishments, coffee shops, doughnut establishments - I think it probably does, and the further down the list of clearly non-essential and junk food sources you go, the less justifiable it starts to look.
And then there's the inclusion of businesses that "supply other essential businesses with the supports, supplies, systems or services". Which is ... pretty much everything, no?
It may have been easier to specify what should close. Dress shops, maybe. Book shops, galleries, tanning salons, non-essential jewellery stores.
And, perhaps most glaringly, the blanket permission for construction sites to remain open and working during this health crisis, many with hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other, despite the vociferous condemnation of the main construction unions. Some construction companies are downing tools anyway, in the perfectly reasonable interests of health and safety.
Don't get me wrong: I'd hate to be the one having to come up with the list. But it does focus the mind on what we think of as essential. And at least we are in the US where Donald Trump has designated gun shops as essential services...

UPDATE
What constitutes essential has since been pared down further. As of April 5th, cannabis stores are no longer deemed essential and must close their physical stores, as must hardware stores and non-infrastructure construction projects.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Israel joins countries using cellphone tech to manage COVID-19, but does it work?

There have been mixed reactions to Israel's enforced use of cellphone surveillance to trace and manage COVID-19 cases. Netanyahu's cabinet passed the measure in the middle of the night earlier this week, circumventing a parliamentary oversight committee that was still debating the justification of the move. Israelis are split between forgiving the imposition in the interests of strong measures needed in a crisis situation, and a worry about creeping government overreach and invasion of privacy and civil rights.
What's interesting, though, is that it doesn't seem to be particularly effective. As of March 22nd, Israel has 1,071 confirmed cases. For comparison, with approximately 4 times the population, Canada has 1,472 cases on the same date.
Granted the Israeli death rate is much better (1 confirmed death, compared to Canada's 21) but as a method of reducing cases, can Israel's controversial methods be said to be working (and therefore justifiable)? China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have been using similar technology for some time with apparently impressive results, although it is difficult to tease apart the effects of this particular string of their COVID-19 approach from the others. Other countries, including the USA, are considering the idea, although privacy concerns in the West tend to be much stronger.

Canada becomes first country to pull out of Olympic Games

Pressure is mounting on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cancel or at least postpone the Olympic Games, set for July this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. I feel for some of the athletes who have spent the last several years building up to this, and who are probably in the best shape of their lives right now. But with gyms and training facilities closed across the world, it's not looking like a very practical proposition right now, and many high-profile athletes have come out publicly to say that the feel that Japan and the IOC is putting profits ahead of the health of the athletes and the general public.
Interestingly, Canada, not usually a country to rock the boat, has become the first country to officially pull out of the games, publicly saying what many other countries are thinking. They are calling for at least a one year postponement. Australia has also told its own athletes to assume that it will be postponed until 2021, but they have not officially pulled out for this year (although I am not really sure what the difference is).
Way to go, Canada. It would be the first time the Games have been cancelled or postponed in peacetime, but, hey, there's a first time for everything, and that's not a reason not to do it.

UPDATE
Two days later, the IOC accepts the inevitable and postpones the 2020 Olympic ganes until 2021.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Marble racing and other sport alternatives

Our millennial daughter has been singing the praises of competitive marble racing and marble sports. She says it takes you out of yourself, and it's wholesome and fun. She and her boyfriend are well and truly hooked.
And so are many others. Given the complete absence of live sports action currently, ESPN has picked it up, along with a bunch of other wacky pseudo-sports like sport stacking, toilet roll golf, arm wrestling, hamburger eating, and stupid robot fighting.
So, yes, I looked into marble racing, starting with a CBC podcast, and then the 2017 Marblelympics on YouTube.
And, yes, it's undeniably clever, both in concept and execution, but we probably won't be looking for the 2018 or 2019 games any time soon.
Sorry. We tried. But, in our defence, we're not millennials. At least, I think that's the problem.

