Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Pickering nuclear plant should not be extended

It's not often that I blog about articles in the Toronto Star, which I don't usually find very reliable, objective or well-written. But this one is at least written by Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and not by staff reporters. The reason I happened to read the article at all was in response to a flyer I received from the Close Pickering campaign (yes, organized by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance).
The skinny is that the Ontario Liberal government, once a leading light in renewable power development, appears to be giving serious consideration to extending the life of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which is located just 25km from where I am sitting right now, along the coast of Lake Ontario. Patching up the 4th oldest nuclear station still operating in North America (and 7th oldest in the world) in the hopes that it will run for an additional 10 years, is expected to cost around $300 million. The plant's original operating licence was for 42 years, expiring in 2013, and it has already been extended once, to 2018. The province is now considering extending the license again, until 2028, when it will be no less than 57 years old. That is the same age as I am currently, and I know how I feel!
2.2 million people live within 30km of the Pickering plant (about twice as many as live near the next most urban nuclear power station in North America, Indian Point in New York), and pretty much the whole of Metropolitan Toronto lies with 50km. Evacuation in the event of an emergency would be a nightmare, and even Ontario Power Generation's own research shows that the local populace has no idea what they should do in such an eventuality, and are very unlikely to follow emergency protocols when push comes to shove anyway.
Pickering is also one of the highest cost nuclear plants on the continent, and currently sucks up $900 million in "out-of-market" subsidies each year, all of which is reflected in the high local electricity prices (prices which critics usually blame on Ontario's recent foray into renewable energy). The Pickering plant is no longer even needed. Ontario now has a substantial electricity surplus, and in 2015 the province exported more power than Pickering produced, and at subsidized prices to boot! Plus, anyway, there are many more palatable alternatives available to Ontario, including wind, solar, biomass and imported hydroelectric power from Quebec. Decommissioning and deconstruction of the plant is expected to create 16,000 jobs, so, as far as I am concerned, let's start now (or at the latest 2018).
All things considered, then, it is bewildering that the province is even considering throwing good money after bad, and keeping the Pickering plant operating well outside its design parameters. I would encourage everyone to go to close-pickering.ca to sign the petition against this madness.

Toronto pot shop raids just enforcing the law of the land

I must confess I am at a bit of a loss to understand the arguments of the plethora of marijuana "dispensaries" that have sprung up in Toronto recently (and not so recently in Vancouver), after the police raids in Toronto this last week.
Yes, I understand that the Liberal government has vowed to legalize marijuana during their first term in power, probably next year. But, as things stand, the only way to buy pot legally in Canada is by mail order through one of the 31 licensed producers listed on the Health Canada website, on presentation of a valid doctor's prescription. This may not be the most convenient system, but it is currently the only legal system for people to obtain medically-required marijuana. It is therefore not legal to sell marijuana through high street stores, or "compassion clubs" as some insist on euphemistically calling themselves, whether the product is intended for recreational or medical use. Maybe one day this will be legal, once a regulatory and licensing structure has been put in place, but, as Aragorn had it in Lord of the Rings, "it is not this day".
That all sounds pretty straightforward to me, and it is against this background that the Toronto Police Force recently carried out Project Claudia, raiding and closing down 43 stores and arresting 90 individuals involved.
It is disingenuous to argue, as David Butt does in the Globe and Mail, that criminal law enforcement action usually rests upon social and community consensus, and so criminal charges should not be laid on those in contravention of such an ambiguous law. The law is not ambiguous at all: Mr. Butt may not agree with it, but the law is nevertheless the law.
Similarly, the Toronto Dispensaries Coalition's argument that the majority of the shops offer high-quality medical cannabis products to those who desperately need them, and so the charges against those arrested should be dropped forthwith, is just not relevant. Their claims may or may not be true (frankly, I suspect not), but the fact remains that the law has not yet been changed, and so selling pot in this way remains illegal. QED.
Some closed-down dispensaries are vowing to open up again just as soon as they are able, arguing that the crack-down was heavy-handed, and that their poor "patients" are relying on them. Some have even tastelessly compared the raids to Kristallnacht, which I find just unbelievable.
Once the new law has been passed, and a satisfactory regulatory system has been established, I will have no problem with these stores opening up again and selling their wares legally. Until then, though, they need to abide by the laws of the land, whether they like them or not, just as I do. Call me cynical, but my feeling is that most of these outfits are not in the "compassion" business at all - they are just out to make a quick buck in what they (incorrectly) perceive as a grey legal area.

Monday, May 30, 2016

How the English language has developed (and continues to develop)

A recommendation I received recently from my daughter at university was actually nothing to do with her major (biology), but on the subject of etymology and linguistics (an unrelated elective course she is doing). She directed me to vlogger Tom Scott's Language files series on YouTube, and I found them fascinating.
Granted, some were more fascinating than others, but they are only short (2-5 minutes), so all 17 of them will take you well under an hour to watch. Along the way, Scott discusses, inter alia, things like:
  • the ways in which different languages are constructed;
  • different ways in which languages can be ambiguous;
  • voiced and unvoiced sounds;
  • what counts as a word and as a character in different languages;
  • the unspoken rules behind the order of adjectives;
  • how letters become obsolete over time and how that changes the spelling of words;
  • the use of "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun;
  • spelling reform and prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in linguistics;
  • different registers at work in the English language;
  • how colours can be seen and described differently in different cultures and languages; and
  • features that other languages have and English does not (e.g. time-independence, clusivity, absolute direction, and evidentiality).
If you are interested in how our language has developed, and is continuing to develop (whether you like that idea or not), you will probably enjoy these short videos.

Canadian Ambassador to Ireland is not diplomatic material

Speaking of letters in the Globe and Mail, it is heartening to note that readers, even if not the news reports themselves, have almost universally condemned Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, for his embarrassing and indefensible actions the other day in manhandling an Irish protestor during a commemoration of the Irish 1916 Easter Rising.
Vickers, an ex-RCMP officer and parliamentary sergeant-at-arms, who was hailed as a hero for taking out the Parliament Hill gunman in 2014, is an overachieving thug with some serious anger management issues. He is really not diplomatic material.
The powers that be have been suspiciously quiet on the matter (to be fair, Prime Minister Trudeau is currently in Japan at a G7 meeting), but I wholeheartedly agree that the Ambassador grossly overstepped the bounds of his authority and his diplomatic purview, and should be removed from his position forthwith, and required to apologise to the protestor, Brian Murphy, to Ireland, and to the Canadian electorate, whose trust he has abused.
I guess this is what happens when people with no diplomatic experience are given diplomatic portfolios.

What Stephen Harper's farewell speech should have read

I can't help but agree with a spot-on letter in today's paper regarding Stephen Harper's huffy decision to quit politics.
As the letter suggests, what Harper's farewell speech SHOULD have read is:
"I know I promised to represent you in Parliament, but that was just a stupid election promise. It will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to find my replacement, but I don’t care.
"It's no fun sitting in the Commons now that I’m no longer PM and I can make a lot more money in the private sector. Choosing between putting my constituents first and putting myself first is an easy choice. So goodbye, all you gullible voters."
Couldn't have put it better myself.

