Friday, August 14, 2020

Are stock market investors completely out to lunch?

I know I have talked about this before, but this week's figures have thrown it into even sharper relief. The S&P 500 stock index has just reached the record levels it last achieved in February of this year. Other stock markets are also looking pretty rosy, even if not quite to the same extent.
So, the stock markets are at record highs even though millions of Americans are out of work, and smaller companies (and even many bigger ones) are struggling to stay afloat. It all seems very wrong. But, as this article notes, "The stock market is not the economy".
Family restaurants, hair salons and pet stores are not listed on the stock market; big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook are (in fact, those five companies alone make up 22% of the S&P 500's total value). And those big tech companies have done pretty nicely out of the pandemic, thank you very much.
The other thing is that stock markets tend to reflect how the business community thinks the future will go, not necessarily how things are at the moment. So, the S&P's 34% plunge started on February 19th, well before the USA went into lockdown, based on future expectations. By the same token, if investors think that the future will be an improvement over what we have now - and God knows, it couldn't be a lot worse - then prices will tick upwards.
So, it doesn't necessarily mean that American and Canadian investors are completely out to lunch. But it does mean that they are way more optimistic about a vaccine, the potential for international travel, and the way the general economy is going to go over the next several months than I am.

What are all these wacky craft beers?

Walking into a beer store used to be a pretty straightforward proposition. Since the much-vaunted "craft beer revolution", though, life has become much more complicated. There are thousands of craft beers to choose from now, coming to us from thousands of tiny unknown breweries, that seem to breed and multiply by the hour.
And it's not just different breweries: there are now a whole host of different kinds of beers, with names that may mean little or nothing to most of us regular folks. Saison? Gose? Radler?
The internet is full of beer. There are detailed guides like this one that list a ridiculous 75 dfferent styles of beer, or more general guides like this one from Time magazine. I'm just going to touch on a few that I happen to have noticed and occasionally been confused by. Read on.
  • Dark Lager: a lager is usually a pale-coloured, bottom-fermenting beer (i.e. the yeast accumulates at the bottom), considered an easy introduction to beer-drinking, as compared to the darker, more complex, stronger-flavoured, top-fermemting ales. Lager is "lagered", i.e. matured for weeks or months at near-freezing temperatures to give it the crisp, clean taste that lager-drinkers expext. Dark lager (Dunkel in Germany) is just a lager that looks more like an ale, but without all that challenging and confusing complexity.
  • Bock: a dark, malty, lightly-hopped style of lager from Germany, with a dark amber to brown colour, and a higher alcohol content than most lagers.
  • India Pale Ale: IPA is the archetypical "difficult" beer: strong-tasting, high-alcohol, often very bitter and/or hoppy, and it comes in a huge variety of different brands and flavours and finishes. English-style IPA (as opposed to English Pale Ale!) tends to be even maltier and bitterer, while American-style IPA (which comes in New England and West Coast styles, just to confuse things) is typically fruitier snd less bitter. But still complex and "difficult". If you want extra difficulty, go for an unfiltered IPA, which is cloudy, extra-strong-tasting, and usually ridiculously strong
  • Pale Ale: not necessarily the same as IPA, pale ales like American Pale Ale, English Pale Ale, American Blonde Ale, American Amber Ale, even English bitter, are hoppy and malty, but medium-bodied and relatively easy to drink. But ... they can be dry-hopped, double dry-hopped, single hopped, fresh hopped, imperial, fruited, "milk-shake", brettanomyces-yeasted ... it's complicated.
  • Session ale: a lower-alcohol IPA, with plenty of flavour but less alcohol (although still usually around 4-5%), allowing you, I suppose the derivation is, to have a good old session without getting too drunk. Not too strong, not too bitter, not too hoppy, not too malty - Goldilocks ale.
  • English Bitter: confusingly, often not particularly bitter at all, English or British Bitter is actually a kind of Pale Ale. In England, Bitter is the alternative to lager, and considered both more of a working man's drink and also a more cultured, gastronomic choice. Confused? Yeah, me too. But that's partly because it covers a bewildering number of different ales, ranging from the sweet to the sour to the bitter to the hoppy to the strong to the downright anodyne. The point seems to be that it is some sort of ale made in England.
  • Saison: not to be confused with Session ale (saison is French for "season", not "session"), Saison is a refreshing, highly-carbonated, fruity, spicy beer. Traditionally, it used to be low in alcohol, but these days it is more likely to be medium, even high, in alcohol.
  • Pilsener: I always thought Pilseners were just Eastern European lagers, but apparently they are closer to a pale ale, but crisp and drinkable. Czech Pilseners tend to be darker and more bitter than German ones.
  • Stout: surprisingly sweet, black-coloured beer that is thick and creamy, stout is not as "difficult" as you might think. American stouts tend to be stronger, bitterer, hoppier and maltier (i.e. less stout-like) than the original Irish and English stouts.
  • Porter: very dark in colour, like stout, due to common ingredients like dark-roasted malt and (yes) chocolate, porter tends to be more chocolatey and less coffee-y than stout. And yes, we are still talking about beer.
  • Belgian beer: there is a whole category of beer called "Belgian", because it comes from, well, Belgium, but this can encompass anything from pale ale to dark ale to fruity wheat beers to sours, so it is not a very useful label. Supposedly, Belgian beers are fruity, spicy and sweet, with high alcohol contents and low bitterness, but in practice there is a huge variety of tastes. Trappist beers, made by Trappist monks in Belgium, are very popular but very strong and definitely "difficult".
  • Wheat beer: "witbier" in Belgian or "Weißbier"  German, wheat beer uses malted wheat instead of malted barley as the main ingredient (or a combination of the two), giving it a light, almost bready, flavour, and typically low alcohol levels, making it a good light summer quaff, especially when combined, as they often are, with citrus and other fruits.
  • Sour ale: sours are, yes, sour and citrussy, and increasingly popular in North America. Even my daughter likes them. Their tartness comes from the encouragement of "wild yeasts" and bacteria, usually discouraged in the normal beermaking process, as they are fermented in open barrels, in order to create more acidity (lactic, acetic, citric) in the brew.
  • Gose: not a new beer at all, but newly-trendy, gose (pronounced goes-ah) is a millenium-old German style of sour wheat beer that has added salt and coriander to produce a slightly spicy sour beer that some find refreshing and others find absolutely disgusting.
  • Lambic: a beer from (where else?) Belgium, lambic - and the related gueuze, kriek and framboise styles, the latter fermented using raspberries - is a kind of sour ale, relatively light on the alcohol, cloudy, with a "thick mouthfeel". Often described as "funky".
  • Radler: considered by some to be not beer at all, but a species of pop, radler is the German equivalent of English shandy (beer mixed with English-style lemonade, which of course is not actually lemony). It is beer liberally mixed with citrus fruit juice, usually grapefruit, to give a refreshing summery drink with a low alcohol content of 2-4%.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Trump's USPS shenanigans still has the power to shock

