Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Men should butt out of the trans-women-in-female-bathrooms issue

Pierre Poilievre have made his stance on transgender politics pretty clear recently, backing up Alberta Premier Michelle Smith's rather extreme legislation. Well, he's at it again, offering his opinions on whether trans women should be using women's public washrooms and changing rooms.

But saying "Female sports, female change rooms, female bathrooms should be for females" does not really help much. That is not really up for debate. The debate is whether trans females or only "biological females" should have to join the line-up to use women's bathrooms.

When pressed, Poilievre did clarify his stance: "Female spaces should be exclusively for females, not for biological males." So, he is making the point that trans females are not really "females", they are actually just rather confused "biological males". Whether this also applies to trans females who have had gender reassignment/confirmation/affirmation surgery - and who therefore ARE biologically male - is not clear.

So, to protect the female general public from having to deal with trans women - who are almost certainly male perverts and predators in disguise, I suppose the argument goes - in their bathrooms, he is willing to expect trans women (who ARE at risk of abuse and attack, as is well documented) to try their luck in the Gents with all those testosterone-laden guys?

Poilievre did say, somewhat gratefully it seemed to me, that "it is unclear what reach federal legislation would have to change them" ("them" being the rules on changing rooms, bathrooms, etc), which are mainly provincially and municipally controlled.

Anyway, I thought it worth checking on what the general attitudes on the subject are. A meta-study on which gender is more concerned about transgender women in female bathrooms concluded that cisgender males are about 1.55 times as likely to express concern about safety and privacy as cisgender females, and that cisgender females are 4 times as likely as cisgender males to believe that transgender women do NOT directly cause their safety and privacy concerns. 

So, the women using those women's bathrooms are less worried about trans women sharing them than the guys who are not using them (again, the assumption being that men are more likely to assume that trans women are just males who are lying or mistaken about their gender.

Given that trans women themselves definitely know which bathrooms they want to use, it seems to me that men should just butt out of the whole conversation and let the women (cis and trans) get on with what THEY are most comfortable with, especially given that most of the action takes place in private stalls anyway. Is the idea of trans women washing their hands and adjusting their make-up in the mirror of a women's washroom so uncomfortable for men?

Monday, February 19, 2024

Presidential greatness is in the eye of the beholder, apparently

The latest Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey puts Donald Trump very firmly in last place, which of course has the right-wing press apoplectic.

It's a perfectly academic exercise,  featuring a poll of 154 "presidential scholars" (current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Assocation, i.e. scholars, academics, historians - not politicians) ranking all the American presidents from George Washington onwards, according to their perceived "greatness" on a scale of 1 to 100.

Top of the pack this year, as in previous polls, is Abraham Lincoln, with a ranking of 93.87, followed by FD Roosevelt, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. The most recent high-flyer is Barack Obama at No. 7 with a ranking of 73.8.

Down at the bottom of the ranking are a bunch of presidents I have rarely ever heard of: Harrison (26.01), Pierce,(24.6), Johnson (21.56), Buchanan (16.71), and there, right at the bottom, No. 45 out of 45, we find Donald Trump with a ranking of ... 10.92. Just to add insult to injury, Joe Biden is up there at a surprisingly middling-to-good No. 14, with a ranking of 62.66, above Ronald Reagan and barely below John F. Kennedy.

The conservative press, of course, assumes that this is a purely politically-motivated piece of left-wing propaganda. It seems to be beyond them to believe that this is anyone's objective opinion. Fox News slams the "ivory tower elites" and calls the poll a "highly questionable ranking", concluding that "this is infuriating in so many ways!", and finally, definitively, "this list is bogus".. Well, that'll show those ivory tower pinkos.

Alberta's water problem

Alberta's oil and gas industry is widely considered (apart from in Alberta and maybe Saskatchewan) Canada's premier ecological and environmental embarrassment. It is our largest single source of greenhouse gases not to mention more general environmental degradation and pollution. Unfortunately, it is the province's sacred cow and, certainly while Danielle Smith and her ilk run the place, it will be protected tooth and nail, whatever bad press it garners for the province and the country.

However, another environmental disaster may be looming for Alberta that may completely eclipse Big Oil's depredations, and may bring the fossil fuel industry down with it, as well as the province's large agricultural sector. 

