Sunday, February 28, 2016

The challenges of electing an old American president

A recent article in Politico Magazine points out something I hadn't really thought about, namely that the front runners in the US Democratic and Republican nominations are all pretty old.
At the beginning of the next presidency term, Donald Trump would be 70, Hillary Clinton 69, and Bernie Sanders 75! The other Republican hopefuls are admittedly younger - Marco Rubio is currently 44, and Ted Cruz is 45 - but they are languishing badly in the primaries at the moment. The oldest US president to date was Ronald Reagan, who began the job when he was almost 70, and lingered until almost 78! Just for reference, Bill Clinton assumed office at 47, Barack Obama at 48.
One issue with an old president is general health, and I hadn't realized it but the candidates actually make public their health profile. Or sort of. Thus, we know that 75-year old Bernie Sanders has had a bad back (God, who hasn't?), laryngitis from acid reflux and gout, but his heart is healthy. All we get to find out about Hillary Clinton, though, is that she eats a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables. And all I have seen about Donald Trump is a suitably Trumpian statement from his gastroenterologist that Trump would be "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency". So, it seems that not all health profiles are created equal. And who on earth has a personal gastroenterologist, anyway? That alone sets alarm bells ringing for me.
Be that as it may, perhaps even more important is the mental state and mental health of the candidates. As the Politico article points out, our cognitive abilities (memory, learning, attention, reasoning, etc) tend to stay reasonably intact through the age of 50 or 60, after which they typically begin to gradually decline, until, usually at around 70, the decline accelerates, often precipitately.
Now, these are just ball-park, averaged figures, and the presidential candidates are clearly not just ordinary, average individuals. To get to where they are today, these people must be assumed to have out-of-the-ordinary cognitive skills, skills that been honed and kept sharp by constant high-level thinking and political manoeuvering. And yes, I mean even Donald Trump, however unlikely that may seem.
But they are not super-human, and eventually age will catch up with them. Ronald Reagan had his share of health issues during his term of office, and there were aspersions cast towards the end of his tenure that he was forgetting things, losing his train of thought, etc. It was not until the age of 83, though, that he was officially admitted to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
The counter-argument is, of course, that what the wrinklies lack in nimbleness and acuity, they more than make up for in experience and wisdom, which is perhaps even more important.
Anyway, for now at least, even if some of them appear to be irretrievably misguided, all of the candidates do seem mentally sharp (yes, even Trump, despite his anger issues and borderline narcissistic personality disorder). I do sometimes worry that a 70-year old president must necessarily be much more mired in the past and hide-bound by outdated attitudes than a 45-year old. But, as though set there to refute this very idea, the most progressive candidate, the one with the new ideas and the fresh approaches, actually turns out to be the oldest, even if, as I have argued elsewhere, this may not be his time to shine.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Oscars can never be all things to all men/women

The Oscars are with us again, and, as always, privileged people with way too much time on their hands are looking for something to complain about. This time, of course, it's all about #OscarsSoWhite (can we even have a discussion that doesn't involve hashtags?)
The Globe and Mail has thrown itself into the media feeding frenzy with a double-page spread of black or partially-black actors and directors who have been criminally overlooked throughout the years, all the way back to 1929. Some I have heard of, some I have even seen and enjoyed, some mean absolutely nothing to me, which probably says more about me than about the films. Some I have seen and not been particularly impressed with; some I remember being impressed with, but they happened to be released in a year with a lot of other good films. It makes you realize just how arbitrary and random both the release of films and the nominations of Oscar candidates really are.
Now, yes, in an ideal world, Oscar nominees would be 64% white, 16% Latino, 12% black, and 5% Asian (thank you, Wikipedia). But I imagine that the talent pool in the film industry does not conform to those statistics, and, as we have been reminded over and over again in recent weeks, the Oscar selection committee most definitely does not. Likewise, women are also almost certainly under-represented, as probably are the transgendered and albino communities. Some of this is apparently already being addressed as we speak, as the Oscars organization smarts under the glare of too many critical cameras. Some will take much longer, and will probably involve, among other things, a process of persuading blacks and Latinos that theatre is cool, and that rap and basketball are not the only ways out of poverty and repression.
I just ask that we don't impose a quota system on artistic endeavour. I would like to think that Alejandro Iñárritu will win best director for The Revenant on his own merits, not because he is Latino. The selection of Oscar nominations is a necessarily flawed process, and all the people will never be happy all of the time. For example, there are other white actors who I believe should be in the running this year, and probably other black and Latino performers too, although not necessarily the much-touted Stephan James.
We also need to avoid the pitfall of lionizing movies just because they are "worthy" - Mandela, Selma, The Race, etc, are all important films, as well as successful ones, and it is all to the good that mass white audiences go to see these movies, in much the same way as I believe that everyone should go to see other worthy, educational and well-made films like Suffragette or The Hurt Locker. However, this is not the same thing as saying that they were the best films to come out in their respective years.
Having said all that, I find it difficult to get too worked up about it all. I am not even a big Oscars fan - I find it way too bombastic and self-satisfied, as well as way too long and tedious - I don't think I have ever managed to watch it all the way through, and most years I don't even try. Frankly, I find the whole thing rather fatuous and embarrassing, but hopefully I'm entitled to my minority view. It seems to me, though, that, if less people took it so seriously, it would not need to represent and embody all the hopes and aspirations of every budding thespian. But then, of course, sales of over-the-top haute couture would also take a hit, and that would never do.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A demographically representative Supreme Court?

I was intrigued by an article in the paper showing the breakdown of the members of the US Supreme Court, prompted by the recent death of Judge Antonin Scalia. It seems that, of the eight remaining judges in the Court, five are Catholic (62.5%), and three are Jewish (37.5%). Before Scalia's death, these percentages were 75% Catholic and 25% Jewish.
A quick check on Wikipedia tells me that, among the general population of the USA, only 24% are Catholic, and 1.7% are Jewish. About 51% are Protestant, other Christians make up another 3%, other religions a further 3%, and 16% have no religion at all (these are 2004 figures). So, does the Catholic-Jewish skew of the Supreme Court reflect the demographics of the legal profession in the USA, because it certainly doesn't reflect the general populace.
Three out of the eight of the current judges are female (was three out of nine), which is getting closer to, but still not quite representative of, the gender demographics. One is black, one is Latino, and the rest are white, which is actually reasonably close to the country's demographic averages, although, out of the full complement of nine judges, two Latinos would better represent the proportion in the general population. Five of the eight were educated at Harvard and three at Yale (was six and three before Scalia's departure), which is probably no surprise, but maybe a rather sad reflection of the way the world works.
Perhaps the most important statistic, though, is that, of the remaining eight judges, four were appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats, which probably reasonably fairly reflect the judges' politics too. This, of course, is why the Republicans are making such a fuss about Barack Obama appointing his own choice to the Court so late in his tenure, even though he is well within his rights to do so. A Democratic appointment would swing the political balance Democrat-wards for some years to come. The Republicans, confident that their guy will win the next presidency, want to wait, so that they can swing the balance their way.
It seems to me that what is needed to balance things out, is a female Latino judge (or, better still, an atheist), preferably one with lots of good legal experience, and absolutely no political affiliations, and preferably educated in some little-known backwoods university in Idaho or something. Good luck with that.
Presidential appointment seems a kind of ridiculous way to populate the country's highest court, especially given the influence the Court can have over the way a country operates. But, that is the way it has always been, and, guess what, we do the exact same thing here in Canada too.
A bit of research shows me that four of our nine Canadian Supreme Court judges are female, which apparently qualifies as the world's most gender-balanced national high court, and indeed the Chief Justice (who has slightly more influence in court decisions) is currently Beverley McLachlin, a woman. Full marks so far.
Religious affiliations are harder to glean, but what does jump out is that no fewer than seven out of nine (78%) of them were appointed (technically, nominated) by ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Political balance? I don't think so. Broken system? I think so.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Disinterring Pablo Neruda will prove nothing