It's possible that COVID-19 didn't come from a Wuhan animal market after all

Many people have been asking "where did COVID-19 come from?", partly out of curiosity, but also partly in search of a scapegoat, some one or something to blame.
Most people are aware that the disease was first noted in the city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province. The general view is that it began in the Huanan wild animal market (or "wet market") in Wuhan, also somewhat euphemistically described as a seafood market, and that it was passed to humans from some kind of wild animal there.
Further back than that, though, things get murky. Genetic analysis of the virus shows a strong (96%) similarity to viruses found in Rhinolophus affinis bats (Intermediate Horseshoe Bats), a common species in southeast Asia, and it seems likely that this bat (or a very similar species) served as the reservoir host for the virus. However, the spike protein used for binding in these bat viruses is not compatible with human cells, and so direct transmission from bats to humans is very unlikely (and bats are not sold in wet markets anyway).
So, an intermediary animal is proposed, in the same way as a similar species of horseshoe bat was responsible for the 2003 SARS pandemic, and the intermediary animal in that case was the small wild cat called the civet. The most likely intermediary animal for the transmission of COVID-19 was thought for a time to be the Malayan pangolin, a rare endangered animal sold illegally in Chinese wet markets for its supposed traditipnal medicine benefits. Pangolins also carry viruses that are very similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, and these protein spikes ARE compatible with human cells.
So, bats via pangolins, then? Well, maybe, but maybe not. The identification of the pangolin may have been based on a miscommunication, and more recent research has thrown the pangolin theory into some doubt. New theories suggest that some species of turtles may be more likely intermediaries.
Anyway, maybe we don't need to pin it down to one specific animal. Surely, it is enough to know that Asian wet markets are the culprit for most of these kinds of epidemics, and that they should be shut down.
That may be true, but now it is not even entirely clear that the first cases of COVID-19 do in fact stem from the Wuhan market at all. Cases dating back to November 17th 2019 or even earlier are coming to light, and it's possible that an unexplained spike of unusual pneumonia cases in December may actually have been COVID-19. .
The first ever reported case ("Patient Zero"?), dating back to December 1st, was an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and he lived "four or five buses" away  from the market and was so, and was so sick that he hardly ever went out. In fact, 13 of the first 41 official cases were probably not related to the Wuhan market, which was closed down on January 1st 2020
Does all this matter? Possibly not, but it does muddy the water somewhat for future analyses. And we may have to get used to the idea that we may never have a clear smoking-gun patient-zero situation on which to hang a hat. And that wet market in Wuhan was certainly instrumental in spreading the disease so quickly in the first instance.

UPDATE
In a Nature interview witb George Gao, Director-General of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the man at the forefront of the remarkably successful Chinese response to the COVID-19 outbreak in China, he certainly seems to be of the opinion that, whether or not the Huanan market was the original source of the outbreak, it was definitely an important amplifying factor in the early days. So, let's move to clamp down once and for all on live animal markets anyway (and not just in China).

Japanese names - family name first or given name first?

Just taking a break from all-COVID-19-all-the-time, spare a thought for poor Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan.
Not only is he having to preside over the devastation of his country's economy as the whole world grinds to a halt. Not only is he having to just stand back and wait for the decision whether nor to go ahead with the Olympics in Tokyo in July this year. But the Western press can't even get his name right.
His name in Japan is Abe Shinzo because, like many Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese), the family name comes first in Japan. Think of Xi Jinping, Mao Zedong, Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un.
Historically, the use of family names or surnames in Japan only dates back to 1868, the start of the Meiji Restoration, when many Western cultural practices were adopted. Before that, most Japanese only made use of one name. Although the Japanese opted for the family-name-first structure at this time, the given-name-first order was used for Westerners, mainly for the convenience of the rather hide-bound Western diplomats. However,when Emperor Naruhito acceded to the  Chrysanthemum throne on 1 May 2019, ushering in the Reiwa Era, Japan thought it a good time to ask the international press to start writing and saying his name correctly.
So, how is that going? Have you ever seen his name written Abe Shinzo? Just as there was a lot of resistance to changing to the Pinyin spelling of Chinese names in the 1980s - Peking to Beijing, Canton to Guangzhou, Szechwan to Sinchuan, Shensi to Shaanxi, Mao Tse-Tung to Mao Zedong, etc, etc - this will apparently take some time. (And some of the old spellings, like Szechwan, still persist anyway, and China itself was never, and I am sure will never be, changed to Zhonghua). The same lag applied when India changed its colonial place-names - Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, Calcutta to Kolkata, etc - in the 1990s and 2000s.
Convention is a heavy load to shift. Even the Japan Times, and the company literature of Japanese firms like Honda, Uniqlo and Rakuten, use the Western given-name-first convention. Japanese businessmen often have two sets of business cards, one for local use with the family name first, and another for Westerners with the given name first.
The Economist, however, has made the change, as of the begining of 2020, and that might gradually start a shift. So, expect a period of some confusion. For instance, the CEO of Nissan Motor Company is called Makoto Uchida - so, is that Mr. Makoto or Mr. Uchida?

Friday, March 20, 2020

So, is it really safe to go shopping?