That problem is water, or, more accurately, the lack of it. Snowpacks are at all-time low levels. Glaciers are melting at record speeds, and some are disappearing all together. 51 major river basins are reporting critical water shortages due to low rainfall and high temperatures. Groundwater levels have reached record lows, and most reservoirs are at least 5 metres below normal waterlines (stranded boat launch docks, nowhere near the water they were built to access, are a common sight). Natural lakes and man-made reservoirs alike are at between 10% and 30% of capacity. "Unprecedented" forest fires wrack the province, and are only expected to get worse.

The culprit, of course, is mainly climate change, exacerbated by the oil and gas extraction and fracking industries. At the best of times, Albert's only has 2.2% of Canada's renewable fresh water, but it has nearly 12% of its population, a population level that has increased almost ten-fold over the last century, and continues to increase at least partly due to deliberate government encouragement. Premier Smith says she would like see the population double from its CURRENT levels. 

It doesn't help that 80% of Alberta's water flows north, while 80% if its population lives in the arid south of the province. And it's oil and agriculture sectors are huge water hogs. About 60% of all Canada's irrigation occurs in Alberta, one of the provinces that can least afford it. Its 6 million cattle has been reduced to about 4 million in recent years due to ... drought. Agriculture, oil sands development and highways expansion has destroyed up to 70% of the province's wetlands.

All of this was not unexpected. 18 years ago, a major report by respected water ecologists David Schindler and Bill Donaghue raised the alarm on Alberta's water situation. For a province with a historically precarious water footing, they pointed out, government policy over the last century or so has been cavalier to say the least. Back in 2006, they predicted an "unprecedented water crisis, and made several drastic recommendations which have been ignored ever since.

Meanwhile, climate change has got significantly worse, both Alberta and Sasaktchewan still have plans to expand their irrigation regardless of the drought, and the water demands of the oilsands just keeps increasing, with water-intensive fracking operations growing substantially too. Alberta may be in for a 20, 30, even 40 year drought, but the province's feckless politicians have their heads stuck firmly in the oilsands.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Guilbeault's announcement about roads wilfully misinterpreted by Tories

Federal Enviroment Minister Steven Guilbeault stirred up another hornets' nest this week. Well, he must be getting used to that; the environement is currently a bĂȘte noir throughout much of the country, as we are going through a (hopefully short-lived) period of denial and retrenchment in all matters environmental.

So, what did Mr. Guilbeault (never the most engaging or flamboyant politician) say that has so upset conservative, mainly Western Canada? Merely that the federal government is to "stop investing in new road infrastructure". You might think: hold on, the feds don't really invest in road instrastructure anyway! And you'd be right. Other than the TransCanada Highway and a few other major interprovincial projects, road building is a provincial and municipal responsibility. 

And Guilbault didn't even say that the federal government would stop maintaining its own roads, just that it won't build any new ones. So, no new TransCanada Highways, which was very unlikely to happen anyway. Then, in the usual (recent) pusillanimous Liberal fashion, Guilbeault amended the announcement to say that the feds won't be investigated in any "large" new road projects, and that "of course we're funding roads, we have programs to fund roads". Sigh.

Building more roads has never been a solution to traffic congestion. In fact, quite the reverse: it tends to make traffic even worse. This may be counterintuitive, but decades of experience and research tells us that. (Can you say "induced travel effect".) So, at least philosophically and theoretically, Guilbeault is quite right.

But, nevertheless, Conservative premiers like Danielle Smith and Doug Ford, and many conservative MPs and journalists - particularly in Western and Central Canada, which is increasingly becoming a foreign country, and not one I want anything to do with - have of course come out swinging, outraged that the Liberal government is going to rip up all the country's roads and stop people from indulging in their God-given right to drive cars.

Danielle Smith: "Does the Minister understand that most Canadians don't live in downtown Montreal. Most of us can't just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10km to work." (Actually, nearly four-fifths of Canada's population is now urban, well served by public transit. Our rural population is actually very small, but let's leave that for now.)

Conservative Transport critic Mark Strahl called the announcement "radical and extreme", claiming that "million of Canadians will find it impossible to go to work or pick up their children from school". A right-wing newspaper columnist warned that million of Canadians would be deprived of their cars and be "forced into cramped spaces in in city cores".

Can these people hear themselves? Do they even listen to the announcements being made, and then think about them? Increasingly, Conservative reactions to everything are excessive,  and outrage is their default setting. More likely, they know that their reactions are disproportionate and disingenuous, but they make them anyway because their political base laps this stuff up, and kicking the Liberals when they are down has become a national sport. 