I see that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's remains have been disinterred, and a Canadian and Danish team are poking through the bits looking for evidence of foul play in his death. All of which may be very interesting from an academic point of view, but, I ask myself: what really is the point?
Neruda, although most famous for his sensual love poetry, was an outspoken supporter and advisor of Chile's socialist leader Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, and himself served a term as a senator for the Chilean Communist Party, and later also as Chile's ambassador to France.
As it happened, Neruda was back in Chile in September 1973, receiving treatment for prostrate cancer, when General Augusto Pinochet staged his US-backed military coup and began his reign of terror in Chile. Less than two weeks later, Allende was dead after a mysterious suicide, and Neruda was also dead, officially from heart failure. About 6 hours before his death, Neruda had left his hospital after being injected with an unknown substance, an injection that Neruda was convinced was intended to kill him on orders from Pinochet.
So, yes, the circumstances were suspicious to say the very least, and I think that most people, unless they have a very specific axe to grind, just ASSUME that Neruda was in fact murdered on General Pinochet's orders.
But what, then, is the value of the current investigation, which, as even the venerable doctors carrying it out admit, may find some kind of biological agent in Neruda's body, but will not answer the question of whether or not it was deliberately put there, or on whose orders. Allende too had his body exhumed in 2011, in order to look for evidence of murder, and the international investigation concluded definitively that Allende had in fact committed suicide with his own AK-47 assault rifle. Was he "forced" to do it? We still don't know.
And, even if it were possible to tie Neruda's death back to Pinochet, what then? Pinochet died in 2006 with 300 criminal charges still pending against him for human rights violations, tax evasion and embezzlement. He is known to have caused over 3,000 deaths and "forced disappearances" over his 17-year rule, along with up to 80,000 people forcibly interned, and as many as 30,000 tortured. He is universally reviled as a bad man. Neruda's death would merely add one more to that death total. Leave him peace, I say.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Who knew that old fatwa was still in force?

Who knew the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie was still in force?
The fatwa, or religious edict, for killing Salman Rushdie, author of the hugely popular, but apparently unliked in some quarters, novel The Satanic Verses, was established back in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a wealthy Iranian religious organization offered $2.7 million to anyone undertaking the holy act of killing the author. This bounty was later increased to $3.3 million in 2012, and now, some 27 years after the book's publication, various Iranian media outlets have upped it by another $600,000, apparently "to show it [the fatwa] is still alive".
More recent Iranian leaders, with the notable exception of hardliner Ayatollah Ali Khameini, have largely tried to distance themselves from the fatwa, although without going so far as to prosecute those who are actively promoting it.
Current president, Hassan Rouhani, is generally considered a moderate, and genuinely seems to be trying to build bridges with the West. If he wanted to send a very clear message, he could easily denounce the fatwa, and take to task those in his country who are publicly calling for the murder of foreign nationals. However, there is very little chance of that in a benighted country still largely run by religious nuts.

Budget deficits are OK - it's the debt ratio that really matters

With Canada's budget deficit looking to be closer to $30 billion than the promised $10 billion this next year, the question arises is: this a big deal? And the answer: probably not.
More details will be available in the upcoming budget, and in the pre-budget fiscal and economic update due early next week, which are being speculated upon even now. With a worse-than-expected (and still deteriorating) inherited economy, over which they had little or no influence, Justin Trudeau's Liberals are now anticipating an $18.4 billion deficit based on slumping economic growth alone, before taking into account the $10 billion or so they are looking to pump into the economy as stimulus spending on infrastructure and other projects.
Is this important? Doubtless the Conservative opposition will be full of righteous indignation about it, and there will be much tooth-gnashing and many "sky-is-falling" predictions of economic catastrophe. A considered analysis in today's paper, though, suggests otherwise.
The point is that the magnitude of individual budget deficits are not as important in the scheme of things as the debt-to-GDP ratio, a measure of the country's ability to pay its interest, and ultimately to repay its debt. Every budget deficit increases the national debt, but by relatively small amounts and, as GDP continues to rise each year, the overall debt ratio may not change much, if at all. Even a series of small budget deficits can actually result in a declining debt-to-GDP ratio, which is ideally what we should be aiming for in the long term.
Canada's federal debt is currently around 31% of its GDP, only slightly higher than in 2008-09 (before the financial crisis of that year) and broadly comparable to what is was some thirty years ago. That might sound like a lot, but consider that this is the lowest dent-to-GDP ratio among the Group of Seven industrialized countries, and by a long chalk: the ratio for Germany is 48.4%, USA 79.9%, Britain 80.0%, France 89.4%, Italy 113.5%, and Japan a whopping 126.0% (these figures are from 2015). And we think we have it bad!
Now, granted, a comparison with some other smaller countries with which Canada is commonly compared paints a less rosy picture - Australia's ratio is 17.5%, New Zealand's 8.8% and Denmark's 6.3%, and Sweden's and Norway's are actually negative (-18.4% and -161.7% respectively), indicating a surplus in their coffers rather than a national debt.
But I think the point is that Canada's debt-to-GDP ratio is actually at a very reasonable and sustainable level, and there is no compelling need to reduce it to an arbitrary smaller number like 25% (as the Tories counsel). Indeed, it could easily to go up to 35% or even 40% without setting off too many economic alarms, although politically this is probably not advisable for a new government.
All of this then begs the question of what effect an individual year's deficit would have on the overall debt-to-GDP ratio. This obviously depends on the increase in GDP, which in Canada's case is probably in the region of 1.4% for 2016-17 (substantially lower than the original prediction of 2%), and little more than that should be relied on for the next few years. But this still means that a budget deficit of around $22 billion for 2016-17 (and up to $30 billion for each of the next few years) would have no impact at all on the debt ratio, and a higher deficit of, say, $30 billion this year would only have a slight, but far from dramatic, effect.
At a time of low growth and market retrenchment, we should be grateful that Canada's national finances are not still in the hands of cutting, slashing, Conservative politicians. Now is not the time to be pursuing goals like a reduced debt-to-GDP ratio, however admirable such a goal may be in the long-term. Most economists seem agreed that the economy needs a serious boost of stimulus spending, and it is to be hoped that this is what the Liberals will provide, notwithstanding traditional scared cows like balanced budgets and even declining debt-ratios.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

