Thursday, July 27, 2017

Scoby - what it is and what you can do with it

Yesterday, I was introduced for the first time to a SCOBY. Not personally, you understand, but through a radio program.
SCOBY, or more usually the lower-case scoby, is actually an acronym, and stands for "Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast". It is a sort of blobby light brown jelly thing, and is mainly used in the production of the currently-oh-so-popular drink, kombucha (kombucha, if it has somehow managed to pass you by, is a flavoured carbonated drink made from fermented sweet green tea).
A scoby is undeniably strange, not to mention gross and almost alien-looking. It sits like a raft on top of the fermenting kombucha, sealing it off and protecting it from the outside air and any undesirable bacteria. It is the living home for the bacteria and yeast that transform sweet tea into tangy and fizzy kombucha, kind of like a coral reef for microbes. It is a natural part of the kombucha brewing process, and a new layer grows on top of the old one each time a new batch is brewed. Over time, it becomes thicker, smoother, and more consistently coloured (although still not exactly appealing to look at).
What is perhaps even weirder is that there is now a whole subculture that has grown up around what to do with your excess scobys. Apparently, they can be added to a smoothie or other blended food, dried and made into a kind of jerky and used as a snack or in salads, made into a candy, used in place or raw fish in sushi, used as a face mask or bandage to help heal the skin from burns or other wounds, fed to pets or chickens, composted or spread on the garden, used in crafts in place of leather, used to make jum tea, etc, etc.
Other sources suggest it can also be used to wash your hair, as a cocktail, to make frozen popsicles, as an all-purpose cleaner around the house, as a foot soak, to ease a sore throat, as a natural pesticide in the garden, etc.
A few less convincing uses are for clothing, lampshades, and as a container for electronics projects.

Sperm counts are tanking in the developed world

There has been debate about it for years, but it now seems definitive that men's sperm counts, at least in the more developed parts of the world, are tanking.
A new high quality study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem indicates that sperm counts for men in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have decreased by an alarming 50-60% between 1973 and 2011. Interestingly, no such decline was found in men from Africa, Asia and South America. On the current trajectory, the developed world may be headed for a scary Handmaid's Tale-type infertility epidemic by around 2060.
Although the study was not able to pinpoint any causes, the fact that the declines are in the developed world (in both the northern and southern hemispheres) suggests that modern developed lifestyles may well be to blame. Whether that relates to air pollution, crop pesticides, or ubiquitous chemicals and agents like Bisphenol A (which has been linked to fertility problems) is not at all clear. Obesity has also been linked to low sperm counts.
Maybe the time has come to move back to the cradle of civilization?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Anthony Scaramucci generates hilarious misattributed lyrics meme

Couldn't resist covering this. New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci recently tweeted a pithy little inspirational quote attributed by him (and apparently by many other people) to the 19th Century American epigrammist Mark Twain:
Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you've never been hurt, and live like its heaven on earth.
Unfortunately, as its style probably suggests, this was not a Twainism at all. In fact, no-one really seems sure where it originally came from, although the closest source is a song lyric by country and western songwriters Susana Clark and Richard Leigh dating back to, oh, at least 1989:
You got to sing like you don't need the money, Love like you'll never get hurt, You got to dance like nobody's watchin', It's gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
An easy mistake on Scaramucci's part, perhaps. But, when you are the White House communications director, you have to expect a bit of push-back, and the tweet quickly generated a whole meme of mis-attributed song lyrics, some of which are hilarious. Here's a little sample:
When you cried, I'd wipe away all of your tears. When you'd scream, I'd fight away all of your fears.
- Albert Einstein
Don't want to close my eyes, Don't want to fall asleep, 'Cause I'd miss you baby, and I don't want to miss a thing.
- John Locke 
It's been 7 hours and 15 days, Since you took your love away. I go out every night and sleep all day, Since you took your love away.
- Plato 
Love, love will keep us together. Think of me, babe, whenever some sweet-talking girl comes along...
- Jesus Christ 
Mmmbop, ba duba dop. Ba du bop, ba duba dop. Ba du bop, ba duba dop.
- John Milton
So, Scaramucci has already added some value to the world. I truly believe that Sean Spicer would not have been capable of all that.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Quebec Muslim cemetery vote not necessarily a racist reaction

A narrow vote against creating a Muslim cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire, Quebec, a small town near Quebec City, has raise hackles all around. The province of Quebec, so progressive in so many ways, does seem to have a real problem with Islam, and many outsiders are calling the decision discriminatory and racist. However, I'm not sure that's necessarily the case.
As I understand it, the vote was only offered to the 70 immediate neighbours of the proposed cemetery. 49 of these 70 bothered to register to vote, and only 36 of those actually did vote. The result was 19 against and 16 for (with one spoiled ballot), a narrow margin of just 3 votes. As an exercise in local democracy, therefore, this was not a resounding success (in fact, it was downright embarrassing).
But I am not so sure that it was necessarily a vote against Muslims. It is more likely to be a knee-jerk not-in-my-back-yard reaction. A vote on a new Christian cemetery may well have turned out essentially the same. Given that the proposal was for a wooded area right on the edge of town, it could just as easily be a vote for environmentalism as one against Islam.
Interestingly, Sunny Létourneau, the woman who was instrumental in forcing the referendum in the first place and in galvanizing and organizing the "no" vote, does not live close enough to the site to qualify for a vote. But her main argument is that Quebec needs to ensure that its cemeteries are non-denominational - she is equally opposed to the many Catholic-only cemeteries in Quebec.
And I totally see where she is coming from. As one letter in the newspaper pointed out, we don't designate neighbourhoods for the living for Muslims or Catholics or whatever other faction, so why should we do so for the dead?
The Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre that is calling for the new cemetery says that traditions carried out in other cemeteries may conflict with their beliefs (such as cremation), but I would have thought that different traditions could easily be accommodated in the same cemetery. I'm sure that in any regular cemetery, some bodies would be buried and some cremated. And Jews and Christians seem perfectly able to share cemeteries, so why not Muslims too.

