Saturday, October 31, 2020

When did "pardon?" turn into "huh?"

So, when did it become acceptable for people to say "huh?" instead of "pardon?", "sorry", "excuse me?", "I didn't catch that?",  or any one of a whole host of different polite options available to express poor hearimg or understanding?

Actually, I'm not sure if it's spelled "huh? It's usually more of a percussive "ah?" Or maybe a grunt-like "unhh?"

I suppose it might be a contraction of "what?" - which is bad enough! - although there also seem to be equivalents of it in most immigrant languages. In fact, maybe that's where the trend came from... But there are perfectly good options available in all other languages that I am aware of, without havimg to resort to grunting.

Yes, I know I'm just a curmudgeonly old fart. I'm quite aware of that. But am I the only person left in North America that still says "pardon?"

Some ancient civilizations you may never have heard of

You've probably heard of ancient civilizations like the Sumerians, the Maya, the Minoans, etc, but are you familiar with these lesser-known ancient civilizations?

  • Sanliurfa (9000-1800BCE): Sanliurfa (or Urfa) is still a city today in southern Turkey, near the Euphrates River, and it (and surrounding hilltop villages) was probably one of the first areas where agriculture began. The statue of "Urfa Man" (the oldest naturalistic life-size sculpture of a human) was found nearby, as were the megalithic carved stones of Gobekli Tepe.
  • Mehrgarh (7000-2500BCE): There was a highly-developed trading society around Mehrgarh (in modern-day Pakistan) long before the Indus Valley Civilization arrived, including cemeteries and even rudimentary dental surgery. Remains are buried deep in the earth, and tribal troubles in the area make further excavations difficult.
  • Ninevah (6000-622 BCE): Ninevah was established on the site of modern-day Mosul in Iraq, and, despite earthquakes, became a centre for the arts, sciences and architecture, including a huge library and possibly the Hanging Gardens of Babylon  It layer became the capital of the Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib, and was ultimately burned to the ground by invaders in 612 BCE.
  • Vinca Civilization (5000-3500BCE): Located in the Danube Valley near Belgrade, Serbia, Vinca may have predated Sumeria and Egypt. They kept animals and grew crops, used copper and gold well before they came into general use, and had a very early writing system of over 700 characters.
  • Konar-Sandal (4500-3000BCE): Located in southern Iran, around the lost city of Jiroft, it boasted one of the largest and oldest ziggurats in the world, and possibly the world's oldest written language, although excavation and research are still ongoing, and many of the sites have been badly looted and damaged.
  • Norte Chico Culture (3500-1800BCE): This pre-Columbian society in northern Peru is probably the earliest known civilization in the Americas, pre-dating the Mayan and Incan empires of the region, and evidence of huge constructions, pyramids and complex irrigation systems has been found (although, interestingly, no pottery and little art of any kind).
  • Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300BCE): Small farming communities and substantial cities like Haruppa and Mohenjo-Daro onc3 dotted the valley of the Indus River, in modern-day Pakistan, India snd Afghanistan. They had their own writing system, sophisticated underground drainage techniques, and traded with Sumeria, among others.
  • Aryan Kingdom (1500-500BCE): Long before the Nazis latched onto the Aryan Race concept, the nomadic Indo-Aryan people moved into northern India and established their own language and settled agricultural civilization, although here is little remaining on which to piece together their lives. Over time, they gradually became assimilated into other north Indian cultures.
  • Nubia/Kush (744-656 BCE): In Sudan, to the south of Egypt, lay a civilization that once ruled Egypt, as it conquered Egypt and ruled it as its 25th Dynasty. It had its own pyramids (223 of them!), its own written language, culture and art, and presided over a period of great prosperity and stability. Much earlier, from 2500-1500BCE, the Keema culture ruled there, until they were conquererd by the Egyptians.
  • Kingdom of Aksum (100-940CE): Based in northern Ethiopia, the kingdom stretched at one time from the edge of the Sahara as far as the Arabian desert. They had their own written script, and traded with other powers in the eastern Mediterranean, although its kings and nobles later embraced Christianity.
I'vr heard of a few of them in passing, but some I had no idea of. History is way more complicated than we think.

Cadillac Fairview's mall cameras are way less intrusive than many other marketing practices

Mall owner Cadillac Fairview has been slapped on the wrist for using facial recognition software and extracting "sensitive biometric information" from 5 million individuals at 12 malls across Canada in 2018.

Cadillac Fairview argued that the cameras, which were embedded in the malls' digital information kiosks, were merely used to analyze the approximate age and gender of shoppers for marketing purposes, and were not capable of identifying individuals' names. They thought that the images were then being completely deleted (although it turned out that a copy was actually being retained, unknown to the company, on a remote third party server). Furthermore, they argued that stickers on the mall doors were enough to notify shoppers that there may be cameras inside.

However, the Privacy Commissioners of Canada ruled that none of that was the case, and that Cadillac Fairview was guilty of using facial-recognition software to gather "personal information" about individuals, and that there was a "lack of meaningful consent" on the part of shoppers. "Pictures of individuals were taken and analyzed in a manner that required notice and consent", they concluded.

Cadillac Fairview has now taken out all the cameras in question, and undertaken not to attempt such a marketing exercise in the future without obtaining specific consent. 

I don't really use malls, but the ruling seems harsh to me. If I walk into a mall, I would just assume that there are security cameras in operation, and how is that any different from what Cadillac Fairview were doing? How is a photo of someone "sensitive personal information" if it is not linked to the person's name, credit card record, etc? It seems to me that other marketing companies are obtaining much more sensitive personal information with complete impunity (just watch documetaries like The Great Hack and In Data We Trust, among many others).

Friday, October 30, 2020

An election horror story for Halloween

With Halloween just around the corner, and the US election just a few days later, here's a horror story to keep you up at night. It' s a TED Talk by Van Jones (lawyer, politcal commentator and one-time White House official) about what could happen if a presidential candidate - any presidential candidate - should refuse to concede after an election.

It goes into some of the little-known legalities, loopholes and glitches that make up the US constitution, the fine print so to speak, insofar as it relates to presidential elections. It turns out that the concession speech that is traditionally given by the loser on election night is actually just that, a tradition, a voluntary acceptance of defeat that can allow the machinery of the transfer of power - the meeting of the electoral college, the ratification by Congress, the inauguration, all that - to continue in an orderly manner.

In the absence of a concession speech, though, there are a whole load of legal machinations a recalcitrant candidate - any recalcitrant candidate - could go through to hold onto power, including court cases alleging fraud or international interference, etc. Ultimately, if nothing is resolved, it would have to end up in front of the House of Representatives for resolution. This would make a mockery of the whole democratic election that preceded it, of course, but that's what the Constitution says. 

Even worse, a vote in the House of Representatives would not be based on the number of individual delegates or members (i.e. more or less based on the relative populations of states), as House votes normally are, but simply by state. Bizarre, but apparently true. So, even if the Democrats have a majority of individual  members in the House and in the Electoral College, the Republicans might hold a majority of states overall (you know all those little rural states in the middle with tiny populations?) This kind of "contingent election" hasn't happened since 1825, but it could happen this year. Scary, right?

And a certain Donald Trump has already done the ground work for all this, alleging that he can't possibly lose unless the election is rigged, that postal voting is a recipe for fraud, etc, etc. So, it could happen. And if it does happen, then all bets are off as to how it will develop; a civil war is not completely off the table.

So, now I have told you all that, you can choose whether or not to listen to Van Jones on Halloween night.

Why isn't Canada a signatory to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

The United Nations' 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) makes it illegally for signatory countries to "develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices". It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Just this week, Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the pact and thereby make the treaty legally binding on signatory countries. Countries like Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Mexico have also already ratified it, although most of the other signatories are admittedly small Pacific, South/Central American and Asian nations. The nuclear powers themselves (USA, Russia, China, UK, France, lsrael, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have not even signed up to the treaty, of course, because ratifying it would require them to destroy their own existing nuclear weapons. There are an estimated 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, any one of which is capable of killing millions and making vast tracts of the world uninhabitable.

Canada, though, has no nuclear bombs, and there is very little likelihood of it ever doing so. So, you might think that this is just the kind of aspirational internationalist pact that a Liberal-led Canada would be up for joining. And nobody really likes nuclear weapons, do they? But Canada is not a signatory, and indeed was one of just 38 countries that opposed against even holding the conference that led to the establishment of the treaty in the first place, and did not attend the original conference. So, why is Canada against prohibiting nuclear weapons?

