Thursday, December 22, 2016

Las Vegas' energy policy should not just stay in Las Vegas

Well, who knew that Las Vegas, Nevada, was a hot-bed of progressive thinking and renewable power initiatives? But apparently it is claiming to be the largest US city to run entirely on renewable energy. In actual fact, it is only the city's government facilities (government buildings, parks, street lights, etc) that are all green-powered and not the whole city, as many news outlets are reporting, but still...
Now, I had always written off Nevada in general, and Las Vegas in particular, as a Wild West enclave full of libertines and rednecks, but apparently there are sensible people out there. Nevada Governor Sandoval is a Republican but far from a typical one, a handsome Latino who supports abortion rights, healthcare reforms, same sex marriage, etc. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman (unlike her flamboyant husband Oscar, a former mob lawyer and ex-mayor who has been called "the Jewish Donald Trump") is very low-key and self-effacing, and altogether quite non-Las Vegas.
Either way, the city has ploughed more than $40 million of its ill-gotten gains into renewable energy over the last few years, including the huge Boulder Solar 1 solar facility, which generates some of the cheapest solar power in the country. It claims to be saving about $5 million a year in energy costs from its new enlightened energy policy and some extensive investments in energy efficiency measures in recent years. It has also reduces its prodigious water demand by efficiency and recycling programs.
So, although some of its claims may be a little exaggerated, kudos to Las Vegas for its achievement, and let's hope it doesn't just stay in Las Vegas.

Unprecedented Arctic warming may become the new normal

As we come to the end of a year that will break all records as the warmest year worldwide since records began (replacing the previous record set in 2015, which in turn replaced 2014, etc), scientists from the Arctic Research Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have just published a new report that should have us even more worried.
While climate change scientists are warning us about the perils of a 1.5°C - 2°C increase in temperatures, parts of the Arctic have recorded temperatures of up to 19°C above observed averages over the last couple of months. At the North Pole itself, mean temperatures in November were almost 13°C above normal, and the forecast for the next few days is expected to see even higher warmer-than-average discrepancies. In general terms, the Arctic overall has been warming at least twice as fast as the global average.
As a result of all this, the freeze-up of ice in the Arctic Ocean is much later than usual, and it is expected that Arctic ice coverage this spring and summer may be at a record low (Arctic sea ice during the summer of 2016 was at the second lowest levels ever recorded). This in turn will lead to even more warming as there will be less ice to reflect the sun's rays in a classic positive feedback loop (ice typically reflects 50-70% of the solar energy that hits it, while water reflects only about 6%).
According to the NOAA, warm episodes like this one are not unheard of in the Arctic, and typically occur about every 1,000 years. Recently, however, as a result of anthropological global warming, the likelihood of such spells has increased to about once every 50 years, and, if climate change continues at its current pace, it could become a very common phenomenon, of the order of once every 2 years.
And then Donald Trump was elected, an event that threatens to throw all meteorological predictions to the proverbial wind...

Why is Russia intent on a New Cold War?

The New Cold War continues to ramp with NATO's deployment of four multi-national battalion in the Baltic, one each in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, as well as shoring up its existing military presence in Romania and Poland.
Not that this escalation is NATO's fault: it comes in direct response to Russia's expansionist ambitions and its own escalation, both in its unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 (and the ongoing support of pro-Russian militants in easterm Ukraine, which continues to destabilize that country), and also in the unwarranted increase in its military presence along its eastern borders, adjoining Poland and the Baltic states, and including medium-range nuclear-ready Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.
So, Russian diplomats are being more than a little disingenuous when they call NATO's moves unwarranted, aggressive and a diversion of much-needed military resources needed to fight the much more important fight against Islamic terrorism (as though Russia's operations in the Middle East are doing much in that respect - their support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including their continuing despoiling of Aleppo, is largely for their own political and strategic ends and is having little or no effect in combatting Islamic jihadism).
I thought the Latvian ambassador to Canada's response to Russian complaints about Canada's contribution to the NATO force in Latvia was worded well:
"Deterrence is showing backbone; showing backbone is not the same thing as showing a fist. The backbone inspires respect. Respect facilitates dialogue."
I am not usually a big fan of this kind of fighting talk, but I do see that the West has to stand up to Russia in the only terms it seems to understand, otherwise the imperial ambitions of Valdimir Putin will ride roughshod over the minor powers of Eastern Europe.
As for why Putin feels the need to expand his power base, I must confess to being  a complete loss. Russia is already the largest country in the world, and already too large and unwieldy to govern well. Why add to that burden with the addition of other tiny pockets of unwilling territory, which will always be a thorn in the side and a constant provocation to the rest of the non-Russian world. It makes no sense to me, and I literally do not understand the psychology (not to mention the politics) that underpins it.
Just in case there was any doubt about the lurch towards a New Cold War, just look at two headlines on today's BBC website: "Russia 'stronger than any addressor' - President Putin", and "Donald Trump: US must greatly expand nuclear capabilities".