In case you were wondering whether it is safe to go shopping in this time of social distancing, here's a handy guide from the Kitchn website, based on the current information available. The answer, of course, as it always is in these uncertain times, is yes and no. But it might make you feel a little better to read it.
The main conclusions, in brief:
  • Don't go any more often than you need to, keep your two metres distance from other shoppers as far as possible, wipe down the shopping cart handle before you start, try not to touch your face, and wash your hands well with soap when you get back.
  • If you get groceries delivered, ask for them to be left outside your door if at all possible.
  • It's unlikely (but not impossible) that you will catch anything from the packaging on groceries, but if it makes you feel better, you can wipe down cans and and boxes. It is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly after unpacking, though, and maybe multiple times while using the grocery items during food preparation.
  • The chances of catching anything from fresh fruit and veg are also very low, but wash them well in cool running water before using (as you should be in the habit of doing anyway), and consider using a vegetable brush for harder items (just remember to wash that brush regularly with soap).
  • The same applies to salads and prepared foods from the deli counter (providing you have confidence in the store's general cleanliness procedures).
  • Cooking food will kill the virus (but wash the fruit and veg ingredients anyway). Freezing, however, won't kill it (but then you'll probably be cooking it anyway, right?).
  • Produce from a smaller store or farmers' market may have been handled less, but this is not necessarily the case.
  • Don't avoid fresh produce completely: your immune system and general health need it. However, if you are immuno-compromized, you mught want to stick to pre-packaged produce for now.
  • And finally, there is no need to panic buy and stockpile foods: there is no reason to believe that supplies are at risk, or that we are going to run out of food.
That all seems like sound advice to me.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

And the prize for silliest response to COVID-19: Iran

And the prize for the silliest response to COVID-19 goes to Iran, whose President Hasan Rouhani accused the United States and Israel of deliberately sowing the coronavirus in order to further their agenda of regime change in Iran.
Wha...? Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that? It would make a pretty good movie, though: American marines infect a bat in deepest central China, and arrange for it to shit on a passing pangolin; said pangolin is sneaked into a wet market in Wuhan, where it passes the virus on to many Chinese passers-by, secure in the knowledge that one of them will probably travel to Iran in the coming days. Oh, and infect the rest of the world. Including America.
This follows hard on the heels of Bangladesh's previously-mentioned embarrassing performance.
Mind you, second prize has to go to the Donald Trump administration for increasing and strengthening sanctions against Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, rather than easing them to allow humanitarian aid.

UPDATE
I take it back. Pride of place has to go to these Iranian guys licking the bars of a popular Qom shrine, to make it "safe" for other faithful Muslims to visit and kiss it, as is their wont. Either way, Iran wins.
If this video doesn't make you squirm, nothing will. You really couldn't make this stuff up.
Full disclosure: the individuals involved have now been arrested, and face two years behind some different bars and 74 lashes. 74?

Bangladesh wins the prize for the ultimate irony during the COVID-19 outbreak

This might be the ultimate in irony: 30,000 Bangladeshis jam-packed together during a pandemic … praying for healing!

Raipur in Lakshmipur district on March 18, 2020

Wow. Way to go, religion!

Is fee-based telemedicine even legal? It seems so un-Canadian

Apparently, demand is burgeoning for Canada's new telemedicine services during the current COVID-19 outbreak. I don't mean government-sponsored serices like Telehealth Ontario (for whom demand is definitely spiking, but not in a good way,with long wait times). I mean private enterprises like Maple, Dialogue, Babylon and Akira.
Never heard of them? Me neither until today, but they are seeing exponential growth in the current climate of social distancing and self-isolation. The deal is you get to consult with experienced qualified Canadian doctors from the comfort of your own home at the click of a button. Consultations can be by text, audio or video, and the doctors can make full diagnoses of a large variety of conditions, write sick notes, referrals and prescriptions and even have them sent direct to your home. These new services have been described as "the Uber for doctors and patients".
But it comes at a cost. Most provincial health insurances in Canada specifically only cover in-person doctor's visits. So, you pay (using Maple as an example) $49 per virtual "visit" on weekdays, $79 at weekends, and $99 overnight, or there are also convenient monthly plans. It is in fact private healthcare, which Canada's public health system is not supposed to allow, and a step towards a two-tier healthcare system that has long been anathema in Canada.
You can why interest has been piqued during the restrictions of COVID-19. And you can see how it would be very useful for some of Canada's remote communities. Maple is even offering COVID-19 assessments for free at the moment, although don't kid yourself that this is entirely out of the goodness of their hearts.
Sound too good to be true? Well, maybe not if you can afford it.
Companies like Maple and Akira have been around since 2016, but haven't really gained that much traction until recently. But as they become more popular, the issue of whether such private medicine is even legal in Canada's universal public healthcare system will undoubtedly come to the fore. British Columbia was the first province to allow this kind of private online service, and now, using the smokescreen of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario has just followed suit.
Not everyone is happy with it. A vice-president at Women's College Hospital comments, "It has the potential to undermine the universal healthcare system". According to a University of Alberta professor of health policy, "In my opinion, it's operating outside the Canada Health Act". And the principle of universality based on need not means that is enshrined in the Canadian health system does indeed seem to be breached by the development. It's not clear to me how such operations are legally allowed to persist.
Questions have also been asked about the quality of care when a doctor does not have access to a patient's medical records, and about folllow-up and continuity of care. Another worry is that, while good, experienced doctors are answering online queries, they are not attending clinics in their own community.
It may (or may not) be the way of the future, but it is by no means a problem-free concept. Having said that, opposition has been pretty muted. I guess people have other things on their minds right now.