I'm not sure why anything that Donald Trump does still has the power to shock, after all the shocking things he has done thus far, but his open admission that he is starving the US Postal Service (USPS) of needed funds in a deliberate attempt at voter suppressionhas done just that: shocked me.
In an interview on Fox Business, Trump admitted that he is holding back funding of USPS in order to thwart Democrat efforts to have widespread mail-in ballots for the November federal election. He is doing this because he has convinced himself, improbably and inexplicably, that mail-in voting somehow benefits Democratic Party at the expense of the Republicans, and that, equally inexplicably, it is a source of wholesale electoral fraud (although the latter seems to be a lesser problem for him).
This kind of open tinkering with the democratic process is something you might expect from Turkmenistan or Belarus. But it retains its power to shock when we see it a suposedly civilized and democratic country, as we still think of the USA.

Why should we care about rare earth metals?

For decades now, China has had a stranglehold on the production of rare earth metals, and it is far from clear how the rest of the world is going to ever break that stranglehold. But as we have seen repeatedly, over-reliance on China is always a bad idea, and breaking that stranglehold is probably in everyone's (but China's) interests.
Rare earth metals or elements are a group of 17 broadly similar metals that have unique properties making them uniquely useful for a range of commercial purposes, particularly in the technology sector, and even more particularly in military and "clean" technologies. Mobile phones, wind turbines, electric cars, light bulbs, solar panels, high-temperature magnets, lasers, fibre optics, MRI machines, and military drones all use them to some extent. They are used for polishing optical-quality glass, for air pollution control, for illuminated screens on electronic devices, and many other essential 21st century uses.
Most of the names may not mean much to you: cerium, dysprusium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. Although not actually rare in the global scheme of things, it is rare to find them in economically-extractable quantities, and they are produced in vanishingly small amounts compared to more mainstream mining products like copper or zinc.
Up until the 1980s, the USA was the main producer, but in the 1990s Chinese production surged, and today China produces around 80% of the world's output, mainly in the Inner Mongolia region, followed by the USA and Australia. China also has by far the greatest reserves, followed by Brazil, Vietnam, Russia, India, Australia and Greenland (see why Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland now?)
In order to compete against China on the uneven playing field they have built up over the years, Western countries are going to have to beat China at their own game, with government intervention and capital commitment on a large scale to beef up their industries in order to compete. Chinese rare earth companies, with state help, can produce at prices low enough to drive most competitors out of business.
Companies (and consumers) that use rare earth metals may also have to suck it up and pay more for their supplies, or possibly even accept compromises on the environmental front, which would be an unfortunate development. A substantial proportion of China's production comes from small, rural and illegal opertions with little or no environmental regulation, and even its main official production in Inner Mongolia has led to major environmental damage and degradation. By its very nature, rare earth mining produces a lot of toxic and radioactive wastewater and tailings, which can leach acids, heavy metals and radioactive elemwnts into the groundwater.
Another avenue to explore is the recycling of rare earths from existing products, an area that Japan in particular is pursuing. There are challenges, but as prices of rare earths rise, recycling is becoming an increasingly economical option.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Retirement homes? Long-term care homes? Nursing homes? Confused?

