Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Still life or dead nature - which sounds better to you?

Well, I just found out that the French phrase for "still life" (i.e. a work of art depicting largely inanimate subject matter) is in fact nature morte (literally, "dead nature").
What an eye-popping contrast in tone and connotation between two synonymous phrases!

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Earth's magnetic poles are switching - just not quite yet

Difficult as it is to believe at first blush, the Earth's magnetic changes over the millennia, and the magnetic poles even completely switch from time to time. In fact, we are long overdue for a pole change.
In fact, the geological record shows us that the Earth's magnetic poles have reversed - so that the North pole becomes the South pole, and vice versa - many times over its history. On average, the poles flip every 200,000 to 300,000 years, which in geological terms is the merest blink of an eye. On many other occasions, it starts to flip but then doesn't succeed, snapping back again. The last such "excursion" (unsuccessful flip) was as recently as 40,000 years ago, around the time that anatomically modern humans were making cave paintings in southern Europe. The last time there was a complete pole switch (before which time, North was South and South was North), was around 780,000 years ago, though, long before Homo Sapiens arrived on the scene. We are, therefore, statistically long overdue for a full switch.
Is there any evidence of this happening? How would we know?
The Earth's magnetic field is generated by the spinning of its molten iron and nickel core. If sufficient energy is drained from the dipole at the edge of the molten metal core, then the dipole will be weakened enough for the poles to switch. Currently, the Earth's magnetic field is in fact weakening, and has lost about 10% of its strength over the last 200 years or so, The North magnetic pole is especially turbulent and unpredictable, and has moved by nearly 1,000km since it was first accurately identified in the early 19th century, and, what's more, its movement is accelerating (now around 60km/year). There is also a region between about Zimbabwe and Chile known as the South Atlantic Anomaly, where the magnetic field is already so weak that it presents a distinct hazard for satellites that orbit above it, and where the polarity is already reversed. However, if a switch is underway - and that is still no scientific consensus - bear in mind that the process could take many centuries.
As the magnetic field weakens during a switch, the least of our problems would be that compasses no longer work. The magnetic field shields the planet from harmful solar and cosmic rays, and so this protection - which stops our water from boiling away, and makes life on Earth possible - would also weaken. Gradually, our atmosphere would be stripped away, with disastrous consequences for the Earth's surface, rendering entire regions uninhabitable and causing mass species extinctions. Orbiting satellites would be the first to suffer from this radiation, affecting the satellite timing systems that control our electrical grids, and causing widespread crashes and blackouts. Our increasingly power- and technology-driven lives would be irrevocably impacted.
On the plus side, that same technology should allow us to monitor major changes in the magnetic field, and hopefully make compensatory changes to our satellites, electricity grids and communications networks. And, of course, we will have to prepare for a world where North is South and South is North. Hell, it could be the thing that finally brings us all together. At the very least, there is a good Hollywood blockbuster in this (I am surprised it has not already been made). And if you are really searching for a silver lining, take comfort in the knowledge that, as the magnetic field weakens, the Northern Lights should become increasingly dramatic and easily visible. Feel better?

Oilseed crop being used as jet-fuel

A small but growing Quebec company, Agrisoma Biosciences Inc, is working to reduce the carbon footprint of the fast-growing international aviation industry.
They produce a biofuel from brassica carinata, an oilseed crop related to canola (rapeseed). Its oil, though, is not suitable for human consumption, and so its development will not affect the market and prices of cooking oil or other foodstuffs, which was a major complaint against producing ethanol from corn, for example. Neither does it require large quantities of water, pesticides or fertilizer, earning it a certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. Agrisoma is also working with farmers to only use land that is not already being cultivated, or to use carinata as a rotation crop to replenish soils.
Carinata can be refined into a good jet-fuel, and Agrisoma currently has contracts with Quantas in Australia, as well as with refineries in Europe, southeastern USA and South America. Quantas uses a blend of traditional jet-fuel and just 10% carinata, which, given that the biofuel produces up to 80% less carbon emissions than traditional fuel on a life-cycle basis, results in a modest 7% reduction in emissions. But Agrisoma believes that carinata could eventually comprise a third of jet-fuel. Given that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050 - and very few plans on how to achieve that - Agrisoma's biofuel innovation is attracting increasing attention.

Are fitness trackers actually any use?

OK, I admit it - I use a fitness tracker. It is a Misfit, the cheaper cousin to a Fitbit ($30 as opposed to $200), but it does essentially the same thing. It is a bit more sophisticated than it sounds, allowing me to specify activities (e.g. squash, running, etc) based on the activities' calorie requirements, but one thing it does do - and probably the main thing - is to count steps and give me points for them.
Many people are fixated on the 10,000 steps a day target (I am pretty active, so mine is actually set to the equivalent of about 16,000 a day), but it seems that this is actually a reasonably arbitrary goal based on a single Japanese study carried out nearly 60 years ago. Back in 1960, Japanese researchers calculated that a typical Japanese man burned about 3,000 calories when he walked 10,000 steps and, as this seemed to be about the right kind of daily calorie burn to aim for, the 10,000 step goal was born. But it is really not based on very robust science and, obviously enough, one person's goal should not necessarily be the same as another person's.
It also turns out that fitness trackers may not be very useful for people who want to lose weight. Indeed, a 2-year American study, concluded in 2016, suggests that they may even impede weight loss: study volunteers who did not use fitness trackers lost over 50% more weight than those who did use the trackers. This was just one study, and tracker manufacturers insist that their products have improved significantly since then, but it does suggest that we should perhaps not put too much faith in them. For many people, they are just gimmicks and the novelty soon wears off. Also, if they find they are consistently not hitting your target, many people become discouraged and do even less than they did before. Even those who do hit their targets may react by worsening their diets as they indulge in treats in celebration.
According to some reports, sales of fitness trackers have slowed down in the last few years, suggesting that they may be just a fad whose time is almost over. Other reports, though, show continued robust year-on-year growth. So, the jury is still out, in terms of the market at least.
I have to say, I still enjoy mine, and I do still find myself doing a little bit extra in order to achieve a daily goal, although as often as not I am way over my target. I wonder, though, whether they are actually more useful for fit people than for the unfit people they purport to be helping?

