Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Democrats join race to the bottom

After what seemed to most outsiders to be a disastrous Republican Convention comes the bizarre news that Donald Trump is now 5% ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls. Now, polls can be wrong - indeed, in recent years, they usually are - and we are still months away from the actual vote. But it provides yet more evidence, if more were needed, that this presidential vote is thoroughly unlinked from common sense and from reality.
The poll was, I think, taken after at least part of the first day of the Democratic Convention, which is looking set to out-weird the Republican one. All the Dems had to do was keep it together, stay united and look vaguely electable, but even that seemed outside their ability. Instead, we have a Russian-engineered Wikileaks leak of emails suggesting that the Democratic "establishment" were strongly pushing Hillary amd not Bernie (hardly news, I wouldn't have thought), the consequent resignation of Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, not to mention huge and extremely vocal pro-Sanders protests (despite Sanders' own exhortations for party unity and his unequivocal calls for everyone to support Clinton). The Bernie Or Bust crowd embarrassed themselves still further by chanting "Lock her up!", showing that they are on the same intellectual level as the Republican wags who dreamed up that particular political jewel.
So, it seems that these highly-politicized, supposedly thoughtful and intelligent people would prefer to see four years of Republican rule under a loose cannon like Donald Trump than elect a Democratic leader who is much closer on most political issues to their own views, even if not quite the same. This, surely, is almost as misguided as the white, working class guys who see Trump as some kind of saviour.
Maybe the Democrats' strategy is to embarrass themselves as much as possible, given that it seems to have been pretty successful for Donald Trump and the Republicans. **Sigh**
Given that the rest of the Democratic Convention proceeded without major hitches, more recent opinion polls have seen a sharp upswing in support for Ms. Clinton and against Mr. Trump, fuelled in part by the continued erosion of support for, and general disaffection with, Trump in the financial community and within the Republican Party as a whole. So, all is not lost. And, it doesn't really bear thinking about, but we are still 3 months away from the actual vote: all indications to date suggest that things could change ten times during that period!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Running of the Bulls comes to Thunder Bay

I was tickled by one particular item on today's This Is That, a CBC Radio "news" interview program.
Rudy Parsons, a regular guy and long-time resident of Thunder Bay, was so taken with the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, on a recent visit there, that he has made it his goal to bring a similar event to his home town. As Mr. Parsons puts it, "The kind of passion that is so evident in Pamplona is sadly lacking in Thunder Bay and I wanted to bring it home for everyone to enjoy." As he also puts it, slightly more poetically, "Tourists from all over the world coming to see humanity taking a bite out of the passion fruit that is life by being chased by a freaking bull."
You have to listen to audio for the full effect. The man really is passionate, as he animatedly describes racing down the main street, past the Timmy's and past Shopper Drug Mart, with bulls in hot pursuit. Audio excerpts from Rudy's presentation of his plan before council are particularly enlightening as he justifies his recommendation for 18 bulls ("a nice number"), and answer questions about the risks of the bulls running into the newly installed parking meters ("you know, that's always a risk you take, I think, when you do a running of the bulls").
Unfortunately, Council ultimately rejected the proposal on safety grounds (and the new parking meters). But they did arrange for a safer compromise for Rudy, allowing him to walk down the street with a dairy cow, flanked by two police cars, although Rudy was not overly impressed ("Well this isn't even my idea, right? It's like they totally interpreted it like, you know, I want to just walk down the street with a frigging cow. It's not the point. ... This is just embarrassing, man, look at everybody looking at me.")
Part of the fun of the This Is That program is that the interviews are carried out very much in the style of regular CBC news items, and concerns "news" that could almost be true, so that you are almost completely taken in until you finally start to think "wait, that can't be true, can it?" Many of their "news" items result in a very active audience response, either strongly in favour or, more often, vehemently opposed. Some of the strongest reactions occur when people belatedly realize that they have been duped. The program is in fact completely fictional; it is a satire or parody on life in Canada, in much the same way that Onion is, even if it its satirical nature is not made clear.
Either way, this particular item was hilarious and deserves a listen.

Trump's convention speech fact-check

Donald Trump's keynote speech at the Republican Party Convention yesterday was supposed to be the highlight of the week. What we got was an apoplectically angry man shouting at us and telling us just how bad things in America really were. The apotheosis of his speech was: "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it."
Well, say what you will about someone with zero political experience making claims like that. More importantly, though, most of Trump's analysis of the American situation is just plain wrong. He has never let a few facts get in the way of a good emotional outburst, knowing that that is where his strength, if, any, lies. But flagrant lies should really be corrected, lest an ill-educated, partisan and gullible public be persuaded of their value. Even President Obama found Trump's claims egregious enough to merit a direct rebuttal.
America remains far and away the wealthiest country in the world by total individual wealth, and also the largest by GDP by most measures, and its economy continues to hum along (US economic data all continues to increase and improve, including GDP, GDP per capita, domestic demand, consumption, investment, industrial production, retail sales, unemployment, etc).
Trump's extreme negativity about his home country centres around three main claims:
  • There is unprecedented illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico and Central America. In fact, according to the Customs and Border Protection Agency, documented immigration to the United States is currently at its lowest level since 1969, and down 18% in 2015 from the previous year. The number of undocumented aliens living in the USA has also been falling continuously since 2008, and currently lies at around 10 million (down from 12 million) in a total population of about 320 million. What's more, those illegal immigrants ("killers and rapists", according to Trump) actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans (with an incarceration rates among the under-40s demographic of 1.6% compared to 3.3%).
  • Crime is out of control, especially in the "inner cities" (read, "black population and other minorities"). In fact, US crime is at its lowest levels in a quarter of a century. Violent crime is down at the record low levels that pertained before the 1970s (in 2014, the latest year for which reliable figures are available, the violent crime, rate was 366 per 100,000 people, less than half of America's most violent year, 1991). The murder rate is at 4.5 per 100,000, similar to rates in the 1950s and 1960s. Violent crime in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington has fallen even more, and is currently at about one-third of 1970s levels. According to the FBI, crime among black American youths has dropped precipitously in the last 20 years: assault by 59%, rape by 66%, and murder by 82%. The only type of crime that has seen a large rise is mass shootings, a problem largely caused by uncontrolled gun access.
  • Taxation and government spending is also out of control, which is creating an economic crisis. In fact, spending on expenditures, infrastructure and investment by all levels of government in the USA fell in 2015 to its lowest level in 66 years, including a particularly sharp drop throughout the Obama years. Indeed, government spending and taxation is at a level that has led Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen to call for increased spending to get the economy moving again, arguing that it is currently at a dangerous low. And crisis? What crisis? As mentioned above, US economic data all continues to increase and improve (including GDP, GDP per capita, domestic demand, consumption, investment, industrial production, retail sales, unemployment, etc). Granted its trade balance is not great, and public debt continues to inch up, but neither of these are likely to improve under what little we know of Trump's proposed protectionist policies.
So, where is Donald Trump getting his figures from? He does have some figures, doesn't he?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pokémon Go stories may be fun or heartwarming or downright tragic

You will probably have seen by now suspicious-looking groups of young people gathered at apparently random spots around town. But they are probably playing the incredibly popular new Pokémon Go app, a cultural phenomenon I will admit that just do not understand at all. The internet is bursting at the seams with new stories about it, and it seems like some of them are is good, and some of them not so much:
I'm sure there are many more stories out there, and I'm almost equally sure that there will be many more, and that some will probably turnout to be tragic.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Pray for Nice - now, why would you do that?

