Monday, October 30, 2017

Carbon dioxide: a record increase to a record level

The absolute levels of CO2 have been increasing since reliable records began 60-odd years ago. What is particularly alarming, though, is the rate of increase ion recent years. An average concentration of 403.3 parts per million was recorded in 2016, based on readings in 51 countries by the World Meteorological Organization. This represents an increase of 3.3 ppm in just one year, about 50% more than the average annual increase over the last ten years, for example.
The last time anything like an increase of this magnitude was recorded was back in 1998, when an increase of 2.7 ppm was recorded. Both years were intense El Niño years (El Niño tends to cause droughts that limit the uptake of CO2 by plants and trees). The 2016 increase was substantially higher than 1998, though, which points to a significant increase in the underlying man-made CO2 levels.
The last time CO2 levels were at or above these levels was around three to five million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene era, when average temperatures were 2-3°C higher, and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher due to the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. That time we humans were not involved, but we really don't want to go there again.

What we learned from a year in space

Some interesting insights into human space flight have arisen out of the ongoing study of Scott Kelly, the American astronaut who has logged the longest continuous stay in space, spending 340 days on the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016 (Russian astronaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record of 438 days).
Kelly, now 53 years old, was specifically being monitored for data on the physiological effects of space travel, and he will continue to provide data even since his return to earth and his retirement from NASA last year. Much of the data involves comparisons with his earthbound identical twin, Mark (actually, Mark too made a space trip in 2011, but only of a modest 54 days). Mr. Kelly has recently published a book, Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery, detailing some of the findings, or at least those that NASA are willing to release.
One of the most important factors in the study is his reaction to the radiation he experienced in space (more than 30 times the exposure we receive on earth, although apparently this still represents less of a cancer risk than a terrestrial smoker exposes himself to). Scott remains cancer-free for now, and is remarkably sanguine about the risks for the future.
Loss of bone density is another big one. It is unavoidable in the zero gravity of space, although interestingly the loss appears to level off, and his bone density loss is no more after 340 days than it was after less than half that time. Kelly muses that future generations that live permanently in space may evolve without a skeleton, and live perfectly serviceable lives as invertebrates.
One interesting, and perhaps unexpected, corollary of life in space is the toll it takes on vision. The reasons are not entirely clear, but time in space appears to cause permanent folds in the choroid (the blood-filled layer between the retina and the white of the eye), and Kelly has had to increase his eyeglass prescription several times since returning from space. Interestingly, women astonauts do not seem to be affected in the same way, and Kelly envisions a female-only flight to Mars unless more progress can be made on this problem.
Breathing much higher levels of carbon dioxide while living in the confines of the Space Station is another big impediment to space travel - it causes headaches, congestion, burning eyes, irritability, and trouble thinking straight (the latter in particular has distinct and obvious drawbacks in a space flight context). It remains to be seen what long-term effects this might have, but Kelly is quick to point out that NASA could have allowed much cleaner air using additional CO2 scrubbers available on the ISS, but chose not to. NASA has since agreed to improve CO2 conditions by up to a third for the future.
In fact, Mr. Kelly has some pretty harsh words to direct at NASA, particularly regarding its secrecy and its authoritarian attitudes. I guess when your life is effectively in their hands from day to day for nearly a year, it leads to a pretty fraught relationship.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a classic of early feminism

Having just read Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I came away suitably impressed, not so much with the writing or with the deep characterization in the novel, but with the sheer audacity of it. I'm sure any number of monographs and papers of which I am unaware have been written on the subject, but it occurs to me that it must be one of the first mainstream feminist novels.
Anne Brontë is the "other" Brontë, less famous than her overachieving siblings, Emily and Charlotte, and probably less accomplished as an author. It was Anne, the youngest of the sisters, who bore the brunt of caring for her feckless and alcoholic brother, Branwell, and this experience - one that her sisters may not have undergone to the same degree - may well have given her a singularly cynical outlook on the opposite sex. Although Anne is much better known for her other novel, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be her real legacy.
Not only is the novel a searing account of alcoholism and psychological spousal abuse, common phenomena in 19th century Victorian England, even if not mentioned in polite society. But Ms. Brontë's heroine, after of course doing her Christian duty (and more) in attempting to save her husband from himself and his demons, takes matters into her own hands and walks out on him, taking their young son with her, to live by her own wits and skills. This was all but unheard of in genteel literature, and would really have made the Victorians sit up and take note (and, I am sure, in many cases, grumble and denounce).
The men in the novel are split between thoughtless, adulterous, high-living cads, and rather anaemic, wimpy but sensitive types. They are most definitely not the brooding, romantic, Byronic archetypes of her sisters' novels. Ms. Brontë makes her preference clear, but does not try to hide a certain amount of disdain for both manifestations of manhood. And, while there are a certain number of scheming, unpleasant, upper class women in the book, many of the women are quite strong, matter-of-fact, level-headed individuals, none more so than the heroine, Helen Huntingdon, herself.
Some of Helen's diary entries would definitely cause the eyebrows of the Victorian reading classes to rise:
  • "I am satisfied that, if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are, or should be, written for both men and women to read."
  • "Because, my dear, beauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men."
  • "His idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly, and to stay at home — to wait upon her husband and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way, while he chooses to stay with her; and, when he is absent, to attend to his interests, domestic or otherwise, and patiently wait his return; no matter how he may be occupied in the meantime."
  • "Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection, that though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is much more likely to produce a contrary result."
Ouch! Helen's advice to her younger protégée, Esther, in particular, is not merely world-weary and cynical, it is the counsel of a strong independent woman. In Victorian terms of 1848, it is downright sacrilege and heresy! Add to this the way in which Helen manages the attentions of her various suitors - invariably calm, assured, and nothing less than masterful - and the way in which (after an admitted mistake in marrying Arthur in the first place) she vows to live her life on her own terms and to protect her young son, she presents an early model for feminine fortitude and autonomy.
Whether this is indeed the first feminist novel is probably open to debate, and I'm sure it has been debated ad nauseam in circles of literary academia to which I am not privy. But, regardless, eve I can see that it is a most worthy (even if not stylistically outstanding) work of Victorian fiction. Indeed, it is a deep irony that Ms. Brontë felt the need to publish it under the masculine nom-de-plume, Acton Bell.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Racial colour blindness is not a sin