To Brexit or not to Brexit

At the risk of getting irretrievably bogged down in British internal politics and disappearing down the proverbial rabbit hole, I want to look at the pros and cons of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit), given that there is now to be a referendum on June 23rd of this year. I am not eligible to vote, having been out of the country for more than 15 years now, but this is still an important event in world politics. Also, I do still have most of my family living there, family that will feel the effects at first-hand, whichever way the vote goes.
Britain has been a member of the European Union (or the European Economic Community as it then was) since 1973, although the marriage has never been a particularly happy one. The first stay-or-go referendum came just a couple of years later. The UK opted out of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and so has never adopted the common currency, and it has never been as wholeheartedly sold on the idea of a united Europe as core members like France and Germany. But here we are in 2016 with another existential referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU.
Polls suggest that the Brits are almost equally split on the matter, with 51% content to stay in Europe and 49% ready to leave. Generally speaking, younger people are more likely to want to stay and older people to leave, and Guardian readers and university-educated Britons are much more likely to vote to stay than Express readers and poorly-educated people. There is little or no difference in voting preferences between the sexes, and even the geographical spread is unpredictable, with Scotland being the keenest to stay, followed by London (even if London's mayor Boris Johnson in favour of leaving). Even political parties are surprisingly split on the issue, with Conservative voters narrowly in favour of leaving (despite Conservative leader David Cameron's support for the status quo, at least after the recent hastily-negotiated "special status" that will be granted to the UK within Europe), and Labour, SNP and the Lib Dem voters slightly more strongly opposed to an exit. Even a surprising 28% of supporters of the right-wing nationalist UK Independence Party would vote to stay. It really is the kind of issue that pits father against son, brother against sister.
So, what are the issues? What are the pros and cons of Brexit? How is the poor voter to know what to do?
The first thing to be aware of is that, if Britain does decide to leave the EU, thus freeing itself from EU rules on agriculture, fisheries, justice and home affairs, there are a few different options they could pursue:
  • join the European Economic Area, like Norway, which may still involve abiding by many EU rules although without having any influence over how those rules are arrived at;
  • negotiate trade treaties on a sector-by-sector basis, like Switzerland;
  • enter into a customs union with the EU, allowing access to the free market in manufactured goods but not financial services, like Turkey;
  • negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement, which might or might not also include financial services, like Canada, for example; or
  • make a complete break with the EU, and just rely on World Trade Organization membership as a basis for trade, which would therefore be subject to tariffs, just like any other country.
Quite honestly, without knowing which of these would obtain, it is difficult to make an informed decision on an exit. Various studies have tried to evaluate the potential effect on the overall economy, and their conclusions are inconsistent to say the least. For example, one study suggests that the effect would be minimal, anywhere from a 0.8% reduction in GDP by 2030 to a 0.6% increase; another major study, though, suggests a much more substantial fall in GDP of anywhere from 2.2% to 9.5% (the worst-case scenario being substantially worse than the effects of the 2008-9 recession).
It is also difficult to gauge the effect on jobs of leaving the Union. Proponents of Brexit claim that it would result in a British jobs boom, as companies are freed from EU regulations and red tape. Others, though, suggest that millions of jobs could be lost if Britain were to pull out of the EU, particularly in the automotive and financial sectors, as manufacturers move to lower-cost EU countries.
Anti-EU campaigners like UKIP claim that by taking back control of immigration policies and instituting a work permit system for Europeans who want to work in the UK would result in lower immigration, reduced unemployment, higher wages for British workers, and less pressure on schools, hospitals and other public services. Less right-wing sources, though, maintain that migrant workers from Europe have been good for the UK, and that the country's future growth and the viability of its public services are predicated on continuing immigration from EU countries.
Britain's membership fees for access to the EU trade markets was £11.3 billion in 2013, almost four times as much as 5 years earlier. Brexit proponents see this as a kind of hidden tariff, which could be avoided by leaving the EU (or at least replaced by normal, transparent tariffs). Pro-EU advocates argue that this is money well spent for access to Europe's huge market.
That said, some believe that European trade is not as important to Britain as is often suggested, and that being outside the EU would just leave Britain in the same position as the US, India, China, etc, as well as leaving it free to negotiate its own independent free trade deals with China, Braz articlil, Russia, etc. Pro-EU champions, on the other hand, argue that Europe still represents 52% of Britain's trade, and jeopardizing that and inviting increased tariffs for European trade would amount to commercial madness.
Many people believe that exiting the EU would leave Britain isolated and weakened as a world power, especially given that the USA seems to prefer Britain to stay in Europe. But others point out that Britain would still remain an important part of Nato and the UN Security Council, and that having some limited influence in Brussels has never really conferred much real power.
Depending on the final deal struck, Britons may have to apply for visas to enter European countries if they are no longer a member of the EU, and those currently living and working in Europe may be subject to new rules and qualification requirements. It is also not certain what changes Europeans currently living and working in the UK might be subject to, although it seems unlikely that they would actually be ejected.
Taxation in Britain is not really under EU influence, apart from VAT, which is required to adhere to EU-mandated bands. Critics of the EU see the freedom to control VAT levels as an advantage of Brexit, although it does not seem that likely that any changes would actually be made in the short to medium term. Conversely, others have warned that leaving the EU might lead to an increase in rapacious foreign multinationals using Britain for tax avoidance purposes, creating havoc with the British tax base. This too does not seem like a very likely scenario, though.
Those who want out of Europe see Brexit as a boost to local democracy and a move away from the tinkering of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, especially in areas like the European Arrest Warrant and other imposed law and order measures. Pro-Europe supporters, though, see the EU employment laws and social protections as important safeguards of democracy and fairness, safeguards that may be stripped away if Britain were to leave the EU.
A Brexit would be a huge blow to the European Union, and that in itself might be a good reason for some people to vote to stay. Britain is the EU's second-largest economy, after Germany, and the concept of a united Europe is already reeling from the huge influx of Middle Eastern refugees, large-scale and highly contentious bailouts of members like Greece, and continued worries over the future of the Eurozone. One large defector like Britain could lead to a cascade of others. The alternative argument is that the EU is a bold experiment that has failed, and continuing to prop it up artificially is just putting off the inevitable, and doing the countries of Europe a disservice.
So, as can be seen, there are pros and cons in almost every area, which is probably why polling is so evenly split. Quite frankly, I'm kind of glad I don't have a vote in this, as I'd be hard pressed to make a decision, although I would probably opt for the status quo as the least risky option. Whatever happens, though, it looks like almost half the country is going to be upset come June 24th.

Well, now they've really gone and done it!
On June 23rd 2016, the British electorate took the historic step of voting to leave the European Community by a margin of 52% to 48%, after 43 years of fractious but generally mutually-beneficial membership. Almost immediately, global stock markets took a large hit, and the value of the British pound sank like a stone. Other European and world leaders are putting a brave face on it, but far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are rubbing their hands in glee and predicting the gradual and complete dissipation of the great European experiment.
British PM David Cameron has resigned, but European officials are insisting that Britain does not wait until a new Prime Minister is installed in October, and that the mechanisms of withdrawal begin immediately. Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, never before evoked, allows for a maximum of 2 years to complete the extraction process. Britain has a whole lot of unnecessary work and expense ahead of it.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

What does a negative interest rate really mean?

I am reading more and more about negative interest rates, and so I figured it was about time I got my head around what that really means.
As you might imagine, what it means is that instead of earning money on your bank deposits, the bank charges YOU for the privilege of lodging your money in their hallowed halls. This kind of charge on savings sounds counterintuitive, and in a way that's actually the point of it. The idea is to discourage the hoarding of money by commercial banks and drive them to do more lending, thereby increasing spending, stimulating economic activity and boosting GDP growth.
Although historically the concept was not really taken very seriously, it appears to be an idea whose time has come. A number of countries have recently introduced negative interest rates, starting with Sweden in July 2009 and then again in July 2014, followed by Denmark in July 2012, the European Central Bank in June 2014, Switzerland in December 2014 (the Swiss has actually tried it before, way back in the 1970s), and, most recently, Japan in January 2016. So far, at least, the negative rates remain relatively small (0.1% for Japan, 0.3% for the ECB, 0.75% for Switzerland and Denmark, and 1.25% for Sweden). The big players here are clearly the European Union and Japan, but both the USA and, yes, Canada are currently giving seriously consideration to allowing interest rates, already low, to dip below zero, and Israel, Norway and the Czech Republic may also follow suit quite soon.
Bond rates are also affected by this trend, and an estimated 27% of global government bonds (some US$5.5 trillion) are now trading at sub-zero rates, so that investors are actually having to pay to keep their hard-earned money in bonds. Investors may still opt to buy such bonds if they think that the alternative - such as falling equities or even higher bond prices in the future - are even riskier and less appealing.
You might say that you have not noticed any high street banks advertising that they are now charging people for their deposits, but one, they probably would not go out of their way to advertising this, and two, thus far the negative rates are only being levied by central and national banks which lend money to other commercial or retail banks, and even then only on a relatively small slice of the money they lend. Technically, the retail banks could turn around and pass on these costs and start charging individual investors and ordinary savers, but so far they have not done so. While the negative rates stay relatively low, and look as though they will remain temporary, the commercial banks will probably avoid the bad press of charging customers for their deposits, and will just swallow their higher costs. But there may come a time when that may change.
So, does it work?
European and Japanese financial planners seem to think so, and some are calling for a yet stronger commitment to negative interest rates so that the effects can properly take hold on the economy. They point out that the near-zero rates of recent years have only resulted in lacklustre growth at best, and something more dramatic is needed to shock economies back into action. Furthermore, they note that the warnings of some critics that banks faced with negative rates would just keep all their money in hard cash, paying zero (but not negative) interest, have not actually come to pass. The banks are finding it easier to put up with mildly negative rates than to have to deal with huge piles of paper money.
But critics point to the recent nose-dive of European banking stocks, and to weakened currencies, as examples of just how risky a ploy it is. Banks, they argue, just cannot prosper in such an atmosphere, and banks, like it or not, are a mainstay of the world economy. They also note that the experience in Europe and Switzerland at least has so far failed to boost growth there, although these are perhaps still reasonably early days.
In short, as is so often the case, the jury is still out. It is a risky policy, certainly, but policy-makers are running short on alternative ideas. Either way, the grand experiment seems set to continue for a while at least, possibly right here in Canada.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Claude Jutra's precipitous fall from grace

I'm finding the revelations about Quebec auteur Claude Jutra, and his subsequent precipitous fall from grace, to be salutary, but perhaps slightly suspicious.
Jutra was Canada's first great film director, best known for Mon oncle Antoine and a film version of rhe novel Kamouraska, both dating from the early 1970s. He is almost equally well known for committing suicide by throwing himself off a Montreal bridge in 1986 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Jutra became something of a cause célèbre in his native Montreal, with at least eight streets and parks named after him, as well as the prestigious Jutra Award, which is handed out each year by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television for the best Canadian first feature film. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1972.
All this acclaim and renown ended abruptly this week, though, with the publication of a biography of Jutra by Yves Lever, accusing him of pedophilia, rapidly followed the very next day (coincidence? arrangement?) by a first-hand interview in the Montreal newspaper La Presse with a man claiming to have been sexually abused by Jutra over a 10-year period, beginning at the alarmingly tender age of 6. Within just one more day, the Jutra Award was being renamed, and Jutra's name was being erased throughout Montreal. Fait accompli, as they say in Quebec.
Everyone seems to have taken the allegations at face value, and no one seems to be asking why two damning accusations arrive in one week, 30 years after Jutra's death. Admittedly, some critics have attacked Mr. Lever for making serious allegations based on scant evidence, although he claims in the book that Jutra's taste for young boys was well known and widely tolerated in the industry at the time, and that he (Lever) had confirmed his assertions with at least ten people. I can't help thinking, though, that Jutra seems to have been tried, convicted and sentenced based on a tell-all book and an anonymous interview.
Certainly, Jutra was not alone in his predilections, particularly around that time, even if the reputations of fellow film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen don't seem to have suffered any irremediable damage (and pop-stars like David Bowie and Jerry Lee Lewis could be mentioned here too).
One does wonder, though, whether double standards are not at work here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

What's at risk if Apple gives in to the FBI?