While we're on the subject of clinics and healthcare, I had to do a bit of research on long-term care homes and retirement homes. This was not in the context of COVID-19 and the fact that the vast majority of Canada's pandemic deaths have been in care homes, but in relation to a friend who is probably going to have to make that decision sometime soon (yes, I've got to the age where friends are going into care...), and I realized that I really didn't know the difference between a retirement home and a nursing home and an assisted living home, etc, etc.
I found a good basic resource and ascertained that therefore are three main categories of senior care:
  • Long-term Care Homes - also called nursing homes (which I think is more of a British term), these are group homes where seniors can live and receive 24/7 nursing and personal care, inclusing help with daily activities like eating snd bathing. These are more suited to people with more severe needs who are not able to direct their own care. Costs vary depending on whether the rooms are private, semi-private or basic (3-4 people per room), and short-stay terms are also offered. The government covers the costs of the actual nursing and personal care; residents just pay the accommodation costs.
  • Retirement homes - privately-paid residenc for seniors who can direct their own care. Best for people wbo want to maintain a reasonably independent lifestyle in a safe, comfortable home-like atmosphere, but who need a bit of help with their daily living activities. They typically don't provide 24-hour nursing services, but they do usually provide two or more of: meals, bathing assistance, help with medications, incontinence care, early-stage dementia care, some nursing. doctor and pharmacy services. Within the retirement home category, though, there are four main types of care available: Independent Supported Living: a home-like environment, with the option for extra services as needed (charged separately); Assisted Living: a home-like environment with some care services (e.g. dressing, bathing, grooming and medication) included in the price, and others available at an additional cost; Specialized Dementia Care: the retirement home experience with extra services included (e.g. social, recreational and fitness activities) for those with mild dementia; Short-term Stay: for those who want to try out retirement living first, or for those leaving hospital needing a bit of extra help for a short while. Typically, retirement homes are a bit more expensive than long-term care homes, and Assisted Living (and Dementia Care in particular) are even more expensive.
  • Home Care - living at home and having a care provider visit your home regularly to offer healthcare-related services like personal support, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social work, meal preparation, wound dressing, dietetics, nursing, etc. This is usually a cheaper option than long-term care homes or retirement homes, but is only suitable for someone that is still reasonably independent and largely able to manage their own care.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How is it legal to have private clinics in Canada?

We have been looking into private clinics here in Toronto, to extend the options for our daughter, who has been to a succession of public system doctors and specialists over the years, and still lacks a definitive diagnosis and treatment for her (rather obscure) problem.

Both she and I are a little shamefaced about this, as we both harbour some generalized left-wing misgivings about private medicine, and believe that healthcare should be free and universal, as indeed it is here in Canada. And yet there ARE peivate clinics here in Ontario, and in most other provinces. How is this possible? How is it legal?

Saskatchewan introduced a universal hospital care plan back in 1947, but it was not until the 1984 Canada Health Act that private healthcare aas effectively outlawed throughout the country, mainly to guard agaist the wave of extra billing, user fees and copays that swept the country in the 1970s. However, it turns out that there is no blanket ban on private medicine in Canada, and technically any doctor that wants to set up a private practice can do so, provided they completely opt out of the public system. They must choose one or the other. The Canada Health Act seeks to remove any conflicts of interest (e.g. the temptation to siphon patients away from the public practice to their more lucrative private practice). In addition, most provinces ban private health insurance, making it difficult for a private sector doctor to find business, and some provinces also restrict private doctors from charging more for procedures than they can charge under the provincial healthcare plan.

However , there is a small Canadian private sector for medically necessary healthcare, estimated at aroud 1%, and many doctors are agitating for a more Euroean-style hybrid system. Because they are operating in something of a legal grey zone, private clinics tend to open up up quietly, and fly as far as possible under the radar of the press.  I was actually surprised at the choice that was available to us, right here in Toronto. I still don't really understand how they are able to offer these services privately - it is not really something that the piblic system is not able to offer (unless you argue that their ability to offer a complete 5-hour medical assessment, complete with immediate medical tests, snacks and gourmet coffee, is something the public system cannot offer, limited as they are to ten minute consultations by harrassed, overworked doctors).

Defenders of the single-tier system argue that expanding private medicine would siphon talent and resources away from the country's already over-stretched public health system (although that's actually not what has happened in European countries with two-tier systems). Some argue that private healthcare clinics tend to push unnecessary, even dangerous, testing, although it is not quite clear what the evidence is for that.

Proponents of a two-tier system counter that allowing those who can pay to take advantage of private medicine would free up more space in the public system for everyone else, resulting in shorter wait times for everyone. They point out that the existence of private clinics does not violate the principle of universal healthcare for everyone regardless of incomes, it is merely supplementary. They say they offer managed and preventative healthcare, rather than reactive event-based care, like in the public sector. They also give examples of people whose medical problems have become worse while they waited for procedures in the public sphere, in some cases leading to deaths, deaths that could have been avoided by the existence of private clinics with lower wait times. 

You can kind of see both sides of the argument, and you can also see where the arguments fall down. The bottom line, though, for us at least, is that, if the public system has let us down in this particular case, then we will explore all available alternatives, principles be damned. And, luckily for us, we can pay. Most of our dealings with public healthcare have been excellent, I would say, but we will do what we need to in order to safeguard the health of our family, even (God forbid!) to travelling to the States if need be.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The pandemic will probably mean global population peaks even lower