I always stop and think long and hard before posting any entry about race in this blog. It is the single easiest way to get yourself into hot water in the a Wild West that is the Internet today. Passions run high on the subject, and often articles are not read with an open mind or without preconceptions. That said, no-one really reads this blog; it is mainly for my own purposes, a kind of thinking aloud of my own thoughts. So, maybe it's safe to venture out.
At any rate, an article by Bee Quammie on colour blindness gave me pause the other day, and I can't resist making a couple of comments on it. Colour blindness is the idea that we should ignore any ethnic, racial and cultural differences between us in order to encourage a more accepting and less divisive society. I've always thought it to be an eminently sensible and positive policy, and it is usually mentioned in the context of the performing arts, for example, in a positive context. Young children are praised for being colour-blind, prior to being tainted with the cynicism of adulthood.
Ms. Quammie, however, paints colour blindness in a very different way, essentially as well-intentioned (always a label used to damn with faint praise) but fatally flawed, and at heart somehow a racist practice. In her own words: "Often touted as a virtue synonymous with tolerance, being colour-blind is lazy and has troubling consequences." Furthermore: "It detracts from our ability to have age-appropriate conversations with kids about real-life issues like racism and privilege." In particular, she lambastes a recent Toronto Star article on cultural appropriation and Halloween by Ottawa writer Kate Jaimet, one that I must confess I found quite sensible, but that this commentator calls "tragically obtuse".
Well, I don't know how far I would take it, but it seems to me cynical and sad to deny a child's right to dress up as a "native princess" if she wants to. Use it as a teachable moment by all means - explain that the idea of a native princess is a Disney invention that is not reflected in actual First Nations culture - but don't just outright ban it.
Ms. Quammie says that: "Teaching our children to be colour-blind is a mistake, one that tells young people to see differences as negative things to ignore or erase." But that is not what is happening here. Children are not being taught anything, but their natural colour-blindness is being allowed to flourish. If these children are allowed to grow up into colour-blind police officers, judges and employers, then, in a generation's time, maybe there will be little or no need to lecture our kids about the iniquities of racism and cultural appropriation and white privilege. Call me naive, but that's not a bad ambition to have, is it?

Toronto officially has a visible majority

The figures are based on the 2016 census, but for some reason they are just being officially released now: 51.5% of Toronto residents identify as visible minorities, up from 47% at the previous census in 2011. In Canada as a whole, just 22.3% identify as visible minorities, and 29% in the province of Onrario as a whole. But things are very different in Toronto, one of the most multi-cultural large cities in the world.
The largest minoriy groups in Toronto are South Asian (13%), Chinese (11%), Black (9%), and Filipino (6%), followed by smaller groups of Latin American, West Asian, "Multiple", Korean, Southeast Asian, Arab and "Other".
Five other municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area also reported a majority of visible minorities (a visible majority?) - Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Richmond Hill and Ajax - some of these cities having even greater immigrant proportions than Toronto. For example, 78% of Markham residents identify as visible minorities, and 73% of Brampton residents.
At the other end of the scale, many northern and small rural municipalities in Ontario have just 1%-2% of visible minorities in their populations. Other larger conurbations like Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Windsor, etc, are about mid-way between the two extremes.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Is China communist or capitalist or, somehow, both

