Saturday, June 06, 2020

Is "defunding the police" an idea whose time has come?

An idea that is being bandied around in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd is that of "defunding the police". Described by The Guardian as "the rallying cry sweeping the US", which smacks a little of hyperbole, this is not a new idea, but perhaps one whose time has come.
What defunding means is taking government and municipal money away from police and prisons, and investing it in housing, employment, community health, education, etc. Some see it as a mere tweak to the current system, while some see it as a step towards the complete abolition of police forces as we know them.
So, the way this is envisaged is, for example, if a homeless person is found drunk and sleeping on a park bench, instead of a policemen moving them on, a city employee would drop by and offer accommodation in a shelter; if someone is caught doing drugs in public, a substance abuse professional would intervene and assess whether they need help; if someone is shouting and behaving erratically, a social worker trained in dealing with mental illness talks them down and guides them home or to a place of assistance.
It all sounds very positive, a much kinder and gentler system than we have at present. But what happens when the homeless person refuses to move, when the drug user suddenly draws a knife, when the erratic person grabs a passer-by as hostage or threatens the social.worker with violence, as happens all the time in the circumstances? And who is out on the streets to find these instances in the first place? And who is tracking the pick-pockets, the cat-burglers, the gun-runners, the online pedophiles? It all just sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky to me. And where would all these Good Samaritan street social workers come from when most social workers are already over-extended? Retrained unemployed police officers perhaps? So why not just retrain the current police force (which I believe is already happening to come extent)?
Proponents argue that aggressive policing of city streets for petty matters actually causes increased social disruption and ultimately leads to more crime, which maybe seems logical in the abstract, but I have a suspicion that without a police presence, those "petty matters" would snowball and develop into graver matters, resulting in even more social disruption than the alternative. They also argue that the vast majority of police work has nothing to do with responding to and preventing violence, which may be true, but does not mean that their other work is valueless. Proponents also take solace in an analysis that showed that a 2014/2015 "slow-down" in New York's policing was actually accompanied by a reduction in crime, not an increase, although the cynic in me suggests that this was just because the police were catching and reporting fewer criminals!
Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge proponent of the current over-militarized police system. There is a lot that needs changing, not least in training in how to deal with mental illness and racial minorities, and how to de-escalate situations. I think there is pretty much unanimous agreement on that, and many police forces are already implementing changes as we speak/read.
Personally, I just can't see that getting rid of the police force is a very practical option. There again, attempts to reform the police in recent years - and there have been some - have obviously not had very positive results, especially in the USA. Shat to do, what to do?

Friday, June 05, 2020

Passive House vs LEED - which is best?

As Canada belatedly joins in with the Passive House movement, it comes head to head with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard developed by the Green Building Council of the USA and Canada. Both are standards, or certification systems, developed as a way of certifying architecture that aspires to environmental principles, particularly sustainable, low/no carbon buildings.
The Passive House standard was originally developed in Germany (Passivhaus) in the 1990, although many of its principles go back further to the 1970s. It's pedigree is therefore longer, and it is showcased by a great many more buildings, mainly in northern Europe (Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, etc).
Passive houses are designed to stay at a comfortable temperature without "active" heating and cooling from furnaces and air conditioners, utilizing a variety of techniques from passive sunshine to heat from pipes to the body heat of the occupants, incorporating efficient orientation, air-tight, draught-free, ultra-efficient doors and windows, heavy insulation and triple-glazing, mechanical ventilation systems that capture and release heat as needed from air entering and leaving the building, and eliminating materials and structures that transfer heat between the interior and exterior of the building (e.g. fibre glass clips instead of metal screws to attach external siding). Often, they also incoprorate renewable energy, such as from solar or geothermal sources, which can make them net negative carbon contributors.
Over 2,000 passive house buildings have already been built in Canada, most over the last few years, and many of the new crop of buildings under development here are looking to scale up the traditional passive house ideas to larger buildings, high rises, etc.
So, how is this different from the more familiar North American LEED system? Under LEED, which has various levels of compliance (unlike Passive House, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition), builders aim to increase their "score" by adding elements that the Green Building Council recommends, such as energy efficiency, water efficiency, location, materials, green roofs, and even a category called "awareness and education". Since 2004, LEED has certified over 4,350 buildings in Canada, and registered over twice that number, giving Canada the second highest number of LEED projects in the world.
Some low/no-carbon architecture purists argue that Passive House is a more rigorous and superior standard, and that LEED devotees are merely "chasing a checklist". But even they would admit that LEED has done a good job of branding the concept of environmentally-sustainable architecture, and bringing the sustainability conversation into the mainstream of architectural practice.
Probably both camps would agree that buildings that meet both standards would be the ideal aspiration to aim for.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

