Thursday, April 30, 2020

How do you deal with a president who won't answer legitimate questions?

Here's a good example of just why it's so difficult to take Donald Trump to task over the various mistruths and barefaced lies he routinely peddles.
Case in point: Trump's repeated claims that he somehow inherited "broken" COVID-19 tests from Barack Obama. When asked in a CNN interview yeaterday how it was possible for the Obama administration to have developed COVID-19 tests three years before the novel coronavirus was even discovered, all Trump does is to repeat over and over again, "We started off with bad, broken tests and obsolete tests ... We had broken tests. We had tests that were obsolete. We had tests that didn't take care of people." Regardless of the fact that some of it doesn't actually make sense, at no point does he even try to address the interviewer's point, which was put quite succinctly, "It's a new virus, so how could the tests be broken?"
If he doesn't answer legitimate questions, but merely parrots the same non-sensical tropes, insofar as they serve his own re-election purposes, then what else can you do? What Trump is doing is making a political calculation: he just doesn't care what liberal "fake news" outlets like CNN, and the kind people who watch them, think; he is much more concerned with hammering home his message to his own core supporters.
"Broken"? I'll say. The longer Trump remains in power, the more democracy dies a death of a thousand cuts. Never has there been such a cynical politician in a position of such power and influence. 

Fauci is riding for a fall in playing up remdesivir

US top infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is really pushing the ebola drug remdesivir as an important milestone in drug treatments for COVID-19.
So, what does remdesivir do? According to the just-published (non-peer-reviewed) results a major trial by Gilead Sciences - a rather unfortunate name, in a post-Handmaid's Tale world - it reduces the recovery time for COVID infections from an average of 15 days to 11 days, bringing with it a whole host of unpleasant gastrointestinal and pulmonary side-effects. It has zero effect on COVID death rates. It is not any kind of cure. Furthermore, a Chinese study of it, just published, suggests that it doesn't even reduce recovery times!
So, why is Dr. Fauci so gung ho about it? Well, I don't really know. He says it is "a very important proof of concept", that "a drug can block this virus". My interpretation of the Gilead trial results, on the other hand, would be much less positive (something along the lines of "remdesivir is next to useless against COVID-19").
I think this is probably a case of the medical protfession, particularly the American medical profession, being just desperate for any good news at all in these dark times. But building it up in this way is also misleading the public to some extent, and smacks to me of riding for a fall.
I would hope that this news will be enough to stop the inexorable rise in Gilead's share price, which was riding high on the fumes of rumoured "positive news" but, from what I know of the stock market, I have a suspicion that it will only inflame the market.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Wouldn't it still be better to transfer infected care home residents to hospital?

I have been trying to understand why seniors in long-term care homes who catch COVID-19 are not being transferred to hospitals. Fully 79% of Canada's deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in seniors' homes, so something about the current system is clearly not working well.
Now, it is certainly the case in Ontario, and I imagine in other provinces too, that residents who develop severe illnesses in a care home should be transferred to a hospital by ambulance. However, in practice almost no care homes actually comply with that protocol, and many openly admit it (others do so more sheepishly).
Instead, the infected residents are just "treated" in place, with little or no hope of remission or recovery. Essentially, staff just try to keep them as comfortable as possible until they die, which most of them do within just a few days. Some homes have an infected wing and a non-infected wing, some do not even have that level of segregation. In the meatime, the care home staff are getting infected themselves, and spreading the virus around the rest of the residents. It's almost inevitable, and a recipe for disaster.
The explanation given for this apparently indefensible practice is that the weak and aged seniors that comprise the clientele of long-term care homes - the most vulnerable of the vulnerable - do not do tend to do well in an emergency hospital setting, and are unlikely to survive a visit to the ICU, and particularly not a stint on a ventilator. So, rather than put them through the stress, discomfort and indignity of a potentially overcrowded hospital and the massively invasive intubation procedure, most homes prefer to try and look after them in-house, knowing full well that hardly any will actually survive. Sometimes, the care homes will discuss this with families, and try to persuade them of the wisdom of this course of action (or inaction); sometimes it is just done as a matter of course, merely on the assumption that no care home resident could possibly survive a hospital visit, so there is no point in even trying.
Except that ... thanks to relatively successful measures aimed at flattening the curve, most Canadian hospitals actually DO have capacity for more COVID patients. And we know that hospital staff are much better-trained, and have more and better equipment than care homes. And care homes don't seem to be able to look after the infected patients they have anyway, nor even assure them of a comfortable or dignified end of life (if you are in any doubt about that, you can read any number of accounts in the press, of which this is just an example). And communication between care homes and the families of residents seems to be sorely lacking.
On balance, then, might it not be better to transfer infected care home residents to hospital just as soon as possible, partly to give them at least a fighting chance, and partly to give the care home staff a fighting chance, and to reduce cross-infection within the home. Am I missing something?

A tale of two provinces with very different priorities

Ontario and Quebec are Canada's two most populous provinces, and far and away the most badly hit by COVID-19. Quebec in particular has over half of the national case-load, and well over half of the nation's deaths from the coronavirus (as of today, at any rate, and according to the statistics compiled by covid-19canada.com), although bear in mind that Quebec has a slightly different definition of cases, and it has done a lot more testing per capita than Ontario.
So, it's interesting to see the different approaches being taken by the two provinces as regards re-opening the economy.
Quebec, despite a continuing upward trend in new cases and deaths, is gung ho on opening up, despite the very public misgivings of the Quebec Director of Public Health, Horacio Arruda, who has called it "a risky bet", and offered the less-than-ecstatic qualification,"I hope not too many people will die". To be fair, it will be a modest opening up at first, with shopping centres, bars, sit-down restaurants, and personal services like hair salons, remaining closed for now. Plus, the changes will be rolled out in smaller comunities first, and then Montreal, the epicentre of Quebec's infections, later.
François Legeault's decision appears to be mainly on the basis that the vast majority of new cases and deaths are occurring in care homes and not in the general public, and the fact that hospitals are not yet overwhelmed, which seem like rather negative decision-making factors to me.
Ontario, on the other hand, is making no such moves, certainly not for the foreseeable future. Doug Ford (the new, responsible, prudent Doug Ford - see a fun article in the Beaverton that maintains that the real Doug Ford has been abducted by aliens, and what we are seeing now is a doppleganger) has revealed that Ontario does have a plan, or at least a "framework", but it is just a general guide to what might happen at some unspecified time in the future. It is, he says, more a "roadmap, not a calendar".
The plan is is three phases, of which we are very much still in Phase 1: Protect and Support, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Phase 2: Restart also comes in three stages, a gradual and circumspect process that could take some time. Phase 3: Recover is a return to a "new normal", but even that includes strict health and safety guidelines, and a recommendation to pursue remote work arrangements where feasible.
Which is just fine by me, as an Ontario resident. I don't believe we are in a position yet to be making specific plans. We have no vaccine, antibody tests appear to be unreliable, and we still have limited testing ability anyway. Right now, I feel more comfortable with vague, non-specific roadmap than a risky, specific calendar. It may be callous, but I prefer to watch progress in other jurisdictions first, and to learn from their successes and failures. Because, make no mistake, there will be failures.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Michael Moore's Planet of the Humans riddled with errors

Filmmaker Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy, specializing as he does in skewering the shibboleths of capitalism. But it does seem like he went out of his way in his latest effort, Planet of the Humans, to alienate one of the few groups of people he has managed not to alienate thus far. Unlike Moore's previous movies, it's even available free of charge on YouTube, so he REALLY wants to make a statement with it.
In Planet of the Humans, Moore - or rather Jeff Gibbs, who actually wrote and directed the film - takes on pretty much the entire environmental movement by taking aim at the supposed hypocrisy of climate change initiatives, trashing solar panels and electric cars as unenvironmental, and targetting climate activists like Al Gore and Bill McKibben.
Unfortunately, it seems to be riddled with untruths, half-truths and out-of-date information. It has elicited responses from a whole host of scientists and personalities, who have called it "shockingly misleading and absurd", pointed out "various distortions, half-truths and lies", and accused it of trading in "debunked fossil fuel industry talking points". There have been calls to have the movie removed from public platforms, calls that have been largely resisted lest the environmental movement be accused of censorship.
I've never been a huge fan of Moore's abrasive, in-your-face style, but he has just lost himself a big chunk of his following with this one. And possibly put the environmetal cause that he claims to support back a few steps, because others will use this as ammunition against it, errors or no errors.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Face masks DO protect the wearer as well as others

