Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ireland should be happy with the EU's ruling against Apple

A three-year investigation by the European Commission (EC) has concluded that Ireland should recover up to €13 billion in back-taxes from US giant Apple. The weird thing is, neither Apple nor Ireland are happy with the ruling.
The EC ruling states that: "Member states cannot give tax benefits to selected companies - this is illegal under EU state aid rules", so that Ireland's granting of beneficial tax rules to Apple is therefore illegal. Although the standard rate of corporate tax in Ireland is a paltry 12.5% (already among the lowest in the developed world), Apple has been paying substantially less than that, with the report singling out 2003 (when Apple paid about 1%) and 2014 (when it paid 0.005%). Ireland vehemently maintains that it is not a tax haven, but its tax rules also allow multinationals to legally shift profits to countries that are considered tax havens (a loophole that is apparently currently being phased out).
Of course, Apple is blustering about how unfair it all is, and how they are meticulous about paying whatever taxes they owe. But bear in mind that Apple - which has a stock market valuation of around $600 billion, and made a profit of $53 billion in 2015 alone - channels (legally) 90% of its foreign profits to Ireland to take advantage of its favourable tax regime, as well as to other subsidiaries which have no tax residence. It carefully stays within the word of the law, but you could argue that the law is just plain wrong in these kinds of cases (Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who ranks as the third most influential economist today, refers to it as "the dark face of globalization" and adds that "seeking special favors has undermined the whole international economic system"). And you could argue that Apple has used its not insignificant leveraging power in a bullying way to strike a deal that Ireland would not normally be tempted to accept.
The Republic of Ireland, for their part, is up in arms because they see the EC as interfering in its own sovereign tax policies, and is worried that Apple might pull out and take its business with it (although it is hard to see what concrete economic and employment benefits Apple is conferring on the country). Ireland is also worried that the ruling make it less attractive as a destination for foreign direct investment. The US treasury is also rumbling about the EU becoming a "supranational tax authority", and undermining "foreign investment, the business climate in Europe, and the important spirit of economic partnership between the US and the EU".
But the EU rules are pretty clear: member states cannot offer beneficial tax terms to selected individuals or companies. And Ireland will have to kowtow if it wants to continue to receive EU financial benefits. The EC has already made similar rulings regarding Starbucks (in the Netherlands) and Fiat (in Luxembourg), and is purportedly preparing to take on Google.
I must confess, I am a little surprised that Ireland is quite so combative over the ruling. Yes, they may have had their nose put out of joint as regards the independence and integrity of their national tax system. But the €13 billion windfall would fund its complete healthcare budget for a full year, or two-thirds of its social welfare bill. And wouldn't it prefer to be getting 12.5% rather than 0.005%? And, even if Apple did decide to take its tax avoidance business elsewhere, what would Ireland be missing out on? 0.005% is what - a couple of million bucks.
I was amused by the reaction of Apple CEO Tim Cook. Full of righteous indignation, he blustered that the EC ruling was merely "political crap", and not a laudable attempt to get blood-sucking corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.
Hardly surprising as a general reaction, but, interestingly, he also claimed in the interview that that Apple is "subject to the statutory rate in Ireland of 12.5 percent", and that the company "paid $400m in taxes in 2014". Now, by my calculations, based on a 2014 net income of $39.51 billion, that comes to almost exactly 1%. Not 12.5%. This is what is called, in technical economic terms, "talking through one's ass".

Friday, August 26, 2016

Trump's ultimate enormity

Donald Trump has upped the ante in the most bizarre and dishonest election campaign in living memory.
Recently, he has increasingly come to rely on the idea that, if he loses (and, of course, only if he loses), then the election must have been rigged. This dates back to the beginning of August, when he first mooted the idea: "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest." He followed up on Fox News: "I'm telling you, November 8, we'd better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us."
This is Trump's idea of damage limitation, of an exit strategy. It can't be called a graceful or elegant strategy, exactly, but it is his way of excusing, even denying, his failure.
It may be his most pernicious and egregious ploy yet.