As China embarks on a "New Era" and officially adopts "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" (thus raising President Xi, the current leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, to Mao-esque almost god-like status), the question arises: in what respect can modern China be considered socialist or communist?
Under Chairman Mao, the state (i.e the Chinese Communist Party) owned every factory and every farm in the country, and the means of production was effectively collectively owned. Since 1976, though, China has all but abandoned the tenets of classical communism, and now just about everything is at least partly privatized, leaving a patchwork of public and private businesses, not dissimilar to many other mixed economies across the world. Even schools maybe either state-run or private, and its tax codes and rates are similar to those in the USA and elsewhere.
Mr. Xi's predecessor Deng Xiaoping, once one of Mao' top generals, is generally credited as the propelling force behind China's move towards capitalism, decentralization and market economics. He was quite up-front about the need for China to reform its economic systems in order to "catch up with the times".
Yes, all the land in China still technically belongs to he government, the banks are government-owned and -run, and the domestic media is all state-owned and tightly controlled. Furthermore, the country and its provinces still operate under the highly-centralized single-party rule of the Communist Party, and all government employees must be Communist Party members. Many of China's largest amd most successful companies are state-owned, and even many successful private companies have "links" with the government, some more transparent, some less.
But economic policy is now very much geared geared towards capitalistic ends. Regional leaders are evaluated each year based on the region's economic growth, and fierce competition is encouraged (with concomitant high levels of corruption).
Internationally, the country is even more capitalistic in its outlook. It now has the second-highest GDP in the world, and will probably be the world's largest single market economy by 2050 (it may already be by some measures). It has opened up to capital investment, and has a sophisticated stock exchange and capital markets. Not a day goes by without more news of aggressive international corporate takeovers. Since the advent of Donald Trump in America, China is the de facto leader of globalization and the official poster-child of free trade.
Even though China's government is officially Communist, it's people have most definitely embraced capitalism. In a recent Pew Research Center study, 76% of Chinese people agree that "most people are better off in a free market economy, even though somepeople are rich and some are poor" (this compares to 73% in Germany, 70% in the USA, 65% in the UK, and a 64% global median).
Today, China is neither a communist country with a veneer of market economics, Perhaps China's economic system might best be described as state capitalism, a combination of capitalism with state control and ownership, where the government controls the economy and essentially operates like a single huge corporation. China's continued use of terms like "socialism" and "communism" are really inaccurate anachronisms. They are slightly more palatable than words like "totalitarianism", but they are also a million miles from the purist vision of Karl Marx (or even Mao Zedong).

When is a sport not a sport?

Further to the ongoing debate on what is, or is not, a sport, the European Court of Justice has ruled, perhaps unsurprisingly, that bridge is not in fact a sport.
The English Bridge Union, essentially a bunch of wealthy retirees (and probably tax lawyers), had, rather cynically I thought, applied for sports status for tax purposes. The Court demurred on the grounds that a sport should involve "a not negligible physical element". Having been stymied in this, they will now try for tax-exempt status as a "cultural service".
But whatever you think about the English Bridge Union, the case has reignited the age-old debate about what actually constitutes a sport. The status of most activities that involve running, jumping, swimming and chasing a ball around a field are not really in any doubt (not withstanding the fact that many soccer fans would deny that American football is a real sport, and probably almost as many football fans the reverse).
It's when we get into the realm of ice dancing, dressage, rhythmic gymnastics, curling and golf that things get tricky, where there is undeniable skill involved and some physical exertion (even a lot of exertion in the case of ice dancing), but where the activities fall outside of the core Olympic ideals of "faster, higher, stronger". Indeed, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used to be considered the ultimate arbiter of all matters sporting. But, in this new era of commercialism and cynical marketing, the IOC can no longer be relied upon for objectivity (take the addition of surfing and skateboarding as Olympic sports at Tokyo 2020, for example). As Cathal Kelly drolly observes, "If someone can persuade teenagers to watch bear-baiting and laundry-folding, the IOC will slap a logo on them". And yet squash has been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to get itself recognized as an Olympic sport...
So, where does this leave activities like car-racing (usually considered a sport, but is it really?), bowling (if curling is a sport, then presumably so is bowling?) and darts (no one is really serious about that, surely!). What counts as a sport, what is an artform, and what is just a skill or merely a pastime? Well, unfortunately, the ECJ ruling doesn't really help us at all.

Just to mix things up a bit, the Global Association of International Sports Federations  has just recognized pole dancing - whichbit describes as "a performance sport combining dance and acrobatics on a vertical pole" - as a sport. I'm sure they just did it for a lark.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Quebec's face veil law descending into farce

The province of Quebec's laudable pursuit of state secularism and religious neutrality is descending into farce as it tones down its recent contentious Bill 62 to force people to show their faces and remove religious face veils in order to obtain public services, which has the unfortunate effect of discriminating against the tiny minority of Muslim women who wear burqas or niqabs.
Although the initial rules would have applied throughout the whole time individuals were receiving the public services, the law now only requires faces to be shown "at the point of interaction with a public servant". Thus, library patrons would be required to show their faces while dealing with librarians, but not while walking around the library. Public transit customers who are using a card with photo ID (e.g. students) would have to show their faces when boarding, but not while actually travelling. Health service patrons would need to uncover their faces while dealing directly with doctors, nurses or other staff, but could then cover up in the waiting room. In theory, school children and university students would have to be uncovered while interacting with a teacher in the classroom, but not while walking in the corridors, although this will apparently depend on the individual school's security policies.
Estimates as to how many Quebecois niqab and burqa-wearing women this law might affect vary between 50 and 100 (i.e. negligible). Why would the Quebec legislature even bother? These women are already well used to uncovering their faces for security purposes (at airports, licence bureaus, etc), so, again, why the need for a new law, if not merely to further goad an already vilified minority? Furthermore, by their own admission, most of these women choose to wear the face coverings, often even against the advice of their families, thus putting the Quebec government in the awkward position of seeking to save the women from themselves. 
The whole plan sounds totally unenforceable, and many public bodies (including McGill University and the whole City of Montreal) are openly stating their opposition to even these scaled-back rules. Add to this the fact that the law stipulates no fines, and that a woman can apply for an exemption on the basis of her religion(!), and the whole affair becomes something of a joke, albeit a joke that has garnered Quebec a lot of criticism and bad press both within and, particularly, outside of the province. And the longer the Catholic crucifix remains in a prominent position in the Quebec legislature, the less convincing their commitment to secularism appears.

