Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Give Castro some credit, not just a knee-jerk reaction

Fidel Castro has finally shuffled off his mortal coil, and Justin Trudeau is in the doghouse for finding some nice words to say about the dead guy. Ah, politics.
Trudeau, like pretty much every other political leader the world over, was obliged to make some kind of statement on the death of a major statesman, and, like it or not, that's what Castro was. Personally, I thought his statement was pretty reasonable and appropriate:
"It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.
"Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
"While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante'.
"I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
"On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader."
Problem is, saying anything remotely nice about an avowed and unrepentant communist is just not done in some political circles. So, Mr. Trudeau was piled on by most conservative Canadian politicians, almost the whole US Republican machine, Margaret Wente (obviously), and even the Globe's Editorial. God, even the usually sober and measured Guardian got in on th act.
But it should be mentioned, before all proportion is lost in the ensuing hysteria, that many other world leaders also made largely positive and respectful statements on Castro's death, including the UN Secretary-General, most presidents of Latin America, and the presidents of the EU, China, Russia, Spain, France, South Africa, India and, yes, the USA.
Castro was a "controversial figure", as Trudeau himself admits, and his democratic failings and civil rights abuses are well-known and reported ad nauseam in thr media. But they do not necessarily have to preface every comment made about the man. Neither do we need to dance in the streets with the Cuban exiles of Miami.
And, just for good measure, neither is it reasonable to characterize pre-revolutionary Cuba as some paragon of wealth, commerce and development, as many anti-Castro partisans (and, once again, the Globe and Mail's editorial team) often insist. In fact, Cuba under Batista was a US colony in which (in the words of one Globe letter-writer) "American-owned plantations and businesses raked in huge profits using cheap labour working in slave-like conditions". The mafia controlled Havana's drugs, casinos and brothels, the government at all levels was hugely corrupt, the police force brutal and repressive, and the regime almost totally indifferent to the education, medical care, housing, social justice and economic opportunity of its people. It was a revolution waiting to happen; Castro was the man who made it happen. Yes, the revolution, like so many others before it, went astray later, but at least give the man some credit where credit is due.

Big news: smoking is bad for you

My last post (forgive the unintentional pun) was about someone killing themselves, and coincidentally so is this one. A new study in the USA has confirmed, in unequivocal and all-too-graphic statistical terms, what most sensible people already knew: smoking is bad for you.
The study concluded that almost 29% of all cancer deaths in the USA are attributable to smoking (23% in women and 34% in men). So, not only is smoking bad for you, it's VERY bad for you. And this does not include deaths from various other diseases that are often linked to smoking. Nor does it include deaths from second-hand smoke, pipes, cigars, e-cigarettes, etc. Also, the data depends on self-reporting, and so could well be understated.
An estimated 8 million premature deaths have been prevented by tobacco control efforts, and yet such controls in some parts of the country remain quite weak: only about a third of US states prohibit smoking in public places; no state fulfilled the WHO's recommenderecommendation for a75% tax on cigarettes; only 7% of states provided comprehensive coverage for smoking cessation treatments under Medicaid; etc.
Geographically, the numbers are highest in southern states like Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, where the vast majority of American tobacco is grown, where tobacco controls are weaker and cigarettes cheaper, and where there is economic and commercial pressure in favour of the industry.
The writing is on the wall, people; all you have to is read it and act upon it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Would you kill yourself for the environment?

This is the first post I have made which has both Environment and Religion as category tags. I read in The Guardian today that a young man in southern India has become perhaps the first voluntary martyr to the cause of environmentalism. Many people have died over the centuries due to environmental degradation, and others have been killed as a result of their environmental beliefs. But this is the first time I am aware of where someone has taken their own life in the cause of the environment. It is a disturbing development.
Jawahar Kumara, a 19-year old from the small town of Thanjavir in Tamil Nadu, was found drowned in the local canal, having left a suicide video on his phone, explaining his actions, thus:
"I am sacrificing my life in the hope that it will trigger serious concern about plastic use in India. Since all of my peaceful means of protest failed, I’m forced to choose suicide. To save the lives of millions of people affected by toxic plastic, I don’t think it’s wrong to kill myself."
The young man was an ardent environmentalist, as well as a deeply religious person, and he had already gone on a hunger strike and threatened to throw himself off a building if his environmental grievances were not addressed by his local government. His grievances were to do with the excessive and polluting use of plastic, and particularly of plastic bags, in India. Basically, he killed himself over plastic bags
Now, India does have a plastic bag problem. Having arrived late on the plastics scene, with the economic liberalization of the 1990s, its use of plastic since then has been increasing dramatically, by about 10% a year. National and state-level actions to control the problem have been less than robust and policing of new policies is almost non-existent. Perhaps the most effective activity has been to rope in India's informal army of waste-pickers or "rag-pickers", who salvage items from landfill sites for recycling (as a result, India's recycling rate is around 60% compared to 22% worldwide). But, in the scheme of things, the country is still not a big plastics consumer, using less than 10kg per person annually, as compared to 45kg in China and a whopping 109kg in the USA.
So, yes, this is indeed a fight worth fighting, but not something that should be inspiring people to kill themselves over. These kinds of extreme religious tactics are just not appropriate for environmental protests.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Facebook effect in a post-truth world