Speaking of newspaper headlines, I noticed one today in the Toronto Sun in a street dispenser (I would not actually buy such a rag) which read: "PRAY FOR NICE". On the assumption that they are referring to Nice in southern France, the site of the recent crazed truck rampage, which killed 84 and injured hundreds more, and not the popular cookies, or possibly just a typo or omission ("PRAY FOR NICE WEATHER" perhaps), this must be one of the stupidest headlines I have seen in some time.
Statistically, a good proportion of the dozens who were killed or injured in this massacre were Christians, and probably prayed to God on a regular basis. And a fat lot of good that did them!
I am fairly certain (it always seems to happen after disasters of any sort) that many others who survived the tragedy are being quoted in the press right now as thanking God for sparing them, never once thinking to ask what the hell God was thinking in allowing such a tragedy to unfold in the first place, and placing them in severe danger of loss of life or limb.
Not to mention that a different group of people have been praying frantically to the same God (under a different name) to allow them to kill as many infidels and unbelievers as possible, and are probably playing again right now, giving thanks for this very same massacre. Don't expect me to explain it, but it's true!
So: "PRAY FOR NICE". What exactly would you pray for? And why would you expect some unseen being somewhere to actually act on it? And why anyway would you use that as your main front page newspaper headline? Ah, I despair...

Which is the lesser of the two evils in Turkey?

The headline in today's paper says it all: "TURKEY IN TURMOIL". Except that it might have added: "AGAIN!"
Much like with many a Latin American country, one instinctively know that, if Turkey appears to be going though a relatively stable and democratic period, it is only matter of time before that illusion collapses, probably violently. True to form, Recep Tayyip Ergogan's leadership, which admittedly began with some promise, has morphed in recent years into a pro-Islamic autocracy of the worst kind, and the country exploded this weekend with a military coup, as it has so often before (1960, 1971, 1980, 1987).
The coup, however, was poorly planned and is now recognized to have failed. Bizarrely (but effectively), Erdogan took to FaceTime, Twitter and Facebook to stir up popular support and opposition to the military putsch. The canny Erdogan will use the coup attempt as a means of cementing his own power still further, carrying out reprisals against the military perpetrators and against the opposition Gulen party (which was not responsible for the coup, but which Erdogan will conveniently blame anyway).
Within 24 hours, nearly 3,000 soldiers (including high-ranking officers) have already been arrested, and nearly 3,000 judges have been summarily dismissed. More, and worse, will follow. Erdogan has stated categorically, "What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price." There are dark rumours that he is also thinking about bringing back the death penalty to deal with the situation.
Some observers are going so far as hypothesizing that Erdogan himself rigged and manufactured the whole thing so that he has an excuse to clamp down on his opponents. He certainly seems to have had a long and detailed list of who was to be detained and dismissed ready at hand.
While it is difficult to condone a military coup under any circumstances, this particular one does have nuances which make any kind of blanket judgement fraught with peril. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the Turkish army has historically been the guardian of democracy, intervening when leaders overstep their bounds or begin to lead the country along an excessively theocratic Islamicist path, in an attempt to preserve the secular democracy prescribed by the modern republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Usually, it has relinquished power quickly and returned the country to democratic rule, and that was its stated aim in this case too.
Granted they acted outside the rule of law and without the explicit sanction of the voting public, but their intention was to save their country from an increasingly autocratic and erratic demagogue, and "to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms". Erdogan is, these days, a truly awful leader - heavy-handed, censorious, autocratic and increasingly religious - and his trajectory is towards even greater enormities in the future. Should the free world be lending support to this kind of a dictator?
Who is to say, then, which is the lesser of the two evils? Governments throughout the world have unanimously condemned the coup, as protocol dictates they must. But there must be a good few heaving a rather wistful sigh right now in the aftermath of the coup's failure.

A week later and Erdogan has instituted a state of emergency that allows him to detain suspects without charge for 30 days, and he has now detained or extended at least 60,000 state employees, and has closed down at least 1,000 private schools and 1,200 associations, including 19 trade unions, 15 universities, and 35 medical institutes. Despite howls of indignation from the world at large, Erdogan insists that he is only targeting those "100% identified" with those behind the coup (by which he means Gulen). He is also trying to drag the USA into the mess by insisting that it extradites Fethulah Gulen, who lives a quiet life in a small town in northern Pennsylvania, despite a complete lack of evidence that he was involved at all in the coup.
Erdogan's reaction has probably made Turkey non grata in Europe (it is currently in the process of applying for EU membership), and is in the process of making the country a pariah state in the eyes of most of the world. Good job, Recep!