The current face-off between the US government and Apple over security/privacy laws presents an interesting conundrum, and I have been finding it difficult to convincingly come down on one side or the other. But I think I am there now.
As you probably know, the FBI is asking Apple, or rather trying to compel them, to help them break into a password-protected iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the gunmen in the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The iPhone 5c, like other late-model iPhones, has a security feature that completely wipes the content of the phone after 10 wrong guesses at the password. The FBI wants Apple to disable that feature, effectively to allow them unlimited guesses in order to access the phone's data for their security investigations. This amounts to a kind of master key, a so-called "back door", which could theoretically be requested again and again in the future, although the FBI are insisting that this is a one-off request, that they simply need one-time only access to one phone.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has rejected the request out of hand, claiming that to do so would be to "undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers", and has basically said "sue me!". And it seems that is just what they will do. Apple company lawyers claim that such a move would "threaten the trust between Apple and its customer and substantially tarnish the Apple brand", thus affecting the company's bottom line. No less an authority than whistle-blower Edward Snowden is calling it "the most important tech case in a decade". Authorities and leaders in the tech world are split on the issue, with Facebook and Google backing Apple's stance, and Microsoft backing the FBI. Certainly, the case has the potential to set important privacy precedents both in the USA and in the rest of the world.
So, what to do?
Frankly, I am gob-smacked that the US government does not have the capability to carry out this kind of procedure itself, or even to arrange to have it done privately, no questions asked (software mogul John McAfee has offered to do the job for free, although mainly in the interests of publicity for his own US presidential campaign). When I see some of the things government agencies and private operations routinely achieve on fictional TV programs, this seems like child play in comparison. Are you telling me those programs are not real? I'm not necessarily saying that this would be a good solution, just that I am surprised it is not possible.
Of course, there are those conspiracy theorists who maintain that the FBI could easily hack the iPhone themselves, but that they want to set a precedent that that they will be able to use in the future. This kind of sounds plausible, but not totally convincing.
Neither am I totally convinced by the argument that, once a back door has been opened, it would always be available to the US government in the future, and potentially to other, less trustworthy governments, and, ultimately, to criminal elements. Maybe I am being naïve, but it seems to me that the operation could be done in a controlled environment, on a one-off basis, and then destroyed.
I'm also not convinced that Apple's compliance with the FBI in this case would automatically lead to a complete loss of freedom and privacy, and that, as some argue, everyone's personal data would suddenly become available to governments and criminals without the owner's consent - for one thing, as I understand it, this procedure requires the physical phone as well as access to the decryption software. It has also been pointed out that criminals would just stop using iPhones for their nefarious activities (apparently, there are many encryption products out there, most of them not in the USA).
Of course, all this does not mean that it SHOULD be done, merely that one or two of the arguments against may not hold water. I think, on balance, that the potential gains from hacking one phone that was possibly involved in a one-off terrorist action, and which may or may not have useful information on it, is not worth the possible damage that could be wreaked on the privacy and security of cellphones and other data sources, and the unpalatable precedent it sets. The risk is simply too great, and the potential rewards too small.

Adding more fuel to the aforementioned conspiracy theory, it turns out that the FBI have managed to crack the phone without Apple's help, and has dropped the court case against Apple, at least for now.
An unknown "third party" has apparently been helping the FBI with the problem, and there is some evidence that this mysterious third party might be the Israeli-based cyber-security company Cellebrite, a subsidiary of Japan's Sun Corp, whose website claims that it can extract information from the iPhone 5c and other locked phones. It was later revealed that the hack cost the FBI about $1.3 million.
So, now Apple is in the position of having to plug a security flaw in order to protect its own reputation. And I am just waiting for them to take the FBI to court for illegal hacking and data theft.

Bombardier is effectively a ward of the Canadian state

Canadian business icon (and, arguably, pariah) Bombardier Inc. have their hands out for a bailout yet again, and once again the Canadian government is agonising over whether to pay up or not.
The Montreal-based plane and train manufacturer is in existential crisis again as its much-touted C Series planes are still having problems getting off the ground. It has just announced it is slashing 7,000 jobs in Canada and worldwide (nearly 10% of its total workforce), although mainly in its train sector, and it is asking the federal government to contribute $1 billion (to match the $1 billion the Quebec government has already recently donated) to help cover the fact that development of its C Series is $2 billion over budget and at least 2 years behind schedule.
Bombardier has not had an order for its C Series planes for nearly 18 months now, although national carrier Air Canada has just signed a letter of intent (not a firm order) to purchase 45 of them, with an option for 30 more. One does wonder whether there was not some government sweet-talking or arm-twisting involved here. However, it is believed that Air Canada is only offering $30 million per plane, about a 60% discount from the $72.4 million list price.
In a way, it might be better if Air Canada had not done this, because now Bombardier will probably continue to lurch along, pursuing business-as-usual, which in their case involves regular government handouts of taxpayers' money. This is apparently Bombardier's 51st request for bailout funds from the federal government over the last 50 years.
Interestingly, after yesterday's announcement, Air Canada's stocks went DOWN by 12%, even though they are reporting record profits for 2015. Bombardier's, on the other hand, went UP by about 11%, despite the Toronto Transit Commission voting this week to sue the company for only delivering 10 of the 67 streetcars it was supposed to have provided by now. Gotta love that old Stock Exchange thing...
The aerospace industry, like the auto industry, has always enjoyed a sacred cow status in Canada, and it has become used to relying on a government safety net that other industries just don't have. Bombardier in particular is described as the "jewel" of Quebec's industrial heritage, and is considered just too large to be allowed to fail. But it doesn't always have to be that way.
Bear in mind that Bombardier is a private company, controlled and largely owned by the extended Bombardier-Beaudoin family, and it is probably they that will benefit the most from any bailout. The company has annual sales of around $20 billion, and is still expected to make annual profits of between $200 million and $400 million, even if that is below analysts' earlier estimates. It also has a strong liquidity position of about $6.5 billion (including the $1 billion from the Quebec government, and another $1.5 billion from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec).
Is this really a company that the Canadian taxpayer (i.e. me) should be bailing out? One analysis calls this "rewarding bad behaviour", and that most of Bombardier's wounds are in fact self-inflicted, and I am inclined to agree. The company, as Eric Reguly points out, is becoming the equivalent of a ward of the state, but under the control of a wealthy private family.
Perhaps the only possible justification I can see for a government bailout for Bombardier would be to stem the bleeding of jobs (even if the government actually tries to sell it as a commercial proposition in the best interests of the taxpayer). But the question then is: at what cost per job? And even the jobs argument is on shaky ground, because such a subsidy would not really "save" jobs, merely recycle them from one jurisdiction to another, just as subsidizing one company takes government money away from other, perhaps more deserving enterprises.
In reality, this is corporate welfare, a politically-targeted subsidy to a private business, and I think the government has better causes on which to spend its money. If you want a more cogent argument than mine, here is a list of ten reasons to reject Bombardier's latest cash call. But, who knows, maybe the new Liberal government will start a new tradition, and not give in to the lobbying pressure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What most people don't know about the Zika virus