Fracking to return to Britain?

The fracking cat has been set well and truly among the pigeons in Britain by a landmark ruling by North Yorkshire council to allow hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") near the Yorkshire village of Kirby Misperton.
Fracking has been on hiatus in Britain since 2011, when the process was blamed for two minor earthquakes in a country not know for its seismic activity. And this new ruling has not been welcomed with open arms: over 3,000 submissions were made against the project, as compared to 34 in favour, and almost every single parish in the region objected to it during the hearings.
But, as gas production in the North Sea continues to dwindle, the national Conservative government (and particularly Prime Minister David Cameron) has strongly supported shale gas extraction as an alternative, and it has recently approved 93 exploration licenses. Four other fracking projects are currently in the late approval stages, and it remains to be seen whether this North Yorkshire decision will open the floodgates to what opponents warn is an environmental disaster in the making, especially given the congested population of the small island, which all but ensures that any fracking project will be in someone's backyard somewhere.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Trump turns the clock back to the bad old 1960s

Much as I hate to bring up the subject of Donald Trump yet again, the guy is a veritable news factory.
As the reality sinks in that this guy could in fact become President and single-handedly and single-mindedly demolish decades of American diplomacy, high-mindedness and statecraft, protests are springing up and clashes are occurring between pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions, and those clashes are becoming increasingly violent. The man has managed to turn America back 50 years to the good old bad old days of McCarthyism, race hate and sectarianism of the 1960s. And he's not even President yet!
The latest such clash occurred earlier today in sunny San Diego, California, close to the putative location of Trump's beloved Mexican wall. There was jeering and heckling on both sides, and soon stones and water-bottles were being thrown, and arrests were being made. This follows violent protests in Albuquerque, New Mexico, earlier this week, and more violence in Orange County, California, just a few weeks ago. California, of course, has a large percentage of Latinos, most of whom are vehemently opposed to Trump and his policies (and not just "the wall").
It is clear that Trump is by far the most divisive personality in America since the 1960s. One can only imagine what will happen once the election battle proper commences.
Even Canada is not immune from the repercussions of Trump's campaign. It seems that the current owners of the 65-storey Trump International Hotel & Tower in downtown Toronto, the real estate conglomerate Talon International Development Inc., are now looking to offload it. The tower block, which has Trump's name prominently emblazoned at the top, has failed to attract enough rich, Trump-loving tenants. It is likely that whoever buys the building will also want to sever (at almost any cost) the marketing, reservation and housekeeping contract with Trump Toronto Hotel Management Corp. The Trump name is no longer a commercial advantage, at least here in Canada (although why it would ever have been associated in people's minds with good business practices remains a mystery to me).

Venezuela going to the dogs

Having lived for a few years in Venezuela (those who are curious can read Luke's South American Diary), it pains me to see a country so full of natural beauty going down the toilet quite so precipitately and comprehensively.
We lived there in the relatively good pre-Chavez revolution days. But, even then, the country was something of a basket-case, and you could easily see it tipping over to something worse. Bribery and corruption were endemic and an unavoidable part of the everyday fabric of life; crime was also a way of life, although usually limited to petty theft and pick-pocketing, and not usually armed; the wealthy and even the middle classes seemed thoroughly spoiled by the petroleum revenues that underpinned the whole economy, making the people (unlike the people of most of the rest of South America) arrogant and unpleasant; gas pump prices were a few cents a litre, below cost prices even back then, but people took this as their birthright and even the suggestion of moderate price increases would lead to protests and riots; anyone with any money at all kept it offshore, mainly in the USA, and the black market was a perfectly normal and accepted phenomenon; inflation was rampant, and the currency only supported by stringent exchange controls.
Sound familiar? Well, things are even worse now. According to an infographic in today's Globe and Mail (unfortunately not available online), the black market exchange rate, the one that has at least some reality on the streets of Caracas, has tanked from around 150 bolivares to the dollar to over 1,000 (it reached about 1,300 at one point earlier this year). Inflation has increased from around 41% in 2013 and 63% in 2014 to a massive 275% last year. It is predicted to hit an almost unimaginable 720% this year, and the central bank is struggling to print enough banknotes to keep up with demand. The so-called "misery index" in Venezuela, a metric combining inflation and unemployment statistics, is almost an order of magnitude greater than countries like Argentina, South Africa, Greece and Ukraine, all of which have substantial problems of their own. The BBC reports that the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence group recorded 24,980 violent deaths in 2014 (the equivalent of 82 murders per 100,000 inhabitant), a level more usually associated with a country at war.
And, throughout it all, as always, it is the downtrodden poor, those without a cushion of US dollars hidden away, who are suffering the most.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sometimes culling wolves is a necessary evil

There was a fascinating article in today's Globe and Mail about the culling of wolves in Western Canada.
Until recently, the practice has been kept reasonably quiet, and largely limited to techniques such as setting liberal hunting limits, local authority actions, and bounties paid to local trappers. In recent years, though, the British Columbia and Alberta governments have had to resort to larger scale more controversial culls, sometimes involving the shooting of whole packs from aircraft. This has led to a lot of adverse PR, particularly from star wildlife crusaders like Paul Watson and Miley Cyrus.
But the issue is a thorny one. Wolves are such iconic animals that any talk of killing or culling automatically becomes controversial, almost by definition. The problem is that wolves, although themselves technically an endangered species, are actually thriving and are decimating local populations of caribou, elk, moose and deer. Or rather, wolves, cougars, black bears and grizzly bears between them are decimating the ungulates (research in nearby Washington state suggests that cougars maybe the main culprit there, and that state has instituted a major cougar cull to address this). So, this is not wolf-culling to placate irate farmers, as might have been the case decades ago: this is about maintaining the fragile environmental balance in entire ecosystems.
In fact, the problem is more than thorny, it is almost completely intractible. For example, as soon as substantial culling takes place, wolves in particular tend to respond by increasing their birth rates, and/or new packs move into the area to exploit the power vacuum. Also, someone somewhere has to come up with a metric - little more than a line in the sand - for how many wolves/cougars/etc a particular area can support, and how many elk/caribou/deer/etc are appropriate to that region. It also requires an implicit assessment of the VALUE of a wolf as compared to an elk or a caribou, something that is even less distinct than a line in the sand.
I have to say that I have the greatest respect for the environmentalists  on the ground (and in the air) who have to make these kinds of thankless decisions and to implement them. It is all well and good for us, sitting in our armchairs in wolf-free Toronto, to bewail the deliberate killing of these beautiful animals. But, like most environmental issues, the reality is far from black and white.

