Friday, June 30, 2017

Trump's tweets consitute an attack on the free press

As the fallout continues to settle around President Trump's latest batch of ill-advised tweets, concerns about his mental health and fitness to continue as President also continue to swirl.
Trump's tweets against MSNBC journalists "Morning Joe" Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were among his most offensive, labelling Mr. Scarborough "poorly rated" and "psycho", and Ms. Brzezinsky "low I.Q." and "crazy" and "bleeding badly from a face-lift". The journalists wisely declined to sink to Trump's level in their immediate response, although Ms. Brzezinski did allow herself a tweet of a Cheerios "Made for little hands" ad. Democrat and Republican politicians publicly expressed their outrage that perhaps Trump had "jumped the shark", and even the normally suppportive House Speaker Paul Ryan remarked, with a long-suffering sigh, "Obviously, I don't see that ad an appropriate comment".
The next day, though, the two journalists did also indulge in a little fact-checking of the Trump tweets, which appear to be incorrect in a number of different ways, in an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled "Donald Trump is not well", as well as floating the idea that Trump is "unmoored", an idea that politicos and psychologists have been tangling with since the Republican primaries.
But Mr. Trump loosed what was perhaps an even more egregious barrage of tweets just two days earlier. CNN's had voluntarily retracted an earlier story allegedly linking a Russian investment firm with a former Trump advisor, a report that, although not necessarily incorrect, CNN saw as insufficiently sourced. The network publicly apologized for the retracted report, and three journalists who worked on the story, which never actually made it onto any CNN television networks, resigned.
Of course, Trump couldn't help but crow "FAKE NEWS!", and "What about all the other phony stories they do?", culminating in the positively unhinged rant, "So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”
So, just so we are clear, this is the sitting President of the United States publicly stating that three major television networks, one major cable news channel and two of America's most respected newspapers are not legitimate sources of news. This is new ground, and a new low even by Mr. Trump's low standards. It is nothing less than an attack on the free press, and it should send shivers up all of us.
Furthermore, putting words into action, the administration is reducing the frequency of news briefings, and even banning television cameras from many of those briefings, actions that may reasonably be described as hobbling the mainstream media, otherwise known as censorship.
Pro-Trump "news" sources like Fox News, Breitbart and National Review, organs which really do engage in fake news, will presumably benefit from this, and have been quick to collude with the Trump administration in accusing CNN and others of "endemic absence of journalistic ethics and chronic malpractice". This is rich indeed coming fron the National Review.
Where, then, does this leave the free less in modern America? In a very perilous place indeed, is the only conclusion we can reach.

If there was any doubt at all about Mr. Trump's psychotic attitude towards the press and his borderline mentally unbalanced lack of perspective and appropriateness in his use of social media, then it came just a few days later, when he posted a tasteless mock video of himself as a wrestler bludegeoning a CNN character to within an inch of its life.
Once again, both Democrats and Republicans have joined together in protesting Trump's latest enormity, which comes over as an incitement to violence against the journalists. White House lackeys, predictably, continue to back Trump by characterizing it as a harmless barb against what he sees as a hostile and antagonistic press corp. Trump himself says he sees his social media usage as "MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL". He followed this up with yet more diatribes against "fake news" and "garbage journalism", culminating in the devastatingly poignant rhetoric, "I'm President, they're not", which drew a standing ovation at a "Celebrate Freedom" event in New York recently.
It gets more Orwellian by the day.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Is the bush back? It's complicated

An interesting and fun documentary piece on CBC's Out in the Open explores the delicate subject of pubic hair and the age-old dilemma of "to shave or not to shave".
In recent years, the fashion trend has been for complete shaves, or Brazilians (why Brazilian, I have no idea). Any random sample of Internet porn - which is an important pubic hair fashion driver, like it or not - will still confirm that. But, more recently, some fashion commentators (notably The New York Times) have suggested, largely on the evidence of a few celebrities from what I can see, that the pendulum is now swinging back to a more natural, hairy look.
Well, interviews with aestheticians, doctors and students (some, at least) suggest that is not the case in the real world (or at least in Canada). Women still feel a distinct social pressure to shave, and many have convinced themselves that it "feels" cleaner and more hygienic (even if there is no real correlation between hairlessness and hygiene), and even somehow more feminine.
Not everyone waxes, of course, and older people and those who consider themselves strong feminists are more likely to sport a bush. Apparent there is something called the "full bush Brazilian", which is a full bush on top with a shaved "undercarriage", but, like the "landing strip" fashion which had its moment a few years ago, this seems to be very much a minority trend.
So, there you have it. The bush is back. Or not. It's complicated.

Falun Gong - evil cult or unfairly persecuted religion?

A recent article in the Globe and Mail by a Falun Gong apologist has prompted me to question: what are we really to think about Falun Gong?
According to the Chinese government, Falun Gong is not a religion but an "evil cult" that causes "physical and psychological harms" to its practitioners, who need to be protected from the organization's depredations. Murky but largely unsubstantiated stories of mutilations and mass suicides were spread around by state organs.
Supporters, on the other hand, insist that Falun Gong is a harmless spiritual faith based on meditative exercises and a set of moral teachings based on truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Most westerners only come into contact with Falun Gong through their ubiquitous marching bands, that seem to attend every little community parade, or the popular Shen Yun dance company (which also acts as a propaganda arm for the organization).
But there is more. Supporters maintain that, given the estimates of around 70 million Falun Gong practitioners in China, the Chinese Communist Party sees it as an ideological challenge to its own power, which is why it has been pursuing a campaign to eliminate the organization since about 1999. This includes subjecting practitioners to arbitrary arrest, torture and even, allegedly, widespread deaths. Claims that the internal organs of Falun Gong detainees are being sold for profit in a state-sponsored scheme are less well-attested, but are now an integral part of Falun Gong lore and campaigning.
Now, it is well know that China's approach to law and civil rights is notoriously blunt and heavy-handed, and not always respectful of international law, but are these claims really to be taken seriously? Who, in the end, is right about the organization?
Well, Falun Gong (or Falun Data, as it is also known) is a spiritual movement or religion of sorts, based as they say on meditation and morality, a sort of offshoot of both Buddhism and Taoism. It was founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992, one of the many qigong-based sects established in China during the 1980s and 1990s.
It is also uncontestable that, after initial state support, the Chinese state declared in 1999, after some increasingly high-profile demonstrations and calls for freedom from state interference, that Falun Gong was a "heretical organization" that threatened the social stability of the country, and instituted a crackdown and propaganda campaign aimed at eradicating the organization. Hundreds of thousands of extra-judicial arrests followed, and the widespread use of forced labour, psychiatric abuse and torture does indeed seem to have occurred. Human rights organizations estimate that over 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners may have died in custody.
Is Falun Gong a cult? Founder Li Hongzhi is certainly venerated by the group's adherents, although he does not seem to be excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of the organization. He caused some embarrassment in his early interviews, when he babbled almost incoherently about apocalyptic visions and ghostly aliens infiltrating humanity, after which he wisely kept a much lower media profile. He is a mysterious, divisive and somewhat flaky presence, but he does not fit the usual descrition of a cult leader. Yes, members are expected to contribute materially to the running of the organization, but most observers have concluded that Falun Gong should not be classified as a cult, given that its members may marry outside the group and retain old friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from mainstream society, and do not believe that the world is about to end.
So, all in all, it does seem like a cut-and-dried case of state oppression of an innocent and harmless group. This is not to say that Falun Gong should be encouraged - any group that believes that meditation and prayer can heal all diseases should be given a wide berth, as should any organization that whips its members into such a frenzy that they are inspired to self-immolation (yes, that happened too). But China's persecution of the group is definitely disproportionate to the threat it poses.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Canadian record kill shot - advice and assistance or combat?

