Monday, August 02, 2021

California's "ban on bacon" is not a ban on bacon

You may, or may not, have seen blaring online headlines stating that California is banning bacon (if not, just Google it, or "bacon to disappear", or any number of other sky-is-falling phrases).

California is the state that red stares love to hate. But even California wouldn't ban bacon. What is actually happening is that the state is making a minor change to its animal welfare rules, such that, as of early next year, each pig will be required to be allowed a minimum of 6' x 4' in which to live its sad life, rather than the current 5½' x 3½'. It is estimated that only 4% of California pig farmers currently meet this requirement; 96% are clearly intent on doing the bare legal minimum for their pigs. 

So, yes, changes will need to be made, but estimates suggest that farmers' costs (and presumably retail prices) may increase by 15% as a result. Not exactly a ban on bacon. But bacon is such a beacon (sorry!), and such an iconic part of a red meat-eater's lifestyle, that it has yielded this kind of online outrage and hyperbole. Suck it up, carnivores!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Why are Canadian women doing the heavy lifting at the Olympics?

I know we're barely halfway through the 2020/2021 Olympics but, thus far, Canada is doing quite well, and has won 12 medals (3 golds, 4 silvers, and 5 bronzes), with several 4th-place close calls (aka "the Canadian bronze"). What seems really strange, though, is that every last medal has been earned by a woman.

We do have some medal prospects among our male athletes and, by the end of the competition, we do expect more of a mix of male and female medal winners. But, at this point, the imbalance is stark.

So, I wondered, has it always been thus? Have women always provided a disproportionate share of Canada's medal haul? Well, apparently not. A quick perusal of Canada's Summer Olympics record, shows that, in 2016, for example, 73% of our medals were won by women; in 2012, though, it was 50%; in 2008, 40%; in 2004, 50%; in 2000, it was again 50%. The Winter Olympics results also reveal a pretty much even split historically

So, what gives? Well, we'll have to wait and see how things stand by the end of the 16-day games, but there does seem to be a trend of increase participation by Canadian women (60% of the athletes attending the Games are female). But it's also a quirk of the kinds of sports that are concluded earlier in the Games' schedule of events, with its emphasis on swimming, gymnastics, rowing, etc, rather than the track and field and team games that dominate the second week of the competition. In 2016 too, the first 12 medals won by Canada were won by women; by the end of the games, however, 16 of the 22 total medals earned went to women (still disproportionate, but not quite so much).

Either way, you have to think that changing gender roles and attitudes, and some positive media coverage, may be having some long-term effect on female participation and performance in sports. Some of this happens through enlightened government policy, and some of it just through the actions and tenacity of some strong individual women role models. Either way, we should encourage it and celebrate it.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Noise, noise, noise

We live in a relatively quiet, laid-back area of Toronto, not exactly the suburbs, but still far from the stress and hubbub of downtown. It's a middle-class residential area, probably upper middle-class these days, given recent house prices. A desirable area.

Our house is on a relatively quiet street, a couple of blocks from the quiet end of the main shopping street. It's not actually a cul-de-sac, but a short one-block street linking two cul-de-sacs. It doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not a short-cut to anywhere.

It is, however, right by the boardwalk and the beach, overlooking a pleasant park, and, although it is at the quiet end of the beach, it's a magnet for dog-walkers and paddle-boarders in the summer (it really is a quiet, peaceful place in the winter, when the residents get to reclaim their neighbourhood from the tourist hordes).

But, as I was sat out on the front porch with a cup of tea and the newspaper the other day, looking forward to a nice relaxing half hour on a sunny Wednesday morning, I was beset by noise from multiple sources. It was not so much traffic noise, although our little street has a surprising amount of that, including the ridiculously noisy impositions of garbage trucks, deliveries to the small lakeside sports club, and the occasional de-mufflered motorbike (why?)

No, the noise was mainly coming from my neighbours. In addition to yapping dogs (there are always yapping dogs, any time of day or night, it seems) and loud kids' summer camps (which it's hard to complain too much about, I guess), at any given time there are: lawnmowers and weed-whackers (both household and municipal); leaf-blowers; circular saws, drills and other construction noise; chain saws from the constant tree maintenance crews that tend the many mature trees in the area; compressed-air paddleboard inflators; screaming Sea-Dos out in the lake; and any number of other sources of noise.

