Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ontario Liberal organization probably not responsible for data deletions

Unbelievably, the controversy over the Ontario Liberals' cancellation of two gas-fired power plants back in 2013 is still going on. A court case is currently underway into whether Dalton McGuinty's then chief of staff, David Livingston, illegally "double-deleted" emails about the cancellation.
As part of this trial, Ontario's then corporate chief information officer, David Nicholls, has testified that he went out of his way to make clear to Livingston, in writing and on more than one occasion, that any documents and emails regarding the controversial cancellations should be preserved in the archives, specifically to avoid the type of allegations of improper deletion of documents that have actually come to pass.
The responsibility for ignoring this sound advice, then, seems to rest entirely with Livingston the individual, and his deputy chief of staff Laura Miller, and they will probably answer for it. The Liberal organization as a whole, though, appears to be innocent of the kind of skullduggery imputed to them by their political opponents.
The case has been adjourned until the middle of October now, but it would be very nice if it were soon put away once and for all before the campaigning for the next election begins in earnest, so that yet another election campaign does not get bogged down in useless and distracting speculation and name-calling. I say this not as a Liberal supporter but as an Ontario voter.

Professor's racist remarks not the fault of college or English language

An inexcusable faux pas by a retired emeritus history professor at a professional lunch engagement recently has Massey College and the University of Toronto (with which the college is loosely "affiliated") panicking and falling over themselves to make reparations, lest they be saddled with the current institutional bête noir, namely being labelled as racist.
Dr. Michael Marrus, a Senior Fellow at Massey College, had the poor taste to make what he probably thought of as a jolly witticism, when he made a play on the formal title of "Master" used by the college (and several other ancient institutions like Oxford and Cambridge) to refer to its head. Remarking to a black junior fellow of the college, Marrus quipped: "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"
One can imagine the sharp intake of breath at the sheer tastelessness and tone-deafness of such a comment in this day and age. It was of course totally inappropriate and deeply offensive, and deserving of any and all of the lambasting it has since received from both the attending students and many other commentators. However, instead of just severing all ties with this dinosaur of a professor emeritus, the college has responded with a public apology on his behalf, and with a promise to look into anti-racist training for faculty members.
Fair enough as far as it goes, although a more proactive response would have been to fire the guy forthwith, which it is apparently not doing. What the college is also considering, though, is another of the students' demands: the replacement of the title of Master. This seems like a ridiculous misdirection of concern to me. The title of Master has been used to mean a master of one's craft or art or subject for many centuries. It clearly has no connection with the concept of a master of a slave unless specifically evoked, as Dr. Marrus did here, and there is normally no element of confusion in the use of the term.
So, yes, please do chastise the professor for being an ignorant SOB, but don't blame the college or the university with which it may be affiliated (no-one really believes that the comment in this context reflects the views and policies of these institutions of higher learning). And, in particular, don't blame the English language for its complexities and ambiguities.
Political correctness is all well and good, but not if it is misapplied, or used to tar the wider community with a brush that would be more correctly applied to one misguided individual, or to make a whipping boy of the wrong person or institution entirely. (Yes, go ahead, call me out on those phrases.)

Dr. Marrus tendered his resignation a few days later, although he still seemed somewhat bemused by all the attention and the negative reaction to his comments, which, if nothing else, demonstrates just how out of touch he really is.

Republican tax reforms to favour the rich - surprise, surprise!