There's been a lot in the Canadian press recently about the record-breaking "kill shot" by a Canadian sniper in Iraq the other day.
The Joint Task Force 2 sniper, who remains nameless for the time being, presumably so that his family do not become the targets of reprisal actions, used a McMillan TAC-50 rifle to kill an Islamic State fighter 3,540 metres away, disprupting the imminent IS attack, and allowing Iraqi security forces to continue their advance.
It seems that Canadian sharpshooter are among the best in the world. This record shot blew away the previous world record of 2,475 metres, which was by a British sniper in 2009, but the two record sniper shots before that one were both by Canadian soldiers.
It was certainly an extraordinary feat, especially considering that a bullet takes about 10 seconds to cover that distance, and is subject all sorts of variables like wind speed and direction, the curvature of the earth, and of course gravity. In fact, it's almost too good to be true, even if it was independently verified by at least two different sources. Could it not have been just blind luck? Could he actually have been shooting at the guy next to the one that died?
Anyway, I don't mean to demean the achievement. I'm just a little concerned that we are talking about this like it was just another entry in the Guiness Book of World Records, along with the world's fattest cat and the largest outdoor yoga class. This was an assassination and someone died in the setting of this record.
The other thing that few people are taking about was brought up by Thomas Mulcair, leader (for a while at least) of the federal NDP party. Mulcair contends that, although the shot was a technical marvel, it represents an act of war, and is effectively ground combat under another name, which goes directly against the repeated claims of the government that Canada is only in the Middle East in an "advise and assist" capacity. Mulcair: "It seriously calls into question [the] government's claim that Canadian Forces are not involved in direct combat in Iraq."
Now, you could argue that Mulcair is just taking cheap political "shots" against Justin Trudeau, as his job description requires, and you would have a point. I'm also not sure that I agree with Mulcair's assertion that milirary actions and shots like this are called by politicians (and specifically by Justin Trudeau, to hear Mr. Mulcair tell it), and not by the military forces on the ground. I would have thought that such an action could well come under the auspices of "advise and assist", and whether it constitutes "combat" (which Mr. Trudeau was elected on specifically avoiding) is largely a matter of semantics and opinion.
But I think that Mulcair is right to bring the point up. Someone (and who better than the leader of an opposition party) has to keep tabs on the government's foreign policy, to ensure that there is no "mission creep", and to make sure that the government sticks to its election promises. This is particularly important since, in recent months, a lack of transparency has started to become a worrying trend for the Trudeau Liberals.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mr. Trump's new (not new) idea for that Mexican wall

While Rome burns and his administration teeters and most of his election pledges lurch towards the abyss, that Donald Trump guy (remember him?) is still harping on about that wall (remember that?).
The other day, he announced that he had had a great new idea, "an idea that nobody has heard about yet": the security wall along the US border with Mexico could also have solar panels, which would help pay for it. He seems to think that this is his idea: "Solar wall, panels, beautiful. I mean actually think of it, the higher it goes the more valuable it is. Pretty good imagination right? Good? My idea!" In fact, at least one of the designs submitted for the wall by construction contractors includes solar panels. He still seems to think that Mexico will pay for the wall, but "this way, Mexico will have to pay much less money, and that's good, right?"
The fact that he is still thinking about the wall is one thing, but it's more the child-like way he comes out with these things that concerns me. Supposedly, many people voted for him because they felt they could relate to him, that he seemed like the guy next door (and this is a good recommendation for a President?). But it seems the Western World is being "led" by a man who talks like a tween.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tip inflation and tip shaming

In recent years, "tip inflation" and "tip shaming" have become legitimate issues, at least in North America.
Notwithstanding the ongoing problem of having to decide whether a tip of any kind is appropriate, generally speaking a tip of 10% would traditionally be considered low (but not an insult), 15% would be fairly standard, and 20% would be seen as generous or marking service above and beyond the call of duty.
However, more recently, and particularly in the United States, tipping rates have been on the increase, and tips of 20%, 25% and even 30% or 35% are more common. Recent data from Square, a popular digital payments system, shows that the average tip for taxis in the USA is now 16.5%, for food and beverages 17%, and for hair salons a whopping 18.6%.
At least part of the impetus for this hike is the advent of customizable payment screens with pre-calculated tip options. For example, Square's default top suggestions are no tip, 15%, 20%, and 25%. If, therefore, you see tip options of 20%, 25% and 30%, you know that the business owner has deliberately over-ridden those defaults (and notice that 10% is not even an option on the default settings!) We came across this very often on a recent trip to Hawaii, where digital payment systems like Square are immensely popular.
So, faced with an unpalatable selection of tip options after some distinctly so-so customer service, what is a fair-minded consumer to do? Most are too embarrassed to look for alternatives, and just tap one of the available options and swallow the cost. This kind of "tip shaming", though, leads to simmering resentment among consumers, and to even more tip inflation, thus snowballing the whole problem.
If you hate the whole idea of tipping, then many Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong typically do not expect tips and tipping may even lead to awkwardness and offence (although you can of course still tip - discreetly - for exceptional service), and this is also a common practice in several other countries including Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Estonia, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. And don't get me started on countries like France and Italy, which add in a "service compris" or "coperto" line on the bill, whatever the service was like!

