Thursday, June 30, 2016

Transit City to Transit Hell

I have to say, I am still exceedingly fed up with Toronto's continuing inaction on public transit.
Mayor John Tory was voted in largely on his pledge to get the city moving again after years of transit paralysis under the disastrous mayorship of Rob Ford. I didn't actually vote for the guy, and there were gaping holes in his plans, but even I thought that finally something might get done. But this was over a year-and-a-half ago now, and progress has been underwhelming to say the least.
Yes, we now finally have an airport rail link to downtown, the UP Express, even if I have still not used it - it's a great service if you live downtown, but from where I live (and I am by no means suburban), a streetcar followed by a subway followed by the UP Express train all ends up taking twice as long as driving, plus the added expense.
The Eglinton Crosstown line continues to proceed at what seems like a snail's pace. It was initiated long before John Tory, or even Rob Ford, came on the scene, way back in 2007, by our last genuinely pro-transit mayor, David Miller. It is supposedly on time and on budget, but it is still unlikely to be up and running before 2021, another five years of traffic snarl on busy Eglinton Avenue from now.
Mr. Tory's much-ballyhooed election platform centrepiece, SmartTrack, has been amended and cut back until an already poorly-planned and -researched project, that seemed in reality little more than an exercise in renaming parts of the existing GO train system, has ended up even more insignificant and largely redundant.
The so-called Downtown Relief Line was earmarked by Tory as a priority during his election campaign, although the project (which has been talked about, in various incarnations, since as early as 1911!) is still at the umming-and-ahhing about subtly differing routes stage. Current completion estimates are in the region of 2028-2031, although that assumes that work is started soon, which seems frankly unlikely.
And now, Mr. Tory has renewed his support for probably the least defensible of all of Toronto's transit plans, the Scarborough subway extension. The current scheme, to replace the admittedly ageing, but still functional, Scarborough RT light rapid transit line with an extension of the Line 2 subway line, mainly dates from Rob Ford's "subways, subways, subways" phase, except that it has been cut back still further so that we are now looking at a one-stop six-kilometer subway extension at a cost of $3.2 billion, to be built through a relatively low-density section of the city and along a route quite close to the also-planned SmartTrack. Sound appealing and well-planned?
Ah, when I think back to the heady days of 2007, when David Miller's fully-funded and scientifically-planned Transit City plan proposed seven new light transit lines through high-density sectors of the city, as well as an upgraded Scarborough RT and an improved bus system. All it took was one poor decision - the election of Rob Ford by the very Toronto suburbanites who would have benefitted most by the scheme (Ford had decided that he liked subways and didn't like the cheaper and more efficient light transit options) - and we have been in Transit Hell ever since, with no light at the end of the subway tunnel in prospect.
So much for Toronto's perennial dreams of being a "world-class city".

Monday, June 27, 2016

Quasicrystals, .a new thing to know about

I learned something new from the Internet today. It may not be the most useful thing I've ever learned, but it's cool and interesting.
What I learned is that there is such a thing as quasicrystals. A crystal is a mineral that has a defined geometric structure at the atomic level, a structure that repeats itself over and over (i.e. it is both ordered and periodic). In order for such a structure not to break down, it can only exhibit one of four rotational symmetries: two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, or six-fold.
Then, in the 1980s, scientists figured out how to make crystals with five-fold rotational symmetry, crystals that were ordered enough to produce recognizable diffraction patterns when shot with high-energy beams of electrons and x-rays, but that were not strictly periodic (i.e. their organization shifted and changed as they grew), earning them the label quasiperiodic crystals or quasicrystals.
However, no naturally occurring quasicrystals were known, at least until the late 2000s. Two scientists (from Princeton and the University of Florence) found a couple of tiny grains of an unusual aluminium/copper/iron mineral which appeared to exhibit five-fold rotational symmetry, while exploring a sample of the Khatyrka meteorite, an extraterrestrial object, origins unknown, found in the Koryat Mountains of Russia. So, clearly such things are naturally possible in the extreme conditions generated by the falling of a meteorite.
So, there you have it. Quasicrystals. Something to casually drop into a conversation at the gym or the dog park.

Plucky Iceland taking EURO 2016 soccer competition by storm

In the wake of Leicester City's improbable achievement in the English Premier League, I have to  make mention of an equally improbable run by little Iceland in the EURO 2016 soccer competition. The plucky Icelanders beat their idols England today in the Round of 16 after the best run in their history, and now find themselves in the quarterfinals.
I was brought up obsessively following club football, as almost all British kids do, but my interest in the professional sport did not outlive my childhood. Even international soccer started to pall for me after the Brazilians, Portuguese and Italians discovered diving and the professional foul in the late 1970s (at least that is how I remember it). But I do still follow, with varying levels of enthusiasm, big international competitions like the World Cup, the UEFA European Championships (or EURO) and the Olympics, even though I stopped playing the game myself a few years ago now.
In the absence of a Canadian team in any of the above, I usually throw my support behind underachieving England, for lack of a more logical alternative, even if I don't really like their style of play. But in any individual match, my support is firmly behind the underdog. And there can be few underdogs quite as lowly as Iceland. This is the first time the country has qualified for the EURO, or for any major international competition for that matter, and they really should not be there, least of all riding high in the quarter finals. But there they are, and they have done themselves proud.
The total population of Iceland is about 330,000, equivalent to a town the size of say Coventry or Sunderland in England, or say Victoria or Windsor in Canada, or a bunch of places you have never heard in in America like Aurora, Colorado or Corpus Christi, Texas. Given that about 20% of the population is under the age of 14, 25% is over the age of 55, and almost half is female, that leaves a total eligible pool of about 88,000 from which to choose a soccer team. A squad of 23 of them are in France right now, after beating the Netherlands both home and away during qualification games (preventing the European greats from qualifying in the process). Most of the squad play their football in little-known Scandinavian leagues, with a precious few having experience in the upper leagues (although not the elite teams) of Italy, Germany and England. The national team co-manager/coach is a practising dentist on the tiny Icelandic fishing island of Heimaey, for God's sake! The Icelandic premier division is a part-time league, and most players have day jobs outside football, making the national side's progress at the EURO finals all the more astonishing.
But, make no mistake, football is huge in Iceland. Year-round all-weather pitches have only been available in Iceland since about 2000, but their youth program is already enviable, and their national team has seen more success in the last few years than in all their history to date. An estimated 10% of the entire Icelandic population have been in France cheering their team on with their Viking helmets, their choreographed chants, and their renditions of romantic Icelandic ballads. Of those remaining at home, over half of all Icelanders are estimated to have watched the Iceland vs. Austria game last week, representing 99.8% of the nation's television audience. You can get some idea of just what this competition means to them by the positively unhinged reaction of the Icelandic commentator to Arnor Traustason's winning goal in that game.
Part of what makes soccer still fun to watch for me is the possibility of a Leicester or an Iceland story. EURO 2016 will no doubt go down in football history, and my support is now firmly behind little Iceland when they play hosts France later this week.
Mention should also be made of fellow overachieving dark-horse team, Wales, which has just powered its way into the semi-finals of the same competition. While admittedly not as ridiculously tiny or isolated as Iceland, Wales (pop. about 3 million) is also celebrating its first time qualifying for the UEFA Championships by smashing all preconceptions and predictions, topping its qualifying group, and overcoming powerful Belgium (a team which has, in turn, beaten its own unlikely path into the elite of European football) on the way to reaching its first ever major football semi-finals.
I have never really understood why Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland merit their own teams in soccer, rugby and cricket (but very little else as far as I am aware) - it is rather like Sicily or Catalonia fielding their own teams, separate from Italy or Spain. But all power to them as they as they face perennial underachievers Portugal in the semis this week.