Those poor benighted people who voted for Donald Trump, the downtrodden working class masses ignored by mainstream politics, well, if they were starting to have a few doubts about the tweeter-in-chief, they might really start smelling a rat now.
Trump's tax reform bill, a major plank of his election campaign (along with repealing Obamacare, which is looking pretty much moribund now) has been revealed for what it is - a tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of the midde class. The Federal Reserve, America's central bank, is warning that the proposals will probably lead to rampant inflation and a ballooning of an already critically high national debt, but it is the inequity issue that really has people incensed.
The prominent nonpartisan think-tank, the Tax Policy Centre (TPC) has issued a preliminary report on the Trump administration's tax proposals ("the biggest tax cut EVER!"), showing that fully 50% of the tax benefit of the plan goes to the top-earning 1%, which in America is apparently those earning over $730,000 a year (which in itself is mind-boggling). These fat cats would see their after-tax incomes increase by 8.5% next year under the Republican proposal.
Taxpayers in the middle class, on the other hand, the segment of society the tax reforms are supposed to help, can expect much more modest gains (the whole of the bottom 95% of earners can expect an average increase of just 1.2% next year), and many may well see their tax bills increase, mainly due to the elimination of many itemized deductions. About 12% would see tax increases next year, including over a third of taxpayers making between $150,000 and $300,000.
What is worse, the number of taxpayers who will see tax increases under the plan will grow over time, mainly because the Republican plan would replace personal exemptions (which are index-linked to inflation) with non-index-linked tax credits. By 2027, taxes would increase for about a quarter of Americans, including nearly 30% of those earning between $50,000 and $150,000, and 60% of those earning between $150,000 and $300,000.
The TPC's analysis is preliminary mainly because the Republican plan is woefully short on many important details, like the new tax brackets that will be used. But it seems clear that the Republicans are just being Republicans here, and Trump is just being Trump, and any naive voters who expected anything different have only themselves to blame.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Naming a stadium after Rob Ford would be the worst kind of revisionism

Current Toronto mayor John Tory has blotted his copy book with his plan to rename Centennial Park's sports stadium after the late, disgraced Toronto ex-mayor, Rob Ford.
Tory says that we should "put politics to one side" and recognize someone who "gave a big part of his life to public service". In reality, what Tory is probably doing is avoiding giving brother Doug Ford political capital before he joins the race for Toronto's next mayor. Another way of looking at it is weaselling out and taking the easy route rather than coming out with the truth that Rob Ford was the single worst and most divisive mayor Toronto has ever had, and that he inflicted substantial damage on the city's reputation during his tenure which is only now being repaired.
Maybe it is churlish to speak ill of the dead, but sometimes you just need to tell it like it is. Rob Ford was not a hero or a national (or even municipal) treasure, he was an unmitigated disaster. To reward him for bad behaviour is wrong-headed, sends the wrong message completely, and represents the worst kind of historical revisionism. Grow some political balls, Tory.

Cooler, or at least more sensible, heads have prevailed, and Toronto City Council has voted 24-11 against a Rob Ford Stadium.
I have a suspicion that John Tory was maybe relying on that, and is probably heaving a deep sigh of relief right now.

Don Cherry's latest lame contribution to political debate

Don Cherry, that cartoon character of the Canadian hockey world, has stuck his oar into the ongoing debate on the protests spreading like wildfire in the NFL and NBA against police violence  and institutionalized racism (and, more recently, since Donald Trump's predictable involvement, against Donald Trump).
In a Trumpian late-night tweet - yes it would be a tweet, wouldn't it, no other platform lends itself quite so readily to inanities - Cherry pointed out that when former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow knelt before a game to pray, the "left wing media" mocked him mercilessly, while they play up the protesting NFL players as "heroes" (something of an exaggeration there, but let's leave the point for the sake of argument).
Now, like it or not, when Don Cherry speaks a lot of people listen, although it has to be said that a good percentage of them are suppressing guffaws or rolling their eyes. Cherry is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and his politics (and his public persona, for that matter) is well known to be close to that of Donald Trump.
Mr. Cherry seems to feel that he has made a genuinely incisive contribution to the debate, by juxtaposing Tebow's kneeling with Kaepernick's (oh, yeah, they both kneel!) But comparing the flaky religious antics of a single player with the full-blown protest movement of Colin Kaepernick (who is also an ardent Christian, incidentally) and now hundreds of others in the professional football and basketball worlds is worse than lame.
All I can think is that Cherry is going through a phase of feeling like a bit of an underappreciated has-been at the moment, and feels the need to put himself about a bit (people with egos like Cherry's and Trump's get anxious when they are not constantly the centre of attention). But don't confuse this with a pithy and poignant political triumph. See it as the feeble and flimsy commonplace it really is.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Doubling Twitter character is really not going to help