Sweden leads the push to take GHGs out of the cement industry

Sweden is utilizing a new technology that might help green the cement industry, a problem that has proved quite intractable up until now.
Cement and concrete is the world's most-used building material, but it's production is a very carbon-intensive process: each ton of cement creates half a ton of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), and worldwide cement production on its own is estimated to contribute a huge 5-6% of global CO2 emissions. Part of the cement production process involves heating limestone to 1400°C in order to turn it into quick lime. This is very energy-intensive in itself, but the main problem is that this chemical process produces CO2 as a by-product, and lots of it.
Now, Sweden is one of the world's greenest countries. Only 25% of the country's primary energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, and its goal is to become a net-zero producer of CO2 by 2045. It first introduced a carbon tax over 40 years ago, after the shock of the oil crises of the 1970s, and currently has one of the world's highest carbon taxes, at $150 per ton. However, only power companies pay the full whack of these carbon taxes - most industrial companies can take advantage of EU loopholes allowing them to circumvent national taxes by trading emissions on the open market, which means that they may actually pay as little as $10 per ton. That EU price will increase, though, and more environmentally-conscious companies like the huge German-owned cement producer Heidelberg (which has its own ambitious goal of achieving net-zero CO2 production by 2030) are looking for ways to improve their own industry's record.
At their facility in Degerhamn, Sweden, Heidelberg is now using a process in which a green goo of naturally-occurring algae from the nearby Baltic Sea makes use of the CO2 from the cement plant in its own natural photosynthesis process. The science behind it is not particularly new, but the supercharged process used by Heidelberg was developed by environmental scientist Catherine Legrand and her team of researchers at Sweden's Linnaeus University. A single pass through the algae removes up to 45% of the greenhouse gas, and a few more passes remove almost all of the CO2 before the cleaned-up exhaust is released into the air. Even better, the resulting algae is rich in fats and proteins and can be used in feed for chickens and farmed fish.
It is not yet clear whether the new process will translate well to other sites and other types of algae, and the economics are partially dependent on the price farmers and feed companies are willing to pay for the algae animal-feed product. But full marks for Heidelberg and Sweden for leading the charge to address a particularly knotty greenhouse gas problem.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Medical life-and-death decisions just got even harder

British-Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen has added yet more confusion to an already murky and fraught area of medical ethics, with his new book Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death.
Dr. Owen's contention is that up to 20% of seriously brain-damaged patients who are in a minimally-conscious, vegetative or non-responsive state are actually more aware than they may seem. He has spent the last 20 years using brain-scanning technology like fMRI to try and communicate with such patients in a kind of "20 questions" type of yes-no query approach.  He maintains that these patients can see, hear and understand what is going on in the world around them, but are unable to communicate their understanding and their wishes.
Other scientists are more skeptical about Owen's methods, results and interpretations, claiming that some of his studies are not scientifically valid, and that there is no way of telling which responses are mere automatic responses, and Owen himself accepts these criticisms as part of the scientific process. He is the first to admit that he and his fellow researchers still have a long way to go in understanding and fine-tuning his findings and their ramifications.
Dr. Owen says it is "extremely naive" to assume that all such patients are unhappy, but the questions remain as to what assumptions are in fact justifiable, and just what it is that makes a life worth living. If a patient in a persistent vegetative state is deemed to have no chance of recovery, is it doing more harm to keep him or her alive or to terminate their pain, ignorant as we are of their own feelings and wishes? Some relatives in high profile cases claim that only some imaginary friend called God is able to make such life-and-death decisions, but should we give any credence at all to such views? In Ontario, a medical ethics body called the Consent and Capacity Board (CCB) are tasked with this unenviable determination in each individual case, and other similar bodies exist in other provinces and countries.
As medical ethicist Prof. Arthur Shafer asks, what is the point in keeping a person alive when they cannot possibly benefit from "aggressive life-prolonging medical care"? Prof. Shafer argues that, if there is no chance of recovery, such care is at best futile and at worst positively harmful, keeping people alive while in pain or distress, or in a condition they themselves might find undignified or repugnant. What's more, intensive care beds are scarce and expensive, and others may benefit from them more.
Dr. Owen's research is still not available for regular use at local hospitals, and it is not clear whether it will ever amount to a reliable or definitive technique, despite all the media attention his work has been attracting. But many experts in the field question how much value it might have anyway. If It turns out that some, even a relatively small proportion, of these kinds of patients are actually cognitively intact, how then should that affect clinical practice? As one intensive care physician puts it, "that scares the bejeezus out of me".

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Liberals should be discouraged from tabling more omnibus bills

I've never been a huge fan of the Canadian Senate, although, to be fair, it's not living on a whole different planet like Britain's House of Lords sometimes seems to be.
Senators are appointed and not elected, which gives the Senate an awkward non-democratic character. Almost everything I have ever read about the body makes use of the phrase "chamber of sober second thought", which has become something of a mantra, although it does convey quite effectively the flavour of the Senate's purpose and function. There is a certain amount of partisanship in the chamber although, soon after being elected in 2015, Justin Trudeau "released" the Liberal senators from any party affiliations, and they now sit as independents. In most cases, the Senate just reviews government legislation, acting as a foil against any excesses, particularly in a government majority situation such as we currently have here in Canada. This is not quite a rubber-stamping exercise, although it can sometimes seem that way.  Certainly, historically, instances of the Senate overruling the House of Commons are few and far between.
Which is why the current kerfuffle over the government omnibus budget bill C-44 is all the more notable.
Now, I object to omnibus bills (the practice of combining several different, and often unrelated, bills into one huge and complex piece of legislation, usually as a means of pushing through a lot of legislation with a limited amount of discussion and debate) even more than I object to the idea of an unelected senate. Stephen Harper's Conservatives made free use of omnibus bills during the tenure of the previous administration, and the Liberals and NDP were outraged every time, accusing the Conservatives of a lack of accountability and transparency. Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 on a platform that included a pledge of no more omnibus bills. A year and half into his incumbency, and what does he do?
The budget bill currently being debated includes the creation of several entirely new laws, including the Canada Infrastructure Bank Act, the Borrowing Authority Act, the Invest In Canada Act, and the Services Fees Act, all of which need proper study and debate, even though the Liberal majority in the House saw fit to pass it with very little discussion. Finance Minster Bill Morneau is arguing, rather disingenuously I think, that anything that was in the recent budget belongs in the budget bill. The Senate, though, led by Independent Senator André Pratte, has moved that the huge and important Canada Infrastructure Bank Act at very least should be split out from the omnibus bill and debated separately. The House Liberals are desperate to avoid more delays, particularly on the infrastructure bank, and really do not want the bill to go back to the House of Commons for yet more debate, especially with the summer recess looming.
I think Senator Pratte is right. If nothing else, the Liberals need to be taught the lesson that transparency is important, and that borrowing suspect plays from the Conservatives' playbook when it suits them is not OK. The irony is that, if the Liberals had put the infrastructure bank bill forward separately, it might already have been passed by now.