It's the whole populist, dog-whistle approach popularized and normalized by Donald Trump (yes, that's really where all this came from!), and taken up gleefully by conservative politicians the world over. Truth and balance no longer matter, it's all about getting the partisan message across by any means possible. It's depressing.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Did pandemic school closures really save lives? Yup

A study out of McMaster University is giving credence to the beliefs of some that the decision back in the early, panicky days of the pandemic to keep kids back from school was wrong-headed, ill-advised and downright dangerous.

Except that other studies - for example, a large one by the University of Manchester and Imperial College London in 2022, based on data from 130 countries - have concluded the exact opposite. According to that Manchester study, closing schools and workplaces appear to have been the two most effective strategies out of the nine interventions looked at in mitigating deaths from COVID-19 in the early days of the early days of the pandemic. And school closures were nearly five times as effective as workplace closures (1.23 daily deaths saved per million, compared to 0.26).

That's pretty compelling stuff. So how then are we supposed to take McMaster's opposing conclusions?

The McMaster meta-study is not quite as black-and-white as the media coverage suggests. It admits that "the overall findings were mixed". But it seems to be the case that results changed over time, and that school closures were probably a very important measure in the early days when good information was hard to come by. 

Remember, these were the days before vaccines, the days when cloth mask held sway, and we were wiping down our groceries and doorknobs. These were the days before the pandemic was a pandemic, and the death rate from those early variants was huge. It stands to reason that removing children from general circulation saved many, many lives. At the cost of education outcomes and some mental health issues, granted; but given a choice of death or a poorer education, I know what I would choose.

As the pandemic progressed, however, we suddenly had vaccines, we had mask mandates, etc. And the review confirms that vaccines, masks, and test-to-stay policies were, overall, the best methods to reduce the spread of COVID and to save lives (whatever the Feeedom Convoy may have you believe).

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The conundrum of heat pumps - my experience

I had a heat pump installed just about a year ago now. Always keen to reduce my carbon footprint - I'm the guy on the block with the electric car, the PV solar panels, and the hot water solar panel - a heat pump seemed like no-brainer. Indeed, I was surprised I had waited so long to do it.

Anyway, after doing my due diligence, including a lot of research on different models, costs and savings, YouTube videos, you name it, I went with a Carrier model installed by Reliance, a large enough company with apparently plenty of heat pump experience. 

The Reliance sales guy seemed pretty clued-in about heat pumps, and he answered most of my remaining questions. I happily agreed to the energy audit before and after installation in order to quality for the $5,000 federal grant towards the S16,000 cost (for a heat pump and a compatible gas back-up furnace). The installation went well (in a snowstorm!), and everything seemed to be going swimmingly.

And not only "seemed", but really was: the heat pump worked well from early March onwards. Our electricity bill went up, but the gas bill went down significantly, all as expected. I switched the heat pump off in spring, as we have always switched off our heating as soon as it's warm enough. 

The Ecobee digital smart thermostat was brilliant, and we could enter in vacation settings, check temperatures in different rooms, etc, etc. Very cool.

In summer, we rarely need air conditioning, living by the lake as we do, but we did use it on a few particularly hot days (or nights, mainly), and the heat pump worked fine. A bit slower to cool than our old gas-powered air conditioner, maybe, but it got there eventually, and we felt suitably virtuous.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, partly to share the news (no longer news) that heat pumps are a good option, even here in frigid Canada. But partly because, after less than a year, things started going wrong. 

At first it was just a minor problem of excess condensation leaking onto the driveway during the heat pump's regular defrost cycle. Not a big deal, but I got Reliance's service guys in as it was all covered under the warranty anyway. 

Nobody really seemed to be able to fix a small problem like this. Most of the guys that came out knew little or nothing about heat pumps, which didn't help. Some of them tinkered with this and that, and probably made everything worse.

Anyway, after a while - we're in late December now - the whole heat pump iced up, and by early January it stopped working completely. We still had back-up gas heating, so it wasn't a major inconvenience, just an annoyance. 

I was now insisting to Reliance that they send someone who actually understood heat pumps, and eventually they did send a heat pump "specialist". Of course, the first day, he couldn't stay long enough to do anything useful. Then, we were away for a few days. Then, he caught COVID. It was mid-February - today, actually - before he could spend any time on it. He re-wired the control panel (somebody, one of the repair guys I assume, had clearly botched it), and re-set some stuff on the thermostat.