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joint deal to protect Arctic waters from from developmemt

The USA and Canada have struck a joint agreement to restrict oil and gas development in Arctic waters, by designating arctic waters as indefinitely off-limits for future oil and gas licenses. In addition, the agreement regulates shipping routes through the newly-navigable waters of the melting Arctic.
The American side of the deal is by presidential decree, and is technically enforceable indefinitely, although it will no doubt be one of the first things that Donald Trump will look at reversing once he holds the reins of power. The Canadian ban on new licenses is reviewable every five years.
Existing licenses, such as those owned by Royal Dutch Shell and others in American waters, and Imperial Oil and BP on the Canadian side, will remain in force, although most are due to expire in the next 5 years or so. As things stand, the economics of oil and the technical difficulties of drilling in the Arctic mean that current licenses are unlikely to be exercised, although that could conceivably change.
Environmentalists are hailing the deal as an important step forward for the environmental integrity of the Arctic, as do I. Although forgive my cynicism if I fail to see this as the final word on the subject.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why has the stock market boomed since Trump's election?

On the day of the American election in early November this year, stock prices, treasury bond yields, and the mighty US dollar all nose-dived, a normal knee-jerk reaction in the face of dire uncertainty. Since then, however, all have recovered, and many are currently teetering on the brink of all-time record values. On the other hand, the price of gold, the tried-and-tested alternative to the uncertainty of stock markets, initially spiked, and since then has steadily tumbled.
My question is, then, why? Trump's protectionist and anti-globalization outlook remains unchanged, and there appears to be little likelihood of him toning down many of his more extreme views, or his idiosyncratic management style. So, surely, the initial confusion and uncertainty of election day remains. And yet the American (and worldwide) business world seems to have very quickly come to terms with Donald J. Trump, and his vision of a rampant business-friendly USA.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is currently hovering just under an unprecedented 20,000, the S&P 500 Index of the 500 largest companies is at 2,260, and the Nasdaq Composite Index is at 5,450. All are on a continuing upward trajectory after the short-lived jitters of November 9th. So, what gives?
The whole stock market system is notoriously unreliable, unpredictable and all but inexplicable, but the reasons usually given for this post-election rally are business expectations of a more lenient regulatory environment (particularly for the fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals and financial industries), lower corporate taxes, and the promise of a huge infrastructure construction plan under Trump and the Republicans. Whether these expectations are in fact justified remains to be seen - Trump is quite capable of just changing his mind on his policies, at the drop of a hat. But the bottom line is that, generally speaking, many big companies see the tantalizing prospect of substantially increased profits, regardless of the damage wreaked on the environment, health and social structure of the country and the world (these matters are considered to be outside the purview of business, basically lumped together under "externalities" and ignored). And if increased profits are in prospect, then stock exchanges will boom, and all will be perceived as well in the garden of the business world.
It is worth noting that most of the big gains that are driving this stock exchange rally have occurred, unsurprisingly, in the Big Oil, Big Bank and Big Pharma industries. For example, the stocks of Goldman Sachs, a particular favourite of Mr. Trump, have shot up over 30% since the election just over a month ago. Other sector that are expecting specific boosts from Trump's policies (e.g. for-profit higher education companies, private prison corporations, etc) have also done well. On the other hand, sectors that can expect a hard time under Trumpism (like healthcare and green-tech, for example) have suffered.
If, like me, you are inherently suspicious of the stock exchange system and its motives, then none of this will come as too much of a surprise. But it is nevertheless a little shocking, not to say galling, that such a financial killing is being made on the back of what must rank as one of the worst election results ever.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Canadian asbestos ban a no-brainer

It's decades overdue, but the Canadian government has finally committed to completely banning the use of asbestos in Canada by 2018. It will join a list of only 50-odd countries, including Australia, Japan and the European Union, to ban the known carcinogen.
The World Health Organization declared asbestos a dangerous carcinogen way back in 1987, and yet government after Canadian government refused to ban it. Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and other cancers, and in Canada alone over 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers. It is recognized as the top single cause of workplace deaths in Canada. Canada has one of the world's highest rates of mesothelioma, a particularly virulent form of cancer specifically associated with exposure to asbestos. Even with the ban, because of the long latency period of diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer, and because of the ongoing exposure to asbestos, it is likely that the mean rates of the diseases have not yet peaked.
Canada started mining asbestos in the 1870s, principally in Quebec, and soon became one of the world's largest producers, before closing its last asbestos mine as recently as 2011. For years, both provincial and federal governments dragged their feet and even actively supported the country's asbestos mining industry despite the known health risks. Even now, the mining and processing of asbestos tailings in Quebec in order to extract magnesium is specifically excluded from the new ban.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the importing of asbestos. Currently, Canada imports over $8 million worth of asbestos-related products, about half of which is in the form of brake pads and linings for automobiles (Canadian and American vehicle manufacturers have largely replaced the asbestos in brake pads with safer alternatives), and some industrial pipes. This import problem is expected to be dealt with by the ban, a move that is being applauded by the wrecking and vehicle-recycling industry.
The details of the ban will be thrashed out in a 2-year government-led consultation process. But finally something concrete is being done about this no-brainer of an issue.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

So, who "won" the Battle of Aleppo?

