Friday, October 18, 2019

What the Unknown Pleasures album cover actually shows

Somehow - inexplicably - it has been 40 years since the release of Joy Division's first album Unknown Pleasures. I was a callow university student at the time, and I was dutifully blown away by it, different as it was from anything that had gone before, reaching a level of intensity few albums before or since have matched.
And then there was that album cover - stark, white on black, mysterious, textless, supremely evocative of the skittering, disquieting music inside. It has since come to be considered one of the most iconic album covers ever, in the august company of the Pink Floyd prism, the Velvet Underground banana, the Rolling Stones hot lips. It has wormed its way into the DNA of popular culture, and even today it can be found on t-shirts, tattoos, even oven glovers (apparently), and has been featured on The Simpsons, Star Wars and Ready Player One.
Some people think it represents music, some a medical image like a pulse, some an alien mountain range. One theory pegs it as a representation of a mathematical Fourier analysis. I listened to an interview, re-broadcast on CBC, with the album cover's creator, a (then) unknown young English graphic designer called Peter Saville, who explained that it was actually based on an astronomical image found in an encyclopedia by one the band members. The image is actually a representation of radio waves from a pulsar designated CP1919, a mysterious, powerful and distant astronomical phenomenon discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, originally nicknamed LGM-1 (for "Little Green Men"). Saville describes as "a dead star whose signal seems to transit forever", an eerie foretoken of the death of band leader Ian Curtis less than a year later.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A dying Canadian teen's plea to use your vote

I know it's been shared and re-tweeted countless times and, as usual I am late to the party, but who am I to ignore this. I refer to the viral video posted to Twitter by 18-year old Maddison Yetman, in which she uses some of her precious last moments to encourage Canadians to vote in the upcoming federal elections.
Ms. Yetman was diagnosed with terminal cancer just last week and was given just days to live. Yet she still found time and energy to vote in the first election in which she was eligible to cast a vote, and to make this simple but profound video. In it, she explains her condition with home-made placards, ending with "If I can find the time to vote, you can find the time to vote", and the Twitter hashtag #WhatsYourExcuse.
The video has been viewed over 730,000 times (and counting), and has attracted the attention and comments of at least two party leaders. Perhaps a strange choice of priorities for her last few days of life but, as she says in her tweet, "This is my last chance to make a difference". And she has certainly made her mark, I'd say.

The implications of a minority government in Canada

As Canada's depressing federal election lunches towards a conclusion, the word "minority" is much more in the air. The two main parties, the distinctly un-progressive Progressive Conservatives and the only-vaguely-liberal Liberals, are neck and neck at around 31-32% each in the polls - although poll can of course be wrong, and in recent often are - with the (left-leaning but basically liberal) NDP making a late bid at 18%. So, unless things take a very strange hop over the next few days, we seem destined for a minority government of some kind.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been surprisingly vocal about being open to a coalition with the Liberals, which is not too surprising as the two parties are not that far apart politically, and as his main goal is to avoid a Tory government at all costs. Many people see an NDP-supported Liberal government as a best-case scenario. Singh has also been equally clear that he categorically will NOT work with the Conservatives, who have no real support options in the event of a minority government (neither the Bloc Quebecois nor the People Party seem interested in forming a coalition with the Conservatives). Canada has seen minority governments and even semi-official coalition agreements before, but they are not that common, given our first-past-the-post electoral system. How might this work, then?
Well, what's interesting is the possibility that, even if the Conservatives do win more seats than the Liberals, the Liberals are still in a position to form a winning coalition, snatching a (qualified) victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. Technically, in the case of no clear majority, Trudeau remains Prime Minister after the election, and is not bound to step down until Parliament is recalled and he faces a no-confidence vote on a budget bill, or on the Speech from the Throne. Therefore, if Mr. Singh is willing to play nicely, and it seems like he is, then Mr. Trudeau gets to stay as Prime Minister. It does not have to be a full-blown official coalition, just ad-hoc support is sufficient: so long as Trudeau is able to persuade Governor-General Julie Payette that he has the confidence of the House, he can continue to lead a majority government. This is not a particularly common outcome in Canadian elections, but neither is it unprecedented. And Conservative leader Andrew Scheer certainly does not seem to be in a position to convince the Governor-General that the Conservatives are able to maintain the confidence of the House.
So, all is not lost yet...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Yams? Sweet potatoes? A quick primer