Why is COVID-19 proving so much worse than SARS?

So, here's the next in my short occasional series of Asking the Hard Questions About COVID-19 (or at least trying to plug some of the more glaring holes in my understanding of it).
COVID-19 is, in the scheme of things, a similar disease to the SARS outbreak of 2003, and supposedly we are better prepared for it. And yet here we all are in lockdown for weeks, possibly months, to come. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, social distancing is the norm, all live entertainment and many stores have been closed down indefinitely, and governments are throwing trillions of dollars at supporting the world's teetering economy. SARS, on the other hand, lasted about three months in total (or at least its main period did), and, while we all took some precautions, hardly anything closed, and the world's economy did not crumble. Panic and existential gloom did not pervade the world.
As of March 19th, COVID-19 has already infected at least 220,000 worldwide in 137 countries (double the number of less than two weeks ago), and nearly 9,000 have already died, with no end or let-up in sight, while SARS infected a mere 8,000 in 26 countries, with 774 deaths in total. And remember how bad we thought SARS was at the time!
So, what makes COVID-19 so much worse?
My first thought was the R0 or "basic reproduction number", i.e. the number of new cases an infected person will cause during their infectious period, a measure of the transmissibility and intensity of a disease. Many people (even some "experts") seem to believe that COVID-19 is much more transmissible than SARS. My pretty well-informed wife, certainly, was under the impression that COVID-19 is much more infectious and virulent than SARS. But it turns out that best estimates for the R0 for COVID-19 is somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 (other ranges I have seen are anywhere from 1.4 to 3.9 - this is a contentious issue). The SARS pandemic had a R0 of 2.75 in its early stages, falling to less than 1.0 just a month or two later (ranges for this are between 2 and 5 - like I say, contentious). Most people (like this Nature article, for example) seem to be going with a R0 of 2 - 2.5 for COVID-19 and 2 - 4 for SARS. Either way, COVID-19 is clearly not significantly more virulent than SARS, and probably less so.
As for the deaths rates, SARS resulted in a horrific 10% death rate, while COVID-19 appears to be settling around 4%, probably less if all cases are included - bad enough, but not even close to SARS (the MERS coronavirus outbreak of 2012 had a death rate of 34%!).
Incubation period, then? The median incubation period for COVID-19 is about 5 days, with a range of anywhere from 2 to 15 days, not dissimilar to that of SARS.
So, what else? An article in The Lancet offers a few theories (although it too assumes a higher transmissibility rate):
  • the epicentre of the COVID-19 infection, Wuhan, China, is a denser, and more open, trade-orientated  city than the epicentre of the SARS outbreak (Guangdong province) -personally I find this particular factor inconvincing: SARS actually started in the huge, bustling city of Guangzhou; 
  • the Chinese people in general are much more mobile than they were 17 years ago, as are the populations of other countries that were instrumental in spreading it around the world (particularly Iran and Italy);  
  • in fact, the whole world is much more interconnected than it was 17 years ago;; 
  • at the time of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, many people were already on the move because of Chinese New Year and Spring Festival; 
  • probably most importantly, mild and asymptomatic cases are much more common with COVID-19 than SARS, and transmission appears to peak during the early stages when it is much  more difficult to spot, whereas for SARS the "peak viral shedding" period was after patients were already quite ill and therefore easily identifiable; 
  • for the same reason, there are many more unknown contacts, and therefore much more community transmission, with COVID-19, whereas transmission of SARS was largely within a (relatively manageable) hospital environment.
Sounds convincing to me. Depressing, but convincing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