With the news that the so-called Battle of Aleppo may be finally "over" (maybe), and that government forces are evacuating the last rebel holdouts from the centre of the city, come questions like: so what actually happened? who won? what has changed? is this a good thing? Simple questions perhaps, but not so easily answered.
It's hard enough to understand who is fighting in Aleppo, and in Syria in general. On one side, certainly, there are the pro-Shia Syrian government forces of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iran (which sees it as their duty to support any conflict against Sunni Arabs) and Hezbollah, and more recently (and decisively) by Russia. Russia, of course, has its own agenda in all this, not least the protection of its Mediteranean military base at Tartus, Syria.
The other "side" is much more nebulous and difficult to pin down. They are usually described as "the rebels", but that label can cover a multitide of sins. According to the BBC guide to the Syrian rebels there are literally hundreds of different armed rebel groups in action throughout Syria, comprising perhaps a hundred thousand fighters in total. Among the largest and best known groups are (in their English translations): the al-Nusra Front, Islamic State in Syria, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers, the Free Syrian Army, the Martyrs of Syria Brigades, the Free Men of Syria Brigade, the Northern Storm Brigade, the various groups that make up the Islamic Front, the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, the Army of lslam, the Falcons of Syria, the Battalion of Monotheism, the Battalion of Truth, the Supporters of the Levant Brigades, the Kurdish Islamic Front, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, as well as a whole host of equally scary-sounding "independent groups" like the Grandsons of the Prophet, Authenticity and Growth, the Shields of the Revolution, the Gathering of the Supporters of Islam, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the National Unity Brigades, etc, etc. In Aleppo itself, the main players appear to be the Free Syrian Army, the Levant Front, and the Army of Conquest (or Jaish al-Fatah), the latter being a loose alliance of several Sunni Islamist groups. And then, just to confuse things, there are also the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which are fighting from a cultural and ethnic point of view, rather than a religious one.
Before the war, Aleppo was Syria's largest city, with a population of around 2.5 million, as well as its commercial capital and a treasure trove of architecture and history (its centre is - or was - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although much of it now lies in ruins). After weeks of government/Russian air strikes and indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks, the rebels have been squeezed into just a few blocks, and the 50,000 or so civilians left in the beseiged eastern sector are struggling to escape in the shaky on-again-off-again cease-fire. There have been many reports of government troops going door-to-door and shooting whole families of civilians at random, and killing those who are escaping into what they thought were non-combat zones. Allegations of war crimes are being bandied around on both sides (although principally against the Syrian government forces).
So, even if the rebels do eventually completely relinquish control of the city, to say that Aleppo is "free" or "relieved" or anything of that sort is unhelpful hyperbole. Indeed, it is almost impossible for Westerners to even decide which side SHOULD be supported - the brutal repressive regime of Assad or some other hell made up of a variety of disparate Islamist and other single-issue groups. I don't blame in the least the reticence of President Obama and other Western leaders to get caught up in such a quagmire of moral ambiguity, particularly looking back at the long-term results of previous engagements like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc. Any engagement that might topple Assad risks, at the same time, strengthening the hand of Islamic State and other equally undesirable Islamic groups, and, given Russia's apparent commitment to Assad, it may also serve to exacerbate global tensions in a hugely dangerous way.
Any "victory" in Aleppo for Assad will almost certainly be short-term, and his forces have been severely stretched in the Aleppo offensive. But even a short-term success will also have the effect of boosting Assad's morale, therefore making the prospects of a negotiated political solution to the ongoing Syrian war even more unlikely. The fighting will doubtless continue, and in reality no-one has actually "won" anything.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Mr. Trump goes to Washington (and picks a strange Cabinet)