Burkinis a threat to public order? Hardly

The burkini ban on French Riviera beaches is in full force now, and starting to sow increasing discord in French society. Around 30 towns in southern France and Corsica have brought in the ban on the Islam-friendly full-body swimsuits, although so far only Cannes and Nice have actually issued fines.
Proponents of the bans say they are a necessary, appropriate and proportional response to the terrorist attacks in Nice and Paris earlier this year, although I have never seen a convincing argument for quite how fining a handful of women for being overdressed on the beach makes the world a safer place. The mayor of Cannes has described the burkini as a "symbol of Islamist extremism" and a palpable threat to public order, which is definitely pushing it. Ugly? Yes. Uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Dangerous? Hardly.
The other main justification for the bans stems from France's long-standing, jealously-guarded (and apparently heartfelt) defence of secularism, and its opposition to public displays of religious affiliation. For example, Nice's ban specifies "correct dress, respectful of accepted customs and secularism, as well as rules of hygeine and of safety in public bathing areas". I kind of see where they are coming from on this, but dogmatic bans of this sort are not the way to approach the problem. It strikes me as an attempt to legislate some things that can't be - and indeed shouldn't be - legislated.
Another frequently-used argument, of course, is that the burkini represents the "enslavement of women", and that these poor unfortunates need to be saved from themselves. Which may well be the case in some of the more medieval parts of the Middle East, but not, I think, in France. I would prefer to give them a bit more credit for making their own decisions, and not try to micro-manage their lives for them.
Whatever the "justification" for the bans, they seem to be wildly popular in France, with 64% in favour, and another 30% indifferent (leaving all of 6% to oppose them), although the deeper-thinking political classes appear to be substantially more divided on the issue. The controversy has been fuelled by viral videos of police on Mediterranean beaches handing out fines to women clad in burkinis and, in some cases, non-burkinis (i.e. just concealing or "excessive" regular clothing, such as some people might choose to wear for medical or other reasons), and of Muslim women being forced to divest themselves of their concealing clothing. Tellingly, other videos and photos show equally overdressed Catholic nuns demonstrably not being fined.
Currently, a French human rights group and an anti-Islamophobia association are contesting the bans in France's highest administrative court (having previously failed to persuade a Nice court), on the basis that they are unconstitutional and in breach of France's laws on freedom of opinion, religion, clothing and movement. A verdict is expected later this week.
Personally, although I find the whole concept of burkas and burkinis (and religion in general, for that matter) ridiculous, banning them is even more ridiculous, and a dangerous step down a slippery slope.
It seems like cooler heads have prevailed. France's highest administrative court has ruled today that the burkini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet "seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms", and should be suspended forthwith. The court says it will make a final decision on the legality of the bans "later", but it seems likely that almost all the bans on burkinis will be overturned based on this precedent (although one mayor in a town in Corsica has vowed to keep the ban in place regardless).

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Olympic medals: weighted, per capita, per GDP

I have always thought the Olympic Games medals tables to be way too simplistic.
Case in point: the Canadian media always show the table in order of total medals, presumably because it shows Canada in the best light (in Rio, Canada placed an impressive 10th in total medals, as compared to a mediocre 20th when ranked by golds); British media, on the other hand, show the medal standings in order of gold medals (GB placed second, above China, in golds, but third, below China, in total medals). I feel sure that the Chinese media would use the total medals rankings system for the very same reason.
I have never understood why the medals table does not reflect the quality of medals by a points system, say 3 points for a gold, 2 for a silver and 1 for a bronze, or perhaps the 4:2:1 ranking suggested by the New York Times (other weighting suggestions have also been put forward).
I could find surprisingly few resources on the Internet for such a weighted tally, but one I did find weighted gold at 6, silver at 3 and bronze at 2 (which seems reasonable to me). What it shows is not particularly revolutionary - USA followed by GB, China, Russia and Germany, with Canada in 15th spot - not significantly different from the rankings by gold medals, apart from in a few minor cases further down the table (e.g. France boosted slightly by its silver medal count, Kenya and Jamaica demoted slightly because of the preponderance of golds among their medals, etc).
But there are other options. For example, another way that the medal standings could be portrayed is according to medals per capita or medals per GDP. These methods would level the proverbial playing field, and adjust for the built-in advantages enjoyed by large and rich countries. Luckily, someone has already done the hard work here, and analyzed the medals tables for the Rio (and previous) Olympics, both by population and by GDP.
The medals per capita shows a very different picture than the one we are used to seeing. The United States languishes back in 43rd position, and China in 76th. The heavy hitters here are now the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Bahamas and Jamaica, followed by New Zealand, Denmark, Croatia and Slovenia. Britain still places a respectable 19th, and Canada 31st.
In medals per GDP, Grenada and Jamaica still head the table, followed now by Kenya, Fiji, Armenia and Georgia. (On some analyses, Chinese Taipei ranks top by this method - I'm not sure what the issue is there). The United States falls still further to 64th, while China improves slightly to 61st. Great Britain and Canada lie in 36th and 62nd places respectively. Quite an eye-opener.
And which metric is best? Well that depends on who you ask...