What are activist investors, and are they a good thing?

I seem to see the word "activist" more and more often in the business pages of the newspaper. There was a time when the word only cropped up in the news and environmental sections, but nowadays "activist investor" and "shareholder activist" are commonly-encountered phrases, suggesting that the practice is on the rise. But what does it actually mean?
An activist investor is a wealthy individual or a company or group that buys up significant chunks of a public corporation's shares, with a view to effecting major change in the company and it's management. This may also be accompanied by an attempt to obtain seats on the company's board of directors. Such a move may be precipitated by a perceived mismanagement, or excessive costs, or some other reason why the company is considered to be undervalued, although it can also be used to bring about social change, often related to the environment, investment in politically sensitive parts of the world, and workers' rights. Among the best known individual activist investors are Carl Icahn, Nelson Pelts, Bill Ackman, David Einhorn and Dan Loeb.
As for whether they are a "good thing", that largely depends on your point of view. Activists may bring fresh ideas to the table, and they may be able to "hold management's feet to the fire", resulting in improved performance and higher stock valuations. Just the simple attentions of an influential activist investor may be enough to increase a company's stock price and valuation. For example, there is a phenomenon known as the "Icahn Lift", which refers to the rise in stock price that often occurs when prominent activist investor Carl Icahn decides to get involved in a company.
However, activist investors are not always right, and they are usually in it for their own profit and not necessarily for the public good. And, when they come to offload their investment, which they may do at the drop of a hat depending on the success of their intervention or their own investment horizon, there may then be significant downward pressure on the company's stock price.
So, with shareholder activism on the rise, the blessings are mixed. It may lead to better governance, better and more independent boards, socially-responsible divestment campaigns, or the enforcing of environmental standards. It may, though, be extremely disruptive, and not all activist campaigns are successful or even desirable. As always, caveat emptor applies.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Mugabe's role as "goodwill ambassador" short-lived

The World Health Organization (WHO) has made a frantic and red-faced about-turn after their naming of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as a "goodwill ambassador" met with global puzzlement and outrage. Mugabe's appointment was rescinded yesterday, without explanation or apology.
But the question remains: who ever thought it was a good idea to give Mugabe this kind of accolade in the first place. The 93-year old has presided over economic decline and political turmoil over his 37 years in power in Zimbabwe. Moreover, he has presided over a notoriously poor and under-funded health system, one which he himself chooses to avoid like the proverbial plague, preferring the private hospitals of Singapore and Malaysia for his own health care.
The decision appears to lie with recently-appointed Yedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African ever to be appointed to the top job at WHO. Dr. Tedros' own past is somewhat checkered: he was a senior member of the brutally repressive regime in Ethiopia, and his own appointment in July of this year met with a significant amount of criticism from Africa and beyond. His contentious championing of Robert Mugabe raises the question of just how independent he is as a director-general of WHO.
Dr. Tedros' abrupt decision to cancel Mugabe's appointment yesterday was made without explanation or apology. Zimbabwean goverent and state-run media commentators have, predictably enough, decried the volte face, alleging intereference by "Western bullies", but it has met with general praise and a communal sigh of relief elsewhere.

No, Virginia, cannabis does not cure cancer

As Canada lurches towards marijuana legalization next year, the scores of pot dispensaries that have proliferated (mainly illegally) are using all sorts of iffy advertising to move their product. A common trope is that cannabis can somehow mysteriously help or even cure cancer, and that at the very least it reduces chemotherapy-related nausea. Claims like "significantly reduces the ability of the cancer to spread" are bandied about, and anecdotal case studies of supposedly miraculous remissions are presented as scientific evidence.
Now, anecdotes are not evidence, however much you might like them to be. Without rigorous medical documentation, there is no way to tell whether it was the cannabis that helped, or previous radiation and chemotherapy treatments, or some other entirely unknown factor, or whether it was just a spontaneous remission, which also happens. So, what, then, is the actual scientific evidence behind these claims. Unfortunately, there really isn't any. Or, at least, not yet.
There have been some scientific studies done, and many more are under way or in the planning stages. Some have indicated that there may be some positive effects, perhaps enough to justify further studies and tests, but far from conclusive or definitive evidence. Others studies, however, have indicated that cannabis may interfere with the immune system's tumour-supressing role and could even stimulate cancer cell growth. Also, the high doses of cannabis-based THC or CBD oils that are often recommended for cancer treatments may also decrease quality of life, leaving patients psychotic or dangerously sedated.
The conclusions of one major meta-study may be the best summary of the situation: "there is not enough evidence for any of the cancers to state confidently that it is effective and safe". Perhaps, the best that can be said for cannabis is that it may reduce reliance on high-dose opioids, which can have even more negative side-effects. As such, it could be used as part of an overall risk-reduction strategy.
The good news is that many more studies are currently under way, and some teams seem very confident that a breakthrough may be imminent (read: within 10 years). Time, though, and not wishful thinking, will tell.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Amazon continues to grow, but still makes no profits