Justin Trudeau's usual answer is essentially dismissive and unhelpful: that, if we do not have nuclear weapons, then there is no point in even talking about not having them. Which is a reasonable position at first blush, but there is such a thing as making a point. None of the other 84 signatories and 50 ratifiers have nuclear weapons either, but it didn't stop them from vowing never to acquire them.

When pressed further, the Liberal government claims it just can't join the treaty because it is a member of NATO, and NATO states that "nuclear weapons are a core component of the Alliance's overall capabilities". Most NATO countries, including Canada apparently, seem to believe that US nuclear weapons actually enhance their security, and they have issued a joint statement claiming that the TPNW treaty would be "ineffective in eliminating nuclear weapons", and arguing that full implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be a more effective route (that way, the haves would continue to have, and the have-nots would not be able to have, i.e. ensuring the status quo).

It's notable that none of rhe other NATO countries have signed the nuclear ban treaty either, but there is probably nothing legally preventing them. And what a message that would send.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

(Very few) world leaders voice support for Donald Trump

A very few world leaders are bucking the trend and voicing their support for Donald Trump in the upcoming US election. Just who these people are is illuminating, although why they think that voicing their support might help his chances, I have no idea.

  • Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán - far-right nationalist with dictator ambitions.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro - far-right populist.
  • Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte - strongman. loose cannon and human rights abuser.
  • Serbian President Aleksander Vucic - ultra-nationalist who hopes that Trump will help him de-recognize Kosovo.
  • Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa - rising populist, wouldn't be anything to do with Melania, would it?

And, er, that's about it. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un send their love.

Nxivn cult grinds to a hold

While I am in the process of explaining cults and conspiracies (like QAnon), here's another head-scratching phenomenon that has been way more successful than it has any right to be.

Nxivm (pronounced "nexium") is a good old-fashioned personality cult that has recently heen taken down, although not before ensnaring some rich and influentual (but apparently not bright) individuals and ruining the lives of several. Its leader, Keith Raniere, was sentenced to 120 years in prison by a New York judge yesterday.

Nxivm was, at least ostensibly, a self-help organization run by a charismatic leader (sound familiar?), featuring five-day personal development and self-improvement courses by Raniere for a well-to-do (and largely female) clientele. Actress Allison Macknwas sucked into it and became involved in its operations, and Canadian Seagrams alchohol empire heiresss Claire Bronfman sank more than $100 million of her money into it (and received a 6 year jail sentence for her pains).

In the meantime, Raniere was treating adherents as sex slaves, even branding some with his initials (the guy had obviously read up on Charles Manson and Jim Jones), and forced, forsome reason, to follow a restrictive "Vanguard" diet. Raniere was convicted of racketeering, sex trafficking, extortion, criminal conspiracy, and the sexual exploitation of a 15 year old girl, among other charges.

I have never really understood cults and their psychological basis. You would think that as soon as someone sees something even vaguely suspect, they would be out of there like a bat out of hell. But I guess that is the nature of charismatic leaders: they can hook people and reel them in before they know what is happening. Well, Raniere has had his rod well and truly snapped. As for his victims, I guess they have to pick up the pieces of their lives as well as they can.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Mi'kmaq out-of-season lobster fishery not a conservation risk - yet

I have been trying understand the two sides in the lobster fishing dispute that has been raging for some time now in southwestern Nova Scotia.
At first blush, it's pretty straightforward. Members of the Sipekne'katik Mi'kmaq nation have set up a self-regulated Indigenous-owned lobster fishery off the coast of St. Mary's Bay to take advantage of treaty rights that allow them to fish for a "moderate living" even outside of the season rules that constrain commercial non-Indigenous fishermen.
Those commercial fishermen - having already seen the cod industry in the region decimated - see the move as a threat to their own pretty moderate livings, arguing that the rules on when lobster can be caught were put in place to protect the sustainability of lobster stocks, and that by flouting those rules, the Mi'kmaq are putting the whole industry in the area at risk. There have also been claims that the new operation has been flouting the rules over the minimum size of lobsters that can be harvested, and that pregnant females with eggs are being taken, although I am not sure if this has ever been proven. This has led to some heated, occasionally violent, confrontations, and even vandalized equipment and arson.
I don't think anyone condones the violence, and I don't think the commercial fishermen are necessarily guilty of racism, as they are often accused (I think they would have the same reaction to any group that threatens their turf and their own precarious livelihoods). But do they have a point?
Well, at least two credible sources I have found (a professor at Dalhousie University's Marine Affairs program, and the director of the School of the Environment at St. Mary's University) suggest not. The Mi'kmaq group has been granted 7 licences of 350 traps, while the commercial fleet numbers nearly a thousand licenses of 350 traps (yes, this is big business!). So, it can be argued that, at the moment at any rate, the Mi'kmaq operation, representing less than 1% of the total, is very unlikely to have an appreciable impact on the industry as a whole. And the really big players in the industry are the offshore commercial fisheries that, thus far, the Indigenous operators have not even touched (it requires a much bigger investment in ships and equipment for one thing).
At least that's the situation at the moment. If more Indigenous fisheries start to catch lobsters out of season - and at least one other First Nations group has already announced plans to launch its own self-regulated lobster fishery - then more regulation may well need needed.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Why do salmon return to their natal spawning grounds?

We went to Etienne Brulé Park on Toronto's Humber River the other day to watch the salmon running the river, hurling themselves up the weirs and fighting against the strong currents and rapids, as they are inexorably called back to their natal spawning grounds.

Surprised that there are salmon in Lake Ontario and its feeder rivers? Well, the native Atlantic salmon were fished into extirpation some years ago, but Pacific Coho and Chinook salmon have been reintroduced in recent years, and, even more recently, some Atlantic salmon too. I'm guessing, from their large size, most of the ones we saw were probably Chinooks. 

Either way, the salmon run has apparently become a very popular family sporting event in Toronto, especially this year, with the pandemic and all, and there were hordes of kids cheerlng the fish on, yelling, "Go, salmon, go!" It was quite endearing, really.

But, it made me wonder how can such a difficult task have any evolutionary advantage? At each weir, we watched fish after fish fail, and only the odd one actually succeed after many attempts. Such a lot of effort expended! (There at least 7 weirs on this section of the Lower Humber alone, built for flood control after Hurricane Hazel in 1954, although notches have been cut since to smooth out the flow and make it a bit easier for fish to navigate). There are no grizzly bears snapping at these salmon at least, but still, there must be really good reasons for them to attempt such an arduous undertaking, no?

Well, it seems that, although there is much we still do not understand about it all, the main reason is that they need a safe place to spawn and, by returning to the same place they themselves were born, they can rely on finding such a place, rather than trying some other random river on the off chance that it has a good spawning spot. They can be sure that their natal river has conditions favouring that particular type of salmon, and they can sure of finding mates of the same species. They navigate both by magnetic inclination and intensity, and by a very keen sense of the distinctive smell of their own river (who knew fish could smell underwater?)

This makes sense, I guess. It's also possible that the very difficulty of the undertaking is enough to ensure that only the fittest and strongest salmon survive to breed new generations.

But I still can't help but wonder if a much greater number of salmon spawning in an easier-to-access, but admittedly less safe, place wouldn't result in greater numbers in subsequent generations. But maybe they would all be namby-pamby, feckless fish, not worthy of the name "salmon"?

What causes leaves to change colour - again!

It's the kind of thing most people with any curiosity probably look up at some point. Me, I've looked it up several times over the years, and can never quite fix it in my brain. Maybe by typing it out I will remember it. So, once and for all, what causes tree leaves to change colour in the fall, and what makes for a good year of fall colours, like this year seems to be here in Toronto?

First, the basics. The green colour of most leaves us due to a chemical pigment called chlorophyll, which uses the blue and red wavelengths of sunlight to power the photosynthesis process by which trees grow, converting water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars. The remaining green wavelenths are reflected back at us, creating the familiar green colour of most leaves. 

Chlorophyll is continuously being produced and replaced  throughout the growing season. But, with the shorter days and lower temperatures of fall, an abcission layer between branches and leaf stems starts to block the flow of nutrients, and chlorophyll ceases to be replaced in the leaves.