Iceland's unlikely dream came to an abrupt end in the quarter-finals, as they went down (hard) to tournament hosts France, by a score of 5-2. Hordes of blue-festooned fans, however, remained in their seats cheering long after the game finished, leaving the rest of Europe with fond memories of Iceland's giant-slaying run, and adding a new word to the lexicon of many a European language: duglegur (an Icelandic word roughly translated as "industrious", but with a strong sense of having accomplished something beyond normal capabilities).
Wales also fell, losing 2-0 to my pet hate Portugal in the semi-finals, but their team spirit and their spirited fans will also leave a glowing legacy, and can only add to their confidence for the future.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Renewable cities

To take my mind off the Brexit débacle, here is a bit of inspiring news about a bunch of cities are already 100% reliant on renewable electricity:
  • Aspen, Colorado - the up-market US ski resort achieved its goal of 100% renewable power in September 2015, using a combination of wind, solar and geothermal energy.
  • Greensburg, Kansas - the small prairies city reached 100% way back in 2013, mainly from wind turbines, and exports excess power back to the grid. It constructed many energy efficient, LEED-certified buildings after a large portion of the city was destroyed by a tornado.
  • Burlington, Vermont - the first "major" city to reach 100% renewable power, which it achieved back in early 2015, utilizing a good variety of sources including biomass, wind, solar and hydroelectricity.
  • Columbia, Maryland - the wealthy planned community of Columbia offsets 100% of its energy use from a solar farm in nearby West Friendship, Maryland, as well as producing its own wind energy.
  • Wildpoldsried, Germany - really just a small town of 2,600 resident, but it actually produces 500% more renewable energy than it needs, and profits by selling it back into the energy grid.
Other larger cities hope to join the 100% club in the near future, including:
  • San Francisco, California - it hopes to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2025, towards which goal it has passed a bill recently requiring new residential buildings to include solar panels and either offer solar electric or solar water heating.
  • San Diego, California - it plans to completely transition to energy sources like solar and wind by 2035.
  • Honolulu, Hawaii - the whole of Hawaii, currently the most fossil fuel dependent state in the entire USA, plans to achieve 100% renewable energy by the year 2045, using resources including solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy.
  • Georgetown, Texas - it hopes to rely entirely on solar and wind energy by 2040, and has already made a start by striking a large solar deal with SunEdison.
  • Munich, Germany - this large German city is aiming for a 100% clean energy supply by 2025, towards which it has launched several green projects, including a hydro power plant.
  • Copenhagen, Denmark - the city aims to go carbon neutral by 2025, and has been erecting wind turbines and adding solar electricity, as well as encouraging biking, in order to meet that goal. The country as a whole plans to run entirely on renewable energy by 2050.
  • Vancouver, Canada - this city expects to be using 100% renewable energy for electricity, heating, and air conditioning by 2035, and hopes to go completely green for transportation too by 2050 at the latest.

Brexit: be careful what you wish for (oops, too late!)

Well, the Brits have really gone and done it now! In the referendum of June 23rd, they narrowly voted to leave the European Community, and now they will have to deal with the consequences.
The vote has split political parties, geographical regions, even families, right down the middle, and the aftermath of the vote is unlikely to see much more cohesion. I imagine that an awful lot of Leave voters are thinking right now, "What the hell did we just do?" and second-guessing themselves, though much too late. After all, they were promised independence, and all they will probably receive instead is isolation, uncertainty and resentment.
In a textbook example of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, all the comprehensive logical economic arguments of the Remain camp took a back-seat to the emotional nativist arguments of the Leave campaign (which as far as I can tell essentially revolves around an instinctive mistrust and dislike of foreigners, and a visceral opposition to immigration). I don't know whether it has been remarked on before, but even the names of the campaigns are reflective of their backgrounds (remain is a Latin-derived word descended from Middle French, rather than the more plebeian Old English-derived word stay; leave, on the other hand, comes straight from Old English).
All campaigns and elections are, to some extent or other, sown with misinformation, half-truths and obfuscation, but this has been a particularly nasty one with a particularly high level of both emotion and confusion among the voters. Certainly, few political campaigns in civilized countries involve an actual murder of a prominent politician these days, a new low point in British politicking. This is not the place to go into the details, but there have been many examples in the press of individuals sold on the claims of the Brexit campaign, but for totally spurious, nonsensical, fallacious or paradoxical reasons. There was even a campaign of paranoid Brexit supporters issuing people with pens as they entered the polling stations (complete with a #UsePens hashtag), convinced as they were that there was a MI5-led plot to rig the vote by secretly erasing and changing pencil votes.
In some ways, this has been a victory of democracy over democracy: while a small plurality of Leave supporters carried the day, a healthy majority of the well-educated and thoughtful British MPs these same people voted into power were actually in favour of remaining. Maybe Plato had it right after all...
Anyway, the deed is done, and now Britain and Europe must turn to carrying out the will of the British people, and to dealing with the fallout. In reality, nothing has changed in the short term: Britain's actual extraction from Europe will take many months, probably years, to effect, and in the meantime it remains a part of the EU, even if the atmosphere has been irrevocably soured. There is a high likelihood that Europe will make the process as difficult as possible (or at least a quick divorce, but a painful one), as it tries to make an example of Britain so as to discourage other countries from leaving. New trade treaties need to be struck, possibly along the lines of those with Norway or Switzerland, which will almost certainly come with stiff monetary contribution requirements and even immigration concessions, which may not leave Britain any better off than they were as regards these touchy subjects. Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to lead this process, understandably enough, and has tendered his resignation, meaning that Britain's Conservative government (and therefore the country as a whole) will probably soon be led by a loose cannon like Michael Gove or, God forbid, Boris Johnson (the Donald Trump of England, also widely referred to as "the court jester") - a poor trade indeed.
Whether anything has irrevocably changed or not, though, the world is certainly acting as though it has. The pound has tanked (the 8% drop was the largest ever one-day fall, and the currency now stands at a 31-year low against the US dollar), stock exchanges the world over have lost scads of money - an estimated $2 trillion was wiped off global equity markets the day after the vote, also the largest single day loss ever - even if there is not necessarily any logical reason why this should have happened (stock exchanges are not logical institutions), and the country' S & P credit rating has been cut by two notches. Far right parties throughout Europe see Brexit as a vindication and a great fillip to their cause, and will redouble their efforts to demolish the EU once and for all. In fact, the greatest disservice the vote may have done for the world is to lend validation to the kind of populist dog-whistle politics employed by people like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump. The other thing it may have done is to disillusion younger voters: about three-quarters of voters 18-24 years old voted to remain in Europe, and a clear majority of those under 45.
Other non-EU Countries like Russia and Israel, who have had their own battles with the Europe over the years, are rubbing their hands with glee, as they would at anything that might be seen as reducing the EU's power. Still others, like Turkey and the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, who have been looking for years for an in to the European club, are rueing the British decision, as the EU will now concentrate their resources on dealing with Britain's defection rather than looking to bring in new members.
Countries like Canada and the USA will probably just get down to renegotiating trade deals with Britain with relatively little difficulty. But China, for all it smiles secretly to see the weatern world discomfitted and thrown into disarray, is very worried that Britain's exit - and the general atmosphere of uncertainty in international trade it has created - will make their dealings with Europe much more difficult, at a time when their economy needs a good boost.
Pro-EU Scotland will almost certainly call for another independence referendum, and this time it will probably happen, thus beginning the break-up of the British hegemony. A plebiscite on Irish unity and perhaps even Welsh independence may well follow. As just another example of the myriad small changes that many people never considered, non-EU Northern Ireland will probably need to establish a hard border with the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) to its south, in order to stop all those hordes of Europeans from invading the stories lands of Albion though the back door.
Well, I hope those Brexiters are happy now. The future, however, will not be a return to a "mythical golden age when jolly beef-eating Britons sat serenely in their island fortress", as I have seen it amusingly described, even if that "golden age" never really existed. That same article points out that isolationist Tudor England, in reality, was a minor power trapped between a hostile Scotland to the north, an unruly Ireland to the west, and an unfriendly Europe to the east, and lived in constant fear of invasion. In the modern world, however, there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty, and Britain will now have to start from scratch in negotiating trade agreements with everyone else (it's just that those other people will be much more resentful and difficult now).
Contrary to what many Leave proponents seem to believe, Brexit will not lead to an unfettered free market in Britain, nor has it delivered a lethal blow to the evil forces of capitalism in some obscure way. When all the Poles (who do most of the crappy jobs in Britain, and have done for years now) leave, who will clean the toilets, serve in the cafes and corner stores, and pick up the garbage? Brexit supporters, presumably, if anyone.
I really believe that the Brexit vote was more about the downtrodden working classes giving two fingers to what they see as interfering foreigners in Brussels, at whatever to the cost to them and the country. They see themselves, misguidedly, as doing what Dutch ultra-rightist Geert Wilders calls "beating the political elite in both London and Brussels". The people may have spoken, but - as someone whose family has to continue living in Britain - God, I wish it hadn't.
There is still a slim possibility that the deal may not go through - both Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted strongly to remain in Europe, are considering a legal challenge to the vote, and an online petition for a second referendum already has millions of names, just days after the event. Interestingly, the referendum is not even legally binding, and the British Parliament still has to vote the outcome into law. But I think that a not-so-United Kingdom has to get used to the idea of being a persona non grata in Europe, and the rest of the world has to get used to an uncertain Britain and a weakened Europe.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The consensus gap of climate change perceptions