Toronto Raptors' magical run comes to an end

I'm not a basketball aficionado, I barely follow the sport. But I'm enough of a patriot and a Torontonian to have been following the Raptors' record-breaking season and playoff run. They lost last night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and that magical, even unlikely, run is over.
After a franchise record season with 56 wins, and their first-ever appearance in the Conference finals, Toronto should take some comfort in losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, Cleveland is an anonymous, tin-pot city about the size of Brampton, but they happen to have a play called LeBron James, which is usually enough to guarantee a team a place in the NBA finals (this will be his sixth straight final, his second carrying Cleveland there). Love him or hate him - and most people outside of Cleveland hate him; he is, after all, a cocky, opinionated prima donna, prone to elaborate diving - he has a way of winning basketball matches, and of inspiring whatever team he happens to be playing with to great things.
James' flopping was not so much an issue last night, and neither was the suspect officiating that has dogged this series. But James' 33 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists were enough to sink the Raptors, after a brave run against huge odds. And don't get a Torontonian started on "odds" after that egregious CBS Sports poll in which Toronto was left off the ballot in favour of "Other" (leading to much use of the #WeTheOther hashtag).
Anyway, congrats to Kyle Lowry, DeMarr DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismarck Biyombo and all the other Raptors on a stellar, hard-fought season, and better luck for next year. Toronto can now hold their heads up in basketball as well as baseball - hockey, not so much.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

World Expo 2025? No thanks

As Toronto mulls hosting World Expo 2025, most of the same considerations I outlined in my piece on biding for Olympic Games apply.Among these considerations are:
  • it is expensive (estimated at somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion, which is a suspiciously broad and inexact estimate to be working with), and Toronto just does not have that much money to be throwing around or to be saddling future generations with;
  • 2025 is along time in the future: we have no idea what economic and financial constraints the city will be operating under in nine years' time;
  • it will not make money, despite the positive spin proponents are putting on that aspect (Hanover, Germany, which hosted the 2000 Expo, lost about $1.75 billion on the event, at least partly because half as many visitors as expected actually turned up);
  • speaking of attendance, Milan, Italy, which hosted the last Expo, in 2015, received about 21 million visitors (about the same as Hanover), while Toronto's proponents are, for some reason, anticipating 40 million - they, and the city, will almost certainly be disappointed;
  • the vast majority of visitors (around 95%) are expected to be from Canada and the USA, i.e. Toronto's usual visitors, and international travellers seldom make up more than 5% of total Expo visitors;
  • Expos are 5 yearly events, and they usually last for up to 6 months - so Toronto's short and precious summer season (which is also the main infrastructure maintenance season) will be completely commandeered for, and subsumed under, the project;
  • Expos typically do not even leave any useful buildings - most of them are temporary structures - although it can be argued that even the infrastructure legacy of major sporting events like the Olympic and Pan Am Games are dubious at beast (for example, do we really need a new velodrome?);
  • neither can it be argued that the event would jumpstart development of Toronto's Port Lands, development of which is already under way, and anyway it would be unwise to allow a vanity project like this to hijack the capital and infrastructure of the city for years to come - public works projects should be assessed on their intrinsic merits and the city's needs, and not based on the requirements of a white elephant with little long-term value to the local populace.
Luckily, Mayor John Tory is nothing if not cautious and, despite the blandishments of ex-Mayor Art Eggleton, I really can't see this sneaking through city council either.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Facts, fibs and fact-checking

In a world where so much misinformation is spread through sloppy, poorly-researched, or sometimes just plain mendacious claims, it's good to know that there are people out there checking facts and taking the perpetrators to task for their failings. Indeed, that is something I often try to do in this blog, in my own small way.
Whether it be the occasional investigations of the BBC's Reality Check (which springs to life during campaigns like elections, the current Brexit vote, etc), or more permanent impartial political fact-checking operations like FullFact, PolitiFact, FactCheck, Fact Checker, FactsCan, etc.
The Washington Post's Fact Checker recently analyzed Donald Trump's claims during his current presidential campaign. Amazingly, fully 70% of Trump's claims merited FactChecker's "4 Pinocchios" rating, the worst rating available.
What's rather depressing, though, is that facts don't always make much difference to voters' preferences, and Trump's campaign is just such an example.

Get a bee in your bonnet

I have received something of an education in bees recently, courtesy of an article in the local paper. We probably all think we know bees. They live in hives, produce honey, and occasionally sting us when we come across them unexpectedly in a garden or in the city, right? Oh, and they are all mysteriously dying off, aren't they?
Setting aside the fact that you are much more likely to be stung by a wasp than a bee - although many people, I have noticed, actually call wasps "bees" - it seems like many of us are labouring under several false apprehensions when it comes to bees.
Most bees don't live in hives (and don't even live in groups), they don't make honey, and many don't even sting. It is honey bees that live in managed hives, usually on farms, and make honey, usually for farmers. But honey bees are a non-native invasive species, competing against local indigenous bees for access to flowers, and often spreading diseases and parasites (especially since the recent, unregulated rise in hobby beekeeping).
Apparently, though, there are over 360 species of native bees in the Toronto area alone, and it is not unusual for some 40 different species to visit a single garden in a single day. Leaf-cutter bees, mining bees, bumble bees, sweat bees - you have probably walked past these and many others. They are vital for biodiversity, and for the pollination of plants and crops.
And, like the better-known problems besetting the commercial honey bee populations, they too are under threat from man-made pollution, pesticides and insecticides. In fact, the many small populations of wild bees are probably in even worse shape than the ubiquitous European honey bee. Although the good burghers of Toronto had the foresight to ban lawn herbicides and insecticides back in 2003, such chemicals still find their way into city gardens through nursery-grown flowers and compost, and many species of bees are currently struggling.
The best thing we can do for native bees is to: plant native perennials, especially simple open flowers rather than those with densely-packed petals like roses; leave patches of bare or disturbed ground, as well as twigs and decaying logs for them to nest in; buy organically-grown plants that don't contain traces of neonicotinoids or other pesticides favoured by the horticultural industry; and not be over-zealous on mulching, pruning and spraying. Local organizations and campaigns like Bee City Canada, Let It Bee and others can help you navigate all of these considerations in your own garden.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Golf's dinosaurs

The venerable Muirfield Golf Club has been barred from hosting the British Open after it voted to continue disallowing women from its membership. The R&A, the organization that runs the British Open, has recently taken the (belated, but commendable) step of effectively "closing the Open" to those clubs who insist that women are not eligible for membership, and so Muirfield's decision has just cost them a place in the prestigious and profitable competition.
The Scottish golf club dates back to 1744, and is the source of the official written Rules of Golf. But it remains mired in its glorious past, and has steadfastly refused to allow women to join. The recent vote resulted in 64% in favour of admitting women, which I guess is encouraging, but this fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the motion. The Scotsman newspaper has revealed that a group of about thirty Muirfield members had been vigorously campaigning against the inclusion of women before the vote, arguing that they would slow down play, and that they would only feel uncomfortable if they were allowed to join.
Muirfield now languishes in an ever-dwindling minority of major clubs to discriminate against women. Even reactionary organizations like the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (St. Andrews, Scotland), the Royal St. George Golf Club (Sandwich, England), and America's Augusta National Golf Club have recently woken up, smelt the coffee, and changed their rules, and Royal Troon (another Scottish club) currently remains the only other club in the British Open rotation list to continue the men-only policy.
Now I really don't care about the sport of golf, nor do I care about a bunch of upper middle class twits in golf knickers. But I do care about egalitarianism, and this should be a wake-up call for the club and other like-minded hold-outs. There again, what woman in her right mind would want to be a member of a club full of such Neanderthals?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trudeau "manhandling" a storm in a very small teacup