An awkward 21 seconds of silence on live TV

The time-span of 8 minutes 46 seconds is seared into most people's minds right now.
But here's another one, 21 seconds: the time that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delayed before answering a question on live television about Donald Trump's handling of the race protests in the United States.
It was priceless television. You could see Trudeau fighting against the impulse to just tell the truth, desperately searching for a politic response that didn't drop him into too much shit with the USA, but that still satisfied his home base, and didn't sound too much like a bare-faced lie. He started to speak, stopped, started again, stopped, sighed, thought some more...
In the end, all he said was the usual anodyne political bromides. But the delay? - priceless! 21 seconds silence is an awfully long time on live television!

If black people are under-represented in certain sports, is that racist?

Racism remains firmly anchored in the news, to the extent that it's hard to find out what's happening regarding the coronavirus pandemic (in case you weren't sure, hundreds of people are still dying each day, but I guess that's no longer news). And I guess it was in this context that CBC Radio 1 aired a segment looking at black people in cycling (or the lack thereof), and it was reported that the first black participant ever in 108 years of the Tour de France was Guadeloupe cyclist Yohann Gene, who competed in 2011.
Interesting enough, except that the presenter characterized this as just one more example of institutionalized racism (or anti-black racism, as it seems we are now supposed to call it). Which made me wonder: how? why? In what way is the fact that not many black people have taken up competitive cycling an egregious instance of racism? Were they prevented from taking up the sport? They may well have been made unwelcome in private cycling clubs up until a certain date (I don't know - the 80s?). But I think it's probably just not a sport that most black people have ever had much interest in until relatively recently.
Blacks are hugely OVER-represented in certain sports like basketball and American football, and distinctly under-represented in other sports like hockey. And, apparently, cycling. Latinos are over-represented in baseball, blacks and Latinos ate probably slightly over-represented in soccer, and maybe under-represented in tennis until recent decades (and possibly over-represented now). People of Afro-Caribbean heritage are over-represented in sprinting athletics events, while the small subset of East African excel at long-distance running. It gets conplicated.
You could go on and on in this vein if you thought it was profitable. But I think that some races are over-represented or under-represented in some sports for a variety of different reasons, from physique to culture to weather to wealth and poverty. It doesn't necessarily have to be fuelled by racism, although in some cases it might be. It's similar in many other fields of endeavour: what is the significance of the fact that there are relatively few black theatre actors and opera singers (although that too is changing rapidly in recent years), but they are hugely over-represented in hip-hop and rap (which is where all the money is in pop music)? Etc, etc.
Anyway, I meander. My point is, I am not in complete denial that racism exists, à la Trump administration or Doug Ford or François Legault, but I just think that people need to be a bit more careful about how they use the "R-word", lest it lose its power through overuse. It should not just be used as
an easy way to shut down a conversation or debate, and there is no particular merit in a white person invoking or admitting to racism if they do not have good evidence of it and/or a viable solution to put on its place. It is not something that should be talked about or mentioned just because it is expected - that would come under the heading of "virtue signalling".