A lot of ink and pixels have been devoted to the allegations that fake news and misinformation of Facebook and other social media sites may have swayed the recent US election Trump-wards, and that this may have been the first (but probably not the last) "post-truth" election.
Much has been made of the fact that Oxford Dictionaries have made "post-truth" their word of the year, as though this is in some way significant or even prophetic. Post-truth refers to circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals, and you can see how this has become a buzz-word in a year of Brexit and President Trump.
But back to Facebook.
It has long been the known that social media (and Facebook in particular) s rife with false news (either deliberately or accidentally so). What has changed more recently is the extent of the influence that social media has over the perceptions of the general public. Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of American social media users - and, let's face it, that's most people these days - get the vast majority of their news directly from that social media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists, somewhat disingenuously, that 99% of the content reported on Facebook is "authentic" (as opposed to factual), and that he finds it "extremely unlikely" that false news on Facebook has been instrumental in influencing the American election one way or another. In fact, he has specifically denied that Facebook helped Trump win, calling such accusations a "crazy idea". But then he would say that, wouldn't he? Zuckerberg says that Facebook is working to identify and flag false news, although he is right to point out that this is a tricky line to walk and that Facebook staff should not be seen as, or be involuntarily put in the position of being, "arbiters of the truth". And certainly fact-checking everything that appears on the site does appear to be just impractical.
Part of the problem is that Facebook's News Feed service is specifically designed to show people the kind of news it thinks they want to see, creating a kind of "filter bubble" which merely serves to reinforce a person's views without exposing them to any alternative or contradictory viewpoints. What an individual ends up seeing (and believing) depends, to a large extent, on their friends and what they choose to share, which just exacerbates both confirmation bias and the so-called "backfire effect".
So, as a result, we have seen fake video of Democrats stuffing votes into ball at boxes, stories accusing the Clintons of murder, stories claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslimfalse claims that popular black actor Denzel Washington has praised Trump, etc, etc. Hilary Clinton connected to a pedophilia and child sex trafficking ring, anyone?
And there is some evidence that, for whatever reason, these kinds of sensational fake stories are actually shared more on social media than other, more mundane, factual claims. One analysis by Buzzfeed News shows that the top fake news stories during the election generated significantly more engagement on Faceook (in terms of shares, reactions and comments) than the top real news stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
So, did Facebook influence the US election? We will probably never know. But it does seem likely that the inexorable rise of fake news has at least increased the political polarization and confusion in a fraught and hotly-contested race.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Obama bans Arctic oil drilling

In a final sally before bowing out President Obama has blown one last resounding raspberry at President-Elect Donald Trump by banning drilling for oil in the pristine waters of the Arctic.
As part of the US federal government's land and ocean leasing program, the move has been praised by environmentalists, but will only serve to irritate Trump and his fuel cronies. Technically, Trump could reverse the ruling, but the poor economics and high risks of Arctic drilling will probably be enough to deter fossil fuel companies anyway. For example, the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell spend over $7 billion in exploration costs in the oil-rich waters off the Alaska coast, before finally abandoning the project this last September.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy management, which manages the leases of oil drilling projects, has also put the Atlantic out of bounds good future development, although it has opened up new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, which is the current epicentre of offshore oil development.
This latest announcement is just one more of what Trump describes as "Obama-Clinton roadblocks" to large-scale fossil fuel development and, as such, is to be commended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Selfie deaths on the rise

I was just reading about a guy who died when he fell into a hot pool at Yellowstone National Park earlier this year. He and his sister were apparently looking for an illegal place to soak, mainly for the thrill of the selfie opportunity, and the whole grisly event was recorded on his sister's cellphone. The guy completely dissolved in the acidic hot pool before his remains could be recovered.
This led me to another article which tells me that the number of people who die each year while taking selfies is increasing precipitously. The first known selfie death occurred in March 2014, but since then there have been 127 deaths attributable to selfies, 15 in 2014, 39 in 2015, and 73 in just the first eight months of 2016. 76 of these deaths were in India (where taking dangerous selfies on and around trains is all the rage, and is even considered romantic for some reason), 9 in Pakistan, 8 in the USA, and 6 in Russia. Most of the deaths, other than the train ones, were a result of falling from a great height (e.g. cliffs, towers, buildings, etc), although several of those in the USA and Russia involved guns and other weapons.
It seems there is a whole subculture of people who take selfies in dangerous situations in order to bolster their social media profiles, and such individuals may accumulate thousands of followers (before they die, presumably). Check out some of the examples on this page.
And you thought that regular selfies were pretty sick...

What is the likelihood of Trump being impeached?

