Sunday, May 31, 2020

The use of the phrase "anti-black racism"

I have been trying my best to understand why the phrase "anti-black racism" (or "anti-Black racism") has taken over from just common garden-variety "racism" in recent years. It has always seemed to me like a bit of a redundant phrase ("redundant" in terms of the use of three words instead of one that works perfectly well).
I found an article specifically addressing this issue, but I'm still not much wiser. As far as I can tell, the crux of the matter is that black people have historically had a worse experience of racism than other races, which is probably quite true, and so they feel the need for a more specific phrase.
But I can't help but think that Asian people, Indian/Pakistani people, Middle Eastern people, who have also suffered more than their share of racism, must feel somewhat sidelined by this recent semantic development. Do we really have to reference "anti-Chinese racism", "anti-Arabic racism", etc? "Anti-Cambodian racism", maybe? Isn't the effect, the experience, of racism the same for them all?
I have to say, I still don't really get it, and I'm still not sure that it is a positive development. I can't help but think that creating unnecessary divisions in this way will result in the movement as a whole being weakened.

Russian space agency response completely outclasses Trump

The Russian space agency Roscosmos has issue a rather terse, subtly understated, and rather tongue-in-cheek response to Donald Trump's usual over-the-top bluster after the belated SpaceX launch of US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Never one prone to understatement, Trump swaggered that, "The United States has regained our place of prestige as the world leader" in space, congratulated SpaceX boss Elon Musk on the "beautiful sight" as the rocket finally launched, vowed that the US would soon have "the greatest weapons ever imagined in history" (which is something of a quantum leap and non sequitur from a space shuttle launch), and praised the American spirit that has "helped lift our country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity".
The latter was particularly ironic in a country roiled by violent protests and riots after the police killing of George Floyd, and mired in the depths of an embarrassing and poorly-managed pandemic response. "You can't be number one on earth if you are number two in space ... we are not going to be number two anywhere", Trump continued, oblivious to any irony. The USA is certainly number one in virus deaths and race riot outbreaks.
For their part, Roscosmos, which has been ferrying  astronauts (including American astronauts)  back and forth to the ISS for decades now, deadpanned that, "The hysteria raised after the successful launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft is hard to understand ... What has happened should have happened long ago", adding that, "Now it's not only the Russians flying to the ISS, but also the Americans. Well, that's wonderful!"
Now, I'm no fan of Russia, but the difference in class between the two reactions is quite palpable.

Why do some trees have leaves that are not green?

Ever wondered why some tree leaves are red, blue or even dark purple, and not green? How does that work?
Most trees have green leaves, and that is because of the presence of photo-active pigments chlorophyll, which absorbs most of the red and blue parts of the light spectrum, while reflecting back the green parts, which is what we see. Chlorophyll is used by the trees' leaves in the biochemical process of photosynthesis, which is how plants convert sunshine into energy in order to grow.
Some trees, though - ornamental ones like plum trees, Japanese maples and purple beeches, but also several wild species in the rainforests of the world - have red, purple, blue, even almost black, leaves. These leaves still have plenty of chlorophyll for their photosynthesis needs, but they have even more of other pigments like carotenoids (red/orange/yellow), anthocyanins (purple/red), fucoxanthins (brown), phycobilins (blue), etc, which reflect more of other colours than the green. Thus, the green colour is effectively masked by the relative abundance of the other pigments, and the leaves appear to us as purple, red, etc. These pigments are also known as "accessory pigments" because they are not able to use sunlight energy directly in the photosynthesis process, but have to first pass their absorbed energy to chlorophyll.
So, why would a tree choose to go down this apparently inefficient evolutionary route? This is not well understood, but various hypotheses have been put forward, from the idea that the accessory pigments help a plant to reabsorb nitrogen, to the idea that antioxidants in the pigments help protect the leaves from sun damage or aid in the tree's preparation for the growth shut-down of winter, to the possibility that they are just trying to confuse and deter insects and other herbivores that might otherwise want to eat their leaves, or to protect them from fungal infections.
Or they might just be free spirits and non-conformists...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The office experience will probably never be the same

COVID-19 has upended much of what we thought we knew, not least in the area of commerce and employment. It turns out that office workers working from home can work, and work very well.
Huge organizations, like banks, telecoms and insurance companies, have switched, almost overnight, to a remote, work-from-home culture, and the sky didn't fall. Meetings went ahead (albeit virtually), decisions got made, and the work got done, usually without the general public being able to tell the difference.
There was a time when business managers just assumed that working from home reduced productivity, and so was to be avoided as far as possible, even if it would have made the employees happier. Then, a little-known 2010 study at China's largest travel agency, Ctrip, produced some unexpected result. It turns out that productivity actually increased, substantially, when people worked from home, although employees were less content, mainly because they were lonely and missed the physical human interaction. Basically, contrary to expectations, the bosses liked the arrangement more than their employees did. 
This study turned the conventional wisdom on its head, and the experience of companies during the current pandemic has only served to confirm the study's findings, and with a hugely bigger sample group. Which raises the very real question of what the office landscape will look like post-pandemic. Several major tech companies have already bitten the bullet and committed to a more home-based future, and several major banks are also publicly musing about what percentage (30%? 50%? 80%?) of their employees will continue working from home, at least part-time, when the virus subsides. 
This will have some profound effects, and not just on the businesses involved. It will change many things, from the design of our cities and the value of real estate to road and transit usage to the participation of the disabled and the rural in the labour market to the way we organize our days. The big property developers are continuing to build new skyscrapers in downtown Toronto, but it's less clear that companies will want to occupy them. Most businesses will jump at a chance to save office costs, so many employees may be forced to work from home against their will. It's hard to believe but "office workers" may soon be nostalgic for the very cubicles and water-coolers they used to complain about. Indeed, a majority seem to be quite keen to return to their old office routines, if only for the social aspect and after-work socializing (particularly important for younger people).
But another aspect is that most people's homes are just not designed for 9-to-5 working, and many lack air conditioning, ergonomic chairs and big-screen computers. And another issue is that, if home used to be a relaxing sanctuary from the demands and stresses of work, that home-work split would no longer exist, which may have all sorts of mental health implications. There are also concerns that innovation may suffer in the absence of in-person collaborations and brainstorming sessions.
It seems likely to me that a hybrid, part-time work-from-home system may become popular, combined with desk-sharing and co-working, which would allow companies to make cost savings and benefit from inproved productivity, while still allowing employees to socialize and exercise their innovation juices. But one thing is for certain: life in the office will never be the same.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Can the Meng Wanzhou extradition case not be expedited a bit?

There has been a really big build-up to yesterday's court case of Huawei exec Meng Wanzhou, with lots of analysis of how China might react depending on the decision, whether there will be economic or political retaliation, etc, etc.
Then, the case was heard in the British Columbia Supreme Court, and Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes handed down her judgement - against Ms. Meng.
But then they tell us that this is actually only the first case in what will probably be a long series of cases and appeals, probably spanning years! All this court ruling established is that the concept of "double criminality" does apply in this case, and extradition proceedings can in fact proceed against the Chinese executive, who has been under luxurious house arrest in British Columbia since December 2018.
So, it has taken a year-and-a-half to get to what is basically square one in what will be a long and politically-fraught legal process! It does not mean that Ms. Meng will in fact be extradited to the USA, or that there is sufficient evidence to merit extradition. In fact, after a year-and-a-half, we are absolutely nowhere. In the meantime, Canadian citizens are languishing in a far-from-luxurious Chinese jail in a (probably illegal) act of retribution, the country is suffering harsh economic tariffs, and Canadian-Chinese relations are at an all-time low. Just because Donald Trump decided he didn't like Ms. Meng's face and he wanted her arrested...
Of course, once put in this awkward position, Canada has no choice but to follow through the legalities in good faith, notwithstanding the political spin China is putting on the whole affair, publicly accusing Canada of being an accomplice and lackey of the United States when they know perfectly well we are legally bound to go through these motions.
My main point is, though, how can can it take so long to try these cases? Surely, it is in Canada's interests to resolve the issue, one way or another, just as soon as possible. Can a case of this importance not be expedited a bit? Otherwise, we will be in this legal, political and economic snafu for years to come.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A migration to rival the voyage of the monarchs