Yet another storm in a teacup in the venerable Canadian parliament. This time, Justin Trudeau is accused of "manhandling" an opposition politician and, even worse apparently, accidentally elbowing a woman. A quick viewing of video of the incident is enough to reveal the diminutive size of the teacup in question.
Trudeau was visibly frustrated by (apparently deliberate) opposition dilly-dallying aimed at delaying a vote to allow the Liberals to expedite their assisted suicide bill, which has a court-dictated deadline on it. He hastened into a melee of opposition politicians standing around the floor of the House, and escorted Conservative whip Gord Brown by the elbow back to his seat so that the vote could take place, in the process bumping into NDP whip Ruth-Ellen Brosseau.
Yes, it was inadvisable, as Trudeau quickly admitted, and the Liberal Speaker of the House Geoff Regan castigated him with the unintentionally risqué, "It is not appropriate to manhandle other members". Trudeau has apologized for his actions humbly and unreservedly, several times.
But how the opposition parties have tried to make hay from it! Brosseau - who is 32 years old and in good health to the best of my knowledge, and apparently used to break up fights as a bartender before becoming a politician - maintains she was so "shocked" and "overwhelmed" at being "elbowed in the chest" that she had to leave the chamber and go and sit in the lobby, thus missing the vote. Some Tory politicians talked about "physical intimidation", one NDP member claimed to be "ashamed" to have witnessed such a thing, and another that the Liberals were trying to "stifle democracy". Claims that Mr. Trudeau muttered, "Get the fuck out of my way" seem suspiciously limited to a couple of NDP members. The best that Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose could manage was the frankly pathetic, "We knew that the prime minister admired basic Chinese dictatorship but we did not think he would actually emulate it". NDP leader Thomas Mulcair then blustered, "What kind of a man elbows a woman? You're pathetic." To which I might respond, were it relevant: the kind of man who treats women as equals, and does not assume they are fragile little flowers who will crumple at a touch. Come on, Mulcair, it's 2016.
Yes, Trudeau lost his cool under pressure, and yes, any physicality in the chamber is inappropriate and requires an apology. But some of the histrionics and unabashed hay-making on the opposition benches are equally inappropriate, and require their own apology, if you ask me. The fundamental point surely is that any contact with anyone other than Brown was purely, and self-evidently, accidental, as several Liberal and Green Party MPs pointed out in Mr. Trudeau's defence. Green leader Elizabeth May also mentioned the "innocent mischief" the opposition was engaging in. Certainly, video of the confrontation shows Thomas Mulcair and others smiling as he mills about on the Commons floor, and the "overwhelmed" Ms. Brosseau can also be seen briefly smiling before leaving the House for short while.
I am normally sensitive to, and supportive of, a feminist analysis of events, but I believe that articles like Jane Taber's are not helpful in this particular case, and not even appropriate (there's that word again). To argue that any viewpoint that contradicts those of the women involved (Ms. Brosseau and, less convincingly, any other female member who happened to be in the vicinity) is effectively blaming the victim is disingenuous at best. In this case, I truly believe that Ms. Brosseau is milking the situation for all it is worth, doing and saying anything she can for party political advantage. And interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose, with her complaints about "shock", "intimidation" and "victims", is likewise "playing the woman card" - a phrase I never thought I would ever use, but here I think is just such a situation. Any woman who gets to sit in parliament is, by definition, a strong, successful and powerful woman: to then claim weakness, fragility and victimhood flies in the face of that strength, and makes a mockery of the struggle and sacrifice of all those strong women who paved the way for them. Most of the complaints of Ms. Brosseau's antics that I have read havw come from embarrassed feminists.
Anyway, Trudeau will be charged with a breach of parliamentary privileges, and will probably be sanctioned in some way, despite his four apologies. The vote, for what it's worth, went ahead, and the Liberals won it handily (although they did later back off on forcing through the expediting legislation). Certainly, if no assisted suicide law is in place by the June 6th deadline, it will be as much due to the NDP's deliberate delaying tactics as Mr. Trudeau's ill-advised but unpremeditated antics.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Al-Nusra Front becoming a force to reckon with in Syria

I came across some disturbing news today about the burgeoning influence of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front in Syria. While the world's attention is focussed on the much more in-your-face campaign of Islamic State for a Muslim caliphate in Syria and Iraq, al-Nusra Front, which has long had its own plans for an Islamic state or emirate, has been quietly expanding its influence in the area.
Al-Nusra Front was once a radical, violent, Islamic group, very much in the traditional mould of al-Qaeda and ISIS. But, according to commentators in the know, in early 2014 it started to morph into something else, something more low-key but perhaps even more worrying. Unlike Islamic State (IS), it does not control large areas of territory, and it is not waging a traditional war. Rather, it is concentrating on embedding and insinuating itself into many of the different rebel groups operating in the region, and gradually indoctrinating the local population and presenting its case. It is carrying out its subversive agenda very effectively, and almost completely below the radar of most western observers.
Estimates are difficult, but the organization may only involve around 5,000-10,000 people, much fewer than IS, partly because it does not need to militarily acquire and hold large swathes of territory, but partly because it is very selective in its membership. Al-Nusra sees its work as winning over the hearts and minds of the local populace, and is doing so by making itself indispensable. For example, it has insinuated itself into the local education and governance system, it has increased its influence over the sharia courts, and it has even established a hold over the all-important bakeries of the region. It is, then, deliberately presenting itself as reasonable and professional, as the potential saviour of a region country with very few good options, and as an alternative to the random violence and deliberate destabilization of IS.
Make no mistake, though, al-Nusra is not there to install democracy and to rescue a desperate, war-torn country from its ongoing crisis. Rather, it is using the war to further its own ends. Al-Nusra Front is still very much a part of al-Qaeda, dedicated to a radical theocracy in the region, and al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has recently gone out of his way to hail its efforts. It is playing the long game, and no-one - probably not even al-Nusra itself - knows just how long that might be. They may not yet be ready to make a definitive move, but they are biding their time and gradually building up their strength with every year that the war in Syria drags on.
If al-Nusra succeeds in its plan - whether in 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years - the implications are grim. Over and above the subjugation of a once-proud nation, they will effectively provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and a launching point for further destabilization and terrorism in the Middle East and in nearby Europe. It should also be noted that many well-informed commentators see their success as a very real threat, not just some Islamic pipe-dream.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Schadenfreude over Chinese ruling against Apple

I couldn't help but smile at the news of a court case in China recently. A company called Xintong Tiandi Technology, which sells purses, phone cases and other leather goods emblazoned with the name "IPHONE", won a trademark case brought against it by Apple, the world's most valuable company.
The court ruled that Apple had failed to prove that its iPhone was well known in China before Xintong Tiandi filed its trademark application back in 2007. In fact, it turns out that Apple applied for a trademark of the name for its electronic goods in China in 2002, but it was not actually granted until as recently as 2013. The ruling kind of begs the question* of why they would want to trademark such a name in the first place if Apple iPhones were not well known...
I'm embarrassed to admit that I tend to smile at pretty much anything bad that happens to Apple, which I know is very childish and unjustifiable. I don't even know why I have such a downer on the company - other than a general, instinctive, sour-grapes dislike of the fat-cat successful corporation - but I suspect that much of it can be traced back to their anti-PC advertising campaign some years ago, which I found so smug and negative that my hackles would rise as soon as I encountered it. Probably not a good basis on which to form long-term opinions but, hey, they spend millions on advertising to mould the opinions of unsuspecting punters, so if they make their bed...