Kate Atkinson revisits the Todd family in A God In Ruins

It has been a while since I included a book review in this blog. Which is not to say that I haven't read anything worthwhile recently, merely that it is not the main focus of the blog (although, frankly, given that no-one but me reads it anyway, what does it really matter...?)
Anyway, for what it's worth, I have been reading Kate Atkinson's A God In Ruins recently. It is the follow-up, or what you might call companion book, to her excellent 2013 novel Life After Life, which follows the life of eccentric Englishwoman Ursula Todd through some of the more turbulent events of the 20th century. That book employed the unusual, and highly effective, conceit of a series of false starts, in which very slight variations in circumstances made often profound changes to one person's life (including versions in which Ursula died at birth, or died young, or died during the war, etc).
A God In Ruins employs the more standard construction of a mixed-up chronology to follow the life of Ursula's sensitive younger brother Teddy and several generations of his immediate family. It traces Teddy's trajectory from his bucolic and uncomplicated intra-War childhood, through his rather half-hearted mid-life attempts to find himself as a writer and the moral compromises of his very active participation in the Second World War, to a rather wistful and cynical old age in modern post-Thatcher (and even post-Blair) Britain.
Orderly, dependable, austere and thoughtful, and an early adopter of a green, ecological lifestyle, Teddy appears to be a quintessential "good man", and is perhaps not obvious material for a novel. Counterpointing Teddy' stolidity and calmness, though, we are also introduced to (among others):
  • his adoring, conflicted and class-conscious mother, Sylvie ("The Great War had made Sylvie into a pacifist, albeit a rather belligerent one");
  • his independent and daredevil Aunt Izzie, vaguely glamorous and at one time a popular author, but forever marked by her mysterious work in the first War, for which she was awarded a medal that she never showed anyone;
  • his big sister Ursula, whom Teddy looks up to and respects for her calm, strong, common sense nature, her intellectual rigour, and her deep but usually controlled emotion ("Ursula was almost quivering with the power of emotion, like a coiled spring, a bird ready to rise from the ground at any moment");
  • his childhood sweetheart, and (almost inevitably) his wife, Nancy, a gifted mathematician, calm, practical and stoic, who moved seamlessly from a high-profile job cracking Nazi codes at Bletchley Park to teaching underprivileged kids in suburban Leeds ("Nancy may have rejected Christianity a long time ago, but sometimes Teddy caught a glimpse of the sublime religieuse who dwelled within");
  • his self-absorbed, embittered and angry daughter Viola, trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a feckless, latter-day hippie ("If he hadn't been the father of her children, Viola might have admired Dominic for the way he was so easily able to absolve himself of all obligations simply by asserting his right to self fulfilment"; "they were both, essentially, very lazy people and it was easier to stay together than it was to pull themselves apart").
  • his favourite grandchild Bertie (Roberta), an old-fashioned literary mind trapped in a bland job in advertising and a cool and sarcastic love-hate relationship with her mother, finding that no-one she met quite measured up to her grandfather Ted ("She wanted to be courted. Gallantry. What a lovely word.")
As always, Atkinson's prose is taut and elegant - no unnecessary flourishes and flounces needed - often the simplicity of the language adds to the poignancy of her observations ("Her children would probably be better off without her. She should have left them with the farmer's wife, she thought, skilfully converting selfishness into altruism"). The overwhelmingly wistful flavour of the book can be exemplified by passages like, "Happiness, like life itself, was as fragile as a bird's heartbeat, as fleeting as the bluebells in the wood, but while it lasted, Fox Corner was an Arcadian dream." and "As you got older and time went on, you realized that the distinction between truth and fiction didn't really matter because eventually everything disappeared into the soupy, amnesiac mess of history. Personal or political, it made no difference."
Despite the deliberately mixed-up chronology, major elements of the plot are often only revealed gradually, with early hints or prefigurations (early in the book, that is, but not necessarily chronologically) only yielding explanations much later (or earlier!), and often this is not the simple or expected explanation. Indeed, the chronology sometimes darts around, forwards and backwards, even within the explicitly dated sections. So, this not a chronological book chopped into random sections and then shuffled; there is some artistry here.
The book does become rather dark at times, particularly those that deal with the War years. For example, the difference between dropping bombs on civilians from 20,000 feet and helping a loved one commit suicide is explored in rather painful detail. But at its core, A God in Ruins is primarily about love - comradely love, unconditional love, parental love, lost love, repressed love.
As a novel, it does not quite match up to Life After Life, nor does it have the advantage of that book's unusual and arresting construction. It is, however, well written and definitely not a straightforward or easy read, and its ending is downright puzzling. Recommended.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Some GMO myths explained

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are everywhere these days. Some people see them as the saviour of the human race; some people see them as the devil incarnate; most people have no clue what to think about them. I have already looked at the pros and cons of GMOs, at least as I understand them from my research, in an earlier blog. But the Globe and Mail has just produced a handy mythbuster on GMOs, which includes the following snippets:
  • The GMO identification bill now going through the US House of Representatives, having been recently passed in the Senate, will probably not actually make public which genetic traits of a GMO have been altered and why. It will probably just be a simple statement that some ingredients were genetically modified (and even that will probably involve scanning a QR code into your cellphone).
  • Those weird square watermelons are not genetically modified - they were just grown in a square box.
  • Likewise, those oversized chickens, with 90% white meat and no legs to speak of, are not genetically modified but adapted through regular breeding practices over the years to fulfill a marketing need. The only genetically-modified animal food currently available is some salmon, which is engineered to grow faster to its market size.
  • There is no such thing as genetically-modified oats on the market, even if some products (like McCann's Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal, for example) claim that to be "non-GMO".
  • Similarly, wheat is another common product that is not available in a GMO version (although, predictably enough, Monsanto are currently working on that). So, all those claims on the Internet that the apparent explosion in gluten sensitivity is due to GMOs can not actually be true.
  • The scientific consensus is still that GMOs do not constitute a health risk of any sort. The incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease or food allergies is not significantly higher in North America, where GMOs are widely used, than in Europe, where GMOs are largely banned (although I must admit that surprises me, even if the causes were not due to GMOs).
  • Just changing or deleting specific genes of an individual crop is probably not is itself counted as "genetic modification", which is usually seen as involving the addition of genetic material from another, different, organism.
  • Genetically-modified rice, such as the much trumpeted "golden rice", which is often touted as being a game-changer in world nutrition, is not actually in widespread use yet. Rather, it is still being tested, and the non-profit institute responsible for its development fears that the modified rice does not actually grow well enough to be embraced by farmers.
  • Fast food chain Chipotle recently made a big marketing over the fact that they have taken GMOs out of their menus, but in fact it was only ever the soy cooking oil and their tortillas that had any GMO content anyway. Beware of marketing ploys (also see the item on oats above).
  • Almost all soybeans and most corn grown in the USA and Canada are genetically modified (mainly so they can be sprayed with glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's ubiquitous Roundup herbicide), although most of the GMO corn we eat is actually in the form of syrup, starch or oil.

NASA's Juno probe arrived at Jupiter one second late - damn!

Interesting fact of the day (well, 11 days ago actually): NASA's Juno spacecraft arrived at its orbit of the planet Jupiter all of 1 second late after a 5-year trip of 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometres).
Juno then successfully executed what is probably the single most important step of its five-year journey, when it fired its engines just enough, and for just the right length of time, to slow the craft down and put it into Jupiter's orbit around the sun, and to bring it into the planet's gravitational pull. Not bad, given that it takes signals from Earth 48 minutes to reach Juno (which at this point is over half a billion miles away) so that any manoeuvres have to be programmed with great accuracy ahead of time.
The probe, which was initially launched back in August 2011, will study the giant gas giant's composition, gravity field, magnetic field and polar magnetosphere, and might even teach us a thing or two  about how our solar system evolved in the first place.

Sexism among lab rats?

Rodents and humans have a lot of physiology in common, and, as rodents are considered infinitely expendable, they are used in a huge amount of medical research. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, male mice and rats have traditionally been used much more than females, possibly based on the assumption that the hormonal cycles of female animals could make the data less consistent. According to McGill University neuroscientist Jeffrey Mogil, though, data collected from female animal testing is actually no more variable than that collected from male animals (in fact the exact opposite may often be true). Despite increasing awareness of this disparity in medical research , the culture appears very slow to change.
The extent to which this is happening is also not quite clear, particularly as many studies do not even mention the gender of the test subjects. In pain research, though, it is known that 80% of published studies use male mice or rats, even though 70% of people with chronic pain are actually women. According to Mogil, this is probably similar in other fields of medical research, with the rather bizarre exception of immunology, which apparently only uses female animals!
The problem is, men and women respond differently to different drugs and treatments, and so do mice and rats. For example, in male mice, blocking immune cells called glial cells can block pain, but this does not seem to be the case with females. This can then lead to drugs and treatments reaching the market that are ineffective, or even potentially dangerous, for women. 
A couple of prominent examples are a stomach drug called cisapride (sold in Canada in the 1990s under the name Prepulsid), which was shown to sometimes cause irregular heartbeat and even sudden death in women only, and sleeping pills containing the drug zolpidem (sold under the brand-name Ambien) which, even given the recommendation that women take half the dose prescribed to men, has been shown to leave women with dangerously high levels the following day. These examples alone are reason to suspect that there may well be gender differences in all kinds of drugs and treatments, both those under development and those already on the market.
Not using both genders in animal testing may also slow down the development of treatments and drugs that are safe and effective for everyone (as is required under Canadian law), because treatments tested on male rodents only may well fail when the much more expensive clinical trials in humans are carried out. This can cause unnecessary delays in new drug treatments, but also substantial wasted money in a field where grant money is hard to come by.
New rules are being apparently being introduced in the US this year requiring both male and female animals to be used in studies in order to qualify for funding (similar rules already exist in Canada, and have done since 2009). However, there is still no requirement, even in Canada, for drug testers to analyze how effective their product is on women and men separately, only an average. So, a drug may actually fail clinical trials (on average) and never be developed, even though it works perfectly well for men. Or, alternatively, a drug may work so well on men that its passes the clinical trials on average, even though it is not effective (and may even be dangerous) for women.
Listen to the interview on CBC's The Current and decide for yourself if this is a big deal or not.

