Thursday, December 22, 2016

Las Vegas' energy policy should not just stay in Las Vegas

Well, who knew that Las Vegas, Nevada, was a hot-bed of progressive thinking and renewable power initiatives? But apparently it is claiming to be the largest US city to run entirely on renewable energy. In actual fact, it is only the city's government facilities (government buildings, parks, street lights, etc) that are all green-powered and not the whole city, as many news outlets are reporting, but still...
Now, I had always written off Nevada in general, and Las Vegas in particular, as a Wild West enclave full of libertines and rednecks, but apparently there are sensible people out there. Nevada Governor Sandoval is a Republican but far from a typical one, a handsome Latino who supports abortion rights, healthcare reforms, same sex marriage, etc. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman (unlike her flamboyant husband Oscar, a former mob lawyer and ex-mayor who has been called "the Jewish Donald Trump") is very low-key and self-effacing, and altogether quite non-Las Vegas.
Either way, the city has ploughed more than $40 million of its ill-gotten gains into renewable energy over the last few years, including the huge Boulder Solar 1 solar facility, which generates some of the cheapest solar power in the country. It claims to be saving about $5 million a year in energy costs from its new enlightened energy policy and some extensive investments in energy efficiency measures in recent years. It has also reduces its prodigious water demand by efficiency and recycling programs.
So, although some of its claims may be a little exaggerated, kudos to Las Vegas for its achievement, and let's hope it doesn't just stay in Las Vegas.

Unprecedented Arctic warming may become the new normal

As we come to the end of a year that will break all records as the warmest year worldwide since records began (replacing the previous record set in 2015, which in turn replaced 2014, etc), scientists from the Arctic Research Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have just published a new report that should have us even more worried.
While climate change scientists are warning us about the perils of a 1.5°C - 2°C increase in temperatures, parts of the Arctic have recorded temperatures of up to 19°C above observed averages over the last couple of months. At the North Pole itself, mean temperatures in November were almost 13°C above normal, and the forecast for the next few days is expected to see even higher warmer-than-average discrepancies. In general terms, the Arctic overall has been warming at least twice as fast as the global average.
As a result of all this, the freeze-up of ice in the Arctic Ocean is much later than usual, and it is expected that Arctic ice coverage this spring and summer may be at a record low (Arctic sea ice during the summer of 2016 was at the second lowest levels ever recorded). This in turn will lead to even more warming as there will be less ice to reflect the sun's rays in a classic positive feedback loop (ice typically reflects 50-70% of the solar energy that hits it, while water reflects only about 6%).
According to the NOAA, warm episodes like this one are not unheard of in the Arctic, and typically occur about every 1,000 years. Recently, however, as a result of anthropological global warming, the likelihood of such spells has increased to about once every 50 years, and, if climate change continues at its current pace, it could become a very common phenomenon, of the order of once every 2 years.
And then Donald Trump was elected, an event that threatens to throw all meteorological predictions to the proverbial wind...

Why is Russia intent on a New Cold War?

The New Cold War continues to ramp with NATO's deployment of four multi-national battalion in the Baltic, one each in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, as well as shoring up its existing military presence in Romania and Poland.
Not that this escalation is NATO's fault: it comes in direct response to Russia's expansionist ambitions and its own escalation, both in its unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 (and the ongoing support of pro-Russian militants in easterm Ukraine, which continues to destabilize that country), and also in the unwarranted increase in its military presence along its eastern borders, adjoining Poland and the Baltic states, and including medium-range nuclear-ready Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.
So, Russian diplomats are being more than a little disingenuous when they call NATO's moves unwarranted, aggressive and a diversion of much-needed military resources needed to fight the much more important fight against Islamic terrorism (as though Russia's operations in the Middle East are doing much in that respect - their support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including their continuing despoiling of Aleppo, is largely for their own political and strategic ends and is having little or no effect in combatting Islamic jihadism).
I thought the Latvian ambassador to Canada's response to Russian complaints about Canada's contribution to the NATO force in Latvia was worded well:
"Deterrence is showing backbone; showing backbone is not the same thing as showing a fist. The backbone inspires respect. Respect facilitates dialogue."
I am not usually a big fan of this kind of fighting talk, but I do see that the West has to stand up to Russia in the only terms it seems to understand, otherwise the imperial ambitions of Valdimir Putin will ride roughshod over the minor powers of Eastern Europe.
As for why Putin feels the need to expand his power base, I must confess to being  a complete loss. Russia is already the largest country in the world, and already too large and unwieldy to govern well. Why add to that burden with the addition of other tiny pockets of unwilling territory, which will always be a thorn in the side and a constant provocation to the rest of the non-Russian world. It makes no sense to me, and I literally do not understand the psychology (not to mention the politics) that underpins it.
Just in case there was any doubt about the lurch towards a New Cold War, just look at two headlines on today's BBC website: "Russia 'stronger than any addressor' - President Putin", and "Donald Trump: US must greatly expand nuclear capabilities".

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joint deal to protect Arctic waters from from developmemt

The USA and Canada have struck a joint agreement to restrict oil and gas development in Arctic waters, by designating arctic waters as indefinitely off-limits for future oil and gas licenses. In addition, the agreement regulates shipping routes through the newly-navigable waters of the melting Arctic.
The American side of the deal is by presidential decree, and is technically enforceable indefinitely, although it will no doubt be one of the first things that Donald Trump will look at reversing once he holds the reins of power. The Canadian ban on new licenses is reviewable every five years.
Existing licenses, such as those owned by Royal Dutch Shell and others in American waters, and Imperial Oil and BP on the Canadian side, will remain in force, although most are due to expire in the next 5 years or so. As things stand, the economics of oil and the technical difficulties of drilling in the Arctic mean that current licenses are unlikely to be exercised, although that could conceivably change.
Environmentalists are hailing the deal as an important step forward for the environmental integrity of the Arctic, as do I. Although forgive my cynicism if I fail to see this as the final word on the subject.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why has the stock market boomed since Trump's election?

On the day of the American election in early November this year, stock prices, treasury bond yields, and the mighty US dollar all nose-dived, a normal knee-jerk reaction in the face of dire uncertainty. Since then, however, all have recovered, and many are currently teetering on the brink of all-time record values. On the other hand, the price of gold, the tried-and-tested alternative to the uncertainty of stock markets, initially spiked, and since then has steadily tumbled.
My question is, then, why? Trump's protectionist and anti-globalization outlook remains unchanged, and there appears to be little likelihood of him toning down many of his more extreme views, or his idiosyncratic management style. So, surely, the initial confusion and uncertainty of election day remains. And yet the American (and worldwide) business world seems to have very quickly come to terms with Donald J. Trump, and his vision of a rampant business-friendly USA.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is currently hovering just under an unprecedented 20,000, the S&P 500 Index of the 500 largest companies is at 2,260, and the Nasdaq Composite Index is at 5,450. All are on a continuing upward trajectory after the short-lived jitters of November 9th. So, what gives?
The whole stock market system is notoriously unreliable, unpredictable and all but inexplicable, but the reasons usually given for this post-election rally are business expectations of a more lenient regulatory environment (particularly for the fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals and financial industries), lower corporate taxes, and the promise of a huge infrastructure construction plan under Trump and the Republicans. Whether these expectations are in fact justified remains to be seen - Trump is quite capable of just changing his mind on his policies, at the drop of a hat. But the bottom line is that, generally speaking, many big companies see the tantalizing prospect of substantially increased profits, regardless of the damage wreaked on the environment, health and social structure of the country and the world (these matters are considered to be outside the purview of business, basically lumped together under "externalities" and ignored). And if increased profits are in prospect, then stock exchanges will boom, and all will be perceived as well in the garden of the business world.
It is worth noting that most of the big gains that are driving this stock exchange rally have occurred, unsurprisingly, in the Big Oil, Big Bank and Big Pharma industries. For example, the stocks of Goldman Sachs, a particular favourite of Mr. Trump, have shot up over 30% since the election just over a month ago. Other sector that are expecting specific boosts from Trump's policies (e.g. for-profit higher education companies, private prison corporations, etc) have also done well. On the other hand, sectors that can expect a hard time under Trumpism (like healthcare and green-tech, for example) have suffered.
If, like me, you are inherently suspicious of the stock exchange system and its motives, then none of this will come as too much of a surprise. But it is nevertheless a little shocking, not to say galling, that such a financial killing is being made on the back of what must rank as one of the worst election results ever.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Canadian asbestos ban a no-brainer