Due to the vagaries of the American electoral system, it seems we are democratically stuck with Donald J. Trump as the leader of the so-called free world. So, many people are thinking outside the box for ways in which we might legally get rid of the guy. And perhaps the most likely of these unlikely possibilities is impeachment.
Allan Lichtman, the Washington professor who has successfully predicted every US election since 1984 (including Donald Trump) using his historically-based "13 keys to the White House" system, also made another prediction about Trump, this one not based on any complex historical system but on his own gut feeling: "I'm quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook." Many other people, including filmmaker Michael Moore, have also predicted that Trump is likely to do something that might lead to grounds for impeachment sometime before the end of his term of office, and probably sooner rather than later. Even Rush Limbaugh was predicting, some time ago now, that the Democrats would be "talking impeachment on day two, after the first Trump executive order".
So, what is involved with a presidential impeachment, and what is the likelihood of it happening any time soon? Impeachment of a president requires that they commit treason, bribery, or "high crimes and misdemeanours", the latter in particular being a woolly and ambiguous phrase that is open to a variety of interpretations. Here are a few areas where Trump's political, business and personal life might come into play in this context:
  • the ongoing legal allegations regarding Trump University (among other things it is alleged that unqualified instructors were personally hired by Trump, and that the "university" is not actually an accredited educational program);
  • conflicts of interests in his cabinet (Trump loyalists like General Mike Flynn and Rudy Giuliani, both highly tipped for prominent positions in the Trump hierarchy, are both subject to conflict of interest allegations recently, and Trump's move to include his son-in-law Jared Kushner in his administration, and granting him the highest security clearance, could well be against federal anti-nepotism laws, as could his plans to involve more of his adult children);
  • sexual assault allegations (Trump is currently facing at least a dozen sexual assault and harassment accusations, and facing legal action over such allegations could open up the possibility of impeachment proceedings);
  • conflicts of interest from his business dealings (having his children run his intricate, extensive and highly-complex business empire in a "blind trust" is at best unconvincing);
  • his dealings with Vladimir Putin and Russia (there are already some shady undercurrents to Trump's reliance on Russian investors and his undisguised admiration for Putin, as well as the apparent Russian tampering in the election process itself, and who knows where these might lead);
  • possible crackdowns on the media (Trump has already broken protocol over his dealings with the press, and he makes no secret of his antagonism towards it, but these are not actually criminal actions - yet);
  • any new shocking revelations or transgressions that come to light in the future (the possibilities are limitless).
Now, the problem is that Congress is the body that needs to call for, and to actually hold, hearings for impeachment, and both the Senate (narrowly) and the House of Representatives (more robustly) are currently controlled by the Republicans. So, Trump would have to seriously piss off his own party to lead them to resort to this dramatic step. Having said that, many Republicans are already seriously pissed off with him, and the likelihood of further pissed-offness is well within the bounds of possibility. So, impeachment remains a tantalizing potentiality.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Pandora's Box of Americam racism

In case you were thinking that all that talk about Donald Trump's election win lifting the top off a Pandora's Box of racist and sexist attitudes and actions was just hyperbole and rhetoric, think again. Already, just days after the election, there has been a spate of racist and anti-Semitic incidents across the USA, more than 300 according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre. And these are just the ones that have been reported and garnered some media attention
They include:
  • Vandalization and "Trump Nation Whites Only" graffiti at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as at other churches nearby.
  • Swastikas daubed on doors in a residence where several Jewish women live at the New School, New York City, as well as in a residence at the State University of New York at Geneseo (accompanied by the word "Trump").
  • A swastika and "Make America White Again" graffiti on a softball dugout at Wellsville in upstate New York.
  • The word "Trump" scrawled on a Muslim prayer room at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering.
  • Swastika graffiti and the words "Heil Trump" at the University of California at San Diego.
  • Black students at the University of Pennsylvania were included in on a racist GroupMe message from "DaddyTrump", that included violent threats against blacks, racial slurs, a calendar invitation to a "daily lynching" and old images of African-American lynchings.
  • Threats to a female Muslim students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, demanding that she remove her hijab or be set on fire.
  • Students at Royal Oak Middle School, Michigan (Grades 6-10) chanting "Build that wall!" during their lunch break.
  • Racist graffiti and hashtags, including "#GoBackToAfrica", "#MakeAmericaGreatAgain", "#WhitesOnly", "#WhiteAmerica" and "#Trump", at Maple Grove Senior High School in Minnesota.
  • Threats and intimidation of a Muslim student at San Diego State University, including mentions of Trump and of the student's traditional clothing.
  • "Black lives don't matter and neither does [sic] your votes" graffiti on a wall in Durham North Carolina
  • Graffiti spray-painted in a window in Philadelphia, including "Sieg Heil 2016" and "Trump" with a swastika in place of the "T", as well as more racist graffiti nearby.
  • Social media photos of a black doll being hung circulating at Canisius College in west New York state, with a connection being drawn to "Trump fans".
  • A Twitter video of a student at Shasta High School in Redding, California, handing out "Deportation" notices to other students of a variety of ethnicities (he though it was "funny").
  • Physical and verbal abuse (including use of the N-word) of a black student at Baylor University, Texas (although it was heartening to see that 300 students then turned up to escort the student to her next class).
A longer, more up-to-date, and even more depressing, list is available at, but I just haven't the heart to detail any more examples here.
Set against that are a couple of incidents, in Connecticut and Chicago, where Trump supporters were attacked. But the writing is quite clearly on the wall (so to speak): many people see Trump's election as carte blanche (so to speak) to make their ugliest attitudes public.
And Trump's rather lame response to all this activity? On a 60 Minutes interview, he said: "If it helps, I will say this, and I'll say it directly into the camera: 'Stop it'." Ouch.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Courts grant rights to sue states over climate change