Toronto votes for safe injection sites

Toronto City Council has taken what seems like a very grown up step this week (at least a damned sight more grown up than its ridiculous decision to spend $3.2 billion adding a single stop to its subway system in Scarborough, but don't get me started on that...) by voting to establish three supervised injection sites for drug users.
The issue is a contentious one, and I have always found it somewhat counterintuitive and difficult to justify. But apparently safe injection sites work - they prevent overdoses, reduce the transmission of disease, and keep needles and other drug paraphernalia out of parks and backyards where they can do even more damage and generally lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Wiser heads than mine, as well as evidence from 90 such sites in other cities and countries, seem convinced of their value, so I am happy to go along with the idea.
What particularly struck me about Toronto's vote was three things:
  • the almost unanimity of the vote (36-3) in a council that seems hopelessly split on so many other issues;
  • the uncharacteristically civilized and rational debate that led up to it (which I think is at least partly attributable to the sensible, fact-based presentations of the city's medical officer of health, David McKeown); and
  • the almost complete absence of the usual not-in-my-back-yard attitudes that councillors tend to exhibit (and which to some extent their constituencies require of them).
I confess I don't know enough about the practicalities of safe injection sites (or about substance abuse in general for that matter), but I have often wondered whether they can't also, in some way, help wean drug users off their addictions. For example, if individuals are tracked in their attendance and usage at safe injection sites, could administrators not very gradually reduce the dosage administered, or water it down or something? Or is that impinging of the users' civil liberties or something? I can see that safe injection sites reduce overall harm in some ways, but can they not be used to do more?

Welcome to Cleveland, OH, future war zone

As well as hosting whatever happens to come out of GOP nominee Donald Trump's mouth on the day - something probably not even he can predict - it will also be hosting both pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrations. The city has created a limited-access "event zone" around the main convention venues (albeit a much smaller one than they originally wanted), and has drafted in some 3,000 police officers from around the state to bolster its own 1,700 officers. It will be hot, tempers will be short, and some kind if violence will almost certainly occur at some point.
With unrest still simmering after the recent police shootings, there will almost certainly also be a Black Lives Matter contingent - an organization Trump has publicly criticized (as being, among other things, racist), and almost certainly will do again at the convention. And, like it or not, where BLM goes, there too go controversy, belligerent support and outspoken opposition. To what extent BLM can actually be "blamed" for stirring up the kind of anti-police sentiments behind the Dallas and Baton Rouge reprisals is anyone's guess.
Now, add into this already explosive situation, the fact that the state of Ohio has an "open-carry" gun law, meaning that citizens can legally carry guns on the streets (yes, even within the "event zone", although not actually inside the convention arena), and we have what looks to me like a recipe for potential disaster. Now, of course, citizens are not allowed to draw or point those guns, which I have always thought makes a mockery of the whole law - what is the point of being able to carry a gun if it can't be used? Is it a fashion statement of some kind? But, with the summer heat, the crush of bodies, the heightened political and racial tension, how do you think this is going to go?
I think, if I lived in Cleveland (not that I ever would), I would be booking an overseas vacation right now. I hear that France or Iraq are nice at this time of year, and frankly they might be safer than Cleveland.
A hilarious (were it not so sad) graphic has surfaced in which Cleveland's safety priorities for the GOP convention are highlighted.
Here we see that shotguns, long guns, handguns and assault rifles (such as AK-47s) are all fine, but don't you dare try to bring in knives hammers, loud-hailers, metal drinks cans, shovels, tennis balls(!), locks, light bulbs(!), cool-boxes, or whole (as opposed to cut up) fruit.
In the event, there was no real violence at the convention - other than an inept protestor who accidentally set himself on fire while trying to burn the American flag, and some "minor" assaults on policemen - something the gun lobby will probably claim to their own credit.
Which is not to say that the convention was a raging success: between the failed GOP insurrection that aimed to overthrow Trump before his official nomination, and Melania Trump's plagiarized speech, and Ted Cruz's pointed refusal to endorse Trump, and Trump's own pompous, self-aggrandizing, apocalyptically negative, fact-bereft acceptance speech, and the very fact that so many GOP heavy hitters deliberately didn't attend at all, the Republican Party still finds itself in an unprecedentedly divided and parlous state.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Are Black Lives Matter's claims reasonable?

Much attention has been focussed on a particular black police office from Florida, the reason being that he has been brave enough to question the claims and the motives of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Officer Jay Stalien took to the internet to wonder whether BLM valued the lives of police officers (including black police officers) as much as black civilians who happen to have been killed by white police officers. Hardly ground-breaking stuff, and largely consistent with the Blue Live Matter and All Lives Matter crowd. But his very particular viewpoint, as a police officer and a black man, has resulted in his analysis being widely shared on social media.
Officer Stalien also provided some statistics which he claims disproves many of BLM's base beliefs, specifically the idea that black people are unfairly penalised by the law enforcement forces. The BBC did its own fact-checking on Stalien's fact-checking and concluded that, well, statistics are not very reliable. Big news, and not particularly helpful.
For example, Officer Stalien's claim that cities with a higher number of black people will necessarily result in a higher number of black people being arrested (but that this does not amount to targeting), is kind of self-evident, as is the BBC's comment that this in itself does not mean that racist targeting is not actually occurring. Similarly, Officer Stalien's statistics showing that more white people are killed by police than blacks (238 whites, 123 blacks, 79 Hispanics, and 69 other/unknown race, as of 2016) is shown to be of limited utility, because it ignores the relative populations of the different races. In fact, black people are killed by police at a much higher rate than white people, just as BLM claims. And finally, Officer Stalien points out that black people kill other black people to a much greater degree than do the police (by a factor about 40!), and BLM have nothing to say on this.
Well, statistics shmatistics. We know that "facts" can be used to show pretty much anything with a little massage. It seems to me, though, that what is not being asked in this conversation is what are the relative numbers of black people and white people who actually break the law, or who run close to the edge of the law, and thereby invite police investigation in the first place. This may be through engaging in drugs activity, hanging out in gangs, or even something as simple and technically innocent as being out on the street at 2:30 in the morning - basically, anything that might contribute to what one might call putting themselves in the way of police attention. Now, I am sure there are no statistics on such matters, nor is such a thing probably even technically possible (or perhaps even desirable). I am probably being branded right now as a racist for even suggesting it. But frankly I have no idea whether black people are in fact inherently more likely to be involved in criminal or near-criminal activity than white people, and therefore more likely to attract the attentions of the police (which might in turn lead to the use of firearms). I am just saying that this would be better measure of potential police profiling than just a simplistic statement that black deaths at the hands of the police is disproportionate compared to their representation in the population as a whole. I'm not wrong there, am I?
Now, let me be quite clear. I am not saying that BLM is deliberately misrepresenting the facts to bolster their political agenda. Neither am I saying that the law enforcement lobby have it right either. Clearly much work needs to be done on teaching police officers de-escalation techniques. Even more importantly, we need to get all those drugs and guns off the street (so that the police do not feel the need for them too, and so that they are not constantly fearful of a gun attack). And, going even further back, we need to tackle income equality, so that young people are not turning to drugs and gangs out of frustration. Oh, yes, and we need to make those pigs fly...
I guess I am just saying that things are actually much more complex than either BLM or Officer Stalien are suggesting, and that the base causes need to be tackled not just the symptoms.