As Canadian and American cities desperately vie to outdo each other in a bidding war to host Amazon's second headquarters (HQ2), it's worth taking a closer look at the strange business beast that is Amazon.
We are used to thinking of Amazon as one of the most successful companies in the world, and in some respects it is: the company owns about a third of the huge American internet retailing market, and this could rise to a half within just a few years. It is worth around $460 billion (about 1,000 times its value when it went public 20 years ago). A graph of its share price looks like the archetypal geometric progression more commonly seen in fields like world population, and its price per share been hovering around the $1,000 mark for a while now. The revenue graph is a similar shape.
What Amazon doesn't do, though, is make profits. It has actually made losses in two of the last five fiscal years, and at no time in its 20-year history has it ever made a net income exceeding $5 a share. So, by the usual benchmark of success, Amazon has not been a stellar performer. However, this is mainly because founder and CEO Jeff Besos is so intent on crushing the competition that any spare cash is ploughed right back into bigger warehouses, new AI products, movie production, airlines, etc, etc. Bezos is single-mindedly positioning Amazon as the go-to company for pretty much everything, and he seems to be doing a bang-up job of that. And those tiny profits, then, are intentionally tiny profits.
Will this astounding growth ever translate into bottom line earnings? Possibly not, but investors don't seem to mind. They seem content to be as patient as Bezos, and to reap the huge share valuation advantages while they can. Bubble, anyone?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey making feminist poetry sexy (and saleable) again

I know I am hopelessly behind the times, as usual, but I have just been listening to Rupi Kaur reading her Milk and Honey poems. 
Ms. Kaur is a young (just 22 at the time of writing this short collection) Canadian woman of Indian background, who self-published her poems and then became an unexpected best-selling phenom. She has just published a second collection The Sun and her Flowers, hoping to build on this momentum.
Ms. Kaur's blank verse is quite visceral, powerful and affirming, even if some of the more aphoristic soundbites are perhaps not quite as deep as the dramatic pauses suggest. It is certainly a worthy addition to the canon of feminist poetry, and literature in general, if that is not damning it with faint praise (not my intention at all). 
And it is probably just the kind of thing that young women everywhere should read or listen to (and guys too, for that matter, in this age of #HimThough, #HowIWillChange, etc, etc).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New battery technologies could revolutionize electric vehicles

I was excited by news that some companies, notably Zap&Go in the UK, and StoreDot in Israel, are making some progress with faster-charging and more stable alternatives to the lithium-ion batteries which are generally used today in electric cars.
Zap&Go is pursuing nanocarbon-ion batteries in partnership with a Chinese battery producer, and is holding out the prospect of a full charge in as little as 5 minutes (about as long as it currently takes to fill up with gas). StoreDot also makes use of nano-materials and proprietary organic compounds, and is also talking about 5 minute charges.
Neither company is quite there yet, but the prospects are bright, and they could revolutionize the already-burgeoning interest in electric vehicles.

In taxation, as in life, not everyone will be happy

An article in today's Report On Business introduced to me an interesting idea I had not thought about before (I don't necessarily agree with much of the rest of the article, but this part at least gives food for thought).
With respect to the ongoing tax reforms of the federal Liberals, the article points out that, while most people in Canada would agree that our tax system as a whole should be (and generally speaking is) fair, equitable and progressive, we have got to the point where our expectations have shifted so much that every new tweak to the system also needs to be fair, equitable and progressive. In Mr. Speer's words: "It's no longer adequate for overall spending and taxation to be equitable and progressive. Now, the new test seems to be that every spending and tax measure must be equitable and progressive. The scope for compromise is increasingly nil in such a zero-sum world."
There is an element of truth to this point. Any new tax measure introduced will always have winners and losers. Someone somewhere will always complain about it, claiming that it is unfair in one way or another. And if we are starting off with a tax system which is generally fair, equitable and progressive, any new fair, equitable and progressive measure introduced is not going to make much difference.
Except that the point only goes so far. It is still possible to want to make the overall tax system MORE progressive or MORE equitable. So, new tax measures may seem unfair to some individuals who are affected, but they may still improve the overall system ("improve", that is, in the eyes of the government of the day, which was voted in by a majority of the population).
This seems to be what is happening at the moment with the ongoing debate over small business taxation. Some individuals may feel aggrieved by the proposed measures - you can't please all the people all the time - but the country's tax system as a whole may be improved by them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Debunked Daily Mail climate change article still holds sway

An article in Britain's Daily Mail back in February this year entitled "Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data" set the right-wing media alight. Maybe you remember it.
According to a Buzzfeed analysis, the article received more than 211,500 shares, likes, comments, or other interactions on social media, and another 159 stories repeated the original’s claims and linked back to it, including coverage from conservative news giants such as Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Caller, and National Review, as well as from climate skeptic blogs. These stories received about 540,800 shares or interactions.
Unfortunately, the original story was just not true, and the Daily Mail's and other commentators' reporting of it skewed the truth still further. At least 66 online articles taking issue with or refuting the original article have appeared since, but these have only garnered a little over a quarter of the social media shares of the original. For what it's worth, the online version of the Mail's article is now prefaced by a detailed apology for all the errors and the misleading and inaccurate reporting.
However, the damage is done, and the kind of people who frequent Breitbart and Fox News have had (or at least feel that they have had) their erroneous views vindicated and strengthened. The old saw about first impressions was never more true, and it seems that no amount of debunking, however definitive, is going to change that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tesla under immense pressure to deliver