Well, I hate to say I told you so ... but finally there is an article by a reputable epidemiologist saying what I have been saying for some time now, namely that face masks are just as good at keeping the virus out as keeping it in.
Felix Li spent 23 years as an epidemiologist and public health specialist at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), including 7 years working for PHAC in China (he is now retired, but don't hold that against him). Anyway, my point is: he knows whereof he speaks.
The use of face masks by the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic has undergone something of an evolution, you might say, from "don't bother, they're completely useless" to "wear them if it makes you feel better, no harm done" to "they might prevent you from spreading the virus to other people, but don't expect them to protect you" to "actually, yeah, wear them whenever you are in potential contact with other people, they could be very useful".
But the general view, or impression given, is still that they are more likely to protect others than they are to protect the wearer, a contention that has never made any logical sense to me. Healthcare workers, on the other hand, are told that wearing a mask can protect them as well as their patients.
Now, I understand that the masks used by healthcare workers are better than the homemade cloth ones we of the hoi polloi wear. But surely the same principle applies: any mask will, to the extent its design allows, protect the wearer against droplet-transmitted diseases like COVID-19, just as it will protect others from the cough or "moist talking" of the wearer. And, yes, a mask may be itchy and cause people to scratch their faces, but it will also, to at least as great a degree, stop a person's potentially infected fingers from actually going into their mouth or nose.
To say that the general public is at a lower risk of exposure than a healthcare worker is obvious, but that is no reason to discourage them from reducing their own risks still further. If you need more convincing, read up on the "prevention paradox", a concept explained by eminent British epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose: simply put, reducing the low risks of the general population can be more effective at controlling an epidemic than concentrating on reducing the much higher risk of small sub-populations (like healthcare workers, for example), because the vast majority of cases actually originate from the large low-risk groups. Makes sense to me.
So, thank you Mr. Li for airing this, and for convincing me that common sense is actually useful after all.

Why are more men than women dying from COVID-19 - except in Canada?

There have been many articles highlighting the fact that significantly more men than women are dying from COVID-19. And my initial theory, that more men (who are probably more cavalier in their attitudes, and less careful and fastidious than women) were also being infected more, appears to be completely incorrect: men and women are being infected about equally.
But it certainly seems to be the case that substantially more men than women are dying from the virus worldwide, and data from individual countries really underlines it: China reported a fatality rate of 2.8% for men versus 1.7% for women; in South Korea, this is 1.19% for men and 0.52% for women; in Spain, men are twice as likely as women to end up in intensive care as women, and twice as likely to die; in hard-hit northern Italy, these statistics are 82% and 70%; New York reported 39 deaths per 100,000 people among women, and 71 per 100,000 among men; etc, etc. This disparity applies in all different age ranges.
Various theories have been put forward to explain this imbalance, from women's stronger immune system and the protective effects of estrogen to the poorer heart and lung health of men to the prevalence of male smokers in the populations, none of them definitive.
But it may also be something to do with those cavalier, devil-may-care attitudes I mentioned earlier: for one thing, men are less likely to get themselves tested than women. In the USA, 56% of people tested were women, and 16% of those tested positive, while 44% were men, but 23% of them were positive. That suggests that men are less likely to get tested, and are more likely to wait until the disease is further progressed (or perhaps that women are more likely to exaggerate or self-diagnose symptoms!) An early diagnosis gives a better chance of dealing with the disease, thus giving women a natural advantage.
As so often, the truth behind the disproportionate mumber of men dying may be a complex combination of all these genetic, immunological, medical, societal and psychological reasons.

UPDATE
On the other hand, Canada is one of very few countries to buck the trend, and Canada has the world's highest proportion of female deaths from COVID-19. Overall, 53% of Canadian deaths are women (54.4% in Ontario and 54.9% in Quebec).
The reason for that appears to be related to the number of deaths that occur in long-term care homes (about 80% of Canada's total). Given that over 70% of care home residents are female, and upwards of 80% of nurses and personal support workers, then it makes sense that the toll on women as a whole be so much higher in Canada.
Of course, the reason why Canadian long-term care homes have been hit so hard is the subject of much agonizing and ongoing debate, and I'm sure it will continue to be discussed for years afterwards.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

How did Nova Scotia guman come to have authentic police items?

It seems to have been pretty common knowledge around both Dartmouth and Portapique, Nova Scotia, that multiple murderer, Gabriel Wortman, had at least one almost perfect replica police car (the 51-year old denturist split his time between the two places, and owned "properties" in Portapique, where the rampage stsrted). Indeed, he seems to have shared the fact quite openly with acquaintances, and even with local police officers. Certainly, the guy who sold him the car and those responsible for adding the inch-perfect custom-made decals and paintwork were well aware of it, and it was apparently parked outside his home as a "deterrent to thieves" for some time before the tragic events of this last week.
How did somebody not find this suspicious? How did the police not jump on it (it is, after all, illegal)? This is not innocent, well-adjusted behaviour.
Ditto with a regulation police uniform - how and why is it possible to buy an authentic police uniform (not even a close replica, but a REAL uniform), given that impersonating a police officer is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison? Again, plenty of locals were quite well aware of Wortman's kinky predilections in that regard. And to argue that owning the uniform is not in itself a crime, only making use of it for nefarious reasons, is in my humble view no argument at all, and neither is the argument that there are legitimate reasons why a person might have such a uniform (e.g. for TV, movies, collectors). Where does one buy such an item, and why is anyone legally allowed to sell them?
It seems to me that, rather than fixating on why the RCMP didn't issue an amber cellphone alert, the local people (and police) should be asking themselves a few hard questions.

Canada has its own anti-lockdown yahoos

Lest you thought that protests against sensible public health measures during this coronavirus pandemic were a peculiarly American phenomenon, it is embarrassing, but perhaps salutary, to mention that Canada - even Toronto - has also had its protests. Much smaller protests, granted, but we have our share of yahoos too.
An estimated 100 people defied social distancing rules and protested outside Queen's Park against the lock-down, sporting signs like "Protect the sick, free the strong" and "If you sacrifice freedom for safety, you get neither" (rather less pithy than some of those American placards, but arguably better thought out). Calls of the "virus is a hoax" brought the tone right back down to US standards, though.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford - who is riding a wave of popularity for his performance during the pandemic, after a year or two of disastrous provincial leadership - called the protesters "reckless", "selfish" and a "bunch of yahoos".
It was a pretty desultory and unfocussed-looking crowd, if you watch the video, seeming a bit lost in the extensive grounds of Queen's Park. But it's hard to talk down to Americans when we have our own yahoos to deal with.

Marathoner spells out "BOSTON STROG" and lights up Instagram

It's not often that I share stories from the Indian Express, but here's one that tickled my fancy.
Massachussetts nurse Lindsay Devers was all booked in to compete in the prestigious Boston Marathon this year, but, like so many other events, the Boston Marathon was cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, Ms. Devers decided to do her own marathon along a custom-designed route that would spell out "BOSTON STRONG" in her GPS tracker.
Cool idea, right? Unfortunately, Ms. Devers miscalculated and her GPS boldly and clearly spelled out "BOSTON STROG".
To her everlasting credit, she decided to laugh at her own mistake, and proudly published it anyway to Instagram, where she garnered lots of praise, both for her run and for gamely owning her spelling error.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Will globalization survive the COVID-19 pandemic?