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Badger cull is not going to help England's bovine TB problem

Organized badger culling started in England back in 2013 in an attempt to control the extent of bovine TB among cattle herds. The theory was that badgers were spreading the disease, and so getting rid of badgers was considered the country's best "shot" at getting rid of the disease among cattle. About 4,000 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset since 2013 (in addition to the 50,000 or so that are killed on Britain's roads every year), at an estimated cost of over £7,000 per animal. Now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to extend the contentious program to Devon, Cornwall and Herefordshire.
Unfortunately, the program is not based on good science, and so has not been very effective. It turns out that only about 6% of bovine TB cases can be attributed to badgers; the vast majority come from cattle-to-cattle transmissions. Logic suggests that a vaccine for cattle should therefore be a priority. But Defra remain undaunted, and convinced that badger culls are the way to go.
England apparently has the highest rate of bovine TB in Europe, resulting in thousands of cattle being slaughtered every year. Clearly, it is major problem. But killing badgers is, just as clearly, not the solution, and pouring good money after bad has never been an effective strategy.

The secret to Britain's Olympic success

Like, I am sure, many others, I have been impressed by Great Britain's medal showing in the Rio Olympic Games. Depending on how you want to measure it, they placed second, above China, although of course well back from the USA. Their total of 67 medals was lower than China's 70, but it included 27 golds to China's 26, 23 silvers to China's 18, and 17 bronzes to China's 26. So the quality of their medals was certainly higher even if China can claim the overall quantity. (Quick shout-out to Canada, which also had its most successful Olympics ever, with 22 medals, mainly thanks to our women competitors, and a top 10 finish).
Just as an aside, it's interesting how British websites show medals table in order of gold medals (which favours Britain), while Canadian sites show the table in terms of overall medals (which favours Canada: 10th in overall medals, but 20th in golds).
But anyway, for a country that came 36th in the medals table as recently as 1996 in Atlanta, this is quite an achievement for Britain. Even in 2012, when the Games were held in London in front of a supportive home crowd, GB placed third, well behind the USA and China (and also behind Russia in total medals). So, in Rio, Britain has achieved that rare thing, an improvement over a record-breaking home performance. It has also strongly outperformed other developed countries with similar or greater populations, like Japan, Germany, France and Italy, as well as the populous and sports-mad home country, Brazil.
So, what is Britain's secret? Well, depressingly enough, the answer seems to be: money. UK Sport, which is the government body that allocates money raised from the national lottery and taxes to the various aspects of elite sport, has actually increased its investment in Olympic hopefuls over the last few years, even over and above its funding of the run-up to London 2012. And those sports (like athletics, boxing and cycling) that have fuelled Britain's rise in the medals standings over the last decade or so are the ones that have benefitted most, at the expense of less successful sports like swimming, wrestling and volleyball, which have seen their funding cut. In addition, the national lottery pays out as much £28,000 to individual medal-winners, and up to three-quarters of that to top 8 finishers, and half to individual identified future stars.
So, arguably, GB's success has come as the result of a brutal but effective policy based on a soulless cost-benefit analysis, similar in some ways to Canada's own "Own The Podium" program of recent years. As such, just as in Canada, the policy has come under some intense criticism for its cynical and money-centred philosophy.
In particular, many argue that the financial focus on elite sports is actively damaging "grassroots sports". In an environment where activity levels and participation in sports has reached an all-time low, where obesity is an ever-increasing problem, and where local authority budgets continue to be slashed, what then is the purpose of investment in sports? To boost Britain's image in the world at large, perhaps? Just as an example, in the wake of Britain's successes in swimming in the Rio Games, there has been a large surge in interest in swimming, but local pools remain underinvested, and many are closing or struggling to remain open due to funding cuts, and an estimated 52% of schoolchildren leave school unable to swim 25 metres unaided.
There is necessarily a limited pot of money available for countries to invest in sports. What should be the focus of that investment? Is it more important for a country to get a gold medal in sailing or taekwondo, than to achieve a modest improvement in the proportion (currently standing at about a quarter) of the population that does less than 30 minutes of activity a week?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Are Trump's gaffes deliberate self-sabotage?