I love a monarch butterfly as much as the next Canadian. Canadians tend to think of them as "our" butterflies, mainly because they are so numerous, but also because their arrival is seen as the real start of summer, an all-too- short season precious to all our hearts. I even went down to Michoacán, Mexico, this last February, to see them in their millions in their wintering habitat in the remote jungles of central Mexico.
But monarchs are not the only butterflies that migrate, as I already knew. A Nature documentary on PBS explains just how impressive the much less well-known migration of the painted lady butterfly is. Painted ladies are common butterflies in Britain, Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the summer, and it has long been known that they migrate there from southern Europe in the early summer. However, a huge citizen science operation (and the use of modern radar and weather balloon technology) has revealed that they actually migrate from Morocco and points even further south along the edges of the Sahara Desert in Africa, taking several generations to do so, much like monarchs.
Even more of a mystery was why they seem to just disappear (die?) at the end of the northern summer, only to reappear in Southern Europe and  Northern Africa again ready to start the cycle all over again. It turns our that they, along with millions of other insects, rise up high into the upper atmosphere (above 500m, and well out of the eyesight of ground observers) and take advantage of high-level wind currents to take them back down to Africa, where they arrive, battered and exhausted, after a secret peregrination of up to 7,000 km. (Actually, the distances seem uncertain, and I have seen articles talking about a 9,000 mile round-trip, a 7,500 mile round-trip, 2,500 miles non-stop, etc.)
After this extraordinary journey - over twice the distance travelled by monarchs, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, mountain ranges, and sometimes the Sahara Desert itself, and now recognized as one of the greatest migrations on earth - these fragile insects, weighing less than a gram, are then supposed to find the energy to mate and produce a new generation before they can die in peace.
I now have a new-found respect for the humble painted lady, which we also see here in North America. In fact, these butterflies have managed to colonize every continent except Antarctica and South America, making them one of the most successful and widely distributed butterfly species in the world.
North American painted ladies migrate to the deserts of Southern California, Texas and Mexico, although their migrations are erratic and unpredictable, and seem to be directly influenced by major weather changes, El Niño events, etc. Some years, they don't migrate at all, and somehow the "hive mind" seems to be able to keep track of the group decision.
Painted ladies don't gather together in quite such impressive groups as do monarchs. But their migratory behaviour is every bit as impressive as that of the storied monarch butterfly.

The skinny on how antibodies and antibody testing work

I thought this article in Smithsonian Magazine gave a good overview of how antibodies and immunity work, how complicated it all is, and how it might play out in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 infection. It does not make good reading for those looking for a quick and final end to the pandemic we currently find ourselves in.
When a person gets infected by a virus, the immune system first mounts a shortlived "innate immune response" against anything that looks like a foreign body. Over time (a week or a few weeks), a more specific "adaptive immune response" is developed, which can recognize and respond to the unique features of the invading microbe. In this second wave, immune cells called B cells manufacture antibodies against the virus, which is what the antibody (or serology) tests we have all read about are looking for.
However, some of these antibodies are full-blown "neutralizing antibodies", which curb a microbes's ability to latch onto and enter cells, while others simply flag the existence of foreign germs so that other parts of the immune system can hopefully go to work on them (neutralizing antibodies are obviously the ones we want to see). Some of these helper antibodies, for reasons that no-one seems able to explain, can even operate in an antagonistic way, chauffeuring active viruses into healthy cells, which can serve to accelerate the infection ("antibody-dependent enhancement"). Antibodies typically only have a relatively short life-span (a few weeks or months), after which they are cleared out of the body on the grounds that they are probably no longer needed, although the body does retain some B cells so that if the virus is encountered again it can start to generate neutralizing antibodies more quickly.
Furthermore, we need more than B cells for an effective antibody response. We also need T cells which, among other functions, help young B cells grow up into effective antibody-making machines, and can also trigger infected cells to self-destruct in their own right, and kind of patrol tissues after an infection to make sure that germs cannot establish a new foothold. Unfortunately, T cells tend to be located in hard-to-reach locations like the lungs, and so, even though they are an essential part of a robust immune response to a new infection, they are very difficult to detect and analyze.
Setting aside the possibility of false-positive and false-negative errors that beset all immunity testing, the serology tests that are being developed as we speak typically just search the blood for antibodies that can detect the spike proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (what it uses to attach to and infect human cells). They don't detect whether the antibodies are neutralizing or just the less effective helper antibodies (that requires additional analysis). And bear in mind that some people that do have neutralizing antibodies have been shown to still succumb to the COVID-19 infection (presumably because other parts of the immune system are also needed).
So, the bottom line is that antibodies may not offer complete future protection from the virus (a "sterilizing immunity" response), and antibody tests are far from definitive or foolproof. Without full protection, reinfected patients may experience milder symptoms, or no symptoms at all, but still be able to transmit the infection. Some, however, may experience similar, or even more intense, symptoms the second time around. And how long any immunity will last is another unknown at this point. A new study at the University of Amsterdam suggests that immunity to coronaviruses in general may only last six months, making the idea of "immunity passports" of little value, although it is not yet known how COVID-19 may fit into this framework.
It's certainly interesting and instructive that doctors and virologists who have had COVID-19 are still taking all the same precautions they were taking before infection...

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Am I so wrong to blame young people for the continued spread of COVID-19?

Apparently, I am supposed to not blame the happy-go-lucky young things who gathered in their thousands at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park and elsewhere this weekend, throwing caution to the wind and ignoring any social distancing protocols they may or may not have heard about. (Presumably the same applies to recent pool parties in Lake of the Ozarks and Houston). Apparently, instead, I am supposed to blame city and provincial officials for not making the message clear enough.
This seems ridiculous to me. Signage and warnings are everywhere, on the streets, on the TV, on the internet. Any millennial unaware of what they are supposed to be doing must be living in an alternative reality or possibly doing way too much weed. No, these people are doing what they are doing with eyes open, either through a misplaced sense of youthful invulnerablity or just an ignorant don't-care-don't-bother-me attitude. Not placing the blame where it logically belongs - i.e. with the very people who are flouting the rules - is to deny them agency, and to shoot the messenger.
And notice that I say, publicly, "millennials". I know I am not supposed to say that either, because they are apparently all stressed out, and regularly find themselves the butt of off-colour jokes about fecklessness, privilege and entitlement. Many people (from Donald Trump to the World Health Organization) have laid the blame for the early spread of the virus on millennials as a convenient scapegoat, not all of it with good evidence.
But - anecdotally, and based on my own entirely unscientific study - I have to report that I find that about 90% of the social distancing transgressors in recent days just happen to be under the age of about 30, 35. So, millennials and Gen Zers.
Millennials, for their part, are blaming Gen Z (the under-23s) for being the unthinking irresponsible party animals, and I take the point that they too are definitely out there arm in arm, hanging out in large (probably virus-ridden) groups. Some of the interviews with these young folks are downright scary, and what I have seen of their behaviour here on our beach confirms - again anecdotally -  that, on balance, Gen Z is probably significantly worse than the Millennials. But Millennials are definitely also culpable, and they are older and supposedly wiser, no?
It's hard for an old fogey like me to rationalize it all. I guess young people just like to have their friends around them, and they probably work on shorter time-frames than older people. Maybe they just like a nice suntan. But how long do they want this thing to go on? It's in their interests too to toe the line and do everything they can to reduce the spread of the virus.
From what I can see, from my ancient and decrepit viewpoint, it doesn't look good. The longer the current re-opening goes on and the better the weather gets, the less responsible people of all ages are becoming. I don't need statistics, I can see it all around me on the streets.

UPDATE
As May turned into June, the inexorable rise in COVID-19 cases among younger people has continued. You can look at this graph and see it happening before your very eyes.
Scientists say they are not quite sure why it is happening. All I can say is "see above".
Younger folks seem to have had enough. They can see their youth frittering away, and they want to LIVE it, so that's just what their doing. Unfortunately, that may lead to a much shorter life, either for their themselves or for others. So, I say, "hang in there a bit longer, guys, it's in your own long-term interests".