There are other leaf pigments that are also present in leaves throughout the growing season, including the carotenoids (e.g. xanthophyll) that produce yellow and orange colours, but these are usually masked by the more dominant green pigments, and are typically only noticeable in stressed or damaged trees. In the fall, though, when chlorophyll production slows and stops, these pigments come to the fore in trees like ash, beech, birch, poplar, Norway maples, gingkos, etc, and serve the purpose of using up excess sugars in the leaves not needed for growth late in the season.

On the other hand, anthocyanins, the pigments responsible for red and purple colours in leaves, are only produced in the fall, when excess sugars are trapped in the leaves. Like carotenoids, they help use up any excess energy as chlorophyll disappears. This creates the bright red colors we see in trees like sugar maples, red maples, sumac and mountain ash.

Eventually, even these colour pigments start to break down and the brown tannins are all that remain.

Clear, dry, sunny weather tends to produce more sugars in leaves and therefore yields more and brighter red colours, particularly if overnight temperatures fall to low, but not freezing, temperatures (freezing stops the process of creating red pigments). A dry spring or a drought in early summer stresses trees into creating the sealing abcission layers earlier, resulting in earlier (although not necessarily brighter) colours. Too much rain or cloud covering later in the growing season, on the other hand, means less sunlight and leads to more muted colours. And heavy and strong winds will, of course, cause the leaves to fall ealier, truncating the colour season.

So, ideal conditions for a good fall foliage season are a moist growing season in spring and early summer, a dry late summer, and sunny warm fall days with cold but not freezing nights. Now, let's see if I can remember it this time!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Doug Ford interferes again in municipal elections

In between sounding all concerned and empathetic and being largely ineffectual, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has decided, out of nowhere, to ban ranked ballot voting in Ontario municipal elections

No-one seems to understand why, and Ford has certainly not offered any explanation. In fact, he has gone out of his way to hide his actions, by burying the amendment in a bill largely concerned with pandemic recovery. He himself benefited from the ranked ballot system, which was used in the leadership race for the provincial Conservative party, but he seems to want to deny it to the province's  cities, for reasons unknown.

Ranked ballot voting is where voters rank their preferences, and the second- and third-ranked votes of the last-placed contenders are allocated to the remaining candidates until one ends up with a majority. This is arguably a better, and more democratic, system than the usual first-past-the-post system, which can result in a winner that actually has the vote of just a small minority of voters. For example, in the 2014 Toronto municipal vote, one councillor won with just 17% of the populat vote. The ranked ballot system is also touted as discouraging strategic voting, resulting in a more diverse array of candidates, and a more civilized debate.

Ranked balloting is widely used throughout the world, but very few Ontario municipalities actually use it (it was only recently enabled by the previous Liberal government). London, Ontario, used it in 2018, and the election proceeded without any hitches (the city estimates that it added about $24,500 to the fixed costs of the election, less than 10 cents per taxpayer). Kingston had agreed to use it for its next election, and Toronto has also been seriously considering it. As things stand, though, none of these cities will now be able to take advantage of its benefits.

When pressed for an explanation, Ford merely quipped, "We've been voting this way since 1867", and, "We don't need any nore complications". Hardly compelling arguments. Why does Ford feel the need to keep interfering in local elections?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Appointing Justice Barrett is "ground-breaking and historic" alright

As the Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee rubber-stamped Amy Coney-Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, which will now go to a full Senate vote, Senator Lindsay Graham said it best: "This is a ground-breaking, historical moment".

"Ground-breaking and historical" is right. Never before has the Senate confirmed a Supreme Court nominee so close to a presidential election. 'Nuff said.

Cats kill 10,000 times as many birds as wind turbines

I didn't watch the Trump-Biden debate last night - couldn't face it - but apparently one of the few exchanges that actually elicited a laugh from the audience was when Mr. Trump burst out, "I know more about wind than you do. It's extremely expensive, kills all the birds".

Setting aside the fact that he came across sounding like a seven-year old, this is obviously not true. For one, wind power is now substantially cheaper than fossil fuels pretty much everywhere. And secondly, the bird-killing capacity of wind turbines has been hugely overblown(!), and pales in comparison with other bird killers like pwer lines (130 times as many as wind turbines), poison (300 times), vehicle collisions (900 times), building collisions (2,500 times), and, the No. 1 culprit, cats (over 10,000 times as many). 

These numbers are based on figures from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, so I have no reason to disbelieve them, but the number of 2.4 billion bird deaths, in the USA alone, at the hands (paws) of cats boggled my mind a bit. Let's think about this. There are 128 million households in the United States, and there are an estimated 95.6 million cats living in those households (some of which host more than one cat). This suggests that each cat kills on average about 25 birds a year. This could be possible (just). But consider also that about 70% of American cats are indoor-only cats that never get to venture outside (a mind-boggling statistic all on its own), the 29 million or so that do go outdoors must be responsible for killing about 84 birds each. Each year. If we take out those cats that are obese, very old or very young, or just plain lazy and incapable of catching a bird or a mouse or anything at all - and I have no stats on this, but from my anecdotal experience I think it is substantial - then the numbers of bird deaths per cat just keep going up, and we are looking at well over hundred per cat, probably more than one a day during the summer season.

My point is that the 2.4 billion bird deaths due to American cats just seems really improbable. I don't deny that cats do kill birds, and some cats kill many birds, and I understand that this is a problem. I just can't believe it's THAT big a problem. Looking at this another way though, there are about 60,000 wind turbines in the USA at the moment, which, if they kill a total of 234,000 birds a year, means under 4 per turbine, compared to over a hundred a year per cat. "Killing all the birds", Mr. Trump?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Surely, racism is about context as well as words

Well, I'm going to go there again. I have touched on similar matters several times in the past, and I am always conscious that I am skating on thin ice and risking censure and trolling (were anyone to actually read this blog). But I think these things are important and, despite attempts to make them completely out-of-bounds for discussion, they do need to be aired and not just left to fester.

A University of Ottawa arts professor, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, has been has been put on temporary "administrative suspension" after one student complained that she was "uncomfortable" with the prof's use of the N-word in a class discussion. For context - and, yes, context IS important - the word was used is an academic discussion of the concept of reappropriation, the way that marginalized communities have started to reclaim words that used to be used against them as pejorative slurs, e.g. "queer", "dyke", and the "word-that-shall-not-be-mentioned".

So, this was not someone bad-mouthing a vulnerable minority. It was not, "Hey, you, n_____!" It was a respectful discussion about language. After the professor received the complaint, the class discussed the issue the next week. And there it all might have rested had not the student newspaper caught wind of it, and campaigned to get the professor suspended.

The lecturer herself, a part-time professor working in her second language, who had given the same lecture in French in the past, was mortified, and had no idea that some words should not be spoken even in an academic context. She has always been very supportive of equality issues, and had attended a Black Lives Matter just two weeks earlier. She is now worried that she will be blacklisted (sic!) and branded a racist. In short, cancelled.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a letter to the university supporting the professor, on the grounds that the word was used in the context of a class, was germane to the subject, and had pedagogical intent, and should therefore be protected by academic freedom. An open letter from over 30 professors also supported Prof. Lieutenant-Duval, arguing that the university had overreached by trying to regulate the contents of a lecture that happened to touch on a sensitive subject.

Right back fired a group of 25 Black, Indigenous and racial-minority professors and staff condemning any use of the N-word, academic or not, and expressing outrage that they were not consulted before framing the issue as one of academic freedom. Well, whatever else is it? They further argued that the outright banning of certain words, even in an academic context, does not constitute a violation of academic freedom. Er, beg to differ.

Professor Lieutenant-Duval returned to work after two weeks of administrative suspension. But I just bet her career, and her self-confidence, never recover.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Dark series is challenging, frustrating and mysteriously enjoyable

I have been trying to get my poor old head around the German supernatural series The Dark on Netflix. If you haven't seen it, think of a cross between Lost and Stranger Things (and if you haven't seen either of those, then you probably won't be interested in the rest of this post).

Lost was complicated, not to mention counter-intuitive, frustrating and inexplicable. The Dark is all that too, but multiplied by a factor of n, where n is, let's say 33, for reasons that will become apparent. It's also produced in German but dubbed into English (not subtitled), probably the first dubbed film I have seen in decades, and I don't really like that aspect of it, although arguably it is a minor quibble.