In case anyone is still in any doubt about the consensus among climate scientists on the existence of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, the definitive study is still one published in the journal Environmental Research Letters (one of the Institute of Physics' journals) back in May 2013 by a team led by John Cook.
The study, entitled Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, concluded that, among published abstracts that expressed a position either way, 97% of them endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. Although three years old now, the study has been downloaded half a million times, four times more than any other IoP study, and it is considered by most to be rigorous and conclusive and pretty much the last word on the subject.
To address various attacks and misrepresentations of the original study, a follow-up paper, called Consensus on Consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming, was published in April 2016, also by Cook et al., which looked at seven previous climate consensus papers. This paper concluded that, depending on exactly how you measure the expert consensus, the consensus among publishing climate scientists that humans are responsible for climate change is somewhere between 90% and 100%, with most of the studies finding a consensus of around 97% (that number again), and furthermore that the greater the climate expertise among those surveyed, the higher the consensus on human-caused global warming. This follow-up paper is now the second-most read paper in Environmental Research Letters after the original 2013 paper.
But, as The Guardian reports, thanks to a concerted decades-long misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry and some unscrupulous politicians, as well as a certain amount of false balance in media climate coverage, the public perception remains that just half to two-thirds of experts agree on human-caused global warming. This difference between the actual consensus and the public's perception of the consensus has become known as the "consensus gap". Although the consensus gap has modestly shrunk over the last few years, mainly due to increasingly accurate media coverage, it is still significant. For example, according to a March 2016 study, only 11% of Americans understand that nearly all climate scientists (here defined as more than 90%) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening.
Of course, some contrarians (here is just one example) continue to propagate the myth that there is no consensus, or that a growing number of scientists are rejecting the consensus, so the public's confusion is perhaps understandable. I can only imagine the exasperation of the experts in this field that, after all their hard work and their attempts at engaging the general public on a hugely important issue, a whole lot of people just plain don't believe them.

The colour of death

A study by a market research company under contract to the Australian government claims to have definitively identified the world's ugliest colour.
The colour, officially blessed with the rather highfallutin monicker of "opaque couché" and identified as No. 448 in the Pantone colour-matching system (74, 65, 42 in RGB, or #4A412A in RGB hex), is a kind of drab greenish-brown, variously described as looking like death, filth, lung tar(!) or baby excrement. It also happens to closely match the colour of the Mona Lisa's dress.
The Australian government wanted to identify the world's most repulsive colour in order to mandate its use for cigarette packaging in Australia, which is already festooned with graphic images of rotten teeth, cancerous tongues, and non-viable newborn babies. Australia's cigarette packaging has had an enviable record in getting smokers to quit, and its approach has been imitated by several other countries, including Britain, France and Ireland (actually, Canada was the first jurisdiction to require such full-colour graphic warnings on cigarette packages, way back in 2000).
The US tobacco industry, on the other hand, has managed to block all attempts to require such lurid health warnings. Maybe they could live with opaque couché, though?

Needless spat over protection of a tiny frog

The diminutive western chorus frog, just 2.5cm long and weighing just 1 gram, is the unlikely subject of a dust-up between the federal government and the provincial government of Quebec.
In a rare intrusion into the usually amicable relations between the two governments, Quebec's Ministry of the Environment is complaining that the federal Department of the Environment and Climate Change has overstepped its authoriity by issuing an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act, an order which effectively blocks part of a residential development in La Prairie, just south of Montreal.
The little critter has already lost 60% of its habitat in the region since the 1990s, and is considered in danger of complete extirpation within a decade or two, so there is little debate over the ecological need for the order. In fact, the Quebec government was already in the process of protecting 83% of area in question.
So, the spat is essentially just a rather childish, knee-jerk reaction to what Quebec sees as federal meddling in its business. You can almost hear the whine, "Aw, I wanted to do that!" The federal Liberals, for their part, maintain that, whatever the Quebec government decides to do on the issue, it was under a legal obligation to make the emergency order, which is my view is an entirely commendable observation of a law that the previous Conservative government (not known for its environmental commitment, to out it mildly) completely ignored.
Quite honestly, Quebec's record on the case to date has not been stellar, given that most of the frog's habitat has already bren lost to development, so I'm backing the feds on this one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

MSM blood donation policy may seem discriminatory, but it is pragmatic

Health Canada have just made it a little easier for gay men (or, in the technical language, MSM, or "men who have sex with men", an awkward phrase to say the least) to donate blood.
Starting in the 1980s, gay men were subject to a blanket lifetime ban on donating blood. Then, in 2013, a "donor deferral period" of five years was instituted, meaning that MSM could donate blood provided they had been celibate for five years. Just this week, this deferral period was reduced to one year, in line with policies in countries such as the UK and Australia.
The whole idea of such a ban or deferral period seems to hearken back to the days when HIV and AIDS were considered to be gay-only diseases. Many authorities, though, including the Canadian AIDS Society, see no reason for any restrictions at all on gay men donating blood, and claim that to institute separate rules for a whole segment of society is tantamount to discrimination (the Ontario Superior Court ruled in 2010 that the deferral policy for MSM is NOT discriminatory, because it is based on health and safety considerations).
As someone who lived in the UK in the 1980s, and so is also under a lifetime ban by Canadian Blood Services (on the grounds that I was potentially exposed to the BSE outbreak there), I understand this point of view. I also understand that donated blood cannot be tested against absolutely everything, so I have always just accepted this as an unfortunate turn of events that I could do nothing about. But surely HIV testing is a much more mainstream issue?
Every blood donation is indeed routinely tested for several infectious diseases, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. However, Canadian Blood Services maintains that the deferral period for gay men remains because the testing is not 100% reliable, and specifically that there is a brief period shortly after infection when HIV is not detectable. Presumably this window of error also applies to people who contract HIV through other avenues than man-on-man sex, but the odds are apparently much longer.
So, although my initial reaction was that this latest tweak is just a continuation of an already discriminatory system, it does seem that there is at least some sound science behind it. If you want more details, look though the detailed Canadian Blood Services FAQ on the issue (they even address the part that I had the most problems with, namely why their policy is so broadly aimed at a whole segment of society rather than individual practices). I understand their contention that their policies need to be simple and easy to apply, and that they do not want to introduce policies that actually decrease their donor base. The new protocol is, then, a combination of science-based objectivity and pragmatism.

Why does it matter if Jesus was married or not?

Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King is in the news again after her revelation a few years ago of a scrap of papyrus that purports to prove that Jesus (you know, the Son of God, that one) had in fact been married. Now she is saying that the fragment is actually more likely to be a very good forgery.
The papyrus, written in Coptic, apparently includes the phrase, "Jesus said to them, My wife....", and Ms. King presented it to the world - to great fanfare, and equally great outrage - back in 2012. I remember thinking at the time, "What is the big deal here?" And that remains my reaction today, now that the papyrus fragment is being considered as probably inauthentic.
More important than whether it is a forgery or not, surely, is whether it actually changes anything. I am not religious, so it makes no difference to me whether Jesus (whether or not such a person even existed) was married or not. But what difference would it make to a religious person? Jesus did not teach that marriage was wrong, and most religious folk today seem positively gung-ho in favour of the institution of marriage. So, why the howls of outrage at the suggestion that Jesus may have married? After all, pretty much everyone married in those days. Even Mohammed was happily married (thirteen times, I believe!).
Maybe I am missing something, but I really don't get the significance of this finding, authentic or otherwise.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Russia's athletics ban to continue into Olympic Games

In a dramatic and brave ruling earlier today, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) has upheld the ongoing suspension of Russian track and field athletes from international competitions, which means that they will almost certainly be absent from the Olympic Games later this summer. The International Olympic Committee still has to make its own definitive announcement next week, but in theory they should be ruled by the IAAF.
Russia was banned from international competition last November following allegations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) of widespread and state-sponsored doping in a variety of sports, at times involving even the Russian secret service. There is little controversy or doubt over this,  and it is backed up by the former director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, who fled the country earlier this year, and who has freely admitted that he took part in a team-wide doping scheme, meticulously planned over a period of years, during the 2015 Winter Games in Sochi.
Since then, Russia's Minister of Sport has admitted to a culture of doping (although he fell short of admitting state sponsorship of such practices), and has claimed that the country is doing everything possible to turn things around and to regain the trust of the international sports community. However, a new report by WADA, just this week, claims that, even after these promises, Russian anti-doping officials are still routinely being stopped from testing athletes, and are even being threatened by security services. In this climate, the IAAF has little or no choice but to uphold the ban, even given (or perhaps because of) the extreme sensitivity of the timing, just before the upcoming Olympic Games.
Russia, from President Putin on down, is predictably incensed, and sees itself as being unfairly penalized while other countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which have their own doping challenges, are being let off comparatively lightly. But I think it is fair to say that in no other country is the practice quite so ingrained and aggressive in its application. There is still a possibility that some "clean" Russian athletes will mount an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) before the Olympics, arguing that it is wrong to punish clean athletes for the crimes of others. A small number of individual Russian athletes may be able to compete as neutrals if they can prove they are clean, but, as things stand, it looks like Russia will not be appearing in the medals table any time soon.
But, it is worth remembering that there are plenty of other cheats in the world of sport who are not Russian, and who may not be quite so systematic. My faith in, and my enjoyment of, international sports has been severely compromised in recent years. Frankly, I would not be excessively upset if the whole Olympic Games were put on hiatus until the doping problems and the myriad corruption issues within the International Olympic Committee as a whole are resolved. The "bloated extravagance of greed, corruption, simplistic flag-waving and materialistic excess", as a recent Globe and Mail editorial aptly summed up the modern-day Olympics, has little or nothing to do with the bold but hopelessly naïve aspirations of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and this seems like a good time to stand back and rethink the whole enterprise.
Well, credit where credit is due, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has put its money where its mouth is and rejected an appeal by the Russian Olympic Committee and 68 Russian athletes, and upheld the ban on Russia attending the upcoming Olympic Games.
Russian officials and many athletes are obviously pretty upset, and no doubt President Putin will stick his oar in at some point, as is his wont. But this ruling gives the strongest possible message that drugs (and especially systematic drugging) will not be tolerated and, after the latest damning WADA report, the authorities had little choice but to ban the whole country if they were ever to be taken seriously again.

But then the final decision-making was turned over the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a body that many consider to be almost as corrupt as Russia. So, now it appears that the Russian Olympic ban will not be total after all. The IOC has ruled that competitors from Russia can take part in the Games provided they meet certain strict criteria (e.g. any athlete who has ever tested positive for drugs will be disallowed), and it is up to the individual sports federations and athletes to prove that they are clean.The IOC specifically confirmed that it will not allow whistleblower Yulia Stepanova to compete, even as a neutral athlete, in Rio, on the grounds that she has previously failed a doping test, and also does not satisfy the IOC's "ethical requirements".
Some see this as the "prudent" thing to do, but many others (including several prominent Canadian athletes) see it as a historic opportunity squandered, and an open door to "business as usual". I am in the latter camp, and consider the IOC decision to be mealy-mouthed and soft,  and a slap in the face to WADA, the CAS, IAFTA, and everyone else who has been calling for a full ban. It has certainly not renewed my faith in the IOC and the Olympics in general.

When asked the right questions, Americans are most concerned about the environment

An interesting item in the HuffPost blog today highlights the dramatic effects of the phrasing of questions in polls.
As the article points out, a question like "Do you believe in climate change?" tends to elicit a largely unconsidered, knee-jerk response in many Americans, as though the very phrasing of the question makes it clear at the outset that the answer should be "no" (as in "Do you believe in the tooth fairy?"). Similarly, the long-standing Gallop Poll question, "What is the most important problem facing this country today?" tends to result in responses more concerned with personal, everyday, often economic, issues like jobs, healthcare, education, security, infrastructure, terrorism, kids, housing, transportation, etc, and environmental issues typically tend to take a distant back-seat on such polls - a fact not lost on many politicians whose agenda this suits.
Stanford's Political Psychology Research Group, though, have for years now posed a subtly different question, yielding a not-so-subtle difference in responses. Their question is phrased, "What will be the most important problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?", and, even in relatively conservative and blasé America, global warming/environment jump to the top of the list with a 25% response (a distant second place is shared by the economy/unemployment and terrorism, both with 10% - no other single issue even breaks the 5% threshold). More specifically: 74% of Americans believe that global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem for the USA; 83% that it will be a very or somewhat serious problem for the world as a whole; 78% say that the US government should limit emissions by American companies; and only 9% are extremely or very sure that global warning has not actually been happening.
Very few issues have ever united Americans quite as unanimously as this poll would suggest and, on this basis, the world's largest climate change offender should be making concerted efforts to address the problem (to be fair, President Obama is trying, but he appears to be swimming against a strong adverse political tide), and the issue should be top of mind for parties of all political stripes.
So, maybe the problem has been that, for all these years, we have simply been asking the wrong questions.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Toronto's plan to deal with an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities

Toronto is suffering through something of an epidemic of pedestrian deaths at the moment.
A total of 163 pedestrians have been killed on the streets of Toronto since 2011, more than have died in the much better-publicized shootings during that period. That's about one every 10 days on average, although a pedestrian is hit non-lethally by a vehicle about every four hours. And, worryingly, the numbers are on the increase: the last five years has seen 15% more deaths than the previous five. The percentage of collisions resulting in death has also see a spike recently, especially over the last three years.
Yes, Toronto has more pedestrians and more vehicles than it used to have, but an analysis of the details reveals a concerning trend that is probably only going to get worse as the population continues to age: the victims are disproportionately over 65 and hit by a larger vehicle (mainly cars, minivans and SUVs), typically somewhere in the suburbs, and while crossing a major arterial road at a spot without traffic lights or crosswalks. People 65 and older make up 14% of the city’s population, but they represent half of its pedestrian fatalities. Seniors are three to four times more likely to die when struck at speeds of 30-50 km/h than younger people. Drivers are thought to be at fault in 50-60% of pedestrian fatalities, and the pedestrians themselves are at fault in 25-30% of cases (the remaining cases are unclear).
Under some pressure, and following a lacklustre and poorly-received earlier promise to cut pedestrian deaths by just 20% (suggesting that 80% of the current carnage is considered acceptable), Mayor John Tory has recently vowed to pursue a goal of zero pedestrian deaths. While Toronto's pedestrian deaths as a share of its population is actually slightly better than that of cities like Vancouver and New York, for example, the situation in both of those cities is improving, while Toronto seems to be headed in the wrong direction. So, clearly Toronto can learn from the experiences of other cities, and clearly it needs to do so soon.
So, what exactly can be done?
The best results seem to come from reducing speed limits and traffic-calming measures. Research shows that being hit at 30 km/h is roughly like falling from the second storey of a building (it's going to hurt, but most people will survive), whereas being hit at 65 km/h is more like falling from the fifth floor (most people will die).
In 2013, after a particularly bad year for pedestrian fatalities, New York instituted its 63-point Vision Zero program, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities within 10 years. It dropped the default speed limit to 25 mph (about 40 km/h) from 30 mph, and put some real funding (US$115-million) into capital investments in safer roads. It also ramped up its traffic police efforts: citations for failing to yield and for texting while driving jumped more than 200% in 2015, speeding violations climbed 75%, and the 140 speed cameras set up near schools have generated more than one million violations. In addition, it has tweaked 700 traffic signals so the pedestrian signals start a little earlier than the ones for motorists (to give walkers a head start on crossing), and there are plans to extend this scheme to many of the most dangerous intersections, as well as at school crosswalks on the worst roadways. Education and media campaigns have been waged, and a new right-of-way law has made it easier to prosecute bad drivers (in 2015, a quarter of motorists who killed a pedestrian or cyclist were arrested under this law). And all these changes are paying concrete dividends: New York's 137 pedestrian deaths in 2015 was a long way from zero, granted, but it was still its safest year on record (a slim improvement on 2014, and much better than 2013).
New York's Vision Zero (and San Francisco's similar program) is based in large part of the experience in Sweden which, as so often, provides the gold standard for socially-beneficial, people-centred improvements. Sweden enshrined law aimed at zero pedestrian fatalities way back in 1997, and it has seen enviable results: the capital city of Stockholm, for example, has cut road deaths since 2000 by nearly half, and pedestrian deaths by about a third (the city of about one million people had only six pedestrian fatalities in 2013).
Toronto's plan, however, remains vague - an additional investment of $40-million over five years on safety-related improvements has been mentioned, and there has been talk of lowering speed limits from 50 km/h to 40 km/h in some locations, and from 60 km/h to 50 km/h in others - and many traffic activists remain unconvinced that Toronto is taking the issue seriously even now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hearn Generating Station provides a dramatic new home for Luminato

I'm not in the habit of doing reviews in this blog of all the various theatre and contemporary dance performances we attend, but last night's was a bit special, so I thought I would make an exception.
The occasion was the grand opening of this year's Luminato Festival here in Toronto. I'm not even a huge fan of Luminato, which I feel is another one of those festivals that started small and kind of funky and edgy, but which has grown unwieldy and a bit corporate. But this year, the usually scattered and multifarious festival has found a focus in a dramatic new headquarters. And it is this location itself that is the star of the show, for me at least.
The Hearn Generating Station, a long-abandoned 1950s-era coal-fired power station in an obscure but apparently soon-to-be-gentrified part of the Portlands area of East Toronto (just a 20-minute jaunt down the cycle track from my house, as it happens), is a fascinating glimpse into a post-industrial, even post-apocalyptic, future. Looking for all the world like one of those deserted and run-down warehouses where gang bosses carry out their torture scenes in TV dramas, the Hearn is all twisted (and, yes, tortured) rebar, decomposing concrete, rusting ironwork and obscure machinery. Hell, there are even the obligatory pools of extremely suspect-looking water, and exposed electrical connections and pipework that go precisely nowhere. I'm almost certain I recognize it from more than one nasty scene in a TV show. It's also absolutely massive and cavernous, apparently large enough to fit 12 Parthenons inside (if that is the kind of image that helps you visualize things, rising 20 storeys from the main floor, scaled by iffy-looking metal staircases and cross-crossed by steel girders.
This, then, is the unprepossessing material that has been reclaimed by the Luminato people, who have added eerie lighting, ambient industrial music, and a whole host of strange interactive art installations and photo montages printed on the brick walls. My own favourite was the huge 8-metre disco ball, made up of 1,200 mirrors, slowly spinning and reflecting distorted gobs of light throughout the whole building.

The particular event we were there to see - just the first of an eclectic program of artistic endeavour planned for the Hearn this Luminato season, including performances ranging from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Tafelmusik to left-field drone-metal legends Sun O))) to the queer hip-hop of Yes Yes Y'all, and from the serious and seriously Scottish James Plays to a doggie-themed drag show by The House of Filth - was an intense music and dance performance by Vancouver’s Holy Body Tattoo troupe set to live music by Montreal’s post-rock project Godspeed You! Black Emperor (careful with that exclamation point - they are picky). Seated just a couple a metres back from the ominous signs warning "Caution - Extreme Noise", we were soon grateful for the earplugs provided, as the music morphed between delicate (if amplified) chamber orchestra sections and brutal, punishing, cacophonous crescendos of guitars, drums and feedback.
The dance likewise lurched from skittish, hyperactive, spastic movements to extended statue-like poses to apparently random outbursts of shouting, laughter and physical flailing. Most of it took place on a series of up-lit and down-lit boxes or pedestals, although this loosened up significantly in the wild second half. At times, the audience really did not know what to make of it all, including the several (deliberately uneasy) false finishes. Some of the "dancing", however, was excellent, and the sheer physical stamina of the dancers was most impressive to behold, even if the choreography was a bit self-indulgent at times. But, together with the music and the surreal surroundings, the package as a whole was really quite spectacular, well worth the extended wait while "technical difficulties" were attended to before the show began.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Change the Canadian anthem. Get over it.

It's kind of ridiculous that parliament is finding it so difficult to pass a very simple bill to change two little words in Canada's national anthem.
All that is being proposed is that the line "True patriot love in all thy sons command" be changed to "True patriot love in all of us command", not a major or particularly contentious concession to 21st century gender neutrality and inclusiveness, one wouldn't have thought.
Much has been made of the fact that the bill is being brought to parliament by Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, who is suffering through the final stages of ALS. Bélanger was forced to turn out for his bill's official presentation yesterday, thanks to the Conservatives' rather hard-hearted insistence that another Liberal MP could not possibly be substituted for the purpose. Bélanger made an emotional and rather pitiful appearance yesterday to fulfill this unnecessarily legalistic requirement.
It's difficult to understand exactly what the Tories have against the change. Some of them are complaining that there has not been enough public discussion, and that the bill is being rushed. But how much discussion can such a small and simple change require? Okay, it is not the most poetic of lines -  some have argued that perhaps "in all our hearts command" might sound better - but it really doesn't matter that much. One Saskatchewan Conservative MP complained that changing the anthem would be tantamount to admitting that it has been discriminatory for 100 years. Well, duh!
Parliament has much more important things to discuss. Stop the prevarication and obstructionism. Pass the bill. Get over it.

The direction of a horse-race is surely not a big deal

Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto is convinced that, by running clockwise races, they will inject a whole new level of excitement into the sport, and miraculously attract much-needed new blood into what appears to be a failing business model.
Apparently, for obscure historical reasons, North American racetracks run their horse-races anti-clockwise, as distinct from the European and Caribbean clockwise tradition. Who knew?
The horse-racing business may be going through a bad patch in Toronto at the moment, but is changing the direction of the race really going to make a significant difference to the punters who might frequent it, and thereby revive interest in a languishing sport/business?
Call me cynical, but I just have this feeling that most people who go to horse-racing are much more exercised by the betting and the movement of money than in the direction of the race (or even in the race itself, for that matter).