It's decades overdue, but the Canadian government has finally committed to completely banning the use of asbestos in Canada by 2018. It will join a list of only 50-odd countries, including Australia, Japan and the European Union, to ban the known carcinogen.
The World Health Organization declared asbestos a dangerous carcinogen way back in 1987, and yet government after Canadian government refused to ban it. Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and other cancers, and in Canada alone over 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers. It is recognized as the top single cause of workplace deaths in Canada. Canada has one of the world's highest rates of mesothelioma, a particularly virulent form of cancer specifically associated with exposure to asbestos. Even with the ban, because of the long latency period of diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer, and because of the ongoing exposure to asbestos, it is likely that the mean rates of the diseases have not yet peaked.
Canada started mining asbestos in the 1870s, principally in Quebec, and soon became one of the world's largest producers, before closing its last asbestos mine as recently as 2011. For years, both provincial and federal governments dragged their feet and even actively supported the country's asbestos mining industry despite the known health risks. Even now, the mining and processing of asbestos tailings in Quebec in order to extract magnesium is specifically excluded from the new ban.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the importing of asbestos. Currently, Canada imports over $8 million worth of asbestos-related products, about half of which is in the form of brake pads and linings for automobiles (Canadian and American vehicle manufacturers have largely replaced the asbestos in brake pads with safer alternatives), and some industrial pipes. This import problem is expected to be dealt with by the ban, a move that is being applauded by the wrecking and vehicle-recycling industry.
The details of the ban will be thrashed out in a 2-year government-led consultation process. But finally something concrete is being done about this no-brainer of an issue.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

So, who "won" the Battle of Aleppo?

With the news that the so-called Battle of Aleppo may be finally "over" (maybe), and that government forces are evacuating the last rebel holdouts from the centre of the city, come questions like: so what actually happened? who won? what has changed? is this a good thing? Simple questions perhaps, but not so easily answered.
It's hard enough to understand who is fighting in Aleppo, and in Syria in general. On one side, certainly, there are the pro-Shia Syrian government forces of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iran (which sees it as their duty to support any conflict against Sunni Arabs) and Hezbollah, and more recently (and decisively) by Russia. Russia, of course, has its own agenda in all this, not least the protection of its Mediteranean military base at Tartus, Syria.
The other "side" is much more nebulous and difficult to pin down. They are usually described as "the rebels", but that label can cover a multitide of sins. According to the BBC guide to the Syrian rebels there are literally hundreds of different armed rebel groups in action throughout Syria, comprising perhaps a hundred thousand fighters in total. Among the largest and best known groups are (in their English translations): the al-Nusra Front, Islamic State in Syria, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers, the Free Syrian Army, the Martyrs of Syria Brigades, the Free Men of Syria Brigade, the Northern Storm Brigade, the various groups that make up the Islamic Front, the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, the Army of lslam, the Falcons of Syria, the Battalion of Monotheism, the Battalion of Truth, the Supporters of the Levant Brigades, the Kurdish Islamic Front, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, as well as a whole host of equally scary-sounding "independent groups" like the Grandsons of the Prophet, Authenticity and Growth, the Shields of the Revolution, the Gathering of the Supporters of Islam, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the National Unity Brigades, etc, etc. In Aleppo itself, the main players appear to be the Free Syrian Army, the Levant Front, and the Army of Conquest (or Jaish al-Fatah), the latter being a loose alliance of several Sunni Islamist groups. And then, just to confuse things, there are also the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which are fighting from a cultural and ethnic point of view, rather than a religious one.
Before the war, Aleppo was Syria's largest city, with a population of around 2.5 million, as well as its commercial capital and a treasure trove of architecture and history (its centre is - or was - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although much of it now lies in ruins). After weeks of government/Russian air strikes and indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks, the rebels have been squeezed into just a few blocks, and the 50,000 or so civilians left in the beseiged eastern sector are struggling to escape in the shaky on-again-off-again cease-fire. There have been many reports of government troops going door-to-door and shooting whole families of civilians at random, and killing those who are escaping into what they thought were non-combat zones. Allegations of war crimes are being bandied around on both sides (although principally against the Syrian government forces).
So, even if the rebels do eventually completely relinquish control of the city, to say that Aleppo is "free" or "relieved" or anything of that sort is unhelpful hyperbole. Indeed, it is almost impossible for Westerners to even decide which side SHOULD be supported - the brutal repressive regime of Assad or some other hell made up of a variety of disparate Islamist and other single-issue groups. I don't blame in the least the reticence of President Obama and other Western leaders to get caught up in such a quagmire of moral ambiguity, particularly looking back at the long-term results of previous engagements like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc. Any engagement that might topple Assad risks, at the same time, strengthening the hand of Islamic State and other equally undesirable Islamic groups, and, given Russia's apparent commitment to Assad, it may also serve to exacerbate global tensions in a hugely dangerous way.
Any "victory" in Aleppo for Assad will almost certainly be short-term, and his forces have been severely stretched in the Aleppo offensive. But even a short-term success will also have the effect of boosting Assad's morale, therefore making the prospects of a negotiated political solution to the ongoing Syrian war even more unlikely. The fighting will doubtless continue, and in reality no-one has actually "won" anything.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Mr. Trump goes to Washington (and picks a strange Cabinet)