In the end, the Senate vote on the budget bill was evenly split - 38-38, with one abstention - which was enough to ensure that Senator Pratte's amendment was defeated. But hopefully, it was also enough to give Justin Trudeau and his Liberals pause, and to deter them from using omnibus bills of this kind in the future.
This neatly underlines the Senate's role, which is not to second-guess or subvert our main elected body of law-makers, but to act as a voice of reason and to guard against extreme measures and undemocratic tendencies. It did this when Stephen Harper was at his most dictatorial, and here is a timely reminder to Justin Trudeau not to go down the same path.
Senator Pratte himself points out that, although the Senate seems to have amended a large number of government bills over the last year or so, in many cases the amendments were accepted by the government, which agreed that the changes actually made the bills better. In many other cases, though, the bills were sent back unchanged to Senate, and the Senate (conscious of its unelected and secondary role) meekly accepted them. In fact, not one bill was ultimately blocked or rejected by the Senate.
The Senate is quite conscious of its role: it makes suggestions and alerts public opinion; it makes sure that legislation is properly drafted, and that it complies with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Reports of  an out-of-control "FrankenSenate", which represent a grave danger to our democracy, are greatly overstated.

In an unfortunate turn of events after a few days of rancorous exchanges between the Senate and the government, the Senate has effectively stamped their foot and taken their ball and gone home.
Although the Senate has approved, in genetal terms, the budget bill C-44 - including the infrastructure bank part that was an earlier sticking point - it sent the bill back to the House with a few picky amendments proposed by a Conservative Senator relating to the proposed automatic tax increases for inflation on beer, wine and spirits. The House of Commons then chose to reject those amendments, even though they are really not a major part of a huge encompassing omnibus bill, thus killing the whole bill until after the summer recess. So, I guess they were not that desperate to last it early after all...
What's kind of sad is that the impetus for all these last minute exchanges, and the ultimate rejection of the bill, has mainly been posturing and chest-thumping, both by the House Liberals and by the Senate. The House of Commons, by unanimously rejecting the Senate's small amendments, sent a message that the Senate should not "infringe on the privileges of the House". The Senate, for their part, objected to the Liberals' claim that unelected senators do not have the jurisdiction to alter or make suggestions on a finance bill (clearly they do, and they have in fact already amended two finance bills since Justin Trudeau's election in late 2015). The result? Neither chamber really got what they wanted, and the whole thing will probably have to be resurrected again in September.

At the last possible moment, on the very last day before Parliament goes on its summers hols, the Senate actually pulled back from the brink, passing the budget bill (including the Canada Infrastructure Bank Bill and all the rest) by a margin of 50-33, with Conservative Senators continuing to object.
So the upper house toed the line in the end, but nevertheless passed on loud and clear the unmistakable message that, yes, they absolutely can change budget and finance bills, and don't go abusing your majority mandate by hiding important issues deep in omnibus bills.
And it is no coincidence that on the very same day, the Senate declined to pass another government bill - S-3, on taking the sexism out of the Indian Act (declined, incidentally, on the grounds that it did not go far enough) - sending the bill back to the House of Commons, where it will now languish until mid-September.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Calcio storico, a bizarre, violent and fascinating sport

I only recently discovered the ancient sport of calcio storico, also known as calcio fiorentino (historic or Florentine football), a bizarre combination of rugby and mixed martial arts. It is often regarded as the world's most brutal sport, and presents an annual spectacle on a par with Pamplona' s running of the bulls.
Popularized in Renaissance Florence, when apparently nobles, aristocrats and even popes played the game, calcio drifted out of popularity in the 17th century before being revived again the 20th. The official rules were drawn up in 1580, and a tournament is played each June between four teams from the various quarters of the city of Florence.
Each match is played on a sand pitch about 80m x 40m between two teams of 27 players, with no substitutions allowed even when injuries occur (which they do, with great regularity), and a game lasts 50 minutes with no break. The aim is to get the ball, by any means necessary into the opponent's goal, a narrow slit at each end of the pitch, although care must be taken when shooting because a miss causes a caccia or goal to be counted against the shooting team. In doing so, almost anything goes - punching, kicking, head-butting, choking, tripping, tackling, wrestling. Just about the only disallowed moves are kicks to the head and sucker punches, and it is prohibited for more than one player to attack an opponent.
The games take place in the main square of Florence, surrounded by much medieval pomp, ceremony and colour, and are a much-anticipated and well-attended part of the city's cultural calendar.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Shadenfreude over Ronaldo's tax fraud accusations

Why does this not surprise me? Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best football player ever (and certainly the best paid), has been accused of defrauding Spain of €14.7 million in taxes between 2011 and 2014.
Ronaldo certainly knows his way around a soccer pitch, but he makes around €80 million a year for doing it with top Spanish club Real Madrid, what with all his endorsements, etc. After the Lionel Messi tax débacle, Ronaldo is on record as saying that he has nothing to hide and is not afraid of any tax investigation. But Spanish authorities are now accusing him of using a "business structure" to hide his income, and other leaked documents suggest that he also uses offshore accounts to avoid tax on his income.
Personally, I don't like the guy. He is a supercilious egotist, and a prima donna who whines when he doesn't get the ball enough (far be it from him to go and GET it). Yes, he has a physique, but does he really need to keep ripping his shirt off to show us? Like Messi, Beckham, Maradonna, and any number of other soccer prima donnas, he is not someone you would want to go for a beer with. Who was the last football superstar I would have gone for a beer with? Not sure. Do we really have to go back to Johann Cruyff? Miroslav Klose perhaps? Anyway, I digress...
My point is that Ronaldo's comeuppance does not surprise me. He will probably use of a few of his many millions to hire the best lawyers, but I do hope that, like Messi, he is well and truly hauled over the coals, if only to send a message to others.