A few weeks later, Quebec City Council has stepped up and sold the Quebec Muslim community a parcel of city land adjacent to a Catholic cemetery (and therefore already zoned for burials). So, they now have somewhere to bury their dead and, I guess, all's well that ends well.

Canadian Tories playing with fire when they involve American Republicans

In the short time since his election as leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer appears to be taking the Tories in a dangerous direction. Or perhaps they are taking themselves, in the absence of guidance from above.
I refer to the recent unprecedented cross-border campaign by Conservative MPs to discredit Justin Trudeau for his difficult (but principled) decision to apologize to former child-soldier Omar Khadr, and to pay out $10.5 million to him in settlement of a wrongful imprisonment suit (which has been ruled on by the Supreme Court of Canada, and which could have cost the state much more).
Prominent Conservative MP Peter Kent wrote a strongly worded op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, decrying the decision and arguing that it was a "cynical subversion of Canadian values". Conservative MP Michelle Rempel resorted to the Republican mouthpiece Fox News to lambaste Trudeau, claiming that "most Canadians are absolutely outraged about this" (read: "most Canadian Conservatives").
Other online campaigns are also under way, such as the Conservative Party's "Khadr Questions" website, and the unfortunate "fake news" video by Ontario Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (which was hastily taken down, although not before damaging Canada's credibility abroad).
What all these efforts have in common is an apparent willingness by Conservatives to put party political (and anti-Trudeau) aspirations above Canadian national considerations and the bipartisanship that has always marked Cannada's relations with the USA. This is not just a matter of airing the country's dirty laundry: this is deliberately flaunting said laundry in a particularly disruptive and destructive manner.
Yes, I understand that the Conservatives have their own opinions about Mr. Khadr (although just how they planned on squaring that opinion with the Supreme Court's decision, I am not sure). But attempting to drag the whole US Republican media machine into what is very much a domestic issue, goes against decades of precedent and common sense.
Whatever the Conservatives actually believe Canadians think about Omar Khadr, I'm pretty sure they do not really want to ally themselves with the Republicans south of the border. This is a dangerous tendency that needs to be nipped in the bud pronto.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop peddles all kinds of snake oil

Gwyneth Paltrow is a funny old bird. She was always little flaky but, after a series of OK acting performances in Shakespeare in Love and the Iron Man movies (and many more less-memorable ones), she has obviously made a very deliberate decision to reinvent herself as a New Age guru and a self-made healthcare entrepreneur peddling "cutting-edge wellness advice".
Now, maybe she is just naive or gullible, or maybe she is downright balf-baked, but most of the product she is flogging through her booming e-commerce company Goop is at the batty end of dubious. Maybe she really believes in this stuff, or maybe she is merely unwilling to let good science stand in the way of making a buck or two.
One mainstay among the many varieties of snake oil Goop promotes is the wildly successful Clean Cleanse detox diet, designed by Paltrow's Uruguayan doctor Alejandro Junger and endorsed by multiple celebrities, and which largely involves avoiding anything pleasurable and replacing it with expensive proprietory powders, supplements and juices. Unfortunately, responsible nutritionists will tell you that our bodies really do not need detoxifying in this way, and that even if they did, the kinds of products and diets recommended by the cleansing industry would not be the way to go about it. There is no - repeat, no - scientific evidence at all that these kinds of detoxifying regimes achieve anything positive.
But what other lines of mystical and magical cures does Goop deal in?
  • Crystal therapy, the application of crystals, preferably wielded by a Goop "crystal shaman", in order to "transform our energy" in some unspecified beneficial way, is completely unscientific and unproven, as will probably not come as a big surprise to most people.
  • Colonics, essentially a kind of enema to eliminate the toxins we routinely ingest as part of modern life, is also not supported by any scientific evidence, and may even prove dangerous.
  • Homeopathy, the idea that ultra-diluted solutions (i.e. basically, water) can mysteriously help with all manner of diseases and health conditions, has been repeatedly discredited over the years.
  • The raw goat-milk cleanse, perhaps predictably, is a particularly ill-advised method of detoxifying, were such a thing even advisable in the first place. Pasteurization of milk products has become standard practice for a good reason.
  • Energy stickers, purportedly to "rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies" (whatever THAT might mean), were originally advertised as using a material developed by NASA for the American space program until NASA caught wind of it and called for their name to be removed. 
  • And perhaps Goop's pièce de résistance, vaginal jade eggs to "help cultivate sexual energy" and "invigorate our life force". Guess what, they are ineffective and potentially dangerous, increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis or even toxic shock syndrome.
Now, you can just think of Gwyneth Paltrow as a harmless kook. But through her celebrity endorsement, and that of her influential celebrity friends, she is both wasting people's hard-earned money and encouraging an unjustifiable belief in scientifically unproven (and potentially dangerous) fringe ideas. Bad, bad, not good.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Handmaid's Tale TV series is good, but misses a big opportunity