In the interests of fairness, I have been trying to understand the strange phenomenon that is Donald Trump, to understand where he is coming from, and where he thinks he might be going. Trying, and failing.
His latest outburst came on Wednesday, during a campaign rally in Florida, when he claimed unequivocally, not once but three times, that President Barack Obama was the founder of Islamic State (IS or ISIS): "ISIS is honouring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder: Crooked Hillary Clinton."
Now, most people know that Islamic State began as Iraq’s local affiliate of al-Qaida in the early 2000s, and is usually considered the brain-child of the Jordanian-born activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006 during a US airstrike. So, OK, you think, this the Donald's (rather lame, and not at all funny) idea of a joke, a metaphor, poetic license, whatever. But he certainly didn't look like he was telling a joke, and his lackeys in the crowd certainly seemed to be lapping it up as the gospel truth.
Then, the next day, a conservative radio commentator gave Trump an opportunity to manage the gaffe, suggesting that perhaps Trump meant by his outrageous claim that Obama’s foreign policy had created the conditions in Iraq and Syria that allowed IS to thrive. Trump's response? "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I gave him the most valuable player award." When it was pointed out that Obama has led a coalition of Western and Arab countries in an extended campaign against IS, and launched over 10,000 U.S. airstrikes in an attempt to defeat it: "I don’t care, he was the founder."
Then you start to worry. Who is this guy? What does he hope to achieve by this fabulation? It was only in a terse tweet on Friday morning that Trump finally attempted to defuse the situation, by belatedly claiming that it was all just a little joke after all, a small exercise in sarcasm: "Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?" You can almost imagine a bunch of distraught advisers pleading with him to retract his initial statement and save his campaign, and Trump's grudging acquiescence, petulant lower lip extended and quivering.
So, how to make sense of it all. I think sense is perhaps too much to expect, but there is a theory, one that has been around for some time now, that Trump actually does not want the Presidency and is deliberately trying to sabotage his own campaign. Why would he do that? Perhaps partly because the whole thing was just a ruse in the first place, a publicity stunt, a cynical exercise in self-promotion and hubris, to see just how far he could pull the wool over the eyes of the American public. And perhaps partly because he really never expected to get this far, is in way over his head, and is now panicking at the prospect of actually having to run the country (according to some, he only ever wanted to place second, so that he can make his point, gain some publicity and notoriety, and then escape from the real responsibilities).
Interesting theory, and perhaps the only one that makes any sense at all, although maybe it is conferring a little too much smarts and Machiavellianism on the man. Maybe he is, after all, just an idiot and actually believes the stuff that comes out of his mouth (see this recent article for a good summary of some of his most egregious claims and assertions during the campaign).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cupping is the new celebrity snake oil

If, like me, you were wondering about those funny, round, red welts being sported by Olympians like Michael Phelps, then the answer is "cupping".
Yes, that's cupping as used by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Chinese, and by the medically-misinformed practitioners of medieval Europe. Basically, a cup or glass of some kind is placed on the skin and heat or a vacuum is applied to suck the air out of it. The idea is supposedly to influence the flow of energy (or "qi") through the body, and to mobilize local blood flow in such a way as to somehow eliminate toxins from the body and even promote healing and pain relief.
It's the latest fad among entertainment celebrities, who are always in search of new talking points for their Instagram pages (including Lena Dunham, Jennifer Anniston, Justin Bieber and Gwyneth Paltrow), and a few sports celebrities (most notably swimmer Michael Phelps). However, if it sounds like snake oil, or just something from Monty Python, you may not be far wrong.
As with so many trendy alternative therapies, there appears to be little or no scientific evidence of its efficacy. A 2012 meta-analysis in the journal of the US Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, found that, for a few conditions, cupping may have conferred some benefit. However, some 85% of the studies involved had a "high risk of bias", particularly in that they were not blinded or placebo-controlled studies, suggesting that a grain of salt may need to be taken with them. The medical community in general treats cupping as a pseudoscience with absolutely no medical evidence of any efficacy at all, except perhaps a psychosomatic one in some cases.
Cupping is unlikely to be actively dangerous, other than some unnecessary bruising and a risk of infection from those types of cupping that also involve cuts to the skin. But, like many other alternative therapies, the main worry is that such unproven treatments may steer people away from other evidence-based therapies that actually do work. We should not be basing our medical decisions based on Instagram popularity.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