When is the best time to sell stocks and shares? I still don't know

We are in the awkward position of having to liquidate stocks for spending money at a time when stock prices are plummeting due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We are not complete financial idiots, but neither are we experienced day traders (or traders of any sort, come to that). So, I gave been trying to glean some pearls of wisdom from the internet, and here's what I have found so far.
Firstly, it seems that there are good days and bad days on which to sell stocks, although the effect is not very marked. It was always thought that stock prices tend to go down on Mondays (the so-called "Monday effect"), although since that has been more widely known, the effect is now much smaller. In fact, prices tend to go down much more (on average) on Thursdays. But Fridays do still seem to be the best days on which to sell, and Fridays see larger daily increases than other days.
There is even a best time of year to sell: returns tend to be higher in the last few months of the year, and also January (the "January effect"). The worst returns tend to be in September. None of that is going to help me right now.
In terms of the best time of day ... well, it's complicated. Day traders do recognize certain intra-day trading patterns, but they aren't necessarily going to help amateurs like us. For example, trading tends to be faster and more  furious, and prices more volatile and unpredictable, first thing in the morning (9:30am-11am), when investors are acting on overnight information or trends from other stock exchanges, and late in the afternooon (3pm-4pm), when investors close out their positions so as not to be left exposed to overnight fluctuations. During the middle of the day, things tend to be more sedate and trading slower. That doesn't really help much with predicting price movements though.
I had this notion, from unscientific anecdotal evidence, that prices at the moment are tending to plummet during the main part of the day, before rallying near the end of the day, but I haven't really found any evidence to support this.
Of course, all of this can be turned on its head during exceptional times like these, and specific news reports can send stock prices wildly in one direction or other. No-one ever accused stock traders of being sensible and logical beings, and their tendency seems to be to overreact everything.
All I really know is that, given the precipitous downward trend, I should have sold yesterday, or, even better, last month! Not helpful.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Imagine trying to impose order among Iran's religious zealots

If you think that the authorities here have a hard time getting people to toe the line during the coronavirus outbreak, spare a thought, at least a brief one, for the Iranian authorities.
The COVID-19 epidemic has been grim in Iran, and it has to be said that the country's leaders have not handled it well. Early delays and under-reporting of cases has led to a dire situation, and travelling Iranians were responsible for much of the worldwide spread of the disease. Nearly a thousand Iranians have died thus far, and the official case count is over 16,000, making it the third worst-affected country after China and Italy. But, in reality, the situation there is almost certainly much worse than the authorities are reporting, possibly by an order of magnitude. Some projections envisage several MILLION deaths in the country before the pandemic subsides.
But even when the Iranian leadership does, belatedly, act in a proactive way, it is stymied in its aims by, well, Iranians. A case in point is the recent closure of the popular Iman Reza shrine in Mashhad and the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom. Rather than head-shaking resignation, the move has been met by many of the fundamentalist Shiite faithful as an attack on their God-given right to worship where they want. Angry crowds, pushing and shoving and TOUCHING each other, demonstrated outside the shrines, and even tried to break in, before being forcibly dispersed by security forces.
Imagine trying to impose order in such an environment. This what comes of religious views (and I don't mean just Muslim views, but those of any extreme fundamentalist religion) that hold life so lightly, and that sees death as a release to a better place. Indeed, this is what comes when religion is the be-all and end-all of people's lives, and common sense and thoughtfulness goes out of the window.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The single best article about COVID-19 - make time to read it

You probably think you've read all you can stand about COVID-19. But I urge you to read one more article:

https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-act-today-or-people-will-die-f4d3d9cd99ca

It's probably the best, most detailed, and most cogently-argued article I've seen. It's very detailed, a bit technical at times, and not a little depressing, but its conclusions are summed up towards the beginning:
The coronavirus is coming to you.
It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly.
It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two.
When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways.
Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die.
They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies.
The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today.
That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.
Sorry, but read it.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

No, Virginia, the coronavirus is not caused by Corona Beer

I overheard someone on the boardwalk today claiming that sales of Corona beer in the USA have tanked since the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, braying about how stupid and gullible Americans are.
Well, it just goes to show how stupid some Canadians are, because this is a prime example of fake news. In fact, Corona has seen its US sales INCREASE the early months of 2020 according to Constellation Brands, the owner of the Corona Beer brand. The rumour that it had fallen was due to false viral Facebook posts (here's an example). Ah, yes, Facebook, everyone's favourite source of news...
The rumour was probably exacerbated by a misquoted survey by 5W Public Relations, which suggested that 38% of respondants would never buy Corona beer. But these were not regular Corona drinkers, just beer drinkers in general. True, 4% of Corona drinkers said they would stop drinking Corona, which us bad enough, but not particularly significant statistically. Worse, 16% of respondants supposedly expressed some confusion as to whether the beer brand was related in some way to the coronavirus, although I would be interested to see how that particular question was phrased.
So, hey, maybe some beer drinkers are not that thoughtful. But let's not exaggerate things.
It was my wife who reminded me of the time when Americans swore off French fries and French toast in protest against the French government's refusal to back the US war against Iraq in 2003. Remember "freedom fries" and "freedom toast"? Not quite the same thing, granted, but nevertheless another victory of American chutzpah over common sense.