It seems like 140 characters just isn't enough for Twitter users to say anything interesting. Twitter Inc., which has seen its usage stagnate in recent years, has decided to increase its character limit from the iconic 140 characters to 280.
This is in spite of the fact that the average English tweet length is just 34 characters (imagine how fascinating they must be!), and the average Japanese tweet just 15 characters.
Perhaps this move is mainly to placate Donald Trump, who doesn't seem to be able to restrict many of his tweets to 140 characters, and just uses ellipses to link together consecutive tweets. Which kind of defeats the object somewhat...
Surely, the point of Twitter - and, quite frankly, just about the only thing it has going for it - is the idea of brevity. It held out the promise (by and large undelivered, apart from some standout efforts in the early days) of some haiku-class economy of language without sacrificing a high quality of discourse. What we got in practice was a lot of mercifully brief drivel, and an ideal platform for short attention spans and those with little to say.
Either way, I am not seeing the logic that doubling the character limit is somehow miraculously going to double Twitter usage. Perhaps halving it might be more beneficial, and more likely to offer a challenge and revive the concept? But then again, I don't really care.

Friday, September 22, 2017

In war of insults, North Korea has a slight edge

North Korea's Kim Jong-Un and America's Donald Trump are engaged in a personal bad-mouthing contest like few we have seen before.
Like two badly-behaved toddlers playing with nukes in a sand-pit, the two have been gamely trading insults in recent days. Kim's threat to "surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire" was countered by Trump's description of Kim as "obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people". But I think Kim's use of the old English word "dotard" (an old, weak or senile person; one who is in his dotage) definitely earns him extra points, as I am pretty sure Mr. Trump would have had to look that one up in the dictionary.
It also comes hard on the heels of North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho's comparison of Trump's UN speech to "the sound of a barking dog", which has a certain poetry to it.
Ah, has it come to this? Will international diplomacy ever recover?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Quebec finally accepts that some English words may be here to stay

The redoubtable Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the official language watchdog of the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, which sees the French language in Canada as under existential pressure from English incursions, has made a surprising volte face in the last few days.
Best known for its introduction and strong promotion of French terms in place of English terms that have become widespread in Quebec - including some rather awkward formulations like courriel éléctronique for email and mot-clic for hashtag, and an insistence on parc de stationnement instead of le parking and fin de semaine instead of the more popular le week-end - the OQLF have taken the surprising step of admitting that some French terms have just not taken off and so perhaps the English terms are OK after all.
Among these persistent (and now allowable) Anglicisms are cocktail (the recommended homophobe coquetel really never really took off) and grilled-cheese (instead of the government-approved mouthful sandwich au fromage fondant, which includes the English word sandwich anyway).
These are minor accommodations to be sure, but from an organization with such a fierce reputation for taking a hard line, they are significant, and, to my mind, welcome. After all, if English had blocked the adoption of all foreign loanwords, it would only be half the immensely rich language it is today.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Solar or wind can't save the world alone, but all renewables together just might

A harsh but realistic article about renewable energy accepts what you hear so often from climate change skeptics and fossil fuel boosters: while there is a huge potential supply of solar and wind power, both sources of energy are necessarily intermittent and unreliable.
I think most fans of renewables would admit that is true, but that does not mean that it is not the right path to pursue. Every watt of energy produced by solar or wind, is a way that does not require carbon-heavy fossil fuels.
What, then, is the solution to this conundrum? The article suggests the following alternatives:

  • Use fossil fuel plants as back up (rather than the mainstay of energy production).
  • Oversize renewable energy production to be able to cope with peak demand (aware that much power will be wasted at other times).
  • Connect geographically dispersed renewable sources (such as from different states, provinces or countries, necessitating improved or expanded transmission grids) so as to smooth out variations in power production.
  • Store surplus energy for times when solar and wind power resources are low (requiring battery technology, which is improving fast but is still not everything we need).
  • Adjusting the demand to the supply by improving building and vehicle energy efficiencies (so that less power is needed, even at peak times).