How is attacking hospitals in the Middle East an effective war tactic?

Two more deliberate attacks on hospitals in the Middle East - one a government airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in rebel-held Millis in northern Syria, which killed 13 (including 4 staff and 5 children); the other a Taliban suicide attack on a hospital in Quetta in southwestern Pakistan, where lawyers and journalists had gathered to mourn the shooting death of a prominent lawyer earlier in the day, which killed at least 70 people and wounded at least 100 more - has me scratching my head at why hospitals are considered legitimate, or even useful, targets in the various wars that plague the region.
Despite being explicitly banned by the Geneva Convention, and therefore constituting a war crime, attacks on hospitals seem to be an increasingly common occurrence, particularly in the "dirty war" in Syria, but also in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan. The NGO Physicians for Human Rights claims to have documented 224 attacks on 175 health facilities since the start of Syrian conflict, with 599 medical personnel killed in the attacks, and that was in February last year, before the recent rash of attacks. Another report by the World Health Organization details 594 attacks on hospitals and clinics in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in 2014 and 2015 (also, therefore, before the more recent enormities), with a total of 959 medics, support staff, patients and visitors killed.
Most of these attacks involve airstrikes, which necessarily means that the perpetrators are states (rebel groups typically do not have the resources for such attacks), foremost among them being Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime and its Russian supporters. Both Syria and Russia claim that they are not deliberately targeting hospitals, but Doctors Without Borders (who, along with the Red Cross, operate and fund many of the hospitals in rebel areas) beg to differ. One senior MSF staffer has singled out the permanent members of the UN Security Council, four of whom - Russia, France, UK and USA - he maintains are actively involved in conflicts where medics are targeted, by funding the offending groups even if not by actively engaging in bombings (as in the case of Russia). Amnesty International have also come out and unambiguously stated that "Russian and Syrian government forces appear to have deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities".
What I don't understand is, setting aside the fact that the targeting of medical facilities is clearly violating the "laws of war", why would any combatant see it as a useful tactic in their struggle anyway? What do they gain from such acts, other than a whole load of bad publicity, and a potential future trial in the International Court of Justice? Even maternity and pediatric hospitals have been targeted. My question is: why?I have yet to read a convincing explanation of the phenomenon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Thailand votes to curtail its own democracy

Here's a new twist on politics: Thailand has just voted for a military coup. In a referendum, about 62% of the voting population has voted for a new constitution that lays the foundation for a civilian government strongly influenced by the military and controlled by appointed (rather than elected) officials.
Basically, the people have democratically voted to curtail democracy. I'm not sure that has ever happened before (at least not in such an open and flagrant way), and it is difficult to know just what to make of it. The vote appears to have been a free one, and not rigged or forcibly influenced in any major way, so one has to assume that that is what the people actually want.
Yes, Thailand has been beset by street violence and divisive politics for years. But this seems like a rather extreme remedy, and one that the people may come to regret in the future.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Olympics have finally outrun their mission