Over the last week or so, Donald Trump has been gradually introducing his "dream team" of cabinet members, and, predictably enough, it's not pretty. He has surrounded himself with a bunch of rich ageing white guys (with three women in minor roles), most of them with no experience at all in national politics, many of them ex-military, most of them climate change deniers or tied in some way to Big Oil or Coal, and almost all of them major contributors to his election campaign. In many cases, the choices appear deliberately skewed to those who don't really quite believe in the file they are to handle.
So, where to start? Trump himself and Vice-President Elect (and anti-abortion warrior) Mike Pence, of course, we already know (way too well). In White House advisory roles (not strictly part of the Cabinet, but nevertheless very influential positions) are:
  • Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff) - the man with the weird name was Chairman of the Republican National Committee and was instrumental in getting Mr. Trump elected, but he has no real policy experience. He is presumably there as Trump's "establishment guy", to help smooth things over with the Republican party.
  • Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor) - ex-Army general with some very outspoken views on Islam (he was forced out of the top US military spy agency because of his views of radical Muslims) and some conveniently Trump-esque views of cozying up with Russia and Vlad the Impaler. Both Flynn and his son seem to have a penchant for conspiracy theories and false news, and Flynn Sr. has taken flak for some threatening anti-Semitic tweets and other inflammatory comments over the years.
  • Steve Bannon ("Chief Strategist") - ex-banker and movie mogul, Bannon has most recently served as boss of the ultra-right wing Breitbart News outlet, the mouthpiece of the alt-right that played a significant role in helping Trump to his election win, largely through its rabid fake news stories and misinformation campaigns. Bannon's xenophobic and misogynist views have been unrepentantly trumpeted to the world for years now.
Rounding out the "advisors" are a whole host of Trump family members, including wife Melania, daughters Ivanka and Tiffany, sons Donald and Eric, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as a few other hangers-on who managed to survive various staff shake-ups during the Trump election campaign, including ex-beauty queen Hope Hicks ("Senior Advisor"), garish blonde Kellyanne Conway (Press Secretary), ex-golf caddy Dan Scavino (Social Media Director - what?), Stephen Miller (National Policy Advisor), and - no relation - Jason Miller (Communications Director).
The actual Cabinet member nominees are not much better than this cast of scoundrels (and in some cases, worse):
  • Steven Mnuchin (Treasury Secretary) - described as the "consummate Wall Street insider", a breed that Trump claims to despise, Mnuchin (that's Mnuchin, not Munchkin) amassed a fortune at Goldman Sachs and in movie production (are you noticing a common theme here?), and so of course has no political experience whatsoever.
  • General James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) - a 44-year Marine Corps veteran, Mattis glories in the nicknames 'Mad Dog' and 'Warrior Monk', which may be all you need to know about him. He is known for his blunt comments, like "it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them" (referring to Afghan men), and "have a plan to kill everyone you meet" (his advice to Marines in Iraq), and "there are some assholes in the world who just need to be shot". Nice guy.
  • Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) - one of the few in the Cabinet with some real political experience (most recently as Senator for Alabama), Sessions has been dogged by allegations of racism thoughout his career (he is prone to making jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, for example, as well as other racial slurs), so it will be no surprise to learn that his is rabidly anti-immigration. He is a keen supporter of Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the USA, and of the "great wall" along the Mexican border. He opposes LGBTQ right and same-sex marriages, and he is generally speaking a nasty peiece of work. Climate change denier (of course).
  • John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security) - another retired general (and who, like the other generals, will need to get special clearance from the Senate to serve in the Cabinet), Kelly has already made some ominous noises about Mexican immigrants and border security. He opposed President Obama's plans to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba and to allow women into combat roles, but he is nevertheless considered less hardline than some of the alternatives.
  • Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce) - Billionaire industrialist, restructuring specialist and "vulture investor", with close financial ties to Donald Trump, Ross has shown that he is not one to let fuzzy ideas of morality or tastefulness come between himself and profits. Climate change denier.
  • Andrew Puzder (Secretary of Labor) - a multi-millionaire fast-food empire executive, who has famously defended his company's tasteless ads of scantily-clad women eating burgers, and is still fielding allegations of wife abuse from some years ago, Puzder is best known for his strong opposition to increasing the minimum wage (which is still $7.25 in the USA) and to Obamacare.
  • Tom Price (Secretary of Health and Human Services) - an ex-surgeon and anti-abortionist who see his mission in life as (go figure!) to shut down and repeal Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act reforms and replace it with ... something. Climate change denier.
  • Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) - retired neurosurgeon and failed presidential candidate, with absolutely no political experience and who never lived in public housing (despite suggestions that he did), Carson's is the only black face in the crowd (hence the "urban" connection, presumably). He is a Seventh Day Adventist who believes, among other things, that the Big bang is a "fairy tale", that gayness is a choice people make, that there is a war on "what's inside of women"(?), that climate change is not man-made, that Planned Parenthood is just a plot to kill black babies, that there is absolutely no racism in Ferguson, Missouri, and (the clincher) that the Egyptian pyramids were built by Biblical Joseph to store grain. Enough said.
  • Ryan Zinke (Secretary of the Interior) - ex-Navy Seal (yes, another military veteran!) and Montana Senator Zinke is known for voting for legislation that would soften the environmental protection of public lands (lands, including national parks, that he will now be in charge of protecting), although he does at least seem to be against privatizing public lands or ceding control over them to individual states. He seems quite happy, though, to open up more public lands to mining, drilling and logging, and he believes that climate change "is not proven".
  • Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy) - failed presidential candidate and ex-Texas governor, who has repeatedly called for lighter regulation on the oil industry and described the science around climate change as "unsettled" and "unproven", Perry also sits on the board of an oil pipeline company. Other than his stint as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, Perry is perhaps best known for his live TV brain-freeze when he vowed to eliminate three cabinet-level departments: Commerce, Education and ... er ... oh, er ... oh yes, Energy, he later recalled.
  • Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator) - this is the man whose own bio describes him as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda" (he has at least 7 ongoing lawsuits against the agency), who has repeatedly vowed to repeal President Obama's Clean Air Act, and has openly questioned the science on man-made global warming. Good choice, eh?
  • Sonny Perdue (Secretary of Agriculture) - Former Georgia governor Perdue is one more old white guy in a cabinet of old white guys, and is perhaps best known for praying for the end to a drought in Georgia in 2007 (it may have worked - two years later Georgia suffered its worst ever floods). He is a climate change denier and a former fertilizer salesman, who will be  responsible for, among other things, mitigating the agricultural sector's environmental impact and carbon footprint.
  • Mike Pompeo (Central Intelligence Agency) - although Mr. Trump seems to have little use for the CIA (or intelligence in general, for that matter), he has nevertheless decided to appoint Islamophobic national security hawk Pompeo, who has strongly opposed Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and his decision to close down the Guantánamo Bay prison, as his man.
  • Elaine Chao (Secretary of Transportation) - born in Taiwan (not China) and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao is 63 year old but mysteriously looks about 30. She is actually a very seasoned politician compared to most of the other cowboys here, and may even prove to be competent. She will get to play with Mr. Trump's plans for infrastructure investment, which I am guessing will probably favour roads. Climate change denier.
  • Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education) - once an outspoken critic of Trump, then a major contributor to his campaign, billionaire Ms. DeVos knows which side her bread is buttered, and will get to look after the kids, even if her educational ideas don't particularly mesh with Trump's (that can change too, of course). She has no particular knowledge of education or pedagogy, but she has worked tirelessly in recent years to spread charter schools at the expense of public schools in her native Michigan (despite their well-documented failure there), and to pass laws requiring the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition.
  • Linda McMahon (Small Business Administrator) - co-founder and former CEO of the World Wrestling Federation gives McMahon a rather tenuous qualification to look after America's small businesses, but she did donate about $7 million to Trump's campaign, so that's OK.
  • Nikki Haley (Ambassador to the UN) - another one-time Trump critic who decided to hold her nose and work with the Devil, Haley is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, so Mr. Trump probably just wants to keep her where he can see her. Her politics appear to be a dizzying mix of the sensible and the rabid.
Positions like the Secretaries of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs remain unfilled, as does the all-important position of Secretary of State. Trump is thought to be still chasing Mitt Romney for this last position, presumably as a means of bringing some legitimacy and gravitas to the overall Cabinet, but the two men are poles apart politically, and have crossed swords many times during the election campaign and primaries (two other military guys, James Stavridis and David Petraeus, are also still in the running). And apparently Sarah Palin (yes, THAT Sarah Palin) is being seriously considered for Veterans Affairs, so this thing could get even stranger.
Wow! The USA is about to become a truly scary place.