Distrust of Chinese takeover bid illogical but visceral

The ongoing takeover bid by Chinese company Hytera Communications of the Canadian satellite communications company Norsat International has stirred up a lot of emotion on all sides.
The Vancouver-based company sells sensitive communications technology to both the Canadian and American national security forces. The Liberal government has recently greenlighted the sale to the Chinese company, though, apparently without a full national security review to assess the possible impact of transferring proprietary technology outside Canada.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains has publicly insisted, rather disingenuously it seems to me, that the government is following the recommendations of the Canadian national security agencies. However, it seems clear that all the deal has actually been subjected to is the usual initial screening process applied to all out-of-country company sales, and not a full national security review. At least two ex Canadian national security directors have gone on record as being surprised and concerned that a full national security review was not carried out.
The Conservatives and NDP are predictably up in arms about it, and now the Liberals are also coming under pressure from a US congressional commission, which does not want to see American military security compromised, particularly not by the Chinese. Mr. Trudeau, for his part, insists that the Americans were consulted on the deal, although he seems reluctant to offer any more details about this consultation process.
The sale has been temporarily put on hold while a counter-bid by an American company, Privet Fund Management, is considered, but Hytera - owned by Chinese billionaire Chen Qingzhou, and boasting access to almost unlimited Chinese state financing - is expected to easily outbid it.
What I find most interesting is the reaction of the Western national security people to the fact that the sale is to a Chinese company. If the US Privet bid were to be accepted, for example, there would not be the same clamouring for national security reviews, and a cursory regular screening would be all that would be required. But China is a very different kettle of fish.
The Trudeau Liberals are throwing themselves into opening up trade with China in a big way, and given the difficulties Canada is currently having with US trade, you can kind of understand the trend. However, I too feel a distinct ambivalence towards increased dealings with China, even if not for any specific reasons - it is all somehow vaguely connected with the China's iffy civil rights policies, and the country's secrecy and general inscrutibility. Brut we are not at war with China, nor they with us, and there is no reason to immediately suspect that the Canadian satellite communications technology is going to be turned against us in some way.
There are clearly some double standards at work here, but there is just something about the "otherness" of China that compels an instinctive and visceral distrust. Interesting, and a little scary.

It ought to be instructive to the Prime Minister that a recent Nanos poll indicates that 76% of Canadians oppose the NorSat sale to the Chinese, and 78% oppose the sale of Montreal-based ITF Technologies to Hong Kong's O-Net Communications, which is also partly owned by the Chinese government. This after an April poll that showed nearly 90% of Canadians are "uncomfortable" with the idea of increased Chinese access to Canada's economy.
Based on these results, pollster Nik Nanos commented that, "If the government continues to embark on this path, it will probably be a significant political risk for them." That should give Mr. Trudeau pause, but somehow I don't think it will enter significantly into his calculations.

Monday, June 12, 2017

We have to take Jeremy Corbyn seriously now

Has the time finally come to take Jeremy Corbyn seriously?
The long-time hard-left back-bencher, for many years a thorn in the side of previous UK Labour leader Tony Blair (he is recorded as having voted against his own party some 500 times since becoming an MP in 1983), surprised everyone, not least the Labour Party itself, by winning the party leadership in 2015, with a creditable 60% of the votes. He gave hope to many old (and new) Labour voters who saw a potential return to a more socialistic Labour Party after years of wishy-washy "New Labour" policies under Tony Blair. However, many in the party still refused to accept his leadership or take him seriously, considering him to be unelectable within the contemporary political climate of Britain. And, certainly, he seemed to be doing himself no favours for the longest time. He is not an instantly likeable individual, and his reputation going into last week's election was more as a bumbling ideologue than as a strong and charismatic leader.
Luckily, though, his main opponent in he election, Theresa May, is another such uncharismatic ideologue. Corbyn stumbled out of the gate initially (as also did May), but then seemed to find his feet with a Bernie Sanders-like style. His message revolved around traditional Labour issues like taxing the rich, re-nationalizing the railways, free university tuition, and a "soft" Brexit, that resonated particularly with the under-30s demographic.
In the end, he did not actually defeat May, but he saw Labour increase its seat total by 32 and come within 2% of the Tories in the popular vote, and many on the left are treating the election as a major victory. Certainly, it has reduced the Conservatives to relying on a shaky alliance with the little Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to retain power of any kind. The DUP is a kind of single-issue regional party, not dissimilar to the Bloc Québécois in Canada in that respect, but the DUP is significantly more right wing than even the British Conservative Party, and still opposes same-sex marriage and abortion among other things. It is therefore not an ideal partner, but no other party is willing to work with the Conservatives.
Mr. Corbyn, though, still sees a real possibility of toppling this Conservative alliance and taking the position of Prime Minister for himself, an idea that would have seemed laughable just a few short weeks ago. His first big opportunity will come as early as next week when Theresa May gives her Throne Speech.
Corbyn may have been the clown prince of Labour politics for many years, but he now finds himself in the unlikely role of kingmaker, or even heir apparent. Now, we HAVE to take him seriously.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The skinny on the juice vs. coke debate