Overshadowed by this week's disastrous US elections (disastrous from an environmental and almost every other point of view), a landmark legal decision was handed down in the small West coast city of Eugene, Oregon.
A group of 21 young people, ranging in age from 9 to 20, and supported by Our Children's Trust (an American not-for-profit that.advocates for young  people and environmental issues), were effectively granted the legal right to she the government over climate change.
The young plaintiffs charged President Obama, the fossil fuel industry and various federal agencies with violating their constitutional rights, and of engangering their right to life, liberty, prosperity and public trust resources, by not pursuing more vigorous measures against climate change.
The case might sound trivial, but it was strenuously opposed by funded major trade associations liken the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) and the Koch brothers backed American Petroleum Institute (API). In finding for the plaintiffs, US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin and (later, after his retirement) his replacement US District Judge Ann Aiken, threw out all the arguments of these well-funded organizations.
In her ruling, Judge Aiken declared the facts of man-made climate change to be "undisputable", and stated that, "Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it."
The case sets an important precedent for other federal lawsuits, which may become an important bulwark in the battle against global warming inaction in a post-Trump climate change denial world. Just last year, an equally important (and largely unknown and unheralded) Dutch court case ruled that the Netherlands must move to reduce its carbon emissions to 25% of 1990 levels within just five years.
These are not small victories, but you still have to scour the backwaters of the Internet to find out about them. Sing it out!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

You need to know who voted for Trump

Loathe as I am to dive right back into that ill-fated American election, it continues to fascinate me, in the same kind of way as maggots chewing away at a carcass might fascinate me. As the media continues to dissect Tuesday's events in every conceivable way - from the geo-political to the personal, from how to explain it to your sensitive traumatized pre-adolescent child (I kid you not), to how Canadians might extract a grain of positivity from it, to why the polls got it all wrong yet again, to how thousands of fleeing Americans probably won't be beating down the doors to their northern neighbours - what still obsesses me is the demographics of who voted for the man, and why.
Some of the general demographics are no big surprise: maps of the voting patterns across the country show the usual blue (Democrat) support along both coasts, with wide swathes of red (Republican) support throughout the less populous, more rural interior.

Even within states, there is the usual marked dichotomy between urban areas (largely Democratic) and rural areas (largely Republican), although this is perhaps even more marked than usual. This trend is well exemplified by voting maps of Florida (which shows a completely red state punctuated by blue dots in the populous Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Tallahassee conurbations), Ohio (red but for blue pockets around Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo) and Pennsylvania (all red except for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Allentown).
But what kind of person votes for a person like Donald Trump? Data from exit polls, conducted by Edison Research and summarized in the Globe and Mail today, throw some light on the who, although much less on the why:
  • Race: overall, whites (still by far the largest group, even if declining in influence) favoured Trump by a substantial margin of 58% to 37%; African-Americans overwhelmingly supported Clinton with 88% compared to Trump's 8% (although this was still less than Obama's 95% support among black people); Clinton's 65% support among Latinos was double that of Trump (but again, still less than Obama's share 4 years ago).
  • Gender: Clinton's vote among all women was only 53% (about the same as Obama's was) compared to Trump's 41%; she was supported by over 90% of black women, but - crucially - more white women voted for Trump (53%) than for Clinton (43%).
  • Age: a graph of vote demographics by age shows a very clear downward trend in support for Clinton as the age increases, and the exact opposite for Trump's support, reinforcing the old axiom that young people lean left and old people lean right.
  • Income: contrary to many popular explanations for Trump's popularity, Clinton held a clear lead over Trump among the less wealthy (53% to 41% among those earning less than $30,000 a year), while Trump led at all levels of income above $50,000 a year (and especially among middle-earners from $50K to $100K a year).
  • Religion: as might be expected (even if it is not actually logical), Trump's support was highest among the more religious, particularly among those who attend religious services at least weekly, while Clinton's support is double that of Trump among those who never go to religious services.
  • Education: as has also been pointed out many times, the higher the voter's education level, the more likely they are to have voted for Clinton.
Maybe this stuff is not actually that interesting, but 1) I like graphs and maps, and 2) this cannot be allowed to ever happen again - for the sake of Canada and the rest of the world, as well as of America itself - so the Democrats need to know their enemy.