I am, rather belatedly as usual, currently watching the Hulu TV series version of Margaret Atwood's book, The Handmaid's Tale, and trying to decide what I think about it.
It is such a beloved and iconic book that many other people are clearly also having problems coming to terms with it. The consensus seems to be that it is generally well done - as I suppose it should be: Ms. Atwood has apparently been integrally involved in the production - but there are certain beefs that keep recurring:
  • The TV series seems to be set in pretty much the present day, while the book, written in 1985 and set in an unspecified near future, was deliberately vague about the timescale. I guess that's not really a big deal.
  • The book never mentions the protagonist Offred's real name, even if the real names of some of the other characters ARE mentioned. This seems deliberate on Ms. Atwood's part. The series, on the other hand, makes no bones about identifying her as June, presumably with Atwood's permission and blessing. Is this important? Probably not as much as some commentators are suggesting.
  • In the book, the state of Gilead is inherently racist as well as sexist, to the extent that "the children of Ham" had been segregated and relocated en masse to some unspecified "Homeland". In the TV series, several of the characters are black, including, crucially, some of the Handmaids themselves, suggesting that the system is happy to allow mixed-race children to be born to the high-ranking white supremacist families running the state, which rings somewhat false to me. I assume the decision to substitute in some black actors was made in order to avoid the allegations of racism and white-washing so prevalent in the film and TV industry these days. I do understand that argument, but it seems unfortunate in this particular case, where the whiteness of Gilead is such an important tenet of the state's philosophy, and I am frankly surprised that Atwood sanctioned the decision.
  • The head of the household to which Offred has been assigned, Frederick, or The Commander, is described in the book as older, silver-haired, paunchy and mustachioed, and the choice of a young, fit, dark-haired Joseph Fiennes with a full beard seems a rather perverse one. Presumably, the producers were looking to inject some sex appeal into the dour society of Gilead, where sex appeal is just no longer relevant. Margaret?
  • Ditto the Commander's wife, Serena Joy.
  • The character Ofglen is made into a handsome gay woman in the TV series, not the grumpy, dowdy character in the books, and she is tortured and mutilated for her "gender treachery" in carrying on relations with a Martha, rather than being taken away for her connections to the rebellion, as in the book. Gratuitous titillation? Why not just stick to the book.
  • In the "salvaging" scene in the book, it is the radicalized Ofglen who is the first, and the most strident, to attack the rapist. In the series, however, it is Offred herself who takes this role, which seems somewhat out of character.
There are other complaints as well, some of which I agree with and some not so much. But I think that in general the series does a good job of visually portraying a beloved dystopian novel.
The other big thing I am not so happy with, though, is the whole idea of adding in new plot lines, such as the Mexican deal that appears out of nowhere in Episode 6. Now, I think this is probably to do with the strictures of the modern TV series. I have a suspicion that someone told the producers around this time that ratings were good and a whole new series was needed, and hence a need to string the existing plot out and add in new material while the economics were still good. That's a really bad reason to alter the plot, and I am saddened that Margaret Atwood did not have the balls to specify at the get-go that the plot should follow the book, and that it would take just one series of ten episodes to achieve that.
Story arcs are important, after all. But, instead, it looks like we will end up with yet another bloated, shapeless series that is just as long as the paying audience can stomach it and no more. What a shame.

Canadian mosquitoes don't carry Zika virus - at least not yet

Scientists have been studying whether Canadian mosquitoes might be able to transmit viruses like Zika, and there's good news and bad news.
There are over 60 different species of mosquitoes spoiling the Canadian summer, but most of them are relatively benign and don't carry nasty diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever and Zika (although West Nile Disease has occasionally, and increasingly, reared its ugly head in recent years). But the two species known to transmit the Zika virus, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are tropical and subtropical species, not typically found in Canada.
So, the good news from the study - which has been backed up by a similar study at the National Biology Lab in Winnipeg - is that none of the Canadian species tested seemed able to transmit Zika (although a few species still remain to be tested).
The bad news is that, unexpextedly, some A. aegypti were found in traps in Windsor, Ontario, a long way from their traditional southern home. And with climate change, that is only going to become a more and more common trend.

Turns out, brain games don't make you smarter after all

Have you ever thought that the claims of those brain-training games like Lumosity seemed too good to be true? Well, you were probably right.
Games and apps like Lumosity like to claim that, by playing their games, we can train out brains to be stronger, faster and better. But a study by Dr. Joseph Kable at the University of Pennsylvania, which looked at changes in the "executive function" of people who engage in brain-training games, other recreational video games, and no games at all, indicates that brain games actually have no effect at all on measures like working memory, attention focus, decision-making, and general brain activity.
This came as quite a shock to Dr. Kable, who was expecting his study to back up the claims of Lumosity et al. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, will come as a blow to brain-game companies, which may now have to temper some of their more outlandish claims.

Geographical comparisons of Antarctic iceberg

One of the very, very few fun aspects of the recent news about a huge iceberg calving off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica recently is the way the size of the iceberg, which is one of the largest ever observed, has been reported in the press.
The iceberg is around 2,200 square miles (or about 5,600 square kilometers) in size, and weighs around a trillion tons. To put this in some perspective that us mere mortals might be able to relate to, the media has usually reported it as a comparison with some local area. For example, in Canada it is usually described as being about the size of the province of Prince Edward Island. In the USA, it has been reported as the size of the state of Delaware. But each jurisdiction around the world seems to have its own comparison, and Quartz magazine has collected some of these together. You might notice that some of these are more obvious, or more convincing or useful, than others:
  • Argentina: 25 times the size of Buenos Aires.
  • Australia: twice the size of the National Capital Territory.
  • Belgium: half the size of Flanders.
  • Brazil: the size of the Federal Disrict.
  • Chile: the size of the Cordillera Province.
  • Cyprus: equivalent to two Luxembourgs.
  • Denmark: twice the size of the Danish island of Funen.
  • Finland: twice the size of the Swedish island of Gotland.
  • France: 60 times larger than Paris.
  • Germany: twice the size of the German state of Saarland.
  • Greece: the size of the island of Crete.
  • India: one and-a-half times the size of the state of Goa.
  • Indonesia: almost as large as the island of Bali.
  • Italy: the size of the region of Liguria.
  • Japan: the size of Mie Prefecture.
  • Mexico: 55 times the size of Paris.
  • Netherlands: slightly larger than the province of Gelderland.
  • Norway: the size of the county of Akershus.
  • Poland: the size of the province of Malopolska.
  • Russia: a quarter the size of the region of Moscow.
  • South Korea: half the size of Gyeonngi province.
  • Taiwan: one-sixth the size of Taiwan.
  • Turkey: four times the size of Istanbul.
  • UK: a quarter the size of Wales.
  • Ukraine: half the size of Transcarpathian region.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The worst of the Web, and how it brings out the worst in us