I've been reading an increasing number of articles recently about juice being just as bad for us as Coca-Cola. The articles always seem to be written with such sanctimonious relish and shadenfreude, that it has made me doubly intent on ferreting out the truth behind the claims.
The conventional wisdom is that, at its simplest, soda pops = artificial + bad, while juice = natural + good. And there's certainly some truth to that. Fruit juices - and here I am talking about 100% unsweetened fruit juice, not the sweetened drinks that masquerade as juice - contain natural sugars in the form of fructose. Pop on the other hand is mainly sweetened these days with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a combination of glucose and fructose (HFCS is corn syrup treated to convert some of its natural glucose into fructose). Both are sugars, and both are to a certain degree "unhealthy", and when taken to excess can lead to medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. We all eat and drink too much sugar in its various forms, that much is undeniable.
However, a growing body of evidence seems to suggest that fructose may be even unhealthier than glucose and other sugars, partly because fructose is processed in the liver and is typically converted straight to fat rather than used as body fuel. This idea is by no means uncontested, though, and many nutritionists believe that all sugars should be treated equally (and reduced). What is generally agreed on is that, when fructose is ingested in the form of whole fruits, the fibre that comes with it slows down and reduces the absorption of sugars by the body. The fibre in whole fruits also make it less likely that we will overindulge, whereas it is all too easy to drink glass after glass of juice. So, yes, whole fruit is significantly better than juice - fair enough, that makes intuitive sense to me.
As for how much fructose different drinks contain, a 2014 study published in Nutrition journal and reported by NPR shows the following:
  • Mountain Dew: 72.3 g/L
  • Mugs Root Beer: 66.9 g/L
  • Minute Maid 100% Apple Juice: 65.8 g/L
  • Pepsi: 65.7 g/L
  • Coca-Cola: 62.5 g/L
  • Dr. Pepper: 61.4 g/L
  • Arizona Ice Tea: 59.3 g/L
  • Ocean Spray 100% Cranberry Juice: 55.4 g/L
  • Kool-Aid Jammers: 49.0 /L
  • 7-Up: 45.8 g/L
  • Hawaiian Punch: 41.0 g/L
  • Sunny D: 32.8 g/L
  • Tropicana 100% Orange Juice: 28.3 g/L
  • Gatorade Lemon Lime: 23.2 g/L
So, what can we glean from this? One, not all juices are created equal, and we should avoid Minute Maid Apple Juice like the plague (grape juice is typically even higher in sugar). And two, gsensible juices like Tropicana Orange Juice, which is what I tend to buy, are in fact at least half as unhealthy (twice as healthy?) as colas and other pops. Which is kind of what I always thought in the first place... And I will take the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in fruit juice over the empty calories of pop any day.
Except, of course, that it's not even that simple (of course it isn't).
I found an analysis of the different sugars in 100% orange juice - something that the other reports I have read don't seem to have touched on - which reveals that only about 27% of the sugars in juice is actually the frowned-on fructose, while 25% is glucose and 42% sucrose (sucrose is basically what we think of as table sugar, a naturally occurring combination of fructose and glucose, although without the processing, bleaching and crystallization).
  • Coca-Cola: 65% fructose and 35% glucose
  • Pepsi: 63% fructose and 37% glucose
  • Sprite: 61% fructose and 39% glucose
  • Hawaiian Fruit Punch: 61% fructose and 39% glucose
  • Arizona Iced Tea: 58% fructose and 42% glucose
  • Mountain Dew: 53% fructose and 47% glucose
  • Dr. Pepper: 52% fructose and 48% glucose
  • Snapple Kiwi Strawberry: 44% fructose, 56% glucose and 13% sucrose
So, it turns out that pops and sweetened beverages, because of the HFCS almost exclusively used in their manufacture, are actually much higher in fructose than natural orange juice anyway, which kind of negates much of the point being made in all these recent articles about how the fructose in natural juice is worse for us than pop.
All in all, it sounds to me like another case of journalistic largesse gone wrong, a case of not letting evidential science get in the way of a good story. I should have known not to trust any issue the Daily Mail takes up in earnest...
And the solution: as always, apply common sense and moderation. Drink lots of water, water down your juice, and don't drink the Cool-Aid.

Auto-Tune's moment is past - keep it real!

I'm intrigued by the lack of information available on the internet about top artists who DON'T use Auto-Tune pitch-correcting software, either live or in recordings. Yes, there is the odd query on Quora or Yahoo, but the responses are anecdotal, amateurish and most definitely not definitive.
The best I can elucidate is that Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and Neko Case definitely reject the technology on principal, because they have gone on record as saying so. Jay-Z is also outspoken against the use of Auto-Tune, although it would not be very relevant to his own style of rap music anyway. P!nk, Nelly Furtado and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco are other possibles, although many people still claim to detect its use in some of their songs. Certainly, any artist recording before Cher's "Believe" became the first (and possibly worst) example of Auto-Tune to hit the public consciousness back in 1998 would, almost by definition, not have used Auto-Tune, although that's still no guarantee that these artists did not then go on to use it in subsequent recordings.
The truth is, Auto-Tune, and related products like Melodyne, are absolutely ubiquitous in pop music today. The Auto-Tune product was first launched in 1997, and by 2003 the vast majority of recording artists were apparently already using it.  In her above-mentioned interview, Neko Case once asked a studio guy in Toronto, "How many people don't use Auto-Tune?", and he replied, "You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who've never used it in here".
Some artists, like Kanye West and T-Pain for example, have gone the other way, deliberately over-using the effect - which in a perverse way is perhaps a more honest approach - and the "T-Pain effect" joined the "Cher effect" in the mid-2000s. In 2009, Jay-Z, whose rap style happens not to include melodic elements and so just has no use for Auto-Tune anyway, released a track "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)", complete with some deliberately untuneful singing, as well as a whole anti-Auto-Tune album "Blueprint 3", as a statement against the excessive use of the technology by fellow rappers like Kanye West, T-Pain and Lil Wayne.
The problem is that that, when used subtly, it is essentially impossible to tell when Auto-Tune is being employed, and it can even be used in live performances to make singers sound better than they otherwise would. Hell, there is a whole sub-genre of YouTube videos comparing auto-tuned and non-auto-tuned singers. And don't even get me started on the various lip-syncing débacles over the years.
Me, I dislike Auto-Tune on principle. It just seems a shame that today's singers, some of whom are actually very good, even if not perfect, do not have the confidence to present their voices unadulterated. While some might see the technology as levelling the playing field, others see it as just old-fashioned cheating, and I'm afraid I am nearer to the latter camp than the former. There is essentially no way now to tell whether a singer is genuinely good or not, and surely that should still mean something?
To me, though, the worst of it is that the extent to which Auto-Tune is used kind of makes everyone sound the same, even though that is not a necessary corollary of the technology itself. It has become the fashion, the expectation, and most recording artists who are just out to make a buck feel obliged to toe the line. It is not often that I actually listen to mainstream radio stations, but when I do I am struck by the sameness of the songs, and the glaring use of Auto-Tune is definitely part of that.
So, come on people, it was just a phase, let's get over it! Generations of singers have managed without it, and generations may do so again. Good music does not have to be note perfect - computers can do that all on their own. Quite honestly, there is way too much music out there anyway, not all of it of top quality, and "levelling the playing field" is perhaps not in the best interests of music as a whole. What is it these hip-hop people say? - "Keep It Real!"