How to describe the series in very few words? The fictional German town of Winden is set deep in what looks like the Black Forest, unremarkable except for its exceptional ordinariness. Oh, and the nuclear power station that dominates it and its residents. The series mainly follows various generations of four interlinked families. 

And I say generations advisedly, because deep in the caves below the power station is a portal, or perhaps series of portals, to other time periods separated by 33 years. So, when children start disappearing in 2019, the events are suspiciously similar to disappearances 33 years earlier, in 1986.

When we follow the disappeared kids back to 1986, it becomes apparent that people and events from 1953 are also implicated (and, later 1920 and even 2052). The adults from 2019 are in their teens in 1986, and backstories are filled in, with some surpises and shocks. It becomes something of an intellectual game to figure out who is who in the different time periods. When characters from 2019 start interacting with 1986 (and 1953 and 1920 and 2052!), things start to become pretty complex. I confess to having looked up online explainers, plot summaries and family trees (like this one and this one), but they only help so far.

There are also a whole load of time paradoxes involved too, with the future influencing the past, characters meeting their past or future selves, young children becoming fathers to their old playmates, etc. Time machines and black holes pop up (well, of course they do!), and strange coincidences abound. There is a fair bit of philosophizing about the nature of time and human nature and religion and free will and families and who knows what else.

Early in Season 2 (as far as I have ventured thus far), a shadowy organization of Travellers is revealed, which is probably nefarious, but who knows? And I'm sure that later upon layer of complexity, false leads and dead ends are bound to multiply as the series goes on.

And am I enjoying it? Ye-es... Part of it is the challenge of figuring out connections, and fitting the jigsaw pieces together. But it is not a passive process, and if you just try and watch it as pure entertainment, you will probably end up pretty frustrated and disappointed. Will I finish all three seasons? Only time will tell...

UPDATE

The Dark officially jumps the shark in Season 3, as 1888, 1920, 1953, 1986, 2019 and 2052 get jumbled up completely, and a new alternative version of the world in a parallel universe gets thrown into the mix too. The action dashes around between times and universes, seemingly at random, with little or no warning. At one point, four different versions of the same person, from different time periods and different worlds, are together in the same room, trying to figure out whether the apocalypse should go ahead or not. 

Confusion reigns. People die and then reappear alive. Interminable silences and deep meaningful looks reassure us that this is definitely not Kansas (or Hollywood). A hundred different characters stare each other out, sometimes across split screens. Phrases like "quantum entanglement" and "the God particle" get thrown around with gay abandon and with no particular scientific justification, and the sentence "What are you saying?"is repeated ad infinitum, only to be ignored. Pretty much nothing gets resolved.

But I did finish it, and that must count for something. Mustn't it?

Oh, and spoiler alert: there actually was a resolution.

Liberals go beyond the pale with their threat of a snap election

I, like so many other Canadians, used to be almost completely indifferent to the so-called WE "scandal" in which Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government embroiled themselves this summer. It was a very Canadian scandal, i.e. not very scandalous, and frankly we have much bigger fish to fry at the moment. The opposition Conservtives seemed to be largely going through the motions of expressing outrage and characterizing the issue as way more important than it really was (that's what opposition parties are expected to do). It would all have blown over in time, just like the SNC Lavalin "scandal".

But then came the Liberals' prorogation of parliament for several weeks, ostensibly to "reset the approach of this government for a recovery to build back better", but effectively to close down the finance and ethics committees that were investigating the whole WE contract. Then, when parliament was finally allowed to reconvene, the investigating committees faced Liberal stonewalling and filibustering, hugely redacted documents, and a general unwillngness to help.

And now, unprecedentedly, the Liberals are making the Conservatives' attempt to set up a new "anti-corruption committee" with less Liberal control to study "allegations of misuse of public funds by the government" into a confidence vote, giving the opposition the choice of a snap election that neither they nor the coutry as a whole want at the moment, or the status quo (i.e. no special ethics probe). The official line is that the government is just way too busy doing big things and saving the country to be messing with nit-picky, tin-pot committee hearings, and that any such investigation would effectively paralyze the government at a time when the country can least afford it. Unspoken, is the fact that the Liberals have a healthy lead in opinion polls and would actually quite like an election to consolidate their power, and perhaps extend it into a majority.

With the help of the NDP, Greens Md Independents (who REALLY don't want an election at the moment), the Liberals managed to win the vote and stave off an election, just today, so status quo it is. In a game of election chicken, Trudeau stared down the opposition, but he does not look any more trustworthy than he did before; the opposition Conservatives look petty and ineffectual, and are probably breathing a sigh of relief that their own little exercise in brinkmanship failed; the NDP look, well, like a third party with no real options; and we will probably never get to know any more details about the WE controversy (which I'm OK with).

But all this leaves a really bitter taste in the mouths of we, the people, and I'm sure that a lot of people who might once have been sympthetic (or at least apathetic) towards the Liberals are no longer. I know I fall into that category. A party that goes to such lengths to prevent scrutiny MUST have something pretty horrible to hide. And, whatever that might be, I'm just tired of the Liberals' (and Trudeau's in particular) secretive nature, and their apparent willingness to transgress against rules and norms, in the knowledge that they do so with impunity. 

Trudeau has overstayed his welcome. Then again, the alternatives are either improbable (NDP and Greens) or unthinkable (Conservatives), so in reality we are stuck with the Liberals, at least for now. And with the Liberals leading in the polls, we can probably expect them to force the hand of the opposition again, and soon, and this time the NDP may not feel obliged to prop them up or hold them back. All we can do is tell ourselves, with a shudder, that at least we are not America.

Ontario's Halloween and dance class announcements offer more mixed messages

The Ontario government's decision to "cancel" Halloween this year in the hard-hit Toronto area has met with general disbelief and resentment. Obviously, they can't actually cancel it, but they are strongly advising that people do not go out trick or treating for health and safety reasons during this ongoing pandemic thing. The reaction of most people was: a) they can't do that, and b) that makes no sense. After all, as André Picard opines in this article, what could be healthier than getting kids outside in small groups, wearing masks, and improving their fragile mental health?

My first reaction was equally dismissive: government overreach, poorly though out health policy, confusing mixed messages, etc. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that they may have a point. That image of well-behaved masked kids out in the fresh air is similar to my own middle-class experience of Canadian Halloween in a reasonably well-to-do area of the city.

Then, I saw an archival news clip of huge groups of clearly recent immigrant children doing Halloween in high-rise apartment blocks. There was no possibility of social distancing there, and definitely no fresh air. It is the type of Halloween celebrated by a large number of low-income Canadian kids, and I can see that that is something you might want to avoid. Banning indoor Halloweens would disproportionately hit poorer, racialized communities, while allowing more middle-class to carry on as normal, and that is clearly a non-starter. I don't know that these were the thought processes of the Ford administration, which has lurched from one bad decision to another over the last couple of years, and is not noted for its concern for the disadvantaged, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Part of the problem with the Halloween announcement is that it came on the same day as another COVID-related announcement: that dance classes were, for some reason, now being allowed to resume in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York regions, after previously having been closed down along with gyms and other fitness facilities. To be clear, ballet, hip-hop, jazz and ballroom dance classes are now allowed, subject toa ten student maximum and two metres social distancing, but not Zumba classes, which is presumably too close to a gym class. Presumably it is about how much sweat and how much heavy breathing is generated by the different classes, but some dance classes are most definitely sweaty. Small gyms are complaining about double standards, and once again dance classes are much more associated with middle class areas than gyms so there is an added social tightrope being walked there (speakimg of which, where do circus arts fit in on this spectrum?)

It all demonstrates how tricky the balancing act is that governments are having to negotiate. There have been confusing, inconsistent and contradictory messages since Day One. Whether this particular government have dealt with the challenges well, though, is far from certain.

Canadian educational establishments re-evaluate their involvement with Confucius Institute

Many Canadian educational institutions are currently going through some heart-searching over their use of the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture and history in extra-curricular classes.