Most people now know about the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne virus with links to a scary birth defect called microcephaly, which has spread like wildfire from Africa into South and Central America.
The virus has been around in Africa and parts of Asia since the 1950s, but has only recently reared its ugly head in the Western hemisphere, and in the last year 42 countries have experienced an outbreak of the virus for the first time. The immediate symptoms of the virus are relatively benign: headache, mild fever, chills, conjunctivitis, joint and muscle aches, rash; and, less commonly, fatigue, malaise, abdominal pain and vomiting. Much more rarely, it can cause a neurological disorder such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. As many as 80% of those with the virus remain asymptomatic, but are still carriers.
Perhaps more importantly, the virus usually clears the bloodstream of an infected person in five to seven days, ten days at the most, after which the risk of birth defects or miscarriage in future pregnancies appears to end (and actually confers a long-lasting immunity against contracting the virus in the future).
But the potential risks to the unborn baby of a pregnant woman who contracts the virus are alarming enough to have inaugurated a worldwide panic, particularly among women of child-bearing age. For example, some female competitors are likely withdrawing from the Brazil Olympic Games later this year for that very reason, unwilling to risk their future chances of a happy motherhood.
However, what is less well known is that the Zika virus has been found in the semen of infected men, men who could potentially infect their sexual partners and thereby put their unborn offspring at risk. What's worse, it is still unclear how long Zika lasts in semen, and the indications are that this could be significantly longer than it survives in the bloodstream. Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising men who have returned from a Zika-affected area that they "might consider" abstaining from sex or using condoms "for an unspecified period of time".
My impregnating days are over, thankfully, as are my wife's child-bearing days. Otherwise, we might be giving serious consideration to cancelling a trip to Guatemala we have planned in a month's time.

In late April 2016, Canada reported its first person-to-person sexually transmitted case. Time to get serious about this problem.

Catalyst documentary on cellphone risks misleading at the very least

In another blow against science journalism, there has been an outcry against a program aired recently on ABC Catalyst (billed as "the only science show on primetime television in Australia"), on the subject of that old chestnut, the putative link between brain cancer and cellphones/wi-fi.
Provocatively entitled "Wi-Fried?", the program claims to be disseminating known links between brain cancer and now-ubiquitous radiofrequency electromagnetic fields like those from cellphones and wi-fi. The program, however, relies almost exclusively on a single US doctor, Devra Davis, who makes some devastating and apparently conclusive claims like: "Every single well-designed study ever conducted finds an increased risk of brain cancer with the heaviest users, and the range of the risk is between 50% to eightfold. That’s a fact."
Unfortunately, that's not a fact, and a number of high-profile doctors, researchers and scientists have criticised the Catalyst program for being misleading, and for ignoring the full range of evidence about brain cancers. Some, like the eminent Australian professor of public health, Simon Chapman, assert that the program should never have gone to air, and others have called parts of it "scaremongering".
In fact, there seems to be no compelling evidence of a significant increase in the rate of brain cancer per 100,000 in the population between 1982 and today, either in Australia or anywhere else, despite the huge increase in ambient radio waves. The Australian Cancer Council explicitly denies that cellphones cause brain cancer. It helps that there is actually extremely good data about the incidence of cancer in Australia, because all cancers are compulsorily reported there due to its status as a "notifiable disease".
Internationally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) has classified cellphones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" since 2011, although it rather unhelpfully notes that "the observed associations could reflect chance, bias, or confounding rather than an underlying causal effect". The vast majority of other cancer research bodies, though - including the US National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Communications Commission, and the European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks - seem pretty united in asserting that the evidence available is not strong enough to be considered causal, and is definitely not conclusive or definitive. The Canadian Cancer Society, in true Canadian style, remains uncommitted either way.
So, in conclusions, it seems that a small number of studies have shown a link between cell phone use and cancer, but most research done so far does NOT show a link. Yes, more studies are needed, and clearly these are relatively early days for cellphone use, and particularly for wi-fi exposure.
I think the point is, though, that science journalism needs to be very careful when making contentious, controversial and incendiary claims of this kind. The Catalyst program has already been in trouble for a 2013 program on the popular heart medication collectively known as statins, which quoted questionable "experts", and which featured statistics that were later widely refuted. The program's conclusions were so dramatic and damning, though, that an estimated 60,000 Australian patients stopped taking their heart medications, possibly leading to an unknown number of fatal consequences.
Now, I don't want to suppress investigative journalism, in science or any other field. But reporting needs to be accurate and balanced, and overbold and flamboyant claims should be avoided unless absolutely proven in a scientific (and preferably peer-reviewed) manner.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The BC/AD - BCE/CE issue: a storm in a teacup

Not too long ago, I had a (slightly antagonistic but ultimately amicable) correspondence with a guy who was full of righteous indignation at my use of the labels BC ad AD in one of my websites (The Story of Mathematics, as it happens).
My correspondent found it inconceivable that I could use BC to talk about Plato, who lived long before Christianity was even thought about, which I thought was a totally illogical and spurious argument. He went on to explain, in great and rather patronising detail, the concept of Comment Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE), a concept which I was well aware of, and suggested that I might be a strident Christian, unwilling to change the labels on my site, but at least he had done his moral duty and pointed out the error of my ways.
Well, as it happens, if I am a strident anything, I am a strident atheist (see another of my sites, Arguments for Atheism), and have been for some 40 years, as I pointed out to my earnest correspondent. I explained that don't use BC and AD out of any particular principle, just that that was the system I was brought up with. Furthermore, I've always found BCE and CE a little clumsy and rather ostentatiously politically correct, similar to insisting on "he/she" (or, worse, "s/he") as personal pronouns. That said, I have actually CE/BCE in some of my websites, but again not for any particular principled reason.
I explained to my critic that I was not aware (and could not really believe) that the use of one date system or another is outright offensive to anybody, and I am sure that someone will probably object whatever I do. After all, as he himself pointed out, the whole dating system we use, whether AD/CE or CE/BCE, is just a convention anyway, one that, for various historical reasons, happens to be based on a Christian paradigm (as I pointed out).
Anyway, the conversation went back and forth for a while, with my correspondent quoting me Kofi Annan of all authorities, and even Archaeology magazine. At one point, he expostulated, "Although you don’t seem to be aware of it, a war has been going on in academic and scholarly circles concerning the issue." And later, "Why in the world would the Chinese or the Japanese or other billions of non-Christians not object to it?"
My final rejoinder was as follows:
"I guess, as an atheist, I don’t ascribe much value to religious arguments. As a non-Christian, AD/BC don’t offend me in the least (and, yes, I do know what they stand for), and I look on them as just convenient labels that most people understand.
"Frankly, I would have hoped that the academic and scholarly circles had better things to have wars about, but if it is really going to offend some people, then I guess I should go through and change them all, even though no-one else has ever objected. Using CE/BCE is still pandering to the Christian calendar to the same extent, so I don’t really understand the importance, but in the interests of world peace..."
And I did. Like a responsible world citizen, I went though and laboriously changed all the date references on the site. But, talk about a storm in teacup! Have these people nothing better to do?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The State of Canada after 100 days of Trudeau

As Justin Trudeau completes his first 100 days in office, many in the press are using this traditional benchmark to assess where he, and Canada, stand in the eyes of Canadians and of the world.
My overall feeling is that Mr. Trudeau's first three months have been marked by a buzz and a positivity that has been sorely missing for the last ten years. This is not to say that he hasn't put a foot wrong. He has inherited a horrible economy, which is only going to get worse before it gets better, and this has severely hampered his ability to operate and to make concrete moves towards the many election promises he made. But there seems to me to be a distinct feeling of something (anything) getting done, after years of neglect and lethargy.
In between international engagements, he has buzzed around the country, meeting with premiers, mayors and First Nations chiefs, talking about climate change, stimulus spending and other matters. He has unmuzzled government scientists, and he has actually deigned to speak to the press. He has introduced a gender-equal cabinet; made moves to increase taxation on the richest Canadians and lower taxes for the middle class; at least made a brave attempt to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to an extremely ambitious timetable; reinstated the long-form census axed by Stephen Harper; instigated a long-overdue inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; and vowed to stop airstrikes against ISIS before March, replacing them with on-the-ground training missions and humanitarian aid. Arguably not a bad start, and the first Liberal budget is still to come.
In foreign affairs, Trudeau was well and truly thrown in at the deep end, with a whole host of high profile international conferences and meetings to attend. I think he acquitted himself quite well, despite still feeling his way into the role, and not being quite up to speed on some issues. He took some flak at home for spending quite so much time at glad-handers like the glitzy Davos summit, but I actually feel that it was time well spent, and his personable nature, his much maligned "sunnny ways", and his "Canada is back!" message, all went across very well. He is slowly starting to unruffle some of the feathers Stephen Harper had ruffled among what ought to be our international friends and allies.
It is easy to forget the extent to which Harper's insouciant attitude towards international relations had isolated Canada, and the extent to which goodwill for Canada had been frittered away. As a recent article in the Globe and Mail expressed it, "Over the past decade, the Canadian government has lacked ambition and been largely irrelevant in global affairs. Canada is not the player it once was." Just as an example, Canada's defence spending was reduced to about half of the NATO target, dead last among G7 countries, and well below even comparable non-militarist countries like Australia, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. Now, I'm not suggesting a turn towards militarism, but we do have NATO commitments and, if we do not pull our weight, there will be resentment. Canada even had the distinction of being the only G7 country not to ratify, or even sign, the Arms Trade Treaty (on conventional weapons) in 2014.
Similarly, in recent years, we have been batting well below our peers when it comes to international development assistance, with Mr. Harper's final year in office seeing foreign aid reach an all-time low as a percentage of GDP. Canada, as we know, has been all but absent is climate change discussions under Harper. At this point, then, we need all the friends we can get in the international community.
100 days is an arbitrary, and arguably too short, period on which to judge a new leader, but, if nothing, else Trudeau has established a new style of government, and an outgoing, outward-looking, more caring approach, on both the national and the international scene. And that must be a good thing.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Investors' herd instincts affect us too