Whenever there is a major catastrophe or a persistent power failure or even just a big winter storm, there is often a kind of conventional wisdom, often accompanied by adolescent sniggers of the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more, squire" variety, that "Oho, in nine months' time, there will be a baby boom".
But in fact, studies show that the precise opposite is true: major blackouts and closed borders actually result in a baby bust as families think twice about bringing a new life into an uncertain and possibly hostile world. And the extended COVID-19 lockdown is expected to have this effect is spades. In fact, it could well have a material impact on the world's population as a whole. A Brookings Institute study suggests that up to half a million planned children will not be born in America alone, as parents delay increasing their families during uncertain financial times. Furthermore, once delayed, most of those babies will NEVER be realized. As the article expresses it, "A baby not born during a downturn stays unborn".
The newer population models are much less apocalyptic than older ones anyway, as I have already discussed in a previous post. Current predictions of global population see our present 7.8 billion increasing to just 9, maybe 10, billion by mid-century, before falling. As education and access to contraception for women (and for racial minorities) continue to improve, women are choosing to have fewer children, and to have them later in life. Most countries already  have a birth rate below replacement levels, and the others are expected to join them in the coming decades.
Millennial and Gen Z women are already having much fewer babies than even the models anticipated, and the pandemic will only exacerbate this effect. The long-term effects of all this on climate change and the environment (positive) and on society and the world's economy (probably negative) should be interesting to observe for our kids, and maybe even for some of us.

Was the Nagasaki bombing (or Hiroshima, for that matter) really necessary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world's second nuclear bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9th 1945. The first was dropped three days earlier, on August 6th 1945, on Hiroshima. The first one killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people, and the second between 39,000 and 80,000.
I have often wondered whether, even if the first bomb was justifiable as a "shock and awe" tactic that ultimately shortened the war and saved many lives overall (and that's a big if), was the second one necessary at all?
An interview with q Japanese historian and the daughter of two hibakusha (survivor of the nuxlear blasts) has made me seriously doubt that, and the argument is not the usual one about the horrors of war and the immorality of death on such a huge scale, but a strategic argument about the military history of the times.
It's no secret that Japan officially surrendered on August 15th 1945, just 6 days after the Nagasaki bombing, and Emperor Hirohito apparently came to the decision as early as August 10th, the day after Nagasaki, so it is easy to conclude that the surrender was a direct result and consequence of the bombing(s). What I hadn't realized, though, is that, at midnight on August 8th, i.e. between the two bombings, and just hours before the second bomb was dropped, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
Many (non-American) historians feel that the entry of Russia into the fray was more important in the Japanese decision to surrender than the American bombs. After the Hiroshima bomb, Japanese leaders had already started seeking Soviet mediation in talks with the US aimed at bringing hostilities to a close, and when the Soviets declared war, that was seen as the end of any possible mediation process, and the final nail in the coffin of Japan's war effort. The Nagasaki bomb, and maybe also the Hiroshima one, it is argued, was therefore redundant, and more of a war crime than a saving grace.
It's not clear to me to what extent the Americans were aware of the Soviet situation, and we should probably remember that communications were not as efficient in those days as they are now, but hell, they had phones didn't they? It potentially puts a while new complection on the final events of the war, doesn't it? But I suppose we will never really know.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Are there three or four centibillionaires?

There are now three centibillionaires in the world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has breached the $100 billion threshold, to join Bill Gates ($120 billion) and Jeff Bezos ($190 billion), to become only the third person in the exclusive club of those who are worth over $100 billion.
Interestingly, about a year ago, French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault was in the news as having achieved membership of the centibillionaire club (along with Gates and Bezos). Does this mean that Arnault has since dropped out of the club? Or is it just that Europeans don't count for some purposes? Or that only tech billionaires count? Or are there actually FOUR members of the club?
Well, it turns out that Arnault WAS actually the richest man in the world (even richer than Bezos), at least for a short time in January 2020. But then the pandemic struck, and Bezos, Gates and Zuckerberg made out like bandits, which Arbault suffered big-time, and by August 2020 his net worth was down to a measly $80.2 billion. So, no longer a centibillionaire.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Why (and how) flies fly like they fly

I was idly watching a housefly the other day - yes, a pandemic will do that to you! - and wondering why they fly like they do, i.e. jerkily, and apparently aimlessly and randomly.
First, a note about how flies fly. Most insects have two pairs of wings, which they move together in unison (in the case of bees and butterflies, the two pairs of wings are actually hooked together so that they move as one). True flies, though, have only two functional wings - they belong to the order diptera meaning two wings. The other pair of wings have shrunken over evolutionary time into two white drumstick-shaped organs called "halteres", which function as gyroscopes, measuring torque and angular momentum around the body. These halteres move in opposition (antiphase) to the front wings, attached mechanically to their respective wings, which is facinating to watch in slow motion.
Mechanically, video and modelling has shown that flies flap their wings over 200 times a second, generating enough force to move them and to react to changes extremely quickly, partly by flapping their wings in a way that creates something called a "leading edge vortex", a tornado-like phenomenon that creates enough force to stay in the air.
Why, though, do they fly in such an apparently erratic manner? This is mainly because they can only fly in straight lines, not curves, punctuated by rapid 90° turns called "saccades". They are not able to flap one wing faster or harder than the other in order to make turns, so they must roll their body to one side and pull up quickly, in a momentary spinning freefall, before re-engaging normal forward motion, rather like a fighter pilot in a high-G turn.
And their flight paths are far from random. They are actually an "optimal scale-free searching strategy". "Scale-free" in this context means that their flight path appears similar whether viewed up close or from a distance, like a fractal pattern. The searching, whether for food or mates, is also intermittent, in that they fly in (non-searching) straight lines and only re-engage search mode again every now and then when they make turns.
They are also making "on-the-fly" changes in direction to avoid crashing into objects and to avoid possible predators. Their small bodies, even their wings, are studded with sensors, and their complex eyes are simple but very efficient and give them an almost 360° view. Flies only have tiny brains composed of tiny neurons, but they do the limited number of things they are programmed to do very well and very quickly. If threatened with a fly-swatter, for example, a fly's brain calculates the location of the threat, works out an exit strategy, and position its legs or body ready for action, all with 100 milliseconds.
There is also evidence that flies also incorporate both visual cues and a sense of smell in their flight patterns. Furthermore, their apparently erratic and random flight paths actually follow a mathematical algorithm known as Lévy's distribution - kind of like sniffing, aseessing whether they are getting "warmer or colder", turn 90°, continue and repeat - which optimizes their chances of locating food or a mate.
So, it might all look pretty random and pointless, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
All of this, fascinating as it is, led me to one last question: do flies, and other tiny animals perceive time differently than we do? It seems like the smaller the beastie, the faster they do things (includimg reacting to fly swatters). Is that because time works differently for them? Do they see us as great lumbering hunks operating and moving incredible slowly?
Well, unlikely though it may seem, research suggests that they probably do. In fact, time perception appears to be directly related to size. The smaller an animal is, the faster its metabolic rate, and the slower time passes for it. Flies, for example, can perceive light flickering four times faster than we can.
So, there you go. Flies. Not just annoying pests. Well, mainly just annoying pests...

