Tuesday, April 20, 2021

European Super League proposal has the potential to major disruption

The idea of an elite European Super League (ESL) has been around for years. Once ownership of major European football teams started to fall to Americans, Saudis, Russian oligarchs, etc, and soccer teams were appearing on stock exchanges, it was only a matter of time before business took over from sports and tradition.

But it's only quite recently that it's looking more like a fait acccompli, and the rhetoric is heating up commeasurately. Currently, 12 teams have signed up to the idea - Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter Milan - basically the top teams from England, Spain and Italy, but notably none from France, Germany, Portugal, or other major football leagues. They hope to attract another three top teams for a founding nucleus of fifteen, and then offer a further five places to qualiying teams annually, for a total of twenty. These elite teams would play high-profile mid-week games between themselves, but the expectation is for them to also play in their respective leagues. It might happen as early as August 2021.

The fan base seems divided but generally opposed is my impression (certainly fans of other league teams are vehemently opposed). The president of UEFA, which runs the European Champions League, and which probably stands to lose more than any other organization, has been extremely outspoken, calling it a "disgraceful, self-serving project from a select few clubs in Europe, fuelled by greed above all else", and griping that "we didn't know we had snakes working close to us". He is proposing that ESL players should be banned from playing for their countries at the World Cup and European Cup competitions.

Politicians are also getting involved, with British PM Boris Johnson in particular promising to do everything possible to prevent it from going ahead. But other European politicians, including Italian, French and European Union leaders, have also publicly expressed their displeasure.

It has certainly put the cat among the pigeons, and you ain't seen nothin' yet. This has the potential to disrupt Europe dramatically, and you can probably expect riots in the street at some point (there have already been protests outside English football clubs). This is football, after all, the religion of Europe, and the idea of the ESL is the equivalent of Martin Luther posting up his ninety-five theses on Wittenberg's church door.

Monday, April 19, 2021

This may be the only way out of the hole Ontario is in

Ontario's latest lockdown measure have been almost universally panned by public health experts as misdirected and next to useless. Closing down playgrounds and golf courses snd restricting outdoor activities is not going to get us out of this third wave, and pretty much everyone apart from the Conservative government seems to understand that. 

Some of the sillier changes have already been walked back, and many police forces have given assurances that they have no intentions of conducting the draconian random stop measures that Ford was recommending (he also walked back that measure after all the backlash).

Where immediate action IS needed - industrial workplaces, warehouses, distribution centres, indoor religious meetings, public transportation - has seen little or no attention from the Ford government (apart from maybe some more targeted vaccinations, although vaccinations alone are not going to solve our problems). So, who exactly is giving the government scientific advice is not clear (possibly the consistently inept Dr. David williams, who conveniently just seems to say what Ford wants him to).

The Ontario COVID-19  Science Advisory Table, which is the voluntary body of top doctors convened to advise the government on health policy during the pandemic, are outraged, and several members have considered resigning, but worry that provincial policy will stray even further from the science without them. Peter Juni, scientific director of the Table, says he is at a loss to understand why the government is not following their advice. Others say they are dumfounded or angered or saddened. Hell, even the Washington Post is calling for Doug Ford to resign.

But to my point: there are increasing calls by some health advisers (not the Science Advisory Table, unfortunately) for one public health measure that might just help in a big way: mandatory N95 masks for crowded and at-risk workplaces, and the wider use of these superior masks in general. They are not as easy or pleasant to wear as surgical or cotton masks, but they are three to four times more effective. At a time where drastic measures are called for - and at a time when supply of N95 and equivalent masks, both locally produced and imported, has regularized following the early acute supply problems - the moment has probably come for such a policy.

For good measure (no pun intended), here is another such reasoned call-to-arms along the same lines, from a University of Toronto economist. I don't know how long it would take to convince Premier Ford (or even Dr. Williams) of this, though.

And, of course, as I end all my COVID-related entries these days, don't forget paid sick leave.

Punk - an exercise in nostalgia

I've been wallowing in nastalgia recently, reading Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution

England in the late '70s was certainly a heady time. I never dressed the part myself, apart perhaps from the ripped jeans, but I had all the records, and attended some pretty crazy gigs. I had forgotten, though - or maybe never even knew - just how extreme, excessive and over-the-top some of it was. Many rock and pop stars have always had a reputation of being "bad boys" and, occasionally, "bad girls", but really no-one could hold a candle to these guys, who made a point of taking it to the next level. I had also forgotten just how young a lot of the top bands were in their early days, barely older than I was.