Rooting for Toronto's capybaras

Capybara fever is in full flight in Toronto at the moment.
Two capybaras escaped from their cage in Toronto's High Park Zoo back on May 24th, and are still at loose in the park, despite the attentions of a whole battery of city staffers, rodent experts from Toronto Zoo and the Ministry of Natural Resources, local capybara breeders (what?!), and even a Brazilian ex-wrangler of capybaras. Park staff have tried to coax them home by playing capybara calls over a speaker, but the wily rodents are having none of it. A series of cages baited with corn and fruit remain unvisited (by capybaras, at least). Heartfelt but spurious sightings of the animals from as far away as Scarborough are commonplace.
The cute, if rather ungainly, animals have certainly caught Toronto's collective imagination, and have provided plenty of ammunition for the Internet's meme-making machine. Dubbed Bonnie and Clyde by many, the capybaras have found their way onto photoshopped Blue Jays logos and CN Tower advertising, and have even colonized Steve McQueen's motorcycle from The Great Escape. They boast not one but two Twitter accounts.
TV news crews have shared long, breathless clips of the capybaras in the park, and local amateur naturalists have been able to snap several good photos of the rodents in their new habitat. But no-one seems to be able to get near them (bear in mind, they can run at 35 km/h when pressed, they are prodigious swimmers, and they are, well, just shy).
However, the increasing media and tourist attention is likely to spook the animals, and one can easily imagine them coming to grief on a park road or, an even sadder prospect, out in the concrete jungle surrounding the park. If they were to make it down to the none-too-distant shores of Lake Ontario, though, the whole continent (and its wealth of grasses and aquatic plants) is theirs for the taking. Most of Toronto is rooting for them.

As of June 28, both capybaras were back in their pens in High Park Zoo. One was caught in a trap baited with fruit and corn back on June 12th. The other lasted until this Tuesday, after a five-week jaunt through the park.
What will the local press have to write about now?

Friday, June 10, 2016

Michael Chan excuses Chinese boorishness (again)

Ontario Liberal MPP and cabinet minister Michael Chan should be ashamed of himself (and his party should ashamed of him) for his defence of visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's boorish and undiplomatic behaviour last week.
Back on June 1st, Mr. Wang reacted aggressively to a perfectly reasonable press question about China's human rights record and their treatment of Kevin Garratt (who is still languishing in a Chinese jail for alleged spying). Wang, rather than answering the question with the usual diplomatic platitudes, evaded the question completely and shot back, "Your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance ... I don't know where that comes from. This is totally unacceptable", adding, "Please don't ask questions in such an irresponsible manner. We welcome goodwill suggestions but we reject groundless or unwarranted accusations". He claimed that only the Chinese were qualified to talk about China's human rights record (even if that were true, that is exactly what he, as China's official representative, was being asked to do).
Whatever the outburst might indicate about China's hypersensitivity to widespread condemnation of its human rights record, the fact remains that Wang's tantrum was totally inappropriate. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion hopped from foot to foot uncomfortably and ineffectually as he usually does, but made no attempt to defend the hapless reporter. Dion claims that he and Wang had already had "mature and respectful discussions on our respective positions" on Chinese human rights and China's aggressive claims in the East China Sea, but his humble and impotent response to Wang in public gives us a good idea of just how tame his approach probably was in private. I suspect that the "respect" was largely a one-way affair.
Anyway, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contented himself with an anodyne statement about Canada's “dissatisfaction” with Mr. Wang's antics, the whole thing died down. Then, Chinese-born MPP Michael Chan, who is technically the Ontario Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade, and not an apologist for the Chinese government, waded in with comments in a Canadian Chinese-language blog suggesting that, instead of looking at Chinese human rights as they exist today, we should instead be thankful for how much they have improved over the last 40 years.
Instead of dealing with the incident he was questioned about, Chan lists booming economic growth, increased ease of tourism, and the wider latitude for Chinese students to study abroad, as important achievements for China during the last 40 years. This may well be the case, but these achievements have nothing to do with Chinese attitudes towards human rights, which appear to have changed little, and they should not be used as excuses or to deflect appropriate criticism.
Mr. Chan already has a record of some inappropriately pro-Chinese statements (sometimes at the expense of Canada) and some rather murky behind-the-scenes activities. He has been the subject of several allegations that he is too close to the Chinese consulate in Toronto; he has been berated for active lobbying for the controversial Confucius Institute to come to Toronto’s school board, and for hiring two staffers known for pro-Chinese regime activities; he has praised China’s anti-corruption campaign, which many critics see as merely a new way for the leadership to purge its enemies; and he has apparently been seen pumping his fist in the air and shouting "Long Live the Motherland" in Mandarin.
Now, some of these may be allegations only, but it does seem that his allegiances are severely conflicted for someone in his sensitive and powerful position. These latest comments are not helping his case any.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

I hereby vow to improve my fuel efficiency

An article in the Drive section of today's Globe and Mail, a section that I rarely read with much attention, has reminded me of something I once knew, but appear to have forgotten in recent years.
A few years ago now, I read a similar article and vowed to reduce my driving speed in order to improve my fuel efficiency. I kept to speed limits obsessively for a year or more, tried to avoid sharp acceleration, and even planned ahead for the most fuel-efficient way to negotiate hills. This was not exactly "hyper-miling", but it did noticeably improve my fuel efficiency and, for a while at least, it gave me an interesting challenge during the usually humdrum and tedious act of driving.
Unfortunately, it didn't last too long. All it took was a couple of occasions when I was pushed for time and had to put my foot down, and soon I was back to my old inefficient habits. So, this article is a timely one for me.
A vehicle uses over 20% more fuel when driving at 120 km/h on the highway than when driving at the official speed limit of 100 km/h. Yes, the journey at 100 km/h takes 20% longer but, unless there are pressing reasons to the contrary, an extra 12 minutes on an hour's journey is really not enough to get excited about. Even just sticking to the posted speed limits in town is enough to generate substantial fuel savings and, with gas prices back above $1, that can save more money than you might think.
What else can help? Accelerate gently when acceleration is needed; leave more space between you and the car in front (so as to avoid constantly braking and accelerating); allow yourself to speed up on downhill slopes, and slack off the accelerator on the uphills; coast wherever possible (including when slowing to a stop); keep the windows closed and the AC off unless the weather absolutely requires it; and avoid idling while parked. I drive a hybrid anyway (although a 2.5 litre 4-wheel drive hybrid, and so not one of the most efficient cars on the road), so observing these simple rules will have even more impact on my fuel efficiency than they might have with other cars.
The article in question reports fuel savings of 25-30% from the simple observation of these recommendations, and of almost 50% in the case of hybrids. No-one will think any the worse of you for driving like an old duffer (when was the last time you saw someone you knew while driving anyway), and your bank account and the environment will certainly thank you for it.
So, I am renewing my vows. Let's see how long it lasts this time...