What has the Facebook ad boycott actually achieved?

The #StopHateForProfit campaign, organized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in the USA, managed to persuade a lot of very large and influential corporations (including Disney, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, McDonalds, Unilever, and over 1,000 others) to withold their advertising from Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram for the month of July in order to pressure the social media giant to do something about its lax policies on hate, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism and violence. Several Canadian companies also signed on to the campaign, including all five big banks, Lululemon, Mountain Equipment Coop and others.
Most of these companies have now re-started their Facebook ads and have returned to business as usual, including the Canadian banks. Unilever and Clorox committed from the start to boycotting to the end of the year, and Coca-Cola, Smuckers, Mars, Diageo, HP, CVS Health, Verizon and others have said they will continue to withold their advertising. In Canada, MEC and Moosehead Breweries have vowed to continue the campaign. 
But was all this just a cynical exercise in public relations that cost the companies very little, and that had very little effect on Facebook, which made nearly $5.2 billion in profits on advertising last quarter, up 98% from a year earlier? Financial analysts suggests that the concrete impact of the boycott will be "minimal", amounting to maybe $100 million (yes, that's "minimal" to Facebook).
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg certainly did not seem particularly put out by the campaign, quipping that the advertisers "will be back on the platform soon enough". But the public exposure of the campaign was enough for him to bring in some specific changes: the hiring of a "civil rights executive", the establishment of a team to study algorithm bias, the release of the results of a civil rights audit, the removal of content from hateful movements and problematic groups, and the conducting of an independent audit of hate content.
This all sounds quite impressive (although ADL Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt insists that the platform remains a "cesspool" of bigotry). Does this mean that the campaign was a success, though? Campaign organizers say that it "exceeded expectations", but that they are dissatisfied with Facebook's reponse, and have vowed to continue the campaign, albeit with a reduced roster of participants. Greenblatt says he expects to see "the movement get bigger and broader", but I think he may be overly optimistic (or just talking up a good game).
I know it is a tall order for a platform of the size and breadth of Facebook to police every post from every subscriber. It's tough to even identify hateful or deliberately misleading content, and to know just how gullible the general public is, and how susceptible they are to falsehoods and conspiracy theories. But, as Spiderman knew, with great power comes great responsibility, and the jury is still out on whether Facebook has done even the bare minimum to counteract the huge negative influence it has had for years on the more suggestible parts of its user base.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Monarchs, viceroys, mimicry, predation and misconceptions

I'm getting much better at identifying viceroy butterflies, as opposed to the very similar monarch. Viceroys are noticeably smaller, and they have a tell-tale thin black stripe towards the back of the hindwing.


You probably know that viceroys are regarded as mimics of monarchs, which are distateful to most potential predators due to their diet of milkweed plants as caterpillars. Incidentally, milkweed - and therefore the monarch that feeds on it - is not actually poisonous, as it is often portrayed, it is just very bitter and unpleasantly.
Except that ... I found out recently that it is not quite as simple as that (of course it isn't!) It was long thought that viceroys were an example of "Batesian mimicry", mimicry in which an edible animal is protected by its resemblance to a noxious one that is avoided by predators. However, it turns out that the viceroy caterpillars feed on willows, poplars and cottonwoods that are also very bitter and avoided by avian predators. This is therefore an example of Müllerian mimicry, a form of mimicry in which two or more noxious animals develop similar appearances as a shared protective device. (Müllerian mimicry is named after the German naturalist Fritz Müller; Batesian mimicry is named after the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates).
And talking of misconceptions, we learned while visiting the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico earlier this year that not all predators avoid monarchs: spiders, fire ants, some birds and wasps are all happy to indulge in a bitter meal from time to time at various points in the monarchs' peregrinations, while in the Mexican sanctuaries themselves they are still at risk of predation from black-eared mice, black-backed orioles and black-headed grosbeaks. I wonder what the "black" connection is?