Trump's bizarre bible photo-op

Donald Trump's bible photo-op was a bizarre event even by Trumpian standards.
Police used tear gas to forcibly move out peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square Park in central Washington, so that Trump could make his leisurely stroll down to St. John's Episcopal Church (the so-called "church of the presidents"). Presumably, the vibe was supposed to be reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln or some such, deep in philosophical contemplation.
One arriving at the little church, he struck a few different poses with a bible (apparently not his own) in front of the church, which had experienced a small basement fire a few days earlier. He was probably hoping for a convenient beam of light from the heavens to highlight his display, but the heavens did not oblige. Then, photo-op over, he strolled back to the White House - no explanation, no speeches nothing. Priceless!
Various religious leaders, including the bishop of the diocese and the church's own rector, neither of whom were consulted about the stunt, responded with criticism, disgust and outrage. One prominent rabbi called it "one of the most flagrant misuses of religion I have ever seen". Trump had made a similar PR visit to the Shrine of Saint John Paul II in Washington earlier in the day, which the Catholic Archbishop also found "baffling and reprehensible".
But there was no religious context to the event: it was just a cynical photo-op, pure and simple. The Christian Broadcasting Company and Fox lapped it up. Fox & Friends called it Trump "demonstrating his intent to protect churches from those who would try to destroy them". And at least some of his Republican supporters rallied around, with one in particular gushing, "Historic moment as @POTUS Trump reclaims St. John's Church for America! God bless America!" (My favourite quote from a Democratic senator was, "He handled the Bible like the ape handled the bone in '2001: A Space Odyssey' ").
Few, other than Trump, would have the chutzpah for such a performance - most would be concerned about appearing glib or phony. But not Trump! Apparently, according to media sources, it was entirely his idea, because "he wanted the visual". And he seems to have achieved what he wanted (coverage on the right-wing media, and photos for his faithful to disseminate on social media).

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Survey says that most Americans wouldn't get a coronavirus vaccine anyway

Most people (and most governments) are desperate for a COVID-19 vaccine. People are saying it is the only way we will be able to get back to something approaching normal, and to achieve herd immunity we apparently need 70-90% of the population to be immune, one way or another
And yet a recent survey in America suggests that less than half of the population (49%) would bother to get vaccinated! To be fair, another 31% say they are not sure (why would you not be sure?), but fully 20% say they have no intentions of availing themselves of the vaccine! In fact, only 65% of those who think that vaccination is important or essential for re-opening the economy say they will get vaccinated. So, how do they think that re-opening is going to happen, then?
I find all this hard to come to terms with. So, people are enjoying the way things are at the moment? What is going on here? Now, this is America, and a lot of Americans are, well, weird, as we have been seeing in recent weeks. But imagine if this was a global trend! The only other similar survey I have seen is from Germany, and it yielded shockingly similar results: only about half say they would get a vaccine, and a fifth say they definitely won't.
The American survey gets even weirder when we start to look into the detailed demographics of the survey results. 16% of whites say they will not get the vaccine, but a massive 40% of blacks and 23% of Hispanics plan on refusing it (only 25% of blacks will definitely get vaccinated). 26% of Republicans don't want the vaccine, compared to 43% that do, while 14% of Democrats don't want it compared to 62% that do (among independents, the biggest block -  46% - is firmly in the "not sure" camp which, given their voting intentions probably makes sense).
Of the 20% of Americans who say they definitely wouldn't get a coronavirus vaccine, 42% say they are worried that they would contract the virus from the vaccine, which just goes to show how ill-informed people are. About 70% say they are worried about side-effects from the vaccine - an almost reasonable position to take, but don't they think that the virus itself might be worse? 31% say they are not worried about getting seriously ill from the virus anyway (and the devil take everybody else!), and nearly as many say that they just don't think that vaccines in general work very well. A not-insignificant few say they just won't have to time to go get a vaccine, because, you know, stuff to do!
It makes extraordinary - and scary - reading. I'm not going to read it again.

Facebook employees invent the concept of the "virtual walkout"

The idea of a virtual walkout is a strange one, although probably no stranger than many other things we have come to accept as normal during this pandemic. But that is effectively what several groups of Facebook employees have done in protest against Facebook's reaction (or lack thereof) to Donald Trump's incendiary postings regarding the ongoing race riots in America.
Dozens of Facebook employees, who are currently working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, have refused to work and have added an explanation on their digital profiles and email out-of-office messages, explaining that they are not working in solidarity with the police brutality and racism protests that are roiling American cities, and calling on Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg to take a stand and start blocking Trump's inflammatory postings, as Twitter has done earlier this week.
Zuckerberg has always maintained that it is not Facebook's place to vet or censor postings, and that the public should be allowed to decide what they want to believe. He says that Facebook is "committed to free expression", and is clearly in no mood to take on Trump (he is much too conscious of his company's bottom line and his retirement fund, for one thing). But this is being talked about as the most serious challenge to Zuckerberg's leadership since the company was founded 15 years ago.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Why do protests turn into riots and looting?