There has already been a lot of discussion about what the political and economic climate - even the meteorological climate - might look like in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, nobody really knows, but that hasn't stopped people from opining ad nauseam about the possibilities and the likelihoods.
For example, will the current necessity of big govermment action extend afterwards, or will there be a sharp reaction against it? Will the liberties being taken by some of the more repressive and autocratic governments - such as those in China, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, Philippines, Belarus, etc - lead to a more repressive political landscape overall, or will these would-be despots be forced to walk back their excesses? Which country and/or state leaders will get a boost from their exemplary pandemic performance, and which once-popular leaders will be shunned by the voting public for their perceived failures? Will liberal democracies start to rethink the value of some of our more poorly-paid (but clearly essential) workers, like nurses and care workers and delivery guys, or will it just return to business as usual? Will the clear, unpolluted air and the car-free roads lead us to care more for our environment, or will environmental regulations and agreements be trashed in the rush to rebuild decimated economies?  Will we be more, or less, amenable to political actions that curtail our freedoms, supposedly in the interests of the greater good? Will we all become exercise freaks, or will we end up Netlix-addicted couch potatoes? Which businesses will go under, and which will thrive like never before? Which international and intranational agencies will receive a severe shake-up, and which may not even survive in their present forms? Will we ever use Zoom again?
One big discussion, perhaps the biggest of all, is the effect of the extended pandemic on globalization as a whole. While the advantages conferred by globalization during normal times may not be so obvious to the guy or gal in the street, some of its drawbacks have been well and truly underlined by the pandemic. And not just the fact that a virus (and this will not be the last) can spread so quickly and so thoroughly in an integrated and globalized world, but the fact that, unbeknown to most people, the world and its economy has become so interlinked and interdependent, that countries cannot even function without the contributions of all the different parts of the jigsaw. And, in particular, how many of those jigsaw pieces happen to be located in one country, China, which is able to pay its workers so little that it has made itself indispensible to almost every other country in the world.
Globalization may not be dead, as some of the more dramatic commentators are predicting. But, as countries pick up the tatters of their economies after the pandemic subsides, some hard questions will start to be asked about priorities, supply chains, self-sufficiency and trade pacts. This will not necessarily play straight into the hands of nativist/protectionist politicians like Donald Trump, but it seems inconceivable that globalization will remain unscathed and unchanged by the events of the last few months.

Georgia opens up essential businesses ... like tattoo parlours

It's good to know that the state of Georgia has its priorities sorted.
As of Friday, Georgia allowed barberships, hairdressers, gyms and tattoo parlours to reopen. Not becessarily in that order. Other, less essential, businesses will have to wait.

Doggolingo goes mainstream

I've been seeing more and more DoggoLingo references in the mainstream press in recent weeks. It seems to have percolated down into the general consciousness from its hipster millennial online origins, and is now no longer solely encountered in those excruciatingly twee animal-based social media sites (sorry, I let my opinions take over there - my daughter would, and does, tell me that it's just that I don't understand the subtleties of millennial humour, and who's to say she's not right).
DoggoLingo is an internet "language" based on adapted English words, heavy on cute-sounding diminutives and onomatopeia, which is implicitly (although not explicitly) supposed to mimic how a dog (or cat or other animal - it is not limited to dogs) might think or speak, in their relentlessly joyful, scatter-brained way. It all seems a bit trite and pointless to me, but many people seem quite sold on it.
This is not intended as a definitive or comprehensive dictionary, but just to give a flavour of it:

  • Doggo - dog (duh!)
  • Pupper (pupperino) - puppy or small dog
  • Yapper - small yappy dog
  • Smol boi - a tiny dog
  • Boofer - big loud dog
  • Woofer (big 'ol doggo) - even bigger loud dog
  • Longboi - long-bodied dog like a greyhound or Saluki
  • Hot doggo (smol longboi pupper) - a Dachshund
  • Floofer - fluffy dog like a Pomeranian
  • Thicc boi - chubby or overweight dog
  • Chonker - chubby, chinky or overweight
  • Bork - bark
  • Boof - a kind of whispered or partial bark
  • Awoo - howling
  • Mlem - a doggy lick
  • Blep (blop) - when a tired dog or cat's 's tongue hangs out just a little
  • Sploot - stretched out with legs behind
  • Snoot - a dog's nose
  • Boop - a light tap or touch on the nose
  • Tocks - a dog's buttocks
  • Toe beans - the pads of a paw
  • Heckin' bamboozled - totally confused (in a doggy sort of way)
  • Doing me a frighten - anything that scares a dog
  • Fren' - a canine friend
  • Zoomies (maximum borkdrive) - running so fast that it's just a blur
  • Tippy-taps - dancing with happiness
  • Catto - cat (duh!)
  • Snek (danger noodle) - snake

Derek Sloan's aspersions are not racist and sexist - unfortunately

Derek Sloan is an idiot. A political neophyte who believes that he was called by God to be a Conservative, he is unlikely to become leader of the federal Conservatives later this year. As a non-Conservative, I can almost wish that he did win the Conservative Party leadership because he would be so spectacularly bad. His recent comments about Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, are puerile and ill-considered. What they are not, however, is racist and misogynist. I almost wish they were.
What Sloan actually tweeted was:
Dr. Tam must go. Canada must remain sovereign over decisions. The UN, the WHO and Chinese Communist propaganda must never again have a say over Canada's public health.
He also asked in the accompanying video, "Does she work for Canada or for China?"
Now, it seems incontrovertible that China delayed, manipulated and falsified data about the initial outbreak of COVID-19. That's what China does. But it's a big stretch, and entirely unproven, to say that the UN and WHO massaged the data and their message out of some inexplicable desire to favour China. The WHO needs to maintain relations with China, of all countries, because that is where so many of these kinds of epidemics originate, and it needs to do so any way it can (even to the extent of ingraciating itself). Any relationship with China and its health authorities, however tainted, is clearly better than none.
And it's even more of a stretch to say, after the events, that Dr. Tam should have had the foresight and downright precognition to know how things would turn out, and to totally ignore what the WHO, the respected but severely underfunded and underpowered world health authority, was advising. Canada's ability to come to its own independent conclusions on international health threats has been severely depleted over the years, for example by the gutting of its Integrated Threat Assessment Centre during the Harper years, and the withdrawal of a direct presence of the Public Health Agency of Canada from Beijing later in the Harper administration. (Donald Trump did the same thing with the American presence in Beijing, just months before rhe pandemic struck.)
However, much as it pains me, I have to agree with Sloan when he says:
None of my arguments for Dr. Tam's removal were based on her race or her sex: they were based on her performance.
The many calls on social media to shut him down for being racist and sexist are spurious. Just because Dr. Tam is female and born in Hong Kong (although raised in England) does not automatically make any criticism of her sexist and racist. This is just an attempt to shut down the debate by playing a card against which there is no acceptable rebuttal (because to argue against a claim of racism is, in itself, a racist act in some circles).
I have made this argument several times before (just one example), but it still keeps happening (do these people not read my blog?!) It is one of the hallmarks of the current climate of excessive political correctness (note that I say "excessive" political correctness: there is nothing wrong with political correctness per se), and it is unfortunate.

Friday, April 24, 2020

How did Trump come up with bleach as a miracle cure for COVID-19?

In a testament to the almost child-like gullibility of the man who calls himself the leader of the free world, Donald Trump was publicly touting this week's miracle cure: bleach. Yup, regular household chlorine dioxide. You know, the poisonous stuff.
Now, how would such a bizarre idea enter that jumbled, topsy-turvy brain of his? Well, it turns out that just a few days before, Trump received a letter from Mark Grenon, the self-styled "archbishop" of Genesis II. Genesis II purports to be a church, but is in actual fact the producer and commercial distributor of bleach as a "miracle mineral solution" (MMS), a cure for 99% of all illnesses, including but by no means limited to cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS, autism, and now COVID-19. Drinking just three to six drops in water will cure all these things, "in a minute!", as Trump says. It's surprising that all those eggheads in the CDC didn't figure it out for themselves. In fact, Trump added in his own idea of injecting it into the lungs of COVID-19 sufferers, something that even Grenon's diseased imagination failed to come up with.
Trump's rabid prime-time advice also just happened to come just days after the US Food and Drug Administration obtained a court injunction against Genesis II, barring it from selling its "unproven and potentially harmful treatment for COVID-19". The FDA also warned the American public not to drink MMS, which is a "dangerous bleach which has caused serious and potentiallty life-threatening side-effects", including nausea, diarrhea, and severe dehydration that can lead to death.
Trump later claimed to having been "sarcastic" with his bleach suggestion, but it sure didn't look that way at the time. And, knowing that Trump supporters are quite capable of following his suggestions, however stupid or dangerous they may seem, the makers of Clorox and Lysol have issued statements warning against ingesting or injecting their products. You know, just in case...

Drive-through food banks - only in America?