A few mysteries surrounding the Beirut explosion

The huge explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon yesterday was a disaster the unfortunate country could ill-afford to experience, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread unabated there, the economy is already in freefall, and daily protests and riots rock the country. The death toll is currently about 135 (and will almost certainly rise), with some 5,000 injured, and almost half the city was damaged to some degree. An estimated 300,000 people have been made homeless by the explosion. The blast was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, nearly 200km away. Local authorities say it was almost certainly an accident, although the exact chain of events remains mysterious.
I have seen various pictures of the devastation which show a huge structure apparently largely undamaged amid the rubble of the rest of the port area.


I guess it is some sort of grain storage silo, although on some pictures it looks suspiciously like a monolithic natural rock formation of some kind, particularly on the small screen of a phone. How did such a large, and apparently hollow, structure survive more or less intact when all around it was reduced to sticks and stones? It is kind of like the buildings that survived Hiroshima.
Secondly, why was 2,750 tonnes of explosives being stored in an area surrounded by businesses and people anyway? The chemical that exploded in such a dramatic fashion was ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer as well as a main ingredient in mining explosives. It had apparently been sitting unsecured in a warehouse for over six years. Why? Who owned it? Why was it not used for anything over a period of six years? And such a large amount.. ?
Well, get this: the original shipment was owned by a Russian national, last known to be resident in Cyprus, and since disappeared completely; the ship was registered in Moldova; the crew was largely Ukrainian; and the ship was en route from a port in Georgia to Mozambique! If that doesn't give some idea of how dodgy the whole transaction was, nothing will. The ship was impounded in Beirut as unsafe, and forbidden from sailing further (this was in November 2013), and he crew abandoned it and disappeared (although a few remained trapped on it for up to a year!) After a court order, the ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse in the port area of Beirut, and has been there ever since, supposedly pending auction or some other disposal.
Why did it explode? Interestingly, ammonium nitrate is not an explosive in its own right, and should have remained relatively stable under most cirumstances. Rather, it is an "oxidizer" which makes fires and explosions more intense. It only becomes highly explosive itself if contaminated, such as with oil, or in some other "extreme circumstances". Or, presumably, a fire (see below).
And why was someone filming the whole thing? My understanding is that there was a fire already burning in the area that was pumping out significant amounts of smoke, and that is what was being filmed by amateurs at the time. It was therefore (almost) completely coincidental that the explosion itself was caught on film. A fire would also be what was needed to ignite the otherwise relatively stable ammonium nitrate (see above).
And a final mystery: why does Donald Trump open his mouth before engaging what remains of his brain? He immediately called the blast a "terrible attack", likely caused by a bomb. "I met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was." Ah, well, there you go then. Thanks for that Mr. Trump and "great generals". You've really helped the situation.

WE Charity's corporate sponsors cut them loose before any irregularities are proven

Despite the lack of direct evidence of financial irregularities coming out of the parliamentary investigation of WE Charity, Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau, WE's corporate sponsors are cutting ties in droves, just in case, not wanting to be seen publicly supporting a possibly suspect corporate citizen in today's judgemental culture. The Royal Bank of Canada is the latest major sponsor to cut them loose, following Loblaws, Virgin, Telus, Goodlife, KPMG and the Globe and Mail out of the door. Westjet and DHL are said to be considering their options as we speak. These companies are not even bothering to wait to see what comes of the federal Ethics Commissioner's investigation. No detailed explanations have been forthcoming.
So, why are so many companies abandoning WE Charity in their hour of need, like rats from a sinking ship. It all comes back to that ultra-judgemental corporate climate I have mentioned before in this blog, and what has been labelled in recent years as "cancel culture", a public withdrawal of support from a person or organization that has gained the reputation, whether deserved or not, of being socially unacceptable or objectionable in some way. It often leads to an unofficial assumption of "guilty until proven innocent", which is not how things are supposed to work in Western democracies.
And that seems to be exactly what has happened here. It may yet come out in this political witch hunt against the federal Liberals that WE Charity is guilty of more than just a bit of financial sloppiness and a somewhat cavalier attitude towards contract law and organizational structure. But that has not happened yet, and all those corporate sponsors that are so frantically distancing themselves from WE are arguably guilty of sanctimoniousness and excessive prudence, as well as a tendency to throw partners under the bus at the first sign of trouble.

Trudeau/Morneau investigation turns into a witch hunt

It has probably not escaped your notice that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau are both under investigation for conflict of interests due to their, and their families', dealings and connections with WE charity.
The two main opposition parties are making a big production of the public inquiry. Pierre Poliévre and Charlie Angus in particular seem intent on dragging the charity through the mud, as well as scoring a few cheap political points against the Liberals. Poliévre - "the Tory pit bull", as I have seen him described - in particular has been really aggressive, disrespectful and downright nasty in his questioning. Luckily, thumbscrews are not politcally acceptable these days. Charlie Angus has been just his usual dogged, doctrinaire self.
Should Trudeau and Morneau have recused themselves from the cabinet vote on the program? Possibly, although a billion dollar contract in which neither the Prime Minister nor the Finance Minister were integrally involved would be a very unusual situation, and really neither they nor members of their families would obtain any financial advantage from the contract, and neither minister has any social ties to the Kielbergers (again contrary to what opposition politicians are alleging).
Thus far, though, the bottom line is that WE has not been shown to have done anything illegal or even immoral and neither have the politicans involved. So far, WE's evidence has not given Poliévre and Angus much satisfaction at all: everything the charity has done seems to have been above board and for the right reasons. As witch hunts go, it has been a pretty dismal affair (not to mention expensive and a huge distraction from the pressing matters all around us).

