Friday, April 27, 2018

Trump's Fox & Friends interview is a priceless exercise in postmodernism

That man Donald Trump, he's such a character. He's a journalist's gift from heaven. He has given the world many bizarre interviews and speeches. But his phone-in yesterday to his favourite TV show, Fox and Friends, was among the wildest and most unhinged. The stream-of-consciousness style, the non-sequiturs, the complete lack of anger management and sense of propriety: all were at their peak in this one interview.
A quick analysis of 53 of the biggest howlers in the President's responses by "Fake News CNN", give at least something of the flavour of the event, but there is no substitute for actually watching/listening. It's a doozy. And check out the interviewers' faces during some of the wilder moments - priceless!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ibuprofen helps me sleep, but is it safe to take regularly?

I am a bad sleeper. I do have excellent sleep hygeine, and am pretty careful about things like caffeine, alcohol, late meals, screen time, etc; it's just a genetic thing, and there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. I have tried all the ususal safe remedies - melatonin, various herbal teas, etc - and nothing much seems to help.
I don't want to get into prescription sleep medications if I can help it, although I do take an antihystamine product called Sleep-Eze (or its generic equivalent) from time to time when I get desperate, and that usually works for me, even if it leaves me a bit groggy and hungover in the morning.
Recently, though, I have been taking an extra strength Advil (or the generic equivalent: ibuprofen) pretty much every evening, mainly because I'm recovering from an ankle sprain and Advil/ibuprofen is supposed to be a good anti-inflammatory (along with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like Aleve, Motrin, Celebrex and other brands). Now, I don't know what it's doing for my ankle, but I do know that I have been sleeping until 5am or 6am, which is a good long sleep in my world, and I am tempted to continue taking it for that reaons alone. But, knowing that there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to medications, and to health in general, I figured I should check whether there is any good reason why I should not be taking it so regularly. For example, I know that it is no longer recommended, as it was for decades, that aspirin be consumed on a daily basis, because it tends to rip your stomach lining to shreds over time. And I had heard that regular consumption of Tylenol/acetaminophen can kead to liver damage. But surely Advil is pretty benign, isn't it?
Well, apparently not. The US Food & Drug Administration concludes that NSAIDs in general can increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes: "NSAIDs can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke in patients with or without heart disease or risk factors for heart disease". Well, that's me, so I guess it's back to the drawing board. **sigh**

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Incels, fakecels and other mystifying concepts

Media coverage of the horrendous incident in north Toronto a couple of days ago, in which a seriously disturbed man ran a white rented van for over two kilometers down a busy city sidewalk, killing ten and injuring many more, has opened up to me a whole hidden world of internet hate groups I knew nothing about (and which I dearly wish was still ignorant of).
The perpetrator of this particular enormity, Alek Minassian, was a contributing member of an online sub-culture of rabid misogynists known as "incels", or involuntary celibates. They are mainly frustrated, self-loathing and lonely white males in their late teens and early twenties, who are having trouble adjusting to adult life, i.e. young guys seriously pissed off that they can't get laid. Sharing their bitter tirades and violent fantasies on those online message boards of websites that just don't care what content they publish (principally, Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, as well as dedicated websites like, these people vent their sexual frustrations in racist, misogynistic and often violent rants against women.
The group utilizes its own specialized vocabulary and buzzwords, including "Chads" (good-looking men, i.e. not incels) and "Stacys" (women who find Chads attractive), "black pill" (the realization that a women will never have sex with an individual), "fakecel" (a guy who is too good-looking to qualify as a genuine incel, or one who claims to be an incel but who has actually recently had sex with a woman), etc.
It's a strange and disturbing world that thrives on its hatred of what it sees as unattainable women, and that idolizes violent woman-haters like Elliot Rodger (the California man who killed six in 2014), George Sodini (who killed four woman in Pittsburgh in 2009), and, now, of course, Mr. Minassian himself.
And what is really scary is that this whole "community" is just one of many dark corners of the internet - not to mention the even darker corners of the so-called "dark net" - about which I know (and want to know) absolutely nothing. It's difficult for me to fathom how a person can get so twisted up as to openly advocate and glorify the raping and killing of women, but there seem to be plenty of them out there. And how it can be legal for such individuals to spread their poison to the world at large (even in the interests of freedom of speech) is even more mystifying.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

When is anxiety a mental illness (and when is it not)?