The internet is awash with pictures of cars lining up for literally miles for food banks in America (here are just a few). With over 26 million Americans now unemployed, and food banks struggling to keep sufficient volunteers and to obtain enough food to meet the unprecedented demand, American food banks and soup kitchens are in a huge bind right now.
But there's an element of cognitive dissonance here - so, these people can't afford to buy food, but they can afford to keep large, gas-guzzling SUVs going (and that is what most of the vehicles appear to be)?
I'm not saying that the USA is the only place where this happens, and you can see the logic from a social/physical distancing perspective, but it does seem a strange juxtaposition of ideas - abject poverty and conspicuous wealth hand in hand.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Canada Goose to stop using coyote fur - wait, they use coyote fur?

Well, call me naïve, but I just read about Canada Goose's plans to stop using coyote fur on their coats, and my immediate reaction was, "What? They use real fur on their coats?" I had just assumed that, in this day and age, any fur used was artificial. I didn't think ANYONE wore real fur nowadays. Just shows how naïve I am!
The ridiculously popular, ridiculously expensive Canadian parkas apparently use wild coyote fur from Western Canada and the US, and real duck and goose down for filling. The company has been a target for animal rights activists for years, and I never even knew.
As of next year, they say they will use "reclaimed" fur for their products, which presumably means they will be going around buying up people's old fur coats, if that is indeed a practical proposition. Some animal rights groups see this as a partial victory - although the fur was still probably cruelly obtained - and some see it as "humane wash" (a rather awkward variant of greenwash, I assume).
I just can't believe I never knew. I wonder how many of the people wearing the coats know.

Trump makes good on his offer to buy Greenland

Donald Trump is making good on his offer some months ago to buy Greenland. Most people may have thought he was either joking or just pursuing his usual stream-of-conscious engage-mouth-before-brain drivel. The Danish government certainly gave it short shrift at the time.
But no, he has just announced, out of the blue, a $12.1 "aid package" for the mineral-rich strategically-located Danish territory. And I don't think he did it out of the goodness of his heart (heart?). The Danish government are saying "thank you very" much at this point, but I don't think the bribe - sorry, aid package - is likely to sway them them very far when geopolitical discussions happen to crop up sometime in the near future.

How did we become homo sapiens? It's complicated...

Kalahari bushmen, blue-eyed Scandinavians, the Yamomani of Brazil, the Inuit, Japanese businessmen - despite the huge differences in appearance and culture that have developed over the millennia, they are all members of homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, the only sub-species of homo sapiens still in existence.
In fact, over the past 20 or 30 years, the idea of a homo sapiens sapiens sub-species has been all but abandoned, and we are now all just homo sapiens. In the same way, it used to be the custom to show Neanderthals as homo sapiens neanderthalensis, i.e. as a subspecies of homo sapiens, but it is now more usual to see homo neanderthalensis as a separate species.
The Neanderthals are our nearest cousins, now extinct. It is not quite clear when homo sapiens originally split from homo neanderthalensis, with estimates ranging from 350,000 years ago to as long as 800,000 years ago, but it was sometime during the Middle Pleistocene epoch, or what we usually think of as the Stone Age. As a nice round number, we can probably say half a million years ago, although of course it did not happen overnight, but was a long gradual process. The Neanderthals, which appear to have arisen in Europe and Western Asia (unlike homo sapiens which probably arose in Africa), died out about 40,000 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change, disease, and competition with the encroaching homo sapiens population, but for half a million years or so the two species lived side by side.
Another set of cousins, the Denisovans (homo denisova), genetically quite similar to the Neanderthals, also lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans for a simular period of time, finally dying out as recently as 15,000-30,000 years ago in some parts of Asia. That species, or sub-species, was only identified in the last ten years or so from very few fossil remains, and their exact status remains contentious, but they seen to have interbred with both Neanderthals and modern humans.
So, if modern humans and Neanderthals diverged, say, 500,000 years ago, who were our most recent common ancestors? The simple answer to that apparently straightforward question used to be homo heidelbergensis, possibly via homo rhodesiensis (although many consider those two species to be one and the same). Homo heidelbergensis arose between about 700,000 and 300,000 years ago, but some recent research suggests that homo heidelbergensis was actually just a kind of "pre-Neanderthal", and not a separate species at all.
Evolutionary biology and anthropology appear to be extremely contentious and fast-changing fields, and almost every established "fact" has its detractors and opponents. The delineation between different species and/or subspecies is notoriously fluid. Extensive interbreeding between species, and an inexplicable fossil gap between about 400,000 and 260,000 years ago,  further confuses the picture.
So, anyway, where did homo heidelbergensis come from? Again, there is some confusion and some dispute, but possibly from homo antessor (which some argue is just an early form of homo heidelbergensis, or a European variety of homo erectus), or possibly homo ergaster (now thought by many to be merely an African variety of homo erectus). Or possibly neither. It all gets very confusing. 
However, the generally-agreed progenitor to homo heidelbergensis, and therefore the next back in our direct line of ancestors, is homo erectus, which existed from about 2 million years ago until about 110,000 years ago (as you can see, there are large overlaps between the different species, another source of confusion!) Homo erectus was the first human species to live in a hunter-gatherer society and to control fire, and it may be the earliest member of the homo, or human, genus of the hominid family.
But of course, that would be too simple as well, and there is a case that homo habilis was the first human. Homo habilis was the first human ancestor to use stone tools, hence the name, and provides the link between the (technically non-human) Australopithecus afarensis and the recognizably human homo erectus. Except that there is a move afoot to reclassify homo habilis as Australopithecus habilis, making it not human but still hominid!
Like I say, it's complicated.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The USA scuppers yet another important international agreement

I know we should be used to it by now, but it still rankles every time. Here is just one more example where pretty much the whole world is in agreement over something EXCEPT the United States, which uses its outsized influence to scupper an international agreement.
The case in point is a draft agreement by 19 out of the G20 industrial nations - hell, even China and Russia were on the good guys' side - that there needs to be a "global response" to the pandemic, cooordinated by the World Health Authority (WHO), and that there needs to be "equitable access" to medical supplies, tests, vaccines and treatments for the virus. This, of course, is inceasingly important as we come ever closer to a working vaccine for COVID-19.
However, a certain pouting president has a bee in his bonnet about the WHO, and is not too keen on the whole "equitable" thing, given that Americans are clearly a superior race and should have first dibs in everything (the America First" school of philosophy), objected to this apparently innocuous and obvious motion.
Because of the US veto, all the G20 got was a weak watered-down statement which talked about "systematic weaknesses" and "vulnerabilities" but proposed absolutely no solutions, i.e. it wasted the whole time and effort of all these high-ranking and expensive international diplomats.
Three-and-a-half years of the Trump administration is starting to feel like decades. Anyone who has to deal with the administration in an official capacity must be so stressed and exhausted by now. It's one thing when small countries, lacking in international influence - countries like Belarus or Nicaragua, for example - are off the charts for randomness and selfishness. But when it's America, the whole world suffers the consequences.

UPDATE
Notwithstanding the above, world leaders, with the conspicuous absence of the Americans did in fact go ahead and establish a collaboration agreement with WHO to develop safe and effective drugs, tests and vaccines for COVID-19, and to ensure equal access to to them for rich and poor alike.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Coffer Illusion - best optical illusion I have seen in a long time

Maybe this is doing the rounds of the interwebs, I don't know, but it's new to me. There are 16 circles in this image (which I got from The Poke). Can you find them? I couldn't, without resorting to a cheat. But once you see them, you can't unsee them.


Djokovic comes out as an anti-vaxxer

Maybe you always thought Novak Djokovic was a bit strange, a bit lacking in an authentic personality. Maybe it was the hair-helmet that helped with that not-quite-human impression. But you probably didn't have him down as an out-and-out, even potentially dangerous, weirdo.
For a time at least, he got deep into cosmology and the search for spiritual truths, and dabbled in Buddhism. Not so very strange, perhaps. Put it down to a mid-life crisis, or an inability to spend all his money. But at a recent mid-COVID-19 interview, he laid bare his strong anti-vaccination views. "Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel." He adds he may (or may not) have to re-consider his views if a COVID-19 vaccination becomes a requirement for major tennis tournaments, as it may well do.
Well, that's pretty definitive. It's not clear if he's worried about contracting autism, or if he feels that someone would be stealing his soul, but that's a full-on anti-science stance from a guy with a lot of influence. I'm not sure we actually need or want to know too much more about Novak Djokovic.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Why is cellphone tracking to identify virus contact a major privacy concern?