Cathal Kelly, the Globe and Mail's resident philosopher of sport, has penned a thought-provoking article on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its role and relevance in the 21st century.
As Kelly opines, the IOC increasingly sees its role being "think Olympically" when everyone else is caught up in the nitty-gritty of fighting poverty, recession, etc, and the thankless task of making ends meet. He sees the IOC as functioning "less like a business conglomerate and more like a romantic cult" in which "the systemic belief in sport as a vehicle of cultural advancement is total". IOC president Thomas Bach is the chief Cool-Aid dispenser in this system, and Kelly perceives a "jagged edge of ecstatic fundamentalism" behind the "bland MBA terms" of his media deliveries.
Kelly even sees evidence of the IOC's ambitions for "social engineering" in the IOC's decision to bring non-sports like skateboarding and surfing under the Olympic banner. The inclusion of these disciplines (which are really lifestyles rather than sports) on the grounds that they are popular with the world's youth ("we go where the young people are", as Bach says) shows a rather alarming desire to subsume almost everything under the Olympic code, and to couch everything in terms of winners and losers. The IOC wants to represent itself as the "Manifest Destiny" of sport, to dictate what should be considered not only "Higher, Faster, Stronger" (as in Pierre de Coubertin's original motto), but even what is "Better, Purer, More Wholesome". Bach's justification of allowing the majority of Russia's athletes, despite the contrary recommendations of almost all other international sports organizations, on the basis of "natural law" is just another example of the IOC's Saviour Complex.
Much of this might be a little hyperbolic, but much of it rings true. The modrn Olympics is certainly an excessively bombastic, bloated, and almost certainly corrupt, affair. Disfunctional, even. For decades now, it has been blighted by the modern disease of assuming that everything has to be bigger, more comprehensive and flashier than ever before (Faster, Higher, Bigger?). Such growth is almost always unsustainable, and the Olympics are clearly starting to creak at the seams.
Mr. Cathal's essay is a provocative and challenging article, and not just because it supports to some extent my own belief that the Olympics have over-stepped their mission and out-stayed their welcome.
Call me an old fuddy-duudy, but I really believe that things started to go wrong when professional athletes were allowed into the Olympics back in the 1980s. Maybe, at the time the modern Olympics,  were resurrected, it seemed like a good way to bring a disparate and dissipating world together. But now the Olympics are more a source of division than unity, and have become much too intertwined with politics and economics. We have the IAAF World Championships, the World Cup, Wimbledon, etc, etc, not to mention any number of Asian Games, Pan-Am Games, European Championships, etc, etc. Do we really also need an Olympic Games that has grown into an unwieldy and uncontrollable monster?

I remain hopelessly conflicted over the Olympics. I deeply believe all of the above, and I am convinced that the Games are an unjustifiable diversion of much needed money, an explosion of rampant nationalism and a medals-at-any-price philosophy, run by a corrupt and bloated organization that sees its mandate as the iron control of all that is sport.
And what have I done since the opening ceremony but cheer on Canada, glory in the splendid performances of the world's best athlete, and lap up the human interest stories that permeate the constant television coverage?
Whatever you might think of the Olympic Games in the theoretical abstract, it remains a gloriously compelling event like no other. Sometimes, it's just so hard to be a hard-nosed cynic and a holier-than-thou grouch.

New BC real estate tax is not racist

The 15% tax imposed recently by the province of British Columbia on property purchased by foreign nationals is a desperate measure brought on by desperate circumstances in the dangerously overheated BC real estate market. Ontario is considering a similar tax to address Toronto's almost equally overheated housing market. I'm sure they would prefer not to have to resort to such measures, but few other practical options present themselves.
An article by a York University law professor claims that the tax is actually illegal - on the grounds that it taxes people, including residents of British Columbia, differently depending on their citizenship status, and therefore contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - and I imagine that it may well be tested in the courts. There may be mitigating circumstances that the Charter would allow, specifically that there are no other ways to achieve the intended policy objective that would do less to infringe people’s rights.
Could BC's objective have been achieved in some other, less inflammatory manner (perhaps based on residency requirements, or a tax on speculation and flipping)? Maybe, although it seems to me that loopholes would be relatively easy to find in any of these other suggestions.
What is interesting though is the extent to which this new tax is being portrayed, mainly by well-meaning, letter-writing, liberal types - people like me really - as egregiously racist in nature. I don't see it. The law applies equally to foreign nationals from all countries, whether it be Denmark, USA or Singapore, not just to Chinese nationals. Even the estimable York professor claims: "While the new 15-per-cent B.C. levy applies to foreign nationals, we all know the aim of the legislation is narrower: curtailing real estate investment by Chinese foreign investors." I don't think "we all know" anything of the sort, and this seems like sloppy reasoning for a law professor. The fact that the majority of overseas property purchasers in Vancouver are in fact Chinese is an accident of international demographics, but the law is needed to curtail foreign speculative buying of all stripes.
But to call the new law inherently racist is disingenuous to say the least.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Keep the risks of Zika in perspective

