Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal is a fictional challenge to our preconceptions

Recently, I have been particularly enjoying Lawrence Hill's 2015 book, The Illegal.
It is set in a mythical pair of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean: the large, mineral-rich, wealthy and developed Freedom State; and the much smaller, much poorer banana republic of Zantoroland. Zantoroland is populated exclusively by various shades of black people, and is, despite its lack of facilities and funding, the natural source of a never-ending supply of elite long-distance runners. The country exhibits a sad juxtaposition between the poor but (in some ways) idyllic and bucolic lifestyle of its populace, and the violence and corruption of its authorities, a juxtaposition that is familiar from any number of smaller African states. Freedom State, on the other hand, is predominantly white, apart from a poor and lawless suburb of the capital city known as AfricTown, an area of converted shipping containers largely occupied by emigrés and refugees from Zantoroland. Freedom State has elements of South Africa, Australia, America and several other developed countries, without being obviously and definitively any of them, and has an aggressively conservative government with a sworn policy of hounding out the illegal immigrants within its borders, and halting the influx of future black refugees.
By means of this conceit, Mr. Hill sets up a set piece situation for a fascinating mixed cast of characters, which he uses to explore the dynamics of international relations, institutionalized racism, and the ambitions and motivations of a whole host of different types and individuals. Among others, we meet:
  • Keita Ali (a young,ambitious, naturally-gifted runner from Zantoroland, who leaves Freedom State in order to avoid the government-sponsored assassination that took his father from him);
  • Charity Ali (Keita's fiercely intelligent and strong-minded sister, who ends up being plucked from her Havard education and used a political pawn in Zantoroland);
  • Rocco Calder (an ex-athlete and car salesman, now working, rather half-heartedly, as the Freedom State Family Party's immigration minister);
  • Viola Hill (a feisty, shaven-headed, black, disabled lesbian, desperately trying to make her mark as an investigative journalist in Freedom State);
  • Lula DiStefano (self-appointed "Queen of AfricTown", ostensibly a brash, rapacious and hard-hearted businesswoman, but also an inscrutable supporter and benefactor of the down-trodden blacks of Freedom State);
  • Anton Hamm (the avaricious, single-minded and slightly scary track-and-field agent with anger management issues, who sees Keita as essentially a cash cow);
  • John Falconer (scrappy and gutsy, pushy and overachieving, John is a 15-year old AfricTown resident and student at a school for the gifted, who is making a video documentary on the racial divides of Freedom State);
  • Ivernia Beech (the ageing sponsor of a major Freedom State literary prize, with a progressive sense of social justice); etc, etc.
I won't elucidate on his how all these characters interact, or just how the story develops. But rest assured that, in simple and undemanding language, Mr. Hill weaves a tangled, yet ultimately edifying, labyrinth of a plot, one that makes you think about your beliefs and values without being prescriptive or doctrinaire. It is an unputdownable page-turner of a political critique. And it even manages to work in a plug for Tim Hortons - what's not to like?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Do fish (and even plants) really exhibit intelligence and consciousness?

Here's some recent research that escaped my attention at the time, but which a friend brought to my attention last night. It seems that fish are more likely to be capabale kf thoughts and emotions than was previously thought.
Whether animals other than humans have consciousness (roughly defined as the ability to experience thoughts and emotions) had been debated for centuries, and fish, insects and plants have always been considered very low down on the scale of consciousness. Fish, for example, have small sinple brains and lack the cerebral cortex often considered a requirement for more high-level information processing and what we usually think of as consciousness. They show little capacity for learning and memory, and most of rheir responses are simple reflexes with little in the way of emotional content.
However, although a fish's brain is structured very diffrently from that if a mammal, it nevertheless has structures with the same evolutionary origin as the emotion-generating amygdala and the learning-controlling hippocampus of mammals, and appear to serve very similar functions. Some fish can memorize complex mental maps, and remember potential rivals' previous battles, and even use tools to crack open shells. They can perceive and respond to chemicals that might cause them pain.
It was always thought, though, that fish (unlike mammals, birds and reptiles) were not able to respond to a key consciousness test known as "stress-induced hyperthermia" or "emotional fever, whereby the body gets warmer in reponse to stress. Now, though, new research shows that stressed fish will move to warmer water where possible, suggesting that fish may be more sentient and conscious than we had previously thought.
Of course, some scientists (at the contentious end of the scale, but not complete whackos) also argue that plants exhibit a rudimentary consciousness. For example, plants have been shown to react to recordings of caterpillars munching on vegetation, by secreting defensive chemicals. Plants will shift growth direction in order to avoid obstacles. They have the ability to respond to 15 to 20 environmental variables.
While plants don't have a brain or nervous system or nerve cells like mammals, they do have a system for transmitting electrical signals, and they even produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin and other chemicals that mammal brains use to transmit signals. We are just not sure what they do with them. Now, it seems that plants also show some evidence of memory and learning skills. There is scientific evidence that plants can distinguish what is and is not a threat to them, and then remember that (for longer than some insects, for example).
Other studies have shown that individual trees as well as other plants like cacti) may protect and take care of their own offspring and seedlings, over and above those of other trees - make of that what you will.
This is contentious ground, and many scientists refuse to accept that this constitutes intelligence, much less consciousness. However, while they may not be self-conscious, they may show evidence of being conscious in the sense of knowing where they are in space. They may not engage in abstract reasoning, but they do exhibit a certain problem-solving ability. It all depends on your definitions of concepts like intelligence and consciousness, and your way of looking at things.
Either way, it's certainly food for thought (so to speak...)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Trump's first year some kind of record (but not the one he claims)

Donald Trump's disastrous tax bill may be the first major legislative victory after nearly a year in power, but he has actually signed 96 laws during 2017. Although Trump himself thinks he has signed 88 bills into law, he nevertheless maintains that even this is some sort of a record, eclipsing even Harry S. Truman's long-standing record, an achievement for which he is just not receiving due credit from the lying, biased press.
Setting aside the perverse idea that the number of legislative approvals is somehow a measure of his accomplishment as a President, Trump's claims are, as so often, just not based in fact. Just a quick look at the bills signed into law in their first year by his six most recent predecessors - Barack Obama 124, George W. Bush 109, Bill Clinton 209, George H.W. Bush 242, Ronald Reagan 158, and Jimmy Carter 249 - Trump does not even come close. He also trails Nixon, Kennedy and Eisenhower on this particular dubious metric. And Harry S. Truman? The Truman Library puts his figure at 240-250.
So, the lying, biased press have a pretty good reason for not giving Trump credit for his claims. As for whether his laws have been good for the country, well, we had better not go into that too closely... His first year may well have broken several records, including that of least popular president, but none that he or his country should be proud of.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Banning e-bikes is not the right solution

New York City has not only banned electric bikes, but made it illegal for businesses to employ delivery staff who use e-bikes. This will affect a whole sub-section of poor, largely immigrant New Yorkers.
Electric bikes, and converted standard bikes, can reach speeds of over 30kph, and are admittedly often ridden recklessly, both on roads and on sidewalks. Part of the reason for New York's ban is supposedly the threat that electric bicycles represent to pedestrians and motorists, although there does not seem to be any reliable publicly-available data (other than anecdotal claims) that e-bikes are actually particularly dangerous, at least no more than other vehicles.
Banning them seems like overkill to me. Regulate and license them by all means, as is currently done with electric scooters. Police their use, enforce the rules of the road, and fine aggressive and reckless drivers, as with any road vehicles. But banning them does not seem like a good solution.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Electric cars don't need artificial noise pollution

Having just read an article on the need for electric cars to make more noise, I must admit to being somewhat perplexed. The article begins: "One of the biggest complaints about electric cars from enthusiasts is their lack of noise. Compared to the sound of an internal combustion engine working, an electric car is flat-out uninspiring." It gets worse after that...
Granted, the article was a BMW blog, but the underlying assumption was quite clearly that electric cars should make some kind of an aggressive car-like noise for two main reasons: one, to warn pedestrians that there is a car in the vicinity, and two, because that's what cars do, and because drivers of expensive, fast cars want the gratification of a loud, macho driving experience to go with their over-inflated egos.
The first contention is the more easily justified, and has been a concern of electric car makers since the first electric cars in the early twentieth century. But I still maintain it is a misplaced concern: pedestrians need to learn to deal with the new Zeitgeist by not wandering across busy roads, crossing at appropriate places, and not using roads while distracted by phones or anything else; car drivers, for their part, need to pay more attention to possibly distracted pedestians, while remaining undistracted themselves. Treating the symptoms with an artificial car noise is missing the point - some serious traffic education needs to take place on both sides.
As for the proposition that electric cars should sound like gas-powered cars because some drivers think that it's cool to hear the roar of a well-tuned engine? This argument is indefensible, and people who think like that don't deserve to drive a nice powerful electric car. The reduction in noise pollution in our towns and cities is just one of the benefits of electric car technology, and to deliberately pollute for no compelling reason is just perverse. These people just need to get over themselves.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making 40 year economic projections is pointless

