Saturday, May 21, 2022

Maud Lewis - but is it art?

painting by beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis just sold for a record breaking $350,000. Does that make it no longer "folk art"?

The story goes - and there is always a story attached to these kinds of painting and these kinds of artists - that she originally sold the painting for a grilled cheese sandwich (although the actual story is more complicated than that). Ms. Lewis is a source of many such cute stories, and they have become part of her persona, part of her mystique. She has risen in recent decades from nothing to be considered a national treasure and icon (or certainly a provincial one) and one of Canada's great artists.

It's kind of hard to figure out quite why. Her paintings are bright and simplistic and bucolic, the kind of thing usually described as "something a child could do" (hence the label "folk art", I guess, whatever that label might mean). Some people are loathe to ennoble her art because she sold her paintings for a living, which is just elitist claptrap. She herself famously proclaimed, "I ain't no real artist. I just like to paint". 

And it's true: her paintings are not particularly interesting, original or challenging in any way. They are just fun and joyful, and that seems to be why people like her work. Is that why people pay $350,000 for them, though? I'm pretty sure not. Like Andy Warhol, Banksy and many another unorthodox artist, she has become a product of the art world. Their works are more famous for their signature and their back-story than for any actual artistic merit.

So, is it art? Well, sure. Art can be any number of things, and I for one am not going to wade into the quagmire of trying to define it and justify it. Is it great art? Well, I wouldn't say so, but whoever plunked down $350,000 for Black Truck clearly thinks so. Unless it was just someone's idea of a shrewd financial investment.

How Norway became the EV centre of the world

Norway is widely regarded as the world leader in electric vehicle (EV) adoption. In 2021, almost 65% of cars sold in Norway were electric, and an additional 22% were plug-in hybrids. That's nearly 9 new cars out of ten that have a plug. It took only ten years to move from 1% adoption to 65%. No other country comes close, although Sweden, New Zealand, Germany and even the UK are making a good go at catching up.

Many articles have been written about how Norway has achieved this. Essentially, it has been through tax breaks and other incentives. Buying or leasing a new or pre-owned EV is exempt from puchase tax and VAT (sales tax); there is no road traffic insurance tax on EVs; company car taxes are also discounted for EVs; road tolls are at least 50% off for EVs; bus and taxi lanes in cities are also accessible for EVs; parking fees are reduced for EVs, and often complete waived in many major cities; the government has established fast chargers at least every 50km on major roads, reducing range anxiety, and many of them are also subsidized; housing association can get substantial grants to install charging stations; the list goes on.

All of this amounts to a pretty substantial package, and has the effect of making EVs cheaper to buy and run than gas and diesel vehicles in Norway. This is not the case in Canada, and most other countries for that matter, where EVs are sold at a pretty hefty premuim. Yes, Norway is a rich country, and generally used to high taxation. But Canada is hardly a global pauper, and the difference is mainly due to political will and a compliant population.

Norway is a cold, mountainous land, with some long distances between population centres (sound familiar?) It's also a major, though fading, oil producer. Nevertheless, it is has quite deliberately established itself as a global leader in electrified transportation. Arguably, if Norway can do it, any country can.

The only thing I have not been able to glean - and the reason I started looking into it in the first place - is how Norway deals with the problem of home charging for cars that are parked on the street. Not everyone has a garage, driveway or parking pad that lends itself to a home charging station like I have - Britain is a good exampe of a country where a huge proportion of people do not have their own garage, and park on the street instead - and I have always wondered how these people are supposed to charge their electric cars. (I do more than 90% of my charging home, and so I'm imagine do most EV owners, at least here in Canada.)

My suspicion is that a good percentage of Norwegians live in tower blocks with undergroud parking, where charging stations could be practically installed (I have no evidence of this, it is just conjecture). Or maybe the public charging network is just so good that people don't need to charge at home? I'd be intrigued to know.

A new technology to clean up shipping traffic

Here's an idea whose time has come (or, arguably, is well overdue). British company Seabound has developed a very simple carbon capture technology that connects to the smokestacks of container ships and cleans up the exhaust.

Container ships are a huge carbon problem, using some of the dirtiest fuel there is, and spewing more greenhouse gases into the air than airplane traffic does. Seabound's solution uses a system of calcium oxide pebbles, which binds with the carbon dioxide from the ships' exhaust to produce stable, storable calcium carbonate (basically limestone) which can then be used on land, or at least sequestered. It cuts carbon emissions by as much as 95%.

Other systems have been developed for shopping exhaust, by Dutch and Japanese companies among others, mainly using a solvent-based technology, but the British solution apparently requires much less space. Electrified ships with container-sized batteries are also being marketed now, but uptake has been slow (they are expensive), and we also need a technology that can deal with existing shipping. Seabound might just be it.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Why so many people still believe the 2020 election was stolen

It's difficult to fathom, but the "stolen election" narrative still holds huge sway in the United States of America. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that two thirds of Republicans apparently still maintain, well over over a year later, that "voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election", and that the election was effectively stolen from Donald Trump.