Reading Mike Dover's latest book, Dante's Infinite Monkeys: Technology Meets the 7 Deadly Sins, one could be forgiven for giving up the Internet once and for all. It is basically a book about all the bad things that the Internet makes possible and aids and abets, and it is unabashedly gloomy and negative (on the premise that there are already enough books about how wonderful the Internet is, a premise that is probably the single optimistic one in the whole book).
Dover catalogues the myriad iniquities of the Web using the conceit of the Seven Deadly Sins - Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Sloth, Pride and Gluttony - but it is just a conceit, and a more or less arbitrary and artificial way of dividing the book into chapters. I was aware of many of the nefarious schemes and ruses he enumerates, but seeing them all laid out together paints a particularly bleak picture of the whole system.
  • Greed: The sheer scope and scale of all the greed-fuelled scams, hoaxes and rackets going is quite incredible, and I have never even heard of half of them: Nigerian and Bahamian email scams, keylogging attacks, link-baiting scams, social media scams using fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, phishing, ransomware, cyber-shoplifting, Microsoft service telemarketing scams, stock manipulation, false financial rumours, spoof and ultra-high-frequency stock trading, patent trolls, user data exploitation, illegal online poker and fantasy sports betting, etc, etc. So many different ways to fleece us poor suckers, day in, day out. And this chapter does even touch on the seemingly endless ambitions of various Internet entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, etc.
  • Wrath: Cyberbullying, trolling, swatting, public shaming, online plans for weapons, drone spying - it's all out there, and the anonymous and pervasive nature of the Web can make a simple angry reaction into a potential life-threatening campaign of vitriol that takes on a life of its own (and so-called "keyboard courage" has the effect of making everything even worse).
  • Envy: Thanks to the Internet, we can now keep tabs on the daily lives, salaries, property values and many other aspects of the lives of our friends, enemies and celebrities. Facebook in particular is, as Dover says, an "envy engine", and can lead to clinical depression and worse, especially given that usually we only see one side (the good side) of others, while we are all too aware of our own shortcomings.
  • Lust: Internet porn is a $97 billion industry worldwide and growing, even if only an estimated 10% of users actually pay money for online pornorgraphy. Interestingly, it has been instrumental in the development of Web technology like streaming video, live chat, online payments, malware, spam, domain name hijackers, pop-ups and pop-under, "teledildonics", etc. It has also been blamed for spikes in conditions like erectile dysfunction, relationship anxiety, sex addiction and risky sexual behaviour, and implicated in the spread of taboos like pedophilia, bestiality, rape, etc, and in even the death of romance. Online porn also serves as a major gateway for extortion and identity theft.
  • Sloth: Is the Internet making us lazy? Developments like "txtspk", over-reliance on Google and Wikipedia searches, form autofill, speed-dial, GPS and Google Maps, tweet bombing, Siri, armchair "slacktivism", medical self-diagnosis, spell-check, wholesale plagiarism, decreased participation in outdoor sports, etc, certainly suggest so.
  • Pride: In an environment where anyone can become a celebrity overnight, pride can be seen at work in the ubiquitous selfie (and their enabling outlets like Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc), over-sharing in general, "humblebragging", YouTube sensations with limited talents, self-publishing ebooks, etc.
  • Gluttony: The interface between the Internet and food has led to endless photos of restaurant dishes on Instagram (as well as photos of people eating said dishes, photos of people taking photos of said dishes, etc), as well as phenomena like feeder fetish porn (where people document their unhealthy and extreme eating in order to put on as much weight as possible - apparently some people find this sexy), fat acceptance and activism sites, pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites, etc.
All this is without even going into the murky depths of the Deep Web or Dark Web! And, in a world lurching towards 3-D printing, replication, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, where will it all end? Scary stuff.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The challenges of Ontario highway driving

