Thursday, December 31, 2020

Lightning fast, extremely accurate, saliva-based test for COVID-19 developed in ... Turkey!

Well, this is brilliant. A new COVID-19 saliva-based test has been developed in Turkey (of all places!) that produces results in 5-20 seconds (5-10 seconds for a positive identification, up to 20 seconds for a negative), does not require the intrusive and uncomfortable nasal swabs, and is 99% effective! 

Sound too good to be true? Well, supposedly it is a real thing. Known as the Diagnovir, the diagnostic kit was developed at Bilkent University and uses a mouth swab and nanotechnology to detect COVID particles optically, based on their size and shape.

The test kits are still a couple of months away from official approval, even in Turkey. But wouldn't it be nice as a replacement for the slow and intrusive PCR tests?

Why are we tinkering with the vaccine manufacturers' directions?

The long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine roll-out is underway at last, in some countries at least. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna products are already being administered, and the cheaper and easier-to-transport Oxford/AstraZeneca one is expected to follow in very short order. However, the roll-out is proceeding at a much slower pace than originally anticipated or promised

Partly as a result of this, some jurisdictions, notably the UK and some provinces in Canada, are taking the unilateral decision to concentrate on administering the first dose to as many vulnerable people as possible, even if this comes at the risk of delaying, or even missing, the second booster dose. Quebec has also changed tack and is re-allocating planned second doses to other people's first doses. Parts of the USA is also currently debating whether to go down a similar road. 

The UK has gone one step further and says it plans to ensure that the second dose is administered within 12 weeks of the first, despite the very clear recommendations of the manufacturers that a second dose must be administered within three or four weeks (depending on the particular vaccine).

It is maybe understandable why vaccine coordinators might want to make make this decision - a well-intentioned attempt to get as many people at least partially treated as possible as quickly as possible - but it still seems like a rather cavalier approach. Pfizer, for example, has been very up-front in saying that the second dose is absolutely essential for long term protection, and that the first dose alone may only offer protection for a week or two, and that  the two doses three weeks apart (not 12, not 20, not 1) are the only way to ensure the 95% efficacy rates people are expecting. There are some hopes that a first dose may be as much as 60-70% effective, but Pfizer says that this has not been rigorously tested, and little over 50% is more likely. Scientists are split on the policy.

Surely, if a vaccine, like any other medication, comes with specific instructions, they should be followed to the letter (like Pfizer's onerous and restrictive -70° storage instructions). Pfizer and BioNTech know their product much better than the British or Canadian governments. If they say to administer the second dose after three weeks, then that is exactly what we should be doing. We should not be second-guessing the manufacturers, not should we be cutting corners where people's lives are at stake.

UPDATE

The UK has taken another quantum leap towards anti-science by giving the green light to mix-and-match vaccines

For some reason, despite the complete lack of evidence and data that would support it, and contrary to specific warnings from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientists that the authorized COVID vaccines "are not interchangeable", the UK medical authorities are saying that, if a second dose of a vaccine that a patient has received is not available (which is quite conceivable due to its other policies - see above), then they should just be given a dose of any other vaccine as a substitute. They say that, "it is likely the second dose will help to boost the response to the first dose", based on no evidence whatsoever as far as I can see.

Say, what? Even as a non-scientist, that sounds wrong to me. Where is the UK coming from, or going to, with this stuff?

Subsequent clarifications indicate that this is expected to be an extremely unlikely eventuality, for example where a patient is not sure which vaccine they had been given, and that the government is not actually recommending the mixing of vaccines: "Every effort should be made to give them the same vaccine, but where this is not possible it is better to give a second dose of another vaccine than not at all."

UPDATE UPDATE

Quebec is now looking to follow the UK on this 12-week policy, a move that comes with substantial risks. For example, no-one really knows how fast the immunity conferred by the first dose drops off; encountering people with incomplete immunizations may lead the virus to mutate further in order to evade the vaccines; it is even possible that future supply of the vaccines may be withheld if countries are not using them as recommended. 

None of these outcomes are to be welcomed. So, why is Quebec being allowed too even consider it?

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the Canadian body that, at least theoretically, oversees the vaccine rollout, has now got involved in this debate, and has concluded that provinces are justified in delaying the second dose until 42 days after the first, but that any further delay after that (such as as the 90 days that Quebec is now trying to justify) becomes increasingly risky. 

They add that, particularly given that the vaccines are now being given to the most vulnerable populations, the closer to the recommended 21/28 days the better. Under no circumstances, therefore, should any province be delaying for 90 days.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Louise Erdrich's 'Future Home of the Living God'

I have been reading Louise Erdrich's 2017 novel Future Home of the Living God, and I am pleasantly surprised at how good it is. Not that I necessarily expected anything bad from Erdrich. It's just that I have never read any of her books, and so had no expectations at all, other than the fact that, a couple of years ago, I must have read a review of this book somewhere and I was obviously intrigued by the plot summary and someone else's opinion of it.

And it is an intriguing premise. A young 20-something woman of Indigenous parentage, who has been living a life of relative ease with her thoughtful, progressive, almost-too-good-to-be-true, adopted parents in suburban Minneapolis, finds herself pregnant at a time when the world is going through a strange and inexplicable upheaval: it seems that evolution is suddenly starting to go backwards, and quickly, and no-one is quite sure why, how quickly, and just what the practical implications might be. At this time of extreme uncertainty and stress, then, the young woman, who had already surprised herself by converting to Catholicism some years earlier, seeks out her birth parents in order to better understand herself, and to give her future baby some context to its own life. 

Life then starts to get even more complicated when shadowy government departments begin to exhibit excessive interest in any new pregnancies. Rumours of mutations and abductions swirl, society starts to crack at the seams, militias are formed, communications break down, and very soon we are in full post-apocalypse territory.

The whole reversing evolution thing, unlikely as it is, is not belaboured, and the theory behind it is not the point of the book. It is the internal world of the young woman that really interests Erdrich and, in turn, us. Incidentally, Erdrich is a Chippewa-Ojibwe on her mother's side, so she is "allowed" to write from the perspective of a Native American.

A couple of little snippets, to give a flavour of the language:

"I am more comfortable with the before-ness and the after-ness of life. I am happier dissecting the past or dreading the future. I really have no proficiency at experiencing the present... I have to treat myself like a skittish horse. An animal ready to bolt at the sight of the big picture. Stick to the periphery. Pull on a comforting set of blinders."

"My voice is fake. She starts to cry although she doesn't really cry, just gives a little splutter. I smooth her hair back around her ear. She shakes her head as if to shake me off. I'm still patronizing her, talking lightly, rummaging around for tea. She answers me with one of her lectures, like the amateur pedant she's always been."

Biggest disappointment? A recognized author writing a sentence like, "The oil company could care less who's in charge." Not in the demotic voice of one of the characters, but in the author's own voice. Does she think that this is an acceptable grammatical sentence? (I hope not.) Is she being ironic? (I don't think so.) Is this just me flagging a pet peeve? (Probably.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Canada performs creditably in the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking

The Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking is produced each month by Bloomberg, based on 10 moving indicators, including COVID cases, fatalities, positive test rates, access to vaccines, lockdown severity and freedom of movement, universal healthcare coverage, and economic prospects for 2020. Basically, it ranks the best places to be in the world during this pandemic.