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The treaties protecting outer space are starting to unravel

Since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has, at least theoretically, prohibited the "national appropriation" of the moon and other celestial bodies, and specifically makes national governments responsible for private companies that might want to get into the space mining business. The United Nations' 1979 Moon Agreement reaffirmed that the moon and other bodies in space should be used for exclusivedly peaceful purposes and their environments should not be disrupted.
But this has always rankled with the USA, and things are starting to change at an alarming rate and in an alarming direction. In 2015, even before Donald Trump, the US Congress passed a law "allowing" US companies to extract, use and sell resources in space, despite the fact that this appears to directly contravene the international treaties to which they were signatories. Luxembourg, of all countries, followed suit, hoping to attract space resource companies to incorporate there. Most other countries objected and moved to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty and to establish UN guidelines on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
But then, just last month, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while no-one was watching, Donald Trump couldn't resist sticking his own oar in. He issued an executive order asserting the USA's right to space mining, and explicitly denying the widely-held view that space is a "global commons", owned by no-one country but meriting protection by all. He has gone still further with the "Artemis Accords", which he sees as setting the stage for a whole new generation of American-led space exploration and exploitation, using commercial companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX in addition to NASA. The way Trump sees it, if other countries want in on this, they will have negotiate bilaterally with the USA and accept all of its terms.
All of which puts Canada in a bit of a difficult spot. Canada has been involved in cutting-edge innovations in space research and exploration through the provision of the indispensible Canadarm robotic arm, and other Space Shuttle and International Space Station investments, and has had its share of astronaut time in recompense. Now, Canada wants to be involved in the proposed Lunar Gateway project, and has already made a firm committment to it. But, to continue, we would now need to accept and support the new aggressive US position on space mining, despite the fact that most of the world opposes it. This is in line with the usual Trump strategy of moving the goal-posts.
How much of our soul are we willing to sell, for a tiny slice of the space pie? I'd say none at all. Canada does have some bargaining room. If the USA wants another Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway, which apparently it does, then it will need to listen us. Alternatively, we can just stall for time and hope that Trump is voted out in November this year and is succeeded by a more sensible administration, although that is perhaps a more high risk strategy.
But it does seem like long-standing international agreements can no longer be relied upon in this brave new world of ours.

How can anti-lockdown protesters and anti-abortionists be the same people?

I don't know, and I have no evidence to support it, but I imagine that the intersection between anti-lockdown protesters (who are more interested in opening up their economies and asserting their personal liberties than in protecting the health and lives of the ild and vulnerable) and anti-abortion people (or pro-lifers, as they probably prefer to refer to themselves) is quite a stong one. And I have been trying to figure out how that works.
The pro-life crowd make a virtue out of the sanctity of life at all costs. "Every life is valuable", "respect life", and all that. But the anti-lockdown crowd are making a deliberate decision to put the economy and mitigating a financial recession before the sanctity of life, because it is clear that opening up economies will come at an unspecified cost of lives lost.
If these people are in fact the same people (and to a good extent the seem to be, Donald Trump is just one well-known example), then how do they square this cognitive dissonance with their consciences? The anti-lockdown protests have certainly attracted anti-abortion protesters too, including women dressed as Atwoodian handmaids without any hint of irony.
I'm not the only one to ponder this question. After I posed it to myself, I found other articles asking the same question, with just as few answers. It would be interesting to hear a rationalization of the paradox. You could call it hypocrisy, but I just don't think these people have thought it all through to that extent. The anti-lockdowners are neoconservative libertarian types who are just reflexively responding to what they see as excessive government control; whether the government control is in the interests of saving lives does not come into their calculations at all. Strange.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The "new" Doug Ford is starting to unravel

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly claimed that he "won't hesitate" to lock down the province again if it looks like the recent limited opening up of the economy is starting to make the province's pandemic figures worsen. That, of course, is the right thing to say, but what does it actually mean in practice? "Very little" is the answer, I fear.
The re-opening of stores, recreational spaces, individual sports, etc, was supposedly predicated on a very specific set of circumstances and criteria: a consistent two to four week decrease in new COVID-19 cases, adequate hospital capacity to cope with any potential surges, a 90% record for contact-tracing, and a robust and comprehensive testing regime. Well, that didn't all happen, did it? - particularly not in the first and last criteria - but Ford went ahead and initiated Phase 1 of the re-opening anyway, even though his own chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said, just two days earlier, that the province had not met the criteria, and that it was not ready for Phase 1.
In fact, Ontario's new COVID cases are consistently hovering above the 400 mark un recent days, substantially above the 326 of a few days ago. New cases have been trending upwards for 10 days now (on a five-day rolling average basis). Mr. Ford calls it "concerning"; Dr. Williams blames it on people being more casual over the last few weekends than he would have liked. Some people are (half-heartedly and unconvincingly) talking about a "Mother's Day blip", and it is definitely too early for it to be the result of looser lockdown rules which are only a couple of days old. This is a general trend, despite Dr. Williams' and Health Minister Christine Elliot's (equally unconvincing) contention that the overall trend is still downwards.
Ford is clearly much more concerned with keeping up with other provinces, states and countries that are in a much better position to ease lockdown restrictions than Ontario is. He has repeated ad infinitum that he is all about "the figures" and "the science", and that he will always go by the advice of his medical advisors. But that is not what we are actually seeing. Call me cynical, but we are seeing a man completely out of his depth, saying and doing whatever he thinks will boost his re-election prospects.
And now, despite his assertion that he won't hesitate to go back a step if need be, he is doing just that, hesitating. When asked specifically by a reporter what criteria he is using to decide when to abandon Phase 1, he merely changed the question and did not answer, meaning that either he has no science-based criteria, or that he is not willing to reveal them in case he is called out on them.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is really hard to stuff it back in again - I could have told the Ford administration that for free, long before they made the fateful Phase 1 announcement, had they asked. So, don't expect any contra-announcements any time soon, if at all. Moreover, once you start suggesting to people that the pandemic is sufficiently under control to allow stores to open, it is (apparently) human nature for people to make all sorts of other unjustifiable assumptions based on that - I could have told them that too. So, people are already noticeably less observant of social distancing and mask-wearing than they were just a couple of weeks ago. That part of the message has been lost, or filtered out, amid all the noise.
Doug Ford has repeatedly blustered about how he is going personally see that province ramps up its lacklustre coronavirus testing program, which has consistently underperformed. And almost every day, during his daily briefings, he complains that he is sorely disappointed that the province's testing figures are still nowhere near goals. But, he says, day in and day out, he is "on it", "like a hawk", "like an 800-pound gorrilla on their backs", etc, etc. Mr. Ford, you can only make definitive promises that do not pan out so many times before it becomes apparent that you are actually lying, or not as in control as you like to suggest, or just plain incompetent.
Many people have said that they have been pleasantly surprised by Doug Ford's performance throughout the pandemic, but I think that is only because they were expecting so little from him. To be fair, he could so easily have gone full Trump/Bolsonaro on this - that would not have been out of character, and was probably more in line with people's expectations of him. But his compentent, caring image is starting to unravel (possibly starting with his ill-advised invitation of his daughters to his house over Mothers Day in direct contravention of his own rules). If he fails to re-impose lockdown rules when "the figures" dictate, his reputation will be back to tatters

Friday, May 22, 2020

Toronto incel murder classed as terrorism

For the first time ever - in Canada and, as far as I know, in the world - a gender-motivated murder has been characterized and charged as an act of terrorism.
The killing of a woman at a Toronto massage parlour, by a man who identifies as an "incel" (involuntary celibate) in February of this year, is being treated as an act of terrorism by the RCMP and Toronto Police Services, and as such could attract an automatic life sentence. This is the first terrorism charge in Canada that is not linked to al-Qaeda or Islamic State, and the first time that a misogynistic attack of this kind has been labelled terrorism.
Incel attacks are nothing new, and this was by no means Canada's worst - Alex Minassian, who killed 10 people, mainly women, in a van attack in 2018, was supposedly inspired by incel "ideology" - but it was the first time that police are treating it as domestic terrorism. As an RCMP spokesman noted, "Terrorism comes in many forms, and it's important to note that it is not restricted to any particular group, religion or ideology".