When women's rights and transgender rights clash

The Toronto Public Library put itself into an interesting moral conundrum over an event it scheduled last fall, and which an article in this weekend's Globe and Mail reminded me of. It invited Meghan Murphy, founder of the major Canadian feminist website Feminist Current, to speak at one of its lecture series, and it received a lot of push-back from some quarters.
No-one doubts Ms. Murphy's feminist credentials, and that is not at issue here. Where she is controversial is in her views on transgendered people, and specifically her belief that recent federal legislation to make it illegal in Canada to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression - an apparently laudable proposal in itself - could erode women's rights. As she explained in an interview with the BBC, "Under current trans activist doctrine, we're not allowed to exclude a man from a woman's space if he says that he's female, and I find that quite dangerous and troubling".
Transgender rights activists therefore doubled down and called for a ban on Ms. Murphy's appearance at a Toronto library. Toronto mayor John Tory and some councillors also spoken out against Ms. Murphy. The library, for its part, and chief librarian Vickery Bowles in particular, took the line that the principle of free speech should be paramout, and insisted that the talk went ahead, despite protests, and with enhanced security. You can watch Ms. Bowles defend her position at an Empire Club speech.
And I think I have to agree with her in this particular case, although I am not one who thinks that feee speech ALWAYS trumps every other comsideration. It seems to me to be a genuine and respectful difference of opinion, not one where the rights and opinions of another group is being trampled under foot. This is not hate speech; it is an unfortunate clash between two marginalized groups, and as such it should be respectfully talked out and not just swept under the carpet.
Thank you, Globe, for reminding me that I never did pass comment on this at the time.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

What do Americans think of Trump's handling of the COVID-19 crisis?

It occurred to me to wonder how the whole COVID-19 pandemic thing might be affecting Donald Trump's re-election chances.
To me, he comes across as somewhat lost, bumbling and confused, with a poor grasp on the situation, and incapable of showing true leadership in a crisis situation. But then that is me coming from a strongly anti-Trump perspective, and based on the impressions gleaned from my liberal media bubble.
So, what do Republicans think of his handling of the situation? The latest poll results I can find shows that, over all, 53% disapprove of his handling of COVID-19, and 47% approve, which seems like a remarkably even-handed response to what appears to me to be a cut-and-dried example of failure. The split is, predictably enough, largely along party political lines, with 79% of Democrat-leaning voters disapproving of his performance (a surprising 21% seem quite happy with it!), and 82% of Republicans approving of it. Among "independents", 58% disapprove of his handling of the crisis, which might give Democrats some heart, but which is actually uncomfortably close to a 50-50 split.
Granted, this poll was taken before recent dramatic events like the cancellation or suspension of most sporting events, the continuing free-fall of the stock markets, the revelations that Trump had cancelled the Obama-instituted pandemic preparedness office, his controversial decision to suspend all flights from Europe (and now also from the UK and Ireland), Trump's rather disastrous Oval Office address, and his attempts to bribe a German pharma company into selling him a COVID-19 vaccine "only for the United States". But, all in all, it looks like the Teflon Man continues to be untouchable among his own supporters. Which is frankly unbelievable.

UPDATE
In fact, political affiliation seems to colour people's judgements of whether or not they even see COVID-19 as a major threat to day-to-day life. A Pew Research poll on March 20th concluded that 44% of Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents believe this, while only 26% of Republicans agree. Both sound distinctly on the low side, and the results may to some extent reflect the more urban profile of Democratic voters. But even so, that's a pretty significant difference.

UPDATE UPDATE
It's confounding, it really is. The latest Gallup poll on Trump's job approval shows an overall 49% approval rate, up from 44% earlier this month, and equal to the highest approval levels in his whole presidency. His job approval remains at 92% among Republicans, but has increased 8% to 43% among independents, and increased nearly doubled among Democrats, up 6% to 13%!
It really seem that the more daft things he does, the more people like him. It makes you despair of Americans as a group.