As might be expected, New Zealand heads the list, followed by Taiwan, Australia, Norway, Singapore, Finland, Japan, South Korea, China, Denmark and Canada. Yes, surprising as it might be, Canada ranks No. 11 out of 53! Actually, pretty good, and above countries like Vietnam and Hong Kong, which I thought had done better.

Just for interest, Russia is at No. 18, the UK is No. 30, France is No. 34, and the USA is No. 37. Languishing down at the bottom are Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Greece.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Adermatoglyphia - people with no fingerprint

Among the most unusual of conditions is the rare occurrence of people who, instead of the complex, individualized whorl of patterns most people have at their fingertips, have ... absolutely nothing.

Adermatoglyphia, the absence of fingerprints, is one of the rarest conditions in the world, affecting just a handful of families worldwide. But, in a world increasingly dominated by technology and biometrics, it can be a major problem for those people. In many parts of the world, fingerprints (technically, dematoglyphs) are the biometric of choice for obtaining a passport, ID card, drivers license, even a cellphone SIM card.

Adermatoglyphia is a rare genetic mutation that arises in families, such as the Sarker family in Bangladesh, where four generations are affected by it, or the Swiss family where seven members of the family have fingerprints and nine do not. It is marked by flat, featureless finger pads and, often a reduced number of sweat glands in the hands, resulting in vrty dry skin. The mutation, in a specific gene that seems to have no other function, appears to cause no other ill health effects.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The time for presidential pardons has come and gone

The right of US presidents to issue judicial pardons from federal (but not state) crimes is one of the dafter ideas in the American Constitution, and surely the time has come to do away with it. I'm surprised not to see more of a call for this on the internet.

The provision for presidential pardons is enshrined in the US Constitution, and is based loosely on the ancient right of English kings to issue clemency. It effectively puts the president above the law in the the worst possible way, and is singularly open to abuse. 

It is supposed to be used to address systemic or egregious injustices, but often it is used as a personal favour or to reward loyal partisans. All presidents have taken advantage of it, both Republican and Democrat, some to a greater extent than others. Barack Obama, for example, pardoned 212 people over his eight years in power. Many of the pardons over the years have been controversial. Also, it seems like a pardon cannot be reversed by a subsequent president or the courts.

Interestingly, Donald Trump has not availed himself of such a potentially powerful political weapon as often as might have been expected - fewer than 100 times thus far - although he still has almost a month in which to rectify that. Most of his pardons have been very much in the mould of the personal rather than the ideological (and many are definitely controversial), such as his recent pardons for several of the figures in the  Russian election interference investigation and former Blackwater security guards.

Personally, I don't see any place for it in modern politics. I have read articles arguing that presidential pardons are an essential part of American democracy, but the arguments seem very thin to me. They rely on voters only voting in honourable and sensible presidents, but that has clearly broken down in recent years. The Biden administration should show its moral chops by calling for its repeal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Malaysia's halal meat scam has been going on for 40 years

It turns out that devout Muslims in Islam-majority Malaysia have been eating tainted non-halal meat products for at least the last four decades.

A huge cartel has been operating, importing non-certified meat from countries like Canada, Colombia, Ukraine, Uruguay, Spain and Mexico at low international prices, and then mixing it with local produce, and repackaging it with fake halal stickers. Kangaroo and horse meat has been routinely passed off as beef, and much of the actual beef used has been low quality and often tainted or diseased. Taxes and duties were also waived as part of the scheme, as well as avoiding the halal certification costs.

Government officers from Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development, the Department of Veterinary Services, the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services Department, the Malaysian Customs Department and the local police have all been in on the scheme, taking substantial bribes to remain silent. Some of the bribes reportedly involved women for sex. Some individuals have clearly made out handsomely.

Details of the goings-on were reported in Malaysia's newspaper of record, the New Straits Times, and heads will probably roll as a result (hopefully not literally). But it will be some time before regular folks can trust their meat suppliers again. Watch for an increase in vegetarianism in the region.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Is the COVID vaccine halal? Yes, that's a real question

Well, this is something that the COVID-19 vaccine developers probably didn't think too hard about, concerned as they were with saving thousands of lives. Is the vaccine halal?

You might think this is a minor consideration in the scheme of things, along the lines of "is the vaccine gluten-free?" or "is the vaccine macrobiotic?" But this is apparently a big deal for millions of Muslims (and Jews) across the world, for whom the consumption of pork products is considered deeply unclean and religiously unacceptable.

It turns out that a pork-derived gelatin is often used as a stabilizer in vaccines, and there have been high-level discussions in the Muslim world as to whether a pork gelatin ingredient which then undergoes a rigorous chemical transformation is still considered religiously impure - for the record, the consensus seems to be no, on the grounds that a greater harm would occur if the vaccines weren't used. But there will always be zealots who will take  their own path on this, I guess. Like we need more obstacles in the way of achieving herd immunity.

Currently, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have all confirmed that their vaccines do not use pork gelatin, but some of the other COVID vaccines are not yet certified gelatin-free. Personally, I'm vegetarian, but I'm sure as hell not going to insist on seeing the recipe before I get vaccinated. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Some information (and misinformation) about the Great Conjunction

You've probably read about the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which is due to happen tomorrow, when the two planets are so close together (at least from the persoective of Earth) that they appear almost as one very bright star in the night sky. You've probably also read that this is almost certainly the origin of the "Christmas Star" mentioned in the Bible, you know, the one that the three Magi followed to the birthplace of Christ.

But I got to thinking, hold on, if this Great Conjunction only happens every 400 years (or every 800 years, depending on what you read), then that would not coincide with the "Year Zero", not even close. So, why is this "fact" being bandied about in the less scientific media?

If you look at a more reliable source (like Space.com, for example), it turns out that there is all sorts of misinformation being propagated about the Great Conjunction. 

For one thing, the two planets will actually be about 6 arc minutes apart (about one-fifth of the apparent diameter of the moon), and so they will not actually be close enough to appear as a single star unless you really squint. They will, though, be closer than they have been for nearly 800 years.

Secondly, different reports say this kind of convergence only happens every 400 years (or, according to some sources, every 800 years). The last conjunction of the two planets was indeed on July 16th 1623, about 397 years ago, when they were about 5 arc minutes apart, although even this was only visible to the naked eye from tropical latitudes, where it was further distanced from the glare of the sun. The last time most of the world's population was able to view the conjunction was March 5th 1226, i.e. 794 years ago (which is presumably where the commonly-quoted 800 years metric comes from). This one had the two planets just 2 arc minutes apart, which would in fact have looked like one very bright star to the naked eye.