Over the last week or so, Donald Trump has been gradually introducing his "dream team" of cabinet members, and, predictably enough, it's not pretty. He has surrounded himself with a bunch of rich ageing white guys (with three women in minor roles), most of them with no experience at all in national politics, many of them ex-military, most of them climate change deniers or tied in some way to Big Oil or Coal, and almost all of them major contributors to his election campaign. In many cases, the choices appear deliberately skewed to those who don't really quite believe in the file they are to handle.
So, where to start? Trump himself and Vice-President Elect (and anti-abortion warrior) Mike Pence, of course, we already know (way too well). In White House advisory roles (not strictly part of the Cabinet, but nevertheless very influential positions) are:
  • Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff) - the man with the weird name was Chairman of the Republican National Committee and was instrumental in getting Mr. Trump elected, but he has no real policy experience. He is presumably there as Trump's "establishment guy", to help smooth things over with the Republican party.
  • Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor) - ex-Army general with some very outspoken views on Islam (he was forced out of the top US military spy agency because of his views of radical Muslims) and some conveniently Trump-esque views of cozying up with Russia and Vlad the Impaler. Both Flynn and his son seem to have a penchant for conspiracy theories and false news, and Flynn Sr. has taken flak for some threatening anti-Semitic tweets and other inflammatory comments over the years.
  • Steve Bannon ("Chief Strategist") - ex-banker and movie mogul, Bannon has most recently served as boss of the ultra-right wing Breitbart News outlet, the mouthpiece of the alt-right that played a significant role in helping Trump to his election win, largely through its rabid fake news stories and misinformation campaigns. Bannon's xenophobic and misogynist views have been unrepentantly trumpeted to the world for years now.
Rounding out the "advisors" are a whole host of Trump family members, including wife Melania, daughters Ivanka and Tiffany, sons Donald and Eric, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as a few other hangers-on who managed to survive various staff shake-ups during the Trump election campaign, including ex-beauty queen Hope Hicks ("Senior Advisor"), garish blonde Kellyanne Conway (Press Secretary), ex-golf caddy Dan Scavino (Social Media Director - what?), Stephen Miller (National Policy Advisor), and - no relation - Jason Miller (Communications Director).
The actual Cabinet member nominees are not much better than this cast of scoundrels (and in some cases, worse):
  • Steven Mnuchin (Treasury Secretary) - described as the "consummate Wall Street insider", a breed that Trump claims to despise, Mnuchin (that's Mnuchin, not Munchkin) amassed a fortune at Goldman Sachs and in movie production (are you noticing a common theme here?), and so of course has no political experience whatsoever.
  • General James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) - a 44-year Marine Corps veteran, Mattis glories in the nicknames 'Mad Dog' and 'Warrior Monk', which may be all you need to know about him. He is known for his blunt comments, like "it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them" (referring to Afghan men), and "have a plan to kill everyone you meet" (his advice to Marines in Iraq), and "there are some assholes in the world who just need to be shot". Nice guy.
  • Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) - one of the few in the Cabinet with some real political experience (most recently as Senator for Alabama), Sessions has been dogged by allegations of racism thoughout his career (he is prone to making jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, for example, as well as other racial slurs), so it will be no surprise to learn that his is rabidly anti-immigration. He is a keen supporter of Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the USA, and of the "great wall" along the Mexican border. He opposes LGBTQ right and same-sex marriages, and he is generally speaking a nasty peiece of work. Climate change denier (of course).
  • John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security) - another retired general (and who, like the other generals, will need to get special clearance from the Senate to serve in the Cabinet), Kelly has already made some ominous noises about Mexican immigrants and border security. He opposed President Obama's plans to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba and to allow women into combat roles, but he is nevertheless considered less hardline than some of the alternatives.
  • Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce) - Billionaire industrialist, restructuring specialist and "vulture investor", with close financial ties to Donald Trump, Ross has shown that he is not one to let fuzzy ideas of morality or tastefulness come between himself and profits. Climate change denier.
  • Andrew Puzder (Secretary of Labor) - a multi-millionaire fast-food empire executive, who has famously defended his company's tasteless ads of scantily-clad women eating burgers, and is still fielding allegations of wife abuse from some years ago, Puzder is best known for his strong opposition to increasing the minimum wage (which is still $7.25 in the USA) and to Obamacare.
  • Tom Price (Secretary of Health and Human Services) - an ex-surgeon and anti-abortionist who see his mission in life as (go figure!) to shut down and repeal Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act reforms and replace it with ... something. Climate change denier.
  • Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) - retired neurosurgeon and failed presidential candidate, with absolutely no political experience and who never lived in public housing (despite suggestions that he did), Carson's is the only black face in the crowd (hence the "urban" connection, presumably). He is a Seventh Day Adventist who believes, among other things, that the Big bang is a "fairy tale", that gayness is a choice people make, that there is a war on "what's inside of women"(?), that climate change is not man-made, that Planned Parenthood is just a plot to kill black babies, that there is absolutely no racism in Ferguson, Missouri, and (the clincher) that the Egyptian pyramids were built by Biblical Joseph to store grain. Enough said.
  • Ryan Zinke (Secretary of the Interior) - ex-Navy Seal (yes, another military veteran!) and Montana Senator Zinke is known for voting for legislation that would soften the environmental protection of public lands (lands, including national parks, that he will now be in charge of protecting), although he does at least seem to be against privatizing public lands or ceding control over them to individual states. He seems quite happy, though, to open up more public lands to mining, drilling and logging, and he believes that climate change "is not proven".
  • Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy) - failed presidential candidate and ex-Texas governor, who has repeatedly called for lighter regulation on the oil industry and described the science around climate change as "unsettled" and "unproven", Perry also sits on the board of an oil pipeline company. Other than his stint as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, Perry is perhaps best known for his live TV brain-freeze when he vowed to eliminate three cabinet-level departments: Commerce, Education and ... er ... oh, er ... oh yes, Energy, he later recalled.
  • Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator) - this is the man whose own bio describes him as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda" (he has at least 7 ongoing lawsuits against the agency), who has repeatedly vowed to repeal President Obama's Clean Air Act, and has openly questioned the science on man-made global warming. Good choice, eh?
  • Sonny Perdue (Secretary of Agriculture) - Former Georgia governor Perdue is one more old white guy in a cabinet of old white guys, and is perhaps best known for praying for the end to a drought in Georgia in 2007 (it may have worked - two years later Georgia suffered its worst ever floods). He is a climate change denier and a former fertilizer salesman, who will be  responsible for, among other things, mitigating the agricultural sector's environmental impact and carbon footprint.
  • Mike Pompeo (Central Intelligence Agency) - although Mr. Trump seems to have little use for the CIA (or intelligence in general, for that matter), he has nevertheless decided to appoint Islamophobic national security hawk Pompeo, who has strongly opposed Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and his decision to close down the Guantánamo Bay prison, as his man.
  • Elaine Chao (Secretary of Transportation) - born in Taiwan (not China) and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao is 63 year old but mysteriously looks about 30. She is actually a very seasoned politician compared to most of the other cowboys here, and may even prove to be competent. She will get to play with Mr. Trump's plans for infrastructure investment, which I am guessing will probably favour roads. Climate change denier.
  • Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education) - once an outspoken critic of Trump, then a major contributor to his campaign, billionaire Ms. DeVos knows which side her bread is buttered, and will get to look after the kids, even if her educational ideas don't particularly mesh with Trump's (that can change too, of course). She has no particular knowledge of education or pedagogy, but she has worked tirelessly in recent years to spread charter schools at the expense of public schools in her native Michigan (despite their well-documented failure there), and to pass laws requiring the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition.
  • Linda McMahon (Small Business Administrator) - co-founder and former CEO of the World Wrestling Federation gives McMahon a rather tenuous qualification to look after America's small businesses, but she did donate about $7 million to Trump's campaign, so that's OK.
  • Nikki Haley (Ambassador to the UN) - another one-time Trump critic who decided to hold her nose and work with the Devil, Haley is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, so Mr. Trump probably just wants to keep her where he can see her. Her politics appear to be a dizzying mix of the sensible and the rabid.
Positions like the Secretaries of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs remain unfilled, as does the all-important position of Secretary of State. Trump is thought to be still chasing Mitt Romney for this last position, presumably as a means of bringing some legitimacy and gravitas to the overall Cabinet, but the two men are poles apart politically, and have crossed swords many times during the election campaign and primaries (two other military guys, James Stavridis and David Petraeus, are also still in the running). And apparently Sarah Palin (yes, THAT Sarah Palin) is being seriously considered for Veterans Affairs, so this thing could get even stranger.
Wow! The USA is about to become a truly scary place.