A brief glossary of COVID-19 words and jargon

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has introduced a whole host of new words, phrases and concepts into our daily vocabulary. Most of us know what most of them mean, but just for interest here is as quick glossary of some of those new phrases and jargon:
  • COVID-19 - this is the name of the infectious disease that infected people suffer from, not the name of the virus itself. It is short for coronavirus disease 2019. 
  • SARS-CoV-2 - this is the (rarely-used) name of the actual virus that spreads COVID-19. It is an acronyms for severe acute respiratory sydrome coronavirus 2. Why the COVID-19 disease is not therefore called SARS2 is a bit of a mystery to me - the 2003 SARS epidemic (which was spread by the SARS-CoV virus) was just called SARS, after all - but that's just how it happened. In the early phases of the epidemic (and even now), it was often referred to as simply "novel coronavirus", and often used interchangeably with COVID-19.
  • Coronavirus - this is the general name for a family of viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds, usually manifesting as respiratory tract disease in humans. This includes SARS, MERS and COVID-19, but also some cases of rhe common cold, pneumonia, bronchitis, etc.
  • Pandemic - an extensive infectious disease epidemic that affects many large regions, or even the entire world. This includes the Black Death plague of the 14th Century, smallpox, tuberculosis, various cholera outbreaks, the 1918 Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS, and more recently the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak and now COVID-19. (Here's an interesting graphic of how the main historical pandemics stack up). SARS and MERS did not quite make the World Health Organization definition for a pandemic, and neither did Ebola or Zika, but COVID-19 just did.
  • Self-isolation - deliberate vountary separation of a person from the general public, as a means of preventing, or at least slowing, the spread of a virus. This typically involves staying home as much as possible, only venturing out for emergencies, having groceries delivered, and avoiding gatherings of large numbers of people. Also known as self-quarantine. Preventive self-separation is yet another term, used mainly for people at high risk (the elderly, immuno-compromized, etc).
  • Social distancing - a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people in order to reduce community transmission of a disease. This can include any number of different activities, from literally leaving more space between people  (2 metres is the usual distance considered "safe", the maximum distance that droplets from a cough or sneeze typically travel) to not kissing or shaking hands to not going out at all. Now often referred to as "physical distancing" because some literalists objected to the suggestion that all social interaction should stop.
  • Shelter in place order - a more stringent measure available to authorities, to compel citizens to stay in their home as and limit movement to essential trips. This would normally mean that all "non-essential" businesses are closed so that employees do not have to leave their homes, although the definition of "non-essential" may vary from place to place and situation to situation. This is a term mainly used in the USA.
  • Lockdown - see shelter in place order above.
  • Quarantine-shaming - public criticism (such as on social media) of people who, deliberately or through ignorance, flout the rules on social distancing. The popular Twitter hashtag #COVIDIOTS is just one example.
  • Flattening the curve - slowing down community transmission of a disease (largely by social distancing and self-isolation, as described above), thereby preventing the rate of new cases, especially serious ones, from overwhelming the emergency medical services. "Planking the curve" is a variant: REALLY flattening the curve. The idea is not to let the number of serious cases spike so fast that it exceeds the capacity of a country's or region's health care system.
  • An abundance of caution - a commonly-used phrase indicating a carefulness over and above the normal, but justified under the circumstances. It carries a slightly apologetic air, but the suggestion that such apparently excessive prudence is nevertheless necessary.
  • R0 - the reproduction number or reproductive ratio or rate of an infection is the expected number of cases generated by each new case, essentially the rate at which an infection spreads. It's a measure of how communicable and virulent the infection is. The R0 for COVID-19 is estimated at anywhere between 1.4 and 3.9, about the same as SARS, more than MERS and H1N1, but significantly less than measles, smallpox, mumps, etc.
  • Herd immunity - the idea that, when enough people become infected with a disease (often estimated to be around 60% of the population) and either die or become immune, then the disease will fizzle out on its own.
  • Behavioural fatigue - a less commonly-used term, but one currently coming under heated discussion in Britain among other places, this is the (unproven) idea that people will eventially get tired of restrictive measures like social distancing, and rebel against them, or at least will not be able to maintain the new patterns of vigilant behaviour for very long.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) - accoutrements needed by front-line healthcare workers (NOT everyone else), including rubber gloves, face masks, face shields, respirator masks, gowns, shoe covers, etc.
  • YOLO (You Only Live Once) - not specifically COVID-19 related but often-mentioned of late, this refers to a carpe diem, live life to the fullest attitude, often exhibited by younger people, and often entailing a degree of risk or wilful ignorance, particularly in times like these when community conformity is at a premium.
  • Fomite - a term occasionally encountered in some more technical articles, fomite just means any inanimate object that can be used to transfer a viral infection, i.e. anything from doorknobs, kitchen surfaces, faucets, snd light switches to medical equipment and, of course, human skin and clothing.
  • Furlough - originally a military term, this has come to be used for any temporary lay-off from work, with the right to be reinstated at some future time. Furloughed workers are not paid, but they do typically retain employment benefits like health insurance.
  • Contact tracing - a process used to identify and monitor individuals who have had close contact with someone who is infected with the virus, with the goal of reducing infection transfer within the population. This may be done automatically by a phone app, or manually by trained staff.
  • Double the bubble - a controlled relaxation of quarantine measures whereby a family can choose to socialize at close quarters with one other family (but no-one else).