The missing positions are gradually being filled in, as Trump goes through his Apprentice-style interview process:
  • Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) - preferred over Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney for the position, Tillerson is CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil, and a Trump-style deal-maker with no political experience, rather than the kind of seasoned diplomat normally required for this important job. He is known to be a big fan of Vladimir Putin, and was awarded an "Order of Friendship" by Putin, whatever that may actually mean. His company has many Russian deals lined up, just waiting for the lifting of sanctions.
  • Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy) - ex-Governor of the oil state of Texas, who is skeptical about climate change and favours lighter regulation on the oil industry (so we know where this one is going), Perry vowed to scrap the federal Department of Energy during his failed 2012 Republican nomination bid, and now finds himself in charge of it. Like most other the nasty 2016 nominations, Perry and Trump traded some pretty spiteful insults, but are apparently best buddies.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Trump-style politics comes to Canada

Just in case there was any doubt at all that that Donald Trump's election campaign has inexorably changed the political landscape and people's view of what is and is not acceptable in the public sphere, the recent events at an Alberta demonstration should be evidence enough.
The rally, outside the Alberta legislature, was organized by renowned goofball loudmouth Ezra Levant and his obnoxious Rebel website (which I won't bother hyperlinking). It was a protest against the carbon tax instituted by Alberta's current NDP Premier Rachel Notley, one of the very few progressive pieces of legislation to come out of that benighted province in recent memory.
During a speech by Conservative leadership candidate Chris Alexander, a chant of "Lock her up!" was taken up by many in the crowd, in clear reference to Rachel Notley, and echoing the Trump campaign's favourite anti-Clinton chant. Presumably, the crowd thought this very witty and post-modern, although it was in fact totally inappropriate, unacceptable and loutish. Alexander could not managed to suppress a little smile and an understated conducting mime, although he eventually remembered that he was standing for election, and later indignantly claimed that he was just "playing for time" and not going along with the hilarity at all, and indeed that he was "shocked" and "mortified".
Yes, this was Alberta, which, together with Saskatchewan, is about the closest thing we Canadians have to Texas. But the very fact that this could happen in Canada, which usually considers itself superior to America in so many ways, is telling indeed.
Thanks to Trump, the moral ground has fallen away beneath our feet, and the man who vowed to "drain that swamp" has created a global political quagmire from which we may never extricate ourselves.

To shave or not to shave - STIs or lice?

Well, this is interesting, I guess. It turns out, shaving your pubic areas increases your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) by up to 400%!
An American study published recently in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections - yes, there is such a thing, I kid you not! - shows that what they call "extreme groomers" (those who shave their privates completely at least once a month) were up to 4 times more likely than others to become infected with STIs such as herpes or HPV.
Among the possible causes listed are that constant waxing may cause miniscule tears in the skin allowing for the easier transmission of diseases, the sharing of shaving implements (less likely), and the rather stark suggestion that people with shaved pubic areas just have more sex (presumably, either as a cause or effect of the grooming).
Pubic shaving is hugely popular these days, as even a cursory glance at online porn confirms. The study concluded that about 75% of respondents (84% of women and 66% of men) had groomed their pubic hair at some point. 17% described themselves as "extreme groomers" (removing all hair at least once a month), and 22% as "high frequency groomers" (trimming daily or weekly). This was mainly done for "hygiene reasons", but also sometimes at the request of a partner, or just to "feel sexier".
On the other hand, the study points out, shaving does have the positive effect of reducing the incidence of pubic lice. So that is the choice, then - lice or STIs? Can't we just make sure we wash well and regularly?

Jane Austen - and the vagaries, of 19th century punctuation

Reading Jane Austen's Lady Susan / The Watson's / Sanditon (basically, her early and unfinished efforts), I was struck by, among other things, the punctuation. It seems to be everywhere: commas; semi-colons; dashes; dashes combined with commas, periods and semi-colons, seeming at random; mid-sentence exclamation marks; you name it. A bit like my own writing, really. If emojis had been available to her, I'm sure she would have used those too.
And all this is AFTER a drastic editing process to weed out the more egregious over-punctuation. In fact, the editor (the great English novelist Margaret Drabble, in the case of the Penguin edition I read) makes specific reference in her introductory notes to the works to the fact that she had to make a bunch of edits and decisions on the punctuation, in order to attempt to tame the veritable profusion of marks and typographical devices Ms. Austen used in her rough drafts.
Now, we are used to thinking of Jane Austen as the paragon of English language construction, effortlessly stringing together complex nested clauses and sub-clauses, connected by a supporting web of commas and semi-colons, never under-utilized, never employed to excess (however much you may object to the errant commas in the immortal line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"). But what we sometimes forget is that, back in the 1810s when Austen wrote most of her major works, the spelling, style and punctuation of English literature was still very much in flux.
I notice, in Google, that there was a flurry of articles about Jane Austen's punctuation around November 2010, mainly in response to the publishing online of a whole slew of original Jane Austen manuscripts of juvenilia and unfinished works, with all their crossings-out, spelling errors (particularly a rather arbitrary interpretation of the "i before e except after c" rule, something that she had in common with Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Jefferson, and many others of the period), errant capitalization, complete lack of paragraph breaks, random punctuation, and dashes, dashes, everywhere.
More specifically, the media furry was in response to Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland's allegations that Austen was really a bit of a sloppy writer, and that she probably relied heavily on an outside editor (probably the punctilious punctuationist William Gifford, or perhaps her publisher John Murray himself) to make sense of her scratchings. Drastic editing was standard practice at the time, but nevertheless Professor Sutherland's musings led to sensationalist headlines like "Jane Austen's elegant style may not her Hers", "Jane Austen massacred the English language" and "Austen revised and corrected by a man!"
Now, let is be said that we do not actually have a single page of the manuscripts that she actually submitted to her publishers, and the examples we do have are just rough drafts and youthful writings. Her own brother, Henry, gushed after Jane's death that, "Everything came finished from her pen", but in reality we do not really know. And let it also be said, in Jane's defence, that many of the conventions in spelling and punctuation that we take for granted today (like that "i before e except after c" rule", for example) were just not yet settled, and indeed were not really settled until the best part of a century later. Professor Sutherland notes that Austen's use of punctuation was actually more consistent with an attempt to signal the rhythms of speech rather than the grammatical structure of the text.
All in all, I think the intense debate was something of a storm in a teacup in the great tradition of such literary storms. When all is said and done, Jane Austen's artistry - and her style - is in her beautiful flowing sentences, her authentic rendering of refined conversations, and the elegance of her story arcs, and not in her use of the poor, maligned semi-colon.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Two important votes in Europe

A referendum in Italy and a presidential election in Austria over the weekend were two highly-charged events in the wake of the Brexit fiasco earlier this year and the Trump election just last month. What transpired in these two votes was kind of complicated, but certainly not disastrous.
First the Italian referendum. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a self-destructing and career-ending move not dissimilar to David Cameron's fateful decision to call a referendum on Brexit, decided to call a referendum to change parts of Italy's Byzantine political system (purportedly to ease the passage of laws), the main thrust of which would be to strengthen the power of the Prime Minister and to weaken the upper house, or Senate. Italians turned out in droves (well over 70%) to vote a resounding "No" to the changes, by a margin of 60% to 40%.
So, arguably nothing has changed. But Renzi had put his political career on the line with the vote, and has now been obliged to resign. Also, the vote was widely seen as a rejection of the status quo and establishment politics, and opposition parties (principally the rightist anti-Europe Five Star Movement and the Northern League) are now howling for a new general election. They probably won't get one, and the country will probably limp on with a Democratic Party caretaker administration until regular elections take place in spring of 2018. The Italian economy remains shaky, and several of its major banks are still teetering above the abyss, but life will go on much as before.
But there was some good news as well this weekend. The presidential election in Austria, touted as a referendum on traditional European ideals and liberalism, resulted in a surprise defeat for populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in favour of Alexander van der Bellen, the moderate pro-Europe candidate. The Austrian Presidency is largely ceremonial and does not carry much power in the country's internal and external politics, but van der Bellen's victory (with about 53% to 47% of the vote) was at least symbolic, and elicited a communal sigh of relief in Europe and around the world, even if the vote was relatively tight.
France, the Netherlands and Germany - all countries where anti-immigration and anti-establishment factions are gaining ground in recent years - all face general elections in 2017. But Austria has shown us that, sometimes at least, cooler heads can prevail.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Edward Page Mitchell - a sci-fi visionary