I would probably add one more option to this list: invest in other renewable energy sources, like tidal, run-of-river hydro, geothermal, etc. There is no reason why we need to limit ourselves to solar and wind, even though these are currently the most economical methods of green energy production.
How many times have you heard naysayers claiming that solar or wind can never replace coal because it is too unreliable? But no-one ever said that one renewable resource was going to save the world all on its own? We need as many different options as possible, all working together.

Enough with the selfies already

Walking out after a Cirque du Soleil show the other night, I was struck by the sheer number of selfies being taken, with, or often without, the back-drop of the Grand Chapiteau.
A plurality of young people, most of them apparently of Asian heritage (which may or may not have been coincidental), were trapped in their own little bubble, completely unaware of the world around them, completely un-selfconscious or unaware of how they looked to the people around them, so caught up were they in the imperative to document the moment with yet another picture (or three) of ... themselves.
It has got to the stage where I just feel embarrassed for these people. I'm not saying that a selfie is never appropriate - hell, I have even taken a few myself, which my daughter tells me are hilariously amateurish. I just take issue with the cult of the selfie, the social obligation of it, and all the public preening that goes on around it. A recent article documenting selfies being taken on a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp is a good indication of the sorry pass we have come to, and the narcissistic, divorced-from-reality bubble that surround so many selfie addicts.
And I'm far from alone in thinking that the selfie is a fad whose time should be over. There is a multitude of articles on the subject, even within social media circles: 13 Reasons You Need To Stop Taking So Many Selfies, When you stop posting selfies, these 10 things will happen, 15 annoying selfies people should STOP takingWhy you can't stop taking selfies everyone else hates, etc, etc. (A point in passing: something else that needs to stop is articles that begin with "10 reasons why...", "12 things that...", etc.)
Maybe selfies are an innocent pastime, and I am just an old curmudgeon (quite possible). Maybe they are even empowering, as some have argued (I very much doubt it). Art? (definitely not). But I do think that, at the very least, if selfies are going to be taken, a little more thought should go into them, to prevent them from being just the knee-jerk response they so often are. I think the world probably already has a surfeit of most people's faces.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should the government be expected to rescue stranded Canadians?

I can't help but see all the whining by Canadians stranded in the path of Hurricane Irma as wrong-headed.
I have read several articles in which Canadian citizens are complaining that the Canadian government and Canadian airlines have not been doing enough to rescue them from the disaster zone in which they happened to be sunbathing and partying. They say that the Canadian response has been much inferior to that of the Americans (although Americans are complaining too).
All of which makes me wonder: what responsibility do governments have to bail out citizens who put themselves in harm's way? We are not talking here about an unexpected natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption: the series of hurricanes and tropical storms currently lashing the Caribbean and southern USA have been predicted and monitored for some time, and their approximate paths modelled in great detail. Neither are we talking about impoverished natives who are unable to make their own evacuation plans: these are well-heeled tourists taking expensive foreign holidays in St. Martins, Cuba and Turks and Caicos.
I think that if I were unlucky enough to be vacationing in an area likely to be hit by a record-breaking storm, I would rapidly make alternative plans, and not wait until some distant government comes up with a tardy rescue plan. Not that I would book a holiday in the Caribbean during hurricane season anyway...

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some interesting new ways to look at menopause

I read an interesting article in New Scientist recently (not a magazine I usually read or have access to) about menopause (not a subject I usually pay much attention to).
Menopause basically marks the end of a woman's ability to bear children. The number of eggs in a woman's ovaries starts to dwindle, and the amount of estrogen (oestrogen) and other related hormones she produces takes a nose-dive. This results in the typical menopause symptoms: hot flushes, tiredness, weight gain, mood swings, reduced sex drive and vaginal dryness.
One other common symptom of menopause, though, is memory and concentration lapses, and it turns out that changes in the brain that occur during this time are similar in many ways to those occurring during the onset of Alzheimer's Disease, something else that predominantly afflicts women. (Contrary to general belief, men are also affected by menopause - usually referred to as the andropause - but it is a much more gradual and undramatic process.)
Recent research has shown that brain cells have lots of estrogen receptors, and a drop in estrogen production can therefore have a significant effect on memory, mood and general brain health. Indeed, it is possible that menopause might kick-start Alzheimer's. Estrogen has a kind of protective function in the brain, as well as fuelling mitochondrial energy reserves. So, when estrogen production suddenly falls during menopause, the brain starts to use the fatty protective myelin sheaths around brain cells for fuel instead of the usual glucose, leading to decreased volumes of white and grey matter and an increase in beta amyloid production, all hallmarks of Alzheimer's. That being the case, research is now being carried out into whether menopause treatments like hormone replacement therapy (which gained a bad reputation after some damning studies in the 2000s, but which is now gradually being rehabilitated, at least when applied in more carefully-controlled and tailored therapies) might also help with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
One other aspect of the menopause the New Scientist article looks at is just why it happens at all. Humans, killer whales and pilot whales are the only animals in nature that live in good health long after their reproductive years are over (most animals continue to reproduce until they die). If the biological imperative of all animals is to pass on its genes to the next generation, what evolutionary purpose might these extra years fill, then? It has been hypothesized that grandmothers in such animals help to bring up and protect children, giving those children a better chance of survival. Also, after a certain age, helping to take care of grandchildren may be a more efficient way of perpetuating the species than trying to conceive new babies. Interesting ideas.

A bunch of spurious arguments in the TWU debate

There is a whole load of sanctimonious claptrap and posturing going in the arguments around Trinity Western University's proposed Christian law school in Langley, British Columbia.
TWU is a private university, established back in 1962 by the Evangelical Free Church, attendance of which involves, among other things, a "Community Covenant" obliging students not to engage in sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. You get the general idea... The law societies of both BC and Ontario want to refuse to license the university's graduates, and court cases have, predictably enough, ensued. Some of the arguments being put forward, though - on both sides - seem pretty flimsy and spurious to me, although, given the parties involved, one has to assume that they have some legal validity.
For example, Trinity Western maintains that the law societies are discriminating against the religious freedom of its students because it forbids them to join together to express their beliefs. Not so: they can express their beliefs however they like outside of classes, but if they are to become lawyers serving the whole Canadian population then they need to follow the same educational secularism as everyone else does. Frankly, I'm not sure I would trust a graduate from such an institution to have unbiased and inclusive views on issues such as rape, abortion, homophobia, etc, and thereby serve the populace effectively and dispassionately.
On the other side, some same-sex advocacy groups are claiming that LGBTQ persons cannot be their "authentic selves" while attending TWU, and they they should not be "forced to renounce their dignity and self-respect in order to obtain an education". Also spurious: no-one is forcing them to attend TWU, and I would be surprised that any self-respecting would even consider attending such an institution.
I'm sure there are good arguments on either side of this debate, but these are not among them.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Hybrids and EVs represent less than 1% of vehicles sold in Canada

I was shocked - yes, shocked - by a graphic in today's paper showing just how paltry sales of hybrid and electric cars are here in Canada.
An analysis of Canadian vehicle sales shows that, as of July 2016, 96.6% of cars sold here were traditional gasoline vehicles, and another 3.2% were diesels. Only 0.74% were hybrids, and 0.05% were plug-in hybrids, with 0.17% categorized as "other" (meaning electric cars, perhaps?)
Now, I know that adds up to more than 100%, so something somewhere is wrong. And I know that sales of hybrids and EVs have probably burgeoned since July 2016. But this still indicates that a pitifully small percentage of car purchasers are ecologically conscious, much smaller than I expected, and much smaller than the amount of media attention these vehicles attract.
Less than 1% of car owners are really not going to have a huge impact on our national carbon footprint. Disappointing.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Entitled professionals should stop whining about tax reforms

I'm getting a little impatient with all the well-paid doctors and lawyers who are complaining so vociferously about the federal government's plans to close up tax loopholes that these people have been exploiting for years.
The Liberal tax reforms are aimed at clamping down on the kinds of shell companies that allow self-employed to pay lower corporation and dividend taxes, rather than the income taxes everyone else has to pay, as well as making further tax savings by "sprinkling" their incomes around their extended families (unless those payments are reasonable compensation for actual work done). It also clamps down on the practice of using private corporations as a means of making (and protecting from tax) passive investments not related to the business, as well as converting income into (less taxed) capital gains. In short, it aims to treat business owners just like any other salary- earner.
The tax plan, which is still a work in progress at the moment, has generated near panic in some quarters, although there is also a lot of misunderstanding and confusion, even among financial advisors. However, it is expected to only affect top-end professionals earning over $150,000 anyway, those who have already exhausted org we tax-saving methods like RRSPs and TFSAs: how much can they have to complain about?
Furthermore, it only applies to Canadian-controlled private corporations (CCPCs), and studies show us that richer individuals are much more likely to have a CCPC than the middle- and lower-income individuals that much of the media complaints seem to focus on. According to the Canadian Tax Journal, among tax-payers in the bottom half of the income spectrum, less than 5% have a CCPC, as compared to almost half of the top 1% of earners. So, the focus of the tax measures seems well-placed, and it is unlikely to affect the proverbial mom-and-pop corner store owners that so many reports and conservative commentators talk about with such outrage in their tone.
A Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey suggests that, although over two-thirds of business owners pay family members compensation from their businesses, and a similar proportion hold passive investments within their businesses for tac purposes, nearly two-thirds say that the proposed changes will actually have no effect on them.
These outspoken doctors and lawyers have such a culture of entitlement that they have come to see the current system as the norm and the planned reforms as unfair incursions on their cozy little schemes, complaining that they would no longer be able to save for their retirements and maternity leaves.
Well, how do they think other people manage it? Other people who earn the same as them pay a normal, reasonable amount of income tax. Other people who don't get maternity leave or pensions provided have to make their own arrangements. Other people have to pay off substantial student loans: that's life.
The average gross billings of doctors is a massive $339,000 a year. But, the medical profession argues, a good third of that goes on business-related overheads. Well, that still leaves a net taxable income of well over $200,000 (and this is the average remember), much more than most people have to play with, and surely more than enough for them to factor in maternity pay and repay student loans. It's hard to feel too sorry for them.
The tax reforms seem eminently reasonable to me, even long overdue. The whining of a bunch of entitled upper middle class professionals has no place in this discussion.

A new study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives confirms that the proposed new rules on income sprinkling would mainly affect male professionals (like doctors and lawyers), with spouses or adult children who don't work, and who make over $216,000 a year. It is unlikely to have any affect on family-run businesses like restaurants, stores or farms.
77% of small business owners do not benefit at all from the current tax break on income sprinkling, and another 10% would not gain enough to make it worthwhile setting up such a scheme. Thus, only about 13% do currently take advantage of income sprinkling, and about half of the annual value of the tax break is claimed by the top 5% of earners.
So, I still say the tax changes are justified, and that the belly-aching by small business groups and accountants is not.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Gas price hike might lead to more hybrids and EVs

Now, I'm no Trumpian nativist or protectionist, and I do see the value of globalism (flawed as it is). But it still seems a bit perverse that Canada - a major oil producer and exporter - has just seen its gasoline prices increase by almost 25% because of a storm at the other end of the continent, which may or may not result in supply shortages.
Well, if there's a silver lining to these particular storm clouds, maybe a bunch more people will invest in hybrids and electric vehicles as a result of this latest gas price gouge. That is perhaps the best we can hope for.