Friday, January 26, 2018

Small businesses are not that special after all

A thought-provoking article in today's Report On Business dares to question the conventional wisdom that small businesses are somehow "special", particularly in their ability to create jobs, and so should receive special treatment, like the hugely beneficial small business tax rates that are in force. It is something I have often wondered about.
The small business lobby does seem to be influential and powerful beyond its deserts. Government regularly pussyfoot around it, not wanting to be seen to snub the golden goose of small business. It is an article of faith that small businesses need special treatment and deserve to lay less tax than the big players. But are they really the job-creating machine they claim to be?
For a small business in an established industry - take roofing as an example - any job they do takes that job away from another business. After all, there are only a finite number of roofing jobs to go round. So, from the perspective of the economy as a whole, it can be argued that the work of one small roofing company adds nothing to the economy. Even new start-up companies are effectively doing nothing more than shuffling jobs around. It's a compelling argument.
It turns out that the net number of jobs that small businesses generate is actually not that special, especially when we consider that so many small companies go bust. Recent American research concludes that businesses with 20 or fewer employees only created 16% of the new jobs between 1992 and 2010, while companies with 500+ employees created nearly 40% of the new jobs.
What may be more important is the age of the company. Young businesses of any size do tend to produce new jobs, while older, more established companies of any size tend not to. So, maybe that is where our tax-breaks should be directed? Otherwise, we risk handing out special favours to small companies as a reward for staying small, rather than encouraging them to grow and achieve economies of scale. The RIMs and Amazons of the world had no intentions of staying small, and small business taxation did not feature in their planning.
Interestingly, when Britain did away with its small business tax advantage in the early 2010s, the number of small businesses in Britain hit record levels. So, go figure. Is small business specialness an idea whose time has come and gone?

Most valuable sports franchises - where is Canada?

Today, I came across an analysis of the most valuable franchises in sports, which makes quite interesting reading.
The top ten (in 2017) are:
  • Dallas Cowboys (NFL): $4.2 bn
  • New York Yankees (MLB): $3.7 bn
  • Manchester United (European Soccer): $3.69 bn
  • Barcelona (European Soccer): $3.64 bn
  • Real Madrid (European Soccer): $3.58 bn
  • New England Patriots (NFL): $3.4 bn
  • New York Knicks (NBA): $3.3 bn
  • New York Giants (NFL): $3.1 bn
  • San Francisco 49ers (NFL): $3 bn
  • Los Angeles Lakers (NBA): $3 bn
The rest of the top 50 continues in much the same way, dominated by the National Football League (NFL, which comprises 29 of the top 50), Major League Baseball (MLB, 8 of the top 50), National Basketball Association (NBA, 7 of the top 50), and European Soccer clubs (7 of the top 50). Interestingly, to a Canadian at least, no National Hockey League (NHL) teams made the top 50.
Just for comparison, Canada's most valuable sports franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL) is worth about $1.4 bn, followed by the Toronto Blue Jays (MLB) at $1.3 bn, Toronto Raptors (NBA) at $1.1 bn, and Toronto FC (MLS) at less than $0.3 bn.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

#TimesUp is not a witch-hunt, it is an attempt to right wrongs

The sheer numbers of allegations of sexual impropriety and harassment in these days of #MeToo and #TimesUp is quite staggering.
Today's newspaper alone reports on:
And that's just one day's news in one Canadian newspaper!
Now, my wife says this is "ludicrous", and that "there can't possibly be that many guilty people". But it seems clear to me that there can be that many guilty people, and indeed many more. This is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. I can easily see many more politicians, judges, doctors, sports coaches and others falling before this plays itself out, as well as more in the entertainment industry (and in any other sphere where men have traditionally held power over women). And it will still be just a tiny minority of men in positions of power.
Is this a witch-hunt, then? Well, depending on your definition of a witch-hunt, possibly. But, by most definitions, no. It is not a concerted campign being waged by a particular state or organization on ideological grounds, and neither is it extra-judicial - the allegations are being tried in courts of law.
Yes, some allegations are years, even decades, old, but many are not. And yes, the allegations have snowballed, but that is because the affected women see that this is a moment in time when such allegations will be taken seriously, a time when they can look for some closure and restitution without having to sacrifice their dreams and their livelihoods. Often, rumours have swirled around these men for years, but is only now that they are seeing the cruel light of day, now that times and attitudes have changed sufficiently. For the first time in decades, women are feeling empowered; this is not a bad thing. So, if you need a metaphor, this is not so much a snowball as the opening of floodgates.
Several of the women I have spoken to about it all (including my wife) seem to think that men are somehow being treated unfairly, that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Me, I don't see that. Men have had it their way for centuries, and women have suffered the consequences. Maybe it's about time they experienced a bit of unfairness for a time, (although I don't think that what we are seeing is actually unfairness), so that we can better establish some sort of balance or equilibrium.
I have also heard from certain strong women (like my wife and some of her friends of a certain age) that sexual harassment was always a factor in their professional lives, but they learned to deal with it. But this misses the point by a long chalk - the point is, they shouldn't have HAD to deal with it or to make excuses for poor behaviour. More than anything, this is an opportunity to establish new rules and norms going forward. If not now, when?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Toothpaste colour-coded for toxicity an urban myth