I am still trying to understand what civil liberties campaigners and "privacy advocates" are so worried about when considering cellphone tracking apps as a means of identifying and alerting when people have been in close proximity to someone who later turns out to have tested positive for COVID-19.
Such contact tracking has already proven very effective in managing the coronavirus outbreak in countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, and some western countries are (very belatedly) considering their use. But there has been a lot of push-back from the civil liberties people, and companies like Apple and Google are having to tread very carefully, despite having a working model of an app that could prove very useful in the fight against COVID-19.
At its simplest, such an app would merely log down when Bluetooth connections identify that two otherwise unconnected people came within two metres of each other. This is done using anonymous identifying keys, not names, and the data is held on the phones themselves and not by governments or companies. Nothing happens to this data at all unless one of those people is later shown to have the virus. In that case, anyone who has been close to that infected individual over the previous couple of weeks is alerted, so that they can self-isolate and/or get tested. The data can then be deleted.
I fail to see what is so nefarious about this. Granted, the app and Bluetooth need to be running all the time and it may use a bit more battery (hardly a deal breaker, I would suggest), and its efficacy does depend on the availability of accurate, timely and widespread COVID testing. But neither of  these objections constitute gross invasions of people's privacy and personal security, are they? So, what is the privacy issue? There are much more flagrant and invasive privcy risks in use right now, although there are usually ways that the paranoid can avoid them (e.g. by turning off location services, turning off cookies, etc).
I often think that "privacy advocates" have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might possibly, under certain obscure circumstances, be putatively used to track someone's whereabouts, or be used to advertise to them products or services that they may or may not be interested in. In most commercial cases, I see that as just the price of a more-or-less free internet. Where privacy is "invaded" in the interests of the greater good - for example, CCTV cameras that may help to catch thieves and rapists, or, as in this case, a cellphone app that might help manage a killer virus - I for one am willing to put up with that minor infringement. It seems to me that if you have nothing to hide, why would it be a concern.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Trump's support for anti-lockdown protests the worst of mixed messages

Donald Trump's "LIBERATE" tweets are among his most irresponsible of many irresponsible tweets over the years.
Earlier today, he tapped out "LIBERATE MINNESOTA", "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA" within a matter of seconds. Coincidentally, this occurred while Trump's main news source Fox News was covering a small protest in Michigan calling for the lifting of restrictions aimed at putting a lid on the rampant COVID-19 spread in America. He wouldn't have been watching day-time TV, would he?
In fact, there have been similar small protests against common-sense social distancing measures in Michigan, Ohio, North Caolina, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia and Kentucky, and more are planned in Wisconsin, Oregon, Maryland, Idaho and Texas. But Trump chose to only tweet about those states thay happen to have Democratic governors. And make no mistake, despite Fox News fixation with them, these are small protests, ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand in the case of the largest (Michigan), and a large (and growing) majority of Americans are in favour of aggressive lockdown measures to defeat the virus.
But they sure were ugly protests, bringing together a motley band of far right agitators, from regular conservatives and libertarians, religious fundamentalists and anti-vaxxers (?), to extreme white nationalists and gun-toting anti-government militias. In addition to American flags and Confederate flags, there were references to the neo-fascist group the Proud Boys, Make America Great Again hats (of course), and placards and chants exhorting "Don't tread on me", "Freedom trumps safety and communism", "Social Distancing = Communism", "We are not prisoners",  "Give me liberty or give me COVID-19" (I kid you not), "Heil Whitmer" and "Lock her up!" (the latter two specifically aimed at Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer). Oh, and a bunch of AK-47s. Only in America, you might say...
These guys - and yes, they were pretty much all guys - were definitely not keeping 6 feet from each other, although interestingly some were hedging their bets and wearing masks! It would be interesting to see how many of them come down with the coronavirus, although unfortunately that will almost certainly prove untrackable.
And Trump's tweets? Well, what can you say? He claims to be supportive of state measures to contain and control the spread of the virus, and his support of the protests contradicts his own administration's official guidance. One would also have thought that the tweets contravened Twitter's own recently adopted rules on COVID-19 propaganda. But, hey, when did Americans ever get consistent or sensible reactions from Donald J. Trump? Isn't there some kind of law against a sitting president fomenting mass rebellion, or did the founding fathers not anticipate such an extreme and confounding president as Trump?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

This is why so many people are dying in Canada's care homes

If you, like me, were wondering how COVID-19 has become such a killer in long-term care homes, then read this three-day diary of a young orderly in a Montreal care home and it will all become clear.
I don't need to summarize the article here - it speaks for itself - but suffice to say that pretty much everything that could be done wrongly or poorly, is being (or at least was - the health authority responsible for the home claims that most things have been fixed since this article was written and, who knows, maybe they have). I'm sure not all care homes are the same, but they are probably all under-staffed, under-equipped and over-stretched.
Anyone considering responding to Quebec premier François Legault's healtfelt plea for people to step foward to help with the personnel issues Quebec's care home, will probably think twice if they read this diary.

What is the motivation for the WHO-bashers?

It's interesting to note just who is leading the current ill-advised charge against the World Health Organization (WHO).
Well, Donald Trump - no surprise there. Trump will adopt any policy that shifts attention from his own spotty and lacklustre performance during the COVID-19 outbreak. He is pathologically incapable of taking blame or responsibility, and has an almost equally pathological hatred of internationalism in any form. However, he does not want to be seen directly blaming Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping, for whom Trump has a clear respect, as he does for many of the world's autocrats, so the WHO makes a convenient scapegoat. Besides, sidelining the organization would mean he does not have to bother figuring out the pronunciation of its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, not to mention saving  over $400 million which can be used to pursue his America First agenda.
In Canada, though, the WHO detractors are mainly limited to federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Alberta Conservative premier Jason Kenney, both of whom have been outspoken in their criticism of the international advisory body, as well as of Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who - shock horror! - had the pusillanimity and temerity to accept the advice of the widely-respected world health authority.
So, what is their justification and motivation? Partly, it is just puerile partisan politics - as Conservative leaders, they feel they have to be seen to be opposing anything the Liberal leadership is saying, whether or not they believe or care about it in their heart of hearts. It is the ugly side of two-party oppositional democracy.
Other than that, though, I am really not sure. A sneaking respect for Donald Trump, perhaps? Who knows? It certainly seems counter-productive and in poor taste to be finger-pointing and scoring petty political points at a time when national unity has never been more needed. Any attempt to discredit or knee-cap our public health officials and agencies has to be dangerously ill-conceived at any time, but particularly do in the midst of a major national and international health emergency.
Is there any significance to the fact that most of the detractors are way on the right of the political spectrum? (The only non-Conservative critic I can think of is former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, although his beef is much more with China than with WHO or the Canadian health agencies.) I don't know the answer to that either. I just wish they would stop. There will be plenty of time for recriminations and politicking later. Let's just get through this national emergency first.

What the hell is Islamic finance?

I was reading today about how Canada, and Toronto in particular, could become a leader in Islamic finance, and I thought to myself, "What the hell (oops!) is Islamic finance?
Further reading tells me that Islamic finance refers to financial products and services built on sharing the risk of a transaction equitably among the parties involved, backing by hard assets, not involving the charging of interest, and not involving industries regarded as "sinful" (i.e. alcohol, gambling, pornography or weapons).
Fair enough. But what that would actually look like in practice escapes me. The closest I can get is interest-free loans guaranteed by property (like a second mortgage), or ethical investing in companies producing sin-free products. There is nothing essentially Islamic about either of those things, although I guess you can label it however you like. And anyway, no bank, whether Islamic or not, is going to carry out such services for free, and any fees they charge are basically just the same as charging interest, just under a different name.
Tbe article went on to talk about Islamic mortgages and Islamic insurance, which made just as little sense to me. I came away from the article concluding that Islamic finance is really just any finance carried out by and for believers in Islam, which really is just a glorified example of niche marketing. But then, what do I know, I'm just an ignorant heathen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

What is quantitative easing anyway?