Having just completed a couple of road-trips in Ontario, in addition to my usual ferrying of my daughter back and forth to university, I feel like I need to vent a bit about some of the challenges and frustrations of highway driving in Ontario.
Driving anywhere has its challenges, but what particularly bugs me here in Ontario is:
  • Left (and centre) lane hogs - most slow drivers (except, to be fair, trucks) tend to gravitate to the centre lane, partly, I think, because they're the same drivers who don't like to keep changing lanes to accommodate traffic joining at intersections (either they are not confident about changing lanes, or are just plain lazy). Some take this a step further and tootle along in the fast lane, apparently completely oblivious of traffic accumulating behind them.
  • In practice, this causes people to have to overtake on the right as well as the left, which is a whole other problem. This is a practice that seems to be accepted here, unlike in Europe where passing on the inside is strongly frowned upon. Certainly, it is potentially more dangerous, and makes driving more stressful, but, well, if that is the local custom, then so be it, I guess.
  • What I am less willing to accept is the habit of weaving in and out of traffic, to the left and to the right, in order to get ahead, and thereby save five seconds on an hour's journey. Now, my assumption is that most of the people that do this are 22 and male, with more testosterone than brains, and their interest is not so much in saving those five seconds, but in experiencing the adrenaline rush and watching the outraged expressions on the faces of old codgers like me. Either way, it needs to stop, and the police force should reassign some of the officers tasked with radar-gun cash-grabs in the city to blitzing this kind of much more dangerous behaviour on the highways. Here endeth today's lesson...
  • It is probably those same testosterone-fuelled twenty-somethings, plus a good number of overpaid, middle-aged, male line managers and sales execs in expensive Lexuses, BMWs and Camaros, that are mainly responsible for tailgating, driving scant metres behind the car in front and trying to intimidate them into moving over (see left lane hogs above). However annoying the left lane hogs are, this is dangerous, annoying and inexcusable, and needs to stop.
  • Which brings me to a really big and fundamental point. The majority of Canadians, in my opinion, drive way too close to the car in front, necessitating constant micro-braking, which has a cumulative domino effect on all the traffic behind, resulting in slow-downs, back-ups and greater potential for fender-benders. This isn't just the curmudgeon and party-pooper in me speaking: I was weaned on European driving, where the traffic goes siginificantly faster than here, but people typically a much leave greater braking distances, and traffic is less stop-go as a result.
  • I hesitate to impugn truck drivers - most of them are pretty responsible drivers, and I would not want their job for the world - but one thing bears mentioning. I know it can often take one truck a long time to pass another, and I know that they have to try and keep up momentum wherever possible, but several times recently I and everyone else have had to wait while a truck starts to overtake another and just doesn't succeed (either it loses momentum on a hill, or overestimates its own power compared to the other). So, several minutes into the manoeuvre, it gives up and pulls over, allowing the frustrated built-up traffic behind to continue. Or maybe it eventually succeeds, after several minutes of traffic disruption, only to be re-overtaken by the very same truck, and whole disruptive dance starts over again. Surely, it can make little or no difference to a truck's ETA whether it arrives just in front of, or just behind, another truck, and a lot of angst and frustration could be avoided for everyone else if it were to just tuck in behind and slipstream a truck going a similar speed. Or maybe it's just that the drivers are just bored out of their skulls and need something (anything) to think about for a while.
  • It would be remiss of me not to mention a common practice that probably leads to more road rage than any other: cars joining the highway at an intersection, or approaching a lane that is soon to discontinue (due to temporary construction work, for example, or a permanent lane reduction), who make no attempt to join the main traffic flow, but blithely continue along a clearly-terminating lane, until (surprise!) there is no room left and they just force their way into the line of traffic, causing everyone else behind them to brake suddenly. It is usually the same Lexus, BMW and Camaro drivers that are to blame here, and the same me-first inconsiderateness and sense of entitlement.
  • A recent intensification and worsening of this issue - I don't remember this being a thing here until just the last few years - is the tendency for drivers in a traffic queue to pull out to the right, into a joining lane which they know will end in 200 metres, or sometimes even onto the hard shoulder, in order to get ahead 10 or 15 car lengths, followed by the same forcing-in and associated braking chain. This used to be a common problem when we lived in Venezuela (a country and culture where common courtesy and a sense of social responsibility were all but completely absent), and I do sometimes find myself wondering whether the Ontarian perpetrators are not actually recent immigrants not yet fully versed in the polite Canadian way of doing things. Or it could just be indicative of a total breakdown in polite society and civilized mores. I don't know which would be a worse, a more depressing, conclusion.
Now, I'm not a perfect driver. I may be a little too aggressive, a little too "European", for some people's tastes (my daughter's, for example), and maybe I go a little too fast. But I don't think I am guilty of any of the above sins, and I am sure that the majority of the courteous drivers here are, like me, driving along with a constant simmering resentfulness and low-level anger that could easily be dissipated by a little thoughtfulness on the part of the average 22-year old male and the average middle-aged male driver of a Lexus, BMW or Camaro.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Renaming Ryerson University would achieve nothing

A certain group of holier-than-thou politicos are campaigning to change the name of Toronto's Ryerson University, on the grounds that it glorifies a 19th century Canadian statesman who, they argue, was instrumental in establishing the reviled residential schools system for indigenous Canadians.
Egerton Ryerson is considered a founding father of Canada. He was a Methodist preacher and missionary, but his main achievements came in the field of education. He campaigned for free, compulsory early education, and set up a professional teacher-training school. He worked for standard school inspections and uniform textbooks. He was essentially, as the plaque under his statue at the University campus says, "founder of the school system of Ontario".
Now, Ryerson, a product of his colonial Victorian times, also believed in all-year live-in schools to teach agricultural skills to native children - what he termed "industrial schools" - although he was not personally involved in setting up the iniquitous system of residential schools that later took hold (unlike Hector-Louis Langevin, whose name was recently pulled from the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office).
As the University's own website puts it: "While Egerton Ryerson supported education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These beliefs influenced the establishment of the Indian residential school system that has had a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada."
It is right and good to be upfront about this aspect of Ryerson's legacy. But it is equally right and good to stress his positive contributions, and revisionism and attempts to expunge him from history are not helpful to.anyone. As an indigenous student at Ryerson has (bravely) commented, "It's the history of the school. You do not have to agree with it, but it is the history of what people back then were thinking. It is a reminder … No one's hands are clean when it comes to the history of Canada". I couldn't have said it better.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Canadian innovations that changed the world

