Saturday, December 22, 2018

Portuguese: like Spanish, but quite different

We've been spending a few days in Portugal, before the usual English family Christmas. Porto and Lisbon are both fine cities to visit: narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets, many petering out in vertiginous stairways; old churches dripping with gold leaf and ornate carvings; blue and white azulejo tiles, either abstract or painted with naturalistic historical scenes; grand and gracious squares and avenues; decadent pastry stores on every street corner. Oh, and lots of vegetarian and vegan restaurants for some reason.
I've been particularly interested, though, in the Portuguese language. I speak pretty good Spanish, so I thought, well, Portuguese is very similar, isn't it? How hard can it be? It turns out that, yes, Portuguese is pretty similar to Spanish in many ways, but it's also quite different in others.
The most immediate difference when listening to a conversation in Portuguese is all the shush-shush-shushing, from a hard zzhh to a soft sssssh. But there are several ways in which Portuguese is similar but not quite the same as Spanish. It seems that there has been some kind of consonant shift at some point in Iberian history. Many words using an n in Spanish, for example, use an m in Portuguese (e.g. Spanish una, Portuguese uma; Spanish Don, Portuguese Dom; Spanish bien, Portuguese bem). Except that some n's become o's (e.g. San in Spanish, São in Portuguese; racion in Spanish, ração in Portuguese). Spanish l's often become Portuguese r's (e.g. Spanish plaza, Portuguese praça), ñ becomes nh (e.g. baño/bahno; señor/senhor), ll becomes lh (e.g. batalla/batalha; campaña/campanha) or ch (e.g. llegada/chegada); etc.
To confuse things further, some Portuguese words sound the same as Spanish, but turn out to be spelled differently (e.g. t before e is pronounced as ch: e.g. Portuguese leite is pronounced lay-chay, like the Spanish leche). But some Portuguese consonants are pronounced differently for no apparent reason at all (e.g. verde is pronounced, at least sometimes, vair-jay).
So, Portuguese: like Spanish, but not like Spanish. And have I mastered it? Have I hell! Often, a carefully-constructed, painfully-practised sentence elicits nothing more than a smooth response in perfect idiomatic English. It has been a surprise that pretty much everyone speaks English, at least in tourist towns like Porto and Lisbon. And you know, after the first day, like most pampered English speakers, I'm just fine with that.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Huawei arrest circus could maybe have been avoided

Pretty much everybody else has weighed in on the on going circus around the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent retaliatory arrests of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China, so I guess I may as well add in my own twopenn'orth.
I was initially amazed that Canada was obliged to arrest and extradite anyone the US wants to target at the drop of a hat, but apparently that is exactly what mutual extradition treaties are all about. The proviso is, though, that the crime in question must be one that both countries recognize. So, is there no argument to be made that, although the USA (since Donald Trump's recent policy change) has a policy of sanctions against Iran, Canada (along with most other major countries in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) has no such sanctions or beliefs, and so Canada is under no obligation to arrest or extradite anyone on such grounds? But it seems like the US has pre-empted that argument and ensured that Ms. Meng is being accused not of breaking US sanctions but of fraud in lying about the Iranian business dealings of a Huawei-connected company. So, no go there.
What does seem to be the case, though, is that the Canadian government has perhaps been a bit naive in not looking for what what ex-Chrétien advisor John Manley calls "creative incompetence". Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently was informed of the arrest plan well in advance of Ms. Meng's transit through Canada, and it would not have been difficult to arrange for a strategic warning to be sent to the Huawei contingent. This would not strictly have been in contravention of the extradition treaty but it would have avoided the mess that Canada now finds itself in with respect to the blow-hard Chinese government, which has, as usual, reacted poorly to the provocation. An article by legal scholar Michael Byers describes the example of the creative incompetence.of the British government in the arrest of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late 1990s, and explains how the Meng case would have been a much easier exercise, both practically and morally.
Anyway, that moment is past, and Canada is already in deep doo-doo with China. Trump, as usual, has made things worse for everyone by admitting that his plan (probably all along) is to use Ms. Meng as a bargaining chip in the US's trade negotiations with China. Unfortunately, Chinese President Xi Jinping also needs a trade treaty, and he will probably have a sneaking respect for Trump's tactics. So, China will probably take out it's frustrations on Canada, and go easy on the Americans. It all seems so unfair.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sweden is a forest management model for the world, but...

Sweden, ah Sweden. Among other things the Scandinavian country is getting right, it is a forestry model for the world (including Canada).
Sweden now has about twice as much tree cover as it did a hundred years ago. And that is in a country that fells and exports an awful lot of trees. Over 70% of the country is forested; it possesses just under 1% of the world's commercial forest areas; and it provides just under 10% of the world's sawn timber, pulp and paper. Cutting down trees is big business in Sweden.
So, how then have they managed to increase their tree cover? Swedish forests declined alarmingly in the 19th century, when trees were harvested in a totally unregulated way for farming, house construction, fuel, charcoal for the iron industry, and paper production. In 1903, though, the first Forestry Act was passed in order to slow and even reverse the decline. Essentially, for every tree that is chopped down, at least one must be planted. Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? In addition, limits were set on the total amount of timber that can be harvested each year.
But all is not perfect in the Swedish garden. While total tree cover continues to increase, almost all of Sweden's forests are commercial, cultivated, managed forests, and only small areas of virgin forest remain in the northern mountains. As a result, biodiversity - of both trees and the animal and bird life that relies on it - is suffering.
Greenwash? Maybe, but from the point of view of climate change at least, Sweden can still teach most of the world an important lesson.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Deportation of "legacy refugees" is a blot on Canada's immigration system

I always thought that Canada's immigration system worked pretty well - not perfect, but good. However, the reporting of one case (and apparently it is one among many similar ones) has me second-guessing that.
The Montoya family arrived in Canada in 2012 as refugees fleeting the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since then, they have integrated well into Canadian society: they own property, run a small business, and volunteer in their local community. It is apparently a text-book example of how refugee resettlement is supposed to work.
Now, though, a judge at Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is revisiting their case, and intends to deport the whole family of seven (including two children who have never known any home but Canada) back to Colombia. And on Christmas Eve, at that! The IRB judge has argued that the situation in Colombia has improved over the last six years and that the FARC is no longer a threat to the family. The Montoyas know that this is not true, that the FARC is still searching for them, and that their lives would be in danger if they were to return.
Yes, the situation in Colombia has improved, and the FARC are no longer the force they used to be, but they are far from inactive, and I am inclined to believe the family. But, more to the point, what is the IRB doing reviewing old cases to check whether conditions have changed, and then reassessing claims as though they were being made today?
For one thing, don't they have enough work with current claims, without resurrecting old ones? But for another, the Montoyas, and others like them, have made a new and successful life in Canada: to disrupt this now would just not be fair (to use a distinctly non-legal term). The situation for Jews in Europe has improved since the 1930s - should we then deport refugees from the Nazi regime (and their families) back to Europe, using the same logic?
Apparently, there are currently about 900 such "legacy refugees" waiting to have their cases heard by the IRB - which has a huge backlog of such cases waiting to be heard, with delays mounting to several years - and recent years have seen a significant up-tick in "failed" asylum seekers. All this has come as complete news to me, and it has shaken my faith in the Canadian immigration system.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

It's hard to feel sorry for Alberta

I couldn't help but agree with Barrie McKenna's piece in today's Globe and Mail about how Alberta needs to stop acting like a spoilt and whiny prima donna, and start dealing with some of its problems in a more proactive way.
Alberta's Premier Rachel Notley is constantly whining about how Alberta is going through such a rough time, what with low oil prices and an ongoing difficulty in getting pipelines built (and getting people to buy their oil, for that matter), and how the rest of Canada "wilfully holds Alberta's economy hostage".
Part of the problem is that Alberta has just had it too good for so many years. It did not put away money during the decades when it made out like a bandit from high oil prices. It has stubbornly insisted on not levying a sales tax (because its glut of oil meant that it didn't need to), which could have built up the government coffers quite handsomely in anticipation of leaner years. Just for comparison, while Norway had it good, it accumulated trillions in savings for the inevitable day that the oil runs out; not so Alberta.
Alberta built up its oil business without even being sure that it could get that oil to market. It just assumed that pipelines would somehow miraculously get built, despite opposition to them on many fronts, both north and south of the border. It insisted on building an economy reliant on a single resource, despite evidence that oil is an ageing and moribund industry. It did not pursue diversification even though the writing has been on the wall for years now. It has resisted phasing out coal-powered electricity generation with a similar head-in-the-sand attitude.
It's kind of difficult to feel much sympathy for Alberta, especially now that its one-time superciliousness has given way to a new victim complex.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Doug Ford is costing Ontario businesses and taxpayers money