Previous occurrences would have occurred on July 3rd 769 (457 years before 1226, 4 arc minutes apart, but not easily visible because of the morning sun), December 31st 431 (336 years earlier, or 793 years before the 1226 occurrence, 6 arc minutes apart and easily visible), and March 6th 372 (just 59 years earlier, 2 arc minutes apart and visible). Future predictions of the event indicate that it can be expected in 60 years from now, then after another 337 years, then another 60 years, then 397 years more. So, this is not exactly Old Faithful!

What about the Great Conjunction as the "Christmas Star" that the Magi folowed to find the Christ child in his manger. Well, the best we can do is a rare triple conjunction in the year 7 BC (or 7 BCE, if you prefer). In that year, there was one conjunction on May 29th, another on September 30th, and a third on December 5th (all with varying degrees of proximity). This was certainly a very unusual occurrence, and may well have encouraged some ancient viewers to "follow" it. It was probably Johannes Kepler's calculation of this sequence of events in 1603 that probably started the whole Christmas connection.

At any rate, it would not have occurred close to the anecdotal birth of Christ ("Year Zero"), although it may have lined up quite well with the actual date of Jesus' birth, which most scholars put between 6 BCE and 4 BCE (although who knows how they would have used a star to find a cowshed near Bethlehem?)  One last point on that: there actually is no "Year Zero"; the year 1 BCE is followed by the year 1 CE.

So, get out and see the Great Conjunction tomorrow, weather permitting. It's a cool thing. Just don't expect it to look like the Star of Bethlehem on your Christmas card!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Is carbon pricing really a conservative idea?

I seem to have read many times recently that "carbon pricing is originally a conservative idea". Just a few examples here, here, here and here

Interestingly, both Right-Wingers/Conservatives/Republicans and Left-Wingers/Liberals/Democrats seem to claim this, the Left presumably in an attempt to sell a tax that is unpopular in most conservative jurisdictions, and the Right presumably in an attempt to take some credit for a policy that seems more and more inevitable. (Incidentally, "carbon pricing" is the preferred label these days, on the grounds that "carbon tax" is an automatic turn-off for all conservatives.)

A carbon tax doesn't seem particularly conservative to me, though, and I have struggled to find any good proof of the claim. One article suggests that the idea originally came from right-of-centre economists like William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman, although the evidence seems dubious and tangential to me. Another article notes that Canada's first carbon tax was brought in in 2008 by the British Columbia Liberals, "the equivalent of a conservative administration in most parts of the country", but this is not to say that the BC Liberals espoused small-c conservative policies, just that BC politics is so far to the left of most of the country that the Liberals are as right-wing as the province goes.

Given that there is pretty much consensus across the board that carbon pricing is the best, easiest and most efficient method of cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, then maybe the best way of looking at it, as this article concludes, is that carbon pricing is neither conservative nor liberal in itself, just smart.

Nasty campaign against Canadian Hong Kong-style restaurant is baffling

Here's a good example of the political fragility and thin-skinnedness that seems to have taken hold in recent years. 

A "Hong Kong-style" restaurant in Richmond Hill has been receiving hate mail and graffiti vandalization over a sign on their door asking people to wear a mask to "prevent an unidentified virus pneumonia in Wuhan". The owner of the restaurant is a Canadian resident originally from Hong Kong, and the abusive online posts and graffiti are almost exclusively from Canadians originally from mainland China, people who are apparently objecting about being discriminated against by the notice in some way, and against some inferred support for Hong Kong independence. 

There has been a rash of spurious negative reviews of the restaurant online, in an attempt to destroy its reputation and economic durability. Yelp has had to temporarily disable posts to the restaurant's listing. In what appears to be a concerted and organized campaign, many fake orders have also been called in, playing havoc with the restaurant's ability to survive in these trying times. Police are investigating the graffiti daubed on the restaurant as a hate crime.

Now, granted, the notice is a bit strange, or at least badly-worded (wearing a mask in a Canadian restaurant is not going to prevent anything in Wuhan). But it is hardly offensive, not even as offensive as Donald Trump calling COVID "the China virus". It seems like the very use of the word "Wuhan" has been taken by some people as a veiled attack on the Chinese Communist Party and, by extension, the Chinese people and Chinese policy in Hong Kong. That's a bit of a stretch, really.

And anyway, when did support for democracy in Hong Kong, or even criticism of of China's national politics, expressed in an independent and democratic third country, constitute grounds for hate crimes? This seems like a bizarre overreaction, and entirely unwelcome and insupportable in Canada. 

If these people are so supportive of China's oppressive and autocratic regime, why did they even leave and settle in a country with policies and values entirely antithetical to such views. It has left me scratching my head and inwardly seething.

Republicans have a solution for the future: voter suppression

Some Republicans in America, smarting from their recent pressential election loss, have a plan for the future: make it more difficult to vote.

With the changing demographics in traditionally Republican states like Georgia and Texas leading to a worry that these states will become reliably blue states in the future, "no-excuse" mail-in voting is increasingly being seen as the problem (even though, in the past, it was largely Republicans that took advantage of mail-in ballots). 

A record 160 million people voted in the US during the last election and nearly half of them voted by mail, with another quarter voting in person but early. This was unprecedented, and largely a result of the raging pandemic, but some Republican strategists see both the absolute number of votes and the proportion of mailed votes as a direct threat to the hegemony the Republican Party has enjoyed in the southern states for decades 

Their solution? You guessed it: make mail-in voting more difficult, by throwing more and more obstacles in its way, by requiring an excuse and/or increasing the ID requirements, for example. So, rather than tailoring their political message to the new demographics, these southern Republicans prefer to rely on a tried and trusted strategy, good old voter suppression. 

In a move worthy of Margaret Atwood's Gilead, they are looking to go in the diametrically opposite direction to most of the civilized world, which sees ease of voting and increased enfranchisement as a social good to be encouraged.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Little Caledon wants to continue its egregious over-representation in Peel Region

Peel Region is just next door to Toronto. It mainly incorporates the two cities of Mississauga and Brampton, which are basically one big continuous conurbation (and, for that matter, continuous with the city of Toronto next door). But it also extends further north into more rural areas, most of which come under the township of Caledon. Mississauga is currently the sixth largest city in the whole of Canada, and Brampton now ranks as ninth. Caledon is, well, tiny in terms of population, although it has more than half of the total land mass of Peel Region.

There is a huge mismatch between the relatively dense, industrial cityscapes of Mississauga and Brampton, and the bucolic hills of Caledon. But that is always the case where a region or county incorporates both city and countryside, as they often do. Most local councils have the town/country, rich/poor dichotomy to some extent, and it obviously presents challenges in terms of democratic representation and equitable decision-making, especially given that regional councils are responsible for important decisions on shared services like policing, social programs and waste management.

The generally agreed solution, of course, is to allocate councillors according to relative populations, so that each councillor represents more or less the same number of residents. However, populations do change gradually, and representation can become mismatched. Working class and racially-diverse Mississauga and, particularly, Brampton have seen huge increases in population in recent years, tony and exclusive Caledon not so much, so that now each councillor in Brampton represent about 97,000 residents, councillors in Mississauga represent 65,000 people, while councillors in Caledon each represent a paltry 15,000. Caledon councillors therefore have over six times the clout on the regional council as Brampton councillors, and over four times as much as Mississauga councillors.