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Even Republicans are worried about Trump's Twitter habit

His tweets are mainly fired off at ungodly hours of the morning, and you can almost imagine him sitting up in bed, Melania fast asleep in her rejuvenating face mask, (self-)righteous steam emitting from his ears, anger management techniques long forgotten or ignored. No other national leader comes close to Trump's use of Twitter, and you can see why - it is the least presidential and the most unforgiving of social media outlets, and Trump has used it to shoot himself in the foot over and over again.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary (now, THERE's a title!) has confirmed, if any confirmation were needed, that Trump's tweets are not vetted by lawyers or aides, and indeed it is difficult to imagine a little bespectacled policy wonk in that bed too. She claims that Trump likes Twitter as a means of communicating directly with the people "without the bias of the media filtering those kinds of communication".
But many Republicans are now questioning whether media bias might not be preferable to the kinds of holes Trump digs for himself and his party almost daily, all on his very ownsome. It's like he just can't resist a Twitter tirade, such as his out-of-context diatribe this week against London mayor Sadiq Khan, when everyone around him knows he should be showing some restraint and focusing on the many other domestic issues that are currently spiralling out of control. He just can't resist unnecessary and ill-advised needling, like his tweets against his own Justice Department, which he says forced through a "politically correct" and "watered down" Muslim ban (and yes, Trump uses the word "ban" in his tweets, contradicting the best efforts of his own staff). You could forgive a teenager for such poor judgement, but this is the supposed leader of the supposed free world!
Twitter as a medium of communication seems poorly suited as a means of directing the national and international policy of what is - at least for now - the most powerful country in the world. For Trump to use it to stir up the Saudi/Qatar/Iran hornets' nest, for example, as he did just this week, just seems plain wrong, not to mention scary. By its very nature, Twitter lends itself to off-the-cuff, flippant comments, and not potentially world-shaking policy changes that require deep thought and in-depth multi-agency discussions. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump, by HIS very nature, seems unable to distinguish between these very different activities.
As FBI director James Comey gears up to give some highly anticipated and potentially damaging evidence later this week, some high profile Republican talking heads are warning that Trump's Twitter habit is undermining his credibility and even directly impeding progress of his own political agenda. Several well-known GOP personalities, like lawyer George Conway, former advisor Barry Bennett, veteran consultant Rick Tyler, and senior Senator John Cornyn, have spoken out about it recently.
I have little or no sympathy for Trump or the Republicans, but nevertheless it is sad to see the presidency of a once-great country sink to these depths. And for a powerful world leader to use a trivial social media tool - typically used by teenagers to tell their friends what they had for dinner, for example - to conduct national and international state policy is just plain inappropriate. VERY BAD!!

Monday, June 05, 2017

We Are Still In is grassroots activism by people with real money and power

Since Donald Trump vowed on June 1st to unilaterally pull America out of the Paris climate change agreement, there has been an unprecedented coalition of US state governors, city mayors, university presidents and company CEOs committed to meeting the USA's Paris targets.
In a remarkable show of solidarity and grass roots opposition to Trump's ill-advised policies, over 1,000 (and growing) states, cities, universities, investors and companies have joined together in an organization called We Are Still In, whose mandate and full membership list can be seen at its website. There is not much that Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat (to name just a few) can agree on, but climate change is clearly one of them. By participating in this initiative, all these organizations are declaring that they will continue to work to ensure the United States pursues ambitious climate targets, even as the Trump administration tries it's best to squash any such efforts.
Significantly, one of the first cities to sign up for the initiative was Pittsburgh, in a direct and unequivocal response to Donald Trump's claim that: "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris". If that weren't enough, Pittsburgh is also part of the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy initiative organized by the Sierra Club.
And, when all's said and done, this does also reflect the will of the people. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows that Americans reject Trump's Paris agreement move by a margin of over 2 to 1. And the Gallup Daily poll on Trump's job approval in general is down to an all-time low of 37%.
The We Are Still In movement is being spearheaded by billionaire and ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also putting his money where his mouth is by committing $15 million of his own money to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretariat.
Wow! It's amazing what can get done when someone with some real power and money gets the bit between their teeth, rather than the usual overworked and underpaid activists.

Alberta man mows his lawn to internet stardom

You may have already seen this picture, but it is great, and so worth repeating.
Cecilia Wessels' photo of her husband Theunis mowing a lawn with a tornado behind him
Theunis Wessels is shown calmly mowing his lawn in Three Hills, Alberta, a small town just northeast of Calgary, as a humdinger of a tornado apparently races towards him (it actually moved east, away from Mr. Wessels' house and lawn, and was actually about 2km distant at the time of the picture, further away than it seems).
An instant classic of contemporary photography, and proof that Western Canadians are cool and macho (and nuts!).

People are drinking less and less alcohol

It seems that people are drinking less and less alcohol, according to a new International Wine and Spirit Record (IWSR) report, even though global GDP has been increasing. Global GDP increased by 3.5% in 2016 according to the IMF, and yet the global market for alcoholic drinks shrank by 1.3% over the same year. This is a much greater reduction than in the previous few years, which have seen an average 0.3% annual reduction. Normally, at least over the longer term, alcohol consumption and overall GDP tend to move in lockstep, but these recent stats appear to buck that trend.
The main driver of the contraction was in beer, which saw a 1.8% reduction in 2016, compared to a five-year annual fall of around 1.8%. Cider fell by 1.5%, and wine consumption remained relatively flat, falling by just 0.1%. Spirits, on the other hand, showed a modest increase of 0.3%, with gin, tequila and whiskey producers revealed as the big winners, with a 3.7%, 5.2% and 1.7% increase in global sales respectively.
A few large consumer countries had an outsized impact on the decline in global alcohol consumption: for example, beer sales in China, Brazil and Russia fell by 4.2%, 5.3% and 7.8% respectively; vodka sales in Russia fell a precipitous 9.3% (although Russia still remains by the largest consumer of vodka).
So, what are people doing instead of getting drunk? Or are they turning to home-brew and illegal hooch instead of buying their booze commercially? The report fails to tell us.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Trump's backing out of Paris agreement is just sad