Tesla seems to be really struggling to keep up with the ridiculous demand for its beautiful Model 3 electric car.
Apparently, there is a waiting list of over 455,000 orders for the car (and that is after 63,000 preorders were cancelled by disgruntled or skeptical potential customers), whereas they produced only 260 in the whole of the last quarter (due to "production bottlenecks"). At that rate, it would take about 430 years (!) to catch up on current demand, let alone the expected increasing demand in future years. The Palo Alto, California-based company says it hopes to produce over 100,000 this year, after ramping up production, although this would still be far from sufficient to meet demand. But don't hold your breath on that.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this situation, Tesla has just laid off hundreds (an estimated 400-700) of its 33,000 workforce, mainly in administrative and sales departments, but also in its manufacturing operations, after its latest annual performance review. I'm not sure I'd be tempted to work for such an aggressive hire-and-fire company.
The other little factoid that came out during the reporting of this mess is that the Tesla company apparently has a market value of $59 billion, which is more than, say, Ford, even though (unlike Ford) Tesla has still be register a profit.
It's nice to be popular, and it's particularly nice to see so much interest in an environmentally-friendly product. But just imagine being the object of so much anticipation, so much pressure to deliver.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Think yourself lucky you are not taxed on employee discounts

Yet another storm-in-a-teacup concerning Canadian tax law. The Liberals are frantically down-playing a recent announcement that the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) wants to tax employee discounts. Justin Trudeau himself is on record as vowing that no such tax will ever be implemented, and that the CRA has drastically overreached itself in even hinting that there might be.
Politicians across the board have been falling over themselves to appear outraged and horrified that staff discounts for department store workers or reduced-price burgers at the end of a fast-food server's shift could ever be considered taxable.
And yet, technically, they most definitely are. As Globe and Mail columnist Tony Keller points out - albeit in a rather wordy, repetitive and long-winded way - the Canadian tax code, like that of most other western democracies, explicitly states that non-cash benefits in lieu of regular wages and salaries should be considered taxable. For example, if an employer gives an employee a $50,000 boat in place of $50,000 salary, it would be, and is, taxable. An employee who receives $500 in free groceries each week is taxed on the taxable benefit accruing. And that is all as it should be: there is, after all, no essential difference between such a benefit and normal earned income.
The only difference between the boat example and the burger example is one of scale and practicability. While the burger should technically be taxed too, the onus of reporting and auditing such a tax would be prohibitive, and the possibilities for the inevitable evasion of such a rule too extensive. The real reason such benefits are not taxed is because it is not worth the cost of collecting, processing and policing such small amounts. What is not clear is just where the cut-off should be - what kind of a discount is too small to be worthwhile taxing and what IS worthwhile - the tax code does not make that clear.
Given that, the outrage that has met the CRA's proposal seems excessive. Those who do benefit from such employee discounts and perks are not being taxed on them for incidental and administrative reasons, it is not a God-given or natural right as some seem to be implying. And they should be very cognizant that others, who receive larger benefits or perks, ARE in fact being taxed. In short, they should think themselves lucky, and not push that luck too far.

Released Taliban abductees' story bizarre and suspicious

The release of Joshua Boyle and Caitlin Coleman and their family from captivity under Taliban-affiliated militants in Afghanistan yesterday should be an unequivocally joyous occasion. But the more I read about it, and the circumstances and timeline behind it all, the more disturbing and bizarre it appears.
The Canadian man and his American wife, who was several months pregnant at the time, were wandering around the wilds of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan over a period of months in the summer of 2012, for reasons that are not at all apparent. Adventure tourism? Cultural curiosity? Instagram-worthy honeymoon (they were just-married)? Stan-fetish? And why would you do that when heavily pregnant with your first child?
Anyway, in October 2012, or thereabouts, the couple were abducted by the notorious Taliban-connected Haqqani network in the remote mountains of Wardak Province in eastern Afghanistan. This is really not on the back-packing trail. It has been under de facto Taliban control since 2008, and even the Afghanistan Ministry of the Interior has flagged the whole province as "High Risk". It's not even pretty. It seems to me that they must have been deliberately looking for Taliban experiences to even be there.
Ms. Coleman delivered her baby soon after being captured. Not much you can do about that. But... they then go on to have two more children while in captivity, in 2015 and 2017. Again, who would do that? Are they just criminally irresponsible? Or not very bright?
I just feel that there is a lot more to this story that we are not being told. So many of the circumstances seem peculiar, suspicious or downright bizarre.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