A friend at a dinner party recently regaled us with horror stories about the toxic nature of toothpastes. She even brought us an approved, "natural" toothpaste, apparently available only in Chinese supermarkets and pharmacies, which was very nice of her (it tastes OK, and feels like normal toothpaste, although I have no idea if it will actually clean my teeth).
She also pointed out the small coloured squares on the crimp at the bottom of all toothpaste tubes, which she insisted are an industry colour-coded guide to the relative toxicity of different brands, black being the worst, and green being the most benign. We were skeptical about this and, after a little bit of research, it seems we were right to be skeptical.
Toothpaste probably does contain ingredients that are, to some degree or other, harmful. But it turns out that those coloured squares on toothpaste tubes are nothing to do with the chemical content of the toothpaste within. They are actually whatever known in the packaging industry as "eye marks" or "colour marks", and are used to indicate to the automated packaging machinery where a package is to be cut or folded. The different colours merely signify different types of packaging or sensors. Thank you Snopes.
Whether you see colour-coded toothpaste as an unfortunate misconception, a popular urban myth, or a highly successful Internet scam, probably depends on how generous you are feeling. It does seem, though, that some producers are taking deliberate advantage of the erroneous "secret knowledge" about toxic toothpastes being widely disseminated on the Internet. Ah, that old Internet thing...

Why all the fuss about blue moons?

For reasons that escape me, the upcoming blue moon seems to be garnering a lot of media attention. An excessive amount of media attention, I'd say. It's probably part and parcel of the increased attention being inexplicably paid to supermoons in recent years.
A blue moon is simply the second full moon in any one calendar month. This month, we had a full moon on January 2nd, and we are due another one on January 31st (in fact, for what it's worth, that one will be a super blue blood moon!). Given the relatively arbitrary nature of our calendar, with some months having 31 days, some 30 days, and February being a law unto itself, and the fact that a lunar month is actually about 29.5 days, blue moons do not happen that often - hence the phrase "once in a blue moon".
They actually occur every two or three years - the last one was in July 2015 - although, for astronomical reasons, some are only full within certain time zones. So, in the scheme of things, they are not that rare either. Neither are they actually blue, or unusually large, or special in any astronomical sense.
So, why all the fuss?

Toronto needs still more condos

It's difficult to believe but, even with all the construction work that I see continuing inexorably in downtown Toronto, tgere are still not enough condo units being built to cope with the burgeoning demand, and condo vacancy levels have now dropped below 1%.
Construction of new condos seems to have continued ceaselessly for as long as I can remember, regardless of economic downturns or political upheavals. At the end of 2017, some 7,184 new purpose-built rental units were under construction. Toronto is apparently in the process of building 50% more high-rises than New York City, and now ranks 8th in the world for skyscrapers. Our waterfront has now disappeared behind a deluge of concrete.
But it seems this is still not enough to assuage the never-ending demand for condos, as the GTA's population continues to rise. As a result, rents have increased sharply over the last year, and bidding wars have emerged, with people offering higher than the posted rates in order to secure apartments.

Predictions of Canada's climate not a pretty picture

A series of (relatively) new maps produced by the Prairie Climate Centre paint a rather scary picture of Canada's climate 50 years hence.
Looking at the projected change in mean temperature in 2051-2080 as compared to the baseline period of 1976-2005, the maps conclude that all of Canada will get significantly warmer even under a low-carbon RCP4.5 scenario (which assumes that the international community is suddenly able to get its act together and urgently address greenhouse gas emissions). Unfortunately, we are currently much closer to the RCP8.5 scenario in which greenhouse gases continue to run rampant.
Even more dramatic is the extent to which the northern Arctic range the of the country is set to heat up much faster and much more than the populated south, an effect that is particularly noticeable in the winter months. Now, you might think that is not such a big deal, but the Arctic is an important component of the global climate system, and melting sea ice and snow can have an amplifying effect on planet-wide global warming, as well as contributing significantly to rising sea levels.
The predicted precipitation effects are also dramatic, with southern Canada (where the vast majority of our population and agriculture are located) expected to become much drier in the summer months, and much wetter throughout the rest of the year. This could lead to an increased risk of severe drought and wildfires in the summer (the growing season), and increased flooding in the winter and spring.
All in all, not a pretty picture.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A year's worth of Trump tweets

As the American Tweeter-in-Chief completes a year in power (God, how did we make it this far?), the BBC has painstakingly analyzed the man's main method of communication.
Despite vowing, seven months before his election win, not to continue his Twitter use if he were to be elected President, on the grounds that tweeting is "not presidential", Mr. Trump has in fact sent out 2,608 tweets during the last year, an average of just over 7 a day. 32% of these tweets were sent between 6am and 9am, when his favourite TV show, Fox and Friends, is on the air. Although this is by far the most "productive" time of the day, with another lesser peak around 6-7pm, every hour of the day and night has witnessed a Trump tweet or two at some point. He "peaked" on 28 May, managing 6 tweets in 12 minutes.
About 47% of his tweets were critical and about 20% complimentary (the rest being neither). He once managed to criticize seven different targets in one 140-character tweet. His most regular target has been the media, with 196 referencing fake news, the press, or mainstream media, and 147 mentioning specific media outlets, with CNN taking the brunt of these attacks. Ex-President Obama received 100 tweets; law enforcement, court official and special counsel merited 95; and Hillary Clinton 79. Perhaps surprisingly, though, he has actually praised more individuals, groups and places than he has criticized (214 to 140), many of them being simple, one-off congratulations to visitors to the White House or attendees at meetings. So, although he has fewer targets for his critical tweets, he attacks them far more often. Some individuals, like Steve Bannon and Justin Trudeau, have the distinction of garnering both praise and vitriol in different tweets, as the mood takes him.
In response to a reminder about the "not presidential" characterization of Twitter, he later called it (in a tweet, of course) "modern-day presidential". 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Canada much more urbanized than America, so we will never elect a Trump