The Confucius Institute (CI) has been under suspicion for years - really, since it began, in 2004 - for its somewhat blinkered approach to Chinese "culture", and certain touchy subjects (like the Tianenmen Square massacre, Falun Gong, Taiwan and Tibet) are prohibited territory under the Institute's Communist Party-dictated rules. Some of its other practices, like flying school board trustees to China on all-expenses-paid trips, have been criticized as suspicious, and some opponents claim it is nothing more than an arm of the Chinese Comnunist Party's propaganda department. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has even warned in the past that the Institutes could be operating as spy satellite offices, and the USA has recently labelled CI as a foreign diplomatic mission involved in political propaganda.

The Confucius Institute organization currently has 541 institutes worldwide, including 12 in Canada. In addition to language and cultural programming for the educational establishment involved, they also typically offer some classes to the general public, sponsor educational exchanges, and hold public events and lectures on all things Chinese. Some argue that they are just a cultural and language institute like many others, including the British Council, the Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, etc. But the difference is that the Confucius Institute operates directly on school and university campuses, giving them preferential access to students and staff, and they appear to be under stricter controls over the content of their offerings.

Many Canadian school boards and universities that did use the Confucius Institute have since thought better of it and cancelled their programs with the Confucius Institute, including the Toronto District School Board, the whole of New Brunswick, McMaster University, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Several more are currenly in the process of re-evaluating the programs. Some institutions, like the University of Manitoba, were approached but chose not to sign up in the first place. Other boards and schools, however, particularly in the Prairies for some reason, appear quite comfortable with the way it operates. A similar process of reappraisal is taking place across the world, and many institutions are choosing to sever links with CI, while others are choosing to continue.

What I hadn't appreciated about it all is that the Confucius Institute does not actually provide language instructors, and that the schools and universities involved retain "control over the hiring, curriculum and academic practices of the Institute". What, then, do they provide? What is the point of them? Do they just provide money, books and the odd tai chi class? And is that money tied in some way to some sort of restrictive content agreement with the Chinese language instructors that are hired? Couldn't schools and universities just offer Mandarin classes without Confucius Institute involvement at all (in the same way as they offer German and Italian classes)?

It's all a bit mysterious. Which is perhaps in itself a good reason to avoid it like the plague.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Nova Scotia's "lobster wars" won't be resolved without government intervention

I don't always agree with the Globe and Mail's editorial columns, but today's makes a lot of sense.

The ongoing stand-off in southwestern Nova Scotia beween Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishermen is getting quite nasty, and has the potential to get much nastier. Both sides have a certain amount of right on their side - the Indigenous fishermen have treaty rights and the letter of the law behind them, while the non-Indigenous fishermen are right to insist on good stock management to ensure the survival of the species (who knows how much truth is to the allegations that the Indigenous fishermen have been bagging young, undersized lobsters, and/or pregnant females). 

But this is by no means a totally intractible and insoluble problem, like some others. The solution, however, does require some federal government intervention and law-making, something that should have been taken care of years ago. As long ago as 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that 18th century treaties did indeed grant the Indigenous comnunities of the Maritimes a right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from hunting and fishing. But the court ruling stressed that they could not just hunt and fish the region into oblivion, and that some regulation of fishing practices were needed, and that governments, not courts, were the correct avenue for establishing reasonable rules and regulations.

Since then, government after government of all stripes, not wanting to rock the boat, so to speak, has signally failed to do so, which is why we find ourselves in the current impasse. And, as the editorial points out, there is very unlikely to be a resolution to the problem until government gets involved and legislates a few rules. 

I don't agree with Jodi Wilson-Raybould's opinion that the violence in Nova Scotia is due to racism - that is just her unhelpfully sticking her Indigenous oar in, as she is prone to do, but the commercial fishermen are not objecting on grounds of race: they would be equally opposed to any group who they see as compromising their fishing livelihoods. But  I do agree with her when she says that the government needs to intervene in a practical manner, rather than just condemning the violence.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Asbestos, Quebec, finally changes its name

The town of Asbestos, Quebec, has finally got around to changing its name.

During its heyday, the province of Quebec produced some 90% of the world's supply of the toxic, carcinogenic mineral, and the largest single mine was the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, a small town 130 km east of Montreal. The mine closed in 2012, after a flurry of research studies showing just how dangerous the mineral is, and nowadays the name is more of a liability than a point of pride. The town's residents voted on the six favourite options for a new name, with Val-des-Sources ("Spring Valley", I guess) winning out. Now, the daunting process of changing all the various administrative, legal and commercial references begins.

Some residents are apparently still proud of the town's industrial heritage. At least one restaurant has an asbestos-themed menu, and a local brewery boasts of sourcing its water from the lake that now floods the old Jeffrey Mine, both of which seem like brave marketing decisions to me. Most residents, though, are pretty happy to turn the page on a less-than-auspicious part of its history.

What I find really amusing, though, is that asbestos is not even the French word for asbestos, which is usually refered to as amiante.

Democrats in Pennsylvania may be making their own chances worse

As Republicans do everything they possibly can to disenfranchise Democrats by derailing postal votes in a variety of ways - by blocking ballots, intimidating voters, sabotaging rhe postal system, tinkering with the eligibility rules, and spreading misinformation - it seems that Democrats are not doing much to help themselves.

Many more Democrats than Republicans are expected to take advantage of mail-in ballots in the upcoming US elections. So, Republicans, chasing victory at any price, are doing whatever they can to disrupt the already creaky systems that are in place.

So, it's pretty depressing to read that such a thing as "naked ballots" even exist. These are mail-in ballots sent without a proper envelope. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled recently that such ballots are ineligible. Election officials warn that this could mean that as many as 100,000 (predominantly Democratic) votes could be thrown out in this key battleground state alone, which, given that Trump won the state in 2016 by only 44,000 votes, is a big deal.

But it raises the question of why the hell anyone would send in a postal ballot without an envelope? Now, I haven't seen the ballots, but I'm pretty sure there are reasonably clear instructions on how to fill them out and how to mail them in. 

How can 100,000 people get this this so wrong? Is it just sloppiness, lack of education or reading skills, inadvertent or deliberate poor wording in the instructions? I just don't get it.

How fast the nights are actually drawing in this time of year

It's noticeable how quickly the time of the sunrise is changing from one week to the next, even one day to the next, at this time of year, as the nights start to draw in. So, of course, I wanted to find out just how much the hours of daylight change each day.

And the answer, courtesy of the excellent timeanddate.com, at least for here in Toronto at a latitude of about 44°N, is that we are losing about 2 minutes 50 seconds each and every day at this time of year (10 hours 49 minutes today; 10 hours 52 minutes yesterday). 

Just after the September equinox, the day length is falling fastest, and we lose just about 3 minutes each day (each day is actually about 12 hours and 8 minutes, not exactly 12 hours, for some obscure technical reason). 

As we approach the winter solstice and the shortest day, the rate of loss of daylight gradually slows down, until the length of each day changes by mere seconds around the time of the solstice (about 8 hours 56 minutes of daylight in Toronto's case).

Interesting.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Japan cannot be allowed to flush its nuclear waste into the ocean

The international pressure is ramping up on new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to abandon plans to release 1.2 million tons of radioactive cooling water from Fukushima nuclear plant directly into the ocean.

The waste water has been accumulating at a rate of 170 tons a day ever since the catastrophic accident at the plant. The water has been pumping through the radioactive core of the damaged reactor in order to cool it and avoid a new melt-down, and up until now it has been stored in over 1,000 specially-designed tanks. Decommissioning the reactor has already cost Japan an estimated $200 billion. 

However, the storage facility is starting to run out space, and the environment minister announced last year that the only available option was to release the cooling water, contaminated with radioactive tritium and other radioactive elements even agter treatment, into the ocean to dilute it.

There has been an international outcry over the decision, particularly from neighbouring South Korea, which already prohibits imports of fish from the Fukushima area, and from the United Nations. Japan is already battling a bad (and deterioratimg) environmental reputation after pulling out of the international embargo on whaling last year, vocal opposition to calls for changes to its shipping fleet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its reaction to an oil spill near Mauritius, and an ongoing scandal over political interference in the Scientific Council of Japan.