Zika not the reason top golfers are avoiding Rio

Whatever you might think of golf as an Olympic sport (or as any kind of a sport, for that matter), the attitude of the sport's giants speaks volumes. The top four men's players in the world (Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy) have now all decided not to participate in the upcoming Rio Olympics.
Their stated reason is concern over the Zika virus that is overshadowing the Games. But it is notable that the top women golfers, who might be expected to be even more concerned about Zika than the men, ARE attending the Games.
The difference turns out to be that the LPGA Tour has decided to take a hiatus during the Olympics, freeing up the women to attend. The men's PGA Tour, however, will continue as usual, with three major tournaments (paying a total prize money of $16.8 million).
It is no big surprise, then, that the men are staying away and women are going. But please don't try and tell me that justifiable health concerns are top of mind.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Life is a Beach

God, I love living in The Beaches! It's days like these that really bring it home to me.
While the rest of Toronto sweltered in 35°C heat, down by the lake it was more like a perfectly manageable 28°C, with a pleasant accompanying breeze. I don't remember the last time we used our air conditioning (I imagine it was the last time we had American visitors during the summer, accustomed as they are to living in an ice-box during the nice weather).
During our usual post-prandial constitutional, everybody and their dog (oh, yes, LOTS of dogs) was out there doing all manner of things. Here is just a sample that I happened to notice tonight: beach volleyball; kite-surfing; stand-up paddling; swimming; paddling; tai chi, or something similar; open-air self-defence classes; the guy who is always there playing the harmonica, in a little world of his own; a busker playing a stand-up piano right on the boardwalk; another regular flying three huge long-tailed kites, much to the delight of several camera-toting visitors (the giant bubble lady was not there tonight: she is always a big hit); a small boy collecting pebbles and stacking them in neat size-delimited piles; a family group playing a game I couldn't figure out, involving a ball, a table and bats (not table tennis, although the table tennis table was in use too); three bowls greens fully occupied by lawn bowlers, and one more hosting several rather erratic games of croquet; an amateur league baseball game in the park; any number of courting couples a-courting; cyclists; roller-bladers; roller-skaters; walkers; runners; and probably a whole host of activities that escaped me. And all that on a leisurely half hour stroll along the boardwalk!
And, of course, that's not all. Free music festivals and/or sponsored charity runs/walks at some point pretty much every weekend (including the Beaches Jazz Festival that takes over the streets for several days each year). Amateur Shakespeare in the park, craft shows, art shows, fireworks on Bank Holidays, etc. More pubs, cafes and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Comprehensive everyday shopping all available on the main street, within easy walking distance. The best-looking women in the whole of the city parading up and down the beach, and a pretty good sample of men too. House prices to shake your head at (unless you happen to own one of them). The wonderful Beaches Library (and a choice of second-hand book stores for those who prefer to own). Streetcars direct to downtown (or buses up to the subway).
I could go on and on (and indeed I have done). But God, I love it! It's very easy to get blasé, and it's not a bad idea to remind yourself of some of the good things about where you live from time to time.

Canadian national anthem coopted for All Lives Matter

The same CBC discussion also talked about the rather rash decision of one of the popular Canadian pop-opera group The Tenors at last night's baseball All-Star Game to change the words of the Canadian national anthem and insert his own version, riffing on the currently toxic phrase "all lives matter".
Remigio Pereira unilaterally changed the lines, "With glowing hearts, we see thee rise, the True North, strong and free" to the rather awkward, "We're all brothers and sisters, all lives matter to the Great", and flashed an "All Lives Matter" placard, much to the discomfiture of the other Tenors.
I'm sure his heart was in the right place, and maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. He later tweeted, somewhat naively, "I've been so moved lately by the tragic loss of life. I hoped for a positive statement that would bring us ALL together". But, predictably enough, there has been an uproar. "All Lives Matter" is interpreted by many as a deliberate denial of the Black Lives Matter campaign against police brutality against black people. Only a complete political ingénue could have not been aware of that.
The other Tenors quickly distanced themselves from Pereira after this unprecedented doctoring of a national anthem at a major sporting event, calling him a "lone wolf". Pereira, who has always been something of a political maverick and has strong views on what he calls "forced vaccinations" and (possibly) a flat Earth (I kid you not), has apparently not been fired outright, but "won't be performing with The Tenors until further notice". Right...

Jay Z's Spiritual - from the heart or from the pocket?

Among other topics, the CBC Q Pop Culture Panel discussed pop and rap music mogul Jay Z's release of the track Spiritual, his contribution to the recent influx of musical responses to the shootings of black men by police (and vice versa).
I guess it must be kind of tough (in a very non-tough kind of way) for prominent black musicians like Jay Z, Beyoncé and the like. There is an unspoken expectation that they will make some kind of a statement on public affairs of this nature; not to do so would be an even louder statement in some ways. And, yes, people like Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar have always incorporated a political element into their songs, even if not to the extent of other second-rank rappers like J. Cole, Tef Poe, Killer Mike, etc (and even if Mr. Lamar chose to tone down his own lyrics for President Obama recently).
Interestingly, the panel presented two quite different views on the matter. One is that Jay Z (who is after all a multi-millionaire - very close to billionaire - media mogul, and not just a "boy from then hood" as his lyrics suggest) is merely doing what is expected of him in a purely self-serving, even vain, manner, and as his music is played in middle-class white suburban America (which, statistically, most of it is) this is not going to have any effect or cause any change. In which case, what is it for? Arguably, just cashing in on the zeitgeist.
On the other hand, goes the other view, although the lyrics are admittedly all about "I" (i.e. Jay Z himself), such is his reach and influence that listeners will put themselves into the song so that they then become the "I". White middle-class suburban America is exactly who needs to be thinking about these issues - there is no point in preaching to the choir - and Jay Z has the (corporate and artistic) reach to do so. It is further argued that invoking 19th Century negro spirituals, and incorporating quotes from historical figures like Frederick Douglas, makes the song legitimate and worthy in some way. Well, maybe, maybe not.
Personally, I find the former view better argued and more convincing, but then I don't have a great deal of patience with, or confidence in, pop megastars of any stripe. Or, alternatively, maybe it's just a song and we are all looking way too hard for depth and meaning and intention. Have a listen and see what you think
And the song itself? Well, it's OK, I guess, well-intentioned, even if not a masterpiece. The main hook includes the lines: "Just a boy from the hood that got his hands in the air in despair, don't shoot, I just wanna do good, ah" - not exactly earth-shaking stuff, not something that hasn't been said, better, many times before by others. And to suggest (if that is indeed the intention) that all, or even most, black men stopped by the police are just trying to "do good" is frankly puerile and duplicitous. As for the other part of the hook: "Just don't calculate us. Spiritual, yes it's spiritual", well, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it's deep, maybe it's just a throwaway line.