As the world's stock exchanges continue to tank, it's very easy to become cynical about the whole capitalist financial system that pulls the strings of our modern world.
The stock brokers that navigate/exploit the stock exchange system are usually portrayed as sober, conservative individuals, analytical and deep in their thinking, and employing the very best in computer models and hi-tech solutions.
But it seems that, as soon as things start to go wrong - as they are at the moment with oil at bargain basement prices, and the engines of world growth visibly sputtering - all that sobriety and rationality goes straight out of the window, and panic and hysteria sets in. They are reduced, in no time at all, to running around like headless chickens. We've all seen the images of frazzled brokers on TV and in the newspapers, and it's not pretty.
For instance, there is probably no good reason why bank stocks have seen a huge sell-off over the last day or so. Banks are no more risky today than they were last week. It's all about what I have seen described as "market emotion", as the herd instinct takes over and fearful investors blindly follow each other, desperate not to be the ones left out, and desperate to lock in a profitable turn on their share holdings.
I know, it's just a job, and they are just out to make a buck like everybody else. I am not so concerned for the bonuses of the fat cats of the stock exchange: it's more the implications their profit-seeking actions have on the rest of us. Our savings and RSPs are affected too, pension funds are affected. Hell, whole economies are affected and, while ours may be reasonably robust, these kinds of runs can put less sturdy economies into dire straits.
I'm sure this is a naive and simplistic viewpoint on a very complex issue that has exercised some of the best minds in the world for many years. But it all just seems kind of unfair, that's all I would say.

Most American children are not taught well about climate change

There was a rather depressing report in the Guardian recently about a US study by Pennsylvania State University and the National Centre for Science Education that shows just how badly climate change is being taught in American schools.
A survey of 1,500 teachers covering all 50 states found that only 38% of American schoolchildren were taught that climate change is largely the result of the burning of fossil fuels, which is the generally accepted scientific consensus today. About 30% of teachers spend less than an hour a year on climate change and, even in higher grades, much of that time is spent going over old material without introducing more advanced material.
But even what IS taught is not necessarily correct. Some 7% attributed global warming to natural causes (wrong!); 22% did mention the scientific consensus, but went to on to claim that there was significant disagreement among scientists (also wrong!); 4% made no attempt at all to talk about the causes (arguably just as wrong!).
Although political pressure is probably behind this situation, whether the teachers are aware of it or not, there are other factors to take into account. Only 30% of middle school teachers themselves, and 45% of high school teachers, seem to be aware that human activity is the main driver of climate change, and fewer than half of teachers received any training at all in climate science at university (and this is particularly an issue with older teachers). Also, climate science is not yet part of the testable curriculum for many schools, so that there are fewer guidelines available to teachers, and their effort is of course directed at subject matter covered by standardized testing.
There is also evidence from an earlier Harvard study that public school textbooks are misleading in their portrayal of climate change, many suggesting that there is substantial doubt in the scientific community about the causes of global warming, and some even suggesting that increasing temperatures may be beneficial.
All in all, though, the report is pretty damning, with its conclusions that almost two-thirds of American children are taught lessons on climate change that do not rise to the level of a sound science education. It is especially poignant that these children are the people we will be relying on to lift the planet out of its suicidal trajectory, and also those whose lives will probably be most affected by the ravages of climate change.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why so many Americans are renouncing their citizenship

It's interesting to read that record numbers of Americans living in Canada (and also elsewhere in the world) are renouncing their citizenship. This is mainly a result of the recent US law known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires financial institutions around the world to disclose much more information about their American customers than before.
So, these are not proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship, or even political ideologues fleeing a possible Trump-led dystopia. They are essentially long-time tax evaders, who object to paying taxes on at least some of their non-US assets.
The USA is one of the few jurisdictions in the world that taxes people based on their citizenship rather than their residency. In general, Canadian taxes are slightly higher than American taxes, and so (due to the long-standing double taxation agreement between the two countries) most Americans living here do not actually have additional US taxes to pay. But there are differences in the tax codes of the two countries, including the treatment of capital gains and estate taxes, which might result in extra taxes payable. As much as anything, though, I think that many people are looking to avoid having to file American tax returns, which are incredibly complex and onerous, whether they result in higher taxes or not.
As you can imagine, the US has made the process of cutting loose as difficult as possible, hugely increasing processing fees (from zero before 2014 to $450, and then to a mind-boggling $2,350 last year), and imposing increasing hurdles and delays (the whole process may now take up to a year). US officials are quite up-front about admitting that the process is being made deliberately hard in order, as they say, "to permit individuals to reflect upon their decision". It is now so costly and difficult to become non-American here in Canada that many are travelling abroad to do the deed. But, nevertheless, a record $4,279 Americans renounced their citizenships last year, a 43% jump over 2014.
This is all kind of embarrassing for the States, and not something they like to talk about. It does make one wonder if, by bringing in laws like FATCA, they are not cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Now (unfortunately) may not be Sanders' time

As Bernie Sanders handily takes the New Hampshire Democratic primary, it is worth considering what a tricky decision American Democrats are faced with.
While I may like Sanders for his straight talk, for his passion, and for his egalitarian leftist politics, and while I would trust him much more than Hillary Clinton to do what he says and not to get caught up in secret agendas, those are not - unfortunately - the only considerations in play here.
Like her or not (and most people don't, for a variety of reasons), Clinton is the consummate politician. She has name recognition, foreign policy experience, and a non-boat-rocking middle-of-the-road Democratic platform. She is the establishment candidate; Sanders is the maverick. And, while I hate myself for saying it, establishment may actually be what the Democrats need right now.
Always at the back of my mind is the thought of the Democratic candidate facing off against Donald Trump (and, yes, Trump also handily won in New Hampshire). Either Clinton or Sanders could run rings around Trump intellectually, that is not the issue. But would a disaffected, middle-ground conservative, unwilling to risk the country and the world with a vote for Trump, be more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton or for the "self-described socialist" Bernie Sanders? If we were coming off two terms of unpopular Republican rule, then Sanders could well benefit from the reaction. But that is not the case.
So, tempting as it is to wish a genuine leftist leader on America - just imagine the shake-up he could dispense! imagine the GOOD he could do! - I just have a suspicion that the time is not quite right, that America not quite ready for a socialist president. And if there is any risk at all of Trump exploiting the situation and thereby winning the presidency, then caution is most definitely the watch-word.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Ghomeshi trial may be doing women a disservice