Much of this cacophony seem totally unnecessary, but we have become so innured to all this ambient noise these days that often we don't even notice it. How I wish it weren't so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Why Simone Biles pulled out of rhe Olympics

After Simone Bules suddenly pulled out of the US gymnastics team mid-Olympics, there has been a lot of confusion and hypothesizing. Did she just choke? Shouldn't she be able to handle the pressure with all her high-level experience? Doesn't she owe it to her team-mates - to her country - to suck it up, whatever "it" is? Is she a "selfish, childish national embarassment", as one Texas politician has it?

In her press conference, the diminutive American gymnast stated that she was stopping for mental health reasons, not physical ones, so most people probably assumed that it was something along the lines of the anxiety attacks that have plagued other sports personalities like Naomi Osaka. And yes, she does suffer from anxiety and srress from the immense pressure of expectations on her small shoulders, what she has called her "demons".

But, it seems there is something in gymnastics called "the twisties", and this is what Biles has been suffering from, and what caused her to abandon hopes of personal and team glory, apparently in mid-flow. It is kind of the gymnastics version of "the yips", an equally poorly-understood psychological condition that can affect sports people in mamy different fields.

From the name, the twisties sounds like a spurious, frivolous, or at least mild, issue. But it is a recognized problem that has affected many gymnasts at different times (although rarely at such a crucial time). It can set in when a gymnast is doing high-level elements, typically in floor or vault, and it causes a gymnast's brain to kind of stutter, or forget basic moves that are normally part of muscle memory in a highly-trained gymnast. Without complete control or an accustomed perfect rhythm, such a competitor risks some pretty grave injuries, which is in no-one's interest, least of all the gymnast concerned. It can be overcome, but with time and training, and not overnight.

The twisties are well-known within the gymnastics discipline, which is why Biles' team seems quite so supportive and forgiving, but hardly known at all outside of it, which is why people like me were so confused by it. It seems like Byles made a difficult, but good, call.

Certainly, Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka between them have probably trained the spotlight on the mental health of high-level athletes like never before. "I say put mental health first ... It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus onbyourself", quoth Biles, which is all but anathema in ultra-competitive Olympic circles. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, though, that the International Olympic Committee already provides trained sports psychologists in the Olympic Village, as well as a mental health helpline available in no less than seventy languages.

Monday, July 26, 2021

De-sexualizing Olympic gymnastics (and beach handball)

Kudos to the German Olympic women's gymnastics team for bucking the trend and wearing a more skin-covering, full-length unitard

After various #MeToo revelations in the field of gymnastics, it is taking an unconscionable time for any attempts to de-sexualize the sport, which tends to feature barely-pubescent girls (and grown women who look like barely-pubescent girls) wearing skimpy, skin-tight, high-cut leotards, not for any reason related to the execution of the sport, just because that's how it's always been. 

It doesn't have to be that way, and the German team (which unfortunately did not progress to the finals) are leading the way, even if their new uniforms are actually still pretty damned skin-tight and, frankly, sexy.

This comes after the Norwegian female beach handball team - who knew that was even a sport?! - was recently fined €1,500 for having the audacity to flout the sexist rules and wear skin-tight shirts instead of bikini bottoms. The European Handball Federation found the team to have competed in "improper clothing" and fined all ten members €150 each. 

The International Handball Federation (EHF), which I'm guessing is run by a bunch of middle-aged guys, specifies that "women must wear bikini bottoms ... with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must of a maximum of ten centimetres." Why? Tbey may as well specify that the bikini bottoms be crotchless. Guys on the other hand can wear pretty much what they want.

Kudos to singer P¡nk too, for offering to pay the Norwegian team's fine in solidarity, and claiming on Twitter that "The European Handball Federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM". The EHF president has since announced that the Federation will "re-evaluate" their dress code. Don't be too surprised if crotchless bikini bottoms are specified, though.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

De-emphasizing COVID case counts would be a mistake

We seem to be at a bit of a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, maybe not so much because we are nearly out of it (cases remain low, if climbing very slowly, but a fourth wave is expected to ensue as the summer wanes and the Delta variant begins to outperform the vaccines). Rather, it is expected that Canada, and possibly much of the rest of the world, will move away from daily case counts and concentrate more on hospitalizations and deaths.