Having just experienced the combined hysteria and ennui of Canada 150, Canada's uneven celebration of 150 years since confederation, I thought I would dip into a book called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier, a book with pretentions almost as bloated as its title.
The preamble to the book makes clear that it lists Canadian innovations, not necessarily inventions. "Innovation" means a change in the nature or fashion of something to make it more useful to more people; "invention", on the other hand, is the act of discovering or finding out, either accidentally or as  a result of search and effort. It also makes clear that the list will almost certainly be controversial and lead to "lively debate".
Anyway, although many of the items listed are well-known Canadian achievements (like the telephone, standard time, insulin, Trivial Pursuits, ice hockey, basketball, poutine, etc), or obscure things I had never even heard of (the flexi-coil air seeder, anyone?), and some were such vague or general concepts that it is hard to attribute them to Canadians or to any particular person or nationality (e.g. canoes, snowshoes, potlatch, etc), some items were nevertheless pretty interesting and eye-opening. For example, did you know that:
  • The electric light bulb was actually invented by Toronto medical student Henry Woodward and hotelkeeper Matthew Evans in 1874 (they did patent the invention, but they couldn't obtain financing to market it, and ended up selling the patent license to none other than Thomas Edison, who refined their design and has taken all the credit for it ever since).
  • Theodore Witte of Chillwack, British Columbia, invented the caulking gun in 1894 after watching a local baker decorating a cake.
  • The radioactive chemical element radon, as well as the process of "atomic recoil" or radioactive decay, were both discovered by Canada's first female nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks in 1901 at McGill University, Montreal (where she worked with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics), and not by Marie Curie as I had always thought.
  • The idea of the dump truck was first thought up and manufactured by Robert Mawhinney from Saint John, New Brunswick, back in 1920.
  • Geologist John Tuzo Wilson of the University of Toronto is credited with first describing the theory of plate tectonics in 1962, something I thought had been figured out a couple of centuries earlier.
  • In 1967, Canadian physicist Richard Taylor (along with a couple of American colleagues at Stanford University who shared his Nobel Prize) was the first to physically demonstrate the existence of fundamental particles called quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons in atoms, and which had only ben theoretically predicted before then.
  • Mike Lazaridis' BlackBerry (not the iPhone, and not some basic model Samsung) became, in 1997, the first digital wireless communications device, capable of exchange text messages over a secure network and syncing remotely with email accounts, as well as making good old-fashioned phone calls.
  • The ship's propeller was apparently invented by the gloriously-named Captain John Patch one day in 1833, thus bringing the age of sail to a close almost overnight, but Nova Scotia at the time had no legal mechanism for registering patents so that Captain Patch's name is all but lost to history.
  • The modern odometer was invented in 1854 by Samuel McKeen, also of Nova Scotia, although at that time it was used on horse-drawn carriages.
  • Henry Taylor of Stanstead, Quebec, built what may have been the first ever horseless carriage - also known as a "steam buggy" or "car" - in 1868 (although the French, Brits, and Germans may disagree), but then, after showing it off at various local fairs for a few years, he grew bored with his invention and dismantled it, leaving the field open to names like Benz, Daimler, Ford, etc.
  • Reginald Fessenden, a little-known inventor from East Bolton, Quebec, apparently invented both radio (in 1900, possibly before Marconi) and television (in 1929, just after John Logie Baird, but completely independently).
  • Torontonian Norman Breakey, who invented the paint roller in 1939, is another example of a Canadian inventor who failed to patent (and profit from) an idea that later went on to sell hugely,thereby sinking into historical obscurity.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the fledgeling United Nations back in 1948, was written by Canadian John Humphrey in his capacity as first director of the United Nations' division of human rights at the time (not an invention as such, but certainly a worthy inovation).
  • Winnipegger Harry Wasylyk developed the plastic garbage bag (later sold under the tradename Glad Bags and other brands), which have made garbage day slightly less unpleasant for millions, but which now clog landfills the world over.
  • The Blue Box system of municipal curb-side recycling pick-ups was the brainchild of Kitchener, Ontario's Nyle Ludolph, and from Kitchener it went on to spread across Canada and the rest of North America, and throughout most of the world.
  • It never occurred to me that road lines were an invention attributable to one individual, but apparently the world's very first dividing lines on roads were painted on a road near the Ontario-Quebec border in 1930, and were an innovation of one John Miller, an engineer with the Ontario department of transport.
  • Peanut butter was invented, not by American botanist George Washington Carver (as many seem to believe) but by a chemist from Quebec called Marcellus Gilmore Edson in 1884, and he has the patent to prove it.
  • Another surprise is that the world's first oil well was dug by James Miller Williams right here in southwestern Ontario in 1857.
  • The heart pacemaker is one of a whole host of biomedical engineering breakthroughs (including the electron microscope, molecular spectroscopy, telesurgery, etc) attributed to Canadians, this one invented by the Toronto physician Wilfred Bigelow.
  • Instant mashed potatoes were first developed by Edward Asselbergs, a chemist at Agriculture Canada in Ottawa in 1960.
  • IMAX films, bigger, clearer and steadier than traditional films, were first developed by a goup of five Toronto filmmakers in 1971.
  • The ubiquitous hookless fastener now known as the zipper was invented in 1913 by Swedish-born Canadian Gideon Sundback, who also created a machine to manufacture the fasteners in St. Catherine's, Ontario.
  • The humble, and highly practical, egg carton was invented by Joseph Coyle in 1911 in Smithers, British Columbia.
  • The world's first functional internet search engine (yes, before Google, Yahoo, even Altavista) was called Archie, and was developed in 1990 by three students at Montreal's McGill University.
  • And, finally, who knew that the synthesizer traced its roots back to Canadian physicist Hugh Le Caine, whose "electronic sackbut" of 1937 was the first electronic music synthesizer.
So, this is a book aimed at stroking the fragile egos of Canadians. It tries to give the impression that Canadians are a uniquely resourceful and inventive bunch, and often that it is the land itself that causes this in some way, but I'm sure that the same book written in Italy or Germany or Japan would be just as impressive and twice as thick.
It tells many poignant stories of Canadian creativity overwhelmed by rapacious European and American commercialism, although I have a suspicion that many of the important advances listed here that became overshadowed by other, better-known discoveries elsewhere, may not have been exactly comparable, or maybe were independently developed after the better-known gadget - yes, history is written by the victors, but I have to assume that there is probably a good reason why the world does not know names like Reginald Fessenden and Henry Woodward.
Maybe this is just Canadian excessive modesty, another trait we are known for, but it's probably not a bad thing to be wary of tub-thumping and self-congratulation. Ingenious is an interesting read, nevertheless.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Omar Khadr deserves his $10 million