Given this disparity, Peel Regional Council is to vote on a motion that would allocate two additional councillors to under-represented Brampton and take away two from over-represented Caledon, leaving the total number of councillors the same but equalizing the representation a little. Makes sense, right?

Caledon, of course is not happy, as some of the excessive power it has enjoyed for years will be whittled away (although not entirely erased). What really caught my eye, though, was the claim by Caledon that it should be represented based on area rather than strictly on population. This is one of the most ridiculous claims I have ever heard, and the very fact of someone having uttered it would be grounds, in my mind, for taking away even more than two councillors, and equalizing the population representation even more equitably.

We need to be honest about the side-effects of COVID vaccines

We now have one COVID-19 vaccine being already administered, with a second one soon to follow. The challenge now is to get them to as many people as possible. With the side-effects from the vaccine receiving more and more attention (including viral fake news reports), that could become a problem.

Although an estimated 71% of people say they are likely to get the vaccine (this from an ongoing American survey), which is actually better than a couple of months earlier, that still leaves 27% who say they will probably or definitely never take it, a percentage that rises to 33% among Black people (why?) and, even more worrying, 33% among essential workers, and an astounding 29% among healthcare workers.

It doesn't help that there are already various strains of misinformation and conspiracy theories doing the rounds of social media - that the vaccine contains a nefarious microchip, that it contains fecal tissue, that it is a mild dose of the actual virus, that it will alter our DNA, that a nurse in Alabama died from taking the vaccine. But the biggest single reason that people are hesitant to receive the virus is the fear of side-effects.

And, unfortunately, there ARE side-effects: the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine causes fatigue in 59% of recipients, headaches in 52%, muscle pain in 37%, chills in 35%, and joint pain in 22%; the Moderna vaccine can be expected to cause fatigue in 68% of recipients, headaches in 63%, aches and pains in 60%, chills in 43%, and fever in 16%. These are not insignificant side-effects, and may even be mistaken for the symptoms of the virus itself, although none of the vaccines being developed make use of the actual virus, either in a live or dead form. 

In reality, side-effects are to be expected: they are a sign that the individual's immune system is being activated against the virus, but that may not allay some people's fears. The side-effects usually pass quickly - gone in a day or two - but they will be enough to seriously deter some people. A few more severe anaphylactic reactions have also been noted thus far: two in Britain (who already suffered from severe allergies) and one in Alaska (who did not). These too will further worry fence-sitters. 

It's hard to know how to counter these fears. I think all we can do is to be up-front and proactive, educate people honestly, and stress that the repercussions of not taking the vaccine (both for individuals, and for society as a whole) are way worse than a few chill and aches.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Canada's carbon tax is still the right way to go

There is a good, short, succinct article in today's Globe and Mail on how Canada's carbon tax is the best way to go to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. It is by Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University in BC, and an advisor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I think I can do no better than to reproduce it in full here.

Implementing effective climate policy is extremely difficult. Just ask any honest politician – if you can find one.

Climate-sincere politicians must motivate us to phase out our gasoline cars, diesel trucks and natural gas furnaces in favour of technologies using cleanly produced electricity, hydrogen and bioenergy. But this switch has upfront costs, such as the higher price of electric cars and home heat pumps. Many of us focus on these costs and forget the reduced energy bills that come with cleaner, more efficient technologies. This leads voters to short-sightedly punish politicians who dare promote tightening regulations and rising carbon taxes that are essential to get us to switch technologies, and to reward dishonest politicians who claim these policies are ineffective, economy-wrecking and punitive.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised Friday when the Trudeau government told us the truth we don’t want to hear: that our carbon tax and regulations must increase significantly to achieve our 2030 climate commitment, the one initially set by the Harper government. Thus, the carbon tax must rise to $170 per tonne of carbon dioxide by 2030, a tax of 40 cents per litre of gasoline, to reflect the planetary destruction we cause when burning this fossil fuel.

We’ve heard lots of misinformation about carbon pricing, however. And we’re about to hear a lot more.

Some politicians claim that a carbon tax (or equivalent regulation) is ineffective. But climate policy experts know this is untrue. An easy way to spot dishonest politicians is if they set decarbonization targets without implementing essential carbon pricing or strong regulations.

Others claim that a carbon tax will hurt the economy. But carbon pricing is actually the cheapest way to decarbonize, as decades of evidence from Scandinavia confirms. Switching to electric vehicles and heat pumps, while your utility switches to zero-emission electricity, has negligible long-term effect on the family budget, which is why economists show GDP growing just as fast.

A related argument is that carbon pricing harms our industries because it significantly raises production costs relative to foreign competitors. This would be true if government required industry to pay a high carbon price for all emissions. Instead, climate-leading governments such as Canada’s apply the carbon price to only a fraction of industry emissions, thus incentivizing their reduction efforts without substantially increasing their production costs. And the government will also provide subsidies to industries that demonstrate global leadership. If the Canadian oil industry has difficulty exporting its “ethical oil,” it is because we are high-cost producers in a stagnant global market, not because of our carbon-pricing policy.

Others still argue that federal carbon pricing intrudes on provincial jurisdiction. Our Supreme Court will soon decide this issue, but heaven help us if it allows provinces to opt out of effective policies. Humanity has thus far failed on the climate change file because of how slow we have been in developing an international mechanism requiring all countries to act. If this global governance weakness is affirmed within federations such as Canada, the task gets even harder. Our national government must have the authority needed to meet our international environmental commitments.

And there are those who claim that our carbon-pricing policy is unfair, imposing higher costs on some. This concern may be valid in some countries, but Canada’s carbon pricing policy is obsessed with equity. It is revenue-neutral on a national basis, meaning that each province receives precisely the amount that carbon taxes would collect. It includes support mechanisms for the most vulnerable. And the carbon tax rebates received by most Canadians will exceed the carbon tax they pay. Only high polluters will be net losers, and these tend to be wealthy people who heat a primary and secondary residence, drive gas guzzlers and fly a lot.

Carbon pricing is fundamentally equitable because it rewards anyone who smartly decides, when renewing their vehicle or furnace, to take advantage of the subsides for electric vehicles, home insulation and electric heat pumps. After doing this, they’d pay zero carbon taxes. What is more equitable than financially rewarding those who decarbonize to avoid major climate costs to our children? One day we’ll appreciate the Trudeau government’s honesty and guts in hoping that enough of us will reject the false claims of climate-insincere politicians.

Why Hydro-Québec has to turn down public money

It is an unfortunate aspect of globalization that local economies can suffer through no fault of their own, but purely as a result of international economic forces. Perhaps the most obvious example is the way political and economic turmoil on the other side of the world can affect oil prices here in oil-producing Canada. It is the cost of doing business with the modern world.