I must confess this worries me a bit. Yes, I understand that the virus and our ability to control it has changed. Daily cases in many countries are already approaching the height of the second wave, even outstripping it in some, but the death rate is probably a tenth of what it was during the second wave. This, at least, is a good thing. 

But to begin to ignore case counts is to risk losing track of the fact that case counts are, or should be, still important, partly because a higher number of cases means that the virus is still circulating, meaning that we cannot let our guards down and pretend that life has returmed to normal. 

But also, we should be ensuring that no-one catches the virus, let alone becomes hospitalized by it, because even mild cases can lead to debilitating illnesses. Not only is there the risk (admittedly low, but nonetheless very real) of "long COVID", whose symptoms can persist for months, but also long-term lung, heart and brain damage are increasingly being identified as distinct possibilities. And now, it is becoming clear that there is a cognitive cost to even mild cases of COVID

If we start to get blasé about keeping track of cases, we risk losing track of these implications too. And that would be a shame. 

Certainly, abdicating all responsibility for the virus, even as new cases spike, as Alberta is planning to do (and as several US states have done already) cannot be a sensible move at this juncture, as most medical people, both within and without Alberta, are warning. This thing is far from over; pretending it is finished will not make it happen, as this  Globe and Mail cartoon says quite eloquently.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Dubai's cloud-seeding efforts a mixed benefit at best

I have seen several articles about how the Arab Emirate of Dubai has been seeding clouds to cause rain to mitigate the ongoing drought in the area. It is usually reported as an interesting and successful application of science to a persistent and at least partially man-made environmental problem. But the solution has some unfortunate environmental ramifications too.

The idea of seeding clouds with silver iodide in order to force precipitation is not new. It has been around since the 1940s, when the Americans originally developed it as a weapon.

Unfortunately, silver iodide is toxic. There is some evidence that the precipitation it encourages is damaging to marine life, as well as a threat to the purity of Dubai's expensively-desalinated water resources. It also increases water temperature, and its toxicity can also damage precious agricultural soil. Another issue is that provoking rainfall in one place may rob another place of its precipitation (there is, after all, only so much moisture in the air, and the silver iodide treatment does not, in itself, create more).

So, I guess the moral is: be careful what you wish for. These purely technological environmental solutions are often a mixed benefit (for example, look at various attempts to import predatory species to keep down pests over the centuries).

Friday, July 23, 2021

Olympics Parade of Nations order explained

If, like me, you are totally flummoxed by the order of countries at the Parade of Nations at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, help is at hand. Someone has already done the homework.

The country order might seem pretty random. In Japan this year, for example, El Salvador is followed by Australia, then Austria, then Oman, Netherlands, Ghana, Cape Verde, Guyana, Kazakhstan, Qatar, etc. Further down the list, China is followed by Tunisia, Chile, Tuvalu, Denmark, Germany, Togo, Dominica, etc

But there is actually some order to it, some theory behind it. Firstly, Greece always parades first, in recognition of its role as the original inventors of the Games, back in the 8th century BCE. This year, a team of mixed refugee athletes enters second. The last team to enter is always the host country, and this year a new innovation has taken hold whereby the next Olympics host country (France, 2024) parades second to last, and the next host country after that (USA, 2028) is third to last.

Between these poles, countries parade in alphabetical order IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE HOST COUNTRY. So, depending on the language of the host country, the order of the countries parading may be similar to what we mignt expect in English, but might be totally different. Wikipedia does us the service of giving the Gojuon Japanese script transliteration of the country names (Gojuon is the traditional listing of the phonetic pronunciation of Japanese characters). Thus, Iceland is Aisurando, and thus comes just before Ireland (Airurando) and Azerbaijan (Azerubaijan). Cayman Islands (Keiman Shoto) isnfollowed by Kenya (Kenia), Ivory Coast (Kotojibowaru) and Costa Rica (Kosutarika), etc.