While cooking a white sweet potato for Thanksgiving lunch today, I thought I should figure out, definitively, once and for all, about the different kinds of sweet potatoes and yams.
Yams are the easy part. The confusion arises in that many people, and even many stores (in North America, at least), call some varieties of sweet potatoes "yams", and the two labels are considered pretty much synonymous in many people's eyes. Yams originally come from Africa and parts of Asia, and are related to lilies, palms and grasses. They have a tough, hairy, dark brown skin, rounded ends, and usually a hard creamy white flesh. They are starchy and dry and not particularly sweet to eat. There are some additional varieties of yam, including yellow- and purple-fleshed ones, but the only ones we are likely to encounter here in North America are the brown skinned white-fleshed ones, and even these are quite hard to find. Most of what you see marked as "yams" in the supermarket are actually sweet potatoes. You have probably never actually eaten a yam.
Sweet potatoes are more complicated, mainly because there are more varieties, and these are more widely available. Sweet potatoes originally hail from Central and South America (although many new cultivars have been developed in the United States in recent decades), and are actually in the bindweed/morning glory family, and only distant cousins to the nightshade family (which includes regular potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers). They come in a variety of smooth skins from tan to brown to copper to red to purple, they usually have tapered, pointy ends, and they sport a variety of different flesh colours and textures, from white to yellow to orange to purple.
The very sweet, soft, orange-fleshed ones that most people associate with sweet potatoes are actually most likely to be jewel, garnet or Beauregard sweet potatoes (although, of course, they may be labelled as "yams"), which are among the more recent American cultivars. They typically have brown to red smooth skins.
And, if you are interested, we had a purple-skinned white-fleshed sweet potato (no idea what the cultivar is), much less flavoursome than the orange-fleshed ones, but very nice all the same mashed with some pepper and butter.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

2-hour marathon barrier falls at last

Well, it had to happen: the 2-hour marathon barrier has been breached. and of course it was Kenya's Eliud  Kipchoge who made it happen. 35-year old Kipchoge, the current world record holder and widely considered the greatest marathon runner ever, has been dominant in recent years, winning 11 of his 12 major races with gradually improving times, and it seemed only matter of time before the barrier fell to him.
The race was in Vienna, Austria, and, although it was an officially-timed race, it won't count as a new world record because of the stringent rules around such things, specifically the use of 42 pacemakers (including some world elite runners in their own right) who rotated in and out throughout the race, and the delivery of water and energy gels by bike rather than the traditional method of picking them up from a table. This might seen picky-picky, but in the cut-and-thrust world of elite sports such rules are important to make sure that the conditions are equal for everyone.
Whether it counts or not, though, Kipchoge has shown that it is in fact possible. When you consider the history of marathon records, it is salutary to consider that the 1896 Olympics was won in a time of 2:58:50 (and the distance was probably well short of the official 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometres, at that), the 2-and-a-half hour barrier was broken in 1925, and the 2-and-a-quarter hour fell in 1963. It is quite an achievement, as Kipchoge himself is not slow to acknowledge, comparing the feat to Roger Banister's 1954 four-minute mile, and even the first man on the moon!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Finally, a common writing system for all Inuit languages and dialects