The government has just issued its annual 40-year projection of federal spending and revenue trends, in which it claims that this year's stronger-than-expected economic growth means that the federal deficit could be elimited by 2045, rather than last year's estimate of 2055.
This seems like arrant nonsense. How can one year's results change a future projection by ten years? More to the point, what is the practical value of projecting 40 years into the future, given that a week is condidered a long time in politics?
Next year could prove to be a weaker-than-expected year - could it not? - in which case these current projections will suddenly become redundant. Several changes in government, both in Canada and south of the border, will take place over the next 40 years, all of which will probably impact the projections being made now. Bitcoin may take off or implode; several new, world-changin technologies will almost certainly occur; wars will be fought, won and lost; trade treaties we can not even imagine will be signed and broken; major companies will come and go.
What, then, is the point is making projections forty years into the future? Or even five years for that matter? I understand that governments have to justify their current policies with reference to their future impacts, and to sound like their plans are in the long-term interests of the country, and particularly that "hard-working middle class" politicians always talk about. But surely no serious economist can take such projections seriously.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trump descends to a whole new level of crassness over UN vote

I am desperately trying not to write about Donald Trump, but I am failing miserably. His latest enormity just cannot be ignored. The word "unprecedented" is grossly overused in general, but it continues to be the apposite word here.
First, Mr. Trump instructed his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to take a note of "who voted against us" in the upcoming vote on a resolution opposing the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the latest bee in Trump's bonnet. Ms. Haley chose to share that instruction with the UN (as well as on Trump's official news agency, Twitter: "The US will be taking names"), and left it hanging as an implicit threat. But then Trump himself made the intimidation explicit by threatening to withdraw American financial aid from countries that vote against the US over the issue: "They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars from us, and then they vote against us. Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care."
This is taking crassness, and an arrant disregard for the processes of democracy, to a whole new level. Surely it contravenes some UN rules of international respect and behaviour. Can we not just ban the guy?
The UN emergency vote comes on the heels of a UN Security Council vote on the matter which saw the USA defeated by 14 to 1, requiring it to use its power of veto to save it from complete embarrassment. The general vote seems likely to go along the same lines, although it will be interesting to see which countries take Trump's threats seriously.

Threats or no threats, the UN voted 128-9 (with 35 abstentions, one of them, embarrassingly, Canada) against the controversial US plan to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.
Several countries, including Palestine, stood up to declare that they will not bow to threats like Trump's.  For the record, the eight counties that voted with the USA on the resolution were: Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo.
It remains to be seen whether Trump actually acts on his threats.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bell Media can not show Canadian ads during the Superbowl broadcast

Bell Media finds itself in an interesting conundrum regarding their broadcasting of the American Superbowl.
Bell owns the rights to show the NFL Championship game on Canadian television. But the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's regulatory body for all things TV, has ruled that Bell cannot substitute the famously expensive and high-profile American half-time advertising with its own Canadian ads, and now the Federal Court of Appeal has upheld the CRTC's policy on this.
Bell is complaining that it is losing out on $11 million in advertising revenues as a result of the policy (which I can believe), as well as experiencing a 39% decrease in audience numbers for the game (which I can't believe, especially given that, up until a few years ago, people used to be up in arms about NOT being able to see the splashy new American ads, which are considered quite a viewing spectacle in their own right, with something of a cult following, at least among media-heads). This is diametrically opposite the usual simultaneous-substitution (simsub) rule that applies to all other American shows broadcast in Canada, and not only does it mean that Bell CAN show the US ads, it is in the strange position of being FORCED to show them.
The legal decision is certainly not without its critics, and its inconsistency is clear. The irony of legislation that is supposed to help protect the Canadian broadcasting industry being used to require the use of American (and not Canadian) ads during the broadcasting of a major sporting event was not lost on at least one of the Federal justices.
I have to say that I do feel a bit sympathetic to Bell's point of view. Essentially, the CRTC is saying that the game and the US ads come as a package, and that people expect to see them together, which I feel is a bit of a stretch. If Bell broadcasts a movie, it is allowed to break it up with advertising, but not the Superbowl? Furthermore, the American ads are widely available on the internet after (and often even before) the game. So, do we really need to make them sacrosanct?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

BC bans bear-hunting, USA encourages it

The NDP/Green government of British Columbia has unexpectedly banned all trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the province. Effective immediately, all hunting of grizzlies in BC is now prohibited for both BC residents and non-residents alike, except for members of First Nations ("for treaty rights, or for food, social or ceremonial reasons").
Although the animals are not actually endangered in the province and the grizzly population is considered stable and sustainable at around 15,000, environmentalists are ecstatic at the announcement yesterday, arguing that this is a means of keeping the population stable. The opposition Liberals blasted the decision, of course (because that's what oppositions do). The hunting and guiding industry in the province is predictably disappointed, warning that some operators will probably go out of business as a result. However, research suggests that bear-watching is a much more important industry economically than bear-hunting in BC.
Contrast this announcement with the one earlier this year when the Trump administration removed the endangered protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a much more threatened, isolated and declining population of just 700 bears.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Plaudits pour in for retiring Chief Justice McLachlin

The accolades continue to roll in for Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as she retires after 28 years on the Supreme Court of Canada, including 17 years as Chief Justice.
Probably Canada's best-known judge, Justice McLachlin has been a beacon of common sense at the head of Canada's legal system, and has earned almost universal respect. She refused to be cowed by Stephen Harper during the Conservative Dark Ages of the early 21st century, and almost single-handedly preserved the country from some of his most egregious excesses. She has provided a leading voice on native issues, and has been a splendid role model for women and girls, particularly those looking towards her still very much male-dominated field.
Her replacement as Chief Justice is to be Montreal-born Supreme Court judge Robert Wagner, who will almost certainly do a good job in the post, but is unlikely to prove the same kind of activist and firebrand judge as Justice McLachlin.
She will be sorely missed.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why are British novels "translated" for American readers?

Reading Jim Crace's Harvest, I am confronted once again with the inexplicable practice of Americanizing British novels.
It is most disconcerting and jarring to be reading about quintessentially British things like "winter ales", "porridge", "tinkers" and "rooks", but juxtaposed with American spellings like "labor", "neighbor" and "traveler". I'm sure that's not how Jim Crace would have written it, so some American editor or publisher has taken it upon themselves to "translate" the story for an American readership.
Worse, that American translation is also foisted on us in Canada (despite the fact that Canadians typically use more British spellings than American). The book I am reading, with its American spellings, is published by Hamish Hamilton, the Canadian arm of the British publishing house, now part of Penguin Canada: it is not an American book that has found its way into a Toronto second-hand book store.
So, why do they do that? Why go to the trouble? Are American readers really not able to deal with a word like "labour", and make the link with the more familiar "labor"? Do they really need "car park" to be rendered as "parking lot", and "lavatory" as "bathroom"? It remains a mystery to me, and I have never seen a good justification for it.
It also make me wonder what else has been changed in the text I am reading. Other blogs have catalogued some of the enormities that have been enacted in the interests of American cultural imperialism. Harry Potter fans, in their usual obsessive way, have exhaustively documented changes made between the British and US editions in the Harry Potter Lexicon (remember the furore when "Philosopher's Stone" was changed to "Sorceror's Stone").
Surely, it's not too much to ask that we get to read to what the author actually wrote, and not what some publisher thinks we should read.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bitcoin's carbon footprint rises inexorably

As the bitcoin continues to lurch to ever more unsustainable record highs, one other unexpected implication has come to light.
I'm sure that no-one ever even considered the eventuality, but, as more and more bitcoins are created, the difficulty rate of the token-generating computer calculations increases dramatically, and, as a result, so does the electricity usage of the process, to the extent that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are becoming wildly expensive to produce, and their carbon footprint are also going through the roof.
Bitcoin "mining" requires the linking together of literally thousands of computers. Estimates of the amount of electricity used in bitcoin mining put it in the region of the equivalent of 3 million US homes, or the consumption of the entire population of Denmark or Ireland (other estimates are significantly lower). And it is increasing rapidly, about 30% inthe last month alone according to one blockchain analyst from PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Given that about 58% of the world's large cryptocurrency mining pools are currently in China (followed by the USA with just 16%), and that China still gets 60% of its electricity from coal (although that is changing), the carbon footprint of bitcoin is huge. The PwC analyst mentioned above cautions that, "If we start using this on a global scale, it will kill the planet", which seems unduly alarmist. But one thing is for sure: it is certainly getting more and more expensive to produce cryptocurrencies, as the energy use of the process continues to rise.