TDSB's banning of title "Chief" just more misplaced political correctness

In yet another example of misplaced political correctness, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has voted to change any job titles that contain the word "Chief". Thus, heretofore innocent titles like Chief Planning Officer are to be changed to Manager of Planning. This is purportedly out of solidarity with and respect for Canada's Indigenous people, and on the grounds that "chief" is sometimes applied pejoratively to Indigenous people.
Now, Canada's native peoples are beset by a whole whole host of problems - not least among them clean water, housing and education deficits on reservations, and alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness and institutionalized racism in the cities - but the fact that a bunch of (mainly) white guys call themselves Chief Executive Officer and Chief Planning Officer, is surely not even on their radar. As far as I am aware, no one has made complaints about the use of the title of "Chief"; the TDSB came to this conclusion all on their own, presumably out of excessive and misplaced white guilt (we are guilty of many things in regards to the Indigenous population, but this is not one of them).
The word "chief" has been in the English language since centuries before Western contact with North America's First Nations, and the word itself has done nothing wrong. It carries with it no racial or negative connotations when used in its usual context, although, obviously, I would counsel against using it to a First Nations individual, unless they are in fact a chief (that is just common sense).
This, then, is just another case of inapt and ill-advised liberal over-sensitivity of the kind recently reported in this very blog in the case of the banning of the use of the word "Master" at the University of Toronto. It is a knee-jerk reaction, done with the best of intentions perhaps, but inappropriate and effectively useless. It may be commendable that the TDSB wants to help the beleaguered Indigenous people of Canada, but in that case they should concentrate on concrete actions that might actually achieve something. Changing a few people's titles is not going to help anyone, and they should not expect any pats on the back for it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

America suffering from divine vengance?

Hurricanes. Floods. Forest fires. And now the United States fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1986!
It can only be a matter of time before the plague of locusts descends. And soon, Americans are going to put two and two together and conclude that this can only be divine vengeance for one, Donald Trump. Don't be too surprised if there are calls for an exorcism or an auto-da-fé some time soon. 

We really don't need the national anthem before sports games

With all the media frenzy over football and basketball players "taking the knee" (a bit of Game of Thrones borrowing there) during the national anthem before games, a few brave outlets have begun questioning why the anthem is played anyway.
For the longest time, professional sports games were played quite happily with no anthem at all. The Star-Spangled Banner, a battle hymn dating back to the War of 1812, was first played during the 1918 Baseball World Series, at the height of the patriotic fervour of World War 1, although it only sporadically resurfaced thereafter. Even after it became the official American national anthem in 1931, it was only played at special baseball occasions like opening day, national holidays and World Series games. It was usually played during the seventh innings stretch, and not at the start of the game.
During the renewed patriotic fervour of World War 2, and the advent of electric sound systems and recorded music, the Star-Spangled Banner was routinely played before major league baseball games (there again, it was also played before operas, theatre performances and movies!). Many baseball grounds continued the custom even after the War, although many stopped it and did not take it up again until the Vietnam War rekindled patriotic feelings yet again (among some, anyway). Other professional sports also took it up after the Second World War, until gradually it became the sacrosanct fixture it is today (at least in the USA - other countries, presumably less patriotic than the Yanks, generally reserve anthems for international contests, which at least makes more logical sense).
To say, as Donald Trump does, that players who don't stand to attention with their hands on their hearts are "disrespecting the flag", and somehow letting their country down, is a bit ridiculous. (Bear in mind, that the concession stands are still serving during the anthem, and hordes of spectators are still milling around, as they do throughout the game). To say they should be fired or taxed (!) is ridiculous squared.
America is not at war - although sometimes it's hard to tell - and professional sports does not need this kind of politicized militarism, particularly not sports like hockey, where a putatively American team is largely comprised of Canadians, Scandinavians and Russians (are THEY supposed to hold their hands over the hearts and look rapturous?)
However, it is a brave media outlet that comes out and says that in so many words, especially in today's charged political climate. So, kudos, then, to Bloomberg for coming out and telling it like it is: "The awkward, hard-to-admit truth is that the American national anthem is a form of right-wing political correctness, designed to embarrass or intimidate those who do not see fit to sing along and pay the demanded respect." Ouch! And Bloomberg's terse conclusion? "It is time to dial it down". Quite.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Ontario Liberals seem to backtrack on abortion clinic bill

It's not at all clear (to me, at least) why the Ontario Liberals appear unwilling to follow up with their own legislation on creating protest-free zones of 50-150 metres around abortion facilities and the homes of staff who work in them.
The Wynne government proposed the zones in order to combat a recent surge in protests, particularly outside a certain downtown Ottawa clinic, where women seeking legal abortions may experience yelling, personal insults, photographs, even spitting. The time seemed to have come for more protections, and even the opposition Conservatives seemed to be generally in favour of it (provincial Tory leader Patrick Brown used to be anti-abortion, but seems to have had a pro-choice revelation in recent years).
However, when the Conservatives proposed an immediate vote on the legislation - holding out the prospect of an easy, near-unanimous, all-party passage of the bill - the Liberals seemed to backtrack, claiming that more time was needed for health-care professionals and women's groups to review the bill (even though there has already been plenty of consultation on it, since it was first introduced last spring).
Now, maybe the Liberals are playing pre-election games, hoping to focus on Brown's inconsistency around the abortion issue. But what they are actually doing is risking alienating many members of their own persuasion. If this really is low-hanging fruit, and will have the affect of protecting women from the intimidation of "pro-lifers", then surely it should be snapped up as soon as possible. Make hay while the sun shines, don't look a gift-horse in the mouth, and many another such cliché applies.