I always thought it was as simple as to say that the Inuit of northern Canada (in fact, all the indigenous people from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland) speak a language called Inuktitut. But, although there is only a shockingly small population of 47,000 Inuit in Canada, their language profile is actually extremely complex.
For one thing, in addition to Inuktitut, there is also something called Inuktut, which is the word used to represent all the Inuit dialects, or at least those spoken within the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, which is where the majority of the Inuit live. This includes Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and others. In fact, it turns out that there are 5 different dialects of Inuktut, and no less than nine different writing systems. The dialects are distinct, but they are related, so that speakers of different dialects can usually more or less make themselves understood. The writing systems, though, which were mainly developed by well-meaning Christian missionaries from the 17th century onwards, are less consistent. Some make use of syllabics (characters to represent syllables), and some use the more familiar Roman alphabet.
So, finding - and agreeing on - a common written system for all Inuit has become something of a linguistic holy grail, especially given that consensus is an important part of Inuit culture. But, after eight years of negotiation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the main "national" Inuit organization, has managed to come up with a new writing system, created by Inuit for Inuit, called Inuktut Qaliujaakpait. The system uses Roman letters to represent the sounds in all five dialects.
Of course, even with a consensus, not everyone is happy about it. Some still prefer the old system(s), even if it was a colonial imposition, and a "long transition period" is anticipated. Me, I will miss the aesthetically pleasing characters of Inuktitut syllabics, which I got to know and love on canoe trips to the Northwest Territories.

What's involved when charging an electric car? A beginner's guide

If, like me, you have been considering an electric car but are not quite there, either in your head or in your wallet, then information is gold. I have reached the hybrid level of auto evolution, but a combination of range anxiety, sticker shock and general ignorance has prevented me from going the whole electric hog thus far.
As electric cars improve their ranges, and prices come down (and maybe you are lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that offers government grants and discounts for EVs), I have been doing a bit of research into the practicalities of owning an EV or PHEV (plugin hybrid electric vehicle). One thing in particular that worried me, perhaps unaccountably, was the actual process and logistics of charging. So, I went out and got me some knowledge, because knowledge is power, apparently.
I found a few good videos and websites that show in detail how to charge an EV, and explain about the various options available. It seems there are three main methods: just plug it in to a regular mains socket; plug it in to a fast charger, either at home or on the road; or plug it in to a super-fast rapid charger of the type that can be found in various public locations in most developed countries. The first two of these utilize one type of connector port, the latter a separate special port (your EV will have both of these). You will often see charge times to 80% quoted; this is because, after 80%, the charging usually slows down so as not to risk overcharging the battery, so charging to 80% is the most time-efficient part of charging. Level 3 chargers typically only allow charging upto 80%, after which they shut off.
The good thing about being able to use a regular electricity socket (120v here in North America) is that you can charge up pretty much anywhere, whether or home or, say, at a B&B or a campsite (although I am not sure how a B&B or hotel would deal with such a request or how they might charge you). The bad news is that this kind of Level 1 charging is painfully slow, and can take anywhere from 8-20 hours for a full charge. Obviously, it takes less time for a lesser charge - you don't actually need to fully charge it each time - and the time for charging also depends on the battery size, which varies between different models of EV.
A 240v fast charger socket (Level 2)  is something you can install at your home (for a sum of money, as it has to be installed by a professional electrician), and this brings down the time required for a full charge to about 4-6 hours. This is also the most commonly encountered type of public charging station, although bear in mind that, in practice, the average EV driver does about 80% of their charging at home.
And then there are the Level 3 480v Direct Current Fast Chargers (also known as CHAdeMO) which can be found at some public charging stations - this is not an option for home. With a Level 3 charger, it only requires half an hour or so for an 80% charge. For this you would use the separate rapid charge port on your car, and not all EVs come with this facility. Some manufacturers like Tesla have their own "superchargers", using propriety connectors, but they will also charge to 80% in as little as half an hour.
There are various networks of charging stations (in the same way as there are various brands of gas station), some more widely available than others, some with the super-fast rapid charging facilities and some not. Also, not all EVs are compatible with all charging stations, and there may be different rates and payment methods involved (e.g. flat rate, by the hour). Some are even free! I guess it wouldn't take too long to figure all that out. Also, you can subscribe to more than one charging network (or.even all of them, to be safe). Typically, you tap a charge card to operate them, and pay off the card periodically, just like a credit card, or some are more like prepaid cards that you can top up as needed. Most EVs have an option where you can either lock the charger in place until you come and release it, or you can set it to automatically release when fully charged, so that someone else can use it for their car at a public charging facility.
There are a variety of phone apps that will show you where charging stations can be found, and which ones are currently free for use. You can pre-plan long-distance trips this way. With some you can even book chargers in advance for specific time periods using the app. You can check the progress on your charging on your car's dash, and often on the charger too.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but apparently you get used to it pretty quickly (remember the first time you had to fill up with gas, and how daunting that was?) You basically have to adopt a whole new mindset around charging, as compared to filling up with gas, and a fair bit more forward planning is required (depending on your car usage, of course - if you typically just drive a short distances around town, you may never need to use a public charger, and you may only need to charge at home every few days, or even once a week).
As for how much it costs to "fill up" an EV, that obviously depends on the cost of electricity in your area, and that can get complicated. For example, you can take advantage of substantially cheaper off-peak electricity rates at night in some provinces, like here in Ontario. One analysis by Autotrader.ca concludes that a reasonably basic EV like the Chevy Bolt costs anywhere from $1.16 to $4.21 to drive 100 kilometers (based on the cheapest and the most expensive electricity in Canada), as compared to $8.40-$9.24 for an equivalent efficient gas car like the Honda Civic (i.e. anywhere from eight times to twice as cheap). A luxury EV like the Tesla X might cost between $1.55 and $5.63 per 100 kilometers, as compared to around $18-$20  for a more-or-less equivalent Range Rover.
By way of corroboration, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation estimates that an average EV would cost about $300 a year ($0.78 a day) in "fuel", as compared to $1,000-$2,500 for a gas car.  So, looking at these studies, very roughly and taking an average, you can probably count on an EV costing around one-fifth of the cost of an equivalent gas car for its fuel.
The carbon footprint of your "fill-up" is a while other issue, and it also depends on the electricity generation energy mix in your area. Here in Ontario, about 34% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and almost 98% from non-carbon emitting sources (including nuclear), so the carbon footprint would be minimal. I also have solar panels on our roof, so I would feel even better about charging up at home.
So, am going to go out and buy an EV right now? Well, not right now, but when our trusty Prius starts showing its age, yes, probably.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How the English language has changed in 50 years