US abandonment of net neutrality could affect Canada too

The Grinch-like Donald Trump continues in his crusade to pick apart civilization as we know it with his latest wheeze: the deregulation of the American internet structure and the abandonment of the principle of "net neutrality".
As you will probably have heard by now, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the body that regulates American phone, television and internet companies, has dropped the net neutrality protections introduced by the Obama administration, thus technically allowing big telecom companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to slow down or even block entirely services and websites they don't like, or that they want business concessions from. So, they could, for example, charge more for premium access to popular sites like Netflix, Amazon, etc, or they could give preference to their own products and services.
The telecom companies are expected to play nice for a while at least, so as not to alienate their customer base straight away. Plus, they will probably want to wait and see what comes of the various legal challenges that will inevitably be levelled at the policy. But, some people see the internet in America ending up with tiered service like the cable TV system. Most stakeholders orher than the Republican Party and the telecommunications companies themselves think it was a BAD IDEA.
So, how will all this affect us here in Canada? Typically, when America sneezes, Canada gets a cold (or sometimes pneumonia), but the general consensus seems to be that Canadian access to the internet will not be affected much at all by the move. Net neutrality is well protected in law here, and support for it is strong, even among the big telecom companies. Where things get a little messy, though, is in the fact that Canadian internet traffic often transits through the USA, and there are some concerns that Canada's access to the internet could get caught in the American non-neutral policies that way. This is largely unexplored territory, and it is not at all clear just how far the fallout may reach.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Electric cars now cheaper overall than gas or diesel cars

New research suggests that electric cars are now cheaper overall to buy and run than gas cars and hybrids.
The study looked at cars in the UK, Japan, Texas and California, over a 4 year life, taking into account the purchase price (after any available discounts and rebates), depreciation, fuel, insurance, taxation and maintenance. Pure electric cars came out cheapest overall, although mainly as a result of government support and subsidies. It is expected, though, that they will be cheaper even without subsidies in a very few years, if production is scaled up as expected.
Hybrids, which generally attract lower subsidies, turned out to be more expensive than gas or diesel cars over 4 years, and plug-in hybrids even more so.
Just one more reason to go electric.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Inuit don't actually have hundreds of words for snow

The latest Grammar Girl blog post looks at a commonly-encountered urban myth, namely that the Inuit - or, as they are often referred to, even these days, the "Eskimos" - have 50 (or 100, or even 400!) different words for snow, and so, by implication, can conceive of snow in ways that we English speakers cannot even begin to imagine.
It is a fun conceit, and one that is reflected in a bunch of similar claims, such as that Australians have many words for sand, a particular Philippino tribe has many words for rice, etc, etc, claims that are now bundled under the label "snowclones". But, unfortunately, like those other claims, and like similar popular assertions, such as the one that the Hopi natives of southwestern American have no word for the concept of "time", it's just not true.
The idea seems to have been started by the popular by the American amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf back in the 1940s, but his claim was only that the "Eskimos" had several words for snow. (Mr. Whorf was also responsible for the erroneous Hopi time claim). The contention began to be repeated and exaggerated in a bunch of popular anthropology books in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the assertion, and many other similar ones that have arisen, have been comprehensively debunked by several modern linguists, but the compelling and vaguely romantic idea nevertheless persists in the popular imagination.
Part of the reason the myth has arisen is the fact that there is no single language used among the native people of the Arctic. There are two main languages, Inuit and Yupik, but those languages also have multiple dialects. Thus, several different words exist for most things, not just snow, in much the same way as there are many different (and often linguistically related) words for "king", "wood", etc, in the various languages of Europe, or the native peoples of the Amazon.
Another part of the reason for the confusion is the agglutinative nature of the Inuit language - like German, Japanese, Esperanto and many other languages - so that quite complex phrases in English may be rendered in a single word in Inuit. Thus, the West Greenlandic word for sea ice, siku, is incorporated into their word for pack ice (sikursuit), new ice (sikuliaq), thin ice (sikuaq), melting ice (sikurluk), etc. So, the same concepts exist in English, but require more than one word to express them, simply due to the characteristics of the language itself.
Add to that the fact that the inuit and Yupik languages are highly inflectional (in English, for example, "looked", "looking", "looks", etc, are all inflections of the base word "look"). One linguist estimates that a noun in Yupik can have up to 280 inflections, but they are not really different words.
So, you can easily see how the idea might have developed, even if Mr. Whorf himself did not make such wild claims. But, however much you might like it to be true, the native people of the Arctic don't actually have many more words for snow than do other languages. Sorry.

Friday, December 01, 2017

More nuggets from the 2016 Canadian census

More interesting factoids are coming to light from the 2016 Canadian census. Call me a geek, but I am a bit of  sucker for statistics, esp3cially when it comes with pretty graphs and diagrams.
Canadians in their core working years, defined by the census as between the ages of 25 and 54, has shown a marked doward trend in year-round full-time work over the last 15 or 20 years, particularly among men, suggesting a move towards seasonal or part-time work. The percentage of seniors in full-time and particularly part-time employment has continued to rise over the same period.
Another interesting graph shoes the gender pay gap for graduates, broken down by field of study. The gap is smallest (over 95c to the dollar earned by men) in nursing, engineering and the humanities, closely followed by biological sciences, arts, education, computer science and healthcare (all over 90c to the dollar).
Some 54% of Canadians 25 to 64 years old have a college or university degree, higher than Britain and the USA (46%), and substantially higher than the OECD average (less than 37%). Shockingly, Italy and Mexico are languishing at 18% and 17% respectively. Now, I am not entirely certain whether or not this is comparing apples with apples, but that seems like a very significant spread. Immigrants in Canada, particularly recent immigrants, are much more likely to have a bachelors degree or master's degree than the Canadian born population (over twice as likely for recent immigrants), so that is one easy way of bumping up out stats right there.
One rather depressing stat shows how workers commute to their place of work. 74% of them drive, with only 12% of them taking public transit, 7% walk or bike, and 5% travel as car passengers (car-share). However, this relates to Canada as a whole, both rural and urban, and will probably not be representative of a city like Toronto, for example. Average one-way commutes show, unsurprisingly, Toronto as the worst city (at 35 minutes), followed by Oshawa, Barrie, Montreal, Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton.
Anyway, I thought it was interesting...

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Strange character accent choices in The Game of Thrones