Pandemic shows the inherent weakness of populist leaders

Is it possible that the COVID-19 pandemic might mark the death knell for the unfortunate recent spate of populism?
Most of the countries with governments that revolve around a strong, right-wing populist leader with autocratic tendencies have tended to suffer disproportionately during this global health crisis. Think Donald Trump in the USA, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson in the UK, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India, etc. Many other authoritarian regimes (e.g. China, Belarus, Iran, Hungary) are clearly witholding information and severely massaging statistics so as to hide the truth of the matter, which is also par for the course.
It was perhaps predictable but, although populists can cruise along quite happily while things are going well, they are often ill-equipped to deal with a real crisis (and it doesn't get much more real than the current pandemic). When the shit hits the proverbial, it becomes apparent that these people are not actually born leaders, but opportunists of the worst sort, more concerned with their own images and re-election prospects, than with the welfare of the ordinary people they claim to love so dearly and represent so strongly. The Emperor's clothes have never looked so transparent as right now.
Of course, this thing is far from over (whatever the populists might tell you). But one does get the feeling that we might well be living through something of a paradigm shift. Whether voters the world over will have lost all faith in their elected representatives over this populist period remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Google to stop enabling oil and gas industry

Up until very recently the big tech conpanies - Google/Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon - have been merrily providing artificial intelligence (AI) products and services to oil and gas companies to help them identify new fields to develop, etc, much to the chagrin and disgust of environmental organizations like Greenpeace.
To their credit, though, Google has now announced that, henceforward, it will no longer build AI tools to speed up oil and gas extraction, on the grounds that this practice militates against their own climate change policies and goals. They will continue to honour existing contracts with the likes of Shell, BP, Chevron, Exxon, etc, but will not take on any new ones.
Amazon and, perhaps most notably Microsoft (given Bill Gates' espoused climate change views), have given no such undertakings.

Singapore man sentenced to death on Zoom

Well, this is a first, but I guess it was only a matter of time. A man in Singapore has just been sentenced to death by Zoom video-conferencing.
Singapore, which is still in Lockdown No. 2 after a belated spike in virus cases, has a notoriously draconian penal code and, specifically, zero tolerance for drug offences. The man sentenced was involved in a drug deal back in 2011, a case which, for some reason, the Singapore courts decided to bump up to "essential" status.
It certainly puts breaking up with a girlfriend by Twitter into perspective...

UPDATE
And, just for good measure, now we have the first instance of a man stabbing his father to death while on a Zoom video chat with around 20 other participants. It's become the technology of choice for bringing together life and death.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A COVID-19 vaccine does not need to be specific to different virus strains

After my exploration of whether or not there really are over 30 strains of the COVID-19 virus now, I came across an article explaining that, even if there are multiple strains, that does not necessarily mean that we will need 30+ vaccines.
In fact, it seems like vaccine research can continue regardless of different virus strains because of the specfic qualities of a coronavirus. With viruses like influenza, a vaccine has to target a single very specific part of the virus' transmission mechanism, but a vaccine for the novel coronavirus can apparently target multiple different sites on the surface proteins, which is used to spread itself. So, the kinds pf vaccines being developed should work on multiple different strains of the virus.
Over time, vaccines can be fine-tuned for specific strains, but right now what we need is just something - anything - that works.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Korean football club has a rather raunchy crowd

South Korea's football league has restarted after the hiatus caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. But, out of an abundance of caution, the stands remain empty of fans.
Some clubs have taken to populating some of the stadium seats with cardboard cutouts or manikins in order to make it seem a little less ghostly and empty (which is a bizarre and slightly creepy idea in itself). FC Seoul proudly installed 30 "premium manikins", 28 female and 2 male. But the premium manikins turned out to actually be sex dolls, some of them advertising x-rated websites, which in straightlaced Korea, where pornography is technically banned, is a bit of a faux pas.
The company that makes the manikins apparently offered its products to the football club for free, and I guess someone just neglected to do a bit of due dilligence. But you'd think the ratio of female manikins to male might have been enough to set some alarm bells ringing.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A fascinating look at the flat earther community

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the documentary Behind the Curve on Netflix earlier tonight. It's a documentary made in late 2018 about the burgeoning flat earth movement in the USA. It's a movement, like many another conspiracy theory movement, that is just made for the internet generation, and it seems to draw its self-worth almost entirely from its social media numbers (and we all know what company it is in there).
Yes, I went into the movie with preconceptions, which I probably shouldn't have done, but it's kind of hard not to have preconceptions about something as fundamental as whether or not the earth is round, and whether or not we are really hurtling through space. It's something that most people have made their minds up about, one way or another, pretty early on in life.
But it was a fascinating glimpse into the kinds of people who get into that kind of conspiracy theory. Among the leading lights are narcissists looking for self-validation from a fawning YouTube audience, the occasional severely unbalanced individual who needs professional help, and a few who seem to be driven by a genuine semi-scientific curiosity but don't seem to quite have the kind of scientific rigour required, and find themselves repeatedly disappointed at the difficulty of proving their own convictions in a convincing way. Their followers are a mixture of outsiders, anti-establishment rebels, mavericks, goofballs, and apparently regular folks, as well as a good number of clearly lonely people in search of a ready-made welcoming club of likeminded lonely people. These are not all stupid and/or uneducated people - they just have a different outlook and/or agenda. A 2019 survey suggested that one in six Americans are not entirely convinced that the earth is round.
The doc mainly focuses on the flat earthers themselves and, rather than deliberately setting out to make them look ridiculous, it gives them just enough rope to hang themselves with what they do and say. There are also a few contributions from scientists and psychologists, who make at least some attempt at rationalizing where these people are coming from, and hypothesizing where they might have gone wrong on their journey.
It treads a fine line, but I think that Behind the Curve manages pretty well not to just blow off flat earthers as ridiculous jokers. However, it does allow itself the odd lingering camera shot of a few points of sublime irony, and it manages to maintain a lightheartedness without sinking into farce. But you will nevertheless probably come away with a surprising feeling of sadness and melancholy.

Why do birds rub their bills on branches?

I have often watched birds wiping their beaks back and forth on a branch, and wondered what was going through their minds.
The answer is not exactly rocket science (or even advanced zoology). They mainly do it to clean their bills after eating (and the messier the meal - e.g. berries, juicy insects, suet from a bird-feeder - the more they clean their bills).
But, to some extent, they also do it to shape, sharpen and fine-tune their bills (this was my hypothesis). And, probably to an even lesser extent, it may also be part of marking territory and leaving scent from their "preen oils" (this is hypothesized from the observation that males do it more often and longer when females are around than when just makes are watching).

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Black community hit hard by pandemic may not be all about racism

Kudos to this black American journalist who calls into question some of the social norms that some black people are continuing to pursue during a time when they need to be socially distancing, both for their own health and for the common good.
Black people do seem to have been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 virus,  ut it is not immediately clear whether this is because of underlying poverty, poor general health, or out-and-out racism. Some have argued that black people are not getting the message about hand-washing and social distancing, but that seems somewhat disingenuous to me (surely, black people have access to the same media as everyone else, and can read the same warnings). Others have argued that a black person wearing a mask risks stereotyping as a criminal, which may or may not be true in some places.
But rarely, if ever, do you see a black person "breaking ranks" and suggesting that there is some deliberate flouting of rules going on within the black community in particular, from hanging in groups on street corners and a marked absence of face masks to out-and-out block parties with zero social distancing. It is quite possible that a macho culture and toxic masculinity is at least contributing to the problem, although it is hard to know how much of an effect is involved.
No-one is saying that black people are, as a race, worse at dealing with the precautions and privations needed to beat the coronavirus - I could easily single out other subsections of society like, anecdotally, white teenage girls, who apparently see their own teen friendships as more important than their own health or that of others they may infect. But neither are they blameless victims, or martyrs to the scourge of racism.
Kudos to Mr. Blake for having the guts to, as he puts it, "violate one of the Ten Commandments of Blackness: Thou shalt not criticize your own people in the presence of white folks". And let's not jump to conclusions and invoke the "R word" at any opportunity, but let's keep an open mind and try to figure out why this is happening a bit more scientifically. As one black political commentator puts it, in relation to this same issue, "We can't blame everything on race. Some things are just common sense."

Broadcasting Islamic call to prayer harmless enough, but a bad precedent

I'm at a bit of a loss to understand why Toronto (and now also Mississauga, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and several other Canadian cities with a large Muslim population) are allowing the Islamic call to prayer (Azan) to be broadcast throughout Ramadan, in direct contravention of city noise bylaws.
Supposedly, it is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although I don't really see the connection. From what I can gather, it is because peope are in need of comfort at this time, and religious Muslims apparently find this amplified noise comforting.
I don't deny that we are in need of comfort, non-Muslims just as much as Muslins, but to give some people comfort in this way, at the expense of the discomfort of many others, seems seems strangely incongruous. Especially given that there are no sunset gatherings this Ramadan anyway, due to the pandemic, it is all being done online. So, the faithful really don't need these blasts of noise to remind them to eat, they could just check their computers. (Hell, I'm sure they could arrange to hear the Azan on their computers if they really wanted to hear it). Or they could just look out of the window to see that it's sunset...
Anyway, what do I know? I don't have a religious bone in my body. I guess it's harmless enough, providing it's temporary. Because opening the door to more noise pollution is not a good development - we need to be reducing noise if anything.