Why is it that American race protests and demonstrations (and often those elsewhere too) almost always turn violent and result in looting?
Black protest organizers in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and other American cities have been quick to distance themselves from the looters and property destroyers that have sucked up most of the media attention, and claim that any looting and violence over the last several days is not being done in the name of George Floyd. There has also been a lot of discussion about the difference between damage to buildings and damage to human beings, and about the very definition of the word "violent" (most of the damage to stores and automobiles has come from protesters, but most of the actual violence perpetrated against people has come from the security forces).
It seems like whenever there is a genuine outpouring of grass roots anger, as we have seen many times before, such as during the 1992 Rodney King riots, the Seattle WTO riots of 1999, the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri unrest, all attempts to maintain peaceful, non-violent demonstrations and street protests always fail, and the situation deteriorates into violence against the police (and often back again), the torching of vehicles and innocent local businesses, and the senseless looting of consumer durables stores that find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Minnesota governor Tim Walz has suggested that up to 80% of the looting and torching in the Minnesota protests in recent days has been carried out by outsiders, although it is not clear how that conclusion was arrived at. Certainly, there were plenty of out-of-state car licence plates in evidence, but it's hard to pin down where the thousands of protesters actually hail from. Other state officials and some black organizers have pinned the blame on white supremacist and anarchist groups who were looking to discredit genuine black protesters or just to destabilize the state in any way they can, but there seemed to be plenty of black looters in action too.
There always seem to be these rent-a-crowd anarchist and neo-fascist types around looking to further their own political agenda at the expense of genuine public outrage and political action. And, of course, Tweets from idiots of Donald Trump threatening protesters with violence obviously don't help. Even relatively thoughtful commentaries from influential media personalities like Trevor Noah, with his "police in American are looting black bodies" video musings, don't really help, quite frankly, because they they can be seen as effectively justifying looting as a tit-for-tat response (although I do recommend you watch that video, it is 18 minutes well spent).
One phrase that has been commonly invoked throughout these street protests (and previous ones) is, "merchandise can be replaced, black lives can not", which certainly serves as an excuse even if it's not a justification. An article entirled "In Defense of Looting", which dates back to the Ferguson riots of 2014, has also been doing the rounds. Among other things, that article claims that, if it were not for the looting, the "white supremacist" mainstream media would not even report this kind of protest; that it is not necessarily morally wrong for poor black people to take nice things if there is no other way they could possibly acquire them; and that it is only stealing from the rich anyway so it doesn't really count. Furthermore, it argues, the largely non-violent civil rights movement of the 1960s only got any real traction for change once things started to turn violent, a contention that I think a a lot of civil rights veterans would strongly disagree with. Anyway, you get an idea of the tone of the piece, although I think it is still worth reading for context if nothing else.
So, yes there will be anarchists and neo-Nazis. Yes, there will be poor people who feel they deserve a new flat-screen TV, or just some food staples. Some of it will be down to the sheer opportunism of poor and downtrodden people who see an opportunity to "stick it to the man", whatever that might mean (one article I read describes riots as the actions of those who have exhausted every other way to be heard", and asks, "what other choice do people have?", although that same article also argues that looting itself is a political act, which I find questionable). Some of it will be down to tempers running a bit too hot in a volatile and emotional situation, righteous indignation gone sour, people doing things they never intended to do. Some of it will just be sheeple following the crowd for no good reason at all. Oh, and coronavirus, just in case you had forgotten about that: lockdowns and layoffs and constant stress make everything worse and everyone's reactions that bit less predictable and more extreme.
As with most things, there is probably no one single explanation for looting and violence at political protests, but a whole host of contributing factors, and probably a smattering of chaos theory.