Another such example has reared its head as electricity provider Hydro-Québec has felt obliged to turn down a substantial amount of public money to expand its electricity exports into Ontario and other Canadian provinces. The Canada Infrastructure Bank is offering $2.5 billion over the next 3 years for low carbon initiatives, including new transmission lines that would transmit clean hydroelectricity from Quebec (which has a glut of it) to other provinces, including Ontario and coal-reliant provinces like Nova Scotia. This would be a great boon to Canada's international climate change obligations under the Paris Agreement, and a large element of the federal government's plan for stimulus spending for a green, clean, post-pandemic revival

However, Hydro-Québec feels it has to reject the offer because most of its current exports (about three-quarters) go across the border to neighbouring US states, and only a quarter goes to other Canadian provinces like Ontario and New Brunswick. The company worries that accepting federal government subsidies would contravene the terms of trade treaties with the American states, eliciting accusations of unfair competition, and thereby threaten its existing (lucrative) business with the US.

It's a bit of a ridiculous situation, but there is no obvious way out of it. 

As the COVID-19 virus mutates, will the vaccine still be effective?

There is evidence that the COVID-19 virus is constantly mutating, There are an estimated 25 mutations separating today's virus from the one that surfaced in Wuhan, China, a year ago. That's no surprise; that's what viruses do.

In Britain, for example, there are two main new mutated strains (mutation 501, and a H69/V70 deletion), largely affecting the densely-populated southeast of the country. Both of these mutations affect the virus' spikes, the part that the virus particles use to latch onto and bind with other cells, and thereby transmit and spread the virus. Research on different strains is still ongoing, and it is too early to make any sweeping or definitive conclusions. But there is no evidence that these strains are able to transmit more easily, cause more serious symptoms or, crucially, render the vaccines useless. 

All the main vaccines being developed and, in some cases, already being administered, affect the spike proteins by training the immune system to attack the spikes. However, the body learns to attack multiple parts of the spike, so health authorities believe that the vaccines will still work perfectly well against these variants of the virus.

As the virus continues to mutate over time, though, it is quite possible that we will need to administer updated versions of the vaccines in the years ahead, possibly every year, much as we do for flu.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Why is Bhutan suddenly establishing diplomatic relations?

I read today that the tiny, isolated state of Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with Israel. No, this is not another in the series of great diplomatic triumphs that Donald Trump has brokered (ha!): Bhutan is neither Arabic nor in the Middle East. Indeed, the main question that arises is: "why"?, and more specifically, "why bother?"

Bhutan is a mountainous kingdom in the eastern reaches of the Himalayas (technically a constitutional monarchy since 2008, when it held its first democratic elections), perched serenely between India, Tibet, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is a mainly Buddhist state, with a minority Hindu population, probably best known for using a "Gross National Happiness index" rather than GDP to measure success (probably mainly because it is extremely poor by traditional measures). And it is tiny, about the size of Switzerland or Taiwan (or substantially smaller than, say, the province of Nova Scotia), with a population of less than 800,000, similar to, say, Fiji or Luxembourg.

Historically, Bhutan has been notoriously isolationist, and has had a very cautious approach to opening up commercial and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. It only opened up to (very limited) tourism in the 1970s, and the internet and television were only allowed in 1999. This, and its small size and poverty, has meant that it still only has diplomatic relations with 53 countries, including none of the five UN Security Council countries (USA, UK, France, China, Russia). Only seven countries have embassies there, of which neighbouring India's is by far the most important.

You can kind of understand Bhutan's lack of official international channels. After all, diplomatic relations cost money it can ill afford. And why should Bhutan feel the need to establish official diplomatic relations with countries like Belgium or Chile, particularly if it is not looking to expand trade or tourism in a big way?

There has, nevertheless, been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months, with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and now Israel, all establishing official relations. I still have no idea why. My best guess is that Bhutan is increasingly worried by the ultra-nationalist Modi administration in India. After all, neighbouring Sikkim was once an independent mountain state very similar to today's Bhutan; then, in 1975, Sikkim was summarily annexed by India and is now just another Indian state. Maybe Bhutan sees another such annexation in the tea leaves. And what would that do to its Gross National Happiness? Maybe it feels that some support in the UN might not be such a bad thing after all.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

What can be behind the continued Republican claims of election irregularities?

In an absolutely bizarre and incomprehensible exercise in magical thinking, more and more defeated Republican candidates are alleging that they actually won, and were only displaced by fraudulent and illegal Democratic nefariousness.

Just a few examples: Loren Culp, the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in Washington, who lost the election by 13 percentage points, is now claiming, five weeks after the election, that he was robbed of the governorship by a rigged election; a defeated Republican  congressional candidate in the Democratic stronghold of Los Angeles is refusing to concede; a Republican candidate in Maryland, beaten by a margin of 40%, is loudly complaining about "irregularities" that led to her loss; a Tennessee candidate who lost by 57% is still convinced that she actually won.

This is extraordinary behaviour, especially given that Trump and the Republicans have now lost over 50 legal cases alleging electoral irregularities and fraud, including that big one before the extremely Republican-heavy Supreme Court, supported by an extraordinary 18 Republican states and over 100 Republican lawmakers (oh, and Donald Trump).

So, what can be going on here? Are they all just really bad losers? Do they think that there is some political advantage to be gained? Are they just being browbeaten (and/or hypnotized or threatened) by Trump, who is looking for some moral support in his own sorry legal challenges? Is it supposed to make life for Joe Biden and his incoming administration more difficult in some way (this is one theory for Trump's continued refusal to concede the election)? Like so many things that involve Trump, it's really hard to know, and for us mere mortals to understand.

What is actually happening, though, is that many GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans are just becoming more and more embarrassed at these antics. As Larry Hogan, Republican governor of Maryland, wryly commented: "We're beginning to look like we're a banana republic. It's time for them to stop the nonsense. It just gets more bizarre every single day." Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and Trump advisor has called Trump's legal manoeuvres a "national embarrassment". Long-time Republican advisor Karl Rove admonishes, "He's not helping himself or the country ... he is on the edge of looking like a sore loser". On the edge? Most of the world is looking away, embarrassed, as the once-great country of America makes a total fool of itself in the full glare of the international media.

Meantime, pro-Trump rallies and protests are still taking place, some of them violent, and some them with far-right groups front and centre. But these are, by and large, not educated, supposedly responsible people who are looking to represent millions of people in some of the highest offices in the land. Such people are supposed to know better. But then, look at the role model they have before them.

Perhaps the only good thing that could come out of this is that the GOP might completely implode, and shatter into factions for years to come (take note of the "Destroy the GOP" chants at a pro-Trump rally in Washington DC recently).

Solid state batteries show huge promise, but what does that actually mean?

I've been doing some research recently on electric vehicles for our next family car, and I've been pleased to see how much batteries and range have improved since last time I researched them (and ended up bottling out and going for a hybrid).

But then I just read an article about solid state car batteries and now have an idea of how much more things could improve very soon. Toyota has been testing such a battery in concept vehicles for some time, and is expected to officially unveil the technology as early as next year, with a view to commercial release by 2025. Volkswagen is also working on a solid state battery.