Zika hysteria is currently in full swing with the news that a small area of Miami (yes, Miami! in a civilized country!) is now the subject of a Zika public health warning by the US Centers for Disease Control and the Canadian Public Health Agency.
But we should take comfort from the fact that this is only a small isolated local threat and not an epidemic, that only a small subset of the population (pregnant women, or those about to become pregnant) is at any great risk, and that they can take measure to protect themselves (by using a DEET-based mosquito repellent, or by wearing long sleeves and long pants). So, if women of child-bearing age take these precautions, and also take other measures to avoid becoming pregnant, at least while the Zika outbreak persists, then the worst of the dangers can be minimized.
Granted, a total of 67 countries, including huge ones like Brazil, have now reported the Zika virus. But, other than a small risk of microcephaly in babies of infected women, the overall health risks of the virus are relatively minor: 80% of people infected show no symptoms at all, and those symptoms that do show are usually limited to fever, rash, joint pain and pink-eye. Even among infected pregnant women, the risk of passing on a birth defect to a baby is around 1 in 100.
This is not to belittle the emotional trauma of bearing a microencephalitic baby, but we do need to keep the risks of Zika in perspective. In many of the tropic and sub-tropical countries where Zika has been reported, other infectious illnesses, such as measles, rubella and gastrointestinal infections, are much more common, and are probably more of a concern. The common flu is probably more of a risk to competitors and visitors to the Rio Olympics than the Zika virus (it is currently winter, and flu season, in Brazil).

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Norway, environmental trailblazer and fossil fuel dinosaur

Norway is an environmental paradox - a global leader on climate change and one of the countries most reliant on oil and gas, a trailblazer and a dinosaur at the same time - and it seems quite well aware of it.
Norway is the world's eighth biggest exporter of oil, and its third biggest exporter of natural gas. In total, hydrocarbons account for as much as 40% of Norwegian exports. Its aging North Sea oil fields require ever more energy to tap depleting reservoirs, making Norway one of the few Western countries to see a rise in domestic carbon emissions in 2015. 
It has handed out exploration permits to 13 oil companies just this year to drill in a new area of the Norwegian Arctic, one of the most expensive and environmentally sensitive places in the world to produce oil. Arctic oil production requires technology that critics claim is not properly tested, and it also requires hefty state subsidies and tax breaks to make it affordable and marketable.
And yet...
Very little of the fossil fuels Norway produces are used at home. It gets almost all its electricity from clean hydropower. In June this year, Norway became one of the first countries to ratify last year's Paris Agreement on climate change, and Norwegian lawmakers forced through a commitment for the country to become completely carbon neutral by 2030 (some 20 years ahead of schedule). It has poured rich subsidies into the electric car market, and 29% of new cars sold in Norway are already electric or hybrid, with a government-mandated target of 100% by 2025. 
It is also one of the most generous donors to international initiatives to maintain rainforests (which help fight climate change by absorbing some of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels). It has already spent $1 billion saving trees in Brazil, and is committed to spend up to $350 million a year preserving trees in places like Indonesia and Guyana.
So, how does Norway reconcile these apparent contradictions?
Critics have accused Norway of environmental hypocrisy and "green-wash", grandstanding overseas with environmental projects while allowing its domestic oil and gas industry to pump ever larger quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. But the Norwegian government cheerfully justifies its policies as a consistent and reasonable use of the same kind of carbon trading that many other countries use in their cap-and-trade programs for carbon reduction. Essentially, it is buying carbon credits in developing countries overseas to allow it to continue polluting at home. As Vidar Helgesen, Norway's climate and energy minister, says: "We want to play a part, whether it is in electrification, bio-energy, hydropower, or any other green energy. But Norway has the cleanest hydrocarbons anywhere in the world. And as long as the world needs oil and gas, we will provide it."
Bold words and, technically, it is not wrong. Plus, it can afford it - over the decades, Norway has used its oil and gas productions to carefully and prudently accumulate the world's largest sovereign wealth fund (an estimated $875 billion).
Whether its policies are within the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the Paris Agreement is less clear. But perhaps it is a moot point anyway.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, aluminium, aluminum