I'm not sure that I am finding the Jian Ghomeshi trial quite as riveting as may Canadians. More than anything, I find it all kind of sad and sleazy. But, as more and more dirt finds its way out into the open, I am beginning to think that the three accusers may actually be doing women something of a disservice in pursuing this particular conviction.
It may even be that the three women, possibly in collusion - apparently there has been a substantial amount of conferring between them in the run-up to the trial - may actually be pursuing some secret agenda of their own in seeking to bring down the once-popular radio personality. I do hope that does not prove to be the case.
I am not personally a big fan of Ghomeshi, although he once was a very good radio interviewer. Whether or not I approve of his peculiar sexual predilections and peccadilloes, he does seem to have been a particularly nasty and difficult guy to work with, and at least verbally abusive to his underlings, both male and female.
But the three accusing women are not coming across as much nicer (especially under the withering interrogations of Marie Henein, Ghomeshi's bulldog of a defence lawyer), and it's kind of difficult to feel very sympathetic to them. For example, all three seem to have been pretty desperate to continue to see Ghomeshi after the incidents they are complaining of, and at least one of them did indeed have further sexual encounters with him. Some of the comments from their emails and letters after the incidents are making the salacious rounds of the press, like Lucy DeCoutere's sophisticated "You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck your brains out tonight" and "I'm sad we didn't spend the night together" and "I love your hands".
The women are all taking the public line that they came into the trial as judicial naïfs, and are shocked at just how much they are having to reveal of their personal life. Certainly, many of their more compromising admissions were not touched on at all in the pre-trial, and Henein is doing her best to portray them as dissimulators rather than ingénues, which may or may not be fair. These are, after all, reasonably educated people with expensive lawyers to advise them, and their memories of specific events do seem a little selective.
Anyway, I don't want to fall into the trap of making my own prejudgments and unearthing my own hidden prejudices. I do feel a mite sorry for the accusers, caught as they are in the full glare of the press headlights. And, when all is said and done, an uninvited sexual attack is still an uninvited sexual attack. This should, after all, be a trial of Mr. Ghomeshi and his actions, and it is turning into anything but.
But I just have this feeling that the attention this trial is receiving is doing women as a whole no favours, and may even serve to further discourage women from reporting sexual attacks in the future, which would be a real shame.

It came as no great surprise to me that Ghomeshi was ultimately acquitted of all of these charges. Essentially, the evidence did not meet the standard for a crimimal conviction.
The judge, in his summing up, used words like "deceptive" and "manipulative" in reference to the three women complainants, and made it clear that the inconsistencies in their testimonies and their behaviour, as well as their apparent collusion, were key in his decision. Some feminists have protested the ruling, claiming that this is just the ugly side of patriarchy asserting itself once again, and the #IBelieveSurvivors hashtag has been liberally sprinkled throughout the Canadian suburbs of cyberspace. But I think the majority see it as an unavoidable decision in this particular case.
Either way, Ghomeshi's career is well and truly shot, and he still has another trial coming up later this year over an unrelated workplace harassment charge. The trial was just one sexual assault case among hundreds, but it was a very high-profile one, and it has spotlighted, in a very public way, some of the inadequacies of the police and court handling of such cases, and even the role of the media in such cases.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Disturbing echoes of the Cold War

Reading about things like North Korea's rocket tests, and Russia getting involved in destabilizing actions in Syria, among others, in recent days, one gets a distinct sense of déjà vu, as though the Cold War really never went away in the late 1980s.
I have been doing a Coursera university course on 20th Century Word History just recently, and part of the lecture materials includes 1950s nuclear war preparation public service broadcasts, and viewing movies like The Day After, which seemed like such a credible possibility in the early 1980s. Watching these today, they seem like quaint notions from the distant past, and seem to have little or nothing to do with the modern world.
But recent news has dredged up those memories and anxieties all over again, a real "blast from the past", so to speak. Maybe history really does repeat itself, and dictators and other idiots continue to invent themselves. But surely we have learned something from our past mistakes.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Saudi's brinkmanship is wilfully causing severe hardships in some countries

I have been trying for some time to get my head around just why Saudi Arabia is pursuing its apparently calamitous path in pushing down the price of oil, and a timely article in the ever-dependable Globe and Mail has helped me along with that.
The aim of the Saudi regime, as I already knew, is to choke off more expensive oil production elsewhere (USA, Canada, Brazil, Nigeria, etc), and preferably to put those industries out of business permanently, although that seems like something of a forlorn and implausible hope. Saudi's cost of producing oil is as little as $10/barrel, significantly less than most other sources, and in particular much less than the relatively expensive Canadian oil sands and US shale oil. So, by increasing their supply and forcing down the price, they hope to compel the world markets to buy from them and not from their competitors.
With few considerations other than price holding much sway among oil consumers, that actually seems like a valid strategy, and indeed seems to be working, at least to some extent. The days of price-fixing by the OPEC cartel seem to be well and truly over, as Saudi Arabia ploughs its own lonely furrow. Hell, it has turned the whole basis of supply-and-demand economic theory on its head, based as it is on the assumption of rational actors.
Yes, the Saudi oil industry itself is seeing a huge diminution in its profitability, offset to some extent by the higher turnover, but after decades of building up reserves (particularly during the salad days of triple-digit oil prices), they are able to ride out the consequences for some time. Before this play began, they had reserves of as much as $800 billion by some estimates, and more recent counts still put this at a relatively comfortable $600 billion.
But this is not something they can keep up indefinitely. It is estimated that, in 2015, Saudi Arabia required an oil price of about $100/barrel in order to balance their budget, whereas the average price in that year was maybe half that. In 2016, due to "austerity measures" (whatever that might mean in Saudi terms), a price of $77/barrel would be needed to balance the books, whereas the actual price is looking like less than half of that. Saudi Arabia will continue to burn through their reserves, then, and who knows how long they will be willing to continue to do that
In the meantime, though, there are other less prosperous countries who are on the brink of collapse, all as collateral damage in a power-play by one rapacious country's trade policies. Probably top of that list is Venezuela, which has huge oil production capacity and is sitting on massive reserves (at least equal to those of Saudi Arabia). Venezuela, though, is a failed state with few friends, eternally teetering on the edge of chaos and the abyss. It has built up no financial cushion, and is recently seeing shrinkage in its economy of around 10% a year. Inflation is running in the triple digits, its currently is essentially worthless, and its budget deficit is around 20% of its GDP. Venezuela will not last long in this climate. And, as usual, it is the poor and the already needy who will suffer the most.
Little Suriname, just next door, is in a similar position. Libya, which would need an improbable oil price of about $180/barrel to balance its own budget, is looking very shaky. Russia requires about $100/barrel, and Kuwait at least $80/barrel, in order to do so much as break even, and they are clearly not going to get it for some time. Nigeria had some reserves from the good times, but these are now at least half gone and dwindling rapidly. And we think Alberta has it bad!
Saudi Arabia has never been big on courting friends, but, as whole countries go under in their pursuit of profit, they have ventured beyond the pale. Long a pariah socially and politically, they are now a pariah economically and commercially. Only time will tell just how far the country will take this reckless brinkmanship, and how much suffering and hardship it will cause in the meantime.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The inexorable decline of Twitter

I have to confess to a little smug schadenfreude at the news that Twitter is struggling financially.
Twitter stock has been in decline since about the beginning of 2014, and is today languishing at around $17/share, some 75% down from its heyday of $70/share in 2014, and even lower than its IPO price when it first went public back in 2013. Under generally accepted accounting practices, Twitter is losing money, and indeed has not EVER turned a real profit. It is set to declare its latest earnings report in just a few days time, and another loss (and drop in share price) is expected.
Twitter has never achieved even a small fraction of Facebook's popularity. Twitter's user numbers do still continue to grow but only by smaller and smaller increments, suggesting that perhaps the party is over. There is also evidence that the number of tweets is actually declining, indicating a substantial and increasing number of disaffected or lapsed users. Indeed, a 2014 report in PC Magazine suggests that as many as 44% of Twitter users have NEVER posted a tweet, and only about 13% have tweeted within the last month. A recent Statista analysis shows active Twitter usage dwindling to below the likes of Tumblr and Instagram, and well below the big players like Facebook, WhatsApp and the Chinese instant messaging services such as QQ, QZone and WeChat. In 2014, Twitter revealed that around 23 million (8.5%) of its accounts were probably automated.
Furthermore, there seems to be a general, if undefined, feeling that the quality of tweets is also declining, and that Twitter is just not such a pleasant place to hang out any more. One example of the malaise can be found in the recent Twitter criminal harassment case here in Canada where, although the defendant was found not guilty (in that it was judged that the women could not reasonably fear for their safety), it was publicly admitted that the unrepentant Elliott did indeed harass the three women, and that his actions were offensive and wrong. In a more serious case in the UK, two Twitter harassers were actually jailed. There's more: since mid-2015, Twitter recently admitted to closing over 125,000 accounts that were active in threatening or promoting terrorist acts.
In addition to the "yuck factor", though, there is a general air of decline about the platform, and maybe a feeling that what at first seemed like just a fad has in fact turned out to be ... just a fad. I remember being intrigued by the Twitter concept back in 2007 or 2008, and, yes, I set up an account that I never used. Just a few days of checking out the available content was enough to discourage me. No doubt there are some pithy pearls of Twitter wisdom out there somewhere, but they are irretrievably lost in all the dreck.
For example, one random study from 2009 concluded that 40% of tweets could be described as "pointless babble", 38% as "conversational", 9% as "pass-along value", 6% as "self-promotion", 4% as "spam" and 4% as "news". I imagine that, these days - when every company, organization, Tom, Dick and Harry feels obliged to have a superfluous Facebook and Twitter account - the "self-promotion" and "spam" percentages would be higher, and the more useful "pass-along value" and "news" categories would have atrophied still further.
So, as Twitter fades and Facebook plateaus, what do we have to look forward to in social media? SnapChat is probably the teen platform of choice, and see how deep and meaningful that is! Shots, anyone? Call me an old curmudgeon, but I'm kind of hoping that the whole social media fad blows over soon.