Hydro One's proposed take-over of Washington-based energy company Avista now seems to be well and truly dead in the water. And the reason? Doug Ford.
The Washington state regulators have ruled that Ford's actions with respect to Hydro One make any involvement with Hydro One by a Washington company inadvisable, on the grounds that it too may become subject to random political interference by a loose-cannon Ontario politician: "Provincial government interference in Hydro One's affairs, the risk of which has been shown by events to be significant, could result in direct or indirect harm to Avista".
It doesn't get much plainer than that. Ford's expensive advertising campaign to convince investors that "Ontario is open for business" has been shown to be a hollow claim.  This is just dog-whistle politics taken to a new level: Ford thought he could pick up some votes by sacrificing some well-paid executive, however non-sensical such an action actually turns out to be.
When the new board finally does get around to appointing a new CEO, they will be paying at least $4 million a year for him/her, a saving of maybe $2 million a year. With the cancellation of the Avista take-over, though, Hydro One will need to pay out $103 million in termination fees, as well as $49 million in commissions to investment banks for financing a deal that is no longer going to happen, and untold millions more in legal fees. So, potential savings of $2 million a year have resulted in costs estimated at around $185 million. Duh!
Ford and Energy Minister Greg Rockford appear today unfazed by this, and are defending their decision as a good one for the Ontario taxpayer, and are convinced that electricity rates are somehow going to be reduced because of it. Back in May of this year, I was offering opinions as to why Doug Ford's obsession with ousting Hydro One's CEO Mayo Schmidt was probably a bad idea. It seemed obvious even then. Now, Ford's tunnel vision and pigheadedness has cost a private company (and, to some extent, the Ontario taxpayer) hundreds of million of dollars. And all in the misguided interests of supposedly saving those same tax payers a miniscule, and probably immeasurable, amount on their bills.

And now debt-rating agency Standard & Poor's is threatening to lowering the company's credit rating (having already lowered it once), specifically citing governance problems after the Ontario government's interference.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

In a #MeToo world, can we still justify Baby, It's Cold Outside?

The Star 102 radio station in Cleveland, Ohio has grabbed the public's attention by pulling the popular Christmas song Baby, It's Cold Outside from its playlist after receiving complaints from some listeners. In a poll on the station's Facebook page, 95% voted that it was a Christmas classic and should be retained, and you might think, "Oh, god what are they objecting to now?", as I did initially. But when you look at it more carefully, you know, maybe the station has a point.
The complainants pointed out that the song is basically a guy trying to force a girl to stay the night against her better judgement, and possibly against her will. At one point, she definitely says, "I simply must go ... the answer is no", only for the man to continue his pressing and wheedling. So, when did "no means no" become negotiable? Later, when she says, "Say, what's in this drink", the spectre of date-rape drugs raises its head for the modern audience (some people have tried to justify the line on contextual and historical grounds, but unconvincingly, I think).
The song, written by Frank Loesser, dates from 1944, when it was originally performed by a husband-wife duet, and it famously appeared in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter, starring Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán. In 1944 or 1949, life was perhaps simpler, and certainly different, than now, but just because a song has been played on the radio for 70 or 80 years doesn't necessarily mean that it should continue to be played forever. In a #MeToo world, maybe we should be rethinking this kind of thing, and the message is portrays to the naïve and the easily-influenced.
It certainly made me think.

The dance of diplomacy

I was struck by what a complicated dance must be going on at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, almost literally.
I guess that what happens at the beginning of a meeting like the G20 is a grand reception where the various leaders circulate around, schmoozing, giving each other manly pats on the back, that kind of thing. The universal greeting is of course the hand-shake, but there are many variations on it, and the press corps is well-versed in the potential implications of each. So, people's initial reaction to the current international bête noir, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becomes a thing of major import.
Well, it comes as no surprise that Vladimir Putin (Public Enemy No. 2) barely suppressed a bear hug, offering MBS something awkwardly between a hand-shake and a high-five, and the two grinned at each other like naughty schoolboys, chatting amicably. India's Narendra Modi and China's Xi Jinping were also photographed being at least cordial with the Crown Prince (what an awkward phrase that is - is there any other kind of Prince?). France's Emmanuel Macron (never one to hide his light under a bushel) and the UK's Theresa May (who desperately needs some good publicity) were about the only two that appeared to take MBS to task over the Kashoggi affair and the war in Yemen, although he seemed unfazed by their attentions. President Trump, one of MBS's most vocal supporters, limited himself to a terse, ambiguous nod, reserving the right to side-meetings later during the weekend, well away from the bright lights and the (fake news) press.
Pretty much everyone else, I assume, managed to basically ignore the Crown Prince, either avoiding any eye contact, or being steered judiciously away by aides in order to avoid any potential diplomatic faux pas. I have this image of a kind of swirling dance, as friends and foes contrive to come together or move apart, as realpolitik dictates. The reality, I'm sure - I hope - is probably far removed from this little fantasy of mine.

The Nylander Catch-22 (aka The Nylander Saga, The Nylander Crisis, etc)

It's December 1st, the day before my Mum's birthday, and the deadline for signings in the National Hockey League.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, sitting pretty in second place in the Eastern division and playing their best hockey in many a year, have one more decision to make: William Nylander. Nylander is a fine young talent and fun to watch, even if he doesn't produce as many points as some other players, and Toronto currently has a good young roster that seems to be gelling and enjoying playing together. They are getting the job done pretty well without Nylander (and even without star scorer Auston Matthews for most of the season). Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnson, John Tavares, and several more that could be mentioned, are all firing on all cylinders at the moment.
But, you might say, why not take on Nylander as well if he can be bought within the hard salary cap that NHL teams now operate under? Nylander - or possibly his father Michael Nylander, another hard bargain-driver during his day in the NHL, and the man who is rumoured to be behind Nylander Jr's stake-out - is thought to an asking for around $8 million a year, and Toronto still has about $17 million of their approximately $80 million kitty for this year.
So, yes they could afford him. But the complication comes next year, when a few other key players become restricted or unrestricted free agents. Can they afford Nylander then? In addition, fitting Nylander into what is already operating as a well-oiled machine might be tricky this far into the season - such chemistries are easily disrupted - and who knows what resentments might be triggered among the players. And if the Toronto management put a spoke in that well-oiled machine by inserting Nylander, they will not be easily forgiven by thousands of armchair managers in Toronto.
So, not an easy decision. But Nylander's brinksmanship rankles with me, and I would prefer not to take him - and, hopefully, discourage such behaviour in the process - than to risk disrupting the fine balance that, after all these years, the Maple Leafs appear to have attained.

At the 11th hour, or more like 11:45, the Maple Leafs did in fact re-sign Nylander, for approximately $45 million over 6 years. That's a lot of money, and I hope it proves wise.
Nylander's first game back was ho-hum (on the part of the whole team), resulting in the end of a 5-game winning streak. It would be easy - but probably misguided - to blame that on disruption from Nylander's return. Well, let's wait and see...