*Yes, I am aware that "beg the question" technically means "assume the conclusion of an argument", rather than the more commonly-applied (but incorrect) meaning of "raise the question". But I've always thought the original usage such a silly phrase that I have made the phrase in its new meaning one of the few incorrect English usages that I sanction, and am more than willing to follow myself.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The quagmire of electoral reform in Canada

Here's a subject I have been kind of trying to avoid, but it does need to be tackled, so here goes. The "new" Liberal government here in Canada (how long can I keep saying "new"? - the shine came off a while ago now...) came to power vowing that the last election would be the last one ever held under the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of elections, which is generally understood to favour the Conservative Party most as things currently strand in Canadian politics, but which also served to boost the Liberals' win in this particular case. This means that we need to choose an alternative, which is where the problems begin.
So, what are the alternatives, and which is best? Well, how long do you have...? Paring the issue down to basics, the main alternatives are probably the following:
  • instant run-off vote (also called alternative vote or the transferable ballot): voters rank the candidates in order and, after the first choices are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choices on those ballots are added to the candidate totals; if there is still no majority winner, the next-bottom candidate is dropped and the second choices on those ballots added to the totals, etc. It's is a rather convoluted and complicated process, but this is the system used in Australia, for example, and is the Liberal Party's favourite (and, wouldn't you know it, models suggest it favours the Liberal Party most).
  • party list proportional representation: before the election, each party prepares a list of candidates in order; voters then vote for a party, not a specific candidate, and each party is allocated a number of seats based on their popular (country-side, or region-wide) vote percentage, which it then fills from its candidate list. Thus, the parties not the voters themselves choose which individual members get to sit in parliament, but the relative party numbers are a good match for the popular will of the people. Several countries in Europe and Scandinavia use this system, and it is the system favoured by the NDP (which, you guessed it again, benefits the most in Canadian models).
  • mixed-member proportional representation: allows for a combination of direct election of members from regional ridings and proportional representation, as each riding elect its own MP (usually using the FPTP system), but in addition voters also vote for a party, and additional MPs are allocated to each party so that the final breakdown of seats reflects the overall party popular vote. This system is used in Germany and New Zealand, among others.
  • single transferable vote: voters fill in ranked ballots and, if a particular candidate wins and exceeds the pre-determined "quota" for that riding, the "surplus" second-choice votes above the quota are transferred proportionately to other candidates, so that they are not "wasted". This seems ridiculously complicated to me, but it is used in some jurisdictions, including Ireland and India.
  • single non-transferable vote: one voting ballot is used to elect more than one MP for each riding, depending on the size of the riding, with the candidates with the most votes all becoming members. This system is used in Afghanistan and Puerto Rico, and a few other countries.
  • mixed-member majoritarian system (also called parallel voting): a hybrid system whereby one part of the legislature is elected directly (e.g. by FPTP), while another part is elected by party list proportional representation, but without "compensating" for the overall popular vote like the mixed-member proportional representation system. It is used in many countries including Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
There are many other electoral systems, and other tweaks and hybridizations to these, but these are probably the main contenders. I may not have explained some of them very lucidly, but that's because I only have a vague notion of how they really work. And there's the rub, because if I - a reasonably intelligent, clued-in and politicized example of an average voter - don't really understand them, or can't visualize how they would work in practice, or what repercussions they may have, then what chance does a busy single mother or a politically apathetic plumber or an 18-year old school-leaver stand? If we were to have a referendum on the matter tomorrow, or even next year, would the result be particularly valid?
I have this feeling that I should, given my other beliefs, have a strong preference for a proportional representation system, probably the mixed-member PR model. But do I really hate the current system enough to get rid of it, and to take a running jump into the relatively unknown? It is probably no surprise that the last couple of referendums on electoral reform in Canada, in British Columbia and in Ontario, both resulted in strong preferences for the status quo first-past-the-post system, i.e. the devil we know.
Yes, FPTP exaggerates the stronger parties at the expense of the weaker or smaller ones, but it also allows for a party to win a majority mandate (and potentially to force through their own agenda). But I do worry that a PR system would just result in permanent minority governments, and effective policy stalemate.
Just to give one topical example, Spain, which operates under a party list proportional representation system, held inconclusive elections back in December 2015 and has spent the last 5 month trying, and failing, to negotiate a workable coalition. They will now hold another election in June 2016, and all the polls suggest that it will almost certainly return similar results. In the meantime, the Canadian government, elected under the much-maligned FPTP system, has already made substantial inroads into fulfilling its election promises, and has firmly established itself on the national and international political scene. There's something to be said for that.
A report in today's Globe and Mail graphically shows the effects that a couple of the alternatives might have had on the last Canadian federal election in October 2015. The actual first-past-the-post system resulted in a Liberal majority government with 184 seats, compared to 99 for the Conservatives, 44 for the NDP, 10 for the Bloc Quebecois, and 1 for the Greens. A party list proportional representation system in the same election would have yielded a reduced minority Liberal government with 144 seats, while the Tories would have had 67, the Bloc 16, and the Greens 3. The instant runoff system would have yielded an increased Liberal majority with 202 seats, compared to just 83 for the Tories, 46 for the NDP, 6 for the Bloc and 12 for the Greens. It's an interesting academic exercise, I suppose, but what does it really mean for the future, and how does it help me (and the single mothers, plumbers and school-leavers of the country) decide what is best?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Canadians happy to have the long-form census back

I forgot to comment on recent media reports of just how excited Canadian are at being able to fill out proper census forms again, after the almost universally-condemned cancellation of the long-form census by the previous Tory government in 2010. The “low-resolution” portrait of the country produced by the predictably poor response rate for the 2011 voluntary household survey (which replaced the old mandatory long-form census) marked an unfortunate hiatus in the generation of quality information for government planning and demographic analysis.
In one of their first decisions after to coming to power in November 2015, the Liberal government resurrected the traditional full census, and Canadians couldn't be happier. In fact, there was such a robust and enthusiastic response that the census website crashed for a while, overwhelmed by millions of Canadians clamouring to fulfil their civic duties. There was much righteous indignation online as people complained that they were not selected to fill out the longer, more detailed version of the census form (which is issued to a random quarter of households), and I must confess to a similar feeling myself.
The 2016 census is a welcome return to good quality demographic information that can be used by governments and planners across the country.