Well, we all knew it was going to happen. President Trump has already reneged on so many election promises, he couldn't let one of this magnitude slip away too. But it still came as a slap in the face when Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris climate change agreement.
Well, technically, under the terms of the 2015 agreement, he can't actually do that until towards the end of his term. But yesterday he unequivocally expressed his intention to put America into an exclusive club, along with Nicaragua and Syria, as the only countries in the world unwilling to tackle the worldwide threat of climate change. Talk about "making America great again"...
Trump seems to think that Paris is just another deal that can be renegotiated in America's favour, just like all deals are infinitely renegotiable in his eyes. But the EU has made it more than clear that Paris is absolutely not renegotiable, and the rest of the world is moving on regardless of US unreliability and intransigence.
I could go on to rant about how most of corporate, political, municipal and scientific America has slammed the decision (with the glaring exception of most of Trump's closest Republican coterie), as has most of the rest of the world. I could describe how many states, municipalities and major companies have vowed to continue to pursue carbon-cutting policies regardless of the small-minded Mr. Trump's edicts. I could go on ad nauseam about how the decision was based on erroneous statistics and logic anyway. But the mainstream press has already done that, and  much better than I ever could. You can (and should) read it at your leisure.
I will just content myself with a personal reaction, albeit one that I believe will be shared by many. When I see Trump doing his best to dismantle one of the few structures and initiatives that has actually brought the counties of the world together over the last few years, my overwhelming feeling is sadness. Sadness for the world, sadness for the future, sadness for the majority of the American people, sadness for Barack Obama as he watches his legacy being undone, even sadness for Trump himself, as he becomes more and more of a ridiculous cartoon figure as time goes on.
Now, maybe he really does believe what he says, maybe he actually does love the working man as he claims (although forgive my skepticism about that). But hearing the tired old phrases be keeps trotting out for all occasions, contrary to expert opinion (not to mention the global Zeitgeist, my reaction lurches unpredictably between sadness and anger.
For a man whose catchphrase was (and apparently still is) "Make America Great Again", it is depressingly ironic that Donald Trump is currently presiding over a diminution in America's influence and prestige worldwide. It is increasingly difficult to take Trump and his beliefs seriously, and, increasingly, world leaders are just throwing up their hands in despair, and choosing to leave the USA out of their calculations. America is gradually alienating all its old allies and isolating itself, putting itself on a level with global pariahs like Syria and North Korea. Whoever thought that America could become an irrelevance in international politics, a mere afterthought!
If that's not sad, I don't know what is.

Not really America's most misspelled words

Google Trends has just tweeted out a list of what it calls "America's most misspelled words". It's a pretty strange and alarming list:
  • Alabama: Pneumonia 
  • Alaska: Schedule
  • Arizona: Tomorrow 
  • Arkansas: Chihuahua 
  • California: Beautiful  
  • Colorado: Tomorrow 
  • Connecticut: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious  
  • Delaware: Hallelujah 
  • District of Columbia: Ninety  
  • Florida: Receipt 
  • Georgia: Gray 
  • Hawaii: People 
  • Idaho: Quote 
  • Illinois: Appreciate 
  • Indiana: Hallelujah
  • Iowa: Vacuum
  • Kansas: Diamond 
  • Kentucky: Beautiful
  • Louisiana: Giraffe 
  • Maine: Pneumonia
  • Maryland: Special 
  • Massachusetts: License
  • Michigan: Pneumonia
  • Minnesota: Beautiful
  • Mississippi: Nanny
  • Missouri: Maintenance
  • Montana: Surprise
  • Nebraska: Suspicious
  • Nevada: Available
  • New Hampshire: Diarrhea
  • New Jersey: Twelve
  • New Mexico: Banana
  • New York: Beautiful
  • North Carolina: Angel
  • North Dakota: Dilemma
  • Ohio: Beautiful
  • Oklahoma: Patient
  • Oregon: Pneumonia
  • Pennsylvania: Sauerkraut
  • Rhode Island: Liar
  • South Carolina: Chihuahua
  • South Dakota: College
  • Tennessee: Chaos
  • Texas: Maintenance
  • Utah: Disease
  • Vermont: Europe
  • Virginia: Delicious
  • Washington: Sense
  • West Virginia: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
  • Wisconsin: Wisconsin
  • Wyoming: Priority
First, though, bear in mind that these are not subjects being researched on Google. In fact, what it really is is a list of words gathered from Google searches for "how to spell" in each of the 50 states. So they are more words that Americans are uncertain about, rather than words they actually get wrong or words that are routinely misspelled in search requests (which would perhaps be more interesting and illuminating).
So, it's not necessarily the case that people from Arkansas are obsessed with chihuahuas (although that MAY be the case), or Pennsylvanians with sauerkraut (which would be even stranger). These are specifically requests for how to spell words, which makes me think that most of them were probably requested by schoolkids writing essays or something of that sort (at least I hope so). Presumably someone typed in "how to spell newmonia", for example, and waited for Google to politely suggest "Did you mean how to spell pneumonia?"
But it does nevertheless still raise a whole host of questions and concerns. For instance, why are so many people in Connecticut and West Virginia concerned with the spelling of a nonsense song from a 1960s Disney movie? Why do so many people from Wisconsin have problems spelling their own state name? How many different ways ARE there to spell "banana" or "angel"? And what is it with Pennsylvania and sauerkraut anyway?
And what's wrong with using a dictionary?

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Deportations of Afghans a black mark on Germany's image

Another item on CBC's As It Happens program yesterday came as something of a surprise, at least to me.
We are used to thinking of Germany as being an open and welcoming country, and one taking much more than its fair share of refugees, particularly from the war-torn Middle East. But it seems that, for some time now, the Germany has been deporting refugee Afghans back to Afghanistan by the planeload, in an attempt to deter other Afghans from seeking refugee status there, and on the supposed grounds that the country is now safe to return to.
The deportation program has been temporarily suspended in the wake of yesterday's massive suicide car bombing in Kabul - ironically, Kabul is one of the regions of the country flagged by Germany as "safe", although yesterday's blast occurred in one of the capital's most secure neighbourhoods, and both the German and Canadian embassy buildings were damaged - but they are expected to start up again soon. The German press release yesterday suggests, rather callously, that they have "more important things to do than to prepare the organizational measures needed", giving the impression that the current hiatus in deportations is more do with paperwork than with a genuine concern for the safety of the deported individuals. It seems that some deported of the Afghans have been injured or even killed, and many have already left the country again in desperation.
What is perhaps even more shocking is the report of some of the techniques Germany is employing in their pursuit of the deportations, from the use of batons and dogs, to the surprise visits in the middle of the night or at school or work, eerily reminiscent of 1930s Gestapo techniques. Not the image of modern progressive Germany we are used to.
Several organizations, including the Afghan Refugees Movement, are protesting and working to get Germany to stop the deportations to what is clearly not a safe country, and one in which the repressive Taliban regime has been rapidly regaining ground in recent months.