Now, given that the objective reality is that  Biden won by 7 million popular votes and 74 electoral college votes, that claims of fraud have been dismissed by both state and federal courts in over 70 lawsuits, and that Trump's own Justice Department says it has found no evidence of widespread fraud, why would anyone, let alone a substantial plurality of Republican voters, still believe that the election was stolen from Trump?

Yes, a few states were close, so you can see why some people might be upset, thinking about what might have been. But given the evidence, and the generally robust (even if a little quirky) nature of the American voting system, normal people would just put that behind them, move on, and, if sufficiently political, get on with the job of planning for the next election. Continuing to call black white is not an option for most people of sound mind.

So, are two thirds of Republicans (and therefore about a third of the whole voting population) not of sound mind? Well, in this respect at least, apparently not. They may not be certifiably deranged, but they are clearly willing to believe something that is demonstrably not true, kind of like believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden or, perhaps better examples, that the Apollo moon landing was faked, or that Hillary Clinton conducted satanic rituals and ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza parlour for years. 

Because the whole "stolen election" thing is very much in the mold of a conspiracy theory, which Republicans in particular seem rather prone to, for some reason. Trump made it his whole raison d-ĂȘtre after the election and is still touting it even now. This is what the word gaslighting was coined for. And because of his Svengali-like hold over the right-wing press and large sections of social media, which also like a good conspiracy theory to espouse, the narrative has taken on a life of its own, and has shown a remarkable longevity. 

No doubt, psychology students will be using this as a fascinating case study for decades to come. After all, how one man managed to hoodwink nearly half a nation is indeed a fascinating story, if a little depressing. Because, let's not mince words, the fact that so many people beleive that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election is less a testament to Donald Trump's prowess nd eloquence, and more about the fecklessness and feeblemindedness of those who are willing to believe it. Deranged? Probably not. Deluded? Absolutely.

Why would Twitter agree to sell to a man like Musk?

Love it or hate it - and I have made no bones about the fact that I hate it - Twitter is an important and influential institution in the world of media. It fills an outsized role in global politics and social trends. Which is precisely why so many people are worried about it being sold to an unpredictable reckless and unstable maverick like Elon Musk.

It's also why it is all the more commendable that - love it or hate it, and contrary to Facebook or (the horror!) Truth Social - Twitter has at least attempted to put in some controls over hate speech and misinformation. For example, it had the cojones to ban Trump for his lies and deceptions, and, just this week, it has started putting warning labels on misleading content regarding the Russian war in Ukraine. 

This is not to say that Twitter is a haven of polite and reasonable discourse; far from it. But you do get the impression that somebody in the organization, whether that be founder Jack Dorsey or the board of directors, actually cares about how Twitter affects the world. Why, then, would a relatively responsible company like Twitter agree to sell to a man like Musk, who has been outspoken in his aims to roll back most of the social and political controls it has spent years instituting. In a word, money

When Musk offered $44 billion for the company, neither Dorsey nor the company's shareholders hesitated for long. Twitter has always underperformed in its mission to actually make money, and $44 billion is way more than it is actually worth, despite Musk's promises to turn it around financially. So, it was an offer the company felt it couldn't refuse (as Musk well knew). 

This is an example of the "shareholder primacy" doctrine, the idea that corporate boards should focus on a single goal: maximizing returms to shareholders. This might seem like an outdated idea in this age of responsible investing and ESG reporting, but don't be naive: it is still the controlling force in most of the financial world. Twitter's chairman stated baldly that the board looked at "value, certainty and financing" when coming to a decision, and maybe we shouldn't have expected anything more. Money speaks.

The concerns of other stakeholders - users, employees, advertisers - did not get a look in. Neither did the potential effect of the sale on Twitter's influence in the world, its legacy, and its responsibility to fair reporting. If Twitter turns really nasty again under Musk, and you just known that it will, at least the shareholders will know that they made out like bandits. And that's what's important to them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Could Turkey derail Sweden and Finland's NATO ambitions?

As a direct result of Russia's invasion of non-aligned Ukraine, Sweden and Finland have now both formally and officially applied for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fearful of an unhinged Russia next door, the Nordic countries, which have long espoused a position of neutrality and military non-alignment, have decided that it is in their best interests to throw in their lot with NATO, rather than potentially risk facing an belligerent Russia alone.

This is the exact opposite of what Valdimir Putin was hoping to achieve with his invasion of Ukraine - well, he didn't think that through very hard, did he? - and he has long threatened "repercussions" if Sweden and Finland were to join NATO (although more recently he has softened his threats to a vow to take action only if NATO moves military infrastructure into their territories).