The missing positions are gradually being filled in, as Trump goes through his Apprentice-style interview process:
  • Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) - preferred over Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney for the position, Tillerson is CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil, and a Trump-style deal-maker with no political experience, rather than the kind of seasoned diplomat normally required for this important job. He is known to be a big fan of Vladimir Putin, and was awarded an "Order of Friendship" by Putin, whatever that may actually mean. His company has many Russian deals lined up, just waiting for the lifting of sanctions.
  • Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy) - ex-Governor of the oil state of Texas, who is skeptical about climate change and favours lighter regulation on the oil industry (so we know where this one is going), Perry vowed to scrap the federal Department of Energy during his failed 2012 Republican nomination bid, and now finds himself in charge of it. Like most other the nasty 2016 nominations, Perry and Trump traded some pretty spiteful insults, but are apparently best buddies.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Trump-style politics comes to Canada

Just in case there was any doubt at all that that Donald Trump's election campaign has inexorably changed the political landscape and people's view of what is and is not acceptable in the public sphere, the recent events at an Alberta demonstration should be evidence enough.
The rally, outside the Alberta legislature, was organized by renowned goofball loudmouth Ezra Levant and his obnoxious Rebel website (which I won't bother hyperlinking). It was a protest against the carbon tax instituted by Alberta's current NDP Premier Rachel Notley, one of the very few progressive pieces of legislation to come out of that benighted province in recent memory.
During a speech by Conservative leadership candidate Chris Alexander, a chant of "Lock her up!" was taken up by many in the crowd, in clear reference to Rachel Notley, and echoing the Trump campaign's favourite anti-Clinton chant. Presumably, the crowd thought this very witty and post-modern, although it was in fact totally inappropriate, unacceptable and loutish. Alexander could not managed to suppress a little smile and an understated conducting mime, although he eventually remembered that he was standing for election, and later indignantly claimed that he was just "playing for time" and not going along with the hilarity at all, and indeed that he was "shocked" and "mortified".
Yes, this was Alberta, which, together with Saskatchewan, is about the closest thing we Canadians have to Texas. But the very fact that this could happen in Canada, which usually considers itself superior to America in so many ways, is telling indeed.
Thanks to Trump, the moral ground has fallen away beneath our feet, and the man who vowed to "drain that swamp" has created a global political quagmire from which we may never extricate ourselves.

To shave or not to shave - STIs or lice?

Well, this is interesting, I guess. It turns out, shaving your pubic areas increases your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) by up to 400%!
An American study published recently in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections - yes, there is such a thing, I kid you not! - shows that what they call "extreme groomers" (those who shave their privates completely at least once a month) were up to 4 times more likely than others to become infected with STIs such as herpes or HPV.
Among the possible causes listed are that constant waxing may cause miniscule tears in the skin allowing for the easier transmission of diseases, the sharing of shaving implements (less likely), and the rather stark suggestion that people with shaved pubic areas just have more sex (presumably, either as a cause or effect of the grooming).
Pubic shaving is hugely popular these days, as even a cursory glance at online porn confirms. The study concluded that about 75% of respondents (84% of women and 66% of men) had groomed their pubic hair at some point. 17% described themselves as "extreme groomers" (removing all hair at least once a month), and 22% as "high frequency groomers" (trimming daily or weekly). This was mainly done for "hygiene reasons", but also sometimes at the request of a partner, or just to "feel sexier".
On the other hand, the study points out, shaving does have the positive effect of reducing the incidence of pubic lice. So that is the choice, then - lice or STIs? Can't we just make sure we wash well and regularly?

Jane Austen - and the vagaries, of 19th century punctuation

Reading Jane Austen's Lady Susan / The Watson's / Sanditon (basically, her early and unfinished efforts), I was struck by, among other things, the punctuation. It seems to be everywhere: commas; semi-colons; dashes; dashes combined with commas, periods and semi-colons, seeming at random; mid-sentence exclamation marks; you name it. A bit like my own writing, really. If emojis had been available to her, I'm sure she would have used those too.
And all this is AFTER a drastic editing process to weed out the more egregious over-punctuation. In fact, the editor (the great English novelist Margaret Drabble, in the case of the Penguin edition I read) makes specific reference in her introductory notes to the works to the fact that she had to make a bunch of edits and decisions on the punctuation, in order to attempt to tame the veritable profusion of marks and typographical devices Ms. Austen used in her rough drafts.
Now, we are used to thinking of Jane Austen as the paragon of English language construction, effortlessly stringing together complex nested clauses and sub-clauses, connected by a supporting web of commas and semi-colons, never under-utilized, never employed to excess (however much you may object to the errant commas in the immortal line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"). But what we sometimes forget is that, back in the 1810s when Austen wrote most of her major works, the spelling, style and punctuation of English literature was still very much in flux.
I notice, in Google, that there was a flurry of articles about Jane Austen's punctuation around November 2010, mainly in response to the publishing online of a whole slew of original Jane Austen manuscripts of juvenilia and unfinished works, with all their crossings-out, spelling errors (particularly a rather arbitrary interpretation of the "i before e except after c" rule, something that she had in common with Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Jefferson, and many others of the period), errant capitalization, complete lack of paragraph breaks, random punctuation, and dashes, dashes, everywhere.
More specifically, the media furry was in response to Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland's allegations that Austen was really a bit of a sloppy writer, and that she probably relied heavily on an outside editor (probably the punctilious punctuationist William Gifford, or perhaps her publisher John Murray himself) to make sense of her scratchings. Drastic editing was standard practice at the time, but nevertheless Professor Sutherland's musings led to sensationalist headlines like "Jane Austen's elegant style may not her Hers", "Jane Austen massacred the English language" and "Austen revised and corrected by a man!"
Now, let is be said that we do not actually have a single page of the manuscripts that she actually submitted to her publishers, and the examples we do have are just rough drafts and youthful writings. Her own brother, Henry, gushed after Jane's death that, "Everything came finished from her pen", but in reality we do not really know. And let it also be said, in Jane's defence, that many of the conventions in spelling and punctuation that we take for granted today (like that "i before e except after c" rule", for example) were just not yet settled, and indeed were not really settled until the best part of a century later. Professor Sutherland notes that Austen's use of punctuation was actually more consistent with an attempt to signal the rhythms of speech rather than the grammatical structure of the text.
All in all, I think the intense debate was something of a storm in a teacup in the great tradition of such literary storms. When all is said and done, Jane Austen's artistry - and her style - is in her beautiful flowing sentences, her authentic rendering of refined conversations, and the elegance of her story arcs, and not in her use of the poor, maligned semi-colon.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Two important votes in Europe