Solid state batteries promise to double the range of electric cars (over the lithium-ion batteries currently used by most electric vehicles) and, at the same time, cut charging times to as little as 10 to 20 minutes (as compared to several hours currently). Also, they are not as heavy, and are less affected by cold temperatures. This is, then, a big deal.

But what does solid state actually mean?

Solid state batteries use both solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, as opposed to the liquid (or polymer) electrolytes used by the more traditional lithium-ion batteries. As a result, solid state batteries are less flammable, more stable, and allow for higher energy densities. Polyether and lithium phosphorus oxynitride are two commonly used solid electrolytes in battery development, if that means anything to you, though other oxides, sulphides, phosphates and solid polymers are also candidates. The main challenge appears to be bringing down the production costs.

Exciting times in electric car production, then, but probably not relevant to my next purchase decision (or possibly even the one after).

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Why Canada is getting its Pfizer vaccines from Belgium

Canada gets its first batch of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this weekend - a paltry 250,000 doses, but hey, better than nothing - and the mood of the nation seems to have risen overnight as a result, despite the news about adverse allergic reactions, the onerous logistics required, and the fact that we'll still be wearing masks for many months to come regardless. Such is the desperation for any inkling of good news.

But then I read that the batch of vaccines (and presumably the larger batches that will follow?) is being flown from a Pfizer plant in the small town of Puurs in northern Belgium, first to Cologne, Germany, then to UPS's main US hub in Louisville, Kentucky, when it will be divided up into smaller shipments to the various provinces in Canada. What a convoluted route, and all this at -70°C! Not to mention that this puts Canada's vaccines at risk from ultra-nationalist Republican types planning a heist to vouchsafe the first vaccines for true-blood Americans! (Only slightly joking.)

But wait, isn't Pfizer an American company? I know that the heavy lifting of the design and development of the vaccine was done by Mainz, Germany-based partner BioNTech SE, and that Pfizer is mainly contributing its commercial manufacturing and distribution heft. Incidentally, this vaccine was not developed through the US's much-vaunted Operation Warp Speed program, despite the claims of the Trump administration: BioNTech received its development money from the German government.

But can the vaccine not be manufactured in the USA, at least for the north American market? Pfizer's own website explains that, "The Puurs site is being used primarily for European supply, but will also serve as back up to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the US market". So, presumably, the US (and Canada) market will eventually be served from Kalamazoo, "the largest manufacturing site in the Pfizer network", but it is not yet up to speed.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Canada grossly over-orders vaccines, while poorer countries may have none

Canada currently has orders in place for 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from seven different companies. This is for a population of 38 million, so enough (even taking into account that most vaccines require two doses to be effective) to vaccinate the whole population at least five times over.

Now, I understand that we may not actually take up all of these options, and that some of the vaccines included in these orders may not even come to fruition at all. The Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline vaccine, for example, has just announced a delay until the end of 2021, as its product has not demonstrated a sufficiently strong immune response in older people. 

But we have ordered 76 million of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines alone (already approved, or as good as), which on their own would be enough to vaccinate the whole Canadian population, even assuming that everyone could be persuaded to receive a vaccination (not going to happen). So, do we really, then, need an additional 72 million from Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline, 38 million from Johnson & Johnson, 76 million from Novavax, 20 million from AstraZeneca, and 76 million from Medicago? Canada is far from the only rich country to over-order, but we seem to have gone way further over the top than any other country.

I understand the need to "hedge our bets" and over-purchase a bit as an "insurance policy", especially as they were ordered at a time when the successful completion and rollout of the various vaccine candidates was far from certain, but this seems excessive. It is also in spite of the fact that Canada has signed up for, and pledged $440 million towards, the COVAX vaccine access facility, which is designed to ensure an equitable worldwide rollout of the much-needed vaccines. However, this is only expected to cover around 20% of the developing world's needs, and only three or four vaccine producers are involved (and, notably, not the front-runner mRNA-type vaccines).

Meanwhile, poorer countries, particularly those in Africa, worry that they may not be able to obtain enough vaccine as a result of this "hoarding" by wealthy countries. There are concerns that virus could become endemic across Africa and other parts of the developing world.

A scheme, similar to one established in the 2001 Doha Declaration for the AIDS vaccine, to waive intellectual property rules to allow developing countries to produce their own supplies of the vaccines, instigated by South Africa and India and supported by over 100 countries, has been effectively blocked by a group of wealthy countries including the EU, UK, USA, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil and, yes, Canada. 

This is not a good look on Canada.

Brexit - a Canada-style deal, Australia-style, no deal at all?

As Brexit - yes Brexit! that thing is still going on! - grinds to a tired and unimpressive conclusion, and the 31st December final deadline (final! final!) looms, Brexiter-in-chief Boris Johnson's messaging has gradually changed. No longer is there talk of an all-encompassing deal with Europe, no talk of a Switzerland-style free trade deal with the EU, or a Norway-style deal. Gone even is the more limited (but technically "comprehensive") Canada-style deal. Now, he is talking up an Australia-style deal.

Which means what, exactly? Well, very little, really. Australia doesn't have a free trade deal with the the EU (it has been in negotiations for a couple of years now to establish one), and basically trades with it under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, subject to tariffs the same as everyone else. Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says, "Be careful what you wish for. Australia's relationship with the EU is not one, from a trade point of view, that Britain would want".

I guess an "Australia-style deal" just sounds better than "no deal". But, make no mistake, that's what it is.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

New green addition to Toronto's skyline ruled inadmissible

Toronto's skyline has changed out of all recognition in the decades we have lived here. Many of the new high-rise buildings downtown are pretty forgettable, to be honest, although in the last 5 years or so several more interesting additions have appeared.

A big new proposed development round the back of Union Station, right in the heart of downtown, would at least be in the category of "more interesting", but its construction has been doggedly blocked by city planners. The proposed Union Centre, designed by Danish-American architects Bjarke Ingels Group and jointly developed by Allied Properties and Westbank Corp, kind of looks like four shiny glass skyscrapers attached to each other side by side (slightly offset). It has a green roof garden and part of the outside façade is given over to green walls (again slightly offset). 

Inside, the four 52-storey towers are connected, so that each floor could be a massive 30,000 square feet in area, ideal for tech companies  and particularly for data centres and the acres of computer servers they require. (Or it could be split up.) The building is planned to be net-zero-carbon, utilizing a district heating system (which the Danes excel at) that uses the excess heat from all those computer servers. It would offer a million square feet of office space right downtown, right on the subway.

Anyway, the architects have been fighting against city officials for almost two years now for approval to get the building started (it is "shovel-ready, and does not require any additional outside financing). It's an interesting, novel design, and a lot more eco-friendly than most of Toronto's buildings (and could therefore contribute to Toronto's fight against climate change), and will offer lightning fast internet connections on site. What's not to like?