Friday, May 15, 2020

China and Russia are making moves in Antarctica while no-one is watching

While all this coronavirus stuff has been going on, the world's attention has obviously not been focussed on Antarctica. But that might turn out to be a problem down the road.
Most Western countries with scientific interests in Antarctica - including USA, UK, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands - have severely curtailed their activities there in recent months. Russia and China, however, have not, and have if anything increased their Antarctic activities. Which has some countries concerned about their motives and the transparency of their Antarctic operations.
While most countries' presences in Antarctica are indeed science-driven, geared to climate change and biodiversity issues for example, there is increasing evidence that China and Russia have resource extraction (mining and oil drilling) and fishing on their minds.
Antarctica is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System, which is dedicated to preserving and protecting the continent for scientific research, and which specifically bans nuclear activity and mining. Which sounds like a slam dunk, but the treaty comes up for renegotiation in 2048 (less than 30 years away now), and there are hints that China and Russia are looking for a radical departure from the current treaty setup. China has been pursuing krill fishing operations in Antarctic waters (yes, krill, the essential basis for most oceanic food chains, apparently has some commercial value for "krill oil"), and Russia has recently re-commenced seismic surveying (supposedly for purely scientific reasons).
It's such a bore that everyone has to be constantly vigilant of China and Russia, not just in Antarctica but in everything they do. They're always trying to "get ahead" in some way, usually by some subterfuge or devious trick. The USA under Trump has been going in that direction too, but it remains a rank amateur at the side of China and Russia. There is just no transparency in anything they do, and it is no surprise that absolutely no-one trusts them as far as they can throw them ... which obviously is no distance at all.

Are we going to see a spike in coronavirus liability claim cases?

Here's an interesting (if depressing) thought: with stores and other businesses opening up and the pandemic virus still stalking the earth, are we going to see a whole load of court cases, with employees or even customers suing businesses for not doing enough to protect them, resulting in them catching the virus?
You'd think it would be hard to prove, but that never stopped people from suing, did it? And some large law firms are definitely gearing up for a potential tsunami of cases. For once, US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was on the ball when he opined recently, "We can't pass [another stimulus] bill unless we have liability protection" to protect businesses.
Between this and the fact that business insurance policies may exclude pandemics from their coverage, you can see why some businesses may be second-guessing whether or not they should even open up.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A human-challenge study for a COVID-19 vaccine is a challenge

This news took me aback somewhat. There are people out there - lots of people, indeed, to the tune of over 16,000 (now 20,000, last I checked) - who have expressed a willingess, nay, an enthusiasm, to be deliberately infected with the COVID-19 virus in order to act as guinea pigs for a potential vaccine.
Welcome to the 1 Day Sooner campaign, a project that grew out of a scholarly article by a groups of bioethicists and epidemiologists in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in mid-April. The signees to the 1 Day Sooner registry are mainly young, idealistic people and, yes, young people are somewhat less likely to catch the virus, less likely to suffer the more extreme symptoms, and less likely to die. But they are not immune from the virus, and a serious illness or even death IS a risk. But the potential benefits of cutting down the time needed to test a vaccine by many months or even years in this way can be measured in terms of THOUSANDS of potential lives saved.
This kind of "human-challenge study" could cut down the numbers of test subjects needed to as little as 100, rather than many thousands, because researchers can be assured of ALL 100 catching the disease, which would be deliberately administered by nasal drop. Then, rather than waiting several months in the "hope" that test subjects will catch the virus out in the community, results would be in in a matter of a few weeks.
It's an extraordinary idea, and it blows me away that so many young people are willing to run such high risks for the greater good. But it's a medical ethicist's nightmare. The benefits are huge, but the risks are very real, and COVID-19 has already proven itself to be an unpredictable and highly dangerous adversary. However, with four-and-a-half million cases and over three hundred thousand deaths (and counting), some scientists are starting to think that a riskier-than-normal approach may be justified. And some argue that the risks can be minimized, or at least managed, leaving the resulting risk profile within the bounds of what we already routinely approve.  The World Health Organization is already giving the idea serious consideration (although it would also require sign-off by a national health authority, such as the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, and probably a whole lot of legal work).
Apprently, the idea is not new - arguably, it goes all the way back to Edward Jenner and the very first vaccine in the 18th century, and more recently it has been used for vaccines for malaria, flu, dengue, cholera and typhoid - but it is new to me. And COVID-19 presents some unique challenges that were not present in those other human-challenge studies, not least the fact that there are currently absolutely NO treatments available. And, because the novel coronavirus is so unpredictable and still so little understood, it is difficult to give volunteers an accurate sense of the risks involved, a sine qua non of any vaccine test. But, hey, what if we could get a vaccine within weeks?
It did occur to me to wonder whether we couldn't use those anti-lockdown protesters (the first of whom are already starting to show up in infection spikes) as vaccine test subjects. They don't seem to mind mixing and mingling with all and sundry. But then I realized: most of them are probably anti-vaxxers too...

The knotty problem of how to distribute a coronavirus vaccine

An interesting problem will arise if and when a working vaccine for COVID-19 is ever developed.
French pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi is one of the front-runners in the race to create a vaccine. The company's CEO Paul Hudson set off a fire-storm of outrage yesterday when he said, "The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it's invested in taking the risk". French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe shot back, "A vaccine against  COVID-19 should be a public good for the world. The equal access of all to the vaccine is non-negotiable." Which is just what the World Health Organization has been saying all along, as have most other civilized nations. Sanofi's public relations people then promptly walked back the CEO's comments, and assured everyone that its vaccine, when ready, will in fact be available to all coutries everywhere.
But, be that as it may, it all raises the valid question of just how that kind of equitable access would work in practice. Sanofi is a commercial company, and it will not be giving anything away. Will sub-Saharan Africa be able to pay for it? And how do we ensure that ALL countries receive some (there are around 200 countries in the world, depending on how you count them), particularly in the early stages? It will just not be possible to ship adequate supplies to the whole world simultaneously - it will take quite some time to manufacture them for one thing . So somebody (in fact, lots of somebodies) is going to have to wait and watch while others receive a vaccine before them, at least for a while, which could prove vexatious.
And just how will the vaccine get distributed? Alphabetically? Good for Afghanistan and Albania, not so good for Zambia and Zimbabwe. One dose for you, one dose for you, etc, etc, rinse and repeat 8 billion times? The logistics are just unfathomable.
Of course, it's a moot point right now, because we don't have a working vaccine yet and, the confident and optimistic spin of pharmaceutical companies and Donald Trump notwithstanding, it's probably going to be the best part of a year at the very earliest, and probably more like several years, before we do (if ever!). But I hope that someone somewhere is working on the knotty problems of mass production and distribution.

Canada fudges its chance to internationally recognize Taiwan

For the first time in an age, there are moves afoot to rehabilitate Taiwan's position on the world stage, specifically to include the country as an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), despite the strenuous objections of China, which considers Taiwan to be merely a wayward province of the greater One China.
Among many other countries, the USA is on board, and Canada is also on board, at least in principle. However, Canada was the only one of the countries calling for Taiwan's involvement in the WHA to qualify its statement by saying that it welcomes Taiwan's role in the meetings "as a non-state observer".
You could say that this is merely Canada being cautious and diplomatic in its relations with China. Or you could say that this is Canada being mealy-mouthed and missing a prime opportunity to advance the cause of brave little Taiwan's cause in the face of big bully brother China's continued insistance on its One China policy, a contention that Canada has apparently been happy to support since 1971.

UPDATE
It seems like the moment has now passed, and Taiwan were not actually invited to the WHA meeting. In doing so, WHO digs themselves still further into the big hole of soft-on-China allegations, and Taiwan returns to the wilderness of exclusion after an all-too-brief glimpse of another possible world.

Canada still performing poorly on the Energy Transition Index

The latest Energy Transition Index published by the World Economic Forum has Canada at a lowly 28th place, meaning we are just not doing enough to ready ourselves for a post-carbon world.
The 2020 Index, which essentially measures how prepared countries are to combat climate change, shows Scandinavian countries in an enviable lead, with the top 10 positions filled by Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Britain, France, Netherlands and Iceland, with Canada lurking in a distant 28th place, just above the United States (32nd). The Alberta oil sands are a big part - but by no means the only reason - of why Canada scores so poorly.