A referendum in Italy and a presidential election in Austria over the weekend were two highly-charged events in the wake of the Brexit fiasco earlier this year and the Trump election just last month. What transpired in these two votes was kind of complicated, but certainly not disastrous.
First the Italian referendum. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a self-destructing and career-ending move not dissimilar to David Cameron's fateful decision to call a referendum on Brexit, decided to call a referendum to change parts of Italy's Byzantine political system (purportedly to ease the passage of laws), the main thrust of which would be to strengthen the power of the Prime Minister and to weaken the upper house, or Senate. Italians turned out in droves (well over 70%) to vote a resounding "No" to the changes, by a margin of 60% to 40%.
So, arguably nothing has changed. But Renzi had put his political career on the line with the vote, and has now been obliged to resign. Also, the vote was widely seen as a rejection of the status quo and establishment politics, and opposition parties (principally the rightist anti-Europe Five Star Movement and the Northern League) are now howling for a new general election. They probably won't get one, and the country will probably limp on with a Democratic Party caretaker administration until regular elections take place in spring of 2018. The Italian economy remains shaky, and several of its major banks are still teetering above the abyss, but life will go on much as before.
But there was some good news as well this weekend. The presidential election in Austria, touted as a referendum on traditional European ideals and liberalism, resulted in a surprise defeat for populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in favour of Alexander van der Bellen, the moderate pro-Europe candidate. The Austrian Presidency is largely ceremonial and does not carry much power in the country's internal and external politics, but van der Bellen's victory (with about 53% to 47% of the vote) was at least symbolic, and elicited a communal sigh of relief in Europe and around the world, even if the vote was relatively tight.
France, the Netherlands and Germany - all countries where anti-immigration and anti-establishment factions are gaining ground in recent years - all face general elections in 2017. But Austria has shown us that, sometimes at least, cooler heads can prevail.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Edward Page Mitchell - a sci-fi visionary

I have been reading a collection of short stories by a 19th Century American author, hitherto unknown to me, and generally little known to the wider literary public, of the name Edward Page Mitchell. The stories, which originally appeared anonymously in serialized form in the New York Sun between the 1870s to 1890s (Mitchell later became editor-in-chief of the same paper), are not available in book form, but can be downloaded for free from the Interwebs.
In more recent years, Mitchell has come to be regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction. Some of his fictional ideas predated similar ones by HG Wells and even Jules Verne by several years, and he anticipates many futuristic technological advances - some of which have come to pass, and some that are still to emerge - as well as social and political advances which would have appeared quite revolutionary at the time.
Among the best, and best-known, of the stories are:
  • A Man Without a Body (1877) - a scientist suceeds in teleporting matter, but when he tries to teleport himself, the electrical battery fails and only his head materializes, fully conscious and sensible, but lacking a body.
  • The Ablest Man in the World (1879) - a scientist develops a thinking, reasoning, computer-like machine, which he then installs in the head of a severely mentally-disabled boy, who as a result grows up into a fiercely intelligent and ambitious adult, set to take the world by storm, until someone discovers his dark secret and sabotages what they see as an abomination.
  • The Senators's Daughter (1897) - set in a futuristic 1937, this tale of a young American woman fighting for the right to marry her Chinese lover introduced a whole host of future technology (including travel by pneumatic tube, electrical heating, newspapers printed in the home by electrical transmission, food-pellet concentrates, international broadcasts, suspended animation or cryogenics), as well as social advances like votes for women, animal rights, racial equality, and interracial marriage.
  • A Crystal Man (1881) - a scientist discovers the secret of altering the colour of the human body, and even rendering it completely transparent, before dying unexpectedly and leaving his experimental subject to a fate of a lifetime as an invisible man (this was some 16 years before HG Wells pursued a similar idea).
  • The Clock That Went Backward (1881) - a mysterious old Dutch grandfather clock transports a group of people back hundreds of years, as it begins to turn backwards when struck with a bolt of lightning (written 7 years before HG Wells wrote The Time Machine).
  • The Tachypomp (1894) - in order to realize the apparently impossible task of achieving infinite speed (and thereby win the hand of his professor's daughter), a student of mathematics contrives a train which carries another train on top of it, which in turn carries yet another train on top of it, and so on, so that the combined speed of all the trains approaches infinity.
The stories are written in the same kind of gentlemanly, slightly stuffy, Victorian style as Wells and his comtemporaries adopted, but they are nevertheless eminently readable and not devoid of humour. They certainly make for an enjoyable and interesting few hours of entertainment at no financial cost, and very little tax on the intellect.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Rich medical specialists whine about tax changes