Painted lady butterflies out-monarch the monarch

Probably every Canadian schoolchild knows the story of the monarch butterfly and its dramatic migration each fall from Canada down to the cloud forests of Mexico, and then the migration back again in the spring of the descendants of those southern migrants. But few, if any, European schoolkids are aware of the even more impressive exploits of the painted lady butterfly.
In fact, up until recently, few scientists knew the full story. But a detailed radar study, published recently in the journal Ecography, shows that the annual disappearance of millions of painted ladies from Britain is not just a mass die off, as has been generally assumed heretofore. The butterflies are known to arrive in the UK and other northern climes to breed each summer, but it has never been clear until now where they go to when the cold weather begins to arrive. They are not seen migrating south again in the fall or early winter, as the closely-related red admirals do, and it has widely been assumed that they just die, unfulfilled (the so-called "Pied Piper Hypothesis").
What the new data shows is that they do in fact migrate south, but at altitudes of between 500 and 1,000 metres, invisible to the naked eye, taking advantage of favourable winds to travel at speeds of up to 50 km/h. And, like the monarch, the painted lady's journey is also a multi-generational one, taking six generations to complete a mind-boggling 14,400 km round trip between tropical Africa and the fringes of the Arctic Circle.
The monarch's journey is certainly an impressive one, and worthy of the note of millions of schoolkids. We now know, though, that the painted lady out-monarchs even the monarch.

Donkeys are being decimated for yet another Chinese health fad

Who would ever have thought that the humble, ubiquitous donkey could soon be at risk as a species. Now, we are not there yet, but if China has anything to do with it, it could well happen.
It seems that the Chinese have decided, for inscrutable reasons of the their own, that that the rest of the world would probably not understand, that a brown gelatine which is specifically made from donkey skins should be an essential ingredient in ejiao, a trendy "traditional medicine" and health food, as well as an ingredient in a popular line of instant puddings.
Well, such things are produced and eaten everywhere, you might say; it is just an occupational hazard of being a domesticated animal and an under-appreciated beast of burden. But so much demand for this product has been created in China that the local supply of these slow-to-reproduce animals has been decimated (even the Chinese admit that China's donkey population has fallen from about 11 million in 1990 to 3 million today). Demand for donkey skins is now estimated at as much as 10 million a year, which clearly can not be sourced locally. So, as they often do, the Chinese have turned to poverty-stricken Africa, particularly Kenya, to sate their strange predilections. 
The gelatine from boiled donkey skins can sell for up to $388 per kilo, a price that has doubled in the last few years. This is obviously good money for a poor African poacher. So, local farmers and delivery men are waking up to find their donkeys dead and skinned. Donkeys are an important part of African life, particularly in the poorer areas, and essential for transportation and farming. So, Chinese demand for a spurious health food is fuelling a worsening of African poverty and an increase in crime.
Just to make things worse, an increasing number of animal abuse and cruelty cases are coming to light, and donkeys waiting to be killed are often kept in appalling conditions. Supposedly, Chinese overseers are controlling the process, but there are many reports of donkeys being starved to death to make it easier to skin them, or bludgeoned to death in make-shift and unregulated abattoirs.
Several African countries - including Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal - have banned China from buying their donkey products, but the temptation to make a fast buck is insidious. New donkey skin operations are also being set up in places like Brazil and Peru.
Chinese traditional medicines are already responsible for a huge illegal international trade in rare and threatened species. Are donkeys about to join that list?

Thursday, October 05, 2017

BC's carbon tax has not lost its mojo

An opinion piece in the Report on Business section of today's Globe and Mail suggests that British Columbia's widely-lauded carbon tax system has betrayed its early promise (and its early promises).
Now, first, bear in mind that the opinion belongs to Peter Shawn Taylor, a journalist with Macleans and the National Post and a regular contributor to Canadians for Affordable Energy (a borderline climate change denial organization, whose main contention is that "Reductions in carbon dioxide emissions should not be pursued at the expense of jobs or household energy budgets").
Anyway, Taylor argues that BC's carbon tax - which was first instituted by the provincial Liberal government back in 2008 and has been praised around the world as a "textbook policy" for greenhouse gas reduction - has reneged on its promise of revenue neutrality, and has turned into a good old-fashioned "tax grab". The Liberals originally promised that: "Every dollar raises will be returned to the people of BC in the form of lower taxes", and in the early years that is certainly exactly what happened: the carbon tax was re-distributed in its entirety in compensatory cuts to income and corporate taxes.
As the years went by, though, Taylor argues, the carbon tax started to be "returned" in less direct ways. Taylor singles out film tax credits and tax breaks for interactive digital media, although these almost certainly represent tiny fractions of the overall tax redistribution. Now, he says, the new NDP government in BC has dropped all pretense of revenue neutrality, and plans to use the carbon tax income (or "windfall" as Taylor insists on pejoratively characterizing it) to "create jobs, benefit communities and reduce climate pollution".
Now, this all sounds reasonable enough to me - that is what the government is for, and what they were voted in to do, and taxes are the way they earn the wherewithal to achieve it - but Mr. Taylor sees this as an unconscionable break of a sacred vow or contract.
It seems to me that the NDP government intend to create jobs, benefit communities and reduce climate pollution come what may (as they were mandated to do), and if carbon tax revenue were to be given back as income tax relief, then the money would have to be raised through other means (i.e. other taxes). So what, then, would be the net difference?
Mr. Taylor's piece is, at heart, a bit of politically-motivated grandstanding, masquerading as socially-responsible sleuthing. Don't drink the Kool-Aid.