Saturday, January 28, 2017

A week in politics, and I need therapy

I'm not sure that I should be giving Donald Trump the gratification of writing about him once again - I am already heartily sick of reading about his shenanigans day after day, and even recent Canadian news stories are almost all linked in some way to him, or to the Canadian reaction to him - but the public needs to be fully aware, if they are not already, of the enormity of the grand experiment the American electorate are currently embarked upon.
The BBC has done a good summary of the man's first week in office, and it is a scary thing to behold:
  • Day 1 - Trump is inaugurated as the 45th American president (and the only one to date with zero political or military experience) with an ominous and depressing speech about just how grim and dysfunctional modern America is ("American carnage", you know). Protests are held throughout the world and some of them turn violent. In his spare time, Trump signs an executive order calling on federal agencies to "ease the burden of Obamacare", although this is a largely symbolic move.
  • Day 2 - The protests and inauguration crowds of Day 1 are dwarfed by the hundreds of Women's Marches held worldwide, which attract literally millions of attendees. Trump, however, chooses to use his press conference at CIA headquarters to bluster (falsely) about how his inauguration crowds were the largest ever, and to denounce the lying press and their photographic evidence to the contrary.
  • Day 3 - Trump's counsellor Kellyanne Conway tries to defend Trump and his press secretary Sean Spicer, claiming that their crowd estimates were not lies but "alternative facts", thus giving birth to a whole internet meme. Meanwhile, Trump dismisses the mass protests of the previous day with a lame tweet.
  • Day 4 - The serious stuff starts as Trump promises American business leaders he will cut regulations by 75%, whatever that might mean. He then proceeds to pull the plug on years of multi-national TPP negotiations at a single stroke. He also signs another executive order banning US federal money from going to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions, the so-called "global gag order" that most Republican administrations reinstate each time after the previous Democratic administration repeals it. The photo of seven middle-aged guys ruling on women's reproductive rights goes viral. Trump also implements a hiring freeze on federal government workers on the basis that the federal workforce has expanded hugely in recent years, even though in reality it has been very steady for at least the last 12 years. A group of American ethics lawyers files a lawsuit alleging that Trump is violating constitutional law by not completely divesting his business interests like previous presidents (but don't hold your breath...) Busy day.
  • Day 5 - Two executive actions breathe new life into two moribund and controversial oil pipelines, Keystone XL and Dakota Access, both of which had been blocked by President Obama. The oil industry applauds, while the Standing Rock Sioux tribe continue their ongoing protest regardless, and environmentalists tut-tut "I told you so". Attack dog Sean Spicer resurrects Trump's claims (against all the evidence) that millions of illegal voters voted in the election, all of them apparently for Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Trump confirms that James Comey (the man considered by many to have been instrumental in Clinton's election loss) is to remain as Director of the FBI. He also orders a freeze on all new contracts and grants for, and a complete media blackout on, the Environmental Protection Agency, which he clearly doesn't like.
  • Day 6 - Trump confirms in another executive order that he was actually serious about that damned wall along the Mexican border. He also moves to withhold funds from so-called "sanctuary cities" (like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles and Boston) that protect undocumented migrants within their borders, although it is not quite clear how that might work in practice. And he reiterates that he is still a big fan of waterboarding torture, even if his Defence Secretary and CIA Director are not. An even more contentious draft executive order emerges later in the day calling for a 120-day block on all refugees from entering the USA, the complete suspension of the Syrian refugee program, and the cessation of visas for several Muslim-majority countries (so-called "Division O" countries, that "have tremendous terror", as Trump puts it, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian and Yemen), the justification being to protect America from terrorist attacks. A swift American Civil Liberties Union court case has already ruled against the 90-day barring of refugees and Muslim visa holders, which had left an estimated 100-200 being held at airports or in transit.
  • Day 7 - A planned meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is cancelled when Peña Nieto declines to pay for Trump's planned wall. Trump spokespeople change tack and say that the wall will be paid for by a 20% tax on Mexican imports, an idea that the Mexicans also, predictably, dismiss. British Prime Minster Theresa May, however, is happy to schmooze with Trump, blathering about the "special relationship" between the two countries that she clearly fondly remembers from her youth.
  • Day 8 - Trump "jokes" about severing that special relationship if the British press continue asking awkward questions about his stance on abortion, torture, etc. Rumours continue to swirl that Trump will lift sanctions against Russia. Two new executive orders are announced ordering new ships, planes, resources and tools for the military, and creating new vetting measures to combat radical Islamic terrorism.
Wow. It looks like some of Mr. Trump's most outrageous election promises might just be in the process of becoming reality, although it still remains to be seen whether he will actually be able to put some of these executive orders into practice (even executive actions cannot contravene existing laws, for example).
A week in politics is starting to feel like a lifetime.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Challenge to Brexit reveals the ugly side of Britain once again

If we think that things are looking ugly and depressing in post-election United States, things are not much better in post-Brexit Britain.
In particular, the reaction to one woman's legal challenge to Brexit is sobering indeed. Lawyer and investment specialist Gina Miller is challenging Prime Minister Theresa May's belief that she can personally trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (which is what is needed to actually make Britain's exit from the European Union happen) just by sending a letter to EU headquarters in Brussels. Ms. Miller is arguing that Ms. May needs approval from the British Parliament, which may not be as simple as it sounds given that a majority of parliamentarians of all parties were opposed to Brexit, whatever the results of the public referendum. Such a requirement could at the very least delay the implementation of Brexit, and theoretically could even completely derail it, leaving the country in a kind of legal limbo, although that is less likely. And it looks like she may have a case: she has already won her case in a lower court, and Britain's Supreme Court will issue their ruling on it later today.
In bringing the case, though, Ms. Miller has made herself very unpopular with many people. She found it difficult enough to interest any of London's top law firms in taking on the case, and ended up using a small firm called Mishcon de Reya in association with two other small firms. But, more importantly, Ms. Millers participation in the case has unleashed a torrent of hostility, ranging from scorn in the news media to verbal abuse in public to racial taunts (she emigrated from Guyana as a child) and some pretty nasty online threats. These threats, by email, phone and mail, have included full-blown death threats and invitations to gang-rape her. She has had to de-list her phone number and address, and now has police officers guarding her home. Her investment company has had bread-and-butter deals unexpectedly fall through, and has been subject to cyber-attacks.
Throughout it all, Ms. Miller has refused to back down, and has continued to participate in debates and appear on television shows, sometimes with security guards in tow. The whole episode has, nevertheless, highlighted a very ugly side of British society, which many Brits will have great difficulty coming to terms with.
Well, the cat is well and truly among the pigeons, now that the Supreme Court has backed Ms. Miller's case (by a comfortable margin of 8 to 3) and ruled that Theresa May cannot begin talks with the EU until MPs and peers give their explicit backing. A draft bill is already in hand to do just that (the Supreme Court's ruling was not unexpected), as Brexiteers are anxious not to let their March 31st deadline slip. It looks like the major political parties are loath to vote against the will of the people in the June referendum, although Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP will insist that the bill receives due debate, and may want to make some significant amendments to it. In practice, it is very unlikely that Brexit will actually be blocked as a result of the ruling.
Some are calling the whole court case "chicanery"; others, though, claim it is all about process not politics, and represents a protection of democratic procedures. It has certainly served to remind everyone of just how split the country is over the whole issue. And whatever transpires, the experiences of Ms. Miller are surely inexcusable, and have cast a huge shadow over the country.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Huge women's marches a slap in the face for Trump

Yesterday's Women's March on Washington, and the 600 or so affiliated "sister marches", was a resounding, even delirious, success and a veritable miracle of grass-roots organization and protest. It sent a screaming message to Donald Trump and his supporters that they are skating on thin ice, and that they are only there temporarily and on sufferance.
The Washington DC march itself attracted over half a million protesters, hugely in excess of the 200,000 expected, and almost double the number who had lined the streets for Donald Trump's inauguration on the previous day. (Trump himself, in his usual overblown style, insisted that here were "a million, a million and half people" and "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration", although other estimates put the total at around 250,000, as compared to 1.8 million for President Obama's inauguration in 2009.) Many of the attendees had never attended such an event or rally before in their lives.
The speechifying was the usual mix of impassioned, strident rabble-rousing and heartfelt, thoughtful polemic. Gloria Steinem showed that she still has it, and I was quite taken with actress Amanda Ferrera's lines: "The President is not America. His cabinet is not America. Congress is not America. We are America! And we are here to stay." It sets up a slightly problematic dichotomy between direct democracy and the rather flawed presidential constitutional republic system the country is stuck with, but I know exactly what she means.
Up to 600 other sister matches around the world, including about 300 in the USA alone, were also very well attended. Around 400,000 marched in New York, and several marches in other large American cities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and Miami also numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Even outside of the United States, the protests boasted tens of thousands, including an estimated 100,000 in London. Hell, there was even one in Antarctica. By some estimates, up to 3 million may have been involved worldwide.
I attended the Toronto march, where an estimated 50,000 gathered (at least according to the BBC), well in excess of the 6,000 that were initially expected! It was an overwhelmingly middle-class white gathering, I have to say, despite (or perhaps because of) all the complaints from the Black Lives Matter crowd. And, because of the sheer numbers, it was more of a shuffle than a march, but then that is a good problem to have, no?
The pink knitted "pussyhats" were a particularly noticeable addition to the rallies throughout the world, and added a welcome dose of lightness, as did some of the witty signs and placards, from "Fight like a girl" and "A woman's place is in the resistance" to "My pussy grabs back", "Free Melania!", "We shall overcomb", and "Super callous fascist racist extra bragga-docious". A couple of my favourites from the London rally were "I'm really quite cross", and "I make the best signs. They're terrific. Everyone agrees".
All in all, a great day for democracy, and a "yuge" slap in the face for Donald Trump. And the organizers say they are not going away - this is just the beginning.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Criticism of black rights protests is not racist

I am kind of conscious that many of my blog posts that deal with race tend to be quite negative in tone, and I just wanted to clarify one or two things, with that in mind.
I am not a racist or anti-black in any way - but Donald Trump would probably claim as much, so that means very little.
What I do often object to are the tactics and even the longer-term strategies of many black activist groups (Black Lives Matter being an obvious example), which re often divisive and unnecessarily confrontational. Yes, I understand that their very raison d'être is confrontation and opposition, but what I object to is their acquiescence with sacrificing other worthy causes - here I am thinking of feminism, gay rights, etc - in the pursuit of their own. In an era where inclusivity and so-called "intersectionality" are supposed to be all the rage, many black rights activists only seem to like intersectionality when it is in their own interests.
This is obviously a vast generalization, and just my own personal impression, of course. But personal impressions are what I am communicating here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Toronto Pride decision a crying shame

It seems to be a pretty commonly-held view that Pride Toronto has given itself a huge black eye in voting, as it did at its recent AGM, to ban police floats and stalls from future Pride Parades.
In what is usually described as a "last minute" or "unexpected" vote - which carries with it its own whiff of suspicion - the Pride Committee was apparently persuaded that some Parade attendees may feel intimidated by having uniformed officers (gay or otherwise) in close proximity. I'm sure that may (or may not) be true in a tiny minority of cases. But, more than anything, this was more a purely political move by police-hating activists, among whom I would have to single out members of Black Lives Matter as looming large (it was, after all, their appalling hijacking of the last Pride Parade that has brought all this about in the first place). As much as anything, I hate to see one marginalized activist group holding another to ransom in this way.
Pride has changed over the decades. The annual Pride Parade is no longer a grim-faced protest against the police-led gay bathhouse raids of the early eighties. Yes, it is still edgy to some extent, and it still includes an element of protest, but essentially these days the Pride Parade is more a celebration of diversity and inclusivity. Banning one segment of society, particularly one that also helps maintain the security of the event, surely flies in the face of that reality. The absence of a contingent of police officers - laughing and joking and sporting rainbow flags and squirting water soakers - will almost certainly have a sad, dampening effect on the whole parade.
I, and clearly many others, think the Pride Committee have made a grave mistake in allowing this motion to pass, and can only hope that the outcry that has resulted will lead to a rethinking of the decision.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trudeau's choice of languages seems respectful enough to me

One can't help but feel a bit sorry for Justin Trudeau, as he trundles around the country, fielding questions and complaints from disaffected citizens, as part of his series of meet-the-people town-hall meetings.
In between complaints about electricity prices and healthcare options, he is also getting stick for being too bilingual! While answering a question posed in English in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Trudeau chose to answer in French, explaining (in French) that he would answer in the language that most people in the room would be most comfortable with. The questioner, who also spoke French and so understood Mr. Trudeau's response perfectly well, then hit social media complaining about how felt "disrespected" by the Prime Minister, who she feels should have done a complete translation of his words in both languages.
A similar situation, but in reverse, occurred when Trudeau was asked a question in French in Peterborough, Ontario, and proceeded to answer in English. This actually makes even more sense to me, as the number of French speakers in Peterborough is almost certainly paltry, unlike the much more bilingual population of Sherbrooke.
So, what's a perfectly bilingual Prime Minister to do? It's clearly a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't. I think by explaining his decision, as he did, he covered himself quite well. And rather than disrespecting the questioners, he was actually trying to respect his audience more perhaps than the questioners themselves were. But whatever he did somebody somewhere would no doubt find something to complain about.

Solar power far and away the largest employer in electricity sector

Some interesting, and perhaps surprising, statistics have come to light as part of the latest US Energy and Employment Report, an annual report produced by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The report analyzes employment in the American electricity production sector, and what it shows is surprising. In 2016, the solar power industry (both photovoltaic and concentrated) made up 43% of the electrical power workforce, a 25% increase over 2015. This is almost double the second place contributor, fossil fuels (combining coal, gas and oil), which stood at 22%. In third place is wind power, with about 12%. Maybe not what you expected?
The largest share of the solar jobs was in construction and installation, followed by wholesale trade, manufacturing and professional jobs. In recent years, solar has become one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation in the world, and the industry is enjoying an unprecedented boom.
So, put that in your coal-loving pipe and let it smoke, Mr. Trump.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The ethics of self-driving cars

As self-driving cars become ever more sophisticated and reliable (despite the odd hiccup from time to time), the era of the autonomous car cannot now be far off. However, an article I read recently reminded me of some of the more thorny ethical issues involved.
For example, we often forget but we humans make ethical decisions all the time as we drive. These are generally of the less drastic and "easier" type, like "should I let a car in if it will improve the flow of traffic, even if it holds me personally up?" or "should I run over that dog, rather than brake or swerve sharply and risk causing an accident?"
But, in the absence of a human agent, an autonomous vehicle would also have to make such split-second decisions, and by the nature of things such decision-making would need to be preprogrammed into the car's software. Artificial intelligence is developing apace, but a car or a computer is still not capable of making those kinds of decisions unaided. It represents a whole level of added complexity over and above relatively simple mechanical things like self-correcting if a vehicle drifts out of its lane, braking automatically if an object is in its way, or warming of vehicles in a driver's blind spot.
And then, of course, there are the even more fraught moral decisions that even humans have difficulties with, such as whether to swerve to avoid a pedestrian even if it puts the driver's own life in danger, or what to do when the choice is between five unknown pedestrians or five known passengers in a car. A self-driving car would need to have guidelines for those kinds of decisions too, and manufacturers are already encountering mixed messages among its users: people want cars to minimize total harm, but at the same time they don't want cars that might diminish their own safety. It's not a trivial problem.
So what kind of ethical and moral choices should be programmed into a car? What should the standards be, and who should be responsible for setting them? Should standards be set nationally or internationally? With this in mind, the US government has recently appoint a committee of transportation advisors with the remit of coming up with standards.
There is also a MIT-initiated website called Moral Machine, which describes itself as "a platform for gathering a human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars", and which provides various ethical transportation scenarios involving self-driving vehicles, passengers, pedestrians, animals, etc, and asks for users to choose their preferred outcomes from a set of choices. The scenarios include decisions taking into account whether the victims are male or female; whether they are old or young; whether they are flouting the traffic light laws or not; whether they are homeless, pregnant, overweight, criminals; etc, etc. It is already yielding some interesting results, including some geographical difference between attitudes in North America and elsewhere in the world. Fascinating stuff!

How to live longer, scientifically

It has been known for some years now that the length of our telomeres (in simplistic terms, the tips of chromosomes that keep them from fraying) are a major factor in how people age. Telomeres shorten slightly with each cell division, and when they get too short, the cells' ability to divide and renew is compromised, and the particular body tissue they are part of begins to break down, resulting in what we think of as a normal part of the ageing process. They are not the only factor in ageing - the oxidative damage caused by free radicals during the cells' normal metabolic processes are also implicated, and there may be other causal factors too - but the length and gradual shortening of telomeres, and the activity of the telomerase enzyme that replenishes them, is definitely an important causal element, and a good prediction of the ageing process.
Now, Elizabeth Blackburn, the Australian-American biologist who was a joint recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for her work in discovering the telomere connection, has published a book for the layman called The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. It sounds like another of those New Age-y self-help books, but it is actually science-based with copious references to research and studies. What it tells us is pretty much common-sense, though, and not revolutionary at all, but it also explains why this common-sense approach works, and how it affects our telomeres.
So, what is it we need to be doing?
  • Exercise - we probably all know it, but exercise is the single best activity for almost all health problems, including ageing. However, not all exercises are born equal: resistance exercise like weightlifting apparently has little effect on our telomeres, while aerobic exercise (even just some light jogging or fast walking a few times a week) is much more effective, as is short but high intensity interval training. Gruelling marathons and ultra-marathons, on the other hand, add little benefit over much shorter regular workouts. And the more stressed we are, the more effective exercise is for telomere maintenance.
  • Weight - actual absolute weight has little effect on our telomeres, although faddy diets and repeated losses and gains of weight actively shortens our telomeres. Reducing belly fat (as distinct from hip and thigh fat) can have a specifically beneficial effect on our telomeres, though, and the best way to achieve that - again, as well as know in our heart of hearts - is to reduce sugar intake.
  • Diet - studies have show that the higher the blood levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids, the less telomeres shorten over the following years (fish, seaweeds and flaxseed are all particularly high in omega-3s). But a general healthy Mediterranean diet, high in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, has also been shown to maintain telomeres well, and the usual suspects of sugar, processed meats, white bread, pastries, saturated fats, and excessive alcohol, have all been shown to shorten telomeres.
  • Mental health - depression, particularly chronic depression, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on cell telomeres, and the longer and more severe the depression, the shorter the telomeres. Anxiety, pessimism, hostility, mind-wandering and excessive rumination have also been shown to shorten telomeres. On the other hand, meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, yoga and tai chi all increase telomerase activity and work to lengthen or at least maintain telomeres.
  • Supplements - pills, creams and injections that purport to boost telomerase are commercially available, but their efficacy is at best debatable, and they can even prove to be dangerous (to much of the enzyme in the wrong cells at the wrong time can even trigger the kind of uncontrolled cell growth that leads to cancer). Commercial tests to track telomere length are expensive and largely unregulated, and could also lead to unhealthy anxiety and obsessiveness.
So, the best way to live a long healthy life? Keep fit, eat well and be happy. Obvious really.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Wyoming tries to ban renewable energy

To give a preview of just how bad things could get in the new "Great" America, a group of nine Republican legislators in the state of Wyoming is pushing a new bill that would actually forbid Wyoming electricity utilities from taking advantage of any large-scale renewable energy resources like solar and wind.
The unprecedented bill - which specifies that the only eligible electricity sources in the state would be coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear and oil - is perhaps the most blatant attack yet on clean energy in the United States. Even if it does not actually pass in the legislature, the very fact that such a bill exists at all is scary enough.
Wyoming is a Republican red neck state par excellence. It is the largest coal producer in the country and the fourth largest natural gas producer. Nearly 90% of its electricity comes from coal, although, ironically, wind is currently its next largest electricity-producing resource (it's wind potential is considered huge). It produces much more electricity than its small population requires, the rest being exported to surrounding states.
Although Republicans outnumber democrats 51-9 in the state, it is still by no means certain that the bill will succeed. But, hey, welcome to the new "Great" America.

What can be done about Canada's high drug prices?

Interesting documentary on CBC' s The Fifth Estate, following the vagaries of the Canadian health system, and particularly its prescription drug system.
Most Canadians are justifiably proud of our universal publicly-funded healthcare system, and we often compare ourselves with the nightmare south of the border. But among other similar countries who do have socialized medicine, we don't stack up so well. In fact, Canadians pay some of the highest drug prices in the world, second only to the United States, and those prices are still rising. In particular, we are the only country with universal healthcare which does not also have a publicly-funded drug care system. So, while we are well looked after while in hospital (including all the necessary drugs), as soon as we leave the hospital we are very much on our own, and must cover the cost of drugs ourselves, either through a private drug plan (if we are lucky) or just out of our savings (again, if we are lucky). Many Canadians just can't afford drug treatments they need, and prescriptions often go unfilled (the documentary is replete with poignant examples).
Part of the problem is the cost of the drugs we sell. Many doctors prescribe more expensive, brand-name drugs, rather than the cheaper or generic alternatives. For one thing, doctors are influenced by the marketing ploys of pharmaceutical companies, including visiting sales reps bearing gifts - apparently, that stuff really works.
Another part of the problem is private health insurance companies, which charge their own cut on corporate drug plans. Private insurance costs have increased ten-fold in the last ten years, and there is no impetus for the system as it is to change, as it is the companies themselves who cover the higher costs. Private drug plans in Canada are estimated by the program researchers to be wasting up to $3 billion a year.
One country, though, has drastically changed its system, and this has had a huge impact on drug care costs. New Zealand, a small country with a population just a tenth of Canada's, has a universal healthcare system not dissimilar to Canada's. But they have taken on the might of the pharmaceutical industry, and they have won. In New Zealand, any prescription costs just $5.
Drug companies in New Zealand are forced to compete against each other, and the lowest drug price wins the government contract. These negotiations have resulted in cost reductions of up to 99% in some cases! As a result NZ drug prices are around 10% of Canada's on average. For example, one popular hypertension drug which is actually manufactured in Canada, sells in Canada for $130 a year, while in New Zealand it sells for just $10 a year. A particular cancer drug costs $85,000 a pop in Canada, and yes it costs just $5 in New Zealand.
There is a trade-off, though. The range of treatments available in New Zealand is not as wide as in Canada, but New Zealanders are well aware of this and are apparently happy with the trade-off. The program asks whether we might not be better accepting such a trade-off here too.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trump's Kennedy appointment another step back into the dark ages

In the midst of all the tub-thumping Sturm und Drang drama of Donald Trump's cabinet appointments and their confirmation hearings, one appointment that has been all but overlooked is that of Robert Kennedy Jr. to oversee and chair a committee on "vaccine safety and scientific integrity".
Like several other of Trump appointments, this is rather like putting a wolf in charge of the sheep. Kennedy is a notorious anti-vaxxer, who still believes strongly that standard vaccines cause autism. He blusters that "we ought to be debating the science", when in fact the science has been debated ad nauseam, and the autism claims have been definitively disproven.
Trump too is an anti-vaxxer, who even made a point during the election campaign of seeking out and meeting with discredited English physician Andrew Wakefield, the man who was single-handedly responsible for starting the whole vaccination-autism misinformation saga, before his paper was comprehensively debunked and Wakefield himself had his medical license revoked for ethical violations.
So, the Kennedy appointment is perhaps not a big surprise, coming as it does straight out of the Trump playbook. But it is certainly a scary development, and another indication of how far back into the dark ages Trump is going to drag his country.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Pallister's season in the sun

I can't resist commenting on the recent revelations that Brian Pallister, the Conservative Premier of Manitoba, is spending long, and increasing, lengths of time in Costa Rica, particularly during the brutal Manitoba winter. Manitoba is really not an important province, in the scheme of things, but such behaviour is unprecedented and has raised eyebrows around the country.
When I say "long", he spent 34 days in the balmy Central American country last year, and apparently he plans to go for 6 to 8 weeks this year. He must have enjoyed it. And this is not just vacation time, although even that would have been unprecedented. This is, supposedly, work time. According to his office: "The Premier finds it effective to spend time away from sessional responsibilities of his office in a space where he able to focus uninterrupted attention on policy documents, research material and speech-writing". I'll just bet he does. Also, he prefers not to use email while way on these jaunts, preferring phone and snail-mail, "to ensure that the urgent does not overtake the important" (whatever THAT might mean). Apparently, he would return to Manitoba immediately if there were to be some sort of an emergency, though, which is good of him.
Pallister won a landslide election in Manitoba last year, ending 17 years of NDP leadership. I can imagine a good many Manitobans rueing their little experiment with Conservatism right now.

It was -33°C the other day in Winnipeg, -46°C with the windchill. You could almost forgive Pallister. Almost, but not quite.

For a more detailed glimpse into how Pallister spends his tropical time, see here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Women of America, unite! - please

The big Women's March on Washington DC, timed for January 21st, just after Donald Trump's inauguration, should be an occasion to galvanize all American women of all stripes and backgrounds, even those foolish females who actually voted for the pussy-grabber-in-chief.
What seems to be happening, though, is that the organization of the march is splintering into factions, the most distinct schism being between black and white. In fact, it is turning into something of a female pissing contest of the worst sort, amid more-feminist-than-thou assertions and allegations of "privilege".
Claims are being bandied around that white organizers of the march are merely racist latecomers to the civil rights movement, and that they should defer to the black contingent, who have "real" issues that privileged white women could not possibly understand. Some white feminists have pulled out of the March completely, complaining that they feel unwelcome. Even some of the smaller "sister marches" are foundering as a result of the kvetching of racial sub-groups.
This is unfortunate to say the least. So much for the much-vaunted feminist values of tolerance and inclusivity. Just because the initial organizers of the march happened to be white shouldn't mean that they do not deserve full credit for the work they have put into it, nor that they are somehow less worthy. Neither should some black feminists (who happen to be late-comers to this particular event) be allowed to take it over and dictate its terms, for example by brandishing that buzz-word of the times: "intersectionality".
Surely this is a time to put such wranglings aside, and focus in the job in hand. But then, what do I know, I'm just a privileged middle-aged white guy.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

How indigenous does Joseph Boyden need to be?

The "scandal" that has arisen in literary circles recently over the indigenous heritage of best-selling and award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden is overblown, and actually not that much of a scandal anyway.
I've never thought he looked particularly aboriginal myself, but I never thought it important. His novels, generally on First Nations topics, stand up for themselves regardless, and have been generally well-received by the native community. Neither can it be denied that his tireless work for a plethora of committees and organizations in bringing the plight of Canada's native peoples to the attention of a wider audience has been any the less valuable whatever his heritage and racial make-up.
The whole "scandal" was cooked up by an Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) investigation into his background, which was probably more akin to muckraking than investigative journalism, and I am not sure what (other than sour grapes) initially prompted it. The report did not definitively prove anything, but was enough to throw doubt on Boyden's authenticity as an indigenous man. Boyden, who clearly self-identifies as indigenous and usually described himself as Métis or mixed-blood, has since come out to explain that, although his heritage is mostly Celtic, he does have some Nipmuc roots in his father's side and some Ojibwa roots on his mother's side. Sounds reasonable to me, regardless of whether or not there is documentary proof.
And what effect has all this had? Not a lot. All of Boyden's publishers, the book awards organizations, the film companies working on movies of his books, the native and grass roots organizations he has worked with over the years, have all without exception stood by him.
Which raises the question: what was the purpose of the APTN smear campaign against him? Boyden has become one of Canada's go-to people for comments on aboriginal affairs, and he does a very good job of it. Why would anyone begrudge him this, or his literary success, even if he is perhaps not as native as they? I would have thought that native Canada needs all the help it can get, from whatever sources available.

Prayers in public schools? Surely not here

Peel Region is an area just north of Metro Toronto, popular with new immigrants, and it happens to host a particularly large concentration of Muslims. It is not a hot-bed of racial strife or radicalism, and is marked more by its ordinariness than anything else. So I was quite shocked to learn that the school board there has been agonizing over just what kind of Muslim prayers should be part of the normal school day. Not whether, but what kind.
The very idea that religious observances and prayers of any kind have a place in Canadian schools is intrinsically abhorrent to me, whether it be The Lord's Prayer or the Jummah. It goes against the whole "separation of Church and State" basis of our constitution. To the best of my knowledge, school-sponsored prayer is disallowed in Canada under the concept of "freedom of conscience" as outlined in the Canadian Charter on Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. I mean, didn't we go through that whole thing of taking the Christmas out of Christmas on the grounds that someone somewhere found it offensive?
(Frankly, if I as an atheist don't find Christmas - at least in the abstract, or in the fact that most people in Canada seem to like it - offensive, then I'm not really sure why anyone else should. And give me "O Holy Night" over "Up on the Housetops" any day. But I digress...)
My point is that prayers and personal religious observances have no place in the school day, which should be devoted to, well, education: the learning of the alphabet, algebra, the two official languages, quantum mechanics, and all that.
If any, or even all, individuals want to pursue their religion, however benighted and suspect it might be, they are welcome to do that in their own time - early mornings, evenings, weekends, even lunchtimes outside of school if they are that desperate. If, though, they think that personal religion should be part of a child's school experience, then they are misguided and probably in the wrong place. In Canada, our education system is secular. Or, at least, should be.
What, then, is Peel? Has the pressure for "religious accommodation" grown so great that such practices are now acceptable? In which case, will some schools start reciting The Lord's Prayer again? Where will it all end?

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Trump's Reign of Fear - brought to you by Twitter

At the risk of turning this into a Trump blog, it's difficult to throw over the opportunity to comment on Donald Trump's use of Twitter for matters of state, and to browbeat companies into toeing the line.
The guy has not yet moved into the White House and already he is pulling strings and forcing hands. And he is doing so almost exclusively through those whiny, low-brow tweets he is so well-known for. Twitter, that grand repository of the throw-away, off-the-cuff, shallow and ill-considered remark, is perhaps the ideal medium for Trump. But it just seems so wrong for affairs of state and world politics, so inappropriate, and so lacking in gravitas. In short, so unpresidential.
But it looks like Trump, who has already shown himself to be a master of the senseless run-on sentence in verbal debates, is going to continue using Twitter as his main medium of communication. Because, like like it or not, he is also a master of the 140-character character assassination, and a single angry tweet from the President-Elect, however nonsensical or factually incorrect, could costs a company millions or even billions of dollars, as has already been demonstrated. Because of this, and because tweets are necessarily so public, his victims are having to take notice and to respond in some way. Their responses thus far have mainly been marked by pusillanimity and acquiescence. Thus begins Trump's Reign of Fear.
So, what have we seen so far?
  • Ford Motor Company, despite an attempt to defend itself when Trump tweeted that it was about to "fire all their employees in the United States" during the election campaign, has since let Mr. Trump take credit for a decision to keep a plant in Kentucky, even though it was not actually planning to move it to Mexico anyway. (For what it's worth, Trump has also tweeted against Toyota, a non-US company, for their audacity in choosing to manufacture in Mexico...)
  • In response to Trump's public threat to impose a punitive tax on General Motors if it chose to produce its Chevy Cruze model in Mexico and not the USA (as would be their legal right), GM was very restrained in its gentle tweeted correction about its actual Cruze operations.
  • Japanese telecom company Softbank Group allowed Trump to take some credit for its decision to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the USA, even though the investment was in the works well before the US election.
  • Likewise, Carrier Corp, which has also come under Mr. Trump's Twitter crosshairs, was quite deliberate in giving Trump a "perceived win" when it agreed to keep some jobs in the United States.
  • Aerospace giant Boeing Co took a $1 billion hit to its stock value after Trump tweeted that its costs for the new Air Force One jet were out of control and that the order should be cancelled, but the company still went out of its way to appease the President-Elect, partly in an attempt to avoid any further damage (their share price has mainly recovered), and partly perhaps also to ingratiate themselves with him in the hopes of gaining a separate contract in competition with Lockheed Martin (whom Trump had also called out over its costs).
Basically, corporate America is running scared of the petulant Donald Trump, and is doing everything possible to stay on his good side, even if that means crawling obsequiously on all fours. This is obviously not how things should be, but the immediate instincts of these companies may not be all that bad: many crisis consultants are advising that the best way of dealing with an unstable bully like Trump is actually to gently correct his facts, and to offer him some easy victories to keep him happy.
Personally, I don't see how this can be a good idea in the long run - all it does is vindicate and reward his bad behaviour, and which responsible parent would ever do that. The very fact that we are treating him like a spoilt child in the first place is bad enough (he is the President-Elect for God's sake!), but then to have to humour him for fear of reprisals is even worse.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Obama's economic legacy is actually pretty good

As Donald Trump gets set to take the reins of the American economy, and world news is already taking on a All Trump All The Time aspect, this would be a good time to take stock of the US economy and to assess what Barack Obama really achieved during his 8 years in power. This is partly to set the stage, and to make sure that Trump does not go claiming victories that were not his own, and partly to point out to those who voted for Trump the extent to which they were taken for a ride during the election campaign.
In 2008, Obama took over an economy in tatters, after four years of neglect and mishandling by his Republican predecessor. Since then, he has managed to right the ship and correct its course, at least in most respects, despite being severely hampered by an antagonistic Republican Congress. However, Donald Trump campaigned on a barrage of misinformation and sensationalist claims about how the US economy is in free fall, and how only a complete break with the old policies can save it from destruction and ignominy.
  • After taking over an economy mired in the so-called Great Recession (and which could easily have become much worse), Obama has overseen a constant gradual economic growth, month on month. The average growth under Obama has been about 2%, less than the pre-Recession average of 3% but not by that much.
  • The unemployment rate has dropped from a nadir of 10.1% early in Obama's tenure to 4.9% in 2016. The country has been benefitting from the longest period of concerted job creation since records began. Over 11 million more people have found employment, filling the tax coffers and generating economic activity.
  • Partly as a result of this increased employment, the federal budget deficit has come down steadily from a massive $1.4 trillion in 2009, early in Obama's tenure, to $587 billion in 2016.
  • The stock market had also seen a steady upward trend since early 2009, reaching all-time highs.
  • Government spending has increased by an average of just 3.3% per annum (or 1.4% according to some analyses), less than half the spending increases under Republicans like President Reagan or George W. Bush.
  • For 95% of American taxpayers, tax rates are now lower or exactly the same as they were when Obama took office. In fact, only those earning more than $400,000 a year have seen their tax rates increase.
  • Under Obama, American oil production has reached record heights, to the extent that the country now exports more than it imports, and the USA's dependence on foreign oil has been hugely decreased.
  • Between 12 and 18 million more Americans (depending on whose statistics you want to use) now have health insurance than before Obama came to power, resulting in the slowest rate of increase in healthcare costs since the 1960s, and extending the life of the Medicare trust fund by at least 14 years.
  • There are now fewer American soldiers, sailors and airmen in war zones than at any time in the last 12 years.
  • Obama has turned back and deported more illegal immigrants than any other American president by a long chalk (nearly 33,000 a month).
In fact, most economists seem to think that if Mr. Trump just holds off on implementing ANY of his proposed policies, the US economy could rumble along quite nicely in what is already one of the longest period of recovery on record, all thanks to the economic policies introduced by Barack Obama. However, there seems to be little likelihood of that. If he starts to introduce his protectionist policies and other changes he has promised, a new recession seems more than likely to occur, either sooner or later.
So, all in all, not too shabby, Barack. I have a suspicion that we will soon be looking back on the Obama administration as a golden age of economic (not to mention environmental and social) common sense. If Hillary Clinton had spent more time plugging these successes and refuting Trump's wild contrary claims, we might not be in the pickle we find ourselves in right now.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A litigious society gone crazy, or taking an irresponsible company to task?

In the ridiculously litigious society that is the United States of America, personal injury lawyers will do whatever they can to hit up a big wealthy company like Apple (not that I have any love for Apple myself). A 5-year old girl died in a car accident after another driver was distracted because he was using Apple's FaceTime video chat app on his iPhone while driving. The girl's parents (or at least their lawyers) are arguing that Apple could have installed a safety feature, which it patented over two years ago, which is designed to discourage people from using FaceTime while driving. In not ding so, they argue, the girl's death was effectively Apple's fault, or it at least represented a "substantial factor" in the injuries sustained by the family and in the girl's death.
Now, while at first blush  this might sound ridiculous to you or me, apparently the court will have to prove that the distracted driver himself was a "superseding cause", otherwise Apple may well be held responsible on the grounds that the company knew that its product could be used illegally or dangerously and deliberately decided not to take available measures against it. The case is complicated by the fact that Texas, where the incident took place, does not have laws banning texting while driving.
So, what initially looked like a ridiculous cash grab is perhaps not quite so simple after all. By taking out that patent in 2014, Apple showed that it knew that its product could be used in an illegal or dangerous manner, and that created an expectation that was not there before. The stupid guy who was using FaceTime while driving suddenly becomes all but irrelevant in the legal equation.

Latest IS claims of heroism cannot be taken seriously, surely

As the atrocities perpetrated by so-called Muslims persist into this new year - most recently with the mass shooting in an Istanbul nightclub and the car bomb in eastern Baghdad - Islamic State (IS) continues to jump at every opportunity to claim them as their own.
Now, I am reasonably sure that the vast majority of these occurrences are carried out by misguided individuals, often mentally unbalanced, with no affiliation to IS whatsoever. Even those who belatedly express some admiration for IS on social media can in no way be considered to be working for or organized by IS. How much organization does it take to drive a truck into a crowd, or to blast away at a party with a sub-machine gun? All that requires is a complete lack of empathy and a disregard for human life.
IS are happy to take "credit" for such events that are, in reality, nothing to do with them, presumably just because they see it as furthering their cause in some inexplicable way, and because it demonstrates their ability and willingness to strike anywhere and everywhere and in any manner. This they see as a good thing, even though it is clear to everyone else that killing a bunch of innocent party-goers or shoppers actually achieves absolutely nothing.
I just wonder, though, whether they might not have overreached themselves recently, by claiming that the Istanbul shootings were carried out by a "heroic soldier of the caliphate". Surely it can only be a matter of time before IS supporters recognize the DoubleSpeak involved in pronouncements of this kind, that killing dozens of unarmed and unprepared civilians in a nightclub cannot possibly be described as heroic by any stretch of a warped imagination. Or am I just being naive again?

Did more famous people really die in 2016?

There seems to be almost universal agreement that 2016 was, in the scheme of things, a "bad year". What with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the inexorable rise in influence of Vladimir Putin, continuing carnage in the Middle East, and murderous attacks in the West by so-called Muslims, 2016 does seem to have very little to recommend it as it takes its place in the annals of history.
Many people are pointing to an apparent spike in celebrity deaths as just another aspect of the general malaise that was 2016. A flurry of deaths towards the end of the year - George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, etc - seemed to cap a year that saw the deaths of high-profile stars and celebs like David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali and many others.
But was 2016 actually an exceptional year for show biz deaths, or did it just seem that way? As usual, I turned to the BBC to throw some light on the subject and to put it all into perspective.
Basing its analysis on the number of pre-prepared BBC obituaries as a rough-and-ready guide to the number of deaths of famous people, it turns out that 2016 was indeed a bumper year, with a total of 49 compared to just 32 in 2015. In fact, the number has gone up every year recently (it was 29 in 2014, 24 in 2013, and just 16 in 2012), which makes me think that this might just be a reflection of a change in the Beeb's editorial policy in producing pre-prepared obituaries, although the BBC denies that is the case. It may just be that we are now half a century on from the great expansion in TV and pop culture that started in the 1960s, and the drug and alcohol lifestyles that came with them (and, make no mistake, many of these deaths were hastened, and sometimes directly caused, by drugs and alcohol). So it may be there are just more famous people around, of a certain age and with compromised immune systems and weakened bodies, and they are starting to die off.
Perhaps more inexplicable, though, is the finding that, every year, there are a disproportionate number of celebrity deaths in the first three months of the year. I have no explanation for that one, or for the apparent spike at the end of 2016, except to suggest that maybe the weather plays some part.