Specialist doctors are up in arms about a recent federal tax change that is soon to be voted into force.
The legislation is designed to close up a loophole, whereby specialist doctors use complex partnerships and corporate structures in order to tame advantage of the favourable small business tax rate (10.5% on business income up to $500,000, possibly soon to be reduced still further to 9%) rather than the corporate tax rate (15%) or even higher personal income tax rates.
An estimated half of Canada's 80,000 physicians are specialists, and they are among the highest earners in the country, although only about 10,000-15,000 of these are in a position to take advantage of the kind of income-pooling structures at issue here.
The Canadian Medical Association and other medical professional pressure groups say that some doctors could end up paying tends of thousands more a year in taxes as a result of the proposed tax changes, which gives a good idea of just how much these guys are pulling in. Those same pressure groups are scare-mongering that "thousands" of specialists will pull out of group medical offices and that many of them will leave for the United States as a result.
If they want to brave a Trump-led USA, then good luck to them, I say, although they may not find it quite as easy to get in say they think. If a few thousand dollars in tax is all that stands between these people and the abandonment of all that Canada has to offer, then I'm not sure we really want them. Certainly, taxation was never an issue that figured in our decision to move here all those years ago.
Thankfully, Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears unmoved by the whining of a bunch of rich medical professionals and Conservative MPs, and the legislation looks set to pass comfortably.

Most dietary supplements are not even worth considering

The worldwide market for health and nutrition supplements and vitamins is truly huge. Americans alone spend about $30 billion a year on vitamins, minerals and herbal products (that's about $100 for every man, woman and child). This is partly the result of a 1990s law change that allows products to be sold to "support" the health of the body or various body parts, even if no claims are made for the prevention, treatment or cure of any particular ailment.
Millions of people swear by their daily regime of vitamins and minerals. But do we actually know whether the most popular health supplements are actually effective? Are they, in reality, anything more than placebos or just wishful thinking?
One article by a scientific journalist in the New York Times recently tackled just that problem, and his conclusions were disquieting at best. Among his findings:
  • Multivitamins - studies by a number of major health institutions and charities have concluded that a daily multivitamin does little or nothing to fend off chronic illnesses like cancer or heart disease, and a sensible balanced diet is likely to be much more effective.
  • Vitamin D - most people these days are deficient in vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium and phosphorus we need to maintain strong bones, and so this may be one of the few supplements that are actually worthwhile, particularly for older people, even if it has not been shown to actually prevent bone fractures.
  • Calcium - many people are also deficient in calcium, but a better diet with more dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, fortified breakfast foods, etc, would be a better solution than supplements, which can often cause constipation, and has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Vitamin B12 - many people, particularly older people, are deficient in this vitamin, which is needed for healthy brain and muscle function, even those who eat meat (the main source of B12), and a supplement may be necessary over and above what can be found in fortified food sources.
  • Fish oil - variously promoted as a miracle cure for heart disease, cognitive decline and much more, fish oil has actually not been found to be efficacious in studies, and may even increase the risks of an aggressive form of prostrate cancer.
  • Magnesium - studies have not borne out claims that magnesium can help prevent leg cramps, and, while it may help with constipation, it also brings with it a risk of diarrhoea and of interference with the functioning of antibiotics and other medications.
  • Turmeric - used in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, turmeric does have some anti-inflammatory, anti-diuretic and even anti-cancer properties (although official scientific evidence is rather thin on the ground), and anecdotally it can help with some inflammatory conditions like plantar fasciitis.
  • Glucosamine/Chondroitin - studies have shown that the supplement's much-touted efficacy against arthritis are completely unfounded, and it has no more effect than a placebo.
  • Vitamin E - once thought to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, studies have shown that those taking vitamin E supplements actually developed significantly more cancers than those on a placebo.
  • Selenium - also widely taken to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, selenium supplements have been shown in studies to substantially increase the incidence of diabetes.
Hmmm. All in all, it seems like a much better idea to spend some money on improving our diets than investing in dietary supplements. The only supplements that might be worth considering are vitamin D and B12.