Investment in nuclear energy was never risk-free, and there have always been hidden costs and huge potential liabilities. Now the radioactive chickens have come home to roost, Japan needs to live up to its international commitments and deal with it responsibly, rather than just flush it down the drain. Reap what you sow, and all that.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Great Barrington Declaration not a great solution if you are one of the millions that will die

I wonder who actually are the 10,000 or so "medical and public health scientists" and the nearly 28,000 "medical practitioners" who have signed on to the rather grandly-named "Great Barrington Declaration", an American apologia for the otherwise discredited idea of COVID-19 herd immunity? 

The Great Barrington Declaration, spearheaded by three American and British epidemiologists, essentially calls for an end to lockdown and a return to normal life, while somehow protecting the "vulnerable". (A response refuting the Declaration, known as the John Snow Memorandum, was issued by a group of equally eminent physicians and epidemiologists a few days later.)

Herd immunity, or "focused protection" as proponents have tried to rebrand it in this Declaration, is definitely a thing - it's the way mass immunization programs work - but it has never been used with a live disease before. And to suggest that we should be deliberately exposing all and sundry to a disease as potentially debilitating and/or fatal as this coronavirus is surely the height of irreponsibility and folly. 

The Trump campaign has, of course, latched onto it because it fits their political narrative (you know, masks are an infringement on our liberty, etc). Top US infectious diseases doctor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, calls it "total nonsense". Many other scientists have been much less circumspect in their language ("callous dangerous nonsense" and "fringe perspective" being anong the more polite ones).

Well over a million people worldwide have already died from the virus (not to mention the chronic health problems that afflict many of those who have been infected but not died), including about 209,000 in the USA out of some 8 million positive cases. These cases represent about 2.5% of the total US population. To achieve herd immunity, most health scientists agree that around 65%-75% of the population would need to be infected. Extrapolating from the current death rate, this would lead to at least 5½ million deaths in the USA (not to mention completely overwhelming the healthcare system), which seems to me like a pretty steep price to pay.

This would also take many months, and would probably not be achieved until about the same time a vaccine would be becoming available. So, millions of additional deaths for no particular time advantage? Let me think about that ... er, no, thank you!

Add to that the fact that, with this particular virus, being infected once does not necessary preclude being infected again later, and it all starts to seem like a pretty bad idea. Immunity seems to last for a few months, maximum, and catching it once does not mean that you can't catch it again. Plus, only an estimated one in ten of infected people actually develop antibodies anyway. This is not a typical virus.

So, all in all, based on the science that we know, let alone the science that we don't, herd immunity is really not going to work for COVID-19, and any attempt to pursue it will lead to literally millions of deaths in the USA alone. 

One of the Declaration's co-authors used a rather telling explanation: "We will reach herd immunity sooner or later, just as an airplane will reach the ground one way or another". Well, yes, either intact or in little pieces. Nevertheless, it seems that tens of thousands of American doctors and health scientists approve of this remedy. Is this their idea of tough love, or might it be cynical right-wing politics at play?

Even Finns are surprised at their reaction to Prime Minister's photo-shoot

New (since December 2019) Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is 34 years old, blue-eyed, dark-haired, lithe, and, while not obviously a smouldering beauty, at the very least pretty good-looking. She is also a smart cookie - you don't get to be the world's youngest Prime Minister any other way.

Finland is a typically Scandinavian, progressive country, with a well-educated populace and a pretty woke attitude towards women. There is a generally liberal permissive attitude towards sex, drinking, etc, in the country. Finns regularly sit around naked in saunas; it's a thing there.

So, I think it has come as a bit of a surprise to Finns themselves how contentious a recent photo-shoot for women's lifestyle magazine Trendi by Ms. Marin has become. One particular photo, in which she is wearing a smart jacket, slightly open to the navel, with no shirt underneath, seems to have been just too much for many people (specifically older men it seems; most Finnish women are very much positive about it, and there has been an outpouring of support in social media under the #ImWithSanna hashtag).

Some naysayers seem annoyed that she chose to do this during a pandemic, which seems a strange point of contention (the photos accompanied an article about the demands of work, exhaustion, balancing work and family life, etc). Many, though, just seem to find it inappropriate and somehow prurient, which definitely goes against the whole liberal Scandinavian outlook trope.

It is still such a novelty to have a world leader who is not male, middle-aged-to-downright-old, with a paunch, that it seems people don't really know how to deal with it. Even Canada's own Justin Trudeau turned heads back in 2015, and many opponents under-estimated and resented him because he was relatively young, charismatic and personable. New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, who has more than proved her worth during her first term as Prime Minister, created an uproar when she took her baby to Parliament and a UN conference. It seems we have come a long way in many respects, but we're not quite there yet.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Kamala Harris tricks Justice Barrett into admitting she's a climate change denier

One of the most telling moments in US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barretts's cross examination by Senator Kamala Harris yesterday came when Ms. Harris asked a series of three questions about Judge Barrett's belief system.

The judge was clearly on her guard, and was convinced that the Democratic senator was trying to entrap her ("I'm not sure exactly where you're going with this"), and she probably thought herself quite equal to the task of evading an incriminating admission. But she fell into Senator Harris' trap anyway.

Ms. Harris asked Judge Barrett whether she agreed that the coronavirus is contagious, and that smoking caused lung cancer, and then that climate change "is happening and that it's threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink". Ms. Barrett warily agreed with the first two propositions, which she called self-evident, but balked at the third, warning that Harris was trying to get her to express her opinion on "a very contentious matter of public debate, and I will not do that".

Clearly, then, Judge Barrett does not believe that the science around climate change is settled (even though 97% of climate scientists agree on it), and that it is merely a subject on which there are differing opinions, and she is not willing to share her own personal opinion. Anyone who does believe that climate change has been scientifically demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt would not equivocate on such a question, so ... there we have our answer.The United States is about to have another climate change denier in a position of real influence and power.

Yes, it was politcal theatre, but, by the same token, the American public needs to know what they are having foisted on them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

NBC's craven decision to compete with Biden's townhall broadcast

US network NBC is (quite rightly) taking some heat for scheduling a townhall interview with Donald Trump at exactly the same time as competitor ABC is airing an already-arranged  townhall with Joe Biden.

They could have chosen literally any other time or day, but no, it had to be at the same time, a decision that just reeks of Trumpian (read, Machiavellian) machinations. I assume that some money changed (or will change) hands. Both townhalls will be available digitally after the events, but without the extemporaneous impact of the live events.

Certainly, Trump, who refused to participate in a head-to-head tele-conferenced debate in place of the cancelled second televized debate, has got what he wants from NBC: a ratings war. As everyone knows, Trump lives for ratings, which he sees as the only metric of any value, and a more reliable guide to his populariry than any number of opinion polls, which are, as we all know, fake news.

Devote a bit of your valuable time to a TED Talk on carbon capture

With all that's going on - you know, that old virus thing and all - it's perhaps hard to focus on other things that may be at least as important. Like climate change, for example.

But I encourage you to spend ten minutes of your valuable (or probably not so valuable any more) time on a TED Talk. This one is from Myles Allen, climate scientist and contributor to IPCC reports, and he argues that, while it is important to pursue carbon taxes, electric vehicles, renewable fuels, etc, we are just not going to be able to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 without actually decarbonizing fossil fuels themselves, by extracting and storing the carbon in our fossil fuels.

Allen argues that by quickly creating a carbon disposal industry, there is still a chance that we can achieve this ever more improbable goal, but the only actors with the expertise and the deep pockets to do so are the fossil fuel companies themselves. The technology already exists, but it is expensive, and the fossil fuel industry needs to be encouraged and/or forced to do the necessary.

Like most TED Talks, it is short, snappy and compelling, boiling a tough, intractable and complex problem down into a seemingly simple, obvious and inescapable conclusion. It's a bit light on just how this intractible problem and its inescapable solution will actually be made to come about in practical terms, and how much it might cost. But it's certainly compelling. And, hey, it makes a change from looking at COVID statistics.

If all Canada buys is pickup trucks and SUV, how will we reduce emissions?

Four of the top five best-selling vehicles in Canada this year are pick-up trucks. The other one's a SUV). 

  1. Ford F-series (e.g. F-150)
  2. FAA Ram
  3. Toyota RAV-4
  4. GMC Sierra
  5. Chevrolet Silverado

What is wrong with this picture?