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Saudi's oil price-slashing decision makes no sense, even to them

If, like me, you've been trying to make sense of the recent Saudi oil production increase, and its associated price cut, then I think you may as well give up. There is no sense.
Behind the scenes, there is the ongoing spat between Russia and the USA, over Vladimir Putin's belief that the propped-up price of oil was effectively subsidizing the US shale oil industry, which has led to the USA becoming the world's biggest oil producer, as well as over Donald Trump's use of sanctions to stop Russia from completing its Nord 2 pipeline to Germany (yes, Trump had to be involved somewhere in any international crisis!)
But the most immediate "cause", if it can be described as such, grew out of the recent OPEC+ meeting (OPEC+ is the Saudi-dominated OPEC group plus Russia), in which Saudi Arabia was arguing for a further cut in oil production, which would lead to a price increase. Vladimir Putin, however, did not want to agree to more production constraints that may not be in Russia's own long-term interests. So, in retaliation against his refusal to kowtow, and for apparently no other good reason, the Saudis lurched completely the opposite way, and announced that it would substantially INCREASE its oil output, and started offering deep discounts to its global customer base.
This sent oil prices, already down about 30% so far this year, spiralling down to around US$32 a barrel yesterday, before recovering somewhat to US$35 a barrel, but still representing a 24% fall in just one day, the largest single-day loss since the 1991 Gulf War.  It is now at a 21-year low. Given that prices have hovered between about US$60 and US$80 since early 2018, this was a huge shock to the industry, and has led to a rout on global stock exchanges, which were already reeling from the coronavirus hit. Some heavily-indebted US fracking companies may not survive, which would please Putin, and the Canadian oil sands sector, already struggling, will be almost as badly hit. Even shares in Saudi Arabia's national oil company, Saudi Aramco, have been decimated, and the company has lost an estimated $500 billion in value since December, putting its plans for international listing this year in jeopardy.
So, all this was just a hissy fit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Basically, yes. What's even less easy to understand is that Russia can actually withstand low prices better than Saudi Arabia can (according to analysts, Russia needs an oil price of US$38 a barrel to balance its budget, while Saudi Arabia needs a price of US$80 or more!) It was a high-stakes, tone-deaf, reckless, destabilizing, and probably self-defeating move. So, what was MBS thinking? We may never know.

Friday, March 06, 2020

A quick primer on Alberta's carbon tax (or not)

If you have had problems understanding Alberta's position viz-à-viz carbon taxes, you're probably not alone. I, for one, couldn't figure it out, but then I often have difficulty figuring out things that happen in Alberta...
Anyway, I finally managed to track down a document that adequately explains it (courtesy of accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, as it happens), and now I think I more or less understand. Sort of.
Alberta used to have a perfectly good carbon tax system, called the Carbon Competitiveness Incentive Regulation (CCIR), under Rachel Notley's NDP government. When Jason Kenney's Conservatives took over in April 2019, pretty much the first thing they did was, predictably enough, cancel it. So, then they didn't have any carbon tax, and so the federal "backstop" carbon tax clicked in, which Kenney obviously didn't like.
He therefore instituted his own carbon tax, called the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) system (because heaven forbid it be called a carbon tax!), which only applies to greenhouse gas emitters exceeding a 100 kilotonne CO2 annual threshold, and which is pegged to the levels of the federal carbon tax. Unlike the old carbon tax, there is no income tax rebate to individuals; it is a straight tax retained by the provincial government, some of which is to be put towards carbon reduction schemes in the province (maybe).
However, because TIER does not apply to all companies, the federal backstop tax applies to those smaller emitters not already covered by TIER, thus necessitating two completely separate accounting systems, and unnecessarily complicating the whole exercise.
So, what then is the point of having  the TIER system? Ah, I've not been able to pin that down, I'm afraid. Because ... well, because Alberta.

I can understand panic buying, but why toilet paper?

My sister-in-law recently sent us a picture of a completely empty toilet paper aisle in her local supermarket in New York, and my first thought was "why toilet paper?"
But apparently it's a scene that has been encountered many times in recent days, and right across the world. Australia has a particular problem with it, and so so have Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and of course the USA. Armed robbers stole pallets of the stuff in Hong Kong, and it has led to fisticuffs and at least one knife incident in Australia. Some toilet paper aisles are guarded by armed security officers. Other paper tissues and kitchen rolls are often still widely available, but the toilet rolls sections have been stripped bare. For what it's worth, my local Toronto supermarket's shelves are fully stocked as usual, but maybe we use less toilet paper here?
Now, I can understand a tendency to stock up on food essentials in uncertain times such as we have with the current novel coronavirus outbreak. Anti-bacterial hand sanitizers and masks, sure. But toilet paper?
I have yet to see a convincing explanation for the phenemenon. The best the BBC can offer is that it is all an extreme case of FOMO - that guy is stocking up on toilet rolls, so maybe I should too, maybe he knows something I don't. Otherwise, it may be just people wanting to hold on to the last shreds of their dignity, represented in this case by the ability to use real toilet paper after a bowel movement.
Other theories suggest: that it is a way for people to maintain control (over hygeine, bodily functions, etc) when chaos appears to be descending all around; that it is a relatively cheap way for people to feel as though they are "doing something" in a crisis situation; that toilet rolls are big, bulky products, so it just looks worse than panic-buying of other, smaller products.
None of this sounds very convincing, does it? It's bewildering, really. If you want my theory, I just put it down to mass hysteria.