China unrepentant after South China Sea ruling

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that China has no legal or historical right to a swathe of the South China Sea it has been aggressively claiming for years.
The area, often referred to as the "nine dash line", claimed by China for no apparent good reason other than its mineral resources (principally oil and gas) and its strategic importance as one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, overlaps the territorial claims of five Southeast Asian nations (Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei), and a quick perusal of a map shows just how little it has to do with China geographically.
China has responded, with its usual ignorance and bluster, that it will completely ignore the ruling, and will "firmly safeguard national sovereignty" in the region regardless of world opinion. For some time, China has had, and will apparently continue to have, a policy of building up artificial islets in the area, some of which now boast military airfields. The arbitration court specifically took China to task for "severe harm to the coral reef environment" as a result of its construction and dredging activities in the region. Furthermore, it has ruled that none of the shoals or reefs, claimed by China as islands, actually qualify as islands under international law, meaning that the region is essentially "high seas", open to ships and planes of all countries, and that the normal 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and other nations in the area should apply to it as usual.
Also, for some time now, China has been conducting naval and air drills in the region, and is thought to be about to declare an "air defence identification zone", which would require all foreign aircraft to identify themselves and to seek Chinese permission to enter the airspace. Essentially, China has been banging the tub as hard as it can on the issue, and saying to the rest of the world "defy us if you dare".
China is technically a signatory to the 1996 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and as such should abide by its provisions. But China appears to quite willing to ignore the Convention in this case, and also in other ongoing maritime disputes with Japan and Vietnam. The nationalistic Chinese press has promised military and political reprisals against the United States and Japan and anyone else who happens to get in their way over this matter, and a tense mood has suddenly become even more tense.
This is just what the world needs: one more international flashpoint to be aware of! But China's reaction to the ruling may have other, potentially even more important, repercussions: if Beijing is willing to blithely ignore one international treaty it happens not to like, then what confidence can we have that its word is worth anything in other trade and compliance agreements? If China follows through and becomes a full-blown pariah state, then the well-being and security of the whole world is at risk.

The world's best chocolate is Canadian

As an antidote to the disproportionately negative and depressing nature of the vast majority of these blog entries, here's a good old made-in-Canada good news story: a tiny family business based in the small town of Almonte, near Ottawa, has won the prestigious Academy of Chocolate award for the world's best chocolate bar.
Hummingbird Chocolate Maker entered six of its chocolate bars into the London-based Academy's annual competition, along with 580 other competing companies from around the world, little expecting to actually win anything. In fact, all six won something: two bronze medals, three silvers and a gold for their Hispaniola 70% dark chocolate bar, which also won the "Golden Bean" winner-of-winners award from among the 14 gold medal winners, the Academy's highest honour.
Hummingbird is run by Drew and Erica Gilmour, who first met as foreign aid workers in Afghanistan, and got into chocolate-making after their experiences working in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. They operate out of a small chocolate shop on a suburban street in Almonte, roasting their beans in an old rotisserie chicken oven and winnowing them with a home-made winnower heavy on duct-tape and string. They learned their art from the Internet and old books. If there were a prize for back-stories, they would probably win that too.
The Gilmours, who also employ their ten-year-old daughter among their five staff, source their cacao from fair-trade suppliers in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Guatemala and Bolivia. Their products are currently available in Canada and (for some reason) China, although they have plans to expand, and these awards may well help them do so. I, for one, am going to try and find some.
Perhaps it's not much, but chalk one up for the little (Canadian) guy.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Whither the US in the aftermath of all this racial killing?

I don't want to dwell overlong on the recent spate of American police killings and reprisals, a subject which has already been done to proverbial death in the media and on the Internet and social media.
The deaths of two black men - in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in Falcon Heights, Minnesota - at the hands of the police in recent days, and then the gob-smacking response of black former Army reservist Micah Johnson in Dallas, Texas, (who shot 5 police officers and injured several more police and civilians because he was "upset" and "wanted to kill white people, especially white officers"), has people comparing 2016 to the depths of racial turmoil back in 1968. Although such comparisons are probably exaggerated, it is nonetheless a depressing spectacle to see the United States in this apparent free-fall into chaos.
How the events of this week will play out in the political field, and particularly in the ongoing US presidential race, remains to be seen. One can reasonably foresee it both benefitting and hindering the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in different ways. What will be the actual effect is perhaps not even predictable in the current climate.
How the events affect the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is another imponderable. Johnson's massacre of police officers took place just after an otherwise peaceable BLM rally, and Dallas Police Chief David Brown is quoted as saying, "he was upset about Black Lives Matter" as well as upset about the recent police shootings. What should we make of that? Then, former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted, "3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you." Really? Granted, Walsh resides a long way out on the Tea Party right, and he hastily deleted said tweet (although not before it had been re-tweeted ad nauseam), but you can see from this where it might go. Hashtags like #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter are now receiving as many hits as #BlackLivesMatter, and the BLM movement will have to be very careful to nuance their campaign beyond simplicities like Black=Good and Police=Bad.
One other aspect of the recent events that seems potentially important to me is the way in which such occurrences, and their aftermaths, are now routinely filmed on cellphones and distributed for all the world to see on YouTube and Facebook. It seems that the revolution WILL be televised after all, whether we like it or not, and it seem to me that this will have at least two consequences (and probably many more): seeing the immediate reactions of distraught relatives, and even seeing the eventual deaths of the victims on video, could amp up the emotional responses of the general public, in potentially unpredictable ways; and/or exposing people to extreme violence and snuff movies of this kind may just further de-sensitize an already de-sensitized population, sated as they are on graphic violence and violent death, both on the evening news and in their peak-hour TV-viewing leisure time.
Where the US goes from here is anyone's guess, but it probably won't be pretty or pain-free.
There again, when one considers that between 100 and 150 have just been killed in clashes in South Sudan, with little or no media fanfare, one has to realize just how First World these problems are that we agonize over.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Accuracy of neurological workhorse fMRI images thrown into doubt