Eimear McBride's half-formed thing

I've been reading Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. It's one of those self-consciously "difficult" books, very different from the Robert J. Sawyer Neanderthals trilogy I just finished, but I like a bit of "difficult" from time to time, and it certainly has its rewards.
McBride's language has been compared to her compatriot James Joyce, although Samuel Beckett might just as good a reference point. The idiosyncrasies of the natural Irish accent and sentence structure also come through. The punctuation appears random, or at least irrelevant, and the text veers deliriously between character, person and tense, between dialogue, thought and description.
As a young girl, the main (unnamed) protagonists' words gush out in an off-kilter barrage of prolixity. It is often difficult to follow, although the general sense - usually some mixture of angst, envy and disgust - is usually clear, even if the detail is not:
"I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can't hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can't or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush."
But even as a teenager, her language is breathless, here-there-and-everywhere, as though her thoughts are coming too thick and fast to put into words, and certainly too fast to fit into traditonal grammatical rules:
"We sliced through that fug school bus. So misfortunately new. Thicken soup-ish teenage sweat and cigarette boys slop always at the back. Held tight my rucksack filled with rattling tins of pens. Fat drizzle blotch through the polyester skirt I sideways slope to walk in. Felt my hormones long to slink quiet out of these hard eyes. Do not be seen. Do not see me. But I must turn myself to the great face of girls."
With young adulthood comes some measure of clarity, but still a whole lot of confusion:
"I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But it's clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world's about to. The world's about to. Tip. No it ain't. Ha. Don't be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good."
Some of the more abstract passages can be positively poetic:
"Have your lunatics. Anoint their Jesus crying eyes. Their mouths slapping tongues. Their sing praise alleluias. So levitate on the tiles. They sweep all Crist-like in. Fat coven descended to your bed. Your nervous face. Disguise. I can't disguise. Some ancient thing that catch me make me panic gag. Them. Doing it before my eyes. No. Announce yourself and hear oh Lord. Between us chattels us vessels of shame and you, blue conscious with outstretched hands will be loaded up with all their sins. And to the wilds they'll send you filled with that."
And what does all this helter-skelter tumble of words tell of? Well, it's not pretty and it's not edifying
A dysfunctional family, removed from the benighted backwoods of rural Ireland to a hard-scrabble and hardly-more-enlightened Irish town. Abusive, then absent, and finally deceased, father. Mother trapped in her medieval Catholicism, loving and thoughtful some of the time, hard as nails or downright abusive herself at others. Children with a whole textbook's-worth of mental health challenges, born into a society where mental health challenges are either concealed, belittled or just scorned, and where bullying and lubricity are commonplace. The terrible cruelty of schoolchildren.
Then, later, comes the rebelliousness, the promiscuity, the anarchy, and all the guilt and recriminations that come with them. Occasional bouts of nostalgia, hysterical maternal phone-calls, and half-hearted attempts to galvanize her feckless and broken brother into something approaching activity and normality. Then, more debauchery, more rage, more wildness and self-loathing, more infatuation with her shiftless virginity-snatching uncle. All in all, what appears to be an inauspicious downward spiral.
Towards the end of the book is a section where the spelling, capitalization, sentence structure and almost everything else gets completely lost in the immediacy and horror of the action it describes. But I won't dwell on that traumatic and brutal event here.
McBride wrote A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing at the age of 27, and then it took her nine more years to find a publisher that would touch it. Since then, it has won a bunch of awards and nominations, although perhaps not the big ones.
And I can kind of see where those early cautious publishers were coming from. But a bit of patience pays off for the reader too. The work is a (deliberately) flawed masterpiece - by turns bewildering, poignant, distasteful, visceral, exasperating, heart-breaking, and many other things - as well as a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us will (hopefully) never experience at first hand. It will always be a contentious and divisive novel, and, for that reason, if for no other, you should read it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Wind turbines killing birds and bats - some perspective

That old chestnut, much beloved by a certain Donald Trump, is in the news again, thanks to a British study from the University of Exeter which claims that millions of bats (which is what this particular study focussed on) are possibly being killed each year by wind turbines.

I say "possibly" because the study is a little vague. It used sniffer dogs to hunt for bat carcasses around British wind farms, and then bulked up the results by an unknown factor on the assumption that many carcasses would have been spirited away by predators and scavengers, which does not sound very scientific to me. The study concluded that 194 bats a month were being killed at the 29 windfarms studied. Bulked up for potentially missing dead animals and extrapolated across the rest of the country, they arrived at an alarming figure of 80,000 bats a year that COULD be dying due to wind turbines.

Estimates of bat deaths from wind turbines in North America are in the region of 500,000 a year, particularly migratory tree bats like hoary bats, so this is clearly a significant problem. They can die from collisions with turbine blades or just from approaching too close and dying from barotrauma from the rapid pressure change.

Now, there does seem to be a dearth of research on the effects of windfarms on bats, and there are many unknowns still to be investigated, e.g. do they turn off their echo location when high in the air away from predators? (that sounds very unlikely to me as that is how they hunt insects), would ultrasound warnings at the top of turbines deter them? (that is just my own suggestion off the top of my head, although I have since found out that this is already a thing), changing blade speeds during low wind speed conditions and migration periods, etc. New research in Scandinavia also suggests that a solution as simple as painting one turbine blade black could save many thousands of birds and possibly bats.

But the notion of birds and bats throwing themselves at wind turbines in some kind of mass suicide pact has been studied to death (so to speak), and the common claims are overstated, especially when compared to some other major causes of death.

A good summary of these arguments can be found at, an admittedly partisan source, but a bit of perspective when taken together with some of the more alarmist claims out there. Pulling together data from over 100 other studies in the USA and Canada, seems that between 214,000 and 368,000 birds annually are killed by collisions with wind turbines across the whole of North America, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the 6.8 million birds killed by collisions with cell and radio towers, and between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion killed each year by cats.
One particularly illuminating image (below), taken from the North American Bird Conservation Inititative's State of North American Birds 2014 report, shows graphically the causes of deaths of birds, starting with cats (far and away the biggest culprit at an estimated 2.4 billion in the USA alone), followed by building windows (599 million), then automobiles (200 million), then power line collisions (25 million), then communication towers (6.6 million), then power line electrocutions (5.6 million), then agricultural chemicals (figures not available), and finally almost as an after-thought, wind turbine collisions (234,000).
The article also points out that hundreds of species of birds are threatened by climate change over the next decades, and those wind turbines are helping to reduce the impact of climate change, and thus actually saving thousands of birds.
Still concerned about windfarms?