We are told that the Bank of Canada (BoC) is currently pursuing a policy of quantitative easing during the financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Some people seem to be in favour of this; others, less enthusiastic, have described it as "a vast experiment in printing money that has never been attempted before in this country".
It's a phrase you come across quite often in the financial parts (and even other parts) of the news, but, like me, you might only have a vague idea of what it actually means.
Without getting too far into the arcana if monetary policy, quantitative easing, also sometimes just called "asset buying", is a last resort method of stimulating the economy when more favoured measures like reducing interest rates are not available or not working. Right now, interest rates are at rock botton levels and the economy is still in need of a boost, hence the resort to quantitative easing in Canada, the UK snd elsewhere.
What actually happens is that a country's central bank, in our case the BoC, buys up substantial amounts of government debt in the form of government bonds, paying for it by creating a whole lot of digital money (i.e. money in bank accounts, rather than physical banknotes). This "new" money is intended to boost spending and investment in the economy as a whole.
Quantitative easing has various pros and cons, and therefore its supporters and detractors. It can help bring a country's economy out of recession, lower the cost and improve access to government funds, and help ensure that inflation does not go too low. On the other hand, it may cause inflation to balloon if the amount of easing is over-estimated and too much money is created. Also, it can fail to stimulate the economy as desired if banks just hoard the new money and are reluctant to lend it out to businesses and households.
That's probably as much as I need to know. Does it make any more sense to you?

Trudeau makes another misstep over Easter weekend

Justin Trudeau's leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has generally been steady, measured and in the whole exemplary (certainly when compared with some others I could mention), but it has not been perfect. Take, for example, his tone-deaf attempt to sneak through an unprecedented push for extreme and undemocratic emergency powers early on in the outbreak (granted, he quickly back-pedealled on it when challenged, but, even so ... WHAT WAS HE THINKING?)
Well, Mr. Trudeau has just generated another what-was-he-thinking moment when he joined his wife and children for Easter weekend up at the family cottage at Harrington Lake, Quebec. The faux pas emerged when his wife posted photos of the reunited family on her Instagram account (that may have been a mistake too, as without it the public may never have known, and Sophie is probably still in the dog-house for that).
Is it so bad that such a busy man, under such great stress and pressure over the ongoing and ever-changing pandemic measures, takes a bit of R&R, you ask? Well, perhaps not in itself, but the optics certainly stink.
Firstly, what are Sophie and the kids doing at Harrington Lake anyway? They are far from the only well-heeled family choosing to pass this enforced and extended down-time at the cottage, but people have been expressly and unequivalocably told by Canada's top doctor, Dr. Theresa Tam, not to ("#COVID time is not #cottage time"). These rural areas just do not have the capacity to deal with an influx of city-transplanted cases, and Dr. Tam and many cottage country mayors have urged part-timers not to visit.
But more to the point, Trudeau is contravening both Dr. Tam's and his own repeated exhortations to stay at home and avoid all non-essential travel. ("This weekend will be very different. You'll have to stay at home. You'll have to Skype that big family dinner, and the Easter egg hunt.")
A major national and international scandal? No. A misstep. Absolutely. You can't spend weeks telling the whole country to do one thing, and then do the opposite yourself. You're supposed to lead by example. Not everybody is totally thoughtless and self-centred, but you can nevertheless see people thinking, "well, if he can do it..."
In the interests of political balance, it should also be mentioned that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was also guilty of a distinctly suspect decision in imposing his whole family of wife and five kids (!) on a small plane chartered to ferry Scheer, Green leader Elizabeth May and Liberal MP Carla Qualtrough to Ottawa for an extraordinary sitting of parliament. The other original passengers, for whom social distancing was now impossible in the small plane, were less than impressed, but did not feel able to raise strenuous objections, given the circumstances. Scheer justified his action by claiming (facetiously?) that his wife carried wipes and they did not "speak moistly" on each other. Not a very serious response, I wouldn't say.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Puh-leeze, describing someone as elderly is not a politlical statement

It seems to me there is a lot of hogwash being talked about ageism during this pandemic. As an old geezer myself, I feel able to talk about this without risking accusations of cultural appropriation or something.
An article in the Globe and Mail tells about a family who were "shocked" (shocked, I tell you!) at the way the death of a family member from the coronavirus was slightingly described as the death of an elderly person. Er, the guy was 73. How else are you going to describe him? Sorry, but he was elderly.
The presupposition of these people is that calling someone "elderly" necessarily suggests unimportant or disposable. "So laden, so dismissive", whines a relative (who just happens to be an advocate for the human rights of older people). So, "elder" is a term of respect, but "elderly" is somehow a term of abuse?
No, this is just a bald statement of fact. Most people who have died in this pandemic have been elderly, old, frail, vulnerable, decrepit, call it what you like. Any prejudice or loaded import in the use of such a word is wholly imputed and not implied.
I was surprised that the Globe's André Picard, usually a sensible guy, was willing to lap this stuff up. Personally, I have no patience for these people (the so-called "advocates", I mean, not the old people - I like old people as much as I like younger people).

Trump goes full Louis XIV on prime time

"When somebody is President of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's got to be ... The federal government has absolute power. It has the power. As to whether or not I'll use that power, we'll see." I'm sure, I don't need to say who's speaking there, but suffice it to say it was in the context of who should be responsible for the decision to reopen the American economy, and how.
Of course, like most things that come out of Trump's mouth, it's not actually true - the Constitution, and the 10th Amendment in particular, says otherwise. Louis XIV may have claimed absolute power (and look what happened to him....), as did the Russian tsars and the Ottoman sultans. Trump, however, is not in a position to do so. In this particular case, the various states called for social distancing rules and lock-downs, and the states will relax them as they see fit. Several states are banding together in unofficial groupings as they discuss the best way to gradually open up after weeks of lock-down, and they have made it very they are not going to be unduly worried by the ravings of a power-mad president.
I think this particular outburst of Trumpian chutzpah and hubris came during yesterday's daily press briefing. This happens to be the only one of rump's "briefings" - widely panned as barefaced rally-style election campaigning as well as non-factual drivel that should be dropped from live broadcasting - that I happened to watch live. Unfortunately, I didn't get as far as this particular segment. I lasted about five minutes before my blood pressure rose so far that I just had to leave the room. I have no idea how the press and his political opponents (or his supporters, for that matter) cope with him, and still manage to maintain, more or less, civility and equanimity. But then, I guess that's why I'm not in politics.

Who are all the people staying in hotels right now?

Not surprisingly, the hotel industry in Canada and elsewhere has taken a huge hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The overall occupancy rate is currently around 13% across Canada, a 79% drop from this time last year. In Quebec, it is even worse, with a 6% occupancy rate, and high-end hotels in general (catering to business travellers and group bookings) are seeing the worst hit of all, at 2.5% occupancy.
My question, though, is who are those 13%, and what are they doing in hotels? Very few essential services, from emergency services to check-out clerks, require hotel stays. So, who is staying in a hotel right now?

Monday, April 13, 2020

Toronto man's "social distancing machine" stunt fatally flawed

Well, this is pretty stupid. A Toronto guy has tweeted a video about his "social distance machine", purportedly showing that it is next to impossible to maintain two metres of social distance on Toronto's streets.
Maybe that's because the ring he is wearing is actually FOUR metres in diameter (two metres radius). So, he is walking down the middle of the sidewalk, rather than moving to one edge like most people do, and still expecting people to get out of his way. You don't need to be two metres from the wall or the lamp-posts, just from other people. Stoopid!
I've found that most people are pretty sensible about the whole thing, keeping to one side and politely letting people pass, and moving into the road or grass verge if necessary. There is even an unofficial "keep right" thing happening, which makes it all even easier. And, ultimately, if some streets are too busy (like Kensington Market), then find somewhere else to walk. It's not rocket science.
"The Urban Geographer" 's wheeze is being reported, even by local serious press, as clever and innovative. Hardly anyone seems to be calling it "fatally flawed".