Just before a performance of Crystal Pite's wonderful dance/theatre piece Betroffenheit the other night, we attended a pre-show talk about how the arts can help mental illnesses. It sounded like an interesting topic, but I have to confess, we both walked out before the end. We felt a bit shame-faced in leaving, but we felt we couldn't stay.
I think that what we both found difficult was some of the terminology and buzz-words and -phrases that kept coming up, words like "victim" and "survivor", and hackneyed phrases like "I didn't see anyone like me when I was growing up". Maybe it's just a generational thing - young people just didn't seem to have mental health problems when we were growing up (well, I'm sure they did, but it wasn't talked about, and people were just expected to "deal with it", and did). Which might be something to with our lack of patience with young people today, even though we know intellectually that there is a lot more mental illness around than there might appear, and that we should be patient, supportive and empathetic with those who suffer from it.
The two earnest young women at the pre-show talk both talked about their anxiety issues, something that seems to have reached almost epidemic proportions recently, particularly among millennials. My daughter (as well as most of her friends at university) also has anxiety issues, so I have tried to understand it, but I'm still not quite there.
Part of the problem is getting my head around the difference between anxiety (which everyone experiences from time to time, some more than others) and an anxiety disorder. Most people get anxious before exams or interviews, and are stressed when faced with what seems like an overwhelming workload or an impractical deadline. This is not a mental illness, and people do just need to "deal with it" or "get over it", although they can be helped and supported through it to some extent. However, that is the last thing that one should say to a person who suffers from a bona fide anxiety disorder. What anxious or depressed people do apparently want to hear are things like: "It's OK not to be OK", "I'm here for you", "You're doing really well", "You have the strength to beat this", or just "I love you".
If someone has an anxiety disorder, there are a bunch of other considerations and misconceptions to take into account, including: it's not possible to just "snap out if it"; there isn't always an obvious reason or catalyst for an anxiety attack; it often comes with physical effects such as nausea, stomach ache, headache, heart palpitations, etc.; therapy and/or medications may help, but equally they may not.
Obviously, there is a big grey area between and around normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder. There are some general indications of a true anxiety disorder (e.g. the intensity and length of the anxiety; associated physical symptoms and a feeling of disconnection from reality; impairment or avoidance of everyday activities; etc). But there is also the problem of self-diagnosis (otherwise known as Google), and the possibility that some of the symptoms are actually psychosomatic and (dare I say it?) not real. It's a minefield.
I often find myself pussyfooting around my daughter, not wanting to sound callous, and keen to give her the benefit of the doubt, while inside I am probably thinking along the lines of, "Oh, come on, get over yourself, I did exams too, you know, they're stressful but you can cope with them". Certainly, using the "mental health card" is a failsafe way of closing down an argument or an uncomfortable conversation.
I do sometimes wonder whether we are not condoning and enabling a kind of victim culture. But I'm way too polite and sensitive to say so. Ooh, di I just say that out loud?

Interestingly, the Globe and Mail's respected health columnist André Picard dealt with this very same subject just a month after I wrote this piece, and came to largely the same conclusions.
Picard was commenting on a Sun Life Financial poll that concluded that 49% of Canadians have experienced a "mental health issue" at some time in their lives, including 63% of millennials, 50% of Gen X'ers, and 41% of late boomers. The preponderance of younger people reflects the fact that recent generations are more willing to talk about or admit to mental health issues, which is surely not a bad thing. But the bald statistics do need unpacking a little.
For example, what is a "mental health issue" and is it the same as a "mental illness"? Probably not - 63% of millennials have probably not been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness. However, 63% (and probably nore) may well have been stressed, anxious or depressed at some point. This is a normal part of modern life, and having feelings and emotions is not in itself problemmatic.
As Mr. Picard says, "What the poll tells us, more than anything else, is that we are pathologizing normal emotions ... It's normal to be anxious in certain situations ... It's normal to be depressed sometimes ... It's normal to be stressed sometimes ... There can sometimes be a fine line between being anxious and suffering from anxiety, and between sadness and depression."
Quite. I couldn't have put it better myself, and indeed I didn't.