I came across an article called "9 grammar rules that have changed since you were at school". It assumes that "you" were at school in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (quite rightly, in my case), and the data on the rule changes comes from no less an authority than Brian Garner of Garner's Modern English Usage fame.
As for what consitutes "correct" English grammar, that is of course a subjective and highly contentious assessment, but Garner side-steps this by using a determination of the extent to which old rules have become redundant in regular (American) speech. He utilizes his own five-point Language Change Index, with 1 being misspellings or mistakes that are generally rejected as incorrect (e.g. "arguement" for "argument"); 2 being usages that have spread to more people but are still generally considered non-standard (e.g. using "baited breath" for "bated breath"); 3 being incorrect usages common even among well-educated people but avoided in careful usage (e.g. using "I better" for "I had better"); 4 being usages widely accepted by almost everyone except a few "linguistic stalwarts" (e.g. using "who" for "whom" for the object of a sentence - I think I must be a linguistic stalwart there); and 5 being usages fully accepted by everyone except eccentrics (e.g. using "contact" as a verb).
Obviously, you can quibble with the definitions, and even some of the examples used above, but among the level 4 and 5 changes that Garner has identified as being now acceptable usages, are:
  • "None" with a plural verb (e.g. "none of them are mine").
  • "Fine-tooth comb" instead of "fine-toothed comb".
  • "Graduate from" rather than "be graduated from" by an educational institution.
  • "Run the gauntlet" instead of the original "run the gantlet".
  • "Reason why" with the redundant "why" (e.g. "the reason why we took the trip").
  • "Over" to mean "more than" (e.g. "there were over 400 applicants for the job").
  • "Hopefully" to mean "I hope" and not just "in a hopeful manner" (e.g. " hopefully, they will let me in").
  • "Dove" for "dived" as the past tense of "dive" (making it consistent with words like "strove", "drove", etc).
  • Split infinitives ("to boldly go where no-one has gone before" finally achieves respectability).
It's difficult to argue that these have become almost universally used. But correct? Well... Phrases like, "the thing is, is that ...", "I will be there momentarily", "I must of fallen asleep", etc, are other examples of clear errors that have become widely used, but I still don't accept them. But then I'm a linguistic stalwart, aren't I?