For some reason, I find demographics fascinating, and I'm a sucker for a nice colourful graph. So, I found a comparison of Canadian and American cities in today's paper riveting.
The main thrust of the article was to point out how much concentrated the Canadian population is in its major cities. In overall terms, America's 10 largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and Boston) account for 8% of the country's population. Canada's 10 largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo), on the other hand, account for 31% of the Canadian population. If we use the census metroplotitan areas (i.e. including the suburbs), the proportions are 27% for the USA and 55% for Canada.
When ranked in order of the most populous cities by share of national population, 7 of the top 10 are Canadian cities: Toronto (16.86%), Montreal (11.66%), Vancouver (7.01%), New York (6.24%), Los Angeles (4.12%), Calgary (3.96%), Ottawa-Gatineau (3.77%), Edmonton (3.76%), Chicago (2.94%) and Quebec City (2.28%).
So, Canada is not a country of farms and small villages after all. We are apparently a gritty, urban bunch. And so, the articles argues, we are, for that reason, much less likely to ever elect a Trump-style populist, a type of politician that generally finds its constituency in rural, working class, poorly-educated areas. This is especially so given the racial make-up of Canadian cities (about three-quarters of Toronto and Vancouver, for example, are first or second generation immigrants), and the fact that we do not share the US's peculiar Senate system, which gives hugely disproportionate power to sparsely-populated rural states (for instance, Wyoming, with half a million inhabitants, has the same number of senators as California, with a population of 39 million).
Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Aziz Ansari sexual assault allegations puts #MeToo in an awkward position

The sexual assault allegations against Aziz Ansari may well mark a turning point for the whole #MeToo / #TimesUp / #BelieveHer movement.
Not being an avid television viewer, I have to admit that don't know Mr. Ansari from Adam. But, apparently, he is a popular TV comedian and writer, and is best known for his starring role in a Netflix series called Master of None, a role for which he recently won a Golden Globe. From what I can make out, he seems like a nice enough guy, and he even wore a Time's Up pin for the recent 2017 Emmys awards ceremony, although I do understand that that in itself does not actually mean that much.
An after-party for another awards ceremony, the Emmys, was also the fateful occasion on which he met the photographer who is using the pseudonym "Grace" for the purposes of her public allegations. Although he apparently repulsed Grace's early attentions, they eventually bonded over a vintage camera that they both use, and they arranged to have dinner. Well, one thing led to another, as they say, and soon they were having mutual oral sex in Mr. Ansari's fancy TriBeCa apartment.
It was only when he did the fingers-in-the-mouth thing (something I have never understood, and which I honestly believe to be an invention of the porn video industry), and showed a keen and repeated interest in penetration that Grace finally used the word "no". And what did Mr. Ansari do? He stopped, saying, "How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?", and they watched episodes of Seinfeld for the rest of the evening.
Next day, he texted her to say what a nice time he had had, and it was only when Grace texted back that she had found it far from enjoyed it that Mr. Ansari had any idea that something might be wrong. In her text, Grace claimed that he had "ignored clear non-verbal cues", and that he "had to have noticed" that she was uncomfortable. He texted back, apologizing if he missed any such "non-verbal cues", but claiming that the encounter was "by all indications completely consensual".
Grace then gave her story to the feminist website Babe, calling it the worst night of her life, and social media lit up. However, this time, not all the responses were supportive of Grace and her allegations. A New York Times opinion piece claims that Ansari was being judged guilty of not being a mind-reader; the New York Post sees the case as evidence of the #MeToo movement officially "jumping the shark"; an article in The Atlantic opines that the story has destroyed a man who didn't deserve it; former CNN anchor Ashleigh Barfield warned that the case endangers the whole #MeToo / #TimesUp movement; a Guardian article calls the original Babe story a "bizarre hybrid of a reported piece and personal essay with editorial comments inappropriately intejected"; a rape survivor in another Guardian opinion piece argues that asault is not just a feeling but a concrete experience; a Washington Examiner article identifies "an unusual coalition of feminists, dissident feminists and conservatives has emerged to dispute the characterization of Ansari's behaviour as sexual assault"; etc, etc.
Now, this are not Fox News reports; these are esteemed women journalists writing for more or less progesssive news outlets. Other responses, it has to be said, have been more supportive of Grace's plight. But what comes out of the coverage as a whole is that we need to be more careful in the reporting of such allegations. It is worth noting also that this was not a Weinstein type of situation - Grace was not beholden to Ansari for her livelihood; it was merely a difference of opinion over what constitutes consent. Neither was it deliberate harassment or abuse of power; it was merely awkward, clumsy, or just plain bad, sex.
Like so many worthy and successful campaigns before them, #MeToo and #TimesUp are, predictably, going through a bit of a backlash at the moment - and I don't just mean Catherine Deneuve and her coterie of French bourgeoises, who have received a generally scathing reaction - and risk being branded as a witch-hunt. So, #BelieveHer by all means, but let's maintain some perspective and objectivity in our reporting, lest the good work of these valuable campaigns be lost amid the resulting flak. In the meantime, any publicity for the movement may be good publicity, to some extent, in that people are certainly talking about it, and it may hopefully give men pause to consider the issue of consent before they exercise their libido.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trump "shithole" outburst offensive, stupid, but not intrinsically racist

Loath as I am to make yet another entry about Donald Trump, I have been trying to figure out why his latest outburst about "shithole countries" is being considered racist. Yes, the man is a racist in general terms - not to mention thoughtless, bigoted, supercilious and gauche - but I'm still not convinced that this particular remark is actually racist in and of itself.
During an all-party meeting on DACA and other immigration issues on Thursday, Trump is reported as having said, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" The context of the comment is not entirely clear: it could refer to El Salvador, Haiti and African countries in general, all of which had recently been discussed, or it could just refer to the African countries, which was the last item to have been mentioned. Either way it clearly refers to poor, downtrodden countries populated by non-white people. This was made even more clear by his subsequent suggestion that the US should instead be bringing in more people from countries like Norway, which just happens to be as close to Aryan purity as possible in this day and age. Trump himself, predictably enough, is denying using such language, although Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who was at the meeting, has confirmed it (and even maintained that Trump used the word "repeatedly").
So, minor contextual quibbling aside, Trump does seem to have called some poor black countries "shitholes". Is this actually a racist thing to say? The Guardian and Vox, among others, certainly seem to think so. But I find their arguments a little thin. Xenophobic, yes. Offensive, sure. Stupid, oh yeah. Ill-advised, definitely (although some are arguing that Trump says these kinds of things deliberately from time to time to shore up his core support - who knows?) But intrinsically racist, probably not, insofar as it does not directly claim that one racial group is superior to another.
Semantics, shmemantics? Perhaps. But if we slide into sloppiness, then arguably we are no better than Sloppy Steve Bannon.