I don't often frequent the media and entertainment website Mashable, but I was quite interested in an article on the various English accents in the TV adaptation of The Game of Thrones (I say that advisedly, lest we forget that there was actually a series of books too at one time).
The most prominent accent in the series as a whole is the gritty, down-to-earth, northern tones of Yorkshire. This is the accent employed by Ned and Robb Stark and Jon Snow (perhaps as close to the "good guys" as The Game of Thrones gets), by Robert Baratheon, Theon Greyjoy, Bronn, and pretty much all the northern lords, as well as Mance Rayder, Ygritte and the other wildlings. However, although Sean Bean (who plays Ned) and Mark Addy (who plays Robert) are native Yorkshiremen, most of the others sporting the accent are not: Richard Madden (who plays Robb) is Scottish, Alfie Allen (who plays Theon) is a Londoner, Kit Harrington (who plays Jon) is a posh Londoner, Jerome Flynn (who plays Bronn) is from the southern county of Kent, and Rose Leslie (who plays Ygritte) is Scottish but speaks naturally with a posh English accent. It's a credit to the series' actors and language coaches that I, who was brought up about 10 miles from the Yorkshire border, had no idea that they were not "real" Yorkshire dudes. Indeed, I remember being impressed that they had found so many native Yorkshire speakers for the series!
The "posh" English accent - otherwise known as "received pronunciation", "BBC English", or "the Queen's English" - is mainly reserved for the arrogant and aristocratic Lannisters (Cersei, Joffrey and Tywin) and the equally aristocratic Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen, but also Brienne of Tarth, Gendry, Varys, and, perhaps strangely, the Stark women, Catelyn, Sansa and Arya, as well as the younger, less-macho Stark boys, Bran and Rickon, all of whom clearly take after Catelyn's social-climbing side of the family, not Ned's. There is perhaps a trace of northern-ness to the Starks' posh, as opposed to unadulterelated posh of the Lannisters: Michelle Fairley (who plays Catelyn) is actually Irish, Maisie Williams (who plays Arya) is originally from the West Country, and Sophie Turner (who plays Sansa) is a Midlands girl.
Interestingly, other than a bunch of soldiers and guards who serve merely as cannon-fodder in the series, the only Cockney among the main(-ish) characters is Stannis Baratheon, although I must confess I don't remember it being that obvious. Stephen Dillane (who plays Stannis) naturally has a very posh English accent, so why someone decided he should add in a Cockney twang is a mystery. Likewise, the only Geordie in the series is Ser Davos Seaworth, who is played by Liam Cunningham, an Irishman (although I have to say he does a very convincing job with the Geordie accent). Were these casting decisions, directorial decisions, or just no decision at all (random)?
Several characters, mainly those from Essos and the more distant, "foreign", regions of Westeros like Dorne, have what might be described as "vaguely Mediterranean" accents, perhaps designed to indicate a generalized "foreignness". This includes Melisandre the Red Lady (who is actually played by Dutch actor Carice van Houten), and Syrio Forel (played by British-born Greek-Cypriot Miltos Yerolemou).
The only outliers among the Lannisters, both in terms of accent and character, are Jaime and Tyrion. Jaime is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who hails from Denmark. Like many Danes, he has a ridiculously good English accent, but it is noticeably not a Lannister accent, and that may be deliberate, to separate him a little from the stain of malice and evil that marks most Lannisters. Tyrion is played by Peter Dinklage, who gets all the best dwarf parts these days, and does a pretty good job with them, it must be said. Dinklage is American, though, and his super-aristocratic accent comes over as almost a parody and, as the Mashable writer points out, prone to wander a little.
The other actor with a wandering accent is Irishman Aidan Gillen, who plays the devious Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, whose on-screen accent can be anywhere from Cockney to Welsh to mild Irish, depending on the scene. Why was he instructed to speak with anything other than his natural Irish lilt, which would have suited his character perfectly?
So, there are definitely some interesting casting and directorial choices. But, when push comes to shove, I'm not sure that the characters' accents are that important to the series. The mish-mash of different strong accents is probably more confusing to North Americans than it is to Brits, who are more used to coming across different and/or displaced regional accents. I have a suspicion that many North Americans are probably looking for deep meaning and significance in the accents used, meaning that is not even there.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

LGBTQ2? QUILTBAG? A quick guide to politically correct initialisms

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to make a historic apology later today to all those who have been discriminated against due to their gender and/or sexuality, you might, like me, need a little clarification on some of the labels being bandied around. LGBT is a common one, LGBTQ just about as common, but LGBTQ2 appears to be an increasingly-used all-inclusive version. There are also versions like LGBTQI (where I is for Intersex), LGBTQIA (where A is for sexual), and many others. One group even uses the rather unwieldy LGBTTQQIAAP, but let's not go there...
So, what does it all actually mean?
L for Lesbian and G for Gay are easy and pretty well-understood by all. Except ... isn't a lesbian just a gay woman? Why the need for a separate word? A bit of research suggests that lesbians (or gay women) really don't mind being called one or the other, and the minority that does have a preference are not actually offended in any way by the alternative. So, yes, we could probably dispense with the L. B is for Bisexual, but probably not for Bi-gender, which comes more under the heading of transgender (see below). So, L, G and B (LGB is, historically, the oldest initialism) are all about sexual attraction, or sexual orientation, as it is usually termed.
T, though, is for Tricky, because it is normally considered to stand for Transgender, but it could equally stand for Transsexual, Transvestite, and probably any number of other variants. These are not the same thing at all: transgender refers to people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, or brought up as; transsexual means transgender people who have undergone sex reassignment procedures, and have thus physically changed their gender; transvestite is a (usually) heterosexual male, who just enjoys dressing as a woman. The umbrella term trans or trans* covers (at least according to some): androgyne, agender, bigender, butch, CAFAB, CAMAB, cross-dresser, drag king, drag queen, femme, FTM, gender creative, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, gender variant, MTF, pangender, questioning, trans, trans man, trans woman, transfeminine, transgender, transmasculine, transsexual, and two-spirit. Phew!
Then things get really complicated with Q for Queer. I always thought that queer just meant "all of the above", i.e. anyone other than the straight, boring, heterosexual, traditional types. And in a way it does. It is another umbrella term, referring to anyone who is not heterosexual or cisgender (i.e. accepting of the gender identity assigned at birth), and it is an in-group term reclaimed from its previously pejorative meaning. Q, though, can also stand for Questioning, i.e. those still in the process of exploring their gender or sexuality. So, does Q add anything to the L, G, B and T that went before. Maybe, at least in its "questioning" guise, but maybe also in its "queer" meaning: some would argue that queer is a broader and deliberately ambiguous alternative to LGBT.
And what about that 2? 2 stands for Two-Spirit, a term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain individuals who fulfill a traditional "third gender" role within some Native American cultures. It is not necessarily equivalent to "LGBT native" (or, worse, "gay Indian"): it is properly used in a sacred, spiritual or ceremonial context. But it is pretty obscure and abstruse, and I would have thought that including it along with LGBTQ is perhaps taking inclusivity a little far. After all, there is a separate designation for the traditional Hindu transvestites, who are known as hijras - should we then include an H in the list?
I don't know, it all seems like a lot of pigeonholing to me, something I would have thought that sexual and gender minorities would prefer to avoid. Hell, there are even comprehensive online glossaries out there, to help you pigeonhole yourself with ever greater accuracy. But I'm not really sure what useful purpose they serve.
As for initialisms, personally I quite like QUILTBAG (queer/questioning intersex lesbian trans/two-spirit bisexual asexual/allied gay/genderqueer), as it at least has a bit of character and shows some evidence of a sense of humour. Apparently, it is accumulating quite a following online. Me, I will probably stick to the good old-fashioned LGBT. Or possibly LGBTQ if I am feeling particularly inclusive.

More Tory smoke and mirrors, with the welcome addition of a carbon tax

In a rather cynical exercise in sleight of hand, Patrick Brown and the Ontario Conservatives have issued a "People's Guarantee", after their latest party conference, and in preparation for next year's provincial election.
In it, Brown, who is still struggling with issues of name recognition and public perception, vows that, if he is elected and then doesn't deliver on his five main platform promises, then he will not stand again for a second term. Well, thanks for that, Patrick, but frankly you would be unlikely to be re-elected anyway, so it's a bit of a redundant guarantee.
The Conservatives are promising the moon - tax cuts for the middle class, spending increases in transit and mental healthcare, an even bigger subsidy for electricity prices than the Liberals are currently inadvisably proposing, and a few sweeteners for special interests, along with no apparent reductions in services - which just doesn't add up fiscally, until you take into account the huge increase in the provincial debt it would necessarily entail, and the fact that in future years we will all be paying more in taxes for it.
Interestingly, though, part of the funding for all these promises, albeit a relatively small part, is to come from abandoning Ontario's cap-and-trade commitments, instituted by the current Liberal administration, in favour of a simple carbon tax. Brown has been attacked by the traditionalist wing of his party for his espousal of a carbon tax of any sort, but this move appears to be part of his attempt to appeal to everyone, to be all things to all people. It's also an indication of just how clustered in the middle Ontario politics is these days. But what's interesting is that I find myself supporting the substitution of a carbon tax for the current cap-and-trade system (which is a very complex, opaque and difficult-to-understand system, open to abuse and pressure from lobbyists, and unlikely to lead to changes in people's energy use behaviours). Now, it's not enough to make me vote Tory - heaven forfend! - but it would be nice to see the other parties respond in kind.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Faith in faith has no place in sports

Well, who knew? It has been brought to my attention that Canadian Football League (CFL) teams have their own designated chaplains, employed to impart spiritual succour to those big rough, tough bruisers, before and after they knock the crap out of each other on the gridiron.
It's the kind of thing I can imagine happening in the States, where they are much more into that kind of thing, but I am shocked - shocked I tell you! - that it goes on in relatively secular Canada. Apparently, all CFL teams have them, and even some hockey teams.
A bunch of players sit, or kneel, around in prayer circles before a game, and a chaplain intones a prayer and some kind of spiritual pep talk (although they insist that they are not actually praying to God for a win). Many of the players will also engage in a post-game huddle as well, often with members of the opposition team they have just finished mauling, which is even more bizarre. Apparently, people of different faiths are welcome to participate, although I don't imagine there is much demand for Hindu or Muslim prayers. The chaplains also act as counsellors, even though most professional teams will also have a team psychologist on the payroll.
Now, I know that many professional sportsmen are intensely superstitious, and they have their odd pre-game rituals and habits. For many, this manifests as a rushed sign of the cross, even though probably very few of them are actually Catholic, and for most it is almost certainly more of a nervous tic than an expression of a deeply-held inner faith. Most of the crucifixes being worn are fashion accoutrements and obligatory bling rather than objects of veneration.
But somehow I can't imagine European soccer players, many of whom come from countries and backgrounds which are intensely religious, gathering for mass prayer meetings before a game. I can only think that this is some kind of American tradition that has been passed down to Canada, rather like the playing of national anthems before a game (and don't get me started on THAT!) I don't have much faith in supertitions before a sports contest; I have even less faith in faith.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Real-life bio-hackers are trying to beat the medical establishment to cures

You can, if you are so inclined, watch Tristan Roberts inject an untested gene therapy into his own stomach fat, an event that was live-streamed on Facebook. You can also watch a live video feed of him receiving the news a few weeks later that the therapy has not worked, and the developer of the "therapy" quipping, "We didn't kill you!"
It's perhaps difficult to believe, but there are real live "bio-hackers" out there, willing to experiment on themselves. Sometimes they might do this for reasons of personal gain (some have tried to make themselves stronger, or to live longer, for example); some just want to push the development of new therapies and new drugs ahead faster than the usual glacial pace of mainstream regulated medical advances, in search of cures, and mainly in order to help others in a similar situation. Mr. Roberts' motivation was probably a combination of the two: he is 28-years old and HIV-positive, and stopped taking his anti-viral drugs a couple of years ago, partly because of the side effects, and partly because of the depressing prospect of having to take medications for the rest of his life. He is desperate for a cure. A self-confessed risk-taker, living on the fringes of mainstream society, he jumped at the chance to by-pass the medical system to take his own chances in search of a "moon-shot" cure.
The cocktail of plasmids Roberts injected himself with is designed to trigger production of the antibody N6, which in theory acts to neutralize the HIV virus, at least in lab conditions. The test was overseen by Aaron Traywick, head of a start-up company called Ascendance Biomedical. Traywick himself is not a scientist, and refers to himself as a "community organiser", although there are scientists among the team at Ascendance that developed the treatment.
Many others in the scientific community argue that these kinds of experiments are too amateurish and uncontrolled to yield meaningful results, even should they appear to work, and that the dangers of self-experimentation outweigh any benefits that might accrue. Epithets like "fringe", "risky", "frightening" and "delusional" have been directed towards them by otherwise circumspect scientist and bio-ethicists. This kind of bio-hacking is not technically illegal, although there are substantial legal grey areas around it.
After a rather alarming period in which his skin broke out in angry red bumps, and he became feverish and lost appetite, Mr. Roberts' symptoms subsided. When the blood test results came in, though (live on the internet, of course), his viral load was seen to have increased, not plummeted as had been hoped. The experiment appeared to have failed. That was the point when Traywick mumbled, " More data is necessary ...  we didn't kill you". Roberts himself limited his response to, "I'm a little bit let down ... It's hard".
Ascendance Biomedical will be trying a second attempt, with many times the number of plasmids, and Tristan Roberts will, once again, be the guinea pig. He remains confident in the process and the eventual success of the therapy, and he still refuses to take his anti-virals. In the meantime, official human trials of N6 injections will proceed as planned in early 2018. Slow, but perhaps more sure.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wanted: bilingual indigenous female western judge for Supreme Court duties

With the imminent retirement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has two big decision to make by December 15th, decisions that will affect the administration of justice in this country for years to come. He needs to appoint a new judge to replace Justice McLachlin on the 9-person top court, and he also need to appoint someone to take over her role as Chief Justice.
Trudeau doesn't necessarily need to steer the court in a "liberal direction" - even Stephen Harper's appointees were relatively liberal in their outlook (as he found to his own chagrin), and Canadian judges tend to be much less political than American ones. But the Prime Minister is hamstrung and constrained by decades of precedent, tradition and convention.
Traditionally, the court has to have three members from Quebec, three from Ontario, one from Atlantic Canada and two from the West (of which one should really be from British Columbia). Note that this is just a tradition, not a legal requirement, presumably roughly based on populations at the date of confederation. If it were to be based on the relative provincial populations today, the regional representation would be more like: four from Ontario, two from Quebec, one from British Columbia, one from Alberta, and half each from the prairie provinces and the Atlantic provinces (meaning, presumably, an alternating arrangement). But Mr. Trudeau tampers with tradition at his own political risk, and he is under a lot of pressure to appoint a Westerner, preferably from British Columbia (which is where the retiring Ms. McLachlin is from). Added to that, the appointee should be female, to maintain the approximate gender balance of the court (four women and five men), and she should be functionally bilingual or at least fluent in French, because Canada has two official languages. You can see that the pool of eligible candidates is already starting to look smaller and smaller.
Then there is also pressure to appoint an indigenous judge, something Canada has never seen, and that really dries up the pool. There is no convention that dictates this pressure, but Mr. Trudeau clearly sees himself as a champion of indigenous rights, and this would be a perfect opportunity to earn some serious Brownie points on the issue. Highly qualified indigenous candidates, though, are few and far between. Two or three possible names have been put forward: John Borrows, who is a member of Ontario's Chippewa First Nation, although he has lived and worked in BC for some years (he has spent the last year learning French on a sabbatical in Quebec, but is definitely not bilingual, and definitely not female); Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who comes from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, but has worked in BC for the last ten years, although not as a practising judge but as a Representative for Children and Youth (she is bilingual, and is definitely female); and Todd Ducharme, who is a Métis Ontario Superior Court justice, but has worked in all three Territories, and who is considered an outsider in the race.
None of the candidates tick all of the boxes, so somebody somewhere is going to have their nose put out of joint, and there will be complaints from some quarters whatever Mr. Trudeau decides.
As for appointing a new Chief Justice, these are usually chosen from the remaining sitting justice of the Court, but again convention comes in to play: Chief Justices almost always alternate between a judge from Quebec and one from the rest of the country. So, in theory, it should be a Quebecker this time, although the Prime Minister's father Pierre Trudeau did dare to make an exception to that rule some thirty-odd years ago. Ms. McLachlin is well-loved and respected, and is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone.
Tricky decisions, and Mr. Trudeau cannot fail but offend someone somewhere. And almost nowhere in these considerations does the requirement for the best and most experienced candidate appear. Convention and tradition appears to trump all.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Should we throw out the good art with the bad artists?

Globe and Mail arts critic Russell Smith, always an interesting and challenging commentator, has produced a particularly brave and provocative piece in today's paper.
In it, he asks whether we should ignore or shun works of arts - be they in the sphere of film, literature, painting or indeed any artistic field of endeavour - just because the creative force behind it was criminal, immoral, offensive, or just plain politically incorrect. It's a perennial thorny problem, but all the more pertinent in recent days with the ongoing revelations of the sexual assaults and inappropriate habits of filmmakers, media personalities and prominent sportsmen. Smith, though, holds nothing back, and comes out swinging.
He begins by asking whether we should blacklist the sublime work of Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini on the grounds that the artist was a double murderer and probably a rapist. What about Caravaggio (also a murderer)? Egon Schiele (abuser of teenage girls), Marquis de Sade (rapist), Ezra Pound (anti-Semite), Martin Heidegger (Nazi sympathiser), etc, etc? Should Adolf Hitler's youthful watercolour paintings be destroyed? What, then, about art by more or less good people on unpalatable subjects, like some of the films of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, uncomfortable books like Nabokov's Lolita, or the performance art of Zhu Yu, who photographed himself eating what is purportedly a human fetus?
Does it make a difference if the artist gains financially from his or her art? We then get into the realm of filmmakers with checkered pasts like Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al. Some of these people will probably never make a film again (although some seem to perennially escape public censure). But should their back catalogue be destroyed as well? Should they effectively be erased from history?
Russell Smith takes the outspoken view that art is completely divorced from the personal life of the artist. Indeed, he goes further to say that he actively seeks out art by bad boys. He argues that we should be curious to see how beauty is perceived by a violent person, and that great art is often about badness, at least in part. He further asserts that, by "consuming" art, we are not necessarily perpetuating the ideas behind it, or validating the beliefs of the individuals who created it. He positively expects that good art be about moral danger, that art should be troubling and uncomfortable, even unpleasant, that it is there to challenge the viewer, not just to be "enjoyed".
This is probably an extreme, purist view of the sanctity of Art-with-a-capital-A, and I'm not even sure that I subscribe to it. But kudos to Smith for having the cojones to publicly espouse it, particularly in the current charged environment.

Is the word "marijuana" racist?

I was at a talk recently on the purported beneficial effects of medical marijuana for Parkinson's Disease sufferers. It was an interesting enough exposition of the various products available, how to obtain them here in Ontario, and what benefits there may be for PD sufferers (not much, it seems, unless you have a good deal of pain, cramps, or severe sleep problems).
But what really struck me was the speaker's branding of the name "marijuana" as "racially charged" and to be avoided, in preference for "cannabis". She effectively said that we were being racist to use the word "marijuana", which made no sense to me. Since then, a Hamilton councillor has publicly vowed to stop using the word marijuana because of its race connotations, creating something of a firestorm of comments on the subject.
Now, the plant has any number of common labels (pot, weed, dope, ganja, hemp, herb, hashish, reefer, bud, etc, etc), and I had always assumed that marijuana and cannabis were just two more such labels, albeit slightly more "official", correct or formal ones. Well, it turns out there is a whole lot of rather unsavoury history behind the use of the word "marijuana", which does not apply to the word "cannabis".
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the plant (and its various derivatives) was almost exclusively referred to in North America as cannabis (which is the proper Latin name of the genus, the most common species being Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis), or sometimes hemp (after its popular industrial use). After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, up to a million Mexican immigrants and refugees flooded north, leading to a good deal of hostility, discrimination and prejudice among the locals, and the Mexican peasants' drug of choice, at least at this time, was cannabis, rather than the more socially-acceptable American drug of alcohol.
Some of the more Machiavellian American lawmakers and organs of the press, made use of the widespread dislike and fear of the incoming Mexicans by exaggerating their iniquities and dangers, and also by conflating the Mexican crime-wave with their pot-smoking habits. The idea was to use the Hispanic label marijuana or marihuana to demonize Mexicans, and to underscore that the dangerous habit of smoking marijuana was a Latino, even a specifically Mexican, vice. Sensationalist stories of pot-crazed Mexicans carrying out horrific crimes abounded in the early decades of the 20th century, peaking during the prohibition mentality of the 1920s and 1930s. A 1925 New York Times headline was typical: "Mexican, crazed by marihuana, runs amuck with butcher knife". Interestingly, such accounts were also quite common in Mexico, where there was also a prohibition movement around this time.
It's not even entirely clear where the Mexican word marihuana came from in the first place (the spellings marihuana and mariguana were used interchangeably, and it was only later that the word was Anglicized - or perhaps "Spanishized" - to "marijuana" in America). The plant was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, but mainly for use as hemp and not for its drug properties. It has been cultivated all over the world, though, and there are at least three theories about where the name marihuana came from: the Chinese phrase for cannabis, ma ren hua; the African Bantu word for the same plant, makaña; and the colloquial Spanish word for "Chinese oregano", mejorana. Take your pick.
Particularly important in the trend for using "marihuana/marijuana" as a pejorative term in America was Henry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was a zealot on a crusade to ban any and all intoxicants, from alcohol to cocaine to opium to cannabis. He used his 1937 congressional hearing testimony to establish the largely spurious connection between cannabis and crime, and to popularize the use of the Spanish label marihuana to refer to this Mexican "killer weed". At one point, he stated, rather disingenuously, "We seem to have adopted the Mexican terminology, and we call it marihuana", thus helping to associate this name with the plant's recreational use (as opposed to its medical or industrial applications), and particularly to its criminal Mexican reputation. He went on to link poor black people, jazz musicians, prostitutes and the criminal underworld, among whom cannabis was also a popular recreational drug: "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use ... this marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others". And, just for good measure, here is another gem from Anslinger: "Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men … the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races." Ouch!
Whatever its history, marijuana remains one of the most universally recognized and used term for the herb in the English-speaking world. Its history is clearly seeped in race and iffy politics to some extent. But is not in itself a racist term, and, moreover, the label predates this embarassing episode in American racist propaganda. It is merely the latest example of the politically correct language revisionism that is currently going on in Canada (see the article on UoT's attempts to ban the word "master" for another such example), a trend that I confess I am not entirely comfortable with. Do we need to start saying "the M-word"? Are Mexicans and blacks now the only people who can say "marijuana" in polite society? Aren't we over this by now, and hasn't the word lost its prejudiced bite?
Now, I am not black or Latino, and I know that I have had a very different life experience. But I have at least tried to put myself - hypothetically, of course - in their position, and I'm afraid I still don't see such things as that important in the scheme of things. Maybe I'm just insensitive, or maybe I have just signally failed to put myself in a black person's position, to see things more from their perspective. I don't know. It just seems to me that there are much more important things we should all be doing and thinking about to combat systemic racism than these kinds of diversions.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Loblaws signs up for Tesla electric delivery trucks

Good old Loblaws is doing its bit and ordering 25 of Tesla's new Semi all-electric delivery trucks, even though they are not even expected to start shipping until 2019 at the earliest, and the final price tag is still not clear.
I have always wondered why so little attention has been paid to making trucks more efficient and climate-friendly, when so much progress is being made in the field of electric cars. Not many people are aware of it, but delivery and freight trucks generate a surprising (and increasing) proportion of our greenhouse gases, almost as much as cars. It is rare to even hear mention of it, but Tesla, perhaps predictably enough, seem to be on top of the problem.
The Tesla Semi truck promises to save companies a substantial amount of money in the long run, even if the initial price will almost certainly be high. However, at this point, we only have Tesla's word to go on. The truck will have a 500 mile range, and it will boast faster acceleration, a much lower drag coefficient, a lower centre of gravity to avoid the risks of rollover and jacknifing, go much further without breaking down, and make much less noise, than conventional diesel trucks. Tesla has also tweaked the whole design of a truck, making them easier to get in and out of, allowing the driver to stand fully in the cab if needed, centring the driver's seat in the cab (there is a removable jump seat if needed), and adding in a whole host of fleet management, trip logging and routing tools, as well as not one but two touch screens. Indeed, they seem to have thought of just about everything, and its specs are impressive. It even looks cool.
Loblaws is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps in ordering the trucks - Wal-Mart has already ordered 15 as a trial - and all credit to them. Like Wal-Mart, Loblaws has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plan, and it hopes to have a fleet of at least 350 electric trucks operational by 2030. Go, Loblaws!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Carding? Street check? Well-being check? Racial profiling? Who knows?

Matthew Green, Hamilton's lone black councillor is kicking up a fuss after being questioned by the police while waiting for a bus in the city's downtown. Mr. Green sees the exchange as an example of racial profiling or "carding". The police are claiming that it was just a regular "well-being check", a regular and necessary part of normal policing.
The police officer in question is being charged with "discreditable conduct" under the Police Services Act, for conducting an "arbitrary or unjustified" street check against Mr. Green. It is alleged that the questioning was aggressive (at least until Mr. Green mentioned that he was a city councillor), and that he felt "psychologically detained" by the exchange. The lawyer acting on behalf of the police officer points out that the officer was in his cruiser, some 8-12 metres away, and that he thought Mr. Green appeared suspicious, standing as he was in a puddle of mud near a judge and near a group home. Mr. Green counters that he was just checking emails and waiting for a bus.
There are clearly some issues of fact to be sorted out here. But all sides will be watching the case closely for its implications on the difference between a street check and a well-being check, and on how the new Ontario regulations on street checks (introduced earlier this year) are being implemented.
Between 11% and 14% of street checks in Hamilton are done on black people, a demographic which makes up just 3% of the population, proof, activists claim, that racial profiling is still rampant. Similar stats and similar claims are regularly quoted elsewhere too. But I always wonder, when I see such assertions, what are the relevant percentages for the numbers of people hanging around on street corners at 2 o'clock in the morning? Now, I'm not saying that black people are specifically disposed to al fresco inner city nocturnal assemblies - although they may well be (or not) for all my paltry experience of urban nightlife goes - and neither am I saying that all black people are criminals. But the police obviously tend to focus on times and places where experience tells them that crimes are often committed.
Don't get me wrong: the Hamilton incident occurred in late afternoon, not at 2 o'clock in the morning. But I've no reason to believe, perhaps in my naivety, that the Hamilton police officer would not also have challenged a white guy in the same situation.