Canada is currently going through one of those ethical dilemmas/debates that occur from time to time and that split the populace pretty much down the middle. The debate is largely split on ideological and party political lines even though the issue is really one of pure morality and not political beliefs.
The issue I am referring to is the Liberal government's apology and awarding of $10.5 in damages to Omar Khadr, in settlement of a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit. Khadr is the one-time "child soldier", born in Canada of Afghan parents. As a child, he was essentially abducted by his family and enlisted as an al-Qaeda errand boy. Later, he was pressed into service with the Taliban as a bomb maker, and was badly wounded and taken prisoner after a firefight. Once in custody, he was accused of murdering a US soldier, although it is still not entirely clear that it was Khadr himself who the the grenade, nor how a charge of murder fits into actions carried out on a battlefield. He was 15 years old. He did plead guilty to throwing the grenade as part of a plea deal, although he later recanted and claimed that he really had no alternative, and saw it as the only possible way of one day finding his way back to his home in Canada. Either way, Khadr, still a minor and legally a Canadian citizen, was incarcerated in the notorious US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, illegally according to some, where he spent some 10 years, and was subjected to sleep deprivation, torture and other abuse.
For 10 years, the Harper Conservative government (and even the previous outgoing Liberal government) stubbornly refused to repatriate Khadr to Canada, despite a 2010 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that Khadr's human rights were being violated at Guantanamo Bay. Ultimately, in 2012, he was repatriated, and now Justin Trudeau has made Khadr, now 30, an official apology for the Canadian government's foot-dragging in the case, and a $10.5 million financial settlement (although the family of the American soldier who died, allegedly at Khadr's hands, is claiming that the money should go directly to them, along with over $120 million more).
So, the moral dilemma that is being loudly debated right now is: does Khadr deserve anything from the Canadian taxpayer, and, if so, is $10.5 million excessive or not enough? The Liberals, and those of a liberal bent, are generally in favour if it; Conservatives and conservatives and groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, say the amount is too much, and/or that he should not have been repatriated in the first place. Here's Jason Kenney: "This confessed terrorist should be in prison paying for his crimes, not profiting from them at the expense of Canadian taxpayers."
I find myself in the former camp. Based on the Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010, and on similar cases like Maher Arar (who was compensated $10 million 2007 for government actions that resulted in his torture in Syria in 2002) and an agreed compensation for another trio of Canadians who were tortured in Egypt and Syria between 2001 and 2004, the legal case for Khadr seems cut and dried, and the compensation level appropriate.
And the moral case? Yes, the Canadian government prevaricated and blocked his repatriation for years without due cause, during which time a whole host of his human rights were violated. And the amount? Well, pick a figure. Or use the figure previously agreed for another similar case. Either way, it is half of the amount Khadr's lawyers are suing the government for, in the wrongful imprisonment lawsuit.
It's a tricky one, though, especially when settlements for serious drunk-driving-inflicted injuries routinely come in at less than half-a-million dollars. From what I have gleaned from articles, comments and letters, pretty much everyone has an opinion on the matter, and a small majority think it was right to apologize and compensate Khadr. A good proportion of those, however, seem to think that $10.5 million is too much, even if few are willing to put forward a specific alternative sum, or explain how they might come to a different valuation.

Essay-writing services fraught with problems

There has been a proliferation of essay- and dissertation-writing services on the web in recent years, and there at now quite literally hundreds of them, with names like,,, etc, etc. I have even advertised some of them in an inconspicuous way on some of my own websites, as they were offering quite good money and they seem to be very light on demands and requirements.
That in itself maybe should have alerted me that something is not quite right. Athough at first blush many paper-writing services do seem to be legitimate and fulfilling a genuine academic function (and I do sympathize to some extent - student life today seems way harder than it was in my time), a bit of research has revealed that perhaps I might have been a little more discerning in my choice of advertising partners.
The problem is that not all essay-writing services are created equal. You might argue that paying for someone else to write your essays for you is just plain cheating, and from a purely moral point of view you would definitely have a point. At best, you might say, it is sheer laziness. But even if you do accept that such a service has a moral right to ply its trade, there is a huge range of quality in providers, and no real way to tell in advance which is good and which not so much.
Many such essays are actually well-written (apparently, many are written by teachers and college professors, which is a bit strange and perhaps a whole other blog subject in itself), but you can never be sure of this, and many of the heart-felt reviews you read on a particular website may not actually even be real. Because thet are custom-written, these kinds of essays do not get picked up by automated plagiarism-checkers, and, depending on your definition, they may not actually be plagiarism. They can certainly save today's stressed and over-worked students a whack of time (for a price!), and they may even help the student understand the subject and how a good essay should be structured and presented.
Some of these services, though, appear to be just plain scams. There are scams throughout the internet of course, in all sectors and areas, but there are now whole websites devoted to outing scams in the essay-writing sector (and it is rumoured some of THOSE sites may even be scams!) Many people have paid good money, and then not received the service, or the quality of service, they expected. Caveat emptor, as always, you might say, but the caveat seems to apply disproportionately in this particular sector.
Setting that aside, a good professor or teacher may pick up on the fact that your essay is in a quite different style than your usual work, alerting them to the likelihood that you have availed yourself of some kind of professional service. You may be able to commission an essay and then just reference it as a source in an essay that you write yourself, although different institutions have different views on that particular ploy. The bottom line is: if you are found out, you may wave goodbye to your course, and possibly even your whole college career, and that is worth some serious consideration.
Anyway, I am thinking that I will probably not be renewing those essay-writing ads on my won websites when renewal time comes up. Several of my websites are routinely used as essay and project sources for students, and I should probably not be encouraging these students to cheat. Because, make no mistake, that's really what it is.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Baby boxes no substitute for free universal healthcare

American health authorities, including New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama and many others, are latching onto the idea of giving new mothers a Finnish-style baby box.
It seems that they have read somewhere that such boxes - filled with baby clothes, diapers, nursing pads and a snug soft mattress - have been given to all new mothers in Finland for many years now, and Finland happens to have one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world (1.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, less than a third of that in the USA).
But it's a bizarre idea that somehow the box itself is part of making a baby's life safer. There is clearly nothing medically efficacious about cardboard, and the Finnish health authority itself notes that the boxes themselves do not contribute to their enviable infant mortality record: "Our low infant-morality rate is due to free-of-charge high-quality maternal and child health-care services and child-care guidance." Apparently, only about 37% of Finnish mothers use the boxes as a crib/bassinet anyway.
Add to that the fact that the American boxes have not been fully safety-tested, and the whole scheme starts to look like an ill-advised exercise in wish-fulfillment than a convincing and well-researched health initiative.
Now, when the USA gets free universal healthcare, then we might be getting somewhere.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

German law against online hate speech admirable but hard to enforce

The German Bundestag has just passed a controversial law calling on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to police their own websites for "obviously illegal" content, such as hate speech, defamation and incitements to violence, and to remove them within 24 hours.
Under a previous 2015 deal with the German government, Facebook, Twitter and Google resolved to take down such material from their sites within 24 hours, but a study this year showed that this voluntary approach was not working. Now, the companies would face an initial fine of €5 million, rising to €50 million, although they are granted upto a week to resolve more difficult or less clear-cut cases.
Germany has strict laws against hate speech, which is an increasing problem online. Critics and digital rights activists, though, maintain that the law infringes on free speech and puts a disproportionate onus on tech companies for determining the legality of online content.
Both Facebook and Google have already launched campaigns to combat fake news and hate speech in recent months, and Facebook is reportedly hiring an additional 3,000 people over the next year specifically to moderate such flagged content. But it is admittedly a huge, and perhaps even impossible, task. It will be interesting to see whether and how the new German law is enforced.