A few choice quotes from the book (assembled from various musicians, managers, journalists and just hangers on) can perhaps give some of the flavour of it:

"Then I went into the kitchen and found his German manager drunk, flat out on the floor with his face in the cat's food dish."

"It started on the Anarchy tour. Until then we thought heroin was a female character in a 19th-century romantic novel."

"It was fun at the beginning. In 1976 we were the most hated people on the planet - we thought that was great."

"Slits - fantastic! They all started at the wrong time, doing different songs - superb."

"Jordan - she was amazing. She used to commute each day from near Brighton in this see-through lingerie and corsets and rubber dresses, which caused havoc on the train. In the end I think British Rail gave her a first class pass."

"Rotten looked the part with his green hair, but he couldn't sing. Then again, we couldn't play, so it was OK."

"Back then, 'Sex Pistols' was an outrageously shocking name."

"There were times when I had to push Johnny on stage, and I had to put a bucket out so he could throw up between songs, but you just deal with that reality."

"On stage, great front man; off stage, total fucking arsehole."

"Siouxsie who can't sing, Steve Severin who can't play bass, Marco Pirroni who can play guitar, and Sid Vicious who can't play drums. They make a wonderful racket for about 15 minutes."

"The Ramones came on stage, they counted off '1, 2, 3, 4' md they all started playing a different song. They threw down their guitars in disgust and walked off the stage. It was the best concert I'd ever seen in my life."

"I still don't know whose idea it was, but when they started doing the 17 minutes of music - 20 songs in 17 minutes without stopping - it became interesting."

"I hated the pogo. Being a dwarf, it was really frightening."

"They were throwing anything they could at us - pig's noses, beer cans, rat. It was really awful."

"We had one guitar, but junkies broke in and stole it. The whole thing was really squatsville. The funny thing that struck me about him was that we both liked Rupert Bear books and Tin-Tin when we were kids."

"Somebody dropped a brick on the rat and killed it, and we started calling Chris Miller 'Rat Scabies' because he had scabies and we killed the rat."

"What was exciting about Subway Sect was their total lack of interest in anything at all."

"When the band hit the stage, the whole place erupted. There was a lot of violence from the audience, and it seemed to be entirely directed towards the band."

 "By that time, the audiences had got really violent - they would get on stage and start a fight."

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Comparisons between Canada's and the US's COVID rates are misleading

Much has been made in recent days about statistics showing that Canada's 7-day average COVID-19 case rate has narrowly crept above that of the USA for the first time.

As of April 9th, Canada's cases per million inhabitants was 209.73, while the USA's was 205.12. This has created a good deal of national angst and soul-searching, and questions about whether Canada's much-vaunted universal healthcare is better than the US's lack thereof after all (which is, frankly, ridiculous).

If you really want a good meausre of how our healthcare systems compare, then you only have to look at the death rate per million. Even at a time when our case rates are about the same, the American daily death rate is at 2.97 per million, while Canada's is 0.85. So, where would you prefer to catch COVID-19?

So, yes, the whole case rate thing is admittedly a bit embarrasing, given how prone we are to comparing ourselves. But, a little perspective, please? And, hey, if we'd had access to as many vaccine doses as they have, it would probably be a different story. Hell, one American lab managed to mess up and destroy way more vaccine doses than Canada has received and administered IN TOTAL.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A new Conservative carbon pricing proposal - imagine!

Everything I have heard or read suggests that the recently-announced carbon pricing proposal from the Canadian federal Conservative Party is in fact a serious one, and people are bending over backwards to give credit to Erin O'Toole for at least trying to drag his intransigent party into the 21st century.

At the very least, he deserves some props for having the audacity to release a plan to deal with climate change just a week after his party members voted not to recognize that climate change is even a real thing. It certainly takes some cogones to shrug that off and pretend it didn't happen.

Be that as it may, it looks like the carbon pricing policy Mr. O'Toule has outlined IS a serious one, even if it is far from perfect, and even if does come wrapped up in a whole bunch of inconsistencies and paradoxes.

Essentially, O'Toole proposes completely cancelling the current Liberal carbon-pricing model which he dismisses as a "tax hike", and replacing it with a very similar Conservative one, which he insists is "not a tax", conservatives being congenitally opposed to taxes, and all. The words "levy", "price" and "pricing mechanism" were used instead of "tax", which is of course a dastardly Liberal idea.