But the final thing - and the point of this interminable blog entry - is that he re-set the threshold temperature setting at which the auxiliary furnace takes over from the heat pump from -12°C (which is where I had set it) to +9°C (which is where he said that the manufacturer, Carrier, recommended it). 

So, that would mean that the heat pump would not be used whenever the outside temperature dipped below +9°C, which, in Toronto, means all of the winter as well as early spring and late fall. In fact, just about the only times I would actually be able to make use of it would be maybe April and October/November! The payback period just went up many-fold.

After all, the unit was supposed to be usable at -20°C, even -30°C. I re-checked the interwebs and, yes, there were a whole load of articles saying that heat pumps did indeed work to -10°F (about -20°C) and below. Lots and lots of articles saying don't believe what the manufacturers recommend, they do indeed work at ultra-low temperatures. There is this thing called the "balance point", where inefficient heat pump performance at low temperatures balances out the extra costs (and carbon enissions) of using auxiliary power, but even that is a very low (if slightly nebulous and elusive) figure.

Anyway, I tried to contact Carrier directly to find out where that +9°C threshold came from. I couldn't get through on the phone, despite trying during regular office hours. The email contact form kept telling me I hadn't completed the Captcha correctly when there wasn't actually a Captcha to complete. I did finally get through on the online chat system, where a young lady assured me that of course I could use it at lower than +9°C, I should just play it by trial and error.

So, now I just don't know. Did I break it by insisting on using at at too low a temperature? Did the Reliance repair guys break it with their tinkering? Who should I believe? Luckily, I am pretty well sold on the technology, otherwise I might well be trading it in right now. But I have to admit that my confidence is a bit shaken. And if I can't be confident about heat pumps, then what chance does a much less-committed environmentalist stand? It's a conundrum.


After the heat pump was finally repaired by someone who seemed to understand what he was doing (re-wiring the control panel, for example, after a previous repair guy had messed it up), I set the Aux Heat Max Outdoor Temp to +2°C and Compressor Min Outdoor Temp to -1.1°C. The heat pump did come on when the outside temp was -1°C. Promising. Over the next few days, it seemed to be working fine - heat pump when the temperature was over -1.1°C and gas furnace when it was below.

From here, I guess I will experiment with reducing the threshold degree by degree, while keeping an eye on the frost buildup on the heat pump compressor. It shouldn't have to be this hard, but it is what it is, as they say.

It's hard to get excited about the ArriveCan debacle

I haven't bothered writing anything about the ArriveCan app "scandal", mainly because I just find it hard to get too worked up about it.

Sure, it was a poorly-handled project and the Canadian Border Services Agency, and any other civil service organization that had a hand in it, should take a slap on the wrist and institute some better processes and safeguards so that something similar does not happen again. I'm guessing that the fact that it happened in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic was something to do with it, but I understand that that can't really be used as an excuse.

But, as a letter-writer in the Globe and Mail pointed out today, the $59.5 million price tag - large sum though that is, especially compared to the original budget estimate - is barely more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of annual government spending. It's less than a rounding error.

Pierre Poilievre, of course, is making it out to be a huge issue (he's trying to make a criminal case out of it now), and all the personal fault of Prime Minister Trudeau, as if he were there supervising the app's development every step of the way. That's just what Poilievre does. It's annoyingly effective, but don't fall into the trap of his populist machinations. 

This was an unfortunate incident, but it has been dealt with and we have moved on. Well, most of us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Russia declares Estonian Prime Minister "wanted"

We've seen many examples of Russia's delusions of grandeur over the last couple of years since it illegally invaded Ukraine. Well, here's another.

Russia's interior ministry has declared Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas "wanted under the criminal code", along with Estonia's Secretary of State  Taimar Peterkop, and Lithuania's Culture Minister Simonas Kairys. Their crimes? According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Baltic politicians are accused of "hostile actions against Russia" and "the desecration of historical memory" relating to the destruction of Soviet-era monuments. In their own country, mind you!

Why Russia feels that it has jurisdiction over Estonia and Lithuania, independent sovereign states since 1991 and 1990 respectively, I have no idea. But then who knows what goes on in the minds of Vladimir Putin and his cronies these days?

Of course, it may be no coincidence that both Estonia and Lithuania have been vocal and outspoken supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and have repeatedly called for the provision of more arms for the Ukrainian resistance.