I have been reading a collection of short stories by a 19th Century American author, hitherto unknown to me, and generally little known to the wider literary public, of the name Edward Page Mitchell. The stories, which originally appeared anonymously in serialized form in the New York Sun between the 1870s to 1890s (Mitchell later became editor-in-chief of the same paper), are not available in book form, but can be downloaded for free from the Interwebs.
In more recent years, Mitchell has come to be regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction. Some of his fictional ideas predated similar ones by HG Wells and even Jules Verne by several years, and he anticipates many futuristic technological advances - some of which have come to pass, and some that are still to emerge - as well as social and political advances which would have appeared quite revolutionary at the time.
Among the best, and best-known, of the stories are:
  • A Man Without a Body (1877) - a scientist suceeds in teleporting matter, but when he tries to teleport himself, the electrical battery fails and only his head materializes, fully conscious and sensible, but lacking a body.
  • The Ablest Man in the World (1879) - a scientist develops a thinking, reasoning, computer-like machine, which he then installs in the head of a severely mentally-disabled boy, who as a result grows up into a fiercely intelligent and ambitious adult, set to take the world by storm, until someone discovers his dark secret and sabotages what they see as an abomination.
  • The Senators's Daughter (1897) - set in a futuristic 1937, this tale of a young American woman fighting for the right to marry her Chinese lover introduced a whole host of future technology (including travel by pneumatic tube, electrical heating, newspapers printed in the home by electrical transmission, food-pellet concentrates, international broadcasts, suspended animation or cryogenics), as well as social advances like votes for women, animal rights, racial equality, and interracial marriage.
  • A Crystal Man (1881) - a scientist discovers the secret of altering the colour of the human body, and even rendering it completely transparent, before dying unexpectedly and leaving his experimental subject to a fate of a lifetime as an invisible man (this was some 16 years before HG Wells pursued a similar idea).
  • The Clock That Went Backward (1881) - a mysterious old Dutch grandfather clock transports a group of people back hundreds of years, as it begins to turn backwards when struck with a bolt of lightning (written 7 years before HG Wells wrote The Time Machine).
  • The Tachypomp (1894) - in order to realize the apparently impossible task of achieving infinite speed (and thereby win the hand of his professor's daughter), a student of mathematics contrives a train which carries another train on top of it, which in turn carries yet another train on top of it, and so on, so that the combined speed of all the trains approaches infinity.
The stories are written in the same kind of gentlemanly, slightly stuffy, Victorian style as Wells and his comtemporaries adopted, but they are nevertheless eminently readable and not devoid of humour. They certainly make for an enjoyable and interesting few hours of entertainment at no financial cost, and very little tax on the intellect.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Rich medical specialists whine about tax changes

Specialist doctors are up in arms about a recent federal tax change that is soon to be voted into force.
The legislation is designed to close up a loophole, whereby specialist doctors use complex partnerships and corporate structures in order to tame advantage of the favourable small business tax rate (10.5% on business income up to $500,000, possibly soon to be reduced still further to 9%) rather than the corporate tax rate (15%) or even higher personal income tax rates.
An estimated half of Canada's 80,000 physicians are specialists, and they are among the highest earners in the country, although only about 10,000-15,000 of these are in a position to take advantage of the kind of income-pooling structures at issue here.
The Canadian Medical Association and other medical professional pressure groups say that some doctors could end up paying tends of thousands more a year in taxes as a result of the proposed tax changes, which gives a good idea of just how much these guys are pulling in. Those same pressure groups are scare-mongering that "thousands" of specialists will pull out of group medical offices and that many of them will leave for the United States as a result.
If they want to brave a Trump-led USA, then good luck to them, I say, although they may not find it quite as easy to get in say they think. If a few thousand dollars in tax is all that stands between these people and the abandonment of all that Canada has to offer, then I'm not sure we really want them. Certainly, taxation was never an issue that figured in our decision to move here all those years ago.
Thankfully, Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears unmoved by the whining of a bunch of rich medical professionals and Conservative MPs, and the legislation looks set to pass comfortably.

Most dietary supplements are not even worth considering

The worldwide market for health and nutrition supplements and vitamins is truly huge. Americans alone spend about $30 billion a year on vitamins, minerals and herbal products (that's about $100 for every man, woman and child). This is partly the result of a 1990s law change that allows products to be sold to "support" the health of the body or various body parts, even if no claims are made for the prevention, treatment or cure of any particular ailment.
Millions of people swear by their daily regime of vitamins and minerals. But do we actually know whether the most popular health supplements are actually effective? Are they, in reality, anything more than placebos or just wishful thinking?
One article by a scientific journalist in the New York Times recently tackled just that problem, and his conclusions were disquieting at best. Among his findings:
  • Multivitamins - studies by a number of major health institutions and charities have concluded that a daily multivitamin does little or nothing to fend off chronic illnesses like cancer or heart disease, and a sensible balanced diet is likely to be much more effective.
  • Vitamin D - most people these days are deficient in vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium and phosphorus we need to maintain strong bones, and so this may be one of the few supplements that are actually worthwhile, particularly for older people, even if it has not been shown to actually prevent bone fractures.
  • Calcium - many people are also deficient in calcium, but a better diet with more dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, fortified breakfast foods, etc, would be a better solution than supplements, which can often cause constipation, and has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Vitamin B12 - many people, particularly older people, are deficient in this vitamin, which is needed for healthy brain and muscle function, even those who eat meat (the main source of B12), and a supplement may be necessary over and above what can be found in fortified food sources.
  • Fish oil - variously promoted as a miracle cure for heart disease, cognitive decline and much more, fish oil has actually not been found to be efficacious in studies, and may even increase the risks of an aggressive form of prostrate cancer.
  • Magnesium - studies have not borne out claims that magnesium can help prevent leg cramps, and, while it may help with constipation, it also brings with it a risk of diarrhoea and of interference with the functioning of antibiotics and other medications.
  • Turmeric - used in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, turmeric does have some anti-inflammatory, anti-diuretic and even anti-cancer properties (although official scientific evidence is rather thin on the ground), and anecdotally it can help with some inflammatory conditions like plantar fasciitis.
  • Glucosamine/Chondroitin - studies have shown that the supplement's much-touted efficacy against arthritis are completely unfounded, and it has no more effect than a placebo.
  • Vitamin E - once thought to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, studies have shown that those taking vitamin E supplements actually developed significantly more cancers than those on a placebo.
  • Selenium - also widely taken to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, selenium supplements have been shown in studies to substantially increase the incidence of diabetes.
Hmmm. All in all, it seems like a much better idea to spend some money on improving our diets than investing in dietary supplements. The only supplements that might be worth considering are vitamin D and B12.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Give Castro some credit, not just a knee-jerk reaction