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Oh, America, shame on you!

The world was watching you, America. Shame on you. 'Nuff said.

So how does this election thing actually work?

So, the big day has arrived, and I have been trying to acquaint myself with some of the idiosyncrasies of the American electoral system, thanks to the BBC's US election 2016: All you need to know, which, as usual, manages to put it all into plain English for us outsiders.
First and foremost (and I say that because of the power that a president wields in the American system), Americans are voting for a president. The two front runners, as you might have heard, are a certain Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, representing the Democratic and Republican parties respectively. The latest consolidated polls suggest that Clinton has about 48% of the popular vote, and Trump about 44% (this is after the FBI bombshell, and after the FBI bombshell was retracted).
But there are other candidates still running, some of whom might subtly influence the outcome (like independent candidate Ralph Nader did, to howls of anguish, in some previous elections). Gary Johnson, representing the Libertarian Party, is currently polling around 8%, and Jill Stein, representing the Green Party, has around 2% in recent polls. The other two, Darrell Castle (Constitution Party) and Evan McMullin (Independent), can safely be ignored.
The other important consideration to be aware of is that the proportion of the popular vote is not the be-all and end-all in this contest. Under the American electoral college system, the presidential vote is accumulated under "electors" in the electoral college for each state. The candidate with the most votes in each state becomes the candidate which that state supports for President. The number of electors in each state depends on the population of the state (e.g. California qualified for 55, New York 29, Wyoming 3, etc). So, within each state, the winner takes all, and the votes will therefore come in in batches over the evening's vote-counting. This is also why individual "swing states" - populous states whose political leaning is notoriously fickle and unpredictable, like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada - take on such importance in American elections. There are 538 electors in total, so that the presidential candidate who reaches 270 becomes the President. But the electoral college system can skew the popular vote significantly, and it is quite possible for a candidate to win the presidency despite having a lower share of the popular vote. Perhaps the most egregious example of the electoral college effect occurred in 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush were neck and neck with only Florida votes to re-count (remember "hanging chads"?). All of Florida's 25 electoral college votes went to Mr. Bush, even though he won only 537 more popular votes across the whole state, and as a result Mr. Bush became president, despite receiving half a million fewer actual votes than Mr. Gore. And we all know how THAT presidency went....
But that's not all. As well as voting for a president, Americans are also voting for their local member in the House of Representatives, and 34 states are also voting for their Senators, as well as a handful of state Governors. The Senate and the House of Representatives together make up what is referred to as Congress. There are 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and the Republicans currently have a comfortable majority in the House (and have done since 2010, for various reasons including the vagaries of constituency boundaries and gerrymandering). It is expected that the Democrats may narrow that majority in this election, but are unlikely to pick up the extra 30 seats needed to establish a majority of their own. Only 34 (one third) of the 100 seats in the Senate are up for grabs during this vote, but the Democrats need a net gain of just 4 seats to win an overall majority, a target they see as eminently achievable.
As for which is more important, individual Senators may have more power than individual Representatives (just because there are fewer of them), but the separation of responsibilities in the US bicameral system means that the Senate controls things like, for example, making treaties, and appointing and ambassadors and Supreme Court judges, while the House has more control over the budget and how funds are used. Some responsibilities are shared (e.g. only the House of Representatives can impeach a government official, and only the Senate can convict them).
It is often suggested that the the more important of the two chambers, but one thing is for sure: if either chamber is dominated by the other party, a president's ambitions suddenly become much more difficult to realize (take Barack Obama's experience as an example).

As mentioned above, Hillary Clinton narrowly won the popular vote nationwide, but lost the election by a substantial margin, all thanks to the electoral college system. And yes, many of the state's were very close, and the few percentage points of votes that went to third place no-hoper Gary Johnson could well have made all the difference in several states had they gone to Ms. Clinton instead (and could even have affected the outcome of the entire election).
As it is, Trump won handily, and the Republicans retained both chambers of Congress - the worst case scenario made real.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The ethics of the race for Mars