"Visit Blackpool" becomes "Do Not Visit Blackpool"

The British tourist town of Blackpool (yes, as in "Blackpool Rock") has resorted to desperate measures as Prime Minister Boris Johnson caves to pressure to start re-opening the British economy before the country is really ready. The Blackpool tourist office, known as "Visit Blackpool"  has rebranded itself on social media as "Do Not Visit Blackpool" in an attempt to actively discourage visitors as British lockdown restrictions are relaxed.
Mr. Johnson has ruled that, as of yesterday, people can now spend more time outdoors for leisure purposes, including sunbathing, and can travel any distance to do so. On the other hand, like many other places, the town of Blackpool prefers a more cautious approach, and is hoping to fully open up by July. Council leader Simon Blackburn says there's nothing he can do stop people from visiting, given Johnson's rash advice, but "absolutely nothing" will be open, neither attractions nor restaurants, so people should probably not bother. Even Blackpool hotels are saying that visitors should stay away for now.
According to the BBC, at least a couple of other English city councils have also rebranded themselves to discourage the tourist hordes: "Visit Chester" is now "Visit Chester (Soon)", and "Visit Liverpool" has become "Visit Liverpool Later".

Doug Ford resorts to barefaced lying on COVID testing

However you think Doug Ford has been doing throughout the COVID-19 outbreak - and many people have been pleasantly surprised, meaning that he has not been quite as awful as expected - it does seem like he is starting to unravel and reverting to form.
Take his comments the other day about Ontario's virus testing record. With a bluster worthy of Donald Trump and an equally Trumpian disregard for the facts, Ford claimed in a presser that, "We are leading the country now in tests per capita ... we are one of the leaders on testing globally, worldwide".
Er, no, Mr. Ford, we are in fact lagging badly. Ontario's testing rate is 31 per 1,000 population, better than it was, but still on a par with testing in the USA, which is being berated on all fronts for its poor testing performance (from all, that is, except Donald Trump, who is of course insisting that the US is the best in the world, but who believes that guy anyway?)
The rest of the world? Iceland's rate is 160 per 1,000 population(!), Lithuania 76, Denmark 62, Israel 56, Portugal 55, Belgium 54, Spain 53, Italy 45. Shall I go on?
Even within Canada, Ontario trails provincial and territorial leaders Alberta and Nunaut, which are both running tests at 44 per 1,000 population, as well as Nova Scotia (36) and Quebec (35), and it actually sits almost exactly on the Canadian average.
Why do political leaders do and say these things? They must know that, in this day and age, they will be fact-checked and called out. How is it in their interests to lie? Trump is a different case: lying is his MO, and he can apparently persuade his support base of anything if he says it often enough, and loudly and aggressively enough, and with enough conviction. But Ford is not in Trump's league, at least not yet. Let's just stick to the truth, shall we?
This comes hard on the heels of Ford's tone-deaf ignoring of his own social distancing rules when he invited his two daughters over for a Mother's Day celebration in direct contravention of the rules about different families mixing together.
Ford also seems to have drunk the Cool-Aid regarding the re-opening the province and relaxing some precautionary health restrictions, with an announcement today that Ontario will engage in "Stage One"of the province's re-opening plan, starting in just a few days time, even though Ontario's Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams is cautioning that Ontario is not yet in a position to proceed with even Stage One of a reopening: "We haven't had all those things come together yet where you would say that now we are ready to enter Stage One". So, Ford is going ahead, against the express advice of the province's top doctor. This will be interesting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Five clubs in one night? Is that normal?

The South Korean guy who single-handedly re-started Korea's COVID-19 outbreak, after they started to relax their lockdown, apparently visited no less than FIVE nightclubs in Seoul in one night with a friend, before testing positive for the virus the very next day. Korean medical authorities are attempting to trace an estimated 2,000 people the man had contact with over a six day period.
I'm sure he had missed clubbing very much during the lockdown, but FIVE clubs in one night!? Isn't that excessive? Or is that normal behaviour among clubbing type people? I really wouldn't know.

Pandemic could make climate worse not better

Handily proving the old adage that every cloud has a lead lining, we now learn that recent joy at the clearer skies and reduced air pollution throughout the world, as industry and transportation slow dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic, should be tempered by the fact that the clearer air and improved air quality could lead to higher temperatures in an already warming world, and even to heavier monsoon rains.
With fewer particles and polluting gases to block its path, more sunlight will be able to reach the earth's surface, and greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere will still block heat from dissipating back into space. The reduction in air pollution over northern India, which has seen its clearest skies in decades, may also have the effect of creating a more intense monsoon season.
All of this will happen relatively quickly compared to the gradual build-up of greenhouse gases over decades. On the other hand, the beneficial effect of reduced greenhouse gas production during the global slowdown is expected to be minimal. And, with most countries trying to re-open their economies as quickly as possible, we are likely to see a return to business-as-usual quite soon, so the coronavirus effect on greenhouse gases, while significant inthe short term, will probably be relatively shortlived and limited in its overall effect.
However, it is, of course, complicated. Climatologists caution that it will be very difficult to disentangle the climate effects of reduced air pollution from the random ups and downs of the weather due to various other reasons.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Wuhan to carry out 11 million tests in 10 days

The Chinese city of Wuhan, which has seen a small uptick in COVID-19 cases (6!) in recent days after many weeks of almost zero cases, is planning to test all 11 million residents within a space of 10 days, an almost unimaginable level of  public health intervention and assiduity, certainly unattainable here in the West.
Anywhere that can muster those kinds of resources stands a much better chance of being able to beat this virus that cities in the West, which are struggling to meet testing needs for even symptomatic and at-risk individuals.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether such a feat is even possible. And, if they say they've done it, should we believe them?

UPDATE
It turn out that, no, we can't believe them. Or at least someone somewhere got a bit over-optimistic with their PR. They are now saying that the tests won't all necessarily happen within the same 10-day period!

A question on everyone's mind in these trying times

I couldn't help but smile at a headline in the sports section of the paper today: "How will curling be affected by the coronavirus?" (That was the headline in the print edition anyway, it is different in the online version, as it so often is, for reasons I have never understood.)
Only in Canada, I thought.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Charging fees for online lottery purchases is a scam pure and simple

I'm glad it's not just me that has a beef about credit card companies charging additional fees for buying provincial lottery tickets online hete in Ontario. I had an argument with Royal Bank over this  very matter just a week ago, and there was an article in the Globe business pages just today indicating that many other people have been outraged by it too.
When you buy a lottery ticket at a corner store, you can use your credit card for the purchase, just as you can for pretty much anything else. It's just a product like any other. If you try to buy a lottery ticket online, through the OLG website - as many people have done in recent weeks in order to avoid risking contracting the coronavirus in a brick-and-mortar store - you can also pay by credit card. But when you check your credit card statement at the end of the month (you do all check your statements, don't you?), you will probably discover a bank charge next to the OLG charge ($3.50 in my case, although it can be as much as $5, depending on the bank).
When I asked the bank about it, I was told that this was a standard charge for online lottery transactions, because they are considered "cash-like transactions". Cobblers, I retorted (in a nice way), it's just a transaction like any other. The bank, probably sorely embarrassed by the whole thing, did not argue, and promptly credited my $3.50 back.
And so they should, because this is a scam pure and simple, and should be knocked on the head as soon as possible.