Marvel at the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Somebody has gone to an incredible amount of trouble to sketch out the whole history of the Marvel Cimematic Universe, from the Big Bang to the present (i.e. Avengers: Infinity War). It's all I can do to "marvel" at it, and to share it. Put aside some time - it's pretty long.
It is based on the 19 - and counting -  MCU films to date, rather than the original comics (now THAT would be a project!) But I am a big fan of both the films and the comics, so I must confess I find it fascinating, and it neatly sets up the new Avengers film, which no doubt will have an incredibly complex plot, and be heavily reliant on "the story so far". It does a good job of tying in the links between Wakanda and Asgard and S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark industries, and gives the derivation of the various primorial Infinity Stones that crop up in the movies from time to time.
Anyway, sit back and enjoy it. I did.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Rogers email's new terms of service eliciting many oaths

Rogers email users in Canada are being subjected to a full court press aimed at getting them to hand over email addresses and other personal information of their friends and neighbours so that they can be inundated with yet more advertising.
Rogers has for years outsourced its email service to Yahoo, which after a series of take-overs and mergers is now part of a Verizon/AOL media brand called Oath. In an unprecedented move (and a badly-timed one, given all the concern at the moment about unappropriate uses of online data), Rogers/Oath is requiring its customer base to agree to a new 27-page Terms of Service document which assumes that they have "obtained the consent of your friends and contacts to provide their personal information (for example: their email address or telephone number) to Oath or a third party", so that they can "send messages on your behalf to make the services available to your friends and contacts". So, broadly speaking, Rogers is saying that, if you want to continue as a Rogers customer, you need to hand over all your friends' contact information, so that they (or "third parties") can advertise their wares to them.
Another contentious clause in the new ToS allows Oath to "analyze" users' emails, photos and attachments with a view to delivering, personalizing and developing "relevant features, content, advertising and services". Technically, users could opt out of this tracking-for-advertising-purposes, except that there does not seem to be any obvious way to do this.
Unsurprisingly, many people are up in arms about all of this - there are certainly a good many oaths being bandied around online right now - and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has promised to look into it. An Oath spokesperson, in typical corporate Doublespeak, maintains that it is all meant to increase transparency and user control. Another way of looking at it, though, is that Rogers, and Oath, have its customers' balls in a vice.

Smelling salts use popular among hockey players

Well, who knew? Apparently a lot of professional hockey players regularly take a hit of good old-fashioned smelling salts before a game, to get them well and truly woken up and ready to go.
Smelling salts are basically ammonia, with a few other minor added ingredients, and are traditionally most often applied to someone who has fainted or been knocked out, in order to bring them round. I remember having some in our medicine cabinet when I was a kid. The sharp head-snapping feeling has, however, been used as a quick "adrenaline hit" among the already-awake as far back as Roman times. Nowadays, you can buy handy single-dose snap-to-open capsules from Amazon for $5.99.
The practice is apparently particularly popular among some of the younger NHL players, and some may take a dose before the start of each period. Even some hoary old team coaches take it before a game. And, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), it is both safe and non-performance-enhancing, and it does not appear on the List of Prohibired Substances and Methods for the purposes of international sports competitions.
But there's the rub: it does not enhance performance in any way, so all those hockey players are just kidding themselves that it is helping their game in some way. Still, given that it is medically harmless (or at least not yet proven medically harmful - personally, I would be very surprised if repeated use did not have some kind of deleterious effect on the body, or at least on the nose), I say: knock yourself out!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Looks like we are stuck with inter-provincial trade restrictions

New Brunswicker Gérard Comeau is something of a folk hero for many Canadians. Mr. Comeau was fined $292 some six years ago for crossing the border from Quebec with 14 cases of beer and 3 bottles of spirits. Like many of us, he thought the rules on the inter-provincial movement of alcohol were ridiculous and probably even unconstitutional. Unlike most of us, though, Mr. Comeau was willing to stick up for what he saw as his rights by taking his case to the New Brunