Thursday, March 30, 2017

Executives of "cash-strapped" Bombardier get 50% pay rise

Not that much time has elapsed since I was reporting on the $1.3 billion gifted by the Canadian and Quebecois governments to the troubled aerospace company Bombardier Inc.
But here I am reading another article explaining how Bombardier's senior executives received a nearly 50% increase in their compensation last year.  So, at the same time as the company was laying off thousands of workers, pleading poverty and failing to deliver products on time, it saw fit to reward its top brass with unprecedented wealth: among others, board chairman Pierre Beaudoin raked in $5.2 million, and CEO Alain Bellemare earned $9.5 million; the top six earned a ridiculous $32.6 million between them.
And the justification for such largesse? Apparently, achieving profit and cash flow targets, securing orders for the C-series airplanes, the first flight of the Global 7000 business jet, and making significant progress on the company's plans to revive its fortunes.
All of which makes one wonder why the company needed a huge injection of public funds.

After a huge public outcry and substantial demonstrations outside their Montreal headquarters, Bombardier's CEO Alain Bellemare has announced that the increases that have so incensed people will be postponed. Actually, just over half of the proposed increases will be deferred  ("deferred", notice, not cancelled), so that the poor beleaguered execs of Bombardier will now have wait until 2020 for their 2016 bonuses.
It's too little, too late, of course, but hey, now no-one can accuse Bombardier of being crass and insensitive...

Fearless Girl only serves to improve Charging Bull

The recent addition of a little girl, staring with resolve and a measure of disapproval and confrontation at the Charging Bull on New York's Wall Street, has garnered a good deal of admiration and approbation since the installation of the new bronze statue. Most people see it as a welcome foil to the machismo and testosterone represented by the bull, which can itself be seen as a reflection of the prevailing state of affairs on Wall Street and in the financial industry as a whole.
However, not everyone is happy about it - when were they ever? The artist who created the bull, Arturo Di Modica, is livid. And you can kind of see his point: his career-defining work of art has been usurped, even over-shadowed, by an artistic (and perhaps commercial) decision over which he had no control. There again, his bull was originally plonked down in front of the New York Stock Exchange back in 1989 without any invitation, permission or license, installed under the cover of night as a kind of guerrilla art. Does he, then, retain ANY artist's rights?
The other criticism being leveled against the new addition, both by Di Modica and others, is that it is merely a thinly-veiled advertising campaign for State Street Global Advisors, the company that commissioned the Fearless Girl statue from artist Kristen Visbal. State Street Global Advisors is not known for its strong advocacy of women, numbering just 5 women among its leadership team of 28, and it has been facing its own PR challenges of late, with several high profile lawsuits directed against it. And, yes, the statue does indeed boast a small street-level plaque in the company's name. But corporate patronage of the arts is just the name of the game nowadays, just as historically patronage came from wealthy burghers, royalty and churchmen. And remember, Di Modica himself has profited greatly from his Wall Street Bull statue (which he once considered selling the for $5 million), and he has even sold replicas to other cities.
Certainly, Fearless Girl does indeed change the meaning and impact of Charging Bull, both as a work of art and as a symbol. But, as I see it, that's not nesessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump administration playing fast and loose with scientific data

And finally, the third in a string of consecutive posts on the Trump administration's War on the Environment, here is another depressing article about another plank of his campaign.
There is incontrovertible evidence that, in the few weeks since coming to power, important and irreplaceable data has been disappearing from government-controlled science databases and websites, particularly data concerned with climate change and the Arctic. Arctic researcher Victoria Hermann reports that she has seen valuable data disappear, almost before her very eyes. She has been receiving a deluge of invalid citation warnings as previously-available resources are mysteriously taken offline.
The alarm was sounded, in the weeks and months before Trump's inauguration, that websites and data on polluters, climate measurements, etc, needed to be backed up and copied in case they became "lost" in the new administration's overhauls. At the time, it sounded like paranoia, but apparently it was a good, even an essential, call, and most data has indeed been backed up, and alternative sources are usually available, albeit with a bit of extra sleuthing.
As Ms. Hermann points out, American environmentalists - and researchers throughout the world - were lucky enough (if that is the right phrase) to have learned a lesson from the last time something like this happened: just three years ago, the government of our very own Stephen Harper closed down no less than 11 Department of Fisheries and Oceans regional libraries, including the only Arctic centre. Reports and studies from over a century of research were lost overnight, a loss from which Arctic research has still not recovered.
Frankly, I find it amazing that such data is not copied and stored redundantly as a matter of course, and maybe now it will be. But imagine the panic this kind of scientific revisionism would strike into the hearts of committed environmentalists and scientists! Let's hope that nothing irreplaceable has been lost in this current round of right-wing over-zealousness.

Solar geoengineering may be Trump's favoured solution to climate change

As if Donald Trump's latest executive order, the so-called Energy Independence Executive Order (which I looked at in some detail in my last blog entry), were not enough, I have been reading about some of the other planks of his War on the Environment (or at least War on Environmentalism). One such is the issue of solar geoengineering, which, although not well advanced, or even well regarded, from a scientific point of view, is apparently firmly in the sights of the Trump administration.
Solar geoengineering is the idea that the atmosphere can be engineered (for example, by spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere, or cloud whitening) to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus theoretically controlling the increase in atmospheric temperatures that are occurring due to global warming. The idea has been around for decades, but Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch are making a lot of noise recently about a possible large-scale test in 2018 (their last planned test, back in 2012 had to be cancelled, but now they seem to think they are ready).
The Obama administration sensibly distanced itself from such rash, and potentially dangerous, large-scale manipulations of the Earth's ecosystems. Many scientists have warned that such tinkering could have catastrophic implications for the Earth's weather systems, including a high possibility of droughts and food supply threats for much of Asia, Africa and South America. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a moratorium on such geoengineering projects back in 2010, and reaffirmed that position just last year.
The USA never ratified that motion, though, and the current administration seems quite enthusiastic about the technology. In particular, David Schnare, a major player in Trump's scheme to turn the Environmental Protection Agency into an Environmental Destruction Agency, has strongly lobbied for a multi-phase geoengineering plan, involving real world testing within 18 months, followed by massive stratospheric spraying for up to a hundred years. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also a big fan, seeing in it a method of appearing to make a move on global warming while not impacting his beloved oil sector.
This administration just gets scarier and scarier.

Trump's anti-environment directive may not be quite as disastrous as it appears

As Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt's new (and now misnamed) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) start on the main thrust of their long-promised destabilization of the basis of America's environmental regulations, just what does his Energy Independence Executive Order on environmental regulation actually take aim at, and, given how impractical and unsuccessful many of his previous directives have been, how successful might this one be?
  • Roll back President Obama's Clear Power Plan - Obama's signature climate change policy was aimed at cutting emissions from US power plants to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The policy has not yet come into force as the Washington DC Circuit Court is still considering various legal challenges to the drafting of the plan, the emissions targets it sets for the individual states, and whether it contravenes the 10th Amendment by "forcing" states to make cuts. Trump, nevertheless, wants to completely rewrite (and water down) the provisions of the plan, mainly to placate the coal lobby. This could take a long time, and it will still need to go through the court process, just as Obama's plan did, and any rewrite can expect to face strong legal challenges from environmental groups.
  • Reconsider carbon standards for new power plants - The EPA under President Obama also set stringent CO2 standards for the building of new power stations, standards that effectively make new coal power plants all but impossible without expensive carbon capture and sequestration measures (which make an already rocky economic case into a prohibitive one). Trump and Pruitt will not be able to avoid carbon standards entirely, but they will look to water them down, again in (rather forlorn) hope of making coal cost-effective again.
  • Reconsider regulations on methane emissions - Obama and the EPA's standards changes also looked to reduce emissions of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from oil and gas operations to 40% below 2012 levels by 2025. Trump et al will try to reduce that commitment, although they will have to justify any changes through the courts.
  • Reduce the estimate of the "social cost of carbon" - Under President Obama, a dozen or so federal agencies established a social cost, or effective price, of carbon, based on scientific modeling. In 2009, it set this cost at $36 a tonne, a value to be used in setting efficiency standards for appliances, etc, based on cost-benefit analyses. Mr. Trump will try to reduce this in any way possible, although once again he will face significant court challenges (and many federal agencies believe that it should actually be significantly higher).
  • Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing - The Department of the Interior under President Obama stopped the government from leasing out federal lands with coal reserves buried below for commercial development until the program had been reviewed and evaluated. Trump wants to lift the moratorium, although it is far from clear that mining companies will actually be interested in such leases anyway, given the adverse economics of coal right now.
  • Do away with climate change guidance for federal NEPA reviews - Under President Obama, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidelines on how federal agencies should incorporate climate implications into their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. Trump's executive order will repeal the need to follow these guidelines and generally make the whole process much easier, although federal agencies will still need to carry out the environmental reviews, and the lack of guidance may in fact lead to more litigation, not less.
  • Rescind other Obama executive orders on climate change - These include the Climate Action Plan (laying out the country's overall goals on climate change), and orders to urge federal agencies to reduce their CO2 output, and to help communities reduce their own individual carbon footprint. There seems to be little to stop Trump from just cancelling these.
  • Instruct federal agencies to review any rules that might inhibit the development of domestic energy production from any source - Trump's justification for this is that it will promote "energy independence", but the agencies will be merely instructed to report their findings to the White House, and it is not clear what will happen then (although the Trump administration's favour of the coal, oil and gas industries is well known).
This is a large and potentially important executive order, although as noted above, the various changes are by no means slam dunks, and it is not even certain that Mr. Trump's own party will accept all of the changes he is proposing. Nor is it likely to affect the momentum towards renewable energy and carbon-responsible decision-making that has taken hold among American utilities, states and businesses. One recent study by the Rhodium Group suggests that, even if Trump's executive order were to be adopted wholesale, emissions may remain stable or even decrease slightly, thanks to market forces and other policies that Trump cannot affect. Of course, this would be nothing like the progress that would have been made under Obama's Climate Action Plan. But hopefully this will only be, at worst, a four year hiatus anyway.
Leaders throughout the world have expressed their disappointment with Trump's trajectory on climate change, and on the environment in general, with most seeing this latest directive as a major mis-step. With somebody's idea of a flair for the dramatic, Trump signed the order surrounded by a gaggle of photogenic coal miners, repeating his promise to "put our miners back to work". But industry experts say that ship has already sailed, and the coal industry is unlikely ever to be the powerhouse it once was. As the Washington Post points out, there are less than 70,000 workers in the coal industry today, including less than 16,000 of what might actually be called coal-miners (extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers), although the strength of their lobby is grossly outsized compared to their employment statistics.
One thing the executive order has done, perhaps predictably, is to set business groups and environmental campaigners at each others' throats once again. Supporters say it will create thousands of new jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries; opponents say it will only create more jobs in the legal profession, as challenge after challenge are brought forward. Environmentalists should be wary of just jamming things up in the courts indefinitely, though, because that is partly what Trump wants - inaction on climate change. And the status quo will not get the USA to anywhere near its Paris climate deal commitments - which is also playing into Trump's hands.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canadian Conservative leadership candidates an uninspiring bunch

I am not a Conservative, that much will be clear to anyone reading any of these blog posts. Neither am I a Liberal, other than in a very small-l kind of way (although I will admit to entertaining some hopes for the progressive platform of Justin Trudeau, before he started to lose his way). Nor, for that matter, do I support the NDP, at least not since Tom Mulcair decided to throw their traditional values under the bus in the pursuit (presumably) of populist votes. In a world where strategic voting was not needed, I would probably vote Green, if anything.
So, I am observing the ongoing d├ębacle of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign with something like dispassion. But, boy, am I glad I'm not a Conservative. What a bunch they have, vying to lead the party and, potentially, the country! What an unedifying and depressing spectacle!
Where once there were fourteen candidates, we are now effectively down to four:
  • Kevin O'Leary, defiantly unilingual and expatriate reality TV personality and businessman, with no political experience and no personal charm, self-consciously copying Donald Trump almost note for note with his social media outbursts and his petulant allegations of unfairness.
  • Maxime Bernier, clearly not a Conservative at all but an unrepentant Libertarian, complete with plans for an extreme scaling back of government, and carrying with him the baggage of his earlier disgrace when he left sensitive government documents with his biker gang-related girlfriend.
  • Kellie Leitch, a firebrand populist also hoping to jump on the Trump bandwagon (despite evidence from the recent Dutch election that right-wing populism may no longer be the flavour of the month), with her stridently anti-immigration, nativist slant.
  • Andrew Scheer, perhaps the least offensive of the four and the favourite of the Conservative caucus, but lacking in star-power, personality and (perhaps) electability.
The race has already started to get nasty, with name-calling and allegations being bandied around, although still nothing like to the extent of the Trump nomination race. And now there are allegations of widespread fraud and vote-rigging, which O'Leary is determined to pin on Bernier, but which, in my opinion, seems much more likely to emanate from the O'Leary campaign itself.
All in all, not a pretty sight. Perhaps, I should be pleased to see so many apparently unelectable Conservatives, but then that's what we said about the American Republican Party a year ago. And look how that turned out.

It's looking like my initial suspicions about the vote-buying issue may well have been correct. A Brampton-based O'Leary official was probably responsible for fraudulently purchasing Conservative Party memberships using pre-paid VISA cards. O'Leary then tried to lay the blame his main competitor. If, like me,you thought O'Leary was sleazy, then your suspicions are more than confirmed.

Friday, March 17, 2017

US women's hockey team stay strong under pressure

Kudos to the U.S. women's hockey team as they don't even blink while pursuing their insistence on fair wages and support as the World Championships loom imminently.
The US women are the best and most successful hockey team in the world - sorry, Canada, but, in recent years at least, that's true - having won gold in six of the last eight world championships (including the last three), and a medal in every Olympics. And the annual IIHF Women's World Championship is the premier international competition in women's hockey.
The gutsy US women's team have selected this sensitive time to pursue a contract with USA Hockey that compensates them fairly. Currently, they are expected to train year round with only a nominal payment, except for a slightly better-paid six-month residency period in the run-up to the Olympics. Most have second, and even third, jobs to make ends meet, and even then they are expected to jet off to international games and a regular national team camp every few weeks, during which they lose those wages. They also get inequitable support for equipment, staff, meals, travel and publicity and, furthermore, they complain that the boys' National Team Development Program is much better funded than the girls' equivalent.
In protest at this inequitable and unfair treatment, they are willing to boycott the highest profile competition of the year. They have even spoken with possible replacements that USA Hockey might use in their place (such as the Under-18 and Under-22 teams, college hockey programs, and the National Women's Hockey League) and obtained their general support, to the extent that they are confident that those young players are unlikely to want to risk their potential welcomes on the national team by strike-breaking action.
USA Hockey has now upped the stakes and laid down a deadline for the women to commit to playing in the Worlds, but they remain steadfast in their determination and in their cause. Good for them!

USA Hockey blinked first in this game of chicken, and the national women's team struck a significant deal to address the inequitable treatment of girls' and women's programs in the USA.
Congratulations flooded in from little girls in small-town America, to the national men's team, to the unions representing the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and the MLB, to the US women's soccer team (which has had its own equity issues).
And, after all that, the USA faces off against Canada in the first game of the women's world hockey championship in just a couple of days, full of confidence and basking in the glow of almost universal approbation.

Injection device that does not use a needle

Well, how cool is that? They've invented an injection device that does not use a needle, just like on Star Trek (and every other science fiction movie you've ever seen).
It actually emits an ultra-thin stream of liquid which somehow enters the skin directly without the need to puncture it, and it is propelled by a powerful battery/electric motor that is able to inject even thick viscous liquids that are difficult with traditional needles.
The future is here already.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Google wants you to put a solar panel on your roof

Say what you like about Google and its dastardly plans to rule the Earth, but the company's geeks do keep coming up with some amazing products and services. The latest such goes under the codename Project Sunroof, which identifies the suitability for solar panels for 60 million buildings in the United States.
The project, which has been ongoing for about 2 years now, has finally covered all 50 states. It uses imagery from Google Maps and Google Earth, 3D modeling and machine learning to create an interactive solar map of the whole country - state by state, town by town, and building by building - to calculate the amount of sunlight received by each section of roof throughout the year, taking into account weather patterns, the position of the sun in the sky at different times of the year, and potential shade from obstructions like trees and nearby tall buildings, in order to make an assessment of whether each building would be a suitable candidate for solar panels.
The project concludes that 79% of all rooftops analyzed are technically viable for solar power (in that they have enough unshaded area for solar panels), with over 90% viability for open, sunny states like Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Even the more forested, northern states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Maine reach over 60% viability. The single city with the most solar potential is Houston, Texas, followed by Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, New York and San Diego.
As a corporation, Google has always been proactive on renewable power, particularly solar, and has a stated goal of running all of its global operations solely on renewable energy. They may have intruded themselves into the very fabric of our lives, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree, but sometimes I think that I'd rather trust Google to run the world than many a government I can think of.

Blue Whale game is probably not real (but it could have been)

If you've never watched the cult British TV series Black Mirror, then I suggest you rectify that. It holds up what is indeed a very black mirror to our modern technological and slightly paranoid society. It's not science fiction exactly, but neither is it the comfortable, morally unambiguous life that most of us lead day to day. It is a dark take on how things might turn out, indeed how they might already be if we but knew.
One episode in particular, called Shut up and Dance, is particularly disturbing. A series of individuals receive mysterious, and mysteriously knowledgeable, messages directing them to carry out increasingly violent and shameful acts or face having equally shameful personal secrets revealed to their loved ones. Even after breaking all their deepest-held personal moral codes, though, their secrets are ultimately revealed anyway, and the characters end up being punished for both their original misdemeanors as well as for their imposed crimes. No underlying mastermind is ever exposed, and we are led to conclude that it is somehow the Internet itself that is spying on and blackmailing these unfortunate people, and generally making their lives a misery.
So, it was perturbing to read today about an Internet-mediated cult or game in Russia, known as the Blue Whale game (after the whales' propensity to fatally beach themselves for unknown reasons). According to some reports in the Russian media, gleefully picked up by the British gutter press, teenagers (particularly pretty girls, it seems) are being seduced by cryptic online videos, that are propagated mainly through the social network VKontakte and filled with obscure ciphers and codes, into fulfilling a series of challenges, often involving some kind of self-harm, culminating after 50 days with the directive to commit suicide. Some Russian news outlets have reported 130 recent suicides that have been "linked" to this practice, a statistic that has been been bandied about ever since.
Except that it is far from clear whether such a suicide club actually exists at all, much less that 130 young girls have lost their lives to it. Radio Free Europe has reported that its own investigations into the alleged cult have drawn a blank, and hoax-monitoring websites has deemed the story "unproven".
So, it seems likely that this is just another one of those false news/conspiracy theories, and thank God for that. But it speaks volumes that such a nefarious scheme could be taken so seriously, to the extent that at least one British police force saw fit to warn the local populace against it, calling on parents to remain vigilent for mentions of Blue Whale in their children's social media feeds. What a dark world we live in!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What woman would actually want to be a member of a club like Muirfield?

The historic Muirfield golf club in Scotland finally dragged itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century when it voted this week to admit female members.
The vote, which required a two-thirds majority to be enacted, saw just over 80% of the current (male) members vote to allow women to become members of the prestigious club, which was established as an all-male preserve back in 1744. A similar vote last year resulted in just 64% in favour of allowing women through the door, but then the R&A (the organization that organizes the British Open championship) slapped a ban on the club, stripping it of eligibility to host the Open.
Clearly, the club could not see the main money-spinner in its golfing year walk away, so please don't think that the wealthy denizens of the Muirfield clubhouse have suddenly had a change of heart and seen the moral error of their ways - this was a purely commercial decision. And bear in mind that 20% of them still don't want women members, regardless of the Open ban.
Which leads me to question what woman would actually want to become a member of such a club. It seems to me that the optimal outcome would be for the club to retain its new pro-women rule, but for no women to actually join it.

Italian band jailed and deported at US border for no good reason

Every year in the run-up to the big SXSW rock festival in Austin, Texas, there are reports of bands being turned back at the US border, usually for no good reasons. This year a band called Soviet Soviet seems to have had a particularly bad time of it.
Soviet Soviet hail from the small town of Pesaro, Italy, that hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. They arrived, armed with the correct visa and a letter of introduction from the SXSW organization and from their American record label, which explained that they would be performing a series of concerts for promotional purposes only and would not be receiving any form of payment for those shows. Basically, they did everything right.
But that did not stop the American border authorities from grilling the three band members for about 4 hours, before announcing their decision to deny the band admission and to deport them back to Italy, for reasons no-one still quite understands. The band were then frisked, handcuffed, had their cellphones confiscated, and were taken to jail in a police car, where they spent the night like common criminals.
And Americans wonder why most of the world hates them...

NDP electricity solution not convincing (and renewables are not the culprit!)

I have been receiving blanket emails from the Ontario NDP about their new "solution" to what is apparently the pervasive issue of our times, electricity prices (here is a link to the details of their policy, although their campaign-style emails just take me to a donations page, which is perhaps instructive in itself). With the policy, and the email blitz, the NDP is clearly positioning themselves for the next Ontario election - which is scheduled for summer 2018, for God's sake! - in which electricity prices are expected to be a major issue, as though we had nothing more important to focus on.
The NDP's solution is to: re-nationalize that part of Hydro One that was sold off by the Liberals and the preceding Conservatives, which the NDP estimates will cost around $4 billion, but which it says will pay for itself in just 8 years through the province's share of its profits (even though the point of nationalizing would supposedly be to stop profiteering); reduce the delivery costs to rural customers down to those enjoyed by urban customers, which it proposes to achieve through a fee charged by Ontario Power Generation, through some as-yet-unexplained mechanism; eliminate the mandatory time-of-use (TOU) pricing system, which was originally designed to reduce peak demand (and thus reducing the amount of installed capacity needed by the system) but which the NDP claim is just "not working"; review and possibly renegotiate "bad private power contracts", which could come with potentially huge cancellation costs. All of this, according to the NDP, will save Ontario customers 30% on their bills, although it is not clear to me how much of that will just come out of our taxes, and how much of the plan is actually feasible.
As you can tell, I am not totally enamoured of the NDP's plan, which smacks of smoke-and-mirrors dog-whistle politics to me, and does not seem convincingly argued or priced out, although the current Liberal government's knee-jerk reaction of just subsidizing the unpopular high electricity prices and extending the paper life of current projects is admittedly no better (and that definitely just comes out of our taxes).
What prompted my blog entry more than anything, though, were some of the comments regular Ontarians were making to the proposed plan. The level of discourse is generally poor, and many contributors are scarily misinformed about many aspects of our electricity system. One particular recurring theme is that the Liberals' Green Energy Act - which had the entirely laudable goal of encouraging the growth of renewable energy in Ontario, and which was reasonably successful in that until it was scaled back recently due to its unpopularity with the general public - has been somehow responsible for most of the increase in Ontario's electricity prices.
In fact, as a detailed report by Environmental Defense explains better than I ever could, the combined total of solar, wind and bio energy only accounts for about 12% of the total, about $20 out of the average electricity bill of $170. Renewables do not even represent a large chunk of the Global Adjustment charge, an element of the total bill which has seen a large increase in recent years. By far the largest part of that is due to nuclear power (cost overruns, refurbishments, etc), followed by gas. So, if people really want to single out a culprit for our high hydro prices (which, as I have reported elsewhere, are not even that high), then nuclear power would probably have been a better candidate.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Sub-two hour marathon depends on controversial new shoe technology

The race is on for the first sub-two hour marathon, which seems like a ridiculous goal, but one that is quite likely going to fall sometime this year. I hadn't realized we were already so close ("we" meaning humanity, nothing to do with me personally): the current world record belongs to Kenyan Dennis Kimetto who ran 2:02:57 at Berlin in 2014, although Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya were just seconds behind that pace last year, and one of those two is probably the favourite to break the two hour barrier later this year.
What I had also not appreciated is the extent to which shoes and shoe technology influences marathon speeds. All three medalists in the Rio Olympics last year, as well as the winners of the Berlin, Chicago and New York marathons later in the year, were wearing Nike Zoom Vaporfly shoes, which retail for about US$250. Coincidence? I think not.
Now Nike has developed the Zoom Vaporfly Elite, and these are the shoes that are expected to expedite the sub-two hour record later this year. Apparently, the shoes can be individually tuned to the user in some way. They weigh 184.3g and feature a thick but lightweight midsole that returns 13% more energy than traditional midsoles, as well as cushioning the impact and reducing leg pain from long runs. There is also a stiff, curved, carbon-fibre plate embedded in the midsole, which acts almost like a slingshot or spring with each step, which saves a further 4% of the energy needed for each stride at any given speed.
Which is where the shoes become contentious. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which is the body that sets and monitors the rules in athletics, has to decide whether they constitute any "unfair additional assistance" or "unfair advantage", which is the vague language employed in its rules on athletics shoes and equipment. Nike is confident that its new shoe does not break any rules, and there does not appear to be any formal IAAF approval or inspection process. However, others, like Todd Tucker (a South African exercise physiologist) and Yannis Pitsiladis (a British sports scientist), are not so sure, believing that the carbon-fibre plate effectively acts as a spring, which might make it inadmissible.
So, the IAAF, fresh from controversies over corruption, doping and the permissible levels of testosterone in women, have yet another tricky and high-profile decision to make this year. Maybe there ism a case for going back to the Ancient Greek model - no shoes, no clothes, nothing but the best efforts of the unadorned human body. And think of the potential television viewership income!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Liberation therapy procedure definitively debunked

Remember a few years ago, when a revolutionary vein-widening procedure called "liberation therapy" was all the rage as a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS)? The procedure was developed by an Italian physician, Dr. Paolo Zamboni, and hundreds of desperate MS patients flocked to try it, despite a great deal of controversy about its efficacy and a pretty hefty price tag. They protested on Parliament Hill, indignant that the Canadian nd provincial governments would not fund this new miraculous cure. Some claimed it had cures them completely; some saw absolutely no improvement; a few unfortunate souls died from post-surgical complications.
Well, a new study out of UBC has finally and definitively debunked the procedure as the pseudoscience that many people took it for all along. Dr. Anthony Traboulsee of the University of British Columbia headed up a carefully-controlled "gold standard" study of 104 MS patients over the period of a year. Half actually received the vein-widening treatment, while the others just thought they had. The study concluded, like several smaller studies before it, that the so-called liberation therapy treatment has no apparent effect on the well-being of patients.
The moral of the story? Listen to what 90% of the medical profession is saying - they're probably right.

What happens to all those asylum-seekers at the Canadian border?

What happens to all those poor people we see trekking across the Prairies or the back end of Quebec in a snowstorm, seeking asylum from the iniquities of today's America in immigrant-friendly Canada? In the first seven weeks of 2017, 4,000 asylum-seekers have applied to Canada from the USA (not all of them presumably on foot overland), compared to 2,500 during the same time frame last year, and the numbers are expected to rise further as the winter starts to subside and Donald Trump starts to impose more restrictions on immigrants and refugees.
Day after day, I see pictures of travel-weary families braving the elements of the Canadian winter, some with a full set of suitcases, some with little more than the clothes they stand up in. Often, I see them being hand-cuffed and led away from border crossings in Emerson, Manitoba or Hemingford, Quebec. But what actually happens to them after the cameraman leaves?
CBC has answered just that question for me. It seems that, most times, the RCMP are aware of the incursions in advance, from their video surveillance footage, and are on hand to receive the would-be refugees. The RCMP is legally obliged to let the travellers know that, if they cross the border, they will be committing an offence under the Canadian Customs Act, and that they risk arrest by proceeding. Handcuffs are not always used; that is a case-by-case decision based on the perceived risks of the individuals involved.
But, either way, arrest is usually exactly what the asylum-seekers want, so that then they can make a refugee claim under the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, something they would not be able to do if they had tried to enter Canada at a legal border entry point (where they would just be turned away). The refugee claimants are then taken into police custody, questioned about their identities, and then handed over to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) for further processing. BBSA will interview and fingerprint them, and all the necessary paperwork will be filled out.
And then, almost shockingly, the families or individuals are just told to go on their way! (Unless there was a problem with the identification process, or if they are considered to pose a threat, or if it is thought there is a risk they may not turn up for their refugee hearing for some reason.) They can stay with family or friends or in an official shelter until their refugee hearing date.
And that's it! They are in Canada, and the regular refugee process takes place, and (usually) we have one more grateful immigrant in our population, and America has one fewer frightened transient.

Melbourne's female-friendly pedestrian lights a bit frivolous

Perhaps in honour of International Women's Day, the right-on city of Melbourne, Australia is striking a blow for feminism by showing representations of females on their pedestrian crossing lights. The idea is "to help reduce unconscious bias", and to combat discrimination against women. They are supposed to make Melbourne's public spaces more inclusive of women.
The city's council is quick to point out that tax-payer's money was not involved - the project is being funded by the Committee for Melbourne, a non-profit organization of local businesses and community groups - and actually only ten lights in the downtown area have been changed as part of a 12-month trial. Each light alteration apparently costs $1,400.
But the project has garnered a lot of media and Internet attention. Predictably, people either hate it or love it. My own feeling is that the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere. I am at a bit of a loss to understand how the old lights were discriminatory - they seemed to me to be representations of generic humans, neither obviously make or female. Also, convertig the images to female by means of adding a skirt seems somewhat patronizing. I would have thought that just the words "WALK" and "DON'T WALK" would be less contentious and less gendered (and, given the red and green colouring, would be quite comprehensible to even the most language-challenged of foreign visitors).
Perhaps my favourite of the many Twitter comments the changes have generated was: "Oooooh now deal with violence against women and workplace discrimination", closely followed by "Man in kilt".

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Canadian woman turned back from US border is racial profiling

A Montreal citizen, Canadian by birth, has been turned back at the US border and told she needs a visa in order to enter.
30-year old Manpreet Kooner is of Indian extraction, but was born in Montreal to Indian parents who immigrated to Canada way back in the 1960s. She has no criminal record and was travelling to the US on her Canadian passport, along with two white friends, also from Montreal. Neither of the friends were detained, but Ms. Kooner was subjected to a six-hour wait at the Quebec-Vermont border, where she was fingerprinted, photographed and grilled with questions, before being told she was an immigrant and needed to obtain a valid visa if she ever wanted to enter the States.
Now, a visa is not actually needed for Canadians entering into the USA - as her two friends can confirm - and the US embassy in Ottawa was at a loss to explain the occurrence. However, a US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman insisted that, while she can't comment on individual cases, the possession of valid travel documents does not guarantee entry to the United States, something that may come as news to most Canadians.
This comes just a few weeks after another Montreal woman was grilled for hours and questioned about her religion, and about her opinions of Donald Trump, before being denied entry into the USA. Fadwa Alaoui is a Moroccan-born Canadian Muslim, but was travelling on a Canadian passport with other members of her family to visit relatives who live in the States. In response to that case, the US Customs and Border Protection has stated quite definitively that "CBP does not discriminate on the entry of foreign nationals to the United States based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation" and, if someone feels they have been wronged, they should file a written complaint on the department's website. And a fat lot of good that will probably do...
These are particularly heinous cases, but even before Donald Trump's election a growing number of Canadians were being turned away at the US border, often for little or no reason. In 2016, a total of 27,772 people were refused entry to the USA from Canada, an increase of 6.7% over the previous year, despite a decrease of 9% in cross-border trips over the same period.
But Ms. Kooner's and Ms. Alaoui's cases are clearly racial profiling at its most egregious. The Vermont border guard in Ms. Kooner's case even had the audacity to sneer, "I know you might feel like you've been Trumped". The Conservatives in the Canadian Parliament are - predictably, if inexplicably - blaming Justin Trudeau, as they always do. Montreal-area Liberal MP Anju Dillhon is apparently looking into remedying Ms. Kooner' s situation, preferably before the end of March when she was hoping to attend an American music festival.

I can only agree - SnapChat can not be worth $30 billion

I have never seen eye to eye with regular Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente. Not to put too fine a point on it, I find her elitist, overbearing and self-serving, and her columns are often poorly-argued, poorly-researched and overly-reliant on cherry-picked statistics or reports. So, when I find myself agreeing with her, I get worried. But such is the case with her article today about the Snap Inc. IPO.
Snap Inc. is the company behind the popular social media service SnapChat, a far-from-revolutionary app for those youngsters who think that Facebook is old hat (it is), who can't be bothered to type much, and who don't want a permanent record of their ill-advised and inappropriate postings doing the rounds of the Internet until Kingdom Come.
The company went public this week with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of its shares on the stock exchanges. Like so many tech IPOs, initial demand for the shares was brisk to put it mildly, exacerbated by the deliberate rationing of shares available in the issue, despite the fact that they carry no voting rights. Snap's share value immediately shot up by 44%, and some investors (including the two 20-something-year-old founders of the company) made, and are making, out like bandits.
The company is now apparently worth around $30 billion, even though its revenues were just $405 million last year, and it made an overall loss of $515 million. Indeed, the company itself warns that "we may never achieve or maintain profitability". So, clearly, this has little to do with financial acumen, and much more with artificially-created demand and mass hysteria. In essence, it can only be described as a bubble, and you know what happens to those...
So, when the teens and twenty-something's that are the mainstay of SnapChat's market latch onto next year's thing, and SnapChat becomes as uncool as Facebook is now, where will we be then? Well, as is usually the case, some savvy investors will have cashed in their profits (having made something out of what was quite clearly nothing), and have moved on to something better; others, not so savvy (including a bunch of millennials for whom Snap may have been their first flirtation with the stock market) will have lost their shirts; still others will merely shake their heads in resignation, and content themselves with thinking but not saying "I told you so".

Monday, March 06, 2017

Happy Birthday, Toronto - cool ad!

Tourism Toronto has a new advertising campaign aimed at the American market.
With tag lines like "The views are different here", "Beauty has many faces" and "All flavours are welcome", it aims to differentiate diverse, progressive Toronto from the repressive regime in force south of the border. The campaign is being rolled out in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC - yes, some of the more progressive parts of the States - and I must confess it does make us look pretty cool and sexy.
Toronto has enjoyed seven consecutive years of growth in visitors from the US. About 2.5 million come here every year, and, surprisingly, 70% of them fly here (from cities like Boston, New York, etc) rather than drive.
The ad celebrates Toronto's 183rd birthday which is ... today!

New Trump executive order very similar to the old one

Much as I hate to continue mentioning "that man", he has today signed a new executive order to replace the previous travel ban that caused so much controversy back in January, and which was finally laughed out of court and rescinded.
This one places a 90-day ban on US travel visas for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa, along with a 120-day ban on all refugees entering the country. Six countries, not seven? Yes, Iraq has apparently earned a reprieve for boosting its visa screening and data sharing policies (although it is actually probably more to do with some negotiations regarding Iraq's role in fighting Islamic State). This leaves Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen on the blacklist. Syria is also no longer singled out for an indefinite ban, and total refugee admissions for 2017 from all countries have been slashed from previous years, with a hard cap of 50,000.
The executive order does show at least some evidence of having been run by a lawyer or two, unlike the original, which was just the amateurish product of power-drunk Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Refugees already approved by the State Department will still be allowed to enter, as will foreign national already en route to the USA when the order takes effect; legal Green Card holders and foreign nationals with work visas who happen to hail from the six countries will not be affected; it does not give priority to specific religious minorities, such as Christians, like the original order did; there is also explicit permission for government officials to grant visas to prohibited nationals on a "case-by-case" basis (although it is far from clear how that might work); and, finally, the new directive is set to take effect in 10 days time in an attempt to avoid some of the worst of the chaos and confusion that transpired at US airports and border crossings last time.
However, Democratic politicians and civil liberties campaigners are still promising protests and robust legal challenges to the executive order. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman seems more than willing to take the lead on this. One of the things that any legal challenge will focus on is whether the Trump administration can prove that the order is actually needed to keep the country safe. Also, it still appears to discriminate on the basis of religion, which was deemed unconstitutional in the appeals court case over the previous Muslim ban, and so a First Amendment freedom of religion challenge is a distinct possibility. The judges in the last case were also quite clear that Mr. Trump's past statements about Muslims could be taken into account in future legal proceedings.
The new order still seems intent on targeting a bunch of countries which have, at least historically, had nothing to do with US terrorism: of those charged with, or who died engaging in, jihadist terrorism in the USA since 9/11, the vast, vast majority have been US-born or naturalized citizens, and the number of refugees that have been involved in such attacks is negligible. An analysis by the CATO Institute shows that, since as far back as 1975, only 15 individuals from these six Muslim states have been convicted of terrorism offences, and the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks on US soil by foreigners from the six countries that are affected by Trump's new executive order has been ... precisely zero! In fact, the Extremist Crime Database has recorded 39 attacks in the USA by Islamist-inspired extremists since 1990, as compared to 178 attacks by far-right extremists.
So, it seems that Mr. Trump has learned a thing or two from his burned fingers the first time around, and this revised executive order has been deliberately couched in terms that try to avoid some of the constitutional concerns and legal challenges that sank v1.0. In the process, however, the effect of this is that it has been significantly scaled and watered down, even if his spokespeople will not admit as much, and it still has many of the fatal flaws exhibited by the original version.
Whether this order will stick remains to be seen. But Americans should be under no illusions that this will make their country a safer place, as Trump and his henchmen claim. If anything it is only likely to increase home-grown violent extemism on both sides, while at the same time undermining the trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities, and alienating America's foreign allies.

And, guess what, very much like the old ban, the new ban has also been blocked in the courts, this time courtesy of the state of Hawaii (where I am due to visit in just a few short weeks!), although Maryland is also in the midst of its own court case against the order. Mr. Trump, predictably, is blathering about "unprecedented judicial overreach", but given that federal judges are ruling his actions unconstitutional, the overreach is apparently all his.
Hell, it's almost enough to renew my faith in America (or at least the American judicial system).

Legally, drunkenness does not mean that a woman is incapable of consent

Another controversial rape-and-consent case has been in the Canadian news recently, after a Nova Scotia provincial court judge acquitted a Halifax taxi driver on the grounds that the drunk woman in the back of the car may have consented, or was at least capable of consenting.
The thing is, from a purely legal point of view, the judge was probably actually right. The woman in the taxi was blind drunk and was found nearly naked and unconscious in the back seat. She herself does not remember a thing about the incident. While she would have been legally incapable of consenting to sex while unconscious, there remains the possibility that she might have given consent while still conscious, and the fact that the woman was very drunk does not in itself mean that she was legally incapable of consent.
The problem arises, then, that it is also possible, or at least conceivable, that someone could be so drunk that they were effectively incapable of consenting. There is no line that can be struck that the legal profession can use to establish this definitively, and so the judge in this case was obliged to give the taxi driver (who, as it happens, has been accused twice before of this kind of predatory behaviour with drunk women) the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, the sexual targeting of women who are drunk, passed out, asleep, or mentally disabled, continues to go on, and it represents a significant category of sexual assault offences. The law really needs to address the issue, and put some legal obstacles in the way of such sexual predators. But it seems that their hands are tied.

Human sacrifices in thriving Modern India

India likes to portray itself as a modern, cosmopolitan country, open for business with the rest of the civilized world. Then something like this happens and we are reminded that much of the country is floundering around in the Dark Ages.
In the state of Karnataka, sandwiched between the tourist beaches of Goa and the hi-tech business world of Hyderabad, arrests have been made in connection with the human sacrifice of a 10-year old girl. A self-proclaimed "sorcerer" gave the instructions for the sacrifice as the only way to "cure" a paralyzed man who he said was the victim of "black magic". The man's brother and sister and a 17-year old boy, who all helped to abduct the child, have also been arrested on charges of aiding and abetting the murder, and still others may yet be implicated. The unfortunate girl's body was found by neighbours in a black bag, along with materials to be used in "black magic" rituals. Local residents were up in arms about the incident (the murder, not the arrests), and a mob gathered, pelting the arrestees' home with stones.
Welcome to Modern India, folks!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

A fascinating glimpse into a baby's language acquisition

Video producer and spreadsheet geek Jon Jivan has provided the world with a fascinating glimpse into the language development of a baby by making public his son's first words since birth, compiling them into data points on a graph to illustrate the exponential growth in his language acquisition.
As the graph shows, his first word was "uh-oh" (if in fact that is a word), which occurred during his 8th month, followed by "dada" in the 10th month (and I'll bet Jon is chuffed with that!), "mama" in the 11th month, and "kitty" at month 15.
After 16 months, the pace picks up with a vengeance, with new vocabulary coming thick and fast in an almost exponential gowth progression: "no", "car", "toot", "ball", " baby", "papa", "hi", "bubbles", "eyes", "bye", "clock", "nana", etc. By 19 months, the toddler was up to 100 words. "No" was word number 5, although "yes" wasn't even in the top 100 - no surprise there for most parents. "Please" was number 21 and "thankyou" number 27, which I'd say is pretty impressive.
Jivan hopes to keep the list, and its graphical visualization, going until his son reaches two years of age, after which it will be difficult to keep the visualization legible. And now he has another baby on the way...

Twitter swearword ban has made swearing fun again

An amusing article on Vice laments the suppression of good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon swearwords on platforms like Twitter, and welcomes some of the more inventive alternatives that have begun to take their place.
In an age where swearing and intimate anatomical terms are mentioned routinely on prime-time television, in comedy routines, and in every other YouTube video, Twitter has seen fit to issue a 12-hour time-out to users who bad-mouth famous personalities. In a predictably contentious move, Twitter's content filters will now look for patterns of abusive language aimed at certain verified celebrities and public figures, and temporarily block the perpetrators.
So, of course, the Internet, being nothing if not adaptable, has adapted by adopting a plethora of new portmanteau swearwords, many of them apparently combining traditional swearwords with cute little woodland creatures. Some of these new words, particularly the more English ones, are gems in their own right. Examples include:
  • Cockwomble
  • Dicklizard
  • Spunktrumpet
  • Arsebadger
  • Dickweasel
  • Otterbutt
  • Wanktrombone
  • Turdmongoose
  • Pissbollocks
  • Arsebiscuit
  • Shitpuffin
  • Fucktrumpet
  • Fannyspanner
  • Asshat
  • Jizzbulb
  • Twatbasket
How fun is that? And I'm sure you can find many more examples.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The bitcoin is having a bit of a moment

The bitcoin is currently having a bit of a moment. It's value has been soaring for the last couple of years, to the extent that that it has just exceeded the value of an ounce of gold. As of 2nd March 2017, it sits at US $1,263.49, compared to about $200 in early 2015. They are even talking about offering a bitcoin-based RTF, which would make it even easier to invest in, and probably bolster its value still further.
So it is with a certain amount of shame that I admit that I don't really know what a bitcoin is. Yes, I have read about it from time to time over the years since it was "invented" in 2009, but I've never really known what it is. I was further confused by a picture of a roll of actual physical gold-coloured coins - I thought it was a purely conceptual digital thing with no physical existence. Fat lot I know!
So, with reference to Wikipedia (of course), here's what a bitcoin actually is.
Bitcoin is a payent system and a cryptocurrency. Now, that didn't help me much either, but apparently a cryptocurrency is a digital asset used as a medium of exchange, which uses some form of cryptography to secure transactions and to control the creation of additional units of the currency. Bitcoin was the first major secure digital currency, and it remains the largest and most widely used, although there are now apparently several others including Etherium, Ripple, Litecoin, Monero, Zcash, etc.
It was first developed by a mysterious and semi-mythical figure called Satoshi Nakamoto, about whom almost nothing is known except that he is Japanese and "born around 1975". Several individuals, including an Australian man, have claimed to be Satoshi, which is almost certainly a pseudonym, and may even refer to a group of several programmers.
Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer system (meaning that there is no centralized administration), and transactions take place directly, without any intermediary. These transactions are verified by "network nodes" and recorded in a vast public online ledger called the "blockchain", which is essentially a distributed database that does not involve any trusted central authority. (Here is the best explanation I have yet seen of how a blockchain works). New bitcoins can be digitally created or "mined" using special software that solves mathematical problems within a distributed computer network.
Like other currencies, bitcoins can be used to purchase items electronically (it is fast, secure, transparent, and transaction fees are minimal), and a growing number of merchants will accept them nowadays. There are also bitcoin exchanges, both online and offline, and even bitcoin ATMs where cash can be exchanged for bitcoins.
Strictly speaking, bitcoin is purely digital and it is not physically minted or printed like other currencies. However, there are a few companies producing physical bitcoins, which can serve as physical placeholders for the digital currency, but these are really just collectibles, conversation pieces or "geek gifts".
Despite the recent prive surge, the value of bitcoin has historically been notoriously volatile - an estimated 7 times more volatile than gold, and 18 times more than the US dollar - and there have been several bubbles and bursts throughout its short history. This is largely due to insufficient liquidity (it is a very new currency after all), and to the fact that there is no central stabilization mechanism for the currency.
Also, the algorithm that governs the production of bitcoins effectively caps the supply at about 21 million. There are about 16.7 million of them in existence today, and their value will undoubtedly continue to spike the closer we get to full supply, a built-in value increase mechanism.
The lack of central oversight has apparently made bitcoins popular for criminal activities, including dark web drug transactions, Ponzi schemes, weapons sales, and even child pornography and murder-for-hire networks. The use of bitcoins is not entirely legal in some countries, and has even been specifically banned in some countries, including Bangladesh, Bolivia and Ecuador.
So, do I know what a bitcoin is now? Well, sort of...

Eight months later, and people are openly talking about the bitcoin phenomenon as a classic bubble, similar to the dot com phenomenon of the late 1990s or the Dutch tulip bubble of the 17th century (and we all know how those ended). The phrase "the emperor has no clothes" is a common refrain in these articles, and it is difficult to see it any other way.
The price of a bitcoin has risen over 300% in the last 6 months alone, and its value now sits at $6,587. "Initial coin offerings" or ICOs, as a method of raising venture capital for early stage companies, are rife (over 200 this year alone), and apparently unrelated to the prospects of the offering company. Companies are seeing their share valuation increase by 30% just by virtue of adding  the word "blockchain" to their name. There are salutary stories of people who have trashed old laptops containing thousands of bitcoins, now worth millions of dollars, with no way to retrieve them.
But the value of bitcoin is based in nothing more than the expectation that its price will continue to increase. There is nothing tangible behind it, no bar of gold, no promise from a central bank, not even a tulip. And if that's not a recipe for a bubble, I don't know what is.
According to one professor who specializes in the field: "It will burst ... I couldn't tell you when. That's the thing about bubbles." Another high-profile early adopter warns of an "absolute flood of scams and money grabs". Some commentators suggest that we may be around the equivalent of 1996 in the dot com craze, still quite a long way from the end, but there is no real way to be sure.
Well, don't say you weren't warned.
Bitcoin steamed past the $10,000 mark at the end of November 2017. Where will it all end? Place your bets now (if you dare).
Juts a couple of weeks later, on 16th December 2017, we are at over $19,000, following a 10% rise in just over 24 hours.
Just a few days after this, on December 22nd 2017, bitcoin's value fell precipitous from over $20,000 to just $11,000, before recovering a bit to $13,000. This may not be the bubble definitively bursting, but it gives a very clear idea of just how unstable the edifice is. Exchanges were suspended, and a lot of investors suddenly started wondering what on earth they were doing.

Another few days later, and bitcoin was back above $16,000. Redemption? Perhaps, from an investment speculation point of view. But no-one is going to take bitcoin seriously as a reliable means of exchange until its volatility can be kept in check. And that means regulation, which appears to be against the very spirit of bitcoin.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Robert Mercer, the most influential (and scary) man you've never heard of

I found an interesting article in The Guardian recently about a guy called Robert Mercer, whom I had never even heard of before, but who apparently is pulling lots of strings in our nasty, modern, populist/nationalist world.
Mercer is, or at least was, a brilliant reclusive American computer scientist, who has put in time with IBM where he worked in computer language processing and early artificial intelligence, before turning to hedge fund algorithms with Renaissance Technologies, which is where he made his billions. He now uses some of that fortune - about $95 million since 2010 - to donate to various Republican political campaigns and a variety of iffy alt-right ultra-conservative not-for-profits.
To give a few examples:
  • He was Donald Trump's single biggest donor in the last US election campaign (to the tune of $13.5 million), although he started out supporting Ted Cruz until he pulled out.
  • He funds the influential (and infamous) climate change denial thinktank The Heartland Institute.
  • He is a major funder of the Media Research Center (which claims to be "America's media watchdog", and has as its mission an "unwavering commitment to neutralizing left-wing bias in the news, media and popular culture"), as well as its offshoot (which has been instrumental in Donald Trump's vilification of the mainstream media, and which is scarily effective at getting its message to the top of Google's search results).
  • He has provided about $10 million in funding for Steve Bannon's ultra-right wing news outlet, which is now the 29th most popular website in America, as well as the biggest political site on both Facebook and Twitter, and which regularly hosts anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rants like those of the recently disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos.
  • Another $2 million went to let Steve Bannon (again) co-found the official-sounding Government Accountability Institute, which uses about $1.3 billion's worth of super-computers to trawl the "dark web" - yes, there is such a thing - and do the kind of expensive investigative journalism that mainstream media can no longer afford, in order to create self-serving articles for that very same mainstream media, and "weaponize" the alt-right narrative (Mercer's own daughter went on the board).
So, the ever-magnanimous and philanthropic Mercer has a big finger in many of the pies spreading alt-right lies and deceit throughout the Internet and the rest of American popular culture. But perhaps his most egregious and far-reaching influence comes from his involvement with a company called Cambridge Analytics. He has a $10 million stake in this British data analytics company, an off-shoot of the equally shadowy SCL Group, which specializes in "election management strategies" and "messaging and information operations". What this actually means in practice is mass propaganda that works by acting on people's emotions, the kind of "psyops" - or the even scarier labels "bio-psycho-social profiling" and "cognitive warfare" - perfected by the US military in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Cambridge Analytics worked on Donald Trump's election campaign, and on the Brexit Leave campaign (the latter apparently on a kind of quid pro quo basis to get around disclosure rules - Nigel Farage, like Donald Trump, just happens to be a good friend of Robert Mercer). And look how they both turned out. It boasts that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters (almost the entire voting population). It uses these, along with trackers from websites like Breitbart, to follow people around the web and target them with advertising on Facebook and other sites. It is one of the reasons why Google's search results on certain subjects is so dominated by right-wing and extremist sites, which are all but strangling the mainstream media sites. If you want a demonstration of just how effective the whole fake news thing actually is, another Guardian article (by the same journalist, as it happens) will scare the bejeezus out of you.
Exactly how Cambridge Analytics is able to do all this is not fully known, but some experts say that with knowledge of 150 Facebook "likes" a computer model can predict an individual's personality better than his or her spouse, and with 300 it knows you better than yourself. And what do you think those ubiquitous Facebook personality tests are really for? These models can predict and essentially control human behaviour. And they are not doing it for the greater good of mankind; they are doing it for the alt-right ideals of their paymasters.
How does this manifest itself? The Oxford Internet Institute has estimated that, in the run-up to the EU Brexit vote, fully one-third of the related traffic on Twitter was generated by automated "bots" - and all for the Leave campaign. Before the 2016 US election, bot-generated tweets were five-to-one in favour of Trump, and many of them were apparently sourced in Russia (in fact, many of these data manipulation techniques were originally developed in Russia). Literally hundreds of websites were set up in a very short time, blasting out just a few pro-Trump links and articles, making Trump look like a consensus.
It's all really quite brilliant. And there, at the heart of it all, is Steve Bannon (media guru) and Robert Mercer (big data and Internet algorithm guru - oh, and the money).

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Subsidizing Ontario's electricity is not the answer

Kathleen Wynne's liberal government has compounded her earlier foolishness (in reducing Ontario's residential electricity prices by 8% by exempting it from provincial sales tax, a foolishness I have already commented on in this blog) by vowing to cut residential and small business electricity prices by a further 17%. With this overall 25% reduction, she hopes to revive her flagging hopes of re-election in the provincial elections next year.
Electricity prices in Ontario have doubled over the last decade of Liberal rule, and they have been flagged as a hot-button issue for the next election. Certainly, both the Conservatives and the NDP have spent hours in recent months needling the Premier about them, as though the price increases are her fault, and as though they themselves have a better plan to rein them in.
The national and local press have also had a field day on the issue, with scarcely a day passing without the appearance of some kind of article on the subject, usually prefaced by a heart-felt account of a hard-pressed rural Ontarian who can no longer pay his/her hydro bills. As with the majority of comments by provincial Conservative politicians, many of these press articles erroneously blame the increases on Dalton McGuinty's well-meaning attempt to drag the province into the 21st century by stimulating investment in renewable energy. One notable exception to this common trope, an extended and well-researched feature article on Ontario's  electricity prices in the Globe and Mail (which I thought I had blogged about but apparently didn't), actually laid the blame for Ontario's hydro bill increases largely on expensive nuclear cost overruns and refurbishments, longer (20-year) contracts with suppliers to fulfill consumers' demands for a more secure electricity supply, and some long-overdue and necessary improvements to electricity infrastructure after decades of disastrous laissez-faire. Renewable power has had very little to do with it, and, for that matter, neither has the ill-advised decision to privatize Hydro One, as the NDP claims.
Either way, Kathleen Wynne is not going to win the next election by throwing money (and we are talking about an estimated $1.4 billion here) at electricity prices. All this does is take from tax-payers (and future tax payers) with one hand, and give to those who use the most electricity with the other. It does nothing to fix the underlying problem (if problem it actually is). Distorting the already distorted electricity market still further, and passing the problem on to future generations is no kind of solution.
I think people need to realize that they have been underpaying for electricity for decades, and that this is the new reality. One of the few honest and cogent articles I have seen on this issue in recent weeks actually appeared in the Toronto Star, a news outlet I usually have little time for. Written by Bruce Lourie (president of the Canadian charity The Ivey Foundation), the article is entitled "No one can make electricity cheap again", and it is well worth a read.

A one-stop Scarborough subway extension now makes even less sense

The cost of the proposed Scarborough subway extension is now being pegged at $3.35 billion. Given that this estimate has increased from $2 billion just a year ago, one has to assume that the final bill is likely to be closer to $5 billion. And this is for a SINGLE STOP 6km extension to the existing Bloor-Danforth line!
To make matters worse, estimates for ridership of the new line have also been revised downwards. It is now thought that the extension will only serve an additional 2,300 riders, putting a price of about $1.45 million on each new rider. It will also mean that the 17-stop Eglinton East LRT project, which was supposed to go hand in hand with the subway extension, will be short of funds to the tune of about $1.4 billion and may not now go ahead.
The obsession with an expensive subway extension for Scarborough is a hangover from Rob Ford's days, but current Mayor John Tory is doggedly persevering with it, for political reasons that escape me. But what was always a bad decision has now reached the status of farce, especially when one remembers that we once had the option of a seven-stop LRT, which would serve more people than the politically sexier subway option, and which would cost $1.48 billion (fully-funded by the provincial government), an option that could have been pretty much operational by now.
Once again electoral politics gets in the way of common sense.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

An argument for continuing to develop Canada's oil sands

Much of the outcry against Canada's oil sands development, and the pipelines they necessitate, revolves around the allegation that, even by the already poor standards of oil extraction in general, the oil sands are "dirty", both in the sense of environmentally polluting and in terms of their carbon footprint.
So I was a little taken aback to read an article in today's Globe and Mail suggesting that perhaps the oil sands are not the environmental anathema they are so often portrayed as. This was not just some badly-argued and ill-researched trash thrown off by Margaret Wente to apparently justify her own questionable views on the subject. It was a well-reasoned and legitimate piece in the business section of the paper by a couple of established figures - Western Canada insiders with a local axe to grind, to be sure, representing as they do the Canada West Foundation, but technically non-partisan and evidence-based - so I have to take the article seriously.
It argues that the oil from Canada's oil sands is actually no dirtier, and in many cases substantially cleaner, than many other sources of oil, including much of the oil extracted around the world using conventional extraction techniques. On a "well-to-wheel" basis, the average barrel of oil from the oil sands of Alberta apparently now emits only 6-9% more greenhouse gases (GHG) than the average barrel of oil consumed in the USA, much less than was the case just 10 years ago. And as newer projects come online with the stricter controls that have been adopted, this will only decrease further. Crude oil imported from places like Venezuela, Nigeria and the Midle East is typically substantially more GHG-intensive than the average, and the Canadian oil sands can now more than hold their own against this competition.
Therefore, the article concluded, it actually makes environmental sense (in that it would lead to a net reduction in GHGs) for the USA to replace imported oil from places like Venezuela and Nigeria with Canadian oil from up-to-date, cleaner oil-sands projects, and efforts to "keep the oil sands in the ground" are misguided because that would actually increase global GHG emissions. For the same reasons, it is no longer appropriate for environmentalists to protest pipelines from the oil sands for climate change reasons.
Now, all of this flies in the face of what I, and probably most concerned environmentalists, have believed for some years now. It certainly provides some food for thought, even if the authors' sources and calculations are a few percentage points on the optimistic side. Time to re-think the oil sands, or red herring?