I should know better than to publicize anti-lockdown protests

It seems like even Australia is not exempt from wacko, extreme right-ring anti-lockdown protests. I say "even", not because Australia does not have an extreme right-wing element or because they are paragons of social responsibility and common sense, but because the country has had a reasonably easy time of the pandemic (fewer than 7,000 cases and 100 deaths), has generally handled it very well, and is already starting to relax its lockdown rules.
The largest protest this last weekend was in Melbourne, and it attracted a paltry 100 participants, so this is very much a tiny fringe group. But why is there ANY protest at all in a country that, like neighbouring New Zealand, has garnered accolades internationally for its prompt and sensible response to the coronavirus?
The answer is that anyone who has any extreme right or oddball views, or is prone to belief in any number of unrelated conspiracy theories, has latched on to the anti-lockdown protests as a means of publicly expressing views which would otherwise not be at all acceptable in polite society. Hence, they attract, in addition to pandemic deniers, general anti-vaxxers, gun rights supporters, believers in an international conspiracy to microchip citizens, those paranoid about contact tracing apps, 5G network health worriers, even people who just don't like Bill Gates. It has become a handy umbrella organization for all these lonely, angry people, and others with less specific anti-establishment beefs.
These "movements" usually also require the star power of a galvanizing leader to bring such disparate free spirits together, and to give them more social media traction than they deserve or would otherwise attract. In Australia's case, it is one-time celebrity chef and weight loss guru Fanos Panayides, who has been hitting Facebook many times a day to air inflammatory videos, including viral stunts like smashing his television (on the basis that television is just a government mind control conduit).
It's easy write off these protests as fringe events of little consequence. But they have a way of insinuating themselves into the public consciousness, and giving the impression that they are much more mainstream than they actually are. Witness the similar US protests that media outlets like Fox News have blown up out of all proportion. And I may even have been guilty of some of that myself by commenting on it and attempting to analyze it, rather than just shrugging and ignoring it.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Maybe it's (much) safer in a publicly-owned long-term care home

This is something I had been wondering about - given that long-term care homes have been the nexus for the vast majority (82%!) of deaths from COVID-19 in Ontario and in the rest of Canada, how is the death rate split between for-profit, not-for-profit and publicly-owned municipal care homes?
Ontario's care homes - and, I assume, those in the rest of Canada and most other countries too - are split between private and public facilities, and between for-profit and not-for-profit models, in an unregulated patchwork of systems. Luckily, somebody (namely, the Ontario Health Coalition) has done the leg-work in comparing the different models and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results are partly predictable and partly quite unexpected.
The death rate (number of deaths as a proportion of the total number of beds in facilities where at least one death has been reported) is MUCH worse in private for-profit care homes - 9%, compared to 5.25% in not-for-profits, and 3.62% in public municipal homes. Furthermore, the number of deaths is increasing faster in for-profit homes (followed, in the same way, by not-for-profit homes, and then publicly-owned homes).
These figures are quite stark. Although for-profit care homes might be "nicer" and have more facilities, it seems that, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, you might be better off in a public facility than a private one. It's not clear to me whether this is because their systems are better, or whether the staff in public homes are more dedicated. But it's certainly something I will remember when we eventually come to be looking for long-term care.
This study has also brought into sharp relief NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's push to bring all long-term care homes into public ownership, and to federally regulate them (there is currently no standardized system in Canada).

A seriously unstable Elon Musk strikes again

I seem to be devoting a disproportionate amount of this blog to Elon Musk, one way or another. But then I guess he is a very newsworthy guy. People say he's very clever, and he's certainly rich and successful, but he still seems to do and say some very stupid things.
The latest Musk stunt to hit the presses is that he so objects to the state of California interfering with his profit-making that he is seriously considering moving his entire Tesla operation out of Fremont, California, to a state more willing to accommodate his wishes.
The issue of course is that California is insisting that Tesla stay closed at least until the end of May, in accordance with the state's lockdown measures designed to slow the advance of the COVID-19 pandemic. Musk, none too concerned with the health and safety of his 10,000 or so workers, calls the decision "facist", a "serious risk" to US business, and "unconstitutional".
For now, Musk is insisting that he will reopen the plant next week, notwithstanding the state's ruling. If he is actively prevented from doing so, he says he will move the factory, lock, stock and barrel, to a more compliant and less regulated state like Texas or Nevada. This will, of course, cost the company millions and take an estimated 12-18 months. The actual Tesla employees are not quite so gung ho about returning to work in the midst of a pandemic, but feel they have to toe the line, even against their better judgement, or risk losing their jobs permanently.
So, rather than stay closed for another three weeks against his divine will, Musk is willing to do all this, and presumably lay off or physically move many thousands of workers in the process. If this is the action of an intelligent person, then it is not the action of a well-adjusted, mentally stable person? Oh, boy, no.

UPDATE
Stable or not, Musk may just have won this particular game of chicken. The San Francisco Bay Area authorities have blinked first, and have given the go-ahead for Tesla to officially re-open next week, subject to various worker safety precautions that the company has already agreed to.
So, we may never know whether Musk is actually crazy enough to follow through on his bizarre threats to relocate the whole company's US operations over a disagreement on the health of its workers. Only that he is crazy enough to threaten it.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

US-orchestrated coup attempt in Venezuela gets little attention

I know we happen to have a global pandemic ongoing at the moment, which is killing thousands of people all over the world, but I still find it surprising that the news of an American-based attempt to pull off a coup d'état in Venezuela has been quite so muted.
Granted, it wasn't a particularly effective or well thought out operation, and it foundered at pretty much the first hurdle, as two ex-US special forces soldiers and a rag-tag group of locals were pick up by Venezuelan security forces as they landed in Chuao, on the Venezuelan coast, in a fleet of battered fishing boats. It is being compared to the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961.
But the fact that American nationals were integrally involved, and the whole thing was planned and orchestrated by a third American, former US army staff sergeant Jordan Goudreau (actually also a Canadian national), should have set all sorts of bells ringing, I would have thought. Hell, one of the two American mercenaries captured even alleged he was acting under Donald Trump's instructions, although Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of course deny any "direct" government involvement (and the video confession was apparently heavily edited, and I suppose could conceivably have been deep-faked). It seems that Juan Guaidó, the Venezuela opposition leader recognized by the US and several other countries, probably knew about the planned attempt, but was not integrally involved in it.
Don't get me wrong, the debacle HAS been reported in the press. I would just have expected a bit more outrage and drama. But then, I guess we're all a bit distracted at the moment.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Sidewalk Labs' Toronto "smart city" development fades away

It looks like the much-touted and over-hyped Sidewalk Labs Quayside development on Toronto's harbourfront has finally died a death, fading away with neither a bang nor a whimper. Sidewalk Labs is blaming it on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the project has been beset with problems from the get-go.
I was never sold on the Google affiliate's sexy but vague plan to privately develop an under-utilized area of Toronto's waterfront into a "smart city", with promises of subterranean garbage robots, automatic data harvesting, and other innovative technological marvels. It was all very flashy and high-tech, but suspiciously vague and aspirational in many important areas, and replete with some alarming plans for digital surveillance and the privatization of self-evident public services and roles.
Techy creative types chastised Toronto's government for pussyfooting around and not having the "vision" to commit to such a grand innovative scheme. I, for one, as a Toronto tax-payer and potential harbourfront visitor, am grateful for our stodgy, reactionary city council for dragging their feet and not getting involved in an aspirational scheme rife unknown unknowns.

What are we to conclude from the Tara Reade affair?

I'm not a huge fan of Joe Biden, although I will get behind anyone, however imperfect, who stands a chance of defeating Donald Trump in the upcoming election. That is the overriding imperative right now. But how much are we willing to sacrifice for such an outcome?
The whole Tara Reade issue is a continuing thorn in the aide of the Biden campaign, and it has Democrats writhing in discomfort (and Republicans chortling with glee). What are we to think, and how are we to react to it? For the longest time, Biden himself refused to engage with the issue, but recently he has come out swinging and is vehemently denying the alleged incident ever happened.
So, we have a quintessential "he said, she said" situation, with "he" being a generally well-regarded establishment figure with a tendency towards touchy-feelyness, and "she" being an unknown woman in a subordinate position and now an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter. "He" has been suspiciously avoiding the issue for too long; "she" has a history of conflicting claims and inconsistent allegations (although, of course, we are told we must "believe women" in this post-#MeToo era).
Ms. Reade herself has said, "This is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about misuse of power", which does not fit at all with her later, more lurid, allegations. This Vox article gives a good idea of the to-ings and fro-ings involved over the years, and the extent to which the responsible press has tried to tease out the truth from it all. Bear in mind that the whole thing was nearly 30 years ago, and seems out-of-character and altogether bizarre.
The Biden campaign has now latched onto an in-depth New York Times article as proof positive of his innocence, and effectively a complete exoneration of his part in the affair. In fact, the article was nothing if the sort, merely another articulation of just how fraught and insoluble the case is. To characterize it as an exoneration is like Donald Trump insisting that the Mueller report completely exonerates him of any wrongdoing (it most certainly does not).
What are we left with, then? That something undesirable did occur 27 years ago, but the allegations are maybe exaggerated or misremembered? Not very satisfactory, to say the least. Ultimately, we are left with the feeling that Biden is not only wishy-washy but almost as sleazy as Trump, and Democrats (and American voters as a whole) must just hold their noses and vote him in as the least-bad choice, even if they do believe Ms. Reade. That certainly seems to be the conclusion many Democratic voters (including women) are coming to. Ah, democracy, it should not be like this.