The Karen meme. Is it funny? Is it sexist? Don't ask me

You've likely come across a Karen, or at least the Karen meme (or trope, depending on your choice of terminology).
Generally speaking, a Karen is a stereotype of an over-achieving middle-class white mother of multiple kids, the kind who tends to complain about things. She may well be an anti-vaxxer, is probably divorced, likely sports a bobbed hair-do, is addicted to Facebook, and sees complaining to the manager as her purpose in life. There are those who contend that it is sexist, racist, ageist, classist and probably several other -ists as well. It is certainly pejorative, disparaging and condescending. But, as a shorthand for a particular segment of society, it has been extremely successful, much more successful than similar attempts to brand Becky, Susan and Tammy.
But how did all this start? Well, generally speaking, social media, but there are several possible origin stories, including a popular subreddit, /r/FuckYouKaren, which started as one guy's diatribe against his ex-wife in 2017 before exploding exponentially in 2018 (we are probably not supposed to use the phrase "went viral" these days). Or possibly, going even further back, to the 2004 movie Mean Girls ("Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask someone why they're white"). But it's almost part of the point of these social media memes that their origins are murky and/or disputed.
Personally, like much of Millennial humour, I don't find Karen memes amusing (try these, supposedly 27 of the funniest Karen memes, for example). And why the need to attach a particular name to them, I have no idea. Does that make them funnier? Ask a Millennial.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Kangaroo (the novel) is a strange beast

I have just ploughed my way through D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, a novel of his that I had never even heard of, let alone read. And I won't pretend it was easy going, nor particularly enjoyable, for that matter.
The first half of the 400-page book, apparently written in just five hectic weeks in 1923, follows the antipodean travels of a disenchanted Englishman and his wife in the aftermath of the First World War, thinly-disguised stand-ins for Lawrence himself and his partner Frieda. It is a kind of travelogue of his initial impressions of Australia, and his half-hearted involvement with the nationalist Diggers movement (and their semi-fictional charismatic leader, "Kangaroo"), as well as with the home-grown Australian socialist movement and its leader, Willie Struthers. There is also a random flashback chapter detailing Lawrence's difficult experiences during the war as a conscientious objector living with a German-born lover.
There are the occasional florid, lyrical descriptive passages, but all too few. In the main it consists of unadorned, workaday description, and unpretentious, basic dialogue, except for the rather excessive (and unconvincing) flights of fancy that the larger-than-life Kangaroo character indulges in:
"I can fight them with their own weapons: the hard mandibles and the acid sting of the cold ant. But that is not how I fight them. I fight them with the warm heart. Deep calls to deep, and fire calls out fire. And for warmth, for the fire of sympathy, to burn out the ant-heap with the heat of fiery, living hearts: that is what I stand for."
But then the book takes a left turn into passages of convoluted, extended metaphors, and obscure metaphysical and philosophical ramblings for several chapters, with only the occasional tepid return to the putative plot-line. And when I say "obscure" and "ramblings", try:
"Man's isolation was always a supreme truth and fact, not to be foresworn. And the mystery of apartness. And the greater mystery of the dark God beyond a man, the God that gives a man passion, and the dark, unexplained blood-tenderness that is deeper than love, but so much more obscure, impersonal, and the brave, silent blood-pride, knowing his own separateness, and the sword-strength of his derivation from the dark God. This dark, passionate religiousness and inward sense of an inwelling magnificence, direct flow from the unknowable God, this filled Richard's heart first, and human love seemed such a fighting for candle-light, when the dark is so much better."
Wha'.. ? Now, I'm no philospher, no intellectual, but that just sounds like drivel to me. And there is page after page of this stuff.
So, not an easy read, not an enjoyable read. And that's to say nothing of the incredible racism, chauvinism and misogyny, which could most charitably be described as a product of the age. You can certainly see why Kangaroo is not among Lawrence's more popular or well-regarded books.

Who knew that Preston was a city

So, I was just doing a Buzzfeed quiz to identify the 51 cities of England on a blank map (yes, I know, but desperate times, desperate measures. For what it's worth, I got 45 out of 50 - not sure where the 51st went* - putting me in the 87th percentile - not bad for 30 years away). Anyway, I was surprised at some of the places that were designated as cities.
Now, I know that the definition of "city" in England is very different from that used in North America, based as it is not on the size of a place, but on a status granted willy-nilly by some monarch or other, usually based on whether a settlement has a cathedral or not. So, some unlikely places qualify as cities, like tiny Ely, or Truro.
But I was still taken aback by the presence of  places like Wakefield and Preston, industrial northern cities with no real tourist profile, places you drive past on motorways, unless you have specific business there. But yes, it turns out that Wakefield, for example, does indeed have a Cathedral Church of All Saints.
And Preston? Well, that's even more interesting. Preston has the Syro-Malabar Cathedral of St. Alphonsa. Say, what? Apparently, the old church of St. Ignatius in Preston was given a promotion as recently as 2016 by Pope Francis, and has become a cathedral for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Say what, take two?
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is a self-governing Eastern Catholic church based in Kerala, India ("Malabar" is an old name for Kerala). The "Syro-" part refers to the East Syriac Rite liturgy, which uses the Syriac language (an old form of Aramaic) for its rites.
Wow, talk about obscure! And what the connection is between all this and Preston, Lancashire, is anybody's guess. I have never been to Preston (just driven by it on the motorway...), but it has just gone up in my estimation.

* I think the missing 51st city may be Leeds - no idea why it  was not included in the quiz.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

In central Africa, another plague is taking centre stage

If we think we have it bad with the coronavirus, spare a thought for east and central Africa, where record-breaking locust swarms are laying waste to crops and gardens throughout Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania, Congo and Uganda. There is little anyone can do, other than bang pots snd pans or throw stones, knowing full well that such efforts are entirely inadequate.
And the worst locust swarms in 70 years are about to get a whole lot worse, as a second wave up to 20 TIMES WORSE is expected to hit in June and July, as favourable breeding conditions continue in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
The COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly taking a hold on the continent, but it is seen as a distinctly subsidiary threat in rural parts of central Africa, as the locust plague decimates the fragile countryside and ruins livelihoods. Imagine having to deal with that ON TOP OF the coronavirus threat. End times indeed!

Mexican ventilator exporter told to close down

Things are starting to turn nasty in trade circles and, as might be expected, one Donald Trump and his gang are almost certainly behind it all.
Smiths Medical is an Anglo-American Minneapolis-headquartered healthcare manufacturing company with a siginificant operation in Baja California, Mexico. Among other things, it produces medical ventilator machines for hospitals, which, obviously enough, are in high demand right now. The company is continuing to operate in Mexico, at a time when most industrial plants have been closed down in order to combat the ongoing pandemic, on the grounds that its output is considered an essential service.
But now the company is refusing to sell its ventilators to Mexican hospitals, where they are badly needed to treat coronavirus patients (and it's not hard to see where that directive came from - does "America First" ring a bell?)  So, reasonably enough, Mexico is now saying that the company is no longer providing an essential service in Mexico, and so should be shut down in accordance with Mexican health energency contingency measures.
It's a tit-for-tat response, and it would be a shame to lose any capacity for producing the much-needed life-saving equipment. But you can absolutely see the Mexican point of view: poorly-paid Mexican workers are risking life and limb to produce essential equipment that promptly leaves Mexico to benefit other countries. Where's the value in that?

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, LAV exports are on the cards again

Oh, and look: while no-one was watching, the Liberal government signs a renegotiated deal to export light armoured vehicles (LAVs, also known as small tanks) to Saudi Arabia, a country with an abysmal human rights record, which has been shown to be using such vehicles in its ongoing war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
So, this is now no longer an inadvisable and probably illegal deal struck by the previous Conservative government, and inherited by the Liberals against their better judgement. This is an equally inadvisable and probably illegal deal of the Liberals' very own.
Really? What are they thinking.