Human rights should trump job creation in Saudi arms sales case

The Liberal government's response so far to the scandalous Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia has been disappointing to say the least.
It was the Harper Tories that initiated, brokered and agreed the $15 billion deal to sell "light-armoured vehicles" to the egregious human rights abusers. But Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion appear to be desperately playing down the deal, in the hopes that no-one notices. That's not going to happen.
These are not just "jeeps", as Trudeau disingenuously tried to suggest recently. They are armoured combat vehicles sporting medium- or high-calibre weapons, such as a powerful cannon designed to fire anti-tank and armour-penetrating missiles.
And the destined customer is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is dedicated to protecting the Saudi monarchy from internal threats, but also to suppressing civil unrest, such as the Shia uprising in the Eastern State. There is no guarantee that these vehicles will not be used in Saudi Arabia's devastating war against Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, just as the Canadian government admits it can not rule out the possibility that previously-sold armoured vehicles were not used in the Saudi suppression of the nascent Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia is widely regarded as one of the worst human rights violators in the world, from its rampant capital punishment to its oppression of women to its strenuous prohibition of non-Islamic (even non-Sunni) religion. It has also long been accused of exporting violent Islamic fundamentalism, a scourge that Canada has vowed to oppose. Canada's arms control rules clearly state that arms should not be supplied to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens", and particularly not if there is any chance that they might turn the arms against their own population. What clearer case can there possibly be?
Mr. Trudeau himself admits that he DOES have the power to suspend the deal - this in itself is a recent volte face after initial assertions that the deal is a fait accompli - and the contract is still in its early "materials procurement" stage. Yes, cancelling the contract may result in the lay-off of up to 3,000 workers at the General Dynamics Land Systems plant in London, Ontario, and probably substantial contract-breaking fines. But sometimes ethics need to trump practicalities.
So, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion throwing his hands up in despair and claiming that a contract is a contract and there is nothing he can do, or, even worse, that cancelling the deal would be futile because some other country would simply supply Riyadh instead, just will not wash.
The mood of the country is clear on this matter: in a recent Nanos Research poll, nearly 60% of Canadians (including over 67% of Canadian women) agree that human rights should rank above job creation in this case. Trudeau and the Liberals need to show that they have principles and cojones, and that they are not just the Harper Conservatives under a new name.

The Liberals continue to mismanage this file, in what is probably their worst public relations debacle since coming to power. Evidence has come to light that Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly signed off on export permits for the largest part of the arms deal in early April - something that most people had assumed had already been done by the previous government - effectively giving a green light to the contentious sale. The Tory opposition (which actually originated the contract, and put the Liberals in this awkward position) are predictably making hay by alleging that he is guilty of double standards by claiming that he was powerless to change an irreversible contract that the country was already committed to before he arrived on the scene, etc, etc.
To some extent, Dion's claims are actually true: the Tories did indeed sign the contract, and all Dion is doing is following through with the necessary administrative step of export permits to fulfil that contract, a contract that all major parties agreed was a necessary evil at the last election. But it is an administrative step that moves the process along, represents a vital step in establishing the legitimacy and "legality" of the transaction, and implicates the Liberals ever deeper in the deal. Bad, bad optics, to say the least.
Even worse is the Department of Global Affairs memo to Mr. Dion claiming that the light armoured vehicles would specifically be used to "counter instability in Yemen" (Saudi Arabia is the one creating that instability in the first place). More bad optics.
A Federal Court lawsuit, led by University of Montreal professor Daniel Turp, is being mounted to challenge the legality of the exports on the grounds that they contravene international human rights law in shipping arms to a known human rights violator. A win there would be a victory for democracy and the rule of law, but a huge embarrassment for the government.
Both Dion and Trudeau seem totally committed to the contract, at least publicly, and the moment has probably already passed when they could reasonably cancel it. What a shame, though, and what a wasted political opportunity. Cancelling the deal may alienate one small segment of the electorate of London, Ontario; not doing so risks diaapponting and alienating a major part of the popular base of this young government.

Poultry to get a little more room

In a tiny victory for animal rights and ethical food production, the Egg Farmers of Canada, which represents about 90% of Canada's egg producers, has pledged to phase out, over the next 20 years, so-called "battery cages" (the current system where hens live their entire lives in bare cages about the size of a standard sheet of paper, too small for them to spread their wings or even turn around). The decision comes, they say, "in response to the best available scientific research and in light of changing consumer preferences".
But, before you get too excited, bear in mind that 20 years is a long time (almost twice as long as the EU allowed for a similar transition), and exactly what it will be replaced with is still far from clear. The odds are that a "furnished" or "enriched" cage system will probably win out, which means that the birds will get a little more space to move around in, and - halllujah! - access to perches and nesting spaces. But they are still very much stuck in individual cages - don't be fooled into thinking that this is anything like free run (where hens share open concept barn conditions that allow them to exercise and socialize) or free range (where, in addition, they have access to the outdoors).
The EFC decision follows similar pledges from the European Union and at least two states in the US, and also from several popular and influential companies such as McDonald's, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Tim Horton's, Burger King, Wendy's, Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, Kelsey’s and East Side Mario’s.
It is estimated that the enriched system increases costs by about 13% (free run, or cage-free, eggs apparently cost around 36% more), although you can bet that producers and retailers will increase supermarket prices by significantly more that that.
A small victory perhaps, but maybe an acknowledgement of the Zeitgeist, and a step in the right direction nevertheless. Who knows, in 40 years' time they may even give them toys to play with...

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Hillary Clinton winning the presidency one coin toss at a time

Now, I don't pretend to understand the interminable and positively Byzantine process of US presidential candidate primaries and caucuses, but it appears to be perfectly acceptable and unexceptionable for candidates to win delegates by the toss of a coin, which seems just plain wrong to me.
An article in the Des Moines Register explains this process. For example, in the Democratic caucus in Ames precinct 2-4, it seems that, when the votes of the "participants" were totted up, there were 60 missing out of the expected 484, a number which is equivalent to an additional "delegate" (Ms. Clinton's 240 votes had earned her 4 delegates, and Mr. Sanders' 179 votes earned him 3). No-one seemed to know where the missing 60 participants might be, and as far as I can see no-one seemed that concerned by it.
However, as the Des Moines Register reports with admirable sang-froid, "Unable to account for that numerical discrepancy and the orphan delegate it produced, the Sanders campaign challenged the results and precinct leaders called a Democratic Party hot line set up to advise [sic] on such situations. Party officials recommended they settle the dispute with a coin toss."
What? Is that really the official solution to missing voters?
Anyway, the candidates obviously accepted this wisdom, and Ms. Clinton won the toss, earning herself an extra delegate, and thus winning the caucus by 5 delegates to 3. It kind of makes one wonder what would have happened if Mr. Sanders had won the toss and tied up the score 4-4. A round of tic-tac-toe, maybe? Rock, paper, scissors?
What is even more bizarre is that the same situation occurred in no less than 5 other precincts in Iowa, and in all 5 cases Ms. Clinton won the toss. Setting aside the sheer unlikeliness of her winning 6 tosses out of 6, bear in mind that this is happening in what is being called the closest Iowa Democratic caucus in history, with Ms. Clinton currently holding 50% of the vote and 22 delegates and Mr. Sanders sitting on 47% of the votes and 21 delegates (with 99% of votes counted as I write this). So, these 6 coin tosses will be far and away the deciding factor in the contest, which I find just unbelievable.
Now, I know this is just the first skirmish in a long battle within a protracted overall war, and perhaps not all that significant in the scheme of things. But it really does not inspire much confidence in the system somehow.
But, hey, at least Donald Trump lost in his Iowa caucus, so maybe the system does work after all...