Modes of passenger transportation around the world

There was an interesting graphic in today's paper about the different modes of transport used in various countries across the world. The graph was culled from a more detailed US Energy Information Administration report on international passenger transportation trends.
The report's first conclusion is that annual passenger travel, in general terms, tends to increase with income. No surprise there, and a neat scatter graph shows a more or less straight-line progression from low passenger-miles and low per capita GDP regions like Africa and China, through the middle-ground countries like Japan, Europe, Australia and Canada, to the USA, which is way out in a class of its own, both in total mileage travelled and per capita GDP.
It was the breakdown of the modes of transport used for travel that particularly struck me, though. In Canada, about 95% of passenger transportation miles were travelled in "light-duty vehicles" (i.e. cars), with most of the rest utilizing buses, and just a tiny fraction using "two- or three-wheel" transportation (i.e. bikes) and passenger rail. The USA profile is similar, with slightly less car use (about 90%) and a little more bus transportation. Australia and New Zealand are also similar, with car use just under 90%, and a bigger contribution from rail transportation, and these were followed by Western Europe, with still less car mileage and substantially more bike mileage.
The picture only starts to change significantly with Japan, where cars are only responsible for just over 60% of passenger miles, rail nearly 30%, and the remainder almost evenly split between buses and two-and three-wheel transportation. In China, less than 40% of journeys use cars, along with about 25% by rail, and the rest split pretty evenly between bus transportation and two- and three-wheel modes of transport. Most of Africa and South and Central America have car use down at levels of 40% - 45%, with most of the rest coming from bus journeys. India is a case on its own, with rail transportation responsible for nearly half of the total, buses another third, and car journeys accounting for less than 20% of total annual passenger miles.
Fascinating. And kind of depressing.

Contact with birth parents is not always a good idea

After listening to an interview with a woman who had been abandoned as a baby, and who had spent 30-odd years attempting (unsuccessfully) to find her birth parents, I couldn't help but think that, were I in her position, I would probably not even try.
Then I got to wondering how many people who do succeed in contacting their birth parents actually have happy outcomes. I kind of assume that most people who abandon their kids either do so for a good (or, worse, a bad) reason, or if not, then they are probably suffering from various issues that would make child-rearing a bad idea for them. Would you really want to get to know someone was either mentally disturbed enough, drunk or high enough, or just plain thoughtless enough, to leave a child on a hospital doorstep? What if you were abandoned because they wanted a boy not a girl, because you were not the right colour or race, or because they just thought you were ugly or deformed? I don't even want to think about areas like early sexual abuse, etc.
Yes, there are other, marginally more acceptable, reasons for abandonment (teen pregnancies, rapes, extreme poverty, etc), and yes it may be possible, even laudable, to reach out to such people. But at the back of my mind always is the thought that, if they have made no effort to find you, then they are probably just not interested, and any attempts at reconciliation are probably doomed to embarrassing failure.
At the vey best, it seems to me, any biological parent who abandoned their baby is likely to be somewhat ashamed, even traumatized, by their actions - not a good basis for a relationship. At worst, they will assume you are looking for money, or they will open a channel of communication and then abandon you all over again, or you will cause a seismic shift in an existing happy family (either your own adopted family, or that of the biological parents, or both). I would have thought the odds against a happy outcome are high, that one would be on a proverbial hiding to nothing, and likely implicit in opening a proverbial can of worms.
But how close are my assumptions to the reality?
I was surprised at how difficult it was to find good information on this issue; I had expected to find too much information rather than too little. The issue has been well and truly muddied in recent years with the advent of Facebook and other social media, which allow parents and children searching for their biological families to by-pass the official system to some extent, and on which there are few or no statistics.
This document from the Council of Irish Adoption Agencies, as well as providing some idea of the huge variety in possible outcomes of a search for biological parents, concludes with the rather woolly and inexact: "In general research studies in this area have found that the majority of people who search and have a reunion with a birth relative describe their experience as positive". A 2004 University of British Columbia study suggests that: "Over 90% of all searchers and search subjects reported that reunion was a positive experience." So, maybe I am wrong.
An article in the ever-reliable Guardian seems to me to have hit the nail on the head. Although it reports that about 80% of adoptees and birth parents are happy to have made contact, and that nearly 80% are still in touch eight years later (with only around 7% experiencing outright rejection), the anecdotal evidence seems to belie those statistics to some extent. Of the three cases the article highlights, for example: one adopted child terminated the contact when his birth mother became too needy; one reconnection soured when a biological parent failed to show up for a meeting; and one biological parent ceased contact with her child, "after years of feeling she was taking me out of the cupboard and putting me back again at her will". Yet, significantly, all of these people report their reunions as having been successful, and say that they are glad to have had the experience. And, remember, these are normal adoption-type circumstances, not abandonments.
So, I guess it kind of depends on what you want out of a reunion, and what you consider to be a positive experience.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Maria Toorpakai, a force of nature

Speaking of uplifting and edifying (see my last post about In-Between Days), I caught, this morning, a CBC interview with Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the Pakistan-born Canada-based professional squash player, who has just published a book of her remarkable early life called A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight.
Though still only 25, Maria has already led a remarkably full and active life, chock full of incident and challenges overcome. Born in the intensely traditional and conservative region of Waziristan (a region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border that is firmly under the repressive thumb of the Taliban), she realized at a very early age that she preferred the freedom and active life of a boy, rather than the cloistered, traditional role of a girl. At just 4 years old, she burnt all her "girly dresses", as she describes them, preferring the looser, more practical garb of a boy.
Luckily, her father, Shamsul, was also that rare thing in Waziristan, a feminist and social activist, something that Maria puts down to his brief contact with some European hippies followed by a great deal of reading and thinking. Just as he had encouraged his wife to study and then to teach, Shamsul immediately accepted Maria's youthful protest, and happily treated her as his "fifth son".
Not only was Maria a rebel, she was also incredibly active and strong, and from a young age her father encouraged her to compete in weightlifting, where she went by the name Genghis Khan. She tells tales of managing to narrowly avoid the traditional mandatory practice of naked weighing with the help of her protective brother, and she went on to win junior championships in her weight range.
It was only by chance that she then discovered squash, which she immediately took to and excelled at. However, she was not able to avoid the need to produce a birth certificate to join the squash academy, and so was forced to compete as a girl. Again she excelled, despite harassment and bullying from other players, and despite her inability to find coaches or training partners. She drove herself mercilessly, pushing her body to, and at times beyond, its limits. Much of the time, she was forced to practice alone, in her own house.
At the age of 16, she turned professional, and went on, against all the odds, to become Pakistan's No. 1 female squash player. But she and her family continued to receive threats and harassment from the local Taliban, and so she applied to train abroad, for her own safety and that of her family. After 3½ years of failure, she was finally taken on by Canadian Jonathan Power (one-time world champion, now retired from competition), and from the age of 21 she has trained at his academy right here in Toronto. Power helped her to heal various self-inflicted injuries and a nerve disorder, so that for the first time ever she was able to play the sport she loves without constant pain. She reached a highest ranking of 41st in the world, and is still 56th. She has set up a foundation, the Maria Toorpakai Foundation, to encourage families to educate girls and to allow them to play sports.
Phew! Kind of makes you feel pretty pathetic and feeble. Read the book. Listen to the interview. To listen to, she is remarkably articulate and clearly incredibly self-confident and driven, not to say aggressive. But what a story!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Are Canadians really quintessentially nice?