COVID-19 stats are actually next to uselsss

Like pretty much every one else, I have been religiously following the daily statistics on cases, deaths, etc, from COVID-19, deperately looking for that inflection point where things start to look better rather than worse. But I know in my heart that the statistics, such as the Johns Hopkins University Cornavirus Resource Centre, with its wealth of detailed international figures, are at best skewed and at worst downright useless. (The number of deaths attributable to the coronavirus, on the other hand, is a better-supported, and more reliable, measure of the real situation, although even that determination is far from infallible, and believed to be substantially understated.)
That's because, despite the sterling work being done by statisticians around the world, the figures for the number of cases in a population is based on the amount of COVID-19 testing being  that population. And the amount of testing being done varies hugely between countries, states, even cities. Given that an estimated 80% of COVID cases are mild and do not require hospitalization or medical intervention, it seems likely that the vast majority of cases are being neither tested nor recorded.
Setting aside the possibility - no, certainty - that some countries are massaging their official figures for political or face-saving reasons, if one country is doing a much better job of testing its population than another, then its case incidence is likely to be higher, even though it may be actually doing a better job of dealing with the outbreak.
And the amount of skewing we are talking about is huge. ALL countries are understating their number of cases, because nowhere is testing everyone in its population; that's just not practicable or possible. Estimates of the extent of the misstatement of cases suggest that they may be out by orders of magnitude, making any comparison of statistics all but meaningless. For example, two recent studies showed a 20-fold discrepancy in case detection rates between countries who are doing a good job of it (e.g. Norway) and those who are doing a bad job of it (e.g. UK). So, the UK's already horrendous stats could actually be at least 20 times worse than they appear! Other studies and surveys suggest that case totals in the US and UK could be out (understated) by anywhere from 2 times to 100 times! Not very useful data for comparison purposes, then, although arguably of some limited use for identifying trends.
For the same reason, most of those dire and panic-inducing models, projections and prognostications we've been hit with recently are equally meaningless, based as they are on meaningless current and historical figures. Not only are the predictions of future cases and deaths next to useless because they give such a huge range of figures depending on various assumptions (for example, Canada can expect 11,000 to 22,000 deaths in a best case scenario, and up to 100,000+ deaths with weaker controls ... or maybe not). But even those ranges are based on faulty historical data, as we have seen above. This comic strip gives a good idea of the uncertainties involved in modelling COVID-19.)
So, a pinch of salt is most definitely called for when looking at any of these statistics or models, and how things are going to go probably depends more on whether you're a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person. The only thing we can be pretty sure of, whatever kind of glass you see, is that it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And I'm probably still going to be obsessing over those case statistics, even knowing what I know.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

How has BC avoided the COVID-19 problems of Ontario and Quebec?

British Columbia, Canada's third most populous province, was one of the first provinces to register COVID-19 cases. Located on the west coast, and having a huge transplanted Chinese population, you might have expected it to have the worst coronavirus problem. But, both in terms of hospitalizations and active cases, BC has managed to "flatten the curve" more successfully than Ontario and Quebec.
New cases in BC have been pretty much flat for about a week now, at between 30 and 60 a day, while Ontario's  and Quebec's statistics continue to rise inexorably, to the tune of several hundred a day, almost a thousand a day in Quebec's case. The total number of cases in BC stands at 1,291 as at April 6th, with 43 deaths. This compares pretty favourably with 4,726 cases and 153 deaths in Ontario, and 9,340 cases and 150 deaths in Quebec.
So, how has BC achieved this? According to Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry (yes the same Bonnie Henry that so successfully led Toronto through the SARS epidemic in 2003), it has been a mixture of good preparation and luck. Unlike other provinces, BC had a few early cases in January and February to prepare it, and it has also managed to avoid having a single "super-spreader", more by luck than judgement. But also, BC has a better, more integrated and better-funded, health system and epidemiology service, a model for the rest of Canada, with clear lines of communication to enable it to quickly scale up a unified response early.
One way this was exemplified was BC's response to the March Break period. BC recommended against all non-essential travel at that time, while Doug Ford in Ontario was telling people to "go away" and "have fun". Many of those Ontarians, and particularly Quebeckers, came back from places with much greater COVID-19 transmission, and proceeded to spread it round within the local community. It may have helped that Quebec's March Break (2nd March) was two weeks earlier than BC's (16th March), and so BC could learn from that bad experience. But Ontario's March Break was also 16th March, and Ontario apparently did not learn from Quebec.
But credit must also go to Dr. Henry herself. She has been a consistent and reliable presence on BC television, calm and assured, but frank and occasionally emotional. She made several good decisions early, like the decision to stop health care workers from working at multiple care homes, she recommended against pulling people out of long-term care homes, and generally kept up a unified response and messaging from day one.
That said, BC only reduced allowed gatherings to 50 on March 16th, the same date as Ontario, and Ontario later reduced that to 5 people. BC has also had more than its fair share of problems with people ignoring social distancing recommendations on beaches and in parks, but they seem not to have any lasting repercussions (at least so far).
Also, I do wonder - and I have no proof either way on this - whether the sheer number of Asians living in the Vancouver area has made mask-wearing more socially acceptable than in some other provinces. However, the wearing of masks is no more mandatory or even recommended in BC than anywhere else in Canada.
So, as Dr. Henry says, good preparation, but also a whole lot of luck.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

It's becoming clearer why Trump is pushing hydroxychloroquine so hard

It's finally becoming a bit clearer why Donald Trump appears so fixated with the malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential miracle drug against COVID-19, despite its horrendous side-effects (nausea, paranoia and hallucinations, blindness, hair loss, kidney failure, heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest) and the sparse, anecdotal-at-best evidence that it can actually be effective.
It turns out, and why am I not surprised, that Trump, and various other close associates and major donors, have a financial interest in Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug under the brand-name Plaquenil.
Meanwhile, some sufferers from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are finding the only drug they can take to relieve their symptoms becoming more and more scarce, especially given that the US government has been stockpiling an estimated 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine based on little more than an unproven hunch of Donald Trump ("What do I know? I'm not a doctor.")

Arctic ozone holes? What new hell is this?

If you thought that ozone holes were a thing of the past, then you're not keeping up with the science.
Didn't the Antarctic ozone hole get fixed by the 1987 Montreal Protocol and regulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in refrigerators? Isn't that touted as one of the few major victories for the environmental movement?
Well, yes, but ozone holes are still around.
It turns out that both the Antarctic and Arctic poles lose ozone every year, as low temperatures and polar vortices cause cloud cover to clump together, which allows chlorines and bromines from human industrial processes to penetrate the atmosphere and eat away at the protective ozone layer. Holes as large as 20 to 25 million square kilometers still regularly appear over Antarctica, and may last for 3 to 4 months during the Antarctic winter, but they do close up again as the weather warms.
Ozone holes over the Arctic can also appear but, because temperatures tend not to dip so low, they tend to be much smaller. What's brought them into the news now is that, due extreme weather, the 2020 Arctic ozone hole was the largest ever recorded at about 1 million square kilometers. Tiny, compared to Antarctica, but there are much larger human, animal and plant populations near the Arctic pole compared to the Antarctic.
Is this a problem? Is it a growing trend? With typical scientific reticence, climatographers are saying that only time will tell.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Crowds throng to Chinese tourist sites

It will be interesting to see whether China's move to relax its social distancing policies has any detrimental effects. As new cases slow to a trickle and the country had its first day with no new fatalities, you might think that China was justified in relaxing its draconian lockdown rules, but there are distinct worries that relaxing them now is the wrong thing to do (not to mention that many people are increasingly suspicious of China's case reporting of late).
You can understand why people are desperate for a bit of normality - central China has been in lockdown for MONTHS now - but some commentators, both within and outside of China, are worried that this may be too much too soon, and that it may lead to a second or third wave of the epidemic.
Certainly, looking at pictures from Huangshan Mountain park in Anhui province this last weekend, it looks pretty unpleasant as well as unsafe:


In Wuhan itself, similar scenes are taking place, for example in the main railway station:


Austria too is planning on relaxing its emergency measures. Yes, the country's case rate is falling slightly, and may (or may not) have peaked. But it still seems a bit premature.
We know that there is a real chance of subsequent waves of infection, so we really need to be more careful before allowing these kinds of scenes, especially given that, as we well know, what happens in China does not necessarily stay in China.

Maybe I should be physically shopping, not online

So, here's another unanticipated conundrum thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic.
Major Canadian supermarket chains Loblaws and Metro are both appealing to healthy able-bodied customers to physically come into their stores to shop (observing physical distancing rules, of course), freeing up scarce delivery and pickup slots for the sick or vulnerable or those with mobility issues.
Well, this actually makes total sense, but is something that never occurred to me before. Until reading this article, I was feeling quite smug about figuring out the online ordering system, and negotiating the long wait times for pickup timeslots.
I guess I may have to adapt my strategy (and wear that damned mask!)