Increasing Ontario's minimum wages - the sky won't fall

Ontario's Liberal government has taken a lot of flak - mainly from what is usually described as the "business community", as though that were some collection of entirely like-minded individuals, united in their views and outlook, although I have a suspicion that it is really a shorthand or euphemism for conservatives - over their intention to raise the province's legal minimum wage from the current $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour in January 2018 and to then $15 an hour in January 2019. Coupled with this is legislation to ensure protections for casual employees whose shifts are cancelled with less than 48 hours notice, and a plan to increase the minimum amount of vacation days for employees of five years standing to three weeks. This all sounds to me like eminently laudable relief for some of the most vulnerable and oppressed members of society, ones without whom the cushy lives we live would collapse around us.
But the "business community" is not happy. They say that such a move would put many of them out of business, and I suppose that is possible in a very small percentage of cases (in which case a devil's advocate might argue that maybe they should not be in those businesses anyway if they rely on the exploitation and oppression of poor people).
Anyway, it was comforting to read in yesterday's paper an article by a group of economists (yes, members of the "business community"), which argues that the best modern studies available unanimously show that increases in the minimum wage (even quite substantial ones like this one) do not actually lead to job losses and higher consumer prices. In short, the sky will not fall if we offer some relief to the lowest of the low, and their lives will improve and they will become fully-functioning members of society and effective contributors to the very economy the "business community" wants to protect.
The idea that a higher minimum wage leads to increased unemployment, and is a well-meaning but ultimately self-defeating strategy which will only hurt the very workers it is supposed to help, is an old and ingrained belief, apparently still ardently espoused by the "business community". However, it has been superseded in the last generation or so by a revised economic model that does not make the rather simplistic and outdated assumptions of perfectly competitive markets. A whole slew of Nobel laureates and professional economists are now apparently in agreement that, in the real world, higher minimum wages do not automatically result in job losses and economic chaos, and often even create more employment.
Furthermore, empirical studies in the US, Canada and Britain all confirm that higher minimum wages do in fact succeed in lifting incomes for low-paid workers and thereby help to reduce income inequality. More motivated employees, lower staff turnover and lower recruitment costs all help small businesses flourish in such a scenario. Meanwhile, the spending power of low-income workers increases, and the economy as a whole benefits. It is a win-win-win situation.

The dire warnings of impending doom in the media have continued, largely from businesses, business advisory organizations, right-wing think-tanks, etc, with only the very occasional opposing viewpoint expressed by an economics professor, pointing out that these predictions are based on selective, often outdated, theoretical studies.
One such dissenting article points out another aspect of the argument that I (and most other pro-business reports I have read on the subject) had failed to take into account. Professor Jim Stanford points out that, even if the small-business lobby is correct and the increase in the minimum wage does result in many businesses investing in more automation or just shedding bottom-end jobs (which he seriously doubts), any employment impact that might result would still be lost in the current climate of increasing employment in all three of the provinces that are currently pursuing the $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Ontario, British Columbia and even post-oil shock Alberta are all expanding their workforces apace at the moment as their economies are booming. So, even if the wage increase does result in some layoffs, these would be lost among the underlying job expansion. The rate of job increases may (or may not) slow down, but the increases would continue. In fact, for this very reason, now would be a great time to pursue a socially and economically equalizing minimum wage increase.

Happy 150th Canada Day - unless you are indigenous

Well, happy birthday Canada, for what it's worth. It is just the sesquicentennial after all, not really a "big" significant birthday (although Montreal recently celebrated their 375th with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, and that's not even divisible by ten...) And 1867 is, after all, just a date when four provinces entered into a confederation to become something called the Dominion of Canada, still nominally under the control of the United Kingdom (Canada only became fully independent in 1982!) Be all that as it may, most European countries would see 150 years as just a drop in the bucket anyway. Hell, even the Americans have a century's jump on us.
But most Canadians seem content to think that there is something worth celebrating today. There's a giant rubber duck in Toronto harbour, Peter Mansbridge is gearing up for his final CBC anchor assignment, and people are being advised to take their places for Ottawa's fireworks display from nine in the morning (it's difficult to believe that anyone would actually do that, and basically waste the whole of the rest of the day, but what do I know?)
Most people are definitely treating it as not-just-another-Canada-Day. Unless, that is, they are indigenous. A teepee has been set up on Parliament's front lawn, and the rhetoric coming out of it is far from celebratory, along the lines of, "How dare you celebrate 150 years of shame and colonialism, marked by genocide, residential schools and subjugation? And 150 years? We've been here for 15,000 years! So there!"
Now, I get it. The First Nations of this country have been given a really raw deal, beginning a lot more than 150 years ago. And yes, they do need to drive this message home, and what better time to do so than when everyone else is celebrating the very agency of their oppression? I do get it.
But I still can't help but feel it a mite mean-spirited and curmudgeonly. I can't help but feel that, if Canada's First Nations were to be celebrating some significant date, we immigrants would be happy enough to join in, much like we are happy to encourage Eid celebrations or Diwali or Chinese New Year. But their culture happens not to have such an inclusive or galvanizing occasion to celebrate (the establishment of the Assembly of First Nations in 1982, perhaps?)
And I can't help but feel that an agreement by the indigenous community to help these pesky "new kids in the block" celebrate their silly little anniversary - always with the firm intention and commitment to getting right back to protesting and negotiating and rectifying some of the wrongs we have done each other over the centuries, and arguably continue to do today - might not foster more goodwill and be a more positive approach than blank-faced, and sometimes aggressive, denial.
But I do get it. Honest.