It is always interesting to read outsiders' views on Canada. A recent article on BBC Travel investigates the commonplace, and I had thought specious, characterization of Canada and its people as quintessentially "nice".
This incorporates politeness, humility and, all too often, fecklessness. But, to a visitor from big, brash America, I can see that it would have a certain amount of charm. The article is replete with anecdotal evidence of our fabled Canadian niceness in action, from border guards to random acts of kindness to our excessive use of "hedge words" and apologies.
Some of it does ring quite true, and we often feel the lack of sincerity and politeness when we travel abroad, even if we also feel our own lack of it when we travel to other, even "nicer", places, such as some of the smaller Latin American countries, Iceland, Greece, etc. (Another article from a few years ago, in Forbes, purports to identify the world's rudest countries from a tourist's point of view, and points the finger at France, Russia, UK, Germany, China and USA.) But some of it - Canadian border guards and the supposed absence of road rage are two such examples - seems to me to be a product of its own mythology, and does not quite gel with our own on-the-ground experiences.
The article attempts to explain Canadian niceness in terms of a small population spread over a huge country trying to survive by getting along (this also seems spurious - in reality, almost our entire population is huddled together in a relatively small area within 100km of the US border), or as "fragments" of European colonial nations frozen in time (not sure I even understand that argument), or as some kind of a defence mechanism to cope with our inferiority complex (that sounds the most convincing).
Far be it from me to malign or disparage my adopted country, but I kind of feel that the articles lacks a little in objectivity, and suffers from the common error of generalizing from the specific. That said, in the most general terms, it is difficult to take issue with the Forbes/SkyScanner survey, which places Canada firmly at the "nice" end of the scale, along with the likes of Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Portugal, Thailand, Philippines, the Caribbean and Brazil.

In-Between Days - a memoir about living with cancer

I have been reading a book by a friend who is dying from incurable metastatic breast cancer. Well, perhaps not a friend, more a colleague of my wife, but we have met several times socially over the years, so I count her as a friend, especially as I don't have too many acquaintances who are published authors.
"In-Between Days" is by Teva Harrison, a bubbly blonde bon viveur with a keen intellect and a rock-solid commitment to environmentalism. She is a Jewish atheist, an American by birth and a Canadian by choice, a party girl with a great love of music and dancing, and a tough-as-nails grass-roots campaigner. At the tender age of 37, though, Teva was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer that had already metastasized into her bones and liver. In her typically assertive way, she threw herself into research, experimental drugs, inspirational speaking, and now a book of her experiences.
The book is a reasonably short, large-format book, part comic strip and part text, with the descriptive subtitle "A memoir about living with cancer". It is a warts-and-all account of hospital visits, mental struggles and social difficulties, interspersed with dark humour, family lore, and insightful observations on what it is really like to be sentenced to a cruelly shortened life of pain and dashed hopes. The book juxtaposes the minor, everyday, physical challenges with the overwhelming existential predicaments and debates that cancer brings with it, and is shot through with wistful anecdotes from Teva's bucolic childhood in hippy, rural Oregon, and tales of her eccentric family. It is a painfully honest, almost voyeuristic, account of the chaos that cancer wreaks on a person's life and dreams, and yet it manages to remain somehow uplifting and edifying. It is an object lesson in graceful decline, and a testament to the value of family and friends.
I'm not saying this is a perfect book - the illustrations I found were merely adequate, and the writing is competent and heartfelt but hardly high literature - but it nevertheless offers a fascinating, and rather humbling, insight into coping with terminal cancer, and the kind of character and attitude needed to deal with it with at least a modicum of grace.
The book has garnered some rave reviews and plenty of media attention here in Toronto; here's hoping it soon reaches a wider audience. It is a subject almost everyone has to come terms with in one way or another, sooner or later, and we need all the help we can get.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

El Niño and climate change at the heart of Alberta wildfires

As Canada fixates on the drama and devastation occurring as raging wildfires burn up the one-time boom-town of Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, few people are linking it to climate change. In the midst of all the turmoil and social and economic disruption, it kind of seems churlish to say I told you so. But, yes, global warming exacerbated by a strong El Niño phenomenon (or El Niño exacerbated by global warming depending on how you see it) is at the heart of this particularly early and particularly brutal forest fire season in Alberta.
The city of Fort McMurray has been decimated, and upwards of 80,000 people have been evacuated from the area over the last few days, in what could turn out to be Canada's most expensive natural disaster ever. Some 25% of the nearby tar sands oil production has been halted as a result of the fires, adding further economic woes to a region already reeling from the low oil price. The fires already cover an area larger than New York City, but the tragedy is far from over and the blaze could double in size over the next day or two, and the fires could continue to burn for weeks. The area has not seen rain for over two months, and no rain is forecast for at least the next week or two, even if the temperatures (which have been in excess of 30°C recently) are set to fall some.
The warm, dry weather the whole of Western Canada and the Prairies has experienced over the last winter (the third warmest and second driest since records began) could lead to a record fire season this year. The confluence of El Niño and climate change is creating a perfect storm of wildfire conditions, with most of Albert and Saskatchewan under "extreme" or "very high" fire risk warnings at the moment, along with Eastern BC and Southern Manitoba, and even parts of Southern Ontario and Quebec are experiencing a "high" risk.
As Globe and Mail correspondent Doug Saunders points out, though, Canada's woes in the face of the combined attack of climate change and El Niño are actually miniscule compared to what else is happening around the world:
  • an extraordinary drought in already drought-prone South Africa, that has effectively wiped out its corn crop;
  • a precipitous fall in Ethiopia's grain crop (up to 75%), leading to an estimated 10 million people in food crisis there;
  • a food emergency declared in Malawi after a crop failure;
  • lost harvests in Zimbabwe, leading to the need for substantial grain imports the country can ill afford;
  • a doubling in grain prices throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa as a result of these and other droughts and resulting crop failures;
  • major droughts in several states in India, leading to emergency food measures;
  • reduced rice inventories of up to a third in Thailand, Vietnam and India, which between them are responsible for about 60% of the world's rice supply;
  • a significant fall in North Korea's rice yield, putting their already hard-pressed population under even greater food stress;
  • an increased gap between China's grain production and consumption of some 9.9 million tonnes;
  • massive droughts and wildfires in Indonesia, from the which the country is struggling to recover;
  • etc, etc.
I doubt the Alberta forest fires will be seen as a wake-up call in a region that relies on oil for much of its economic life, but they really do represent just one more reason why we need to take climate change seriously and act quickly, especially given that climate models predict that climate change may well double the likelihood of "super" El Niño events like we are experiencing at the moment.