The most recent episode of CBC's The Nature of Things, entitled Destination: Mars, offers some food for thought.
The doc looks at why we might want to go to Mars, and why, now more than ever, the race to get there is gearing up and getting very serious. Yes, President Obama has made an American commitment to a Mars landing, and there are all sorts of preparations, models and tests already underway to that very end. But The USA is not alone in its ambitions: Europe, China, India, even the United Arab Emirates have all outlined their own plans. There are already 13 satellites from a variety of countries orbiting Mars, with several more en route or planned.
In addition, there are several private Mars projects underway, from Elon Musk's SpaceX to Bas Lansdorp's MarsOne to Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. It seems to be the project of choice for the world's unfulfilled billionaires.
And it's here that the impetus behind some of these schemes becomes interesting ... and alarming. There is some pretty loose talk about mining, property rights, propping up a failing aerospace industry, even terraforming (some plans include deliberately-induced rampant global warming, even thermonuclear blasts). It sounds like the Wild West all over again, and you have to think that the objectives and aspirations behind some of the plans are perhaps less than honourable.
But there are also voices of reason. Some scientists argue that Mars should be maintained as a kind of national (or international, even supranational) park, and should be investigated but not developed or altered in any way. Other warn that looking on Mars as a "fall-back" option for a human race that is rapidly ruining our native planet entirely the wrong reason for  push towards Mars exploration, and can only distract us from Job One, which has to be to protect and save the Earth and all its other species from the impending environmental disaster that threatens it.
And this is not the only tricky ethical choice that Mars presents us with. The idea of countries like China and India, that can't adequately feed their own populations, ploughing billions of dollars into space exploration seems morally repugnant. And the same applies in a less obvious way to developed countries like America, Canada and the EU - if they can afford to invest billions in (admittedly scientifically interesting, but nevertheless frivolous, uncertain and potentially even disastrous) schemes like the race to Mars, then shouldn't those billions be put into climate change measures, healthcare, poverty alleviation, etc? What is the moral path here?
On the bright side, it was interesting to see how many women were involved in these heavy science and engineering projects, several in quite high positions. Interesting too that they were mainly the ones with the more responsible and less rapacious attitudes.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Economist gives Canada some love

This week's Economist has a cover article on Canada entitled "The Last Liberals", and subtitled "Liberty moves north: Canada's example to the world". The title may be a bit of hyperbole, but the article is, in typical Economist form, an excellent and comprehensive summary of the country and its Trudeau-era mindset and policies.
The article outlines Canada's open-minded and open-door policy on immigration, its mix of resource-based and manufacturing economies, its infrastructure spending approach to stimulus, it new-found openness to carbon taxes and climate change action, it's open borders stance on trade, its boring but rock-steady banking system, etc. It doesn't gloss over the challenges the country faces, but the overall impression is a glowing one, and one that many another country might be jealous of.
One particular graphic gives a comparison of Canada with other major countries in a variety of metrics from a variety of sources. For example, Canada places 2nd out of 60 on the Best Country taking of the US News and World Report; 2nd out of 55 in the Most Reputable Counties index of the Reputation Index; 10th out of 163 in Simon Anhalt's Good Country Index; a life expectancy, according to OECD and IMF higher than Germany and the UK, and much higher than the USA, although still below Japan, France and Italy; a Gini equality index better than Japan, Italy and the UK (and again much better than the USA), although still below France and Germany; a "Life Satisfaction" score and an annual GDP increase well above that of other G8 countries; and a paid maternity leave bettered only by Germany and Japan among G8 countries.
All in all, a pretty impressive showing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Before the Flood an Inconvenient Truth for our times

Having just watched Leonardo DiCapri's new climate change documentary, Before the Flood, which is now freely available on YouTube and elsewhere courtesy of National Geographic, I feel that this latest treatment of an important topic was good enough to merit a plug.
It's a well made documentary, toeing the fine line between stridency and concern. DiCaprio, who has spent the last two years as the UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, comes over as a genuinely concerned environmental activist and not a band-wagon-jumper. His environmentalist credentials go back at least to the beginning of the century - he is not just another pretty Hollywood face with a hobby issue.
Before the Flood is largely presented as a record of DiCaprio's atttempts to unravel the truth and the lies behind the science and rhetoric of climate change, and sees him talking to a host of different experts and politicians - from Michael Mann, Elon Musk, Sunita Narain and Piers Sellers to Al Gore, Barack Obama and even Pope Francis - as well as burning gallons of jet fuel (and yes, he does address that issue) criss-crossing the earth to consult with activists and politicans in China, India, Indonesia, Micronesia, Greenland, Europe, and many other places.
I think the movie is a good mixture of doom-and-gloom catastrophism, and upbeat solution-optimism. As an American, DiCaprio's focus always comes back to the USA, and particularly to how the USA needs to lead by example. Consequently, the upbeat and science-based content is interspersed with clips of climate-change deniers and Fox News coverage of the same issues.
Maybe the best thing I can do is to leave you with the text of DiCaprio's own presentation to the UN's climate change summit in Paris earlier this year (transcription courtesy of The Guardian), which is used as a kind of coda to the whole documentary:
Thank you, Mr Secretary General, your excellencies, ladies and gentleman, and distinguished guests. I’m honored to be here today, I stand before you not as an expert but as a concerned citizen, one of the 400,000 people who marched in the streets of New York on Sunday, and the billions of others around the world who want to solve our climate crisis. 
As an actor I pretend for a living. I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe humankind has looked at climate change in that same way: as if it were a fiction, happening to someone else’s planet, as if pretending that climate change wasn’t real would somehow make it go away.
But I think we know better than that. Every week, we’re seeing new and undeniable climate events, evidence that accelerated climate change is here now. We know that droughts are intensifying, our oceans are warming and acidifying, with methane plumes rising up from beneath the ocean floor. We are seeing extreme weather events, increased temperatures, and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice-sheets melting at unprecedented rates, decades ahead of scientific projections.
None of this is rhetoric, and none of it is hysteria. It is fact. The scientific community knows it, Industry and governments know it, even the United States military knows it. The chief of the US navy’s Pacific command, admiral Samuel Locklear, recently said that climate change is our single greatest security threat. 
My Friends, this body – perhaps more than any other gathering in human history – now faces that difficult task. You can make history ... or be vilified by it. 
To be clear, this is not about just telling people to change their light bulbs or to buy a hybrid car. This disaster has grown BEYOND the choices that individuals make. This is now about our industries, and governments around the world taking decisive, large-scale action. 
I am not a scientist, but I don’t need to be. Because the world’s scientific community has spoken, and they have given us our prognosis, if we do not act together, we will surely perish. 
Now is our moment for action. 
We need to put a pricetag on carbon emissions, and eliminate government subsidies for coal, gas, and oil companies. We need to end the free ride that industrial polluters have been given in the name of a free-market economy, they don’t deserve our tax dollars, they deserve our scrutiny. For the economy itself will die if our ecosystems collapse. 
The good news is that renewable energy is not only achievable but good economic policy. New research shows that by 2050 clean, renewable energy could supply 100% of the world’s energy needs using existing technologies, and it would create millions of jobs. 
This is not a partisan debate; it is a human one. Clean air and water, and a livable climate are inalienable human rights. And solving this crisis is not a question of politics. It is our moral obligation – if, admittedly, a daunting one. 
We only get one planet. Humankind must become accountable on a massive scale for the wanton destruction of our collective home. Protecting our future on this planet depends on the conscious evolution of our species. 
This is the most urgent of times, and the most urgent of messages. Honoured delegates, leaders of the world, I pretend for a living. But you do not. The people made their voices heard on Sunday around the world and the momentum will not stop. And now it’s YOUR turn, the time to answer the greatest challenge of our existence on this planet ... is now.
I beg you to face it with courage. And honesty. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