Friday, November 30, 2018

Chinese gene-edited babies have opened up a crack in Pandora's box

Chinese scientist He Jiankui has turned the scientific community upside down in the last few days with his claims that he has secretly edited the DNA of two babies using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology, so that they will theoretically grow up immune to the HIV virus.
Initially sceptical of He's claims, most scientists are now convinced that he has in fact created the world's first gene-edited human beings. Scepticism has given way to shock, as He appears to have circumvented all civilized biomedical ethical rules on germ-line editing, and opened up a proverbial Pandora's box. Jennifer Doudna, co-creator of the CRISPR technology, says that she is "horrified" and "disgusted" at the news, and over a hundred Chinese scientists have condemned He's actions in an open letter, referring to his work "conducting direct human experiments". It is also increasingly looking like the work He carried out was amateurish and poorly executed, which, in a case of this significance, is reprehensible.
He himself has only appeared at one scientific conference since his announcement, a Hong Kong conference that turned into more of an interrogation than a genial discussion, with even more openly vitriolic outbursts from some participants just barely reined in. In that appearance, He merely apologized for the way in which news of his work came to light, and defended his decision to go ahead with it, even though it breaks most of the generally-agreed ethical rules and conventions. Since then, He seems to have gone to ground, at least while some of the dust settles.
Apparently, He and his team edited some 31 embryos in total, of which the two twin girls born recently are part, and the status and location of the remainder is far from clear. It seems that only four people actually reviewed the informed consent documents that the seven sets of parents involved in the project signed (they were offered free IVF treament, a clear conflict of interest). Apparently, He paid the medical care and expenses himself, so as not to involve his university or the two companies that he works for.
As one investigator commented, "There was a worrying lack of oversight or scrutiny of his clinical plans ... and a complete lack of transparency throughout the process". It is not at all clear why He decided to go ahead, "despite strong international consensus against such procedures".
So, almost overnight, and long before we are ready, germline genetic modifications have moved from a theoretical case study in a Biomedical Ethics 101 course to an all-too-real-life concern, and the scientific community has that deer-in-the-headlights look.

It too a while, but even China has condemned He's research, calling it illegal, and asserting he did it in search of fame and fortune. Ouch! And he has lost his job at the Southern University of science and Technology in Shenzhen.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

How can an MP hold down more than one job?

Liberal MP Raj Grewal has resigned his position in order to deal with a serious gambling problem.
Initially, the word was that he was resigning for unspecified health reasons, but it turns out that the first-term MP for Brampton East has racked up over a million dollars in debts from gambling, principally in Quebec casinos. And this comes on top of his previous ethics and conflict-of-interest controversies, such as his invitation of a company with which he has a business relatonship to the Prime Minister's trade trip to India back in February of this year. One can perhaps sympathize with someone who suffers from a gambling addiction, although less so with someone who has the bad judgement to get into this type of conflict-of-interest difficulty.
What I find even more egregious, though, is that Grewal has apparently been holding down not just one but two other jobs at the same time as his supposedly full-time gig as a Member of Parliament. Grewal is also employed by Brampton contractor Zgemi Inc. (yes, the same company for which he managed to obtain an invitation to the India trade shindig), and by law firm Gahir and Associates. I know that, if I were a constituent of Brampton East, I would be pretty pissed off that my MP was off moonlighting, and not devoting his full energies to the well-paid job that I helped to get him.
It turns out that, although minsters and parliamentary secretaries are barred from engaging in outside employment, back-bench MPs are under no legal obligation to give up other jobs. They do have to disclose the fact, but not the specific company or line of work, or their remuneration, or indeed their time commitments.
Call me old-fashioned, but it doesn't seem like too much to ask for an MP to devote his full attention to the work of running the country, and representing the constituents who voted for him. Does it? And having more than one boss sounds like a sure-fire way to end up with a conflict of interest. Oh, wait...

Federal Reserve is the only thing keeping the lid on America's economy

As US President Donald Trump lays into Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome (Jay) Powell, with unprecedented (yes, there's the "u" word again!) rancour, it's worth bearing in mind the role that the Fed is actually filling in these heady days of the Trump administration.
Trump kvetches: "So far, I'm not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay. Not even a little bit." Ouch! And: "I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they're doing ... I'm doing deals and I'm not being accommodated by the Fed". So much for respecting the division of economic powers, and allowing the Fed to operate independent of government influence, as past presidents have taken care to do. Care doesn't come into it with Trump.
It's exactly because of those "deals" that the Fed is doing why it is doing (gradually raising interest rates), in a desperate attempt to keep the ship afloat while Trump rocks it with gay abandon. Almost everything Trump is doing is guaranteed to lead to rampant inflation: impose tax cuts on an economy that is already running at full speed and creating full employment; run a huge and ever-increasing federal deficit; impose inflationary tariffs on a wide range of imports from major trading partners; even the very act of denouncing a Federal Reserve that is trying to keep a lid on things.
The Fed is only trying to rein in these inflationary forces as best it can, by raising interest taxes to stabilize growth and cool prices. That is its job. Always has been. Trump should be grateful (fat chance of that!)

Why GM's Oshawa closing is perhaps not that big a deal

General Motors' plan to close their Oshawa, Ontario assembly plant and lay off nearly 3,000 employees has been receiving blanket coverage in the Canadian press recently. And, yes, it is an important and unexpected announcement (and I am just waiting for the backlash against electric vehicles - GM's purported reason for the plant closure, despite the fact that it will actually continue to produce gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and SUVs as well - which will surely not be far behind).
I am glad, though, that Barrie McKenna tried to put things in perspective a bit in today's Globe and Mail. As Mr. McKenna points out, the GM Oshawa plant is actually the smallest by far of the eight vehicle assembly plants in Canada (all of which, incidentally are in Ontario). The largest of them, the Honda plant in Alliston, turns out about four times the output of Oshawa, followed by Toyota in Cambridge and Fiat Chrysler in Windsor. Oshawa is not even the largest GM plant: the Ingersoll Assembly plant produces twice as many vehicles as Oshawa.
In fact, the Oshawa plant turns out less than 6% of Canada's vehicles, and vehicle and parts manufacture constitutes just 1% of Canada's GDP (2.3% of Ontario's GDP). Ontario's auto production peaked back in 2005, falling 22% since then, and GM has actually made much deeper cuts than the rest of the industry.
So, to call GM's Oshawa plant "the engine of Canada's auto industry", as it was reported by CTV on November 25th, is something of a stretch, to say the least.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Where does the modern apple originally come from?

Speaking of Apple, who knew that the ubiquitous domestic apple originally hails from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, up in the foothills of the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains? Malus sieversii, or the wild apple, is in fact THE original wild apple, the apple from which Malus domestica was developed after centuries of cultivation, replanting, experimentation and grafting. And Malus sierversii comes from, and can still be found in, the forests of Trans-Ili Alatau in the Tian Shan Mountains.
This genetic link was first identified by Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov back in 1929, based on his idea that the centre of origin of a species occurs at the place where it achieves its greatest genetic diversity. He was foresighted enough to ensure that several sieversii seeds were included in one of the world's first gene banks, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Long after Vavilov's death from starvation in a Soviet gulag, his idea has been confirmed by modern genetics. The gene bank now carries Vavilov's name, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR in Russian).
Malus sieversii itself, though, is under threat. It is currently listed as "vulnerable" and "decreasing" by the ICUN Red List, and the remaining forests in the Trans-Ili Alatau region are under pressure from residential and commercial development, livestock farming and deforestation, although there are international efforts (spearheaded by Italy's Slow Food Foundation) to protect what remains.
So, next time you crunch into a juicy apple, you might just think of Kazakhstan.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Microsoft, not Apple, is now the world's most valuable company

It will probably come as a surprise to many, but Microsoft has just overtaken Apple as the world's most valuable company.
It's not so long since Apple became the first company to pass that ridiculous milestone in market capitalization, $1 trillion, a figure larger than the GDPs of all but the richest 15 nations on earth. Just a few short months later, though, after a tech sell-off and some disappointing results and forecasts (particularly in the iPhone business), Apple's value has shrunk to about $812 billion. Microsoft has also taken a bit of a hit, but it's stocks have stood up better than Apple's, especially as it moves away from its traditional Windows business and towards enterprise software and cloud services. Microsoft's valuation fell to $819 billion, putting it just above Apple, at least for a while.
You can call it schadenfreude, but I had a little chuckle at that. I have always disliked Apple as a company, a dislike I think dates back to those supercilious anti-Microsoft ads it used to air some years ago. Well, who's smirking now?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Liberals mixed messages on economy a risky ploy

Justin Trudeau and Finance Minster Bill Morneau are sending the Canadian public distinctly mixed messages about our economy in this week's "economic update" (read, mini-budget).
Starting off by stressing how good the Canadian economy is looking at the moment - and it is, despite President Trump's best efforts, a whole load of bad weather, and the precipitous decline in oil prices - Morneau then went on to say that we need a whole bunch of measures to counter the effects of Donald Trump's tax cuts earlier this year. So, is the economy doing well without these measures, or isn't it?
Although no corporate tax rate cuts were introduced (Canadian corporate tax rates are still lower than American ones even AFTER Trump's cuts), various tax write-offs for capital equipment and investments were announced that will reduce the effective corporate tax rate still further.
This is clearly a piece of electioneering on the Liberals' part in advance of next year's federal election, and it has been well received by business leaders. But it comes with a hefty price tag that will increase the budget deficit still further for the next several years, an estimated $5.3 billion over and above the currently predicted deficit for the year of $19.9 billion.
Given that this deficit is already well in excess of what was promised at the last election (around $10 billion), this seems a somewhat risky ploy to say the least. Surely, the Liberals can already stand by their stewardship of the economy, and to break still more egregiously their promises on budget deficits seems to me an inadvisable policy at this point, and the optics are ugly.
But then, what do I know about politics?

More claims from Donald Trump that would sink normal politicians

In an extraordinary interview on CBC's 60 Minutes, Donald Trump has revealed that indeed his cynicism reaches no bounds. In a wide-ranging interview, he made the following claims and admissions, among others, any one of which would be the kiss of death for any other politician than Trump, but so inured are we to his lies, skewed perspectives and enormities that this just seems like business as usual in his case:
  • On North Korea, "the day before I came in, we were going to war with North Korea".
  • Vladimir Putin was "probably" involved in assassinations in Europe, but that doesn't really matter because "it's not in our country".
  • Yes, Russia meddled in the 2016 election, but, hey, "I think China meddled also".
  • He was unwilling to apologize for his child separation policy, stressing that "there have to be consequences" for illegal immigration to the USA.
  • He does not see his mocking of Christine Blasey Ford after her testimony as anything other than treating her with "respect", but anyway "had I not made that speech, we would not have won".
  • As for climate change, "I don't think it's a hoax. I think there's probably a difference", but "we're talking about over millions of years". But, more importantly, "I don't want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don't ant to lose millions and million of jobs", and anyway "scientists also have a political agenda".
This latter comes on the very same day that a US government report warns that unchecked climate change will cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars and damage human health and quality of life. The White House has retorted that the report, which was produced by several US government agencies and departments, is inaccurate and "largely based on the most extreme scenario". And, of course, it flies in the face of reports that the solar industry employs way more people than the coal industry and the nuclear industry in the USA, with wind very close behind.
God, what can you do in the face of such ignorance and cynicism? The worst of it is that enough people will agree with Trump's blinkered view and his speculative bluster that his support will probably not waver in the least.

Friday, November 23, 2018

New elements in the periodic table named

The four new elements that were discovered a couple of years ago, and that neatly completed the 7th row of the periodic table, have finally been officially named.
Temporarily named for their atomic numbers - Ununtrium (113), Ununpentium (115), Ununseptium (117), and Ununoctium (118) - the four elements have now been named, following tradition, after the person or region of their discovery:
  • 113: Nihonium (Nh), after the Japanese word for Japan
  • 115: Moscovium (Mc), after Moscow, the capital of Russia
  • 117: Tennessine (Ts), after the American state of Tennessee
  • 118: Oganesson (Og), after Russian scientist Yuri Oganessian
The new elements are all but useless - they are radioactive, with a half life of just fractions of a second - but scientists are hard at work searching for even heavier new elements, which might actually be useful in some way.

Word of the Day - astroturfing

Today was the first time I encountered the word "astroturfing" to mean disguised lobbying by industries in order to "create the appearance of a grassroots movement and a larger chorus of voices than actually exists", something that is easier than ever before in today's wired (and wireless) world.
The example I came across was in an article about the powerful juice lobby, and a shady organization called the Canadian Juice Council which was established to promote sales of juice, and to bolster its credentials as a healthy food option (contrary to most independent research and advice).
Oh, and (from the same article) who knew that Tropicana, Dole, Ocean Spray and Naked Juice were all owned by Pepsico, and Minute Maid, Simply, Five Alive and Odwalla were all owned by Coca-Cola?

No reason why 85th percentile speed limits should reduce accidents

The "85th percentile" is a buzz phrase that has been around for a while now in speed limit-setting circles. The 85th percentile speed can be defined as "the speed at or below which 85 per cent of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point". In other words, it is the speed limit that most people observe on a given road, regardless of the posted speed limit.
There is a movement in traffic management circles to use this as an official speed limit, on the basis that few people (15% presumably) are likely to exceed it, that it has de facto been proven that people can drive safely at or below tbat speed on any particular road, and that such a speed will minimize the number of crashes and fatalities.
Now, this makes absolutely no sense to me. A speed limit should be designed to constrain the speed of vehicles to a speed considered safe for that particular road, taking into account pedestrians, curves, intersections, etc. It should not be based on the speed that people happen to want to drive. And my initial thought was that if you increase a road's speed limit to the 85th percentile speed, then people will just drive a bit faster, and the 85th percentile will then be higher still. And we know that increasing speed limits increases accidents, particularly fatal accidents - whatever you might like to think, and however many anecdotes of Germany's autobahns you might like to quote, this is nevertheless a fact, even in Europe. It seems like common sense that increasing the speed limit on a road that was designed for a lower speed limit will lead to more accidents.
And yes, it does seem that the experience in the US bears this out, as does evidence in Canada. Sometimes common sense is just the way to go.

Yup, looks like bitcoin was indeed a bubble

I have written a few posts about bitcoins and cryptocurrencies in general, the last couple of these being about a year ago, when bitcoin prices were going through the roof for no apparent reason that I could see, other than that people were in get-rich-quick mode and doing their best to milk the latest bubble.
I did say at the time that cryptocurrencies looked to me like the archetypal economic bubble, accruing huge value very quickly based on unjustifiable forecasts, and without having anything physical to show for it.
Well, guess what? Bitcoin has lost about 75% of its value since then, 25% in the last week alone. Other cryptocurrencies have lost even more. It seems like many people have finally realized that the Emperor does indeed have no clothes. I'm sure some people did make good money, if they got out early enough, but probably many more have lost a lot of dough. I don't say this purely out of schadenfreude, but I did tell you.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Trump's latest climate change tweet can't be just plain stupidity

Donald Trump, never one to miss any opportunity to display his ignorance, has logged another disgraceful tweet on climate change.
Referring to the unseasonably cool weather affecting the USA (and also Canada, I can assure you), he tweeted, "Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS. Whatever happened to Global Warming?" (his capitalization, I hardly need add). It's difficult to believe that people still believe and say things like this, although an article in Forbes suggests some reasons for the staying power of such "zombie theories".
So, either: 1) he is just plain stupid (could a plain stupid person become POTUS? - one would hope not); or 2) years of lapping up Fox News and Breitbart have persuaded him that climate change might actually work that way; or 3) he knows that what he says makes no sense, but is manipulative enough to say it anyway because it plays to the views of many of his less educated supporters.
I tend to lean towards the latter explanation, perhaps the least flattering one of them all.

Foodborne illnesses affect vegetarians too

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued yet another E. Coli warning for romaine lettuce. This also affects us in Canada, of course, because of our reliance on the US for out-of-season fruit and veg.
If this sounds familiar, it should - 2018 is shaping up to be the worst ever year for food contamination and recalls. The most common culprits include Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria and Cyclospora. Now, whether this is due to better investigation and reporting procedures or worse farming practices is not clear.
The current romaine lettuce warnings come after 32 reported cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. Coli O157:H7 covering 11 states, and includes one more serious case of Hemolyic Uremic Syndrome. General E. Coli infection can result in stomach cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea, and can start up to a week after ingestion of the suspect produce. The source of the problem has still not been narrowed down (the previous lettuce contamination event, in June of this year, was traced to farms in the Yuma area of New Mexico). At any rate, romaine lettuce is being taken off supermarket shelves, and consumers are being exhorted to throw away any that happens to already be in their fridges (washing it, even in vinegar, baking soda or a bleach solution, will still not kill E. Coli).
I used to think that, as a vegetarian, I was safe from these kinds of scares. But, although most of the outbreaks do tend to involve meat (chicken, beef, ham, eggs, crab meat, etc), many of them affect veggies (lettuce, vegetable trays, cut melon, coconut, bean sprouts, etc).
I'd like to think that the increase is due to better reporting and not modern agriculture and deteriorating food storage practices but, either way, foodborne illness outbreaks are probably here to stay. Perhaps a compelling reason to eat more organic food? (Actually, that won't help you much, E. Coli grows very well on organic food). Or perhaps a reason to avoid lettuce completely, given that it is not particularly nutritious (95% water), resource-heavy and often slathered in unhealthy dressings to make it taste good?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Trump wants to Rake America Great Again

I couldn't resist reporting on the year's best Twitter hashtag, #RakeAmericaGreatAgain.
Particular favourites of mine among the entries are the picture of a blonde woman raking the first floor with the caption "Just an ordinary day in the Finnish forest", and also the standalone "Holy shit! Covfefe is Finnish, isn't it?'
Just in case you missed it, all this relates to Donald Trump's insistence that Finnish President Sauli Niinistö once told him that Finland's exemplary record of forest fire management was because "they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning up and doing things", and that if California had only raked more then the 77 victims would not have died in the recent (and ongoing) forest fires there.
Just for the record, Finland confirms that the country does not in fact take it's forests, and that President Niinistö actually talked about monitoring systems, forest roads and emergency preparedness. Not raking. Absolutely no raking.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Electoral irregularities in Georgia leave a bad taste

Democrat Stacey Adams' bid for Georgia's governorship has finally ground to a halt, over a week after the election. Recounts were underway in this hard-fought and contentious race for governor amidst strong allegations of electoral misconduct and voter suppression and disenfranchisement by the sleazy pro-Trump Republican candidate, Brian Kemp, who also just happens to be the state's chief elections administrator.
Ms. Adams has admitted that Kemp will in fact be the next Governor of Georgia, although she deliberately avoided conceding, arguing that the election process was flawed and the result not representative of the democratic will: "This is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper". Even given the irregularities, Ms. Adams managed to come very close to winning: hand counting continues, but the voting currently stands at 50.2% to 48.8% in Kemp's favour, not quite close enough to force a runoff (which occurs in the case where a winner does not achieve 50% of the vote).
But let's just have a look at those election irregularities. Some areas with typically Democrat-voting black-majority demographics were undersupplied with voting machines, and some machines appeared not to be working, leading ling lines and to three or even four hour waits to vote. At the time of the vote, some 53,000 voter registration applications were officially "on hold", many for undisclosed reasons but many due to the recently introduced "exact match" regulations whereby applications may be rejected for things like a missing accent or a dropped hyphen. 70% of these on-hold applications relate to black (and therefore probably Democrat) voters, despite an overall black population of about 35%. Thousands of absentee ballots were tossed out supposedly due to mismatched signatures, missing birthdays, etc. The very fact that Kemp, as Georgia's Secretary of State, is effectively overseeing his own election as Governor, without having recused himself on the grounds of conflict of interest, is bad enough.
The whole thing looks very suspect, but I suppose that Ms. Adams needs to call a halt somewhere and to get on with her life.

Oil prices for Alberta's oil sands put the writing on the wall

I knew the price of oil was currently languishing in the basement because I keep reading about all the handwriting going on in Alberta, but so hadn't appreciated just how bad things were.
Then, when I read that the price per barrel was adult an all-time low of US$14, I was really shocked. But it turns out that that is the price of Alberta oil sands heavy oil. Which is shocking enough, because that's mainly what Canada has.
A quick check of the main oil price benchmarks as at 15 November 2018 shows West Texas Intermediate (WTI), probably the most-quote metric of oil prices around the world, at about UD$56 a barrel, which is low, but not shockingly low. Western Canadian Select (WCS) is indeed at about US$14 a barrel, a discount of over US$40 a barrel!
So, it's probably no surprise, then, that overseas investors have vacated the Alberta oil patch like rats from a sinking ship, leaving only Canadian operators in the oil sands game. Oil sands production is expensive, certainly compared to US shale oil from tracking operations. It is also much more carbon intensive than other extraction methods, who that not seem a big deal in today's climate change climate, but it still has some impact on long-term prices and investment decisions. And, last but not least, pipelines to transport that heavy crude are at a premium, with the TransMountain pipeline far from built, and a new legal challenge to the Keystone XL like to the south.
It also throws new questions on why the federal government chose to throw a big chunk of taxpayers' money into the TransMountain pipeline project that no-one else wanted. Maybe that money would have been better spent on a more 21st century solution to the energy problem.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Calgary more level-headed than Nenshi in rejecting Olympic bid

The city of Calgary has voted, by a convincing margin of 56% to 44%, to reject Calgary's potential bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics in a city-wide plebiscite.
So, the people have spoken, yada yada, and Calgary will now almost certainly withdraw its bid, becoming the fifth city to start and then withdraw its bid for this particular Games. Now, only Stockholm and Milan remain in the race, and it seems more than possible that Stockholm may well withdraw its bid too, leaving Milan holding the bag, a bag that no-one else seems to want.
Cities (and their populations) have realized that a successful Olympic bid is not necessarily a prize worth having. Costs always overrun, and you have to assume that a low-ball bid like Calgary's is likely to overrun even more. Hosting the Olympics can end up costing the host city a lot of money - it never actually makes money - which may take decades to pay back. So, Calgarians sensibly voted with their heads and not their hearts in the recent plebiscite, unwilling to shoulder the financial risks that an Olympic Games represents.
It's not like Calgary is in the same position it was in back in 1988, the first time it hosted the Winter Games, when it was a largely unknown hick town looking to make its name on the international stage, to "put the city on the map", as the phrase goes. Calgary is already an established regional centre and well-known in the spheres of business and tourism. Why, then, go out on a limb on a risky venture like the Olympics. Neither is the Olympics considered a prize in itself these days: it's image has been irrevocably tarnished by plentiful financial and drug scandals, and it is not the clean, uplifting, feel-good event of yore.
I was, however, a bit disappointed with the reaction of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a man for whom I normally have a lot of respect. He had put his weight behind the Olympic bid, and was clearly put out that Calgarians rejected his vision. However, he was being disingenuous when he chastised the city for turning away $1.4 billion from the federal government and $0.7 billion from the provincial government, which were part of the city's $5.1 billion total bid.
Nenshi said that this was money that Calgary desperately needs for residential and infrastructure development for the city. But is a major sports event the only way that cities can build affordable housing these days? And what about the inevitable cost overruns that would burden the city for decades as a necessary corollary for winning these government funds, funds which would anyway also be used to build a bunch of sports facilities with very limited after-event usefulness.
No, in this case, the heads of the people of Calgary were more level than that of its Mayor.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

McGill agonizes over the Redmen name for its sports teams

We are currently going through another of those debates that happen increasingly often these days, where an indigenous activist (or it could be a black or a Muslim or a woman) is questioning the orthodoxy or the status quo. I understand that it's a process that must be gone through, and you have to give these people credit for their balls and their perseverence. Sometimes, though, the nitpickiness and pedantry rankles a bit.
The latest such issue is the controversy over Montreal's McGill University's use of the nickname The Redmen for it's sports teams. As apologists point out, the name has been in use since 1922, and it refers to the red team colours (and/or possibly the Irish red hair of some of its early team members). It is undeniable that some indigenous connotations were attached to the name from about the 1940s until the 1990s when all indigenous-related logos were finally expunged. But it seems that such an expungement only goes so far, and that once a connotation has been established it remains ineradicably forever.
Is it right that such a name be changed regardless of different parts of its history, regardless even of the fact that some indigenous sportsmen are actually quite OK with the name, and some are even proud to be ex-Redmen. Is it fair that "playing the indigenous card" automatically trumps any other arguments? Well, maybe. After all, a hasty poll suggests that 79% of McGill students are on board with changing the name. But it just seems to me that there is perhaps something not quite right about the process.
The young man who is causing the fuss is an indigenous varsity rower, and he argues that the name should be changed as much as anything as a gesture towards the reconciliation process. He asserts, "We stand in opposition to the type of damage the Redman name can inflict on Indigenous students", and, "The origin and intention of the Redmen name doesn't matter. What matters is that Indigenous students are hurting and that should be the only priority for the university. I don't know. I'd be surprised frankly if any students were actually "hurting" or "damaged" specifically due to the use of a team name that may or may be construed as a racial slur, albeit unintentional. I would also question the contention that sports teams are in some way stealing the names and symbols of North American First Nations. But I also understand that I am courting a social media backlash by even questioning such a thing. It has become such a hot button issue that the mere mention of the word "racist" or "residential school" is enough to shut the whole conversation down. The state of Israel does something very similar with its use of word "holocaust", which it brings into debates on which the holocaust has absolutely no bearing, just because it is impossible to argue against such a terrible event, and no-one wants to be seen trying.
So, should McGill change the name of its sports teams? Probably, in the interests of goodwill, and to guard against charges of "white settler mentality", and also because the nickname of a sports team is really not that important in the scheme of things. Is the earnest young man who is bringing the motion going about it in the best way? Less certain.

Macron outclasses Trump ... again

How nice to see President Emmanuel Macron take the moral high road in response to Trump's usual puerile verbal diarrhea on Twitter:
  • "The French don't expect me to answer to tweets".
  • "I let him do American politics".
  • "I don't do diplomacy or politics through tweets or comments".
  • "Diplomacy is not made through tweets but through bilateral discussions".
Say what you like about Macron, but he certainly makes Trump look like some ignorant churl or country yokel.

So, embassies are bugged?

One issue that is being rather queasily skirted around in the case of the alleged torture, killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul is exactly how an audio recording was made and disseminated to the Turkish authorities and the world's press. You would have thought that the provenance and reliability of the audio source would have been extremely important in a case like this, but little if anything has been released about it. Why is no-one talking about it?
Some Turkish newspapers got hold of the idea that the whole thing was recorded on Khashoggi's Apple Watch, but there are several compelling reasons why this story does not hold water. Which leaves us with the rather unpalatable conclusion that the Turkish authorities were (and probably still are) bugging the whole of the Saudi embassy, and who knows how many other embassies.
And they Turks are almost certainly not alone. There is evidence that many foreign embassies are routinely bugged, wherever the host nation can get away with it. Edward Snowdon's evidence a few years ago revealed that the USA regularly bugs all sorts of embassies. And you thought they were just processing your visa application in there!

Monday, November 12, 2018

RIP Stan Lee

Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee has died at age 95. Born Stanley Lieber to Romanian Jewish immigrants to the United States, Lee was responsible for most of the early stories of the so-called Silver Age of Marvel Comics: Fantastic Four, Iron Man, X-Men, Thor, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Hulk, Spiderman, Avengers, Daredevil, Black Panther, and many more of the heroes that filled my childhood.
Lee did most of his best work way back in the 1960s, in collaboration with top-notch comic artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, although his influence continues to this day, particularly as those early characters are converted into movies to fulfill an apparently insatiable appetite for comic-book apotheosis. Lee was also a shameless self-publicist, and there are those who claim that he took credit for way more than he should have, but let's not hold that against him today.
No longer will we see Stan The Man make those cheeky cameos in Marvel films, but his stories will certainly live on. RIP Stan.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Weird Bible reading for a Remembrance Day ceremony

I just got back from a Remembrance Day ceremony at our local war memorial, which might surprise one or two regular readers of this blog (ha! if only there were such a thing, even one or two!). As an atheist, this is not something I am prone to do, but we were out walking in the vicinity anyway, so we thought, "Well, why not?"
It wasn't a particularly edifying experience, I wouldn't say. A military accordian band (is that a thing?) played some old tunes, and an army chaplain, who may or may not have been slightly drunk, intoned interminable prayers. The chaplain was also possibly the most tone-deaf person I have ever heard, and he insisted on mangling hymn after hymn at full amplified volume.
What struck me most, though was a particular Bible reading from the book of John (12:22-26, if you are interested). I'm not sure why the chaplain chose that particular reading for Remembrance Day, but it includes the rather extraordinary line: "He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for everlasting life". Say, what? Maybe it loses something in the translation from the Greek, but, setting aside the fact that it doesn't it actually make a whole lot of sense (keep his life for everlasting life?), the clear implication that one should hate life and not love it is kind of hard to understand.
I did try to find a Christian explanation for it, but all I could find (without too much effort, admittedly) was singularly unconvincing. This source talks about "love" and "hate" being figures of speech concerning our priorities in our daily lives (what?), and that "Jesus is clearly not suggesting that his followers should abuse their bodies" (that is not at all clear to me).
Anyway, I don't want to belabour the point, but this just seems to be one of those bits of the Bible that simply doesn't make much sense (and there are many, despite the contention of some that the St. James' version is one of the great works of English literature). And either way, it doesn't seem particularly appropriate for a Remembrance Day ceremony.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Latin American "caravan" is hopelessly naive

I have often wondered what the members of the so-called "caravan" of emigrants walking away from a crappy life in Honduras or El Salvador are expecting from the United States.
I can see why they would want to leave: these are lawless and dangerous failed states, where any remnants of civilized society have all but broken down. But, surely, they must know that they will not be welcome in America, the great white promised land. They must have heard of this Donald Trump guy who wants to build a great wall to keep them out, and is calling in the armed forces to deal with the imminent plague of immigrants.
Many of them have been offered sanctuary in Mexico and turned it down, charmed as they are by the allure and distant glow of some mythical Emerald City. And mythical it most certainly is: most illegal immigrants live miserable and squalid lives in the southern USA, constantly on guard against being found out and deported. Surely, they would be better off staying in Mexico, where they speak the language, where the customs and culture are at least similar to their own. OK, I understand that Mexican wages are not on a par with American wages, and that parts of Mexico are also pretty suspect from a personal security point of view. But, if Shangti-La is not available, surely it is better to settle for something at least a small step up from what they are leaving hehind?
An article in today's paper confirms my fears and gives me a glimpse into the mindset of some of the travellers. And yes, it seems that they are just hopelessly naive. Some of them literally expect to meet with Donald Trump, and they are confident that once they explain what they are running away from, and that they are willing to work long and hard in return for sanctuary, then Trump will surely let them in with his blessing, won't he? He will take pity on them once he hears their stories? At the very least, the Canadians will send a plane for them, no?
It's difficult to know where they have obtained such a skewed view of reality, perhaps from friends and relatives who made it to the Promised Land back when times were relatively good? TV shows, perhaps? Whatever the source, it's heartbreaking that they are so misinformed and so gullible. I hope things work out for them, I really do, but I fear for their well-being.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Spare a thought for poor Madagascar as it votes for a new (old) president

We are just back from a great holiday in Madagascar and, while we were there, the country was gearing up for a general election on November 7th. Counting is currently underway, although this is just the start of a long, gruelling political process.
Madagascar, despite its abundant (albeit fast disappearing) eco-tourism potential and large untapped reserves of nickel, cobalt, gold, uranium and other minerals, is one of the poorest countries on earth, with 80% of its population living in poverty according to the World Bank. That poverty is readily apparent as soon as you leave the international airport, and becomes more and more marked the further from the capital you travel.
The country also has a sorry history of poor leadership, most recently exemplified by the 2009 coup led by Andry Rajoelina, which resulted in most of the world withdrawing its investment from Madagascar, although it has started trickling back in slowly since Rajoelina was elected out, more or less democratically, in 2013.
Perhaps surprisingly, given this history, Rajoelina is probably the front-runner in the current election. The other two main candidates, out of a jaw-dropping total of 36 presidential candidates, are Marc Ravalomanana, who was the man in power before Rajoelina's coup, and the current incumbent, who glories in the name of Hery Rajaonarimampianina. So, one of three failed ex-Presidents, all of whom have faced convincing allegations of corruption and self-enrichment while in office, will almost certainly be given a second chance. Apparently, no "anomalies" have been detected by the EU observer mission during the election process, although there have been widespread reports of names mysteriously missing from voter lists. Such allegations of fraud and corruption are regular accompaniments to Madagascan elections.
It's such a shame for a country which desperately needs some strong, steady and progressive leadership to raise it it out of its morass of poverty and environmental degradation. We experienced the slash-and-burn style of agriculture at first hand, and the poor denuded landscape is a living (dying?) testament to the extent to which necessity has driven poor farmers to destroy the island's inestimable natural and zoological wealth for the sake of a few short years of crop growing.
If there is no outright winner in the initial poll - and there almost certainly will not be - the top two candidates, probably Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, will face off again in a second election on November 19th. Whoever ultimately prevails, though, don't expect any great changes to the plight of the poor people of Madagascar. And if you want to see lemurs, chameleons and tenrecs in their natural habitat, I recommend you go sooner rather than later, while they are still there.

Why traffic jams happen and how to stop them happening

An article about the right way for cars to merge lanes on a busy highway has reminded me of another (video) article I saw recently which tried to make sense of some of the apparently inexplicable phenomena we regularly experience in traffic.
The article in today's Globe focuses specifically on the thorny issue of merging lanes, for example when joining at an intersection or when encountering construction blockages. Whatever you may feel about it, the science most definitely and definitively concludes that "late merging" or "zipper merging" is the way to go. If done properly, it can be up to 40% more efficient to go the the end of the lane and seamlessly merge by alternating one by one, with as little braking as possible on both sides, rather than trying to merge early and holding up people behind you. The sting, though, is in that phrase "if done properly": it relies on vehicles in the continuing lane letting people in, on the joining vehicles not peremptorily pushing their way in and causing everyone else to brake, and on people not doing crazy things like haring off down the hard shoulder or moving out of a continuing lane to a merging lane in order to get a few vehicles length ahead (and yes, this kind of thing is increasingly common, at least around Toronto).
The YouTube piece I was referring to is an episode of Hank Green's SciShow called "Why is it so hard to fix traffic?" I confess that I find Mr. Green's style intensely annoying (my 23-year old daughter loves him, so maybe it's a millennial thing?), but his shows are often interesting and always well-researched and explained.
In addition to confirming the wisdom of zipper merging as examined above, the video explains (using fluid dynamics and the simple analogy a bag of rocks) that it is possible for a traffic jam to occur purely due to the sheer number of cars on a road, without the need for any bad behaviour or poor driving skills. It also shows why building new roads or adding lanes does not necessarily help traffic flow, and can even make it worse (a phenomenon known as Braess' Paradox). Conversely, completely removing some busy roads has been shown to actually improve traffic flow, as the examples of Seoul and San Francisco have demonstrated.
The video also explains the theory of "traffic waves", which is so often the reason for those inexplicable slowdowns which appear to have absolutely no visible cause. When aggressive drivers weave in and out of traffic, or force themselves into inadequate gaps, the cars behind them have to brake for safety, leading the cars still further behind to brake even more. Ultimately, on a busy road, some cars way further back in the line will be forced to come to a complete stop, all due to some idiot a long way ahead who just couldn't rein in his patience (and yes, I use the masculine pronoun advisedly). Then, as people move out of the jammed lane to avoid the hold-up, they cause the same thing go happen in the adjoining lane too, until there is a full-blown traffic jam in all lanes for no apparent reason (the actual reason being that thoughtless yahoo in the Beemer a few minutes ago).
Of course, the obvious solution to this problem is to leave more space between cars so that there is time and space to brake if needed without affecting others behind. This solution does not seem to have occurred to Canadian drivers, and whenever I leave plenty of space in front of me (which I always try to do) it usually gets filled in repeatedly by others, who seem to abhor a vacuum... Interestingly, studies also show that leaving more space in city diving can speed up your
journey because, although you may be a little further away from that traffic light.that is about to change, you can actually start accelerating again earlier than a car that is jammed up against the vehicle in front, and you certainly use much less fuel that way (up to 20%).
So, come on guys, give everyone a break and leave more space - tailgating helps no-one not even the tailgaters. And stop it already with that aggressive ducking and weaving - you may get home twenty seconds earlier, but everone else is still stuck in that traffic jam you created.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

How can the USA force other countries to impose sanction on Iran?

I have been trying (and failing) to get my head around exactly how the US's sanctions against Iran actually work. The New York Times has produced a detailed explanation of the US sanctions, but I still don't understand how the US can directly influence trade between Iran and other countries.
I understand the concept of sanctions: one country refuses to buy products from another in order to inflict economic pain on it, and thereby facilitate whatever political ends it hopes to achieve. But how can one country, like the USA, force other countries to impose sanctions? And how can it give certain countries waivers on those sanctions, as the USA appears to have given eight major importers of Iranian oil: China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Japan and Taiwan (yes, Taiwan, which those USA does not even recognize as a country, hence their careful use of the word "jurisdiction" and not "country")?
Well, it turns out (thank you BBC) that the way it works is that the US will prohibit any foreign company that trades with Iran from also doing business in the United States. In fact, there are also secondary sanctions whereby any US company that does business with a company found trading with Iran faces punishment itself. Given that most other countries disagree with the American move, seeing more likelihood of political success through the previously-struck nuclear agreement that Donald Trump has rejected so vehemently, and given that Iran itelf has rejected the sanctions out of hand and vowed to "break" them, this last provision puts a heavy burden of due diligence on all American companies doing business with pretty much anybody from anywhere. It all sounds totally impractical to me, as well as almost impossible to police.
China, Iran's largest customer, has already shown that it is is willing to subvert the system, by availing itself of a much more unofficial (read secretive) trading system, although Trump has graciously given it a pass from the current sanctions anyway. Even if the Americans succeed in barring Iran from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) financial system, as it did in 2012, China has shown that it is willing to pay in cash or even barter to overcome such a hurdle.
So, it is far from clear how effective American sanctions will be, and how far they can force others to toe their line. At this rate, though, the USA is going to be reduced to trading with itself...

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Supreme Court rules definitively against Newfoundland in Churchill Falls case

Way back in 1969, Hydro-Québec entered into an agreement with the perennial have-not province Newfoundland and Labrador, under which the electricity utility agreed to assume the substantial risks of the huge Churchill Falls hydroelectricity project, and to finance any cost overruns. Essentially, the Quebec utility made the whole thing possible, as it would have foundered without their intervention. In return, Newfoundland allowed Hydro-Québec to buy the Hydro station's electricity at 1969 prices until 2041, and to sell it off to whoever it likes at whatever the market rate happens to be.
Given the surge in electricity prices since then, Hydro-Québec has made out like bandits from the deal, to the tune of an estimated $26 billion. When the contract expires in 2041, Newfoundland and Labrador will finally be able to reap the profits of the plant until its eventual demise, but in the meantime, the province is hurting financially and is desperate to prove in court that the 1969 deal was unfair and should be annulled. Every time, though, the courts have ruled against it, arguing that the deal was struck between competent businessmen, and if the Newfoundland negotiating team ended up with a bad deal, then that was their own problem.
This latest ruling - by a margin of 7-1, with only a Newfoundland judge dissenting - was by the Supreme Court of Canada, and Newfoundland now has nowhere to go and must accept the consequences (and wait for 2041!). It is time to stop kvetching, suck it up, and put it behind them.

Marco Rubio is a birthright citizen and now he wants to abandon that right

Donald Trump wants to cancel the automatic right for babies born on America soil to be granted US citizenship (so-called "birthright citizenship"). And this comes as no surprise to most people, as Trump looks into every possible avenue to reduce immigration and to make the lives of immigrants as difficult as possible.
Currently, that right is enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, and most legal scholars do not think that Trump will be able to just repeal that right by a presidential decree. A similar right also exists in Canada and many other countries, even though Trump seems to think that America is alone in allowing such ridiculous scam. Some Republicans are arguing that the 14th Amendment does not apply to the children of illegal or temporary immigrants, but that too seems unlikely to stand up in a court of law.
What is perhaps more interesting is that Trump's plan is backed by Senator Marco Rubio. Why this is unexpected is because Rubio is himself a US citizen by virtue of this very right. Rubio's parents immigrated to the USA from Cuba in 1956 (and NOT in response to Castro's revolution in 1959, as Rubio has often claimed). Although they became naturalized American citizens in 1975, Rubio himself was born in 1971, i.e. at a time when his parents were undocumented and illegal immigrants. So, Marco Rubio owes his very existence as a US citizen to this right that he now wants to cancel.
Ironic? Just a tad.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why some people think women are inferior, and why they are wrong

I have been reading Angela Saini's new book, Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that's rewriting the story. It looks at all manner of preconceptions, received wisdom and scientific research around the general intersection of gender and science, from intelligence to emotion to behaviour to gender identity to education. It throws new light on old saws like "men are naturally more intelligent than women", "men's brains are bigger than women's", "men are analytical and women are empathetic", "nature is more important than nurture",  "men are promiscuous and undiscriminating, women are choosy and chaste", "the vast majority of science professors are male", etc.
En route, it throws up a bunch of interesting factoids:
  • Married mothers of young children in the USA are about a third less likely to get tenure-track academic jobs than married fathers of young children. BUT ... unmarried childless women are actually 4% MORE likely to get those jobs than unmarried childless men.
  • Although they typically get sicker more often, women are biologically better survivors than men, from their survival rates in childbirth early childhood (at least where equal healthcare is provided) to their significant advantage in longevity, and one reason may be their stronger autoimmune system, which in turn may be due to their need to host and nurture a foreign body during pregnancy and childbirth, and also the doubling up of many genes from the female XX chromosomes (as opposed the more heterogeneous male XY chromosomes).
  • Only a small minority (around one in five) of pharmacology and physiology studies look at both genders, with about eight out of ten showing a male bias, despite increasing evidence that women's bodies, and particularly their hormones, often reacts differently to drugs and treatments.
  • Although there is no statistical difference between the genders in "general intelligence (a measure taking into account intelligence, cognitive ability and mental ability), there is statistically more variability among men, meaning more men of extremely high intelligence and - to a much greater extent - more men of extremely low intelligence.
  • The male propensity for traditionally male pursuits like sports, cars, construction, etc, may not be innate, but merely a function of the amount of stereotyped reinforcement at an early age from well-meaning and unaware parents.
  • For decades it was maintained that, because women's brains were, on average, about five ounces lighter than the average man's (42ozs or 1,198g, as compared to 47ozs or 1,336g), women were that much less intelligent. It was only when it was revealed that the (male) founder of the Cornell Brain Collection himself had a brain about the size of the average woman, that it was admitted that brain weight and volume is actually proportionate to the size of the person, thus also explaining that elephants (which have brains weighing about 11lbs or 5kgs) are not more intelligent than humans.
  • Desperate to find other physiological differences between male and female brains, other researchers have turned to: the fact that women's brains have 15-20% higher blood flow than men's; that women have a higher percentage of grey matter in their brains, while man have more white matter or connective tissues; that men have more connections within the hemispheres, while women have more connections between the hemispheres; etc, etc. But other studies have shown how hard (or rather easy but unjustifiable)  it is to draw sweeping conclusions from the even most detailed brain scans, and the academic pressure to publish something eye-catching on a hot-button topic.
  • There is good evidence that biology and society are inextricably "entangled". For example, studies from the 1970s and 1980s showed that exceptional male mathematicians outnumbered females by as much as thirteen to one; more recent studies show this imbalance to be closer to four, three or even two to one, suggesting that this is not due to biological differences but to sociological and cultural differences that can change over time.
  • "Mate guarding" - forcing a female to be sexually subservient and monogamous, even to the detriment of the species or group or the physical wellbeing of the female - is a common behaviour among many animals. The human equivalent can be seen in practices like female genital mutilation, breast ironing, foot binding, the use of menstrual huts, etc.
Ms. Saini's conclusion is that the physical sex differences in the brain (as well as behavioural and psychological differences) are actually minimal, and mainly a function of the relative sizes of men and women (and consequently of their brains). Those differences that have been shown in various studies over the decades are overblown, exaggerated or misinterpreted, often the result of over-zealous researchers on a mission to make their names as pioneers of the theory of sexual dimorophism of the brain (the names Ruben Gur and Simon Baron-Cohen come up regularly in this context). Ms. Saini (often based on the work of others before her) skewers study after revered study, pointing out inconsistencies, errors and bias.
There is, however, still a vocal and influential (and mainly male) movement that insists that the differences are real and significant. Tempers can become very hot in this contentious area of neuroscience, and there are reports of offensive, even threatening, emails making the rounds. New words like "neurosexism" and "neurofeminism" have been coined. New research in the area gets covered in major national newspapers, unlike most scientific studies, because it is seen as subject that many people are very interested in and touches us closely (we all have brains, we all have genders, we all have sons or daughters or fathers or mothers).
The jury, as they say, is still out. But, you have to ask, is it important? What is the justification for all this research? And, for that matter, who is paying for it?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What if we had invested in wind instead of the oil sands?

An interesting infographic in The Guardian gives a graphic analysis what might have been if Canada had spent the $200 billion it has invested in the Alberta oil sands since 1999 on windpower projects instead:

  • Almost twice as many electric cars could have been powered, compared to traditional ICE cars using the gasoline produced in the oil sands.
  • There would have been zero CO2 emissions from the operation of those vehicles, and zero emissions from the actual energy production, compared to 325 million tons and 66 million tons respectively from the use and production of energy from the oil sands.
  • The operations costs of the oil sands has been over 4 times what windpower would have cost.
  • The fuel cost for drivers of traditional gas-powered vehicles has been over 14 times as much as the cost of running electric cars powered by the wind.

It's kind of a sensationalistic, impractical and rather hokey comparison, but food for thought nevertheless.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Armenia is part of La Francophonie? Why?

I can't get too excited by the news that Canadian Michaëlle Jean lost her bid to be re-elected as head of the Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie, the organization of French-speaking nations.
That honour, if such it be, went to Louise Mushikiwabo of Rwanda, who seemed to be the consensus candidate, despite the fact that Rwanda recently made English, and not French, as the country's official language and the language of reference for its education system. Yes, Rwanda has its problems, principally its long-time autocratic president Paul Kagame and his tendency to flout democratic rights and press freedoms. But Jean's last 4 years at La Francophonie have been far from controversial, what with her rather high-handed ways, and leadership of the organization tends to be something of an African fiefdom (the bulk of its 54 full voting states regions are in Africa).
What particularly surprised me, though, was the fact that the vote was taking place in Yerevan, Armenia. Armenia? French-speaking? A quick perusal of Armenia's Wikipedia page reveals the official language of Armenia to be ... Armenian, and the only other languages widely spoken by Armenians are Russian and English. And yet, (Wikipedia again) Armenia is in fact a paid-up member of La Francophonie, as indeed are several other unlikely countries such as Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, Egypt, Qatar and Vanuatu, none if which have French as an official language.
Also in today's news, Saudi Arabia was applying to join the organization,(yup, no French connection there either), an application that was only refused for that country's unfortunate tendency to assassinate dissident journalists, and nothing to do with the fact that they don't speak French. They were only applying for "observer status", but still..
So, what is the requirement for joining La Francophonie? Do they just take any old country that happens to apply? Well, supposedly it represents countries.or regions where French is the lingua franca (no ounce intended), where a significant proportion of the population are French-speaking, or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture. This last item is a particularly vague and woolly one, but even so, where do Armenia and Saudi Arabia fit into this? Probably the best Armenia can offer in its defence is that there is apparently a thriving Armenian diaspora living in France (as there is in several other countries), and, we are assured, French is taught in Armenian public schools (along with other languages).
I'm clearly not the first to wonder at the organization's membership policy. It is a strange beast, to be sure. To take another example, get this: Algeria, with one of the largest French-speaking populations in the world, is conspicuously absent from the membership list (but then France and Algeria don't exactly get along, and have some pretty bad history).
It's all a bit of a mystery.

Kanye West and Donald Trump - may you ride off into the sunset together

Kanye West's jaw-dropping love-in with Donald Trump at the White House yesterday was something to behold.
Now, the man says he has mental health problems (although he now says his bipolar diagnosis may have actually only been sleep deprivation after all), so we kind of have to pussyfoot around some of his rants. But his 10-minute bravura soliloquy left even Trump at a loss for words ("That was quite something!"), and outdid even The Donald for sheer stream-of-consciousness weirdness. Rolling Stone magazine called it "The Craziest Oval Office Performance of All Time", and that is probably fair.
I won't legitimize the spectacle by detailing it here, but suffice it to say that the two of them deserve each other.