CAMH's $100m anonymous donation comes with no strings attached

What I find interesting, though, is the anonymous part. Compare that with the $50 million donation a couple of years ago to Toronto East General Hospital by the Garron family, which required the renaming of the entire hospital (it is now officially known as the Michael Garron Hospital, even if everyone still calls it East General in practice).
Obviously, $50 million is not to be sniffed at, and the hospital would almost certainly have painted it with pink polka dots to land that kind of money. But, I can't help but look on it as distinctly declassé to insist on renaming a long-established and well-loved 85-year old hospital

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Trump's coastal drilling plan (and Florida's exemption) par for the course

As if Donald Trump's plan to allow oil and gas drilling in US coastal waters, after decades of environmental protection, were not bad enough, he and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have twisted the knife still further by exempting Florida from the plan.
Why Florida? Well, Trump's favourite hangout Mar-A-Lago is there, as well as several of his favourite golf courses. But, even more importantly, the announcement is almost certainly a political stunt in favour of the state's Republican governor Rick Scott, who is being encouraged byTrump to run for a Senate seat (currently Democrat-held).
So, of course, many the other coastal states, most of which are Democrat in demographic, are also asking for exemptions. California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and others are asking, "where do I sign up for an exemption". Even some Republican senators are questioning this bare-faced favouritism and political machination, although others, including environmentally-sensitive Alaska, appear quite happy with their vision of dollar signs.
The whole sad saga exemplifies two or three elements of Trump's typical modus operandi: one is the systematic dismantling of the USA's environmental protections (and, not incidentally, any progressive measures the Obama administration happens to have instituted); second is a measure of confusion and complication brought about by hasty and thoughtless planning (or sometimes, apparently, a complete lack of planning), usually requiring several tweaks and amendments; and finally, a willingness to flout (or, alternatively, just a compete lack of awareness of) laws and conventions that have been established over many decades for the protection of the environment, vulnerable members of society, minorities, etc. And, make no mistake, there will be legal challenges to this latest enormity.

Climate change turning green sea turtles all female

What a strange evolutionary development! It seems that the sex of baby green sea turtles is dependent on the temperature of the sand in which eggs incubate.
For some evolutionary reason that remains unclear (to me at least), the sex of baby turtles - as well as alligators and crocodiles - is not yet determined when an egg is laid. Within a very narrow and specific temperature range, the eggs will produce a clutch of roughly 50% male and 50% female baby turtles. However, if the temperature of the sand is just a few degrees cooler, the clutch will turn out 100% male; a few degrees warmer, and the eggs turn out 100% female.
So, you can imagine that the hotter temperatures created by climate change could wreak havoc with the gender profile of baby turtles. And that is exactly what is being found among the green sea turtles of Australia: 99.8% of green sea turtles born recently along the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef are female. Along the cooler southern part of the Reef, the population is also skewed female, although not in such an extreme manner, around 65%-69%. There has also been a much higher incidence of mortality in the developing eggs, a phenomenon also found in other sea turtle populations, such as those in Florida, where the heat is effectively cooking the eggs and killing the babies.
Between them, these two effects of climate change puts the viability of the whole population of sea turtles, which is already seriously impacted by habitat loss and the effects of unbridled tourism, in jeopardy.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Call me old-fashioned but ... Oprah?

In the wake of her barnstorming speech at the Golden Globes awards recently, Oprah Winfrey is now being touted, in all seriousness, as the potential saviour of the Democratic Party and their best bet to beat Donald Trump in the presidential elections of 2020. And, by all accounts, she may well be seriously considering it.
Now, while no-one is denying that, in a straight choice between Oprah and Trump, one outcome is clearly more desirable than the other, this is probably not a bad time to stand back and say "Woah!" Has it really come to this, that the US presidential elections will be fought between two TV billionaires? What happened to politicians? You know, those people who actually understand how countries are governed and international relations function?
That Trump has single-handedly debased the political process in America is beyond doubt. That we should abandon all precedent entirely, though, is by no means a necessary corollary. Rather we should see this as a salutary warning not to proceed further down that path. Ronald Reagan was one thing (and not necessrily a good thing, depending on your point of view). But now talk of Oprah - and, not so long ago, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, even Dwayne Johnson - getting into the politics game is an alarming development, to put it mildly, and a scary indication of where mainstream American priorities may lie.
Surely, high level politics should be about more than Twitter followings, more even than the ability to turn in a good rousing speech. Can we please get back to the good old bad old days of seasoned politicians arguing policy positions based on their ideological interpretations of well-understood and documented economic data and tried-and-tested foreign policy traditions. God, the boring old status quo has never looked so good!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's