The main difference is that, whereas the current Liberal scheme redistributes the carbon tax levied back to individuals through a tax rebate in order to make it revenue neutral, the Tory plan is to create individualized green savings accounts, which will be credited by some mysterious mechanism every time they fill up with gas, and which can only be used for purchases of climate-friendly goods like bicycles, transit passes electric cars or energy-efficient furnaces. It is thought that gas-buyers would literally swipe a card, Air Miles-style, when they pay for gas, in order to get their green savings.

It's an interesting idea, I guess, if a bit gimmicky, but I can't imagine how well it would work in practice. Many commentators - including some Conservative apologists and, at one point, O'Toole himself - have openly likened it to a loyalty rewards program, except that it would mainly reward those who use the most gas, enabling upper income earner to buy goods that they would probably have bought anyway, and arguably encouraging the very behaviour a carbon tax is supposed to deter. You can imagine the Liberals preparing their "the more you burn, the more you earn" attack ads as we speak.

Oh, and the Liberals' price per tonne of carbon is currently $40, and is set to gradually increase by $10 each year to $170 by 2030 (which is barely adequate, as regards Canada's international Paris Agreement commitments), while the Conservatives would set their price at a lowly $20 per tonne, rising to a maximum of $50 (which is, of course, nowhere near adequate).

To be fair, there is more to the Tory plan. They plan to keep the existing separate carbon pricing system for large industry, and to follow the Liberals' planned price increase schedule for it, although confusing the matter somewhat by also talking about trying to link the industrial price to that of trading partners like the EU and US (which doesn't even have an industrial carbon price). 

On some fronts, though, they even plan to go beyond the current Liberal stance, by increasing the current Clean Fuel Standards (which the Conservatives originally railed against), and by requiring 30% of vehicle sales to be electric by 2030 (an idea it is rumoured the Liberals intend to pursue in the upcoming budget). They are also talking about additional taxes on luxury non-electric vehicles, as well as on frequent fliers. Finally, they are proposing a pretty comprehensive building energy retrofit program, additional funding for carbon capture programs and support for small modular nuclear reactors, and a carbon border adjustment tariff for products imported from countries with lower environmental standards than Canada.

All in all, it is not a plan to be laughed at, even if it is a bit vague and inconsistent in places. It is, however, a very liberal (i.e. un-conservative) plan, and it remains to be seen whether the party faithful can be persuaded of the merits of such a tax- and regulation-heavy program. It seems like a rather desperate case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". It looks increasingly like the realization that the Conservatives' best bet for getting elected is to move more toward the centre and becoming more and more like the Liberals. How many conservatives will be willing to follow O'Toole there remains to be seen.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Do we really care what the Canadian Olympics uniform looks like?

Another excellent article by the Globe and Mail's Cathal Kelly, ostensibly a sports reporter, but really a commentator on the human condition in general and the Canadian condition in particular, and with a wicked sense of humour to boot.

Beginning, "As usual, everyone hates Canada's Olympic uniforms", Mr. Kelly delves deep into Canadian sensitivity and self-consciousness, before concluding that Canadians are their own worst critics, with the exception of perhaps of the Americans.

The Canadian look for the Tokyo Games (if they ever, in fact, take place) was actually released back in August of last year, and there was little fanfare or soul-searching involved at the time. After all, it's really not a big deal, is it? It's only now that the Americans have released their own style statement for the Games (what Cathal Kelly calls "cruise ship retiree meets Socialist Realism") that they - meaning, Americans - have started looking around and making snide comments about other countries'. And that, in turn, has brought out Canadian insecurities in a big way.

Yes, the graffiti-daubed jean jacket is kind of weird, for an Olympics uniform anyway. But it's different, and - hey - it's getting some attention, and that's always good, no? Is it cool? Probably not, but certainly no less so than the safe and predictable American uniform. And does it really matter? Who cares about this stuff? Get a life!

Apparently, Canadian Olympic gear, however strange, is always a hot commodity at Olympics events. Let's take some comfort in that, if indeed we need some.

This is probably where COVID-19 is spreading

A photo taken at 5.07am on a crowded Bloor Street bus has gone viral, so to speak.

It has gone viral partly because people like me, who live in a relatively safe middle-class part of Toronto, have no idea how people working in "essential businesses", and living in areas with high COVID infection rates, actually live. 

I have struggled to understand how nearly 5,000 people a day are going down with with the coronavirus in Ontario (with predictions that this could soon rise to as much as 18,000 a day), a good proportion of them in Toronto. I don't know anyone who has contracted it, let alone died from it, and I have only a vague idea of who these 5,000 (or 18,000) people really are.

As cases and hospitalizations continue to spike, and Ontario mulls tightening restrictions still further, it's just hard to believe that closing down curbside pickups or instituting a curfew would have a substantive effect on the transmission of the virus. Surely, what we need to know is which industries and businesses are generating the infection spread right now (not six months ago) and, if necessary, closing those down. Is it in schools? Construction sites? Factories? Transportation? Why is this information not available? 

The best information I could find, on the Public Health Ontario website, still does not answer my questions. There is a new section on "acquisition types", although this does not break the figures down by industry or business, and the vast majority are merely categorized as "No information" or "No known epidemiological link", which is less that useful. The section on outbreaks is closer to what I was looking for, although in less detail, and this suggests that schools (362 on recent weeks) is the number one culprit, followed by workplace (162) and congregate living (131), but this does not give the total cases from each sources, just the number of "outbreaks", which may be large or small, and which may be based on different criteria.

Some cities, including Toronto and Hamilton, do publish information on workplaces outbreaks, right down to individual employer names. For example, in Toronto, over the last few weeks, the largest outbreaks have been at a marketing firm (53 cases), a sports uniform maker (26), an Amazon warehouse (25), and a construction site (21). In Hamilton, the largest outbreaks were at a logistics firm (32), a nursery and garden centre (30), and a construction site (22). Many, if not most, of these do not look very essential to me.

There again, the same article features a graph purporting to show COVID-19 cases associated with workplaces in Ontario, and it shows totals in recent weeks between about 80 and 120 (i.e. a tiny fraction of the 4,000-5,000 total cases in Ontario). It also shows the number going DOWN in recent weeks, despite the overall case numbers in the province shooting up precipitately! Are workplaces, essential or otherwise, not the main (or even a major) source of cases, then? Is this not where our effort should be directed? It's all very confusing.

Anyway, we are running out of policy ideas. So, we probably do need to look long and hard at the government's definition of "essential", for one thing (I learned just yesterday that real estate is included, for instance). Many health experts are suggesting just that: "take a really good look at what is truly essential, just for the next four to six weeks, and close everything that's not truly, truly essential for our society, to get through this".

And, of course - how many times has this been said? - PAID SICK LEAVE!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

China and Russia's expansionist ambitions a dual threat

It's looking more and more like Vladimir Putin wants to invade Ukraine, whether to shore up his own faltering domestic popularity, or just out of some atavistic notion of recreating the glories of the Soviet Union. Who knows what Putin thinks? He doesn't seem very sure himself sometimes.

Ukraine has been fighting off Russian incursions since the invasion of Crimea back in 2014, particularly along the border region of Donbass. In the last year or so, though, Russia has moved nearly 80,000 troops to these border regions (now closer to 150,000), and it seems quite likely that Putin is testing out new US President Joe Biden, after four years of softness and appeasement under Trump. So far, he has been strongly supportive of the Western line of backing for Ukraine's position.

At the same time, China, under the increasingly paranoid and repressive regime of President Xi Jinping, has been ratcheting up its threats to Taiwan, both verbally and in the form of flyovers by bombers and fighter jets and other military activities. Chinese spokespeople have reiterated the party line that any further Taiwanese attempts to establish independence "means war" as far as China is concerned, and there is no reason to suspect that they are bluffing.

Both China and Russia are clearly in a belligerent and expansionist mood, and it seems like no coincidence that this is occurring at the start of a new US presidency, and that it is occurring concurrently. The latest National Intelligence briefing to the US Senate Intelligence Committee makes no bones about China and Russia, and particularly their combination, being far and away the greatest threat to the USA and to the world.

Notably, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently went out of her way to indicate that China and Russia are to a large extent moving in lockstep with each other, and "will give strong backing to each other on issues of core interests as important partners". Most Western commentators are reasonably dismissive of China and Russia's ability to work together, the differences in their approaches being too great, and their own specific ambitions being too overriding. But it's certainly not something that analysts are ignoring, nor can they afford to.