Fidel Castro has finally shuffled off his mortal coil, and Justin Trudeau is in the doghouse for finding some nice words to say about the dead guy. Ah, politics.
Trudeau, like pretty much every other political leader the world over, was obliged to make some kind of statement on the death of a major statesman, and, like it or not, that's what Castro was. Personally, I thought his statement was pretty reasonable and appropriate:
"It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.
"Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
"While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante'.
"I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
"On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader."
Problem is, saying anything remotely nice about an avowed and unrepentant communist is just not done in some political circles. So, Mr. Trudeau was piled on by most conservative Canadian politicians, almost the whole US Republican machine, Margaret Wente (obviously), and even the Globe's Editorial. God, even the usually sober and measured Guardian got in on th act.
But it should be mentioned, before all proportion is lost in the ensuing hysteria, that many other world leaders also made largely positive and respectful statements on Castro's death, including the UN Secretary-General, most presidents of Latin America, and the presidents of the EU, China, Russia, Spain, France, South Africa, India and, yes, the USA.
Castro was a "controversial figure", as Trudeau himself admits, and his democratic failings and civil rights abuses are well-known and reported ad nauseam in thr media. But they do not necessarily have to preface every comment made about the man. Neither do we need to dance in the streets with the Cuban exiles of Miami.
And, just for good measure, neither is it reasonable to characterize pre-revolutionary Cuba as some paragon of wealth, commerce and development, as many anti-Castro partisans (and, once again, the Globe and Mail's editorial team) often insist. In fact, Cuba under Batista was a US colony in which (in the words of one Globe letter-writer) "American-owned plantations and businesses raked in huge profits using cheap labour working in slave-like conditions". The mafia controlled Havana's drugs, casinos and brothels, the government at all levels was hugely corrupt, the police force brutal and repressive, and the regime almost totally indifferent to the education, medical care, housing, social justice and economic opportunity of its people. It was a revolution waiting to happen; Castro was the man who made it happen. Yes, the revolution, like so many others before it, went astray later, but at least give the man some credit where credit is due.

Big news: smoking is bad for you

My last post (forgive the unintentional pun) was about someone killing themselves, and coincidentally so is this one. A new study in the USA has confirmed, in unequivocal and all-too-graphic statistical terms, what most sensible people already knew: smoking is bad for you.
The study concluded that almost 29% of all cancer deaths in the USA are attributable to smoking (23% in women and 34% in men). So, not only is smoking bad for you, it's VERY bad for you. And this does not include deaths from various other diseases that are often linked to smoking. Nor does it include deaths from second-hand smoke, pipes, cigars, e-cigarettes, etc. Also, the data depends on self-reporting, and so could well be understated.
An estimated 8 million premature deaths have been prevented by tobacco control efforts, and yet such controls in some parts of the country remain quite weak: only about a third of US states prohibit smoking in public places; no state fulfilled the WHO's recommenderecommendation for a75% tax on cigarettes; only 7% of states provided comprehensive coverage for smoking cessation treatments under Medicaid; etc.
Geographically, the numbers are highest in southern states like Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, where the vast majority of American tobacco is grown, where tobacco controls are weaker and cigarettes cheaper, and where there is economic and commercial pressure in favour of the industry.
The writing is on the wall, people; all you have to is read it and act upon it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Would you kill yourself for the environment?

This is the first post I have made which has both Environment and Religion as category tags. I read in The Guardian today that a young man in southern India has become perhaps the first voluntary martyr to the cause of environmentalism. Many people have died over the centuries due to environmental degradation, and others have been killed as a result of their environmental beliefs. But this is the first time I am aware of where someone has taken their own life in the cause of the environment. It is a disturbing development.
Jawahar Kumara, a 19-year old from the small town of Thanjavir in Tamil Nadu, was found drowned in the local canal, having left a suicide video on his phone, explaining his actions, thus:
"I am sacrificing my life in the hope that it will trigger serious concern about plastic use in India. Since all of my peaceful means of protest failed, I’m forced to choose suicide. To save the lives of millions of people affected by toxic plastic, I don’t think it’s wrong to kill myself."
The young man was an ardent environmentalist, as well as a deeply religious person, and he had already gone on a hunger strike and threatened to throw himself off a building if his environmental grievances were not addressed by his local government. His grievances were to do with the excessive and polluting use of plastic, and particularly of plastic bags, in India. Basically, he killed himself over plastic bags
Now, India does have a plastic bag problem. Having arrived late on the plastics scene, with the economic liberalization of the 1990s, its use of plastic since then has been increasing dramatically, by about 10% a year. National and state-level actions to control the problem have been less than robust and policing of new policies is almost non-existent. Perhaps the most effective activity has been to rope in India's informal army of waste-pickers or "rag-pickers", who salvage items from landfill sites for recycling (as a result, India's recycling rate is around 60% compared to 22% worldwide). But, in the scheme of things, the country is still not a big plastics consumer, using less than 10kg per person annually, as compared to 45kg in China and a whopping 109kg in the USA.
So, yes, this is indeed a fight worth fighting, but not something that should be inspiring people to kill themselves over. These kinds of extreme religious tactics are just not appropriate for environmental protests.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Facebook effect in a post-truth world

A lot of ink and pixels have been devoted to the allegations that fake news and misinformation of Facebook and other social media sites may have swayed the recent US election Trump-wards, and that this may have been the first (but probably not the last) "post-truth" election.
Much has been made of the fact that Oxford Dictionaries have made "post-truth" their word of the year, as though this is in some way significant or even prophetic. Post-truth refers to circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals, and you can see how this has become a buzz-word in a year of Brexit and President Trump.
But back to Facebook.
It has long been the known that social media (and Facebook in particular) s rife with false news (either deliberately or accidentally so). What has changed more recently is the extent of the influence that social media has over the perceptions of the general public. Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of American social media users - and, let's face it, that's most people these days - get the vast majority of their news directly from that social media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists, somewhat disingenuously, that 99% of the content reported on Facebook is "authentic" (as opposed to factual), and that he finds it "extremely unlikely" that false news on Facebook has been instrumental in influencing the American election one way or another. In fact, he has specifically denied that Facebook helped Trump win, calling such accusations a "crazy idea". But then he would say that, wouldn't he? Zuckerberg says that Facebook is working to identify and flag false news, although he is right to point out that this is a tricky line to walk and that Facebook staff should not be seen as, or be involuntarily put in the position of being, "arbiters of the truth". And certainly fact-checking everything that appears on the site does appear to be just impractical.
Part of the problem is that Facebook's News Feed service is specifically designed to show people the kind of news it thinks they want to see, creating a kind of "filter bubble" which merely serves to reinforce a person's views without exposing them to any alternative or contradictory viewpoints. What an individual ends up seeing (and believing) depends, to a large extent, on their friends and what they choose to share, which just exacerbates both confirmation bias and the so-called "backfire effect".
So, as a result, we have seen fake video of Democrats stuffing votes into ball at boxes, stories accusing the Clintons of murder, stories claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslimfalse claims that popular black actor Denzel Washington has praised Trump, etc, etc. Hilary Clinton connected to a pedophilia and child sex trafficking ring, anyone?
And there is some evidence that, for whatever reason, these kinds of sensational fake stories are actually shared more on social media than other, more mundane, factual claims. One analysis by Buzzfeed News shows that the top fake news stories during the election generated significantly more engagement on Faceook (in terms of shares, reactions and comments) than the top real news stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
So, did Facebook influence the US election? We will probably never know. But it does seem likely that the inexorable rise of fake news has at least increased the political polarization and confusion in a fraught and hotly-contested race.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Obama bans Arctic oil drilling

In a final sally before bowing out President Obama has blown one last resounding raspberry at President-Elect Donald Trump by banning drilling for oil in the pristine waters of the Arctic.
As part of the US federal government's land and ocean leasing program, the move has been praised by environmentalists, but will only serve to irritate Trump and his fuel cronies. Technically, Trump could reverse the ruling, but the poor economics and high risks of Arctic drilling will probably be enough to deter fossil fuel companies anyway. For example, the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell spend over $7 billion in exploration costs in the oil-rich waters off the Alaska coast, before finally abandoning the project this last September.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy management, which manages the leases of oil drilling projects, has also put the Atlantic out of bounds good future development, although it has opened up new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, which is the current epicentre of offshore oil development.
This latest announcement is just one more of what Trump describes as "Obama-Clinton roadblocks" to large-scale fossil fuel development and, as such, is to be commended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Selfie deaths on the rise