US election campaign takes another dive into the unknown

The US election is almost over but, as they say, it's not over until it's over. By this point, I'm just as weary of, and disillusioned by, the whole thing as most other people, but then something like the recent resurrection of the Federal Bureau of Information (FBI)'s probe into Hillary Clinton's emails arises and you realize that this whole election thing could even get worse than its already dismal trajectory to date.
As most people know, the FBI and the US Justice Department investigated thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails earlier this summer, and concluded in July that, while Clinton's actions in using a private server for State Department business were "extremely careless", they did not actually constitute criminal wrongdoing of any kind (despite Donald Trump's vociferous claims to the contrary). FBI director James Comey himself recommended against bringing any charges to bear, and the issue seemed to be dead.
Then, appropriately enough just before Hallowe'en, the issue unexpectedly came back from the dead. Director Comey reported that more emails have been discovered, as part of the completely unrelated investigation into the minor-sexting scandal of sleazy former US congressman Anthony Weiner. Comey is suggesting that these emails, which may or may not be copies of the ones already investigated, might conceivably be connected in some way to the Clinton investigation (the one that everyone else thought was already closed). It's all a bit vague but, one way or another, it is back in the minds of voters
So, just two weeks before the presidential elections, Comey appears to have single-handedly re-opened the Clinton investigation, even though he has not actually confirmed this in so many words. And he has done so against the advice of several high-ranking Justice Department officers, in direct contravention of Justice Department policy (which instructs officials to "exercise heightened restraint near the time of a primary or general election), and possibly even in violation of the Hatch Act (which prohibits federal employees from influencing elections). Comey seems, therefore, pretty adamant on pursuing his unexpected, and rather inexplicable, path. You get the distinct impression of a man on a mission.
So, the cat is once more among the proverbial pigeons. Justice Department officials, Democrats, and even some Republicans, are crying foul and alleging political interference on the part of Director Comey. Even President Obama has issued an unprecedented public rebuke to the law enforcement agency for operating on "innuendo" and "incomplete information".
Donald Trump and his supporters are, of course, howling with righteous indignation, and claiming vindication of their constant jibes at "Crooked Hillary". And the Trump campaign may well have received a much-needed shot in the arm just when it most needed one.
The FBI's apparently deliberate interference in the election process is certainly disturbing and suspicious. I think that many sane observers are just hoping that evidence some nefarious collusion between Trump and Comey comes to light before the election. A good bribery scandal may be all that stands between a Trump presidency and a boring presidency, but time is running out. Just when you thought this election couldn't get any crazier or more contentious...

A few days later, and just two days before the election, James Comey has seen fit to exonerate Hillary Clinton after all, saying that he has found no reason to change his July conclusions. The American dollar and stock exchanges across the world rallied somewhat, after sinking precipitously following Mr. Comey's ill-advised announcement, a very concrete example of the political and economic consequences of his meddling. But the damage to Ms. Clinton's election campaign is already done, and she has precious little time left to recover it.
And even now Trump - like a petulant child, or a rogue dog, depending on your point of view - is still braying his disapproval, as he sees as his best chance to discredit his opponent slipping away. Almost predictably, he is completely dismissing Comey's latest letter to lawmakers as fiction: "Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it. The FBI knows it." And this after so recently praising Comey for doing "the right thing" (when, of course, it was in his interest)!
How does he get away with this stuff? Surely, this is legally slander, and slander is still a crime, is it not, free speech notwithstanding?