I have never understood the dichotomy between the English spelling of aluminium and the American and (usually) Canadian spelling of aluminum.
As a transplanted Brit, I still find it hard to say aluminum here in Canada. It has always seemed self-evident to me that the "correct" spelling and pronunciation should be aluminium, as in sodium, magnesium, calcium, etc. Most of the world uses aluminium (or the Romanized aluminio). Even the Wikipedia article on the subject redirects from aluminum to aluminium. There can be no real excuse for aluminum, can there?
But then I got to thinking about platinum, molybdenum, tantalum, and figured I should do some research. Which means, of course, Wikipedia.
The truth, as ever, is not so simple. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) adopted aluminium as the standard international name for the element in 1990 but, just three years later, recognized aluminum as an acceptable variant. The IUPAC periodic table now includes both spellings, and its internal publications use the two with nearly equal frequency.
It turns out that the British chemist Humphrey Davy, who first isolated and named the element, actually initially called it alumium in a Royal Society of London journal in 1808. He then settled on aluminum in his "Chemical Philosophy" book of 1812. Aluminium only made its appearance later that same year, when an anonymous review of Davy's book in a British political-literary journal called the Quarterly Review journal, suggested that aluminium had a more "classical sound". It became the default spelling in Britain thereafter, and it seems that Davy himself did not object to it.
It could be argued, however, that aluminum may actually be more "correct" in that it was originally isolated from the mineral oxide alumina, in the same way as lanthanum is isolated from the oxide lanthana, whereas magnesium, cerium and thorium are isolated from their respective oxides magnesia, ceria and thoria.
Either way, the American preference for aluminum dates from Webster's Dictionary of 1828, as do so many American spellings, and it became well and truly standardized after (American) Charles Martin Hall chose the aluminum spelling for his new electrolytic method of producing the metal in 1892 (despite having used aluminium for all his patents between 1886 and 1903!)

US millennials need to get over Sanders and use some common sense

Still fixating a little on the US elections, a poll of young people ("millennials") in 11 "battleground states", reported recently in Grist, suggests that:
1) Nearly half of young voters are apparently not politically sophisticated enough (or, more generously, have been so disillusioned by the Sanders-Clinton confrontation) to tell the difference between Clinton's and Trump's views on transitioning away from fossil fuels and on clean air and water protection. In fact, 68% of Sanders supporters (and 41% of all the millennials polled) see little or no difference between Clinton and Trump on the issues that most matter to them.
So, just for clarification, Hillary Clinton is the one that calls climate change "an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time", and Donald Trump is the one who calls climate change "a hoax" and wants to dismantle the Enviromnental Protection Agency (EPA). It's not that difficult. It just requires the extraction of one's head from one's ass.
2) On the other hand, 75% of these same misguided millennials say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who stressed the importance of a transition to renewable energy, and about the same proportion would be much less likely to vote for a candidate who wanted to eliminate the EPA. Indeed, these issues (along with views on abortion and homosexuality) are far and away the most polarizing issues in their view.
So, there is the silver lining: it's not that millennials are totally foolish and thoughtless; it's just that they seem to be stuck in post-Sanders denial, and are apparently (for whatever reasons) wilfully misinterpreting or just plain ignoring many of the words that are coming out of Hillary Clinton's mouth. If she, and the Democratic Party organization, stresses these issues and reaches out to these young disillusioned people, then perhaps all is not lost. The other thing that needs to happen, of course, is that these young disillusioned people need to be encouraged to actually get out and vote.
As an outsider looking in, the differences between the two candidates seem so stark, and the prudent course of action so.clear, that it is difficult to credit such wilful ignorance. Yes, the Sanders dream has crashed and burned, but the logical response is not to facilitate the election of his diametric opposite, but to work for the election of the next best option. This is not an exercise in cynical realpolitik, it's just common sense. And even millennials have some of that, don't they?
The young people of America have about three months to get their act together - the fate kf the Western world may rest in their hands.