Monday, June 06, 2016

What you need to know about sunscreen

There is a profusion of articles in today's Globe and Mail on different aspects of the thorny issue of sunscreen.
A quick trip to the supermarket or pharmacy will be enough to show what a proliferation of different brands, types and claims of sunscreens there exists these days. There are myriad different SPFs; UVA, UVB and broad-spectrum sunscreens; physical and chemical sunscreens; PABA and PABA-free sunscreens; water-resistant, sports, and active use sunscreens; no-rub and non-greasy sunscreens; sprays, lotions, gels and sticks; etc, etc. We are using more and more sunscreen, and yet skin cancers are still on the rise (some 6,800 Canadians were diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in 2015, and about 1,150 died from it; another 78,000 more were diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers). Some studies have shown that certain sunscreens cause severe medical problems in test rodents, and yet most health authorities and cancer charities assure us that sunscreens are perfectly safe and advisable.
So, what is a person to do? First, then, a very quick primer.
SPF (sun protection factor) is a measure of how much UVB radiation penetrates the skin. SPF15, for example, means that only 1/15 of the UVB reached and penetrates the skin, while the other 14/15 is blocked by the sunscreen. What that means in practice is that it should take 15 times longer for your skin to burn when you are wearing an SPF15 sunscreen than if you were wearing no sunscreen at all. The higher the SPF, therefore, the better, although there are diminishing returns as the SPF gets higher (for example, SPF30 blocks all but 3% of UVB, while SPF60 block all but 2%). SPFs of up to 100 are available nowadays, but most advisory groups recommend an SPF of at least 30.
For that matter, what is UVA and UVB. UVB is medium wavelength ultraviolet radiation, most of which is absorbed by the earth's ozone layer, but the UVB radiation that does get through is the most destructive and is typically what causes most skin cancers. Longer wavelength UVA radiation penetrates deeper into the skin, and mainly causes aging skin and wrinkles, but it can also contribute to skin cancer. (UVC is the shortest wave ultraviolet light, which is completely absorbed by the atmosphere before it can reach us). "Broad-spectrum" means UVA and UVB, and this is the best recommendation if available.
Physical sunscreens (sometimes called "natural" sunscreens) use tiny particles of ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect ultraviolet rays so that they do not penetrate the skin at all. Chemical sunscreens use chemical filters such as PABA (4-aminobenzoic acid), retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone or avobenzone to absorb ultraviolet rays in the skin and to alter their properties. Most cancer organizations do not recommend one type over the other and leave it up to personal preference. Some people find the texture of physical sunscreens off-putting; on the other hand, some people's skins may be particularly sensitive to certain chemicals like PABA or the alcohol used in certain creams. Although some studies on rats, etc, have shown various sunscreen ingredients to be damaging in extreme concentrations, normal everyday use has not been shown to present any dangers, and certainly the alternative - no sunscreen at all - is a much greater and proven risk. Skin cancer and dermatology experts like Yale's Dr. David Leffell feel able to state categorically, "None of the approved ingredients [in sunscreens] have been shown to cause any problems in humans."
When using sunscreens, most people only apply about a third to a half of what they should, even when using creams, gels or lotions. Sprays, however, are much less efficient in covering the skin properly (and also relatively expensive because of all the wastage), and are generally less recommended. You don't need to apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going into the sun, as many brands used to counsel, but you should make sure to reapply it at least every couple of hours or as directed on the bottle, especially if you go in the water (even water-resistant sunscreen is not completely waterproof, and it will wash off over time).
UV-blocking clothing is another option, and modern sun-protective sportswear (utilizing special fabrics, dyes and chemical treatments) is much more breathable, lightweight and stylish than it used to be. Clothing blocks both UVB and UVA rays, and UV-blocking clothing often uses a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) measure, rather than just SPF (which only measures UVB protection). In general, synthetic fabrics like polyester block UV better than natural fabrics like cotton. A standard white t-shirt, for example, might only have a UPF of about 7, while some sun-protective clothing has a UPF of 50+ (i.e. it blocks over 98% of harmful rays).
General advice, therefore, seems to be: look for a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and reapply regularly as directed, especially if it gets washed off by water. Don't get too caught up in this ingredient or that ingredient - the risk to humans is extremely small, and the products are heavily regulated by Health Canada and other watchdog organizations. Make sure to apply a lot of lotion (probably more than you think is necessary), and avoid inefficient sprays. If possible, avoid direct sunlight during the peak hours of 11am to 3pm, and preferably cover up with a hat and clothing if you do need to be out during that time.

British old-boy network still alive and well

A survey by the British educational think-tank The Sutton Trust has highlighted the fact that old class distinctions and the old-boy network are still alive and well in modern Britain's education and employment practices.
The report shows that, although only about 7% of the British population attend exclusive "independent" schools like Eton, Rugby and Winchester (which come with fees of up to $65,00 a year), graduates from these schools make up 74% of the judiciary, 71% of barristers, 71% of top military jobs, 61% of senior doctors, 51% of solicitors, 50% of cabinet politicians, 48% of the civil service, and 34% of top corporate executives. The remaining 93% of the population, therefore, contribute the remainder, i.e. 26% of the judiciary, 29% of barristers and military top brass, etc.
In the same way, less than 1% of the British population attend the elite universities of Oxford or Cambridge, but graduates from those two institutions provide 74% of the judiciary, 47% of cabinet posts, and 31% of top executive positions.
In view of this, the British government (currently led by David Cameron, who, you guessed it, went to Eton College and Oxford University) is launching an effort to push businesses to be less class-conscious in their hiring practices. Some companies, such as accountants Deloitte, have already introduced "school and university blind interviews", where hirers do not have access to candidates' educational institutions, and so are forced to judge them purely on their academic accomplishments and individual merits.
Of course, there are those who object to such "social engineering". The provost of Eton plans to resign from the Conservative Party, and a group of top officials from several independent schools published an open letter in The Times, stressing the outstanding education they offer, and decrying this "discrimination" against their students.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Real estate challenges in Toronto and Vancouver

For some months now, the Canadian media has been full of reports about the overheated and often corrupt real estate market, especially in Vancouver, but also here in Toronto.
Recent figures put the average home price in the Greater Vancouver Area at nearly $1.1 million, and about $740,000 in Greater Toronto (yes, that's right, I did say "average"). The average price of a detached house in Vancouver is now nearly $3 million, and even modest homes in the outskirts top $700,000. These prices are more than double what they were just seven short years ago (by comparison, over the same period, average wages have increased by just 15%). Many millennials and recent immigrants are finding it just impossible to find houses within their budget in the more central areas, leading them to settle for suburban, or even more distant, locations, and often renting out portions of their homes to make ends meet. An increasing number of millennials are moving out of Toronto and Vancouver in favour of cheaper cities like Oshawa, Hamilton and Barrie in Ontario, and Kelowna and the Fraser Valley in BC, thus pushing up prices in those areas too. Many are even making a conscious decision to rent instead of buy, preferring the flexibility and the debt-free lifestyle.
A plethora of Vancouver real estate scandals and questionable practices, such as the Sutton Group-West Coast Realty allegations, the scams of New Coast Realty, and the practice of "shadow flipping", which is particularly rampant in Vancouver, have only made a bad situation worse.
Yes, interest rates are at an all-time low, encouraging people to dip their toes in home ownership that might not otherwise have done so, but a large part of the real estate boom can be tied to an unprecedented influx of foreign money, mainly from China. An estimated $1 trillion in capital flowed out of China in the last year alone, largely in an attempt to preserve wealth in an increasingly risky country, and the weak loonie makes Canada a particularly attractive investment prospect. An estimated 74% of Toronto condos built since 2010 are owned by foreign (mainly Chinese) investors, and foreign buyers now account for an estimated quarter of the luxury home market Canada-wide (that proportion will be much higher in desirable centres like Toronto and Vancouver). Obtaining reliable figures for such transactions is fraught with difficulty, though, and the picture may be even worse than it appears given that it is common for a family member already living in Canada to purchase property, but using offshore cash.
Some commentators, including ScotiaBank CEO Brian Porter and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have been calling for protectionist measures like a luxury tax on foreign buyers and speculators, and a tightening of mortgage lending rules for everyone, in the hopes of cooling down these overheated markets and giving young local home buyers a fighting chance at living in our major urban centres. However, it is by no means certain that such measures would be effective, and they may carry with them some unwanted economic repercussions, such as a sweeping reduction in home values and the possible wholesale loss of construction jobs.
Other countries, like Australia, New Zealand and the UK, are also experiencing a similar influx of Chinese money which is distorting their local real estate markets. Australia has moved to limit foreigners to purchases of newly-built houses and apartments; both Britain and New Zealand have raised capital gains taxes to try to address the problem. But the markets there continue to sizzle uncomfortably, and no obvious solution presents itself.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Vasile Cepoi certain to win Romanian town election

The small town of Draguseni in Romania is in for an interesting mayoral election tomorrow. The incumbent, Vasile Cepoi, is seeking a fourth term as Mayor, but he is facing a stiff challenge from two other candidates, both of whom just happen to be called ... Vasile Cepoi.
The two challengers are representing two different centre-right political parties, so the current centre-left Mayor Cepoi is convinced that it is all part of a nefarious right-wing plot to oust him by any means possible. The two challengers - who are not related, either to each other, or to the incumbent mayor - deny any collusion, and maintain that they are standing for election on their own individual merits and platforms.
To be fair, Vasile is a hugely popular name in Romania, and Cepoi is also a common family name in that region of Romania near the Moldova border.