I was just reading about a guy who died when he fell into a hot pool at Yellowstone National Park earlier this year. He and his sister were apparently looking for an illegal place to soak, mainly for the thrill of the selfie opportunity, and the whole grisly event was recorded on his sister's cellphone. The guy completely dissolved in the acidic hot pool before his remains could be recovered.
This led me to another article which tells me that the number of people who die each year while taking selfies is increasing precipitously. The first known selfie death occurred in March 2014, but since then there have been 127 deaths attributable to selfies, 15 in 2014, 39 in 2015, and 73 in just the first eight months of 2016. 76 of these deaths were in India (where taking dangerous selfies on and around trains is all the rage, and is even considered romantic for some reason), 9 in Pakistan, 8 in the USA, and 6 in Russia. Most of the deaths, other than the train ones, were a result of falling from a great height (e.g. cliffs, towers, buildings, etc), although several of those in the USA and Russia involved guns and other weapons.
It seems there is a whole subculture of people who take selfies in dangerous situations in order to bolster their social media profiles, and such individuals may accumulate thousands of followers (before they die, presumably). Check out some of the examples on this page.
And you thought that regular selfies were pretty sick...

What is the likelihood of Trump being impeached?

Due to the vagaries of the American electoral system, it seems we are democratically stuck with Donald J. Trump as the leader of the so-called free world. So, many people are thinking outside the box for ways in which we might legally get rid of the guy. And perhaps the most likely of these unlikely possibilities is impeachment.
Allan Lichtman, the Washington professor who has successfully predicted every US election since 1984 (including Donald Trump) using his historically-based "13 keys to the White House" system, also made another prediction about Trump, this one not based on any complex historical system but on his own gut feeling: "I'm quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook." Many other people, including filmmaker Michael Moore, have also predicted that Trump is likely to do something that might lead to grounds for impeachment sometime before the end of his term of office, and probably sooner rather than later. Even Rush Limbaugh was predicting, some time ago now, that the Democrats would be "talking impeachment on day two, after the first Trump executive order".
So, what is involved with a presidential impeachment, and what is the likelihood of it happening any time soon? Impeachment of a president requires that they commit treason, bribery, or "high crimes and misdemeanours", the latter in particular being a woolly and ambiguous phrase that is open to a variety of interpretations. Here are a few areas where Trump's political, business and personal life might come into play in this context:
  • the ongoing legal allegations regarding Trump University (among other things it is alleged that unqualified instructors were personally hired by Trump, and that the "university" is not actually an accredited educational program);
  • conflicts of interests in his cabinet (Trump loyalists like General Mike Flynn and Rudy Giuliani, both highly tipped for prominent positions in the Trump hierarchy, are both subject to conflict of interest allegations recently, and Trump's move to include his son-in-law Jared Kushner in his administration, and granting him the highest security clearance, could well be against federal anti-nepotism laws, as could his plans to involve more of his adult children);
  • sexual assault allegations (Trump is currently facing at least a dozen sexual assault and harassment accusations, and facing legal action over such allegations could open up the possibility of impeachment proceedings);
  • conflicts of interest from his business dealings (having his children run his intricate, extensive and highly-complex business empire in a "blind trust" is at best unconvincing);
  • his dealings with Vladimir Putin and Russia (there are already some shady undercurrents to Trump's reliance on Russian investors and his undisguised admiration for Putin, as well as the apparent Russian tampering in the election process itself, and who knows where these might lead);
  • possible crackdowns on the media (Trump has already broken protocol over his dealings with the press, and he makes no secret of his antagonism towards it, but these are not actually criminal actions - yet);
  • any new shocking revelations or transgressions that come to light in the future (the possibilities are limitless).
Now, the problem is that Congress is the body that needs to call for, and to actually hold, hearings for impeachment, and both the Senate (narrowly) and the House of Representatives (more robustly) are currently controlled by the Republicans. So, Trump would have to seriously piss off his own party to lead them to resort to this dramatic step. Having said that, many Republicans are already seriously pissed off with him, and the likelihood of further pissed-offness is well within the bounds of possibility. So, impeachment remains a tantalizing potentiality.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Pandora's Box of Americam racism

In case you were thinking that all that talk about Donald Trump's election win lifting the top off a Pandora's Box of racist and sexist attitudes and actions was just hyperbole and rhetoric, think again. Already, just days after the election, there has been a spate of racist and anti-Semitic incidents across the USA, more than 300 according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre. And these are just the ones that have been reported and garnered some media attention
They include:
  • Vandalization and "Trump Nation Whites Only" graffiti at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as at other churches nearby.
  • Swastikas daubed on doors in a residence where several Jewish women live at the New School, New York City, as well as in a residence at the State University of New York at Geneseo (accompanied by the word "Trump").
  • A swastika and "Make America White Again" graffiti on a softball dugout at Wellsville in upstate New York.
  • The word "Trump" scrawled on a Muslim prayer room at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering.
  • Swastika graffiti and the words "Heil Trump" at the University of California at San Diego.
  • Black students at the University of Pennsylvania were included in on a racist GroupMe message from "DaddyTrump", that included violent threats against blacks, racial slurs, a calendar invitation to a "daily lynching" and old images of African-American lynchings.
  • Threats to a female Muslim students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, demanding that she remove her hijab or be set on fire.
  • Students at Royal Oak Middle School, Michigan (Grades 6-10) chanting "Build that wall!" during their lunch break.
  • Racist graffiti and hashtags, including "#GoBackToAfrica", "#MakeAmericaGreatAgain", "#WhitesOnly", "#WhiteAmerica" and "#Trump", at Maple Grove Senior High School in Minnesota.
  • Threats and intimidation of a Muslim student at San Diego State University, including mentions of Trump and of the student's traditional clothing.
  • "Black lives don't matter and neither does [sic] your votes" graffiti on a wall in Durham North Carolina
  • Graffiti spray-painted in a window in Philadelphia, including "Sieg Heil 2016" and "Trump" with a swastika in place of the "T", as well as more racist graffiti nearby.
  • Social media photos of a black doll being hung circulating at Canisius College in west New York state, with a connection being drawn to "Trump fans".
  • A Twitter video of a student at Shasta High School in Redding, California, handing out "Deportation" notices to other students of a variety of ethnicities (he though it was "funny").
  • Physical and verbal abuse (including use of the N-word) of a black student at Baylor University, Texas (although it was heartening to see that 300 students then turned up to escort the student to her next class).
A longer, more up-to-date, and even more depressing, list is available at, but I just haven't the heart to detail any more examples here.
Set against that are a couple of incidents, in Connecticut and Chicago, where Trump supporters were attacked. But the writing is quite clearly on the wall (so to speak): many people see Trump's election as carte blanche (so to speak) to make their ugliest attitudes public.
And Trump's rather lame response to all this activity? On a 60 Minutes interview, he said: "If it helps, I will say this, and I'll say it directly into the camera: 'Stop it'." Ouch.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Courts grant rights to sue states over climate change