I had thought I'd blogged about this already, when I first read about it a year or so ago, but apparently not. So, here, belatedly, is an article about The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's. I actually watched a BBC documentary on her last night, at a Parkinson's support group meeting, and it's certainly a fascinating story.
Scottish retired nurse Joy Milne is one in a million (or, most likely, one in many millions). She has a ridiculously acute sense of smell. One researcher describes her as somewhere between a human and a dog - but in a nice way. Joy's husband Les was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (PD) when he was in his late 30s, but Joy noticed that his smell had subtly changed some 6 years before that diagnosis. When she started attending Parkinson's support groups with her husband, she noticed that all the other PD sufferers had a similar smell to them. Les died at the age of 65 in 2015, but before he died Joy promised him that she would bring her special knowledge to the attention of PD researchers in case it could be of any help to others in the future.
At first the researchers were skeptical of her claims. But they were largely convinced when Joy identified 11 out of 12 Parkinson's sufferers and control candidates in a blind test, just by smelling their clothes. Then, when the one individual that she had identified as having Parkinson's, but who was actually in the control group, was later diagnosed as indeed having Parkinson's, the whole scientific world sat up and took note.
Joy's ability to identify Parkinson's by smell, even before normal symptoms start to show, holds up the possibility of early detection of the disease, either by trained dogs, or by the scientific identification of which specific molecules make up the particular tell-tale odour that Joy is able to detect. Joy has been dilligently working with researchers and mass spectroscopy technicians, and has been able to identify 10 molecules that appear to be linked to the condition. Although there is currently no cure for PD, new advances in our knowledge of the disease are being made almost every day, and at the very least the research could lead to a definitive clinical diagnostic test for Parkinson's Disease, something that just does not exist at the moment.
It's certainly a fascinating and exciting development. And how cool that a dumpy Scottish senior has super powers like this.

Richie Incognito: great name, bit of a jerk

Richie Incognito, the Buffalo Bills guard accused recently of using racist slurs against Yannick Ngakoue, is a bit of a jerk.
Incognito is an outspoken Republican and loudly supprted Donald Trump in the latter's elections campaign. He has been voted the dirtiest player in the NFL, and regularly engages in eye gouging, punching and illegal tackles. In 2014, he was pushed out of his previous team, the Miami Dolphins, for bullying black teammate Jonathan Martin and others, including subjecting them to racial insults, threats and ongoing harrassment. These latest claims are therefore not unexpected. He is, as I say, a jerk, and does not deserve a whole lot of media attention.
What I am more interested in, though, is his name. It sounds so much like an assumed or stage name. Can it actually be real?
Well, it turns out that Richard Dominick Incognito Jr. is the son of Ricard Incognito Sr., a New Jersey boy of mixed German and Italian heritage. It further turns out that Incognito is actually a not-uncommon last name in Italy, thought to hark back to centuries past, where parish record scribes were not able to ascertain the father of a baby. Makes sense: incognito, from the Latin, actually just means "unknown", without the connotations of a concealed or disguised identity it now holds in English.
So, Incognito: great name, bit of a jerk.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Largest known prime number discovered

Well, who'dathoughtit? They are still discovering new prime numbers. More to the point, perhaps, some people out there are still LOOKING for prime numbers.
Using a program called Prime95 on a really fast computer, volunteer John Pace from Tennessee, has proved that 277,232,917 - 1 is a prime number (that's 2 multiplied by itself 77,232,917 times, and then subtract 1 from the result). It is one of a special class of prime numbers called Mersenne primes, i.e. prime numbers of the form 2n - 1, named after the 17th century French monk Marin Mersenne, who was the first to discover this method for identifying prime numbers. It is only the 50th Mersenne prime ever to be discovered.
The actual number Mr. Pace discovered has 23,249,425 digits, so forgive me for not showing it here (it is apparently long enough to fill a whole shelf-full of books, totalling 9,000 pages). Indeed, it is nearly a million digits longer than the previously discovered Mersenne prime, and it took six full days of computer processing to come up with the proof. Mr. Pace is one of thousands of volunteers for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), the shady organization established in 1996, which has been responsible for finding the last 16 Mersenne primes.
It kind of warms the heart to know that there are people out there frantically searching for such phenomena, which have no known practical use. Good job, John!

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Why some sexual assault cases are civil and some criminal

It has taken me a while to notice, but some of the slew of recent sexual assault cases are civil cases and some are criminal. For example, the claims against Harvey Weinstein and the more recent ones against Albert Schultz are civil cases; the case against Jian Ghomeshi, on the other hand, was a criminal one.
Sexual assault always seems like a criminal offence in nature, but apparently there are good reasons to pursue it in the civil claims court.
For one, the burden of proof is much more exacting in a criminal case: a crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is any doubt at all, then the case falls and the defendant goes free, and is effectively exonerated in the eyes of the world. This is what happened in the Ghomeshi case, for example, much to the disgust of women everywhere.  In a civil suit, on the other hand, the case hangs on the balance of probabilitie, and the preponderance of the evidence. So, if the accuser is believed more than the accused, even if it is as little as 51% to 49%, then the accuser wins. It is therefore usually easier to win a civil case.
The remedy in a civil case is usually financial. Thus, a woman may sue for sexual harassment for a particular amount, for example $x million, and if she wins, she receives the $x million from the defendant. But it is not just about money, it is also about accountability: if a civil claim is proven, the defendant is publicly shamed and seen to have transgressed in the eyes of the world. The money goes to the victim to be used to help rebuild their lives, for therapy, education, career purposes or whatever.
Finally, an accuser typically retains more control over a civil case, how far to pursue it, whether or not to accept a settlement, etc. A criminal case, however, is largely out of the hands of the victim: it is up to the police to decide whether or not to lay charges, and up to the Crown to prosecute it as they see fit. The accuser in a civil case is also entitled to their own lawyer, and can call witnesses, force the defendant to testify, etc, rather than just being a passive witness as in a criminal case.
There are, though, some drawbacks to a civil suit. The costs can be substantial, even prohibitive (unless a lawyer takes on a case pro bono), and if the case fails and the defendant ultimately wins, the accuser is on the hook for the defendant's legal costs too. Even in the case of a win, it is not always easy to actually collect the damages. Also, the victim may have to publicly disclose all sorts of personal details in order to justify the damages claimed.
A defendant may offer to settle out of court in a civil case, which is easier and cheaper for everyone concerned. But this means that they do not publicly admit liability for the action, which is often a non-negotiable issue for victims of such crimes. A civil case is not so much about establishing the guilt or innocence of a perpetrator, merely determining whether or not they were responsible for the injuries or damages claimed. Neither does a civil case result in a prison sentence for the guilty party, just a financial penance, which may not be sufficient for the aggrieved victim (although pursuing a civil case does not necessarily preclude also going down the criminal route).
Legal cases can be protracted and harrowing, and they are not to be entered into lightly (unless you are, for example, Doanld Trump, for whom litigation is a major hobby). But at least I understand a little better now, why some of these cases are civil and some criminal.

Is bitcoin actually any use?

Proponents of bitcoin, many of whom have made huge amounts of real money off the speculative bubble that surrounds bitcoin, are fond of saying that bitcoin is not just a useless vehicle for speculative investment, but a functioning payment system, and one that can become a mainstay of the world's economy without being held to ransom by rapacious financial institutions and controlling national governments.
This sounds like a compelling argument, but is it actually true? Well, for the moment at least, not so much. It turns out that there are several reasons why bitcoin does NOT make a good functional currency.
Firstly, as things stand at the moment, a bitcoin transaction comes with a hefty transaction fee, averaging US$28 but often much more. Now, this might not be an issue if you are buying a car, but it would certainly put you off buyog a coffee (or even your weekly groceries with it).
Next, because bitcoin is built on bundles of verified transactions called blocks, which are generated every ten minutes, there can be a substantial delay in the transaction, particularly given that it us advisable to wait for several block to be formed AFTER the one containing your particular transaction.
Thirdly, as I have already explored in more detail in a previous article, it is extremely (and increasingly) expensive to create, or "mine", new bitcoins, particularly in terms of the energy consumption of the huge computing power that is required. By some estimates, worldwide bitcoin production uses more electricity than whole developed countries of the magniture of Ireland or Denmark. A single bitcoin transaction is estimated to consume more energy than 23,000 VISA transactions. Add to this the fact that most bitcoin mining now tales place in China, which has a notoriously dirty, largely coal-based electricity system, and the carbon footprint of bitcoin is simply insupportable.
Fourth, bitcoin is just not as flexible as current "fiat currencies" (legal tender backed by the issuing national governments). For example, the blockchain on which transactions are recorded is an "add-only" ledger, and transactions cannot be revised or edited or cancelled, so if a transaction needs to be reversed there is no mechanism to do this, and no-one to complain to if something goes wrong. Similarly, the anonymous and private bitcoin transactions cannot be used for lending, where a real name and a signature are essential to establish a lending/borrowing legal contract.
Fifthly, the very success of bitcoin as an investment vehicle makes pricing of goods and services very difficult. If the value of bitcoin continues to rise and fluctuate so profoundly and unpredictably, its uselfulness as a currency is severely compromised.
Another possible drawback of bitcoin is that it is essentially internet-based and, like anything and everything on the internet, it is potentially subject to hacking, fraud and scams. Although the blockchain itself is relatively secure, the digital wallets used to manage bitcoins and the exchanges used to trade them are more fragile. We already have the rather bizarre phenomenon of a decommissioned military bunker deep in the Swiss Alps which had been repurposed as a secure repository for the bitcoin holdings of multi-millionaires (although the main security seems to be that the computers stored there are kept offline!)
Proponents of bitcoin say that these are early days, and that these problems will be ironed out in time. But in fact it has been around since 2008, and little has been done in that time to address these shortcomings. Other cryptocurrencies, like Ripple, Etherium, etc, are attempting to present alternatives, and protocols like Segregated Witness, the Lightning Network and Bitcoin Cash, are attempting to deal with some of these issues.
But one can't help but think that, by the time bitcoin has effectively overcome its drawbacks, we will be left with something suspiciously similar to ... good old-fashioned money! Which, it has to be said, actually works pretty well.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Supermoons are over-hyped

All the media hype about so-called supermoons in recent years is getting a bit tedious. I'm pretty sure the moon itself has not changed, but now it seems like almost every month's full moon is a supermoon. For example, the January 1st full moon was a supermoon, but then so was the previous one on December 3rd, and now apparently so will the next one, on January 31st (which, being the second full moon in a calendar month, also makes it a blue moon).

So, what actually is a supermoon? A supermoon is just what used to be described as a full moon at its perigee (i.e. the closest point to the earth in its orbit), or more technically the perigee syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. Because it is closer to the earth than average, it appears slightly bigger than average full moon, and therefore slightly brighter.

Technically, only about one in every fourteen full moons will be at perigee, and thus a real supermoon. But the modern definition of a supermoon was arbitrarily set (in 1979, by Richard Nolle, an astrologer, not an astronomer) as being when a full moon is within 90% of perigee, which makes the phenomenon more common (and less super, I would say). It seems like even the so-called experts can't quite agree on what constitutes a supermoon, with some claiming that 2 of 2018's full moons are supermoons, and some claiming 3. Often, even full moons within one or two days of pedigree are often referred to as supermoons.

Anyway, my point is that the operative word in the description above is "slightly", a point that a recent article on also made. The difference in size between a full moon at perigee and a full moon at apogee (i.e. at its furthest point from the earth, sometimes referred to as a micromoon, but how often do you read about THAT in the news?) is just 14%. So, a full-blown supermoon is only 7% bigger than an average full moon, a difference that you would probably not even notice unless alerted to it by the press. 

As so often, Neil DeGrasse-Tyson may have said it best when he asked, "If you turned a 14-inch pizza into a 15-inch pizza, would you call it a super-pizza?" And bear in mind that there is also the "moon illusion" phenomenon, whereby the moon always looks larger when it is low in the sky (partly because our brains assume it is farther away than when it is overhead, and partly because it is magnified by the earth's atmosphere).

Likewise, supermoons are often quoted as being up to 30% brighter than an average full moon, which sounds impressive but is actually equivalent to just a 0.1 or 0.2 magnitude difference in brightness, which again is unlikely to be spotted by the average observer.