In fact, only two of Canada's ten best-sellijg vehicles are what you might call passenger cars. And, go figure, hybrids and electric vehicles, are not even close to featuring on the list. This is pretty much consistent with previous years. Long gone are the days when Canadians bought more cars than tucks and vans: now, about twice as many trucks, vans and SUVs as cars are being sold.

So, what was the plan to reduce Canada's GHG emissions? Carbon neutral by 2050 or something, wasn't it? Hah!

Democrats have various options to block Trump's Supreme Court pick, none of them good

The unseemly haste with which the US Republicans are pursuing their latest Supreme Court nomination strikes most people as morally repugnant. But even the staunchest Democrat has to admit that it is legally permissible. 

As Trump and this particular bumch of feckless Republicans see their time in power trickling away, this may well be their most lasting, and most damaging, legacy, even if it is something arising from sheer serendipity, and not from their own hard work or the will of the people.

But is there anything the Democrats can do to prevent it at this points? Senate Commiittee hearings are ongoing but, eloquently has Kamala Harris makes her points, and outrageous as many of them clearly are, they are not arguments that are likely to weigh that much with the Republican-dominated Senate, which is under what would be called in British parliamentary circles a "three'-line whip" to vote along party lines on this one.

Just before the nomination was announced, Democratic House Speaker Namcy Pelosi is quoted as saying, "I have arrows in my quiver, in the House quiver, and one of the arrows is to not to say what the arrows are", but this sounds more like bluster than anything of substance. 

It was the Democrats themselves, back in 2013, that did away with the fillibuster as a means of blocking executive branch nominations and federal judicial nominations (and quite rightly too - it is an odious political tool, which has no place in a modern democracy). 

Can the Democrats rely on the ethical probity of a few brave Republicans to defy their Glorious Leader. Probably not. Even if mavericks (and long-time thorns in Trump's side) like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska vote with their consciences, as they did during the nomination vote, the 53-47 Republican majority in the Senate means that at least four Republican Senators would have to step up and defy their own party, which seems improbable. Even in the event of a tied vote (say, if Collins and Mukowski vote against, which is far from certain), Mike Pence, as Vice President, would have the tie-breaking vote, and there is no doubt where his sympathies and loyalties (and his sense of ethics) lie.

Even if Trump is voted out on November 3rd, and the make-up of the Senate is changed dramatically, the current President and Senate will remain in power until January 3rd, which seems like more than enough time to ram through the nomination. There is a by-election already underway to fill the seat of the late Republican Senator John McCain, the winner of which is to be sworn in by November 30th. But even that would probably be too late, and even if the Democrats were to win that seat (if!), they would still need another two Republicans to join them.

One desperate procedural measure might be for the Democrats to deny the Senate a quorum by ensuring that fewer than two opposition Senators turn up for the vote, but this is murky stuff, and can be circumvented by a quick rule change by a simple majority of Republicans.

Equally desperate would be to bring forward another impeachment motion (of Trump, and/or Attorney-General Bill Barr), which would effectively tie up Senate time because impeachment proceedings, once announced, must take priority. This has not been ruled out by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but it is sneaky and risks alienating voters the Democrats can ill-afford to lose.

Likewise with the idea of denying "unanimous consent", a little-known rule under which the Senate operates its daily business, the denial of which would slow Senate business of all kinds almost to a halt. But again, we are looking at tinkering with the very core workings of the Senate, and the Democrats are unlikely to pursue that route.

So, yes, various options are available, but none of them look like very practical options. So, we must rely on the higher principles of individual Republican. Which means: we're stuffed.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Israeli Gal Gadot to play Cleopatra? Why not?

Almost predictably, there has been a whole lotta controversy about Israeli actress Gal Gadot's casting as the star of an upcoming Hollywood film of the story of Cleopatra.

Most of the controversy is over how racist the casting is, and how such an iconic role should be given to a Black or Arabic actor, Cleopatra being Queen of Egypt and all.

Until, that is, it was pointed out that Cleopatra was actually ethnically Greek, being a descendent of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty. So, she would have been essentially Causasian with a slight Mediterranean olive-ness. And indeed, the paleness of her skin would probably have been celebrated and encouraged at the time, as a mark of her high caste and royal upbringing (and all those milk baths). Elizabeth Taylor may not have been far off the mark. Apparently, Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga were both considered for the role

Greek-American screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis obviously had this figured out, describing Cleopatra in a tweet as "arguably the most famous Macedonian Greek woman in history".

Perhaps a more apt criticism of this particular casting decision is that it was somewhat tone-deaf - even if not colour-blind - to choose an Israeli actor to play an Egyptian queen, given Israel's ongoing war against anything Arabic.

But has it got to the stage where a Greek character can not be played by anyone other than Greek actor? This seems a bit ridiculous, not to mention impractical.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

1,214 people who will never be President of the United States

It turns out that there are in fact 1,216 candidates running for US President

You've probably heard of Joe Biden and that Crump guy. But there are 1,214 others that will presumably have to also appear on the ballot, some of them deadly serious, some less so. But they've all gone to the trouble of filling in the paperwork and paying the requisite fees, whether out of genuine concern for the American people, or just for a laugh..

But, hey, that's democracy. Land of the free and all that 

Friday, October 09, 2020

Does America really need a House of Representatives AND a Senate

While we Canadians look on in horror and bemusement as the US election lurches from one crisis to another, I have been trying to understand a little more about the American political system.

I know that there is the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, unlike the Canadian Senate, both of these branches of government are composed of elected members. I know that there are 100 Senators (2 for each state) and 435 Representatives (loosely based on the populations of the various states). And I know that Representatives serve for just two years, while Senators serve for 6 years, with one-third of them re-elected every two years. 

The Senate was originally envisaged by the Founding Fathers as a chamber of "sober second thought", similar to that of Canada or the UK, relatively limited in power, but designed to reign in some of the rashness and wildness that was expected to be inflicted by the uneducated mob of people and their representatives. But that's not really how things turned out, and it's certainly not how things are now.

A bit more research informs me of some other differences. For example, Senators need to be ar least 30 years old and have been a US citizen for at least 9 years; Representatives need to be at least 25 years old and have been a citizen for at least 7 years (a pretty random distinction).

And the Senate and House of Representatives have different responsibilities and possibilities as regards what they can bring about and vote on. For example, as we have seen, the House can call for a president to be impeached, but the Senate is repsonsible for actually legislating it. Why? Who knows? Some Founding Father decided to make it so. Senate members are not allow to bring forward bills to raise revenue (e.g. tax bills), but the Senate is allowed to amend such bills. The Senate has veto power over treaties and executive appointments; the House does not. It all seems remarkably random. 

So, is there actually any point in having the two separate chambers? Not that I can see. The House is clearly more representative of the population (despite some horrible gerrymandering in many states). The Senate, in which tiny states like Rhode Island or Wyoming have as much clout as huge ones like California or New York, is clearly not representative. The Senate is less racially representative too, with the small, rural, mainly white, God-belt states being hugely over-represented. Washington DC and Puerto Rico, technically not being states, have no influence in the Senate at all.

So, why not just get rid of it? Well, there is definitely a movement to do just that, but tinkering with anything the Founding Fathers put in place, however dumb, is a tough ask, and the legalities are a nightmare. Basically, it is all but impossible.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Alberta finally starts to look outside of the oil and gas industry

Well, credit where credit is due, I guess, even if it is for long overdue action. Alberta's stubborn Conservative government is finally recognizing that it desperately needs to diversify its economy out of the moribund oil and gas industry and join the 21st century, with recent announcements about developing a hydrogen fuel industry and investing in geothermal energy projects. Wow!

First, it announces it is looking to recreate Alberta as a major hydrogen production and export centre, as well as a "centre of excellence" for plastics diversion and recycling. Some oil companies already produce some hydrogen for their own use, although they would need to invest in some carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) to make it a bit greener (it's actually called "blue hydrogen" in this state) for mass consumption. A big bet on hydrogen as a major clean fuel source for the future is a calculated risk, and there are many proponents and detractors of the technology. But anything to wean them off oil has to be encouraged, and there is a good chance that hydrogen will indeed become a major commercial fuel source, particularly for long-distance trucks, for which battery power would be impractical (at least using currently-available technology).

And then, just today, Alberta Energy Minster Sonia Savage (who HAS to be a WWE wrestler on the side, with a great name like that!) announced an expansion of geothermal investments in the province, which particularly makes sense given the drilling expertise in Alberta. It's even possible that some of the province's inactive and orphaned oil wells could be adapted for green geothermal energy production.