The winner of the Draguseni election was ... Vasile Cepoi

Oil execs excessively rewarded for mediocre performances

A Globe article on executive compensation highlights the glaring disconnect between private sector business performance and the salaries granted to company CEOs (and, to a lesser extent, other executives). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the oil and gas and other natural resources sectors, which have seen a dramatic downturn since 2014. You would never know it from their executive salaries, though.
Take Encana Corp, the Calgary-based energy producer. Hit by falling oil prices, the company lost US$5.2 billion last year as revenues tanked by almost half, the share price dropped 56%, dividends were slashed, and about 20% of the workforce was laid off, with another 20% reduction expected over the course of this year. 2015 was not a good year for Encana, to put it mildly. And yet, CEO Doug Suttles, who presided over this carnage, was granted a 14% increase in total compensation (largely in the form of shares and stock options), up from $7.7 million in 2014 to $8.8 million in 2015.
Now, no-one is suggesting that EnCana's dire results and consequent job losses were the personal fault of Mr. Suttles, but this does seem in a little bad taste given the economic climate, and sends a horrible PR message to both eliminated and current employee, not to mention the companies' shareholders.
Neither is this an isolated example. Enbridge Inc.'s CEO Al Monaco saw his total pay package increase by 50% to $8.9 million in 2015, for what a company spokesman describes as "strong financial results" (it actually posted a loss of $37 million, its share price fell by 23%, and 600 jobs were cut). Suncor Inc.'s CEO Steve Williams received $12.2 million in compensation for 2015, more or less unchanged from 2014 (although only due to a large adjustment to his pension valuation), a handsome reward that came on the back of a $2 billion loss for the company and over 1,700 lost jobs.
Mining companies have been facing down a commodity price slump for three or four years now, but that did not stop Teck Resources Ltd, which lost $2.5 billion and 9% of its workforce in 2015, and saw its share price shrivel by 66%, from voting CEO Don Lindsay a 2.4% increase in his compensation, which totalled $10.24 million. Finning International Inc. gave CEO Scott Thompson a 10% increase ($5.3 million), despite losing $161 million and cutting 1,900 jobs (or about 13% of its workforce).
Nor is the natural resources sector the only, or perhaps even the most egregious, sector involved. Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. CEO Michael Pearson was paid a ridiculous $183 million in 2015, a year in which the company faced scandal and legal investigations over its drug-pricing policies, and its share price fell by 29% on the NYSE.
Some companies argue that such rewards are necessary to retain top executives, particularly during difficult times, or that they deserve recognition for making difficult but necessary decisions to strengthen their companies during this challenging period, or just that the companies did relatively well compared to others in the sector who did still worse, and so deserve financial praise for that alone. The truth is, though, that many top execs are the financial equivalent of mercenary fighters, who will cut and bail at the first sniff of a better position elsewhere, and have no loyalty to anything other than themselves.
But not everyone thinks this way. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, a company which is as deeply invested in the oil sands as anyone, and has suffered accordingly in recent months, has worked hard to avoid any lay-offs at all, and has instead instituted a 10% salary cut for senior management and staff in order to save money. Company president Steve Laut set an example, by taking a 46% total compensation cut (although this still left him with a pretty handsome $5.1 million for the year).
It seems to me that the pool of high-level executives in Canada cannot possibly be so small that companies have to resort to these kinds of financial bribes to keep them from leaving during hard times like the present. Bear in mind that these people are all multi-millionaires anyway, and can easily afford to "take one for the team" during temporary economic lulls. Such unwarranted compensation increases smack of rewarding execs for, if not bad behaviour, then at least mediocre and unexceptional performance.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Why is there a gender pay gap among university professors?

On reading a BBC article about the University of Essex's move to eliminate the gender pay gap among its professors, I started to wonder what exactly is the mechanism for such a pay gap to arise in the first place.
The article points out that, on average, full-time female academics are paid 11% less than men in the UK, with some institutions like Queen's University Belfast and King's College London showing significantly higher discrepancies. I'm sure the situation is pretty similar elsewhere, including here in Canada.
Now, much of the overall gender pay gap is a result of a disproportionate numbers of women working part-time jobs, and their disproportion representation among minimum and low wage earners. But in the example of university salaries, surely, we are comparing essentially identical jobs. So, what exactly is happening here? Is there no standardized pay-scales for professors, associate professors, senior lecturers, etc, which are applied to all who qualify for the position? Are there actually separate scales for males and females (which - call me naïve - I would have thought illegal)? Is it something to do with males staying in the profession longer and accumulating raises? Is it just a matter of males dominating, fairly or unfairly, the higher and better-paid echelons, thus skewing the averages?
I found a Stats Canada report on salary scales at Canadian universities, which reveals quite starkly the gender discrepancy at each and every Canadian university when all ranks are combined, but does not break down the gender make-up of the various different ranks. It does also expose the disparity in sheer numbers of male and female staff members (although again no break-down for the different ranks), and also the large discrepancy in possible salaries within ranks. The report notes that: "many factors can influence salaries, including qualifications and number of years teaching. As well, some universities impose a maximum to the salary range for each rank while others have an open-ended scale."
So, does this mean that male professors are typically better-qualified and/or of longer standing than their female equivalents? If that is the case, are the women in any position to argue against that, or to claim that they are being underpaid? Is the problem, then, one of finding out why women are less-qualified, and/or why they typically have fewer years of tenure? It is at this point that I envision the hoary issue of child-bearing and child-rearing raising its ugly head...
Clearly there are a lot of different competing factors involved in the setting of academic salaries. Which raises the question of how, in that case, the University of Essex was able to equalize male/female salaries, and in what respect exactly they are claiming to have "eliminated the gender gap".

Thursday, June 02, 2016

How are we to understand "honour" killings?

I was well aware that it happened, but I had no idea of just how rampant and widespread so-called "honour" killings were in Pakistan and in other benighted countries where these tragedies occur.
My attention was drawn by reports of a recent example in which Maria Sadaqat, a young schoolteacher in a small hill-town near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, was beaten and then burnt to death by a group of townsmen for turning down a marriage proposal from the son of the owner of a school where she had taught. The intention apparently was for Ms. Sadaqat to take over the running of the school but, bizarrely, the owner's son at the time of the marriage offer was already married with a daughter, which seems to me like a perfectly good reason for Maria and her father to refuse the marriage offer. However, the school owner and other religious zealots of the town did not see it that way, and decided to take things into their own hands (the school owner himself was one of the aggressors in the murder, and apparently proud of the fact). The so-called elders of the town are now pressurizing the girl's family to settle out of court, and to respect the "honour" of the situation.
This of course is just one of many such occurrences in Pakistan, India and many other countries where fundamentalist religious convictions hold sway. What I hadn't appreciated, though, is the extent of it: Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission estimates that 1,100 women were killed in the country last year in so-called honour-killings. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are victims of honor killings each year worldwide, mainly in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, as well as other Mediterranean and Persian Gulf countries, and even within migrant communities in western countries like France, Germany and the UK. Women's advocacy groups, however, suspect that the real number may exceed 20,000.
The other problem of course is that most occurrences go unreported and uncounted (they are more likely to be reported as suicides or accidents), and the statistics do not include non-lethal honour attacks such as acid-throwings, abductions, mutilations, beatings, etc (both reported and unreported). Most honour killings are carried out by family members and relatives, but a small number are also carried out by people outside the family who perceive some loss of honour for the family or for the community as a whole. The main reasons behind honour killings are domestic disputes, alleged illicit relations, and exercising the right of choice in marriage.
It seems inconceivable to us in the West that these kinds of benighted attitudes still prevail in other parts of the world (not that we have our own shit completely together, but at least we have managed to leave some of our more egregious medieval customs behind). I have never actually heard anyone trying to justify such practices as honour killings, but I imagine it would have to be couched in religious or quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo that would mean very little to me anyway, and that would in turn beg its own (non-existent) justification.