The city's urban design staff seem to be mainly objecting of the width and alignment of the building. Yes, it's about 90m wide, and it's aligned along the east-west axis of the city (parallel to the lake). The city says that it "looks too wide on the skyline". Wha'...? So, if it were aligned north-south it would be OK? Oh, and it casts a large shadow (which the consultant, on the other hand, describes as "very minor"). 

They seem like relatively minor quibbles to me, I have to say. And, God knows, we need to be doing something positive on the climate change front. Can we not have an interesting, out-there building for once?

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Breakdancing makes the Olympics - but is it sport?

With all due respect to practitioners, the announcement that breakdancing is to be an Olympic sport from Paris 2024 onwards is probably not going to rehabilitate the Olympics in the eyes of most people.

The Olympics brand has taken a big hit in recent years, what with drug scandals, allegations of bribery and financial irregularities, and a general image of corruption and sleaziness. Adding in breakdancing (or "breaking" as they insist on calling it, in the belief that they are somehow being more "authentic"), along with skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, while paring back the plethora of wrestling and boxing categories, isn't going to do anything to help that.

To be fair, that is not the stated aim of the International Olympic Committee. They see this as a move towards luring a younger audience to their 4-yearly spectacle, and making it more "relevant", i.e. it is, like everything else the IOC does these days, all about the money. Whether these changes will indeed lure in millions of surfer dudes, skateboard dudettes and "urban" (i.e. black) dance aficionados is anyone's guess, but there are also other considerations at play here.

Like the perennial heart-searching that goes on in the visual arts world ("but is it art?"), many people will be asking "but is it sport?" Hell, I would think that many breakdancers will be asking the same thing, having laboured under the misapprehension for decades that dancing is an artform. Coincidentally, this comes just a day after a chess Grand Master referred to chess as a "sport" during an interview I watched. 

Or is it just further distancing the modern Olympics from the simple and honest ideals that originally inspired it? Is it turning yet further into an entertainment spectacular or a nationalist gong show or a cynical commercial enterprise?

Sunday, December 06, 2020

How do we deal with COVID fatigue?

At this point, we're all a bit fatigued from this COVID thing, and the endlessly changing (and often mutually inconsistent) rules we are supposed to follow to mitigate its spread. 

The lockdown we followed here in Ontario worked reasonably well back in March and April, although our leaders were then seduced into opening up too quickly and too comprehensively over the summer. Rather than running it down to effectively zero like some other countries (e.g. South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, etc), we let up our guard and allowed it to come back stronger than ever. 

The second wave lockdown we are in now has been much less effective, and cases and deaths continue to creep up and up, in Ontario and most of the rest of Canada (and the world, for that matter). And I truly believe that this is more about rule fatigue than anything the virus is doing differently. So, how do we address this problem, given that vaccines are going to take some months to be distributed and to have some tangible effect on the spread of the virus?

A growing chorus of health experts and epidemiologists are of the opinion that there are just too many rules, and that some of those rules are just not useful rules. They argue that taking out some of the less effective rules - like outdoor mask mandates, one-way routes through stores, wiping down groceries and packages, or letting deliveries sit for 3 days - might ensure better observance of the more important ones, like avoiding the 3 C's: close contact, closed spaces, and crowds. In the same way, it is argued, reducing the quarantine period before or after travel from 14 days to 10, or even 7 (with testing), may actually be more beneficial if it encourages more compliance. As one consultant pointed out, a public health policy that people don't follow is, by definition, a failed policy.

I'm inclined to agree, with the important proviso that this also needs to be accompanied by a clear and concise communication of the rationale for the changes. This is not a Great Barrington Declaration-style let-it-all-run-rampant philosophy. This is a much more nuanced, reasoned and practical suggestion. Keep it simple, concentrate on the basics, and communicate (and preferably police).

Friday, December 04, 2020

Open letter from Ontario businesses actually does have some merit

There has been controversy about Ontario's latest COVID-l9 lockdown since the get-go. Well, of course there has - it's impossible to please all the people all the time.

In particular, there has been controversy about the closing down of "non-essential businesses", partly because of the definition of "non-essential" (just as there were arguments about that during the first wave lockdown), but also because people see big box stores like WalMart and Costco remaining open (on the grounds that they also sell food, an essential item) while small family-owned and independent stores are closed down. 

In this context, nearly 50 major Canadian retailers have issued an open letter asking the Ontario government to reconsider this policy. Corporate signatories include Canadian Tire, Indigo, IKEA, Hudson's Bay, MEC, Old Navy, PetSmart, Staples, Toys'R'Us, and many more household names. Now, normally I would just write this off as big business whining about regulations that curb their profit-making ability, and remind them that public safety always trumps economic considerations. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that they may actually have a point in this particular case.

The letter argues that non-essential retail stores are closed even though the number of COVID cases attributed to these businesses is minimal. The letter specifically asserts that "only 0.2% to 0.9% of recent weekly cases related to outbreaks have been associated with retail environments", although I have no idea where they got those figures ("according to the Government of Ontario's own statistics", it says).

Furthermore, the letter argues, the ban has not reduced the total number of shoppers (debatable), merely forced the same number of people into fewer stores, with consequent increased health risks, and encouraged shoppers to travel outside of the lockdown areas to other jurisdictions where shops remain open, with consequent increased health risks in those areas. 

While both these points are probably logically true, they are mutually inconsistent to some extent in that, if people are travelling further afield to shop, then there can't also be the same number of people shopping in the lockdown areas, as claimed.

Be that as it may, in general terms, the arguments do have some merit, and perhaps the current government policy actually is "an ineffective policy" which is decimating the small businesses of the region unnecessarily. I'm not sure that the policy is actually "making things worse", as the letter claims, but it is probably not making things appreciably better.

The signatory companies suggest a policy of allowing non-essential businesses to open at 25% of their capacity - along with the usual measures of mandatory masks, enforced social distancing, and increased sanitation - thus putting fewer shoppers in more stores and reducing the potential for community spread, while allowing small businesses to open during the make-or-break pre-Christmas period.

I have kind of surprised myself by agreeing with all this. But this is not the Great Barrington Declaration; it is altogether more modest, reasoned and reasonable. I do know that I personally feel safer in smaller stores than bigger ones, and I have been deliberately avoiding the big supermarkets and big box stores where at all possible. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, however, when asked about this initiative, has refused to countenance the suggested changes, saying merely that "I have to listen to the health experts" and "health trumps my personal belief of doing something". Except, of course, that he has been ignoring the health experts for much of the year so far. And now suddenly he gets religion?

UPDATE

Hudson's Bay Company has now gone a step further, effectively taking the Ontario government to court, and demanding a judicial review of its lockdown rules in Toronto and Peel, which the company calls "unreasonable" and "unfair".

UPDATE UPDATE

The Ontario Superior Court has dismissed HBC's application for a judicial review of the province's lockdown rules, agreeing with the province's lawyers' argument that the lockdowns are necessary to minimize health risks. 

More deaths each day in USA than on 9/11

As the daily death toll from COVID-19 in the USA reached 3,165 on Wednesday, the States finally crossed a grim milestone that was predicted a few weeks ago: more coronavirus deaths each day than the total deaths on 9/11 (which was 2,996). It came as no surprise to discover that a Twitter hashtag #911EveryDay has already been going for some time.