Of course, Alberta's intransigent government is making these out to be forward-looking, progressive ideas that they have come up with themselves, and not the desperate adoption of what many people have been telling them for years. And I'm pretty sure that arch-dinosaur Premier Jason Kenney was NOT the person behind this. But, hey, we'll take it. Who knows, they may even institute a sales tax next!

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Slavery in Canada - who knew?

It's funny how these things happen. Just yesterday, my daughter rang me and griped,  with some outrage, about how it was possible that she could obtain a Canadian high school education and still not know that Canada, like so many other countries, also indulged in slavery back in the day.

I thought about quibbling that, well, actually, it was just part of Britain in those days, and yes, Britain was involved in the slave trade for centuries, but was at least one of the first major countries to abolish it. But my daughter has very decided views, and would have been equally outraged by my own quibbling.

And then, in today's Globe and Mail, I come across an article about a woman who is in the process of establishing a research institute dedicated to the study of Canadian slavery, partly because so few people seem to be aware that Canada was ever involved in it.

So, yes, slavery in Canada ended with the British Act of 1833, long before Canada was Canada. But, yes also, Canadians should probably be much more aware of what happened in their own backyard in those dark days. As the mixed legacy of dead white guys like James McGill and Henry Dundas are debated to death in recent months, a bit of context would be welcome.

Why does Canada import oil from Saudi Arabia?

Ever wondered why a major oil producer like Canada imports oil from iffy regimes like Saudi Arabia?

Well, generally speaking, the answer is "globalization", but more specifically it is because it is because it can work out cheaper for Canada to import oil than to use its own. Canada's imports of oil come from USA (54% of total imports), Saudi Arabia (11%), Iraq (8%), Norway (5%), Algeria (5%), Angola (5%), and several others. It's an unfortnate fact of life that most of the world's oil is produced by some of the less palatable political regimes - and yes, I include the USA in that generalization - USA (14%), Saudi Arabia (13%), Russia (12%), China (5%), Canada (5%), UAE, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait (all 4%), Brazil (3%).

So, why does Canada import so much oil when it can produce it itself? We import so much from the USA (and the USA imports from us for the same reason) because Canada is so big that it is often closer to transport crude from America than all the way in the west of the country, saving on transportation costs (although the same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia). But Eastern Canada's largest refinery is on the coast of  New Brunswick, so it can still be more cost-efficient to bring crude in by taker to its deep-water port than bringing it overland by road or rail. Also, most Eastern Canadian refineries are unable to process the heavy crude oil (or bitumen) produced by Alberta's oil sands, or at least not cost-effectively. And finally, even Western Canada also imports lighter oil and natural gas condensates in order to dilute its bitumen and make it easier to transport by pipeline.


Canadian arms sales to Turkey and Saudi Arabian are inexcusable

The federal Liberals are making a bit of a song and dance about their belated decision to cancel Canadian export permits for arms sales to Turkey, after they were persuaded that military imaging and target-acquisition equipment made by L3Harris Wescam (a US-owned company based in Burlington, Ontario) and sold to Turkey, was found to have been used against civilian and military targets by Turkey's ally Azerbaijan in their Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Except that they shouldn't have been makinI have written about in the pastg arms sales to Turkey in the first place, which makes Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne's blather about "Canada's robust export control regime" sound pretty hollow.

Canada first put an embargo on arms sales to Turkey nearly a year ago, in response to Turkish incursions into northern Syria, and, as a signatory to the international Arms Trade Treaty it is obliged to prevent, detect and stop the diversion of military goods to users other than its intended customers. However, in April of this year, the Canadian government quietly added a loophole to its Turkish arms embargo, on the grounds that it relates to "NATO co-operation programs", which is clearly hogwash in this context.

Another example of Canadian tone-deafness is its insupportable sales of LAVs to Saudi Arabia, now being used in Saudi's dirty war in Yemen, which I have written about in the past.

In today's globalized economy, and with the constantly shifting political loyalties (particularly in the Middle East), surely the safest path is to get out of the arms trade completely. Sure, the country would lose out on a bit of money - military goods are one the most lucrative economic sectors, and each device sold by L3Harris Wescam is valued at over $1 million, for example - but it is dirty money, blood money, and we'd be better off without it. If Canada wants to hold it's head up in polite society (and I don't mean the USA, which has more moral blind-spots than even Canada, but in Europe, Asia, the United Nations in general), it needs to clean up its act. It is already getting an unfortunate reputation as an opportunistic, morally-lax country, and that can only have negative consequences in the long run.

Monday, October 05, 2020

President Trump doesn't get it, but he's got it

While Donald Trump is sojourning in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, taking untested drugs that have not been cleared for general use, and are not available to other Americans, he has apparently also been learning all about COVID-19. What now? After 8 months? He now assures us that, "I get it and understand it".

Except, he clearly doesn't. He felt it quite reasonable to go for a little drive around in his armoured, chemical attack-protected monster truck, so that he could give his supporters a regal wave, and assure them that he is still alive. Everyone else, though, is thinking, WTF? Doctors have called it "insanity, "completely unnecessary", "political theater", and "the height of irresponsibility". 

Secret Service agents have been complaining that, "he's never cared about us", and regularly puts them in unnecessary danger without a thought. Political optics are paramount and, as a former national security adviser wryly comments, "The President [is] always a showman and concerned about the optics".

So, he "gets it"? All you can really say is that "he's got it" (i.e. the virus).

UPDATE

Trump followed up his joyride with a capitalized Twitter outburst, excessive even by his own extreme standards, which has led one doctor to hypothesize "steroid-induced psychosis".

I guess he's bored.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Big Four? Big Three. Three-and-a-half, t.ops

Listening to the commmentary of the French Open (tennis, if you weren't sure), I was genuinely confused by talk of the " Big Four". I mentally counted down: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic ... er ... who the hell is the fourth?

Well, it turns out it's Andy Murray. Wha? Surely, Murray is not in the same league as the other three? 

Well, actually, no he's not. Not even close. In terms of rankings, Federer has been No. 1 for 310 weeks, Dkokovic 287, Nadal 209, and Murray ... 41. In Grand Slam wins, Federer leads with 20, followed by Nadal 19, Djokovic 17, and Murray ... 3. Earnings (as of February 2020)? Djokovic leads with $143.1 million, followed by Federer with $129.9 million, Nadal $120.6 million, and Murray ... $61.5 millon (below Serena Williams), ATP Masters 1000 wins? Nadal and Djokovic are joint leaders with 35, Federer has 28, and Murray ... 14. Repectable, this last one, but still not in the same league.

So, let's just stick with Big Three, shall we? Between them, the three have dominated mens singles tennis this millennium, accounting for 56 of the last 67 Grand Slam titles. Murrary is a second rank player, along with the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, maybe Juan Martín Del Potro. At the head of that group perhaps, but of it, nevertheless.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Where is Nagorno-Karabakh, and why is it always at war?

Most people are probably not too sure exactly what and where Nagorno-Karabakh is. The region hit the news back in the late 80s/early 90s, when a nasty but ultimately inconclusive war broke out there, and how it is in the news again as Armenia and Azerbaijan face off again over the disouted territory.

Deep in the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian Seas, Nagorno-Karabakh is a tiny region (about the size of, say, Trinidad, or the state of Rhode Island, or Prince Edward Island in Canada), with a population of about 150,000.  By an accident of history, you might say, it is technically (under international law) entirely located within the Muslim-majority Turkic country of Azerbaijani, but its population is over 90% Christian ethnic Armenian. 

When Armenia and Azerbaijan split from the imploding Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Soviets gave control of the area to Azerbaijan, presumably based on the fact that it is geographically within Azerbaijan territory. But the ethnically-Armenian population objected and the regional parliament voted to become part of Armenia, leading to full-scale war between the two newly-independent countries. A cease-fire was brokered by Russia in 1994, but nothing was really settled. Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been essentially a self-declared republic, run by Armenians and backed by the Armenia government (and Russia), but still located wholly within Azerbaijan. 

Realistically, then, "peace" was never going to last, and it is no real surprise that hostilities have broken out again. It is one of those intractable geopolitical situations that has no obvious solution.