Overshadowed by this week's disastrous US elections (disastrous from an environmental and almost every other point of view), a landmark legal decision was handed down in the small West coast city of Eugene, Oregon.
A group of 21 young people, ranging in age from 9 to 20, and supported by Our Children's Trust (an American not-for-profit that.advocates for young  people and environmental issues), were effectively granted the legal right to she the government over climate change.
The young plaintiffs charged President Obama, the fossil fuel industry and various federal agencies with violating their constitutional rights, and of engangering their right to life, liberty, prosperity and public trust resources, by not pursuing more vigorous measures against climate change.
The case might sound trivial, but it was strenuously opposed by funded major trade associations liken the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) and the Koch brothers backed American Petroleum Institute (API). In finding for the plaintiffs, US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin and (later, after his retirement) his replacement US District Judge Ann Aiken, threw out all the arguments of these well-funded organizations.
In her ruling, Judge Aiken declared the facts of man-made climate change to be "undisputable", and stated that, "Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it."
The case sets an important precedent for other federal lawsuits, which may become an important bulwark in the battle against global warming inaction in a post-Trump climate change denial world. Just last year, an equally important (and largely unknown and unheralded) Dutch court case ruled that the Netherlands must move to reduce its carbon emissions to 25% of 1990 levels within just five years.
These are not small victories, but you still have to scour the backwaters of the Internet to find out about them. Sing it out!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

You need to know who voted for Trump

Loathe as I am to dive right back into that ill-fated American election, it continues to fascinate me, in the same kind of way as maggots chewing away at a carcass might fascinate me. As the media continues to dissect Tuesday's events in every conceivable way - from the geo-political to the personal, from how to explain it to your sensitive traumatized pre-adolescent child (I kid you not), to how Canadians might extract a grain of positivity from it, to why the polls got it all wrong yet again, to how thousands of fleeing Americans probably won't be beating down the doors to their northern neighbours - what still obsesses me is the demographics of who voted for the man, and why.
Some of the general demographics are no big surprise: maps of the voting patterns across the country show the usual blue (Democrat) support along both coasts, with wide swathes of red (Republican) support throughout the less populous, more rural interior.

Even within states, there is the usual marked dichotomy between urban areas (largely Democratic) and rural areas (largely Republican), although this is perhaps even more marked than usual. This trend is well exemplified by voting maps of Florida (which shows a completely red state punctuated by blue dots in the populous Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Tallahassee conurbations), Ohio (red but for blue pockets around Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo) and Pennsylvania (all red except for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Allentown).
But what kind of person votes for a person like Donald Trump? Data from exit polls, conducted by Edison Research and summarized in the Globe and Mail today, throw some light on the who, although much less on the why:
  • Race: overall, whites (still by far the largest group, even if declining in influence) favoured Trump by a substantial margin of 58% to 37%; African-Americans overwhelmingly supported Clinton with 88% compared to Trump's 8% (although this was still less than Obama's 95% support among black people); Clinton's 65% support among Latinos was double that of Trump (but again, still less than Obama's share 4 years ago).
  • Gender: Clinton's vote among all women was only 53% (about the same as Obama's was) compared to Trump's 41%; she was supported by over 90% of black women, but - crucially - more white women voted for Trump (53%) than for Clinton (43%).
  • Age: a graph of vote demographics by age shows a very clear downward trend in support for Clinton as the age increases, and the exact opposite for Trump's support, reinforcing the old axiom that young people lean left and old people lean right.
  • Income: contrary to many popular explanations for Trump's popularity, Clinton held a clear lead over Trump among the less wealthy (53% to 41% among those earning less than $30,000 a year), while Trump led at all levels of income above $50,000 a year (and especially among middle-earners from $50K to $100K a year).
  • Religion: as might be expected (even if it is not actually logical), Trump's support was highest among the more religious, particularly among those who attend religious services at least weekly, while Clinton's support is double that of Trump among those who never go to religious services.
  • Education: as has also been pointed out many times, the higher the voter's education level, the more likely they are to have voted for Clinton.
Maybe this stuff is not actually that interesting, but 1) I like graphs and maps, and 2) this cannot be allowed to ever happen again - for the sake of Canada and the rest of the world, as well as of America itself - so the Democrats need to know their enemy.

Eimear McBride's half-formed thing

I've been reading Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. It's one of those self-consciously "difficult" books, very different from the Robert J. Sawyer Neanderthals trilogy I just finished, but I like a bit of "difficult" from time to time, and it certainly has its rewards.
McBride's language has been compared to her compatriot James Joyce, although Samuel Beckett might just as good a reference point. The idiosyncrasies of the natural Irish accent and sentence structure also come through. The punctuation appears random, or at least irrelevant, and the text veers deliriously between character, person and tense, between dialogue, thought and description.
As a young girl, the main (unnamed) protagonists' words gush out in an off-kilter barrage of prolixity. It is often difficult to follow, although the general sense - usually some mixture of angst, envy and disgust - is usually clear, even if the detail is not:
"I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can't hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can't or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush."
But even as a teenager, her language is breathless, here-there-and-everywhere, as though her thoughts are coming too thick and fast to put into words, and certainly too fast to fit into traditonal grammatical rules:
"We sliced through that fug school bus. So misfortunately new. Thicken soup-ish teenage sweat and cigarette boys slop always at the back. Held tight my rucksack filled with rattling tins of pens. Fat drizzle blotch through the polyester skirt I sideways slope to walk in. Felt my hormones long to slink quiet out of these hard eyes. Do not be seen. Do not see me. But I must turn myself to the great face of girls."
With young adulthood comes some measure of clarity, but still a whole lot of confusion:
"I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But it's clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world's about to. The world's about to. Tip. No it ain't. Ha. Don't be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good."
Some of the more abstract passages can be positively poetic:
"Have your lunatics. Anoint their Jesus crying eyes. Their mouths slapping tongues. Their sing praise alleluias. So levitate on the tiles. They sweep all Crist-like in. Fat coven descended to your bed. Your nervous face. Disguise. I can't disguise. Some ancient thing that catch me make me panic gag. Them. Doing it before my eyes. No. Announce yourself and hear oh Lord. Between us chattels us vessels of shame and you, blue conscious with outstretched hands will be loaded up with all their sins. And to the wilds they'll send you filled with that."
And what does all this helter-skelter tumble of words tell of? Well, it's not pretty and it's not edifying
A dysfunctional family, removed from the benighted backwoods of rural Ireland to a hard-scrabble and hardly-more-enlightened Irish town. Abusive, then absent, and finally deceased, father. Mother trapped in her medieval Catholicism, loving and thoughtful some of the time, hard as nails or downright abusive herself at others. Children with a whole textbook's-worth of mental health challenges, born into a society where mental health challenges are either concealed, belittled or just scorned, and where bullying and lubricity are commonplace. The terrible cruelty of schoolchildren.
Then, later, comes the rebelliousness, the promiscuity, the anarchy, and all the guilt and recriminations that come with them. Occasional bouts of nostalgia, hysterical maternal phone-calls, and half-hearted attempts to galvanize her feckless and broken brother into something approaching activity and normality. Then, more debauchery, more rage, more wildness and self-loathing, more infatuation with her shiftless virginity-snatching uncle. All in all, what appears to be an inauspicious downward spiral.
Towards the end of the book is a section where the spelling, capitalization, sentence structure and almost everything else gets completely lost in the immediacy and horror of the action it describes. But I won't dwell on that traumatic and brutal event here.
McBride wrote A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing at the age of 27, and then it took her nine more years to find a publisher that would touch it. Since then, it has won a bunch of awards and nominations, although perhaps not the big ones.
And I can kind of see where those early cautious publishers were coming from. But a bit of patience pays off for the reader too. The work is a (deliberately) flawed masterpiece - by turns bewildering, poignant, distasteful, visceral, exasperating, heart-breaking, and many other things - as well as a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us will (hopefully) never experience at first hand. It will always be a contentious and divisive novel, and, for that reason, if for no other, you should read it.