Is WE Charity really as bad as the press makes out?

WE Charity is in deep water, there's no doubt about that. You can't fail to have heard that an investigation is still ongoing into the international development and youth empowerment charity (and its commmercial arm, ME to WE Social Enterprises, which turns about half of its profits over to the charity) over its part in a controversial, now cancelled, $912 million student volunteer program called tge Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) for the federal governmentm
WE itself stood to make $43.5 million from its administration of the project against which it could set its costs - this is NOT the government handing over nearly a billion dollars to WE Charity as some of its detractors try to disingenuously suggest. Under the CSSG program, as many as 100,000 Canadian students stood to make up to $5,000 for a summer of volunteer work, in a pandemic-hit summer where other casual work has all but dried up.
WE already has a bad rep in some circles. There is a perception that it is perhaps not the most efficient charity in terms of bang for your buck, and yet it earns an overall A- grade (A+ for fundraising efficiency and charity efficiency, although only B+ for "social results transparency") in Macleans Top Rated Charities guide, and it does meet the BBB Wise Giving Alliance's 20 Standards for Charity Accountability, which is more than some other charities do. Its corporate culture is perhaps a bit iffy, but so is that of so many corporations and even charities (even Amnesty International has been chastised for its toxic workplace environment).
Yes, like many other charities, WE pays celebrities to give motivational speeches, such as at their glitzy, upbeat WE Days for kids, which are a strange cross between charitable events and rock concerts, and there is a certain sleazy cult-like atmosphere around the Kielberger brothers, who founded the charity back in 1995 (when it was originally known as Free the Children).
I have read article after article listing, with an unspoken (but nevertheless clear) disparaging tone, all the big name speakers WE has persuaded, over the years, to work on their behalf, some paid and some unpaid, and all the rich major global corporations it has accumulated as sponsors and donors. From the barely-disguised disapproving tone of these articles (here is just one such article, and don't try and tellnme there is no sub-text to it), it is clear that the authors assume that there is some underhand skullduggery at work here and, rather than celebrating a successful charitable model, the implication given is that these are just rich socialites tapping their rich socialite buddies - although what would be so wrong with that if the end product is nore money for kids who need it? - that such a successful model could not be possible without some illicit nefariousness and perfidy.
But that is just its own particular MO. As Craig Kielberger told the parliamentary committee hearing last week,"We don't do telemarketing. We don't do street canvassing. We don't do mass mailing. We don't do fundraising of that kind of nature. But by bringing in these types of educational speakers to events, it allows us to bring partners and sponsors to the table."
All in all, WE has a certain in-your-face style, but it fills a certain niche in the Canadian charity eco-system. And, whether you like their style or not, WE certainly engages youth like no other charity, and they do do a lot of good for kids in need.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Explanation for mysterious Chinese seeds raises even more questions

You've probably heard about the mysterious seeds shipped from China to addresses throughout the United States and Canada along with their Amazon orders. Rather than baby triffids, the seeds have actually been identified as, inter alia, mustard, cabbage, morning glory, mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus and rose.
But even more mysterious than the seeds themselves is the reasoning behind it all. The best explanation (make that guess) as to why the seeds may have been sent is something called a "brushing scam", whereby a seller sends a buyer an unsolicited item so that they can then post a fake review in order to boost their profile and potentially increase sales.
The pretzel logic of this is so obscure that I have difficulty believing it is a real thing (and yet, there it is on Wikipedia). If they are going to post a fake review anyway, why bother mailing out anything at all? And why seeds (which are explicitly disallowed by the Universal Postal Union)? And can it really be financially worthwhile actually mailing some seeds halfway across the world in order to generate one good review (albeit a fake review for a fake order)?
It makes you realize just how screwed up the world of international commerce really is. It reminds me, in a way, of a Black Mirror episode called Nosedive, which paints an all-too-plausible picture of a society where people's entire socio-economic status is based on ratings or likes from every single social interaction they engage in.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Transgender pastor fired from Mississauga Baptist Church

A Mississauga pastor came out recently as a trans woman, only to lose her job after a congregational vote.
Junia (June) Joplin was pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church in a posh part of Mississauga, near Toronto. A couple of months ago, she live-streamed a sermon in which she came out to her congregation as a transgender woman, a sermon that apparently went viral among trans Christians, and which seemed to attact much suppprt from her own parishioners. The church's leadership council, though, were not so keen, and a drive-through ballot (I kid you not!) of her parishioners resulted in a narrow 58-53 vote to terminate her employment.
The vote supposedly "determined, for theological reasons, that it is not in God's will that June remain as our pastor", according to a statement from the church. Wait, God left a will? God is dead?! Ah, maybe that part was a typo.
It is actually illegal to fire someone for being trans in Canada, although exceptions are allowed for - go figure! -  religious reasons. Ms. Joplin pointed out that eight of the voters specifically said that they did not object to her "on theological grounds", which should have meant that she won the vote 61-50, but that logical argument didn't seem to sway the council. She is currently looking into legal remedies.
Anyway, it looks like Ms. Joplin chose the wrong denomination to be a transgender pastor in. Those Baptists, they're ornery. The United Church would probably have jumped at her.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Why do sharks swim with their fins exposed?