NATO in general is welcoming the two countries with open arms. Sweden in particular (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Finland), is a military powerhouse, and will be a valuable addition to NATO forces. However, all 30 current NATO members must agree to the expansion - a process that could take months -  and one, Turkey, is threatening to withhold its vote. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen maintains that both Sweden and Finland have given support to Kurdish military groups, and have imposed arms export embargos on Turkey over its military operations in Syria.

Turkey could therefore single-handedly derail the largest expansion of NATO in decades, even if this is not an objection on security grounds, but a case of political posturing and tit-for-tat pettiness. Some commentators believe that Erdogen is unlikely to actually veto the applications, but is merely playing politics and looking for concessions for domestic political advantage in the run-up to next year's Turkish elections. 

As one Atlantic Council spokesman notes, the Finns in particular are very are negotiators, and both countries have probably already secured back-channel assurances of Turkey's vote before even starting the public process, and Turkish policy advisors are making it clear that the door to a "yes" vote is by no means closed, despite Mr. Erdogan's bluster.

That would certainly fit with Erdogan's character. But it would not surprise me if he would, if he felt it necessary, take it so far as to make the veto a reality. I wouldn't trust Erdogan to put European stability and world peace above his own political ambitions.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Why is the price of gas still going up, when oil is going down?

I drive an electric car, so I don't really care about gas prices that much, but I know a lot of people do (get an electric car, I say, and eat cake!)

I have watched from the sidelines as the price of gasoline at the pump has risen inexorably over the last few months, flirting with C$2 a litre here in Ontario, and then spilling over gloriously to find itself at well over C$2 a litre today. I know that there is a whole litany of factors at play in this record-breaking development. But, curiously, one of those factors is NOT the price of crude oil.

Usually, the price of a barrel of oil is the single major deteminant of the pump process of gas, and the two tend to change in lockstep.  This double-axis chart of the price of oil and the price of gas from the Globe and Mail shows just just that, even through the major price increases since the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

But then, suddenly, around 19th Apr 2022, the two indices stopped moving in lockstep. The price of oil has fallen, or at least remained more or less stable in the slighly longer term, apparently weighed down by mounting fears of a recession, pandemic lockdowns in China, and  the release of oil from strategic reserves by several countries in response to Russian sanctions. The price of gas on the highways of Canada, though, has continued to rise. The two prices seem to have competely unlinked and untethered, and the question is: why?

The difference between the price of refined fuels and crude oil, known for some reason as the "crack spread", has been increasing in recent weeks due to: surging demand for jet fuel and diesel as people start to travel more again; surging demand for truck fuel as the delivery industry tries to rectify supply chain woes; increased output of fuels by many oil-producing countries to take up the slack left by Russia; and the general inability of refineries to cope with this increased demand, especially after refinery capacity was pared back during the pandemic. 

Due to all these factors and others, the oil refining industry has been able to charge much higher prices to distributors. So, this time around, it is not so much the oil extraction companies themselves that are reaping the spoils, but the oil refineries that are making out like bandiits, with no end crtrently in sight.



The difference between a lunar eclipse and a new moon

Trust NASA to explain things happening in the night sky. I've been reading about a total lunar eclipse we're supposed to be able to see in our neighbourhood. (Actually, I just checked and, guess what, it's cloudy - so much for that!) Apparently this is the first of two this year, the next being on 7th November, but the next such event after that is not scheduled until March 2025 (typically, they occur every two or three years).

But, hold on, I thought, how can there be an eclipse of the moon? Isn't that just what happens every 28 days? The earth gets in the way of the reflection of the sun's light from the moon every month, what we normally just call a "new moon". So, what's the big deal? Well, ScienceAlert (with the help of a NASA video) explains what I have been missing, although it's still not that easy to understand, even if it's not (quite) rocket science. 

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth's shadow. But the moon's orbit around the earth is slightly tilted relative the earth's orbit around the sun by about 5°, so that the earth and the moon's shadow casts rarely shade each other completely. This relative tilt, though, changes slightly as time goes on, and every now and then this puts the moon in just the right position to pass through the earth's shadow, causing a lunar eclipse for a period of an hour or so. The moon does not completely disappear from us during the eclipse, though, due to sunlight scatttered and refracted through the earth's atmosphere, and it appears a deep dramatic red or copper colour. Before and after, the moon would appear as a normal full moon. The NASA video makes it clearer than my words do.

So, the difference between a lunar eclipse md a new moon is that a lunar eclipse is when the earth comes between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun from illuminating the moon from earth's perspective, while a new moon is when the moon comes between the sun and the earth. A lunar eclipse only occurs on a full moon night, but not EVERY full moon because of the relative tilt of the moon's orbit around the earth (a partial lunar eclipse occurs about twice a year, but a full lunar eclipse is a rarer event). Here is another explanation of the difference between the two (also with a short video), if you are not fully satisfied.