How can a single tuna fish be worth $3 million?

Watching a David Attenborough (Our Planet -spectacular photography, never-before-observed behaviours, etc, etc, but man, I've seen just SO many nature documentaries now), there is some great footage of bluefin tuna hunting out in the open seas. A statistic was mentioned that a single bluefin tuna can be worth $1 million in the fish markets of Japan, which I had heard before, but still find it difficult to square with the fact that you can pick up a can of tuna at the local dollar store for a buck or two.
In fact, the most valuable bluefin tuna ever was sold for about $3 million (333.6 million yen) in 2019 in Tokyo. It was 278 kg (612 lb) a very big fish to be sure, but still not big enough for a couple of million cans. So, what gives?
The point is that it is not bluefin tuna that is used for commercial canned tuna, but albacore tuna, a much smaller, fast-growing, abundant fish. Skipjack and yellowfin tuna are also commonly-canned species of tuna. Bluefin tuna, on the other hand, is a much more exclusive ingredient used in high-end Japanese sushi restaurants, where it is known as kuro maguro. Different cuts have different appearances and oil contents, and apparently different tastes and textures (I don't know, I don't eat fish).
This is not the regular ahi tuna on the sushi menu, which is likely also albacore or yellowfin tuna, but the fancy stuff, for which you will be charged an appropriately inflated price, hence the high valuation of large bluefins in Japanese markets. Because they are so valuable, they have been overfished almost to extinction, and their conservation status is currently 'critically endangered', so you might want to avoid ordering it.
Incidentally, if you see "white tuna" (shiro naguro) being served in a sushi restaurant, also avoid it. There is no such thing as white tuna, and what you are bring served is probably oilfish, butterfish or escolar - fatty oily fish that are actually slightly toxic!

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Elon Musk and Grimes name baby something unpronounceable and illegal

I have never commented before on an article from People magazine - I have never before knowingly READ an article from People magazine - but this particular celebrity snippet was so outrageous as to merit comment.
I am out of the loop on these things, but apparently noted wacko Elon Musk has chosen to name his first-born X Æ A-12 (don't ask me how it is pronounced). The actual article is about girlfriend Grimes' tetchy response to Musk's correction of her explanation of the poor baby's name (which is even more ridiculous), but I won't belabour that. It's enough that Musk, a businessman and soi-disant eco-visionary, feels the need to join the ranks of other celebrities (whom I won't glorify by listing here) who have imposed ridiculous names on their progeny.
The state of California, which only allows names made up of the 26 letters of the alphabet, is very unlikely to accept it as a legal name. But the damage is done: the man is an idiot, visionary or not, and Grimes (whom I otherwise quite like) is an idiot for encouraging him. These people should not be trusted with the upbringing of new generations.

UPDATE
If you were worried for the sanity of these people, fear not - they have since changeedthe baby's name to the much more palatable, and slightly more legal, X Æ A-xii. Those Roman numerals make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

There may now be over 30 strains of COVID-19 ... or there may not

Viruses, particularly RNA-based viruses like coronaviruses, have a tendency to mutate. So, it's no surprise to find that COVID-19 now comes in a variety of different strains.
Back in early March, scientists in China were reporting that the virus had split into two separate strains, one more contagious than the other. Since then, I have seen claims of 3 strains, 8 strains, 14 strains.
Now, another Chinese study has identified over 30 different strains, which definitely does not bode well for the search for a vaccine. These different strains are found in different parts of the world, and some are more contagious than others, and some are more deadly than others. The most aggressive strains were found to be able to generate up to 270 times the viral load of the weakest. The deadliest mutations in the study were found in Europe, while the strains found across the USA were typically among the milder ones.
The study (still not peer-reviewed) points out that identifying the particular strain operating on a region could help determine the action required to fight it (currently all COVID cases are essentially treated alike). Any potential vaccines certainly need to take the different strains into account.
Other studies have pointed to at least two mutations of the spike proteins that the virus uses to latch onto and invade cells, which could have important implications for the way the virus spreads, and on the developnent of potential vaccines.
However, it is still not entirely clear that the virus has in fact mutated into significantly different forms, and some virologists believe that this kind of scientific scare-mongering is unjustified and counter-productive. Indeed, many scientists believe there is actually only ONE strain of the virus. Yes, like with all viruses, mutations have occurred as transcription errors accumulate over time. But for a new strain to be recognized the mutations need to be substantial, either in terms of the virus' tranmissibility, virulence, antigenicity or resistance. It has not been proven to the satisfaction of many that COVID-19 - which has been shown to have a much slower mutation rate than, say, the influenza virus - has actually branched into lineages that are materially different from the original.
So, although some of these reports about wildly mutating virus strains make for good sound-bites and dramatic newspaper articles, the reality, as Ed Yong explains in some detail in this Atlantic article, is that ... it's complicated.

Flying in a time of pandemic - not for me, thanks

Photos from a packed Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to London the other day has put air travel during the coronavirus outbreak well and truly in the crosshairs.
No social/physical distancing here, no masks, not even the offer of hand sanitizer. The same lines to board, the same scrum to retrieve bags from the overhead lockers at the end. In fact, no mention at all of any pandemic, either before, during of after the flight. I'm not surprised that the flight staff strongly discouraged the taking of photos on the flight.
Now, you could say that anyone with the poor judgement to want to fly at the moment deserves everything they get, but they probably expected a few more precautions once on board. Aer Lingus say they are reviewing their coronavirus procedures(!), but you might think they would have thought about that before the flight. And who are all these people who are that desperate to fly from Belfast to London anyway?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has come out in favour of the wearing of masks on flights (on a seven hour flight? including meals?), although for some reason it recommends against airlines leaving middle seats empty to encourage social distancing (ticket pricing considerations, perhaps?) But surely the constant air recirculation on planes would make any other precautions redundant. Although studies suggest that modern jet filters can screen out pathogens from the recycled air, I for one would not take that risk with this particular pathogen, and just being in an enclosed space with all those strangers seems like reason enough to avoid it. You certainly won't see me flying any time soon...

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Projections of US deaths double since states re-open their economies

So, go figure, a major epidemic model has just doubled its predictions of US deaths from the coronavirus, due to the unexpected early re-opening of economies and relaxation of pandemic precautions in many states.
The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is now predicting a death toll of 135,000, almost double previous projections, and it is blaming this on the easing of restrictions on commercial and social activities. That's an awful lot of deaths to weigh on the consciences of state decision-makers.
This should be a huge red flag for those red-neck states in the centre of the country who are doing most of the relaxation, in many cases against the recommendations of even the far-from-prudent Trump administration. But don't hold you breath. It should also be a red flag for Canadian provinces, which are also starting to open up, albeit a little more carefully.

Made-in-Madagascar herbal remedy for COVID-19 selling well

It's not often that Madagascar makes it into the main international news. We were in the country a year or two ago while it was undergoing crucial presidential elections, and it still barely made the BBC. And, when it does manage international attention, it is usually for all the wrong reasons (government corruption, deforestation of irreplaceable animal habitat, bubonic plague, etc).
The latest press coverage is another in that series. Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina is heavily promoting a made-in-Madagascar remedy for COVID-19 - a kind of herbal tea made from local ingredients including the artemisia plant. The herbal drink, selling under the name COVID-Organics or CVO, was "tested" on 20 people over three weeks, and President Rajoelina has declared himself well satisfied with it, even though some have complained that it is very bitter and leads to stomach upsets.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Madagascar Institute of Health has warned against the magic remedy, saying that it is unproven and potentially dangerous, as has the World Health Organization, which warns that such a product may detract from proven methods like social distancing and hand-washing while offering no real clinical advantage.
But several African countries have already signed on to the remedy, excited by the prospect of a potentially "world-saving" made-in-Africa solution to the pandemic, and by President Rajoelina's strong personal endorsements. Madagascar is currently shipping the drink to Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Comoros and the Republic of Congo, all countries that can ill-afford to let yet another virus run rampant through their people, and all countries that have poor health facilities and almost non-existent coronavirus reporting capabilities.