Many months later, and two years after the actual incident, the police officer has been officially exonerated, and the judge has ruled that he was not guilty of discreditable conduct, that his actions were not arbitrary or racist, and that he acted correctly in the circumstances.

How "terrific" came to mean "terrific"

I've often wondered why the word "terrific" came to mean something good. "Horrific" still retains its original (unfavourable) meaning, as does "terrible". Why, then, has "terrific" come to mean "great" or "wonderful"?
Back in the day, "terrific" did in fact mean "frightening" or "terror-inducing", similar to "terrible". It was first used as such in the mid-17th century - it appears in Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667 - and was occasionally still used in this original context into the early 20th century.
In the 19th century, though, its meaning began to gradually change, through a process of semantic shift or, more specifically, amelioration, where a previously bad word takes on a good connotation ("tremendous", "awesome", "luxury" and "wicked" are a few other examples). Thus, by the early 19th century, there was already evidence of "terrific" being used to mean "severe" (as in "a terrific headache") or "very great" (as in "a terrific thunderclap"). This probably arose out of poetic exaggeration or hyperbole (i.e. so painful or so loud that it was actually terror-inducing). Gradually, it came to be used, by the 1870s and 1880s, to indicate intensity in general, and to be applied to positive experiences like "terrific beauty" or "terrific joy". From there, it is not such a great leap to its modern-day meaning.
All part of the terrific (in all its senses) English language.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Are you one of the Canadian 1%?

Statistics Canada has just released new data on what it takes to be considered part of the 1% in Canada.
The threshold for 1%-dom in 2015 was earnings of $234,700, up from $227,100 in 2014. There were 270,925 such individuals in Canada (the biggest increases over the previous year coming in Ontario and British Columbia). If you are interested in being part of the 0.1% Club, you would need to earn $826,800, and there were 27,095 others in the club. Aiming for the 0.01%, the top 10,000th of earners? The threshold was $3,636,000 in 2015, and you would be in the rarefied company of 2,710 other tax filers.
Well, all of this puts me well away from danger of being a 1%-er in wealthy Canada, although I am probably still a 1%-er worldwide (at least in terms of accumulated wealth, rather than annual earnings), which is a much lower hurdle, and has cheaper club fees.
The other interesting factoid coming out of the StatsCan data is that the top 1%'s earnings as a share of Canadian national total income actually took a little hop in 2015, to 11.2%, after remaining stable for a few years at just under 11%. To be fair, this was the last year of Stephen Harper's Conservative administration, and it is to be hoped that, in the last couple of years under the Liberals, this has fallen. But we are still going to be a long way from the 7% levels of thirty years ago.

When is a coup not a coup?

When it is in accordance with the will of the people, perhaps? After 37 long years of chaotic, despotic and largely unpopular rule, 93-year old President Robert Mugabe is currently under house arrest by the Zimbabwe military. With the economy in tatters, unemployment and inflation rampant, and human rights violations a regular part of daily life, Zimbabwe has clearly limped along under Mugabe for far too long, and change is long overdue. But a coup?
Top army general Constantino Chiwenga and the military insist that this is not a coup, merely what some are describing as a "bloodless correction of gross abuse of power", and that they will soon return the country to "a dispensation that allows for investment, development and prosperity" (i.e. not necessarily democracy). But others have called this merely "putting lipstick on the pig": the President some of his senior ministers and possibly his wife, are all under arrest; military police and tanks are on the streets of Harare; the state television company has been seized - yes, it's a coup (albeit largely bloodless), whatever kind of a spin you like to put on it.
As far as can be discerned at this early point, the military have chosen this moment to act against a perennially unpopular and increasingly erratic leader mainly because Mugabe has been showing distinct signs that he intends for his wife, the equally disliked Grace Mugabe (disliked by both the people and the military), to take over the reigns of state. With this in mind, he recently dismissed his vice-president and once putative successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close ties to General Chiwenga and the military, on flimsy charges of plotting to overthrow him through witchcraft(!) This was just the latest of Mugabe's increasingly frequent crackdowns on political dissent, but the speculation in relation to this particular action was that he would then appoint his 52-year old wife as vice-president, with a view to grooming her for the leadership.
Thus is a once-admired liberation leader brought down: partly due to his own arrogance and hubris, and partly due to the machinations of his overly ambitious young wife. It's kind of like a Greek tragedy.
Mnangagwa is currently in hiding in South Africa, but it seems likely that he may well be installed as transitional leader, which will probably not help the country much: 75-year old Mnangagwa is a fellow veteran of Zimbabwe's war of independence, operated for years as Mugabe's spy chief, and has his own well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. He is also accused of masterminding various atrocities during the country's civil war, as well as attacks on opposition supporters.
Mnangagwa would probably be the closest thing to business-as-usual that the army can stomach. There is even a possibility that Mugabe himself can sweet-talk his way into staying in power, at least as a ceremonial figurehead if nothing more (he is currently reported to be in talks with the army over his future). There is technically an opposition party in Zimbabwe - the Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) was established in 1999 - and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai has come out swinging, calling for Mugabe to resign immediately. Tsvangirai was defeated by Mugabe in the 2013 elections, in a poll that, like many before it, was marred by violence and (largely unproven) allegations of rigging. Tsvangirai and war veteran leader Christopher Mutsvangwa have both just flown in from South Africa to insert themselves into the swirling chaos that is Zimbabwean politics.
So, coup? I guess so. But definitely a popular coup. At this point the people will take any change over more of Mugabe. Public dissent has been conspicuously absent, and there have even been celebrations and dancing in the streets of Harare - not the usual response to an army coup. Most people are just breathing a sigh of relief that Mugabe has been taken out of the equation (or has he? don't rule him out just yet). As with the Egyptian coup against Mohamed Morsi in 2013, it is a crying shame that democracy has to take a back seat to power politics. But sometimes, it seems, democracy needs just a little shove.

A week later, and Mugabe has finally resigned - to the delirious joy of most of the Zimbabwean population - and Mnangagwa has officially taken office in his place.
Known as "The Crocodile" for his heavy-lidded eyes and his sly and vicious working methods, Mnangagwa is another veteran from Zimbabwe's independence struggle, but, like Mugabe, he is not known as a big fan of democracy, and the beleaguered Zimbabweans could yet live to rue the development.

Iceland's recipe for teen success

Here's a fascinating glimpse into social engineering in one country. Twenty years ago, Iceland had a huge problem with underage drinking, smoking and drug-taking. Over the last 20 years, though, the country (and, in particular, its capital Reykjavik, where the vast majority of the country's population lives) has completely turned the situation around, and changed from Europe's worst to Europe's best. In 1998, 42% of 15-16 years old routinely got drunk; now that percentage is 5%.
So, how did they achieve this? Well, it's a pretty draconian recipe, but you have to admit it has been effective:
  • Firstly, they brought in a curfew whereby all children under 16 must be indoors by 10pm, a curfew that is often policed by voluntary groups of parents ranging the streets after dark.
  • Parents sign a pledge to control their children's drinking and to increase family time, and groups of parents get together to agree rules for their children's behaviour.
  • School children get a $500 voucher each year for after-school activities, particularly sports (one politician credited the program for Iceland's surprising soccer success as well as their international success in pop music).
  • All teens have to fill in a detailed Youth In Iceland survey every year, which covers aspects like their relations with their family, their feelings, and their habits, the results of which are reported back to the local communities and schools so that they can see what needs to be addressed. This evidence-based approach is seen as key to the program's success.
  • They got their politicians actively involved in the process, and took measures to fund the program effectively (for example, Reykjavik spends over $100 million a year on youth activities).
One parent joked, "we are a boring country", but you can see that the Icelandic people are actually pretty proud of what they have achieved. Now, 35 other cities across Europe are adopting programs based on the Icelandic experience to address their own teen problems. All in all quite impressive, although I really can't see it working in a city the size of Toronto.

How effective is mandatory sensitivity training for judges?

As yet more Canadian judges are being accused of a less than fair and sensitive approach to sexual assault cases, there are increasing calls for mandatory training in such cases for ALL judges, not just newly-appointed ones as is currently the case, and a bill is being introduced in the Ontario legislature to that effect.
I have to say, though, that I don't have much confidence that this kind of sensitivity training is likely to have much effect on the type of people we are talking about here. Just imagine a judge who is capable of suggesting that a victim should have kept her knees together or that she was probably flattered by the attentions of her attacker attending sensitivity training. At the very least, I can imagine a good deal of eye-rolling and yawning.
Sure, it can't do any harm, and it may be a reasonable first step, but don't expect it to change the philosophies of these dinosaurs overnight. Probably more effective is the kind of public shaming Justice Camp received after his bad behaviour. But then public shaming is not considered very politically correct either these days, is it?

Ontario still taking advantage of omnibus bills

The issue of omnibus bills raises its hoary head once again, this time in Ontario provincial politics. The ruling Liberals have introduced a bill that combines two entirely unrelated issues: a bill to clamp down on drivers illegally passing school buses, with new cannabis legislation.
Now, why would they do that? The Conservatives call it a "blatant and dishonest a use of the legislative process"; the Liberals counter that "this is just conspiracy thinking", claiming that it is merely a way of a getting a busy legislative agenda through to a final vote in an expedient manner.
I hate to say it, but I'm with the Conservatives on this. This kind of convenient bundling is inexcusable, and the Bill should be split up into its it's constituent parts so that each issue can be voted on independently. Or, at the very least, the speaker should have the power to split up voting in such combined bills, as is now the case at the federal level.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"So" - a little, annoying, but defensible word

So, the little word "so" is apparently becoming a bit of a bugbear for some people.
I refer to the use of the word "so" at the beginning of a sentence or explanation or story. I don't think anyone objects to its use within a sentence as a conjunction or "discourse connective" - along with words like "and", "or", "but", "because", etc. In this context, it means "therefore" or "with the result that" or "in order that". Neither are people objecting to its use as an adverb, meaning "to such a great extent". In these contexts, it is a terse and economical alternative to a much longer phrase.
What people are complaining about is the use of "so" at the start of a sentence, where it does not relate to anything that has gone before. In this context, it is known as a "discourse marker", other examples being "oh", "well", "now", "then", "you know" and "I mean", and it has to be admitted that they don't actually add anything to the substance of the sentence. They are a kind of conversational affectation, I suppose.
Now (see what I did there?), it has to be said that most of the people who are doing the complaining are Brits. I am aware that I use it quite a lot myself - me, who would never consent to intersperse extraneous "like"s into my conversation! - and when I visit family in England it has been commented upon. It is clearly something I have picked up in Canada, and I have noticed many times my friends and acquaintances here using it (and, I must confess, it has never particularly annoyed me).
I kind of see it as a way of marking the beginning of a story or explanation or personal narrative. It sets the stage for an extended conversational interlude or monologue or even a snippet of gossip. It gathers the attention of the other person(s), and it prepares them for a shift or a new topic in the conversation. "So" - shifts in position, leans forwards confidentially - "this is the way I see it..." So (in the conjunctional sense), you could say that it does serve a purpose of sorts. But equally, I have to admit, most times it could be omitted with nothing lost. I'm not convinced, though, that it really merits the complaints of an irate British public (c.f. "get a life").

Nine ways to save the world

15,364 eminent scientists have published an open letter to the world - the most scientists ever to co-sign a published journal article - in which they detail the things we need to attend to in order to avoid global catastrophe. What they suggest is simple and straightforward, and for the most part common sense. But it is nice to have it set out in such a clear and concise form, and we should sit up and take note (and, ideally, act upon in, with some sense of urgency).
So what are their nine calls to action?

  1. Control our fertility - limit our reproduction to "replacement value at most" (i.e. one or two kids per family).
  2. Eat better and waste less food - given the environmental impact of current food production, we should waste less and move towards "mostly plant-based foods".
  3. Buy green - we need to pay more attention to tbe overall environmental impact of everything we buy, not just food.
  4. Appreciate and engage with nature - this is particularly important for city dwellers, and should include outdoor nature education for children.
  5. Make our economies more equitable and environmentally aware - move to reduce wealth inequality and ensure that prices and taxation take into account all environmental externalities.
  6. Establish more nature reserves - to protect all animals in the sea and fresh water, in thr land and in the air, and make sire they are well-funded and well-managed.
  7. Stop wiping out whole ecosystems - like forests, grasslands and other native habitats, and work to re-wild some existing ones and to restore native plant communities.
  8. Stop wiping out animal species - avoid a sixth mass extinction by controlling poaching and the exploitation and trading of threatened species.
  9. Invest in and adopt green technologies - including renewable energy sources, and stop subsidizing older dirty technologies like coal, oil and gas.

Wise words to save a planet indeed. And, as I mentioned, simple and straightforward. But easy? Not so much.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Can we blame smartphones for our teen suicide epidemic?

We're currently going through something of an epidemic of teen suicides, and related symptoms. And the most likely reason might surprise you.
In the five short years between 2010 and 2015, the number of American teens who felt useless and joyless (classic symptoms of depression) spiked by 33%, teen suicide attempts increased by 23%, and teens between 13 and 18 years old who actually succeeded in committing suicide increased by 31%. This is affecting teens from every background, rich or poor, black or white, and in all geographical areas (this research is American, but I'm guessing that things are not dissimilar in any developed country).
So, what was causing such a drastic deterioration in teen mental health during a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment? Income inequality continued to rise during the period, but no more so than before. Academic pressures piled up on kids, but again this was nothing new , and teens spent hardly any more time on homework than they did before.
The study authors pinpointed the most likely cause on the boom in teen smartphone ownership among teens during this period. In 2015, 73% of teens owned and used a smartphone, up from less than 50% just three years earlier. So, the spike in teen depression and suicide is closely mirrored by the use of smartphones.
This is not in itself evidence of a causal link, but further research shows that the length of time that teens spent online was linked to mental health issue: teens who spent five or more hours a day online (and there are more than you might think!) were 71% more likely to exhibit at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan, and attempting suicide). Now, being cautious, this does still not prove causality. But the evidence does not stop there. Two studies have shown that social media uses causes unhappiness, but that there is no causal link the other way around (i.e. unhappiness does not lead to increased social media use), and another study showed how giving up Facebook for just a week resulted in fewer feelings of depression.
Maybe all of this still does not amount to bullet-proof evidence of causality, but it is all part of a mounting body of evidence. And it kind of makes intuitive sense: for teens, more smartphones = more time on social media = less time interacting face-to-face with real friends and acquaintances (social isolation is a known major risk factor for suicide, and face-to-face social interaction is well proven to be a source of happiness and emotional wellbeing). Add to this another equation - more cellphone time = less sleep = more depression - and the picture starts to make a whole lot of sense, even if the research is not definitive.
Of course, what can be done about the problem, if problem it is, is another matter entirely. The smartphone genie is well and
truly out of the bottle (the cat is out of the bag, the can of worms is opened, etc, etc).

Saudi Crown Prince taking his cues from the Trump family?

It seems to me no coincidence that Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia just days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent ill-advised and contentious moves at home, in Yemen and in Lebanon, moves that have alarmed the international community, and further destabilized an already rocky region.
The fiery and impulsive young 32-year old prince has clearly taken a hard line in Saudi Arabia's perennial war of influence against Iran. His role in cutting off already hard-pressed Yemen from the world, his probable involvement in the chastisement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and his recent purge of princes, officials, businessmen and military officers (involving the detention of over 200 people and the freezing of 1,200 bank accounts in a sweeping ""anti-corruption" probe), all seem pretty clear. And his headstrong, devil-may-care, act-first-think-later approach is so much like that of a certain American president is surely no coincidence.
Trump himself is, for reasons that remain vague to me, adamantly anti-Iran, and is, probably for that reason alone, doggedly pro-Saudi in all his pronouncements. He strongly endorsed the corruption crackdown on individuals who he accused of "milking" the regime for years. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, has been much more guarded in his comments.
It is looking as though the Prince has overreached himself, though, and he is now frantically backpedalling in the face of sharp criticism from human rights, humanitarian and aid agencies, from the United Nations as a whole, and even from the USA itself. Thus, al-Hariri is returning to Lebanon with a markedly more conciliatory tone than before being summoned to Riyadh; Yemen's shuttered airports and seaports are to be reopened; and Saudi Arabia's UN ambassador has promised that those arrested in the anti-corruption purge will be granted due legal process.
Perhaps the Saudis will take this as a wake-up call that a Trump-style approach is not necessarily advisable or acceptable, that the US administration is not just Trump (and Kushner) alone, and that they still need the goodwill of the international community not just a few American mavericks.
As for what Kushner and the other senior White House advisors who visited Riyadh recently actually talked about, well, like so many of these things, we'll probably never actually know. But Trump's modus operandi was all over the Crown Prince's cack-handed machinations of recent weeks.