Here's an interesting snippet courtesy of Forbes magazine. The possibility has been raised that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) images of the brain, a mainstay of neurological research for the past 15 years or so, may not be as reliable as previously thought.
The technique - which, to simplify horribly, involves measuring the tiny bursts of energy given off by the hydrogen atoms in the brain as they realign themselves after magnetic interference - is sound in itself. But the software used to generate those user-friendly colour-coded pictures of the brain may be suspect, according to some scientists. So, potentially, some 40,000 research studies on brain functionality (and the treatments based on those studies) over the last decade and a half might not be as accurate as thought. Which, if true, is pretty major.
The claims come from just one Swedish study, published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, which purports to show that, in their studies of 499 healthy patients, the fMRI software does not always produce images of the correct parts of the brain lighting up (in some cases, false positives of 70% were recorded). It suggests that bugs or glitches in the software may be leading to faulty images, often to a dramatic extent.
I can get little feel from the article as to how extensive such errors might be, how many research reports might be affected, or even how many different software packages might involved (and how many are probably fine), so it is difficult to assess the possible impact of such a state of affairs. The Swedish study will need to be checked and repeated extensively (rattled fMRI companies are probably working on that right now) before we intemperately throw of our decades of valuable research.

Chilcot Report just confirms what most people already knew

"Way back" indeed, and that was my first reaction: why has it taken 13 years to produce a report, and what possible relevance or use could it have now? As it turns out, the inquiry was not even launched until 2009, six years after the invasion decision itself, and fully two years after Blair had resigned as Prime Minister (in fact, 2009 was the year in which British troops pulled out of Iraq). Even then, there were delays, disagreements and controversies, such as over how public the evidence should be (it was eventually agreed that public hearings were required). Just the sheer length of the Report (12 volumes containing 2.6 million words) was another reason for the delay, compounded by more disagreements over what documents were to be included, particularly as regards communications between Blair and Bush. So in the end, it still took seven years (or 13 years, depending on how you look at it).
The remit of the inquiry was to answer two main questions: was it right and necessary to invade Iraq in March 2003 in the first place, and should Britain have been better prepared for what followed? Despite the time taken, the report's conclusions are hardly startling: there were other options to war at the time, and the legal basis for the invasion was "far from satisfactory"; furthermore, the planning for a post-war Iraq was woefully inadequate, and the instability that resulted from the invasion probably resulted in the deaths of at least 150,000 Iraqis, and the continuing chaos that reigns there even today.
And what practical value does the Report have now? Not much. It does not provide evidence for a criminal case, and does little other than confirm most people's belief that Blair and Bush were wrong. Blair, an earnest and committed Christian, has probably been suffering his own little hell ever since anyway. It may, or may not, cause future Prime Ministers and Presidents to think a little harder and longer about such momentous decisions.
Blair himself spend two hours responding to the Report, but he has not changed his mind a jot with retrospect. He claims to "express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe". But, he insists, "Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein, I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country", adding, "I took this decision because it was the right thing to do based upon the information I had and the threats I perceived".
Much has been made of the note Blair sent to Bush in the summer of 2002 - "I will be with you, whatever" - and in some ways this is the crux of the matter: Blair was more interested in preserving what he saw as his special relation with Bush and the US than he was in justifying or questioning the actions he committed his own country to.
That said, some of the other quotes and comments being bandied around do not seem to me to be appropriate, particularly that of war widow Sarah O'Connor: "There's one terrorist in this world, that the world needs to be aware of , and his name is Tony Blair". Her husband chose a career in the military, and he would probably have been the first to point out to her that the risk of death comes with the territory, and cannot to be pinned personally on one person or one decision. Plenty of soldiers die much more meaningless deaths.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Pride Parade held to ransom by Black Lives Matter

The activist group, which was a guest of honour at the huge annual Toronto Pride Parade, staged an unexpected sit-in part-way through, holding the parade up for about half an hour. Pride Toronto's Executive Director Matthieu Chantelois, caught off-guard buy the protest, hastily agreed to a series of pre-prepared BLM demands (including a pledge not to allow Toronto Police floats and booths at future parades) in order to get the parade moving again, although he is now saying that he won't actually commit to barring police from the parade, but that he is open to having conversations with the BLM about their "demands".
The black activist group tweeted, "We shut it down. We won." after the sit-in, and they have generated a lot of dissention and strife among various different factions within the GLBTQ community. If this is their idea of a victory, then they are a sorry bunch indeed.
This year's Pride Parade boasted top representatives from all levels of government, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Toronto Mayor John Tory, as well as (black) Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and a large contingent of police officers, gay and otherwise, who were there to participate in the Parade, not to police it.
Maybe this is all a bit too mainstream and "white bread" for BLM, but to disrupt a joyful celebration of this sort, coming as it does after so many years of struggle and heart-break in the GLBTQ community, seem to me to be just plain wrong. I can't help imagining the hard right rubbing their hand with glee at the unnecessary infighting this spectacle has created.
The Pride organization, out of the goodness of their hearts and a sense of shared struggle, granted BLM a high-profile opportunity to be part of a huge national event, chock full of goodwill and media attention, and they were paid back by a publicly humiliation and a political rift that wasn't there before. They will probably be more circumspect in the future.
Since the event, Black Lives Matter has been inundated with hate mail, mainly from the GLBTQ community, and mainly virulently racist in tone. While no-one condones hate mail of this kind, and while BLM are happily making hay by claiming that the hate mail is evidence of the existing anti-black racism among gays, this was all initiated and fomented by their very own cynical and heavy-handed actions. In one fell swoop, they have themselves created an anti-black dynamic that was not there before.
I have put in plenty of time in activist campaigns of various kinds over the years (albeit not for some time now), and one unspoken rule is that you do not co-opt or cannibalize other causes for your own. You just don't. BLM has crossed this line, and may have to suffer the consequences. My feeling is that it has put its cause back a couple of years by this action; they, however, are unrepentant, and clearly do not feel this way.
Everyone comes out of this diminished in stature and strength, and an opportunity for solidarity and mutual respect has been squandered. What a shame.

Political shambles in Britain after Brexit vote

Well, go figure! Nigel Farage, creator and leader of the far-right anti-immigration UK Independence Party and instigator and unofficial commander-in-chief of the Leave campaign to take Britain out of Europe, has resigned his position as leader of UKIP.
What Farage says is that, in the aftermath of Britain's recent vote to leave the EU, he feels like he has fulfilled his political ambitions, and that it is now time for him to take a rest. He has resigned a couple of times before, but this time he says he is serious.
What it looks like to an outsider, though, is yet another major Brexit campaigner publicly distancing himself from the shambles that remains of Britain's political classes, and being unwilling to take responsibility for the political and economic chaos leaving the EU has caused. Pro-Europe Prime Minister David Cameron resigned as Conservative leader after the vote (understandably), but then high-profile Brexiter and all-round odd-ball Boris Johnson shocked everyone by saying he was not interested in applying for the position. The Labour Party leadership is in equal (or worse) disarray after two thirds of the shadow cabinet stepped down at the weekend, and more than three-quarters of Labour MPs voted a show of no confidence in leader Jeremy Corbyn, who nevertheless insists that he going nowhere.
So, a political shambles across the board at a time when a steady hand at the tiller is needed more than ever before.