Finally, about a week later, a mainstream media commentator has the cojones to make the same point in print - kudos to Gary Mason. As Mr. Mason points out, it is hard, and probably politically incorrect, to talk about climate change in the same sentence as the Fort McMurray fires, given that the whole town's very existence is predicated on oil production. But, yes, the subject needs to be broached and connections made.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Some Super Smart Animals

I don't watch much television, but I happened by accident on an interesting documentary on TVO called Super Smart Animals (it's actually a BBC program). Granted, it's a lousy National Geographic-esque title, but the program included some quite arresting footage, including:
  • an orangutan that uses water to float a peanut to the top of a tube in order to reach it;
  • a European jay that learns to use pebbles to raise the water level in a tube in order to get to a floating morsel of food (a skill that evades humans until about the age of seven) in no time at all;
  • a California dog that has taught itself to skateboard, with little or no human intervention;
  • an Alaska chickadee that solves food-finding problems that a cosseted southern chickadee from Kansas has no clue where to start on;
  • a night heron that has the foresight to use bread to fish with rather than just to eat;
  • a pair of dolphins that learn to perform synchronized creative routines on the fly;
  • an African grey parrot that has been taught to distinguish a huge variety of different letters, numbers, shapes, colours, etc, and to verbalize them;
  • a chimpanzee in Japan that can play computer number games, and can easily memorize a random set of 9 numbers and screen positions in just 60 milliseconds, a feat no human can even come close to.
And this was just Episode 1. It may become that very rare thing, a regular TV spot for me.

It turns out that the "series" actually comprises just two episodes, and the second of them is much less interesting and mind-blowing than the first.

Trump wins Republican nomination and all bets are off

I may not be only person posting on this subject today, but I don't see any alternative. With Donald Trump's win in Indiana yesterday, he becomes the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States. Technically, Trump has still not achieved the 1,237 delegate threshold needed for a statistical win, and may not do so until sometime in June, but the writing is already on the wall, especially given that first Ted Cruz decided to drop out of the race, and then John Kasich has also thrown in the towel. The unthinkable has become the undeniable. The tentative feeling in recent weeks - did I imagine it? - that perhaps Republicans were starting to rethink the wisdom of a Trump nomination all came to naught.
It has been a nasty, nasty campaign, like none before it. Even Trump's formulaic shout-out to Cruz ("he is one hell of a competitor, he is a tough, smart guy") cannot erase the memory of some of yesterday's more heartfelt insults, in which Cruz called Trump a "pathological liar", "completely amoral", a serial philanderer" and "a narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen", and Trump responded by calling Cruz's father "disgraceful", and casting aspersions that he was linked in some way with Lee Harvey Oswald (President Kennedy's assassin).
Trump celebrated his Indiana victory with his usual, "We are going to make America great again" by-line, this time augmented by the wonderful, "We're going to start winning again, and we're going to win bigly". Whether Trump ultimately becomes President or not, America has already dealt itself a massive black mark in the eyes of the rest of the world, which remains aghast that the world's most powerful nation could even be considering such a buffoon as leader.
And how did all this happen? Well, I have analyzed this in more detail in a previous post, but essentially Trump has cynically tapped into working-class American disillusionment with low employment and stagnant wages, stemming from (as Trump would have us believe) the spread of globalization, immigration and free trade. As he gob-smacked the civilized world with one enormity after another during this campaign - Mexican rapists, a physical wall along the US's southern border, a ban on Muslims, "Lying Ted", Senator John McCain a fraud, and many more - his approval ratings just went up among a certain demographic.
But, while Trump has admittedly galvanized (for better or worse) a segment of the American electorate that traditionally just complains without voting, he has also alienated millions in a way never before seen, and reduced a whole political party to internal dissent and recriminations. There are many die-hard Republicans who still maintain that they will never vote for Trump, and some that say they will even vote for Clinton instead. They call him a "bigot", "racist", "misogynist", "bully", and describe him as "crass" or "rude".
Add to this the Democrats of the country, which still remain in the majority (at least according to political party identification statistics), and one might conclude that the final presidential race is a foregone conclusion. But Trump has been written off before, and a circumspect observer would do well to be wary. At this point, all bets are off. One thing that can safely be predicted: it's going to be a brutal and ugly fight.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Leicester City - a celebration of improbability

I don't follow English soccer much these days, but here's a shout-out to little Leicester City, who clinched their improbable campaign to win the elite English Premier League last night.
It perhaps didn't happen in the most dramatic fashion - a statistical victory as second-placed Tottenham Hotspur failed to win against Chelsea - but it was not a fluke: the team has lost just three games all season, and are several points clear with a couple of games still in hand.
A little background, though, gives an idea of the enormity of their achievement. In a soccer world dominated by mega-corporations like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, who between them have shared out every championship for the last 20 years, Leicester has a quarter of the player payroll of these powerhouses. Manchester City spent more on one player this year (Kevin De Bruyne, £54 million) than Leicester spent on the whole of its starting line-up. Their best performance before this year was second place - in 1929. Just eight years ago, the team was playing in the lowly Third Division, and it narrowly avoided relegation from the Premier Division just last year. It filed for bankruptcy protection as recently as 2002. So, yes, improbable, I'd say!
In fact, at the beginning of the season, British bookmakers had the odds on Leicester City winning the championship this year at 5,000:1, substantially worse odds than the discovery of the Loch Ness Monster, Robert Mugabe winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Kardashian being elected President, or Elvis Presley turning up alive (the things Brits bet on!) The internet is rife with stories of punters who bottled out early and took substantially lower payouts, thinking that their luck couldn't possibly hold out to the end of the season.
And why did it happen? A couple of shrewd acquisitions (Algerian Riyad Mahrez, since named PFA Player of the Year, and goal-scoring phenom Jamie Vardy); a manager, Claudio Ranieri, who has never won anything substantial in his career, and who had been fired from managing the Greek national side after their embarrassing loss to the Faroe Islands, but who has managed to mould Leicester into a cohesive giant-slaying team; and a new club owner, Thai billionaire and soccer fanatic Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who has invested heavily in the team and its stadium since his arrival in 2010.
Maybe it was Vichai's habit of having the playing field blessed by Buddhist monks before kick-off, or maybe it was just sheer dumb luck and serendipity, but it's good to know that these kinds of phenomena are still possible, and that money does not dictate everything in the modern world.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Canadian taxpayers subsidizing government inefficiency

Well, who knew? It seems that a steady 60% of Canadian tax returns result in a refund, judging by stats for the last 10 years. Only around 15-20% result in a balance owing, and about 20-25% are nil returns (in theory, what should happen if the tax collection system is working efficiently).
So, 60% of us are financing the government with free loans each and every year. And I'll bet it's not the wealthiest 60% either. More spending money in the hands of taxpayers throughout the year (as opposed to an uncertain windfall each April) would probably be more beneficial to the Canadian economy as well.
Our own tax payable/refund status tends to vary each year, usually depending on tweaks of our RRSP contributions, but also - a bit of a pet peeve of mine - on the government's insistence on slapping on a demand for payments on account as soon as it spots any balance owed in the previous tax year. I understand that it makes sense for them to do this if there is consistently a balance owed over a period of years. But, please, not after a single year. It has happened many times that we have had tax payable for an individual tax year, followed by a demand for payments on account the next year, resulting in - guess what? - a tax refund due.
It's really not a big deal, but it's kind of annoying, as well as inefficient.