Video footage of a great white shark off the coast of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, has raised a few eyebrows. Great whites are endangered in Canadian waters and rarely seen, although this is by no means a first. But I started to wonder why sharks swim with their dorsal fin exposed anyway? What advantage does this give the shark, or do they just like freaking people out?
My first attempt at finding out assured me that, nah, skarks don't actually do that, it's just something we have come to expect after watching poorly-researched Hollywood movies: "Sharks do not typically swim at the surface of the water with their fins
exposed...They are not doing it on purpose."
My second source? "Sharks in the wild very, very rarely swim with their dorsal fins exposed above the water...most sharks will not approach the surface at all". Third, and fourth sources (the latter specifically talking about great white sharks)? The same.
Well, the shark in that video certainly seemed quite confortable exposing him or her self for quite some time. So, what gives?
My fifth information source did finally confirm that, "surface finning is common behavior in several shark species...white sharks routinely investigate objects on the suface...following kayakers is not uncommon for this species or other large sharks".
Should I believe this source over and above the others? Well, just the fact that it gels with what we actually see here suggests to me that it may well be more reliable. Slate is a pretty reliable source, isn't it? So, what sharks that exhibit this kind of behaviour are actually doing is just checking out what's happening on the surface, just being inquisitive and nosey basically. The same article does point out that sharks cruising along the surface are very unlikely to be hunting; they are much more likely to hunt in mid-ocean or in the depths, and they would typically strike from below anyway.

Commissioners of Irish Lights moves to extinguish the loom of the light

I was struck by that unlikely thing, an article about lighthouses in Ireland. I was mainly struck by just how much some people care, but also by some of the arcane terminology used.
An organization that delights in the name of the Commissioners of Irish Lights (which sounds like something out of a young adult fantasy novel) is responsible for the maintenance of all the lighthouses in Ireland, both North and South. Like most other lighthouse custodians across the world, they are in the process of converting their lights to environmentally-friendly and cost-saving LEDs. LED lamps typically use 30W compared to 1,000W for traditional lamps. They are also taking out the mercury used to rotate the heavy lenses and replacing it with mechanical bearings.
But not everyone is happy about it. There is vociferous opposition to a 21st century update to St. John's Point lighthouse in County Down, south of Belfast, a lighthouse that dates from 1839. Local people have resorted to roadblocks and have roped in a few celebrities in their protest against the changes, including Princess Anne and Van Morrison. Campaigners, from fishermen to politicians to local residents, are calling the Commissioners "philistines" for wanting to change the traditional ways.
Some say the quality of the harsh blue-white LED light is inferior, while some insist that LED does not allow for the "loom of the light" of incandescent lighting, a phenomenon whereby the light diffuses and spreads in the water droplets of the air, which allows a lighthouse to be seen even over the horizon.
The Commissioners admit that LED lights have a slightly smaller reach - 18 miles compared to 25 miles - but they insist that it still has a loom. Many lighthouse keepers just see this as the next inevitable step in a series of changes from candles to whale oil and paraffin lamps to electricity. Arguably, incandescent lamps have only been "traditional" for a relatively short time. One retired lighthouse keeper opined, "Out at sea, you will see the light, which is what matters". And surely he is right.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Is the Lincoln Project actually doing any good?

What to make of the Lincoln Project? Watch a few of its short videos to get a flavour of it (there are A LOT). Some are amusing, some are poignant, some are just plain factual.
As a vehicle for skewering Donald Trump and his claims in the run-up to the November 3rd election, it's hard not to like it. God knows, we'll take any vehicle that helps depose the guy before he does any more damage to America and the world.
And at least some of its impact comes from the fact that it is produced by anti-Trump Republicans (George Conway is Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway's husband, Rick Wilson is a former GOP strategist and media consultant, Jennifer Horn is a former New Hampshire GOP chair, and Steve Schmidt is another former GOP strategist), the idea being, I suppose, to persuade other Republicans that it is OK - nay, even the right thing for a real Republican to do - to oppose Trump. So, yes, some really pretty nasty character assassination ads produced by a bunch of disaffected Republicans. Weird, right?
But are they effective? Trump's clownishness sets him up easily for mockery and satire, and this has been the mealticket for many a late night comedian since Day One, not to mention that old Internet thing, which is just bursting with Trump satire and piss-takes. Are a few more, admittedly clever, videos going to make much difference? Arguably, the videos work better as comedy than as politics.
Some of the Project's producers have suggested that the ads are actually aimed at Trump himself - "an audience of one" - and that their main intention is to get under Trump's skin. One in particular, Mourning in America, a play on Reagan's Morning in America ad, apparently did get quite a visceral response from the Tweeter-in-Chief. But Trump is so notoriously thin-skinned that getting under it is not too much of an achievement. And how is that going to help anything anyway? Do they think that Trump will be so incensed by their mockery that he will just give up? Do they intend to troll him out of office? It seems improbable to me that that is in fact their objective.
And it's a shame that the videos (with one or two exceptions) are so unremittingly negative - negativity is very much a Trump tactic. They are personally abusive and transparently ad hominen, which arguably is sinking down to the murky depths of Trump's own level.
But no-one said that they were going to turn the election round all on ther own. They are just a small part of an arsenal being brought to bear against Trump and, as such, it's hard not to welcome them.