As one candidate after another pulled out of the race for the Conservative leadership - and therefore Prime Ministership of the country - Theresa May eventually found herself, quite unexpectedly I'm sure, in splendid isolation as the only candidate standing. Ms. May, a Remain supporter although not an outspoken one, assumed the office on July 13th, and promptly sacked vehemently pro-Brexit Justice Minister Michael Gove and Chancellor (and Cameron sidekick) George Osborne.
She did, however, promote Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary, a rather unfortunate choice, given that so many in Europe hate the man, as ministers from France and Turkey have gone out of their way to make clear in recent days (see here for more on just how badly Johnson is regarded abroad). So, Boris' single-minded pursuit of power continues, even if he balked at taking on the responsibilities of Prime Minister.
David Cameron returns to the back-benches, doubtless heaving a huge sigh of relief, where he can sit and ponder how he may have single-handedly brought the country to its knees by calling a completely unnecessary referendum.

Toronto: the most fascinatingly boring city in the world

The estimable British newspaper The Guardian is having a Canada Week all this week, focussing particularly on its cites. Today's offering dissects my home town Toronto, and is written by Toronto journalist and author Stephen Marche. I thought it a pithy, honest and well-observed piece, some of which bears repeating.
Marche sets the scene by offering up a few pertinent facts about the city, including:
  • Toronto's population surpassed that of Chicago this year, making it the third largest metropolitan area in North America (after New York and Los Angeles). While Chicago continues to shrink, Toronto is growing precipitously, with a population expected to hit 7.5 million within a decade and a half.
  • As recently as 2005, Toronto had all of 13 skyscrapers; now it has about 50, with 130 more under construction (substantially more than anywhere else in North America, including New York). If you approach from the water, almost every building you see will have been constructed in the past couple of decades.
  • Toronto's population is 51% foreign-born and includes people from over 230 countries, making it by many assessments the most diverse city in the world. A UC Berkeley study in 2012 found that, compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to, and optimistic about, immigration. It also found that those Canadians who expressed more patriotism were also more likely to support immigration and multiculturalism (as opposed to the United States, where this correlation goes in the opposite direction).
But it is Marche's spot-on appreciation of some of the ironies and contradictions of life in Toronto that struck me most:
  • "In London and New York, the worst stereotype of a banker is somebody who enjoys cocaine, Claret and vast megalomaniac schemes. In Toronto, a banker handles teachers’ pension portfolios and spends weekends at the cottage."
  • "Diversity is not what sets Toronto apart; the near-unanimous celebration of diversity does. Toronto may be the last city in the world that unabashedly desires difference."
  • "[Black Lives Matter] activists protested outside the police headquarters for 14 days, received a meeting with the mayor and the premier, and then disbanded peacefully. There was no hint of a riot, nor even of bad behaviour."
  • "The streetcars along a single main street, Spadina, carry more people on a daily basis than the whole of the Sheppard line, whose expenses run to roughly $10 a passenger, according to one estimate...Add another contradiction to Toronto’s growing list: it must be the best-run city in the world run by idiots."
  • "Only Toronto would commemorate not building something [a series of panels commemorating the activists who prevented the Spadina Expressway in the 1970s]. It’s proud of what it hasn’t done."
Go, Toronto! If this is what "boring" is, then I'm all for it.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Life in a socially-progressive country

If we're feeling in need of a pat on the back this Canada Day, the news that Canada ranks second in the world for "social progress" might just be a good enough excuse.
And what does that actually mean? Well, the Social Progress Index is an annual list of what might be thought of as the most enlightened countries. The index is administered by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is based on a rather random basket of social indicators, including fulfillment of basic human needs, access to advanced education, tolerance and inclusion, environmental quality, mobile phone subscriptions, and obesity.
Of the 133 countries measured on the index (covering 94% of the world's population), Finland comes out on top overall, closely followed by Canada, and followed in turn by the usual suspects like Denmark, Australia and Switzerland. In reality, this top group is so closely-packed that individual rankings have only a limited significance. Down at the other end of the scale are impoverished and war-torn countries like Niger, Angola, Chad, Afghanistan and, worst of all, Central African Republic. Of the major categories, Canada does particularly well on basic human needs, access to advanced education, and tolerance for minority communities, and it fares worst on environmental quality, mobile phone ownership, and obesity.
So, a pat on the back perhaps, but don't let's forget those "must do better" categories on the report card.

Man dies in self-driving car

In an embarrassing turn of events, which could just conceivably mark the beginning of the end for the development of self-driving cars (or at least a serious back-to-the-drawing-board moment), a Florida man was killed while driving a Tesla Model S electric car in autopilot or self-driving mode.
I don't consider myself a Luddite exactly, but the idea of sef-driving cars has always slightly worried me. News of the first self-driving fatality may set the technology back years. The whole premise of self-driving cars has always been that computers are capable of operating a car more safely than a human. If that premise can be seen to fail in such a simple scenario, then maybe the whole premise is at risk.
The accident occurred when a tractor-trailor made a left turn in front of the car, and the Tesla's sophisticated software, computers, cameras and radar all failed to "see" the white truck against a brightly-lit sky, throwing doubt on whether the tech can be relied on to make those split-second life-or death decisions it is supposed to excel at.
The circumstances of the crash were admittedly unusual, but the safety record of the technology, which is still undergoing ongoing testing both in controlled conditions and on the open road, needs to be proven to be beyond reproach before it can be licensed, and before it will be accepted by the general public. One fatal accident like this, even after millions of miles of successful testing, is just not good enough.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Far-right to get a re-run of the Austrian election

Austria's Constitutional Court has put the cat among the pigeons by upholding a challenge to its recent presidential elections, which the far-right Freedom Party only narrowly lost. The decision effectively annuls the election results and triggers a full re-run of the election.
The objectionable ultra-rightist Norbert Ofer, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Freedom Party, caused a deal of consternation in Europe when he narrowly lost the 22nd May election by just 30,863 votes (less than 1%) to staunchly pro-EU leftist independent Alexander Van der Bellen. The Freedom Party's challenge alleged that postal votes had been illegally and improperly handled (opened earlier than permitted under election rules, and, in some cases, counted by people unauthorized to do so), and the court has ruled that the improprieties were important enough to merit a complete re-run of the election.
The court decision represents a moral victory of sorts for the European far-right. Bt whether a new election, in a subtly changed post-Brexit world, will favour the right or the left remains to be seen. Some commentators think that the recent UK vote to leave the EU could boost populist and nationalist sentiment in Austria, while others believe that the political and economic turbulence Brexit has created in Britain and around the world may make people more cautious about Eurosceptic parties.
Myself, I don't really understand why a whole new election is needed, especially in such a changed (and charged) political climate. There is no indication or even suggestion that the count had been manipulated in any way, merely that some rules were not followed. Could the postal votes not just be re-counted?