And the daily toll is expected to increase still further to 4,000 a day or more, especially with a predicted Thanksgiving spike due soon. Unbelievable.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Adding seaweed to cattle diets can significantly reduce their impact on global warming

I had read about this before, but neglected to comment on it. However, it could be kind of a big deal in the fight against climate change which, although you may not realize it from a quick perusal of news feeds, is still ongoing.

Methane from livestock burps and farts makes up a surprisingly large element of our greenhouse gases. There are, after all, about a billion cows worldwide, and it is cows (and specifically the way they repeatedly burp up already-eaten food and chew it up as cud in order to digest it) that are the main offenders here. Other domesticated ruminants like sheep and goats also burp for the same reason, but have a much smaller "methane footprint" than cows. Cow farts are also a contributor of methane to the  atmosphere, but to a much smaller degree (about 5%) than their burping.

Methane is not as well-known a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, but it is a much more powerful one, warming the earth 23 times (or over 80 times, depending on what you read and the time frame used) as much as a similar volume of carbon dioxide, even if it is shorter-lived in the atmosphere. All in all, agriculture accounts for about 14-18% of greenhouse gases (although the calculation is somewhat fraught and contentious, especially when we are combining the effects of different gases) and the burps of ruminants make up a good proportion of that. By some estimates, about 5% of all greenhouse gases are due to cow burps alone.

So, anything that will help reduce the amount  of methane cows produce will help, and could help a lot. Not eating cows would definitely help, and that is starting to happen, especially in this age of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers (most of which are actually eaten by meat-eaters).

But the impetus for writing this article is the finding that adding a very specific kind of seaweed to a cow's diet can very significantly reduce the amount of methane it produces. There has already been some research on adding garlic to cattle diets, which decreases their flatulence to some extent, but adding some tropical red seaweeds (specifically asparagopsis armata and asparagopsis taxiformis) can have a huge effect on the way a cow digests its food. In one study, adding just 2% of a. taxiformis to their food reduced methane emissions by nearly 99%. Another study yielded a 95% reduction in methane by replacing 5% of the diet with red seaweed.

The red seaweed effect works through a compound called bromoform, which inhibits the action of an enzyme that produces methane during a cow's digestion, although it is not really well understood why this particular type of seaweed works so well. Studies are ongoing to ensure that the seaweed remains effective in real-world applications, that is shelf-stable, and is not unduly affected by heat and light. But seaweed farms to commercially develop the crop are already springing up in Australia and elsewhere.

Bear in mind, though, that much more methane is produced by the oil and gas industry and decay in landfill dumps than cows ever will. It helps to keep these things in perspective.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Anti-homosexuality Hungarian MEP caught with his trousers down

Well, this is precious. Hungarian MEP Joszef Szajer, a top figure and founding member of Victor Orban's ultra-right wing Fidesz party was caught attending what Belgian media are calling a gay sex party.

The party, in Brussels, was raided by police for violating lockdown rules, and Mr, Szajer was one of the 20 men charged. He insisted that he wasn't doing drugs like everyone else, although drugs were found on him. But the incident was embarrassing enough to the party, which takes a hardline anti-homosexuality stance, that the MEP resigned immediately, citing "a personal failing". Mr. Szajer, who was caught shinning down a drainpipe to escape the scene, was apparently not the only member attending the party who claimed diplomatic immunity.

It will be interesting to see Orban's explanation of it all.

Ignore the Conservatives, Canada is well-placed for COVID vaccines

Well, go figure. Federal Conservative leader Erin O' Toole, Ontario's Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (oh, look, another Conservative!) are all publicly tearing strips off Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for poor management of Canada's coronavirus vaccine procurement.

I guess that's what opposition parties are supposed to do: they oppose, loudly, on principle, and regardless of the importance of their quibbles or the probity of their arguments. It's boring, especially during a crisis that would benefit from a bit of national unity, but it's party politics.

There have been outraged (and highly partisan) complaints that Canada put "all our eggs in the basket of China" by backing the joint CanSino vaccine initiative, which fizzled out mainly due to, you guessed it, politics. Furthermore, there have been attempts to suggest that Canada is at the "back of the line" for vaccine imports from the USA and UK. Either way, it is all Justin Trudeau's fault, and "hard-working Canadians" will suffer as a result of his ineptitude.

Except, unfortunately, neither of those claims appear to be true. What? Conservative fake news? Surely not!

Canada has clearly not put all its eggs in the Chinese basket, because we have contracts for 429 million vaccine doses from seven major international pharmaceutical companies. This is "the most doses potentially per capita of any country in the world", apparently, and, in this age of diversity, "the most diverse portfolio of any country for vaccines". These include the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which will probably be the first, and possibly best, to hit the market. The government has committed over $1 billion to this end. 

And, as for being at the back of the line, Moderna's chairman and co-founder recently came out publicly to explicitly explain that, "Canada is not at the back of the line", and that Canada was in fact among the first countries to make a pre-order with the company. We are actually very well placed as regards the vaccines. Moreover, the necessary work towards Health Canada approval of the vaccines is progressing in the background even before they are legally released, so that delays should be minimal. Although, frankly, who's to say that we should be at the front of the line anyway?

Arguably, Canada should perhaps be in the vaccine production business, not just importing them, but our attempt to do so (with CanSino) was unsuccessful. Our lack of production facilities can be laid at least as much with the science cuts of the Harper years as with anything Justin Trudeau has or has not done. In the scheme of things, we are a relatively small country, and it is kind of difficult to justify having under-utilized top-of-the-line vaccine production capacity for decades on end just on the off-chance a pandemic should come along. (Actually, Canada can, and does, make vaccines, just not ones that can be used against COVID-19).

All in all, Canada is in a very good position vis-a-vis COVID vaccinations, and all those Conservative politicians who are complaining are talking out of their hats based on a poor understanding of the situation, and just looking to score cheap political points. Plus ça change...

UPDATE

The news that the UK has become the first Western country to approve a vaccine (the Pfizer/BioNTech one that Canada also has in its portfolio) has only served to increase the hysteria and sniping from opposition politicians, even though neither the USA nor the EU has yet approved it either (and some, including Dr. Anthony Fauci in the USA, feel the UK has moved TOO quickly - the European Medicines Agency has actually deliberately slowed and delayed its assessment of the Pfizer vaccine, and compare, for example, the much more measured and cautious approach of South Korea). 

All eyes are now on how the UK deals with the logistical aspects of the rollout, and how the general public will tolerate the vaccines. I for one am glad we do not have to deal with that level of international scrutiny. I'm quite happy to move slower and benefit from the (good or bad) experience of others. 

And I think we should also be cognizant of the fact that rolling out the vaccine will not be a quick process, for the UK or for any other country. The difference of a few days or even weeks will not, in the scheme of things, make a lot of difference. This is not a race. Let's do this thing properly and cautiously.