I guess that the recent media fixation with supermoons has probably had the admirable effect of encouraging more people go out and commune with nature to observe the wonders of the universe. But its "super" branding is probably something of a misnomer, or at the very least over-used.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A grown adult tweeted this

The man who tweeted this is a grown adult and the leader of a really big and powerful country:
"I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
Wow. Look on, ye mighty, and despair. I know I do.
I'm also fascinated by the fact that the Washington Post is actually keeping track of Mr. Trump's false or misleading claims. Apparently, he has made 1,950 of them in the 347 days to January 1st 2018, an average of 5.6 a day. Pretty impressive in a way.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

What makes blue eyes blue?

I came across a fascinating article on what makes blue eyes blue.
Like probably most people, I have always assumed that eye colour is purely the result of pigmented cells, but that's apparently not the case. It turns out that the appearance and the various different colours of eyes are the result of the two microscopically thin layers of cells that cover the iris: the epithelium at the back (which is mainly seen as the dark specks and flecks in people's irises), and the stroma at the front. The stroma is made of colourless collagen fibres, with varying amounts of dark brown-pigmented melanin, as well as some excess collagen deposits, which between them structurally create the appearance of a colour.
Brown eyes, for example, have a high concentration of melanin in their stroma, which absorbs most of the light entering the eye regardless of any collagen deposits (i.e. very little light is reflected, giving the eye a dark appearance from the outside).
Green eyes don't have much melanin, but neither do they have any collagen deposits (the melanin pigment therefore absorbs some but not all of the light entering the eyes, and scatters the rest creating a blue colour due to the Tyndall effect - essentially the same as the Rayleigh scattering that causes the sky to appear blue - the resulting combination appearing as different shades of green or hazel).
Pure blue eyes have no melanin pigment colouring at all, and no excess collagen deposits either, so their colouring is entirely due to structural colouration (all the light entering is scattered back due to the Tyndall effect). Thus, staring into someone's blue eyes is a bit like staring at the sky, which is a happy thought. Also, for this reason, the appearance of blue eyes (and, to a lesser extent, green eyes) is much more dependant on the quantity and quality of the ambient light than other eye colours, and so tend to appear much more variable in their colouration.
Even rarer are grey eyes (like mine), in which the stroma has no melanin pigmentation, but does have a small amount of collagen deposits which interfere with the light scattering (in fact, all light wavelengths are scattered evenly, yielding the grey colour).
And violet eyes? Well, in theory, violet eyes (as Elizabeth Taylor, for example, was purported to have) do not exist, and Elizabeth Taylor probably had grey-blue eyes that could appear to have a violet tint under certain lighting conditions. Damn!

Monday, January 01, 2018

Some stunning new scientific discoveries in 2017

What better way to start off the new year than to look back at some of the scientific discoveries of last year.
Well, actually Science Alert has already done it for me with its "20+ Science Facts We Didn't Know At The Start of 2017", some of which I was aware of, but many of which I had no idea about:
  • Gravitation waves, measured in a collision between two neutron stars 130 million light years away, have been shown to travel at the same speed as light waves.
  • A new human internal organ, the mesentery, long thought to be a fragmented collection of separate structures in our gut, has been identified and classified.
  • A time machine has been shown to be mathematically possibly, but development is held back by a lack of suitable materials.
  • A new type of diabetes, type 3c, has been classified, after decades of mis-classifying it as type 2.
  • A mysterious blob of hot rock has been identified building up under the state of Vermont and neighbouring parts of New England.
  • Lungs also produce millions of platelets (tiny blood cells) in addition to their main function in respiration.
  • Time crystals, once considered "impossible objects", have now been recognized as a new state of matter, and can be man-made at will.
  • When we are sleep deprived, our brains have been shown to "clear out" little-used neurons and synaptic connections at a much higher rate than during the usual sleep process.
  • The blackest material known to science, vantablack, is now available in a "spray-on" form.
  • Quantum comnunication without particle transmission, technically known as direct counterfactual quantum communication, was achieved experimentally for the first time.
  • "Semi-synthetic" organisms have been created using a new expanded six-letter genetic code.
  • The permafrost in a massive crater in Siberia is melting so fast that 200,000 year old forests are being exposed.
  • Carl Sagan's prescient 1995 vision of a society where pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy rule has come disturbingly close to reality in Donald Trump's America.
  • A single giant neuron, that wraps itself around the entire brain of mice, has been discovered.
  • The New Guinea Highland Wild Dog, once thought to be completely extinct, has actually been found to be thriving in its remote habitat.
  • The appendix, which has disappeared and then re-emerged multiple times in several mammal lineages over the millennia, may not be just a useless vestigial organ but serve as a kind of haven for good gut bacteria.
  • A cat-sized fossil found in Scotland 130 years ago has been reclasssified, and may completely redraw the dinosaur family tree.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome may actually start in the brain, and not in the ovaries as previously thought.
  • New Zealand and New Caledonia may not be merely remote island chains but a whole separate continent, geologically distinct from Australia.
  • Scientists are calling for a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, to be recognized, on the grounds that humans have had more of an impact on the earth than the Great Oxidation Event of 2.3 billion years ago.
  • New drone footage shows that narwhals do use their horns for hunting, but by hitting and stunning its prey, and not by skewering them as had been generally assumed.
  • Decades of Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio communications have created a kind of human-made protective "bubble" around the earth.
  • Some American farmers have been routinely feeding discarded red Skittles to their cattle, as a cheaper alternative to corn.
  • A 2-year old girl, who drowned in a swimming pool accident but was then resuscitated, has had her severe brain damage reversed to some extent by a series of oxygen treatments.
It's certainly a wonderful, if sometimes bizarre, world of science out there.

China's first all-electric cargo ship is used to transport ... coal!

China has developed an all-electric cargo ship, and its first task will be to deliver... coal.
Coal that will be used to generate dirty electricity, that will be used (at least in part) to power all-electric ships. How ironic is that?
The 2,000 metric ton EV is the world's first fully-electric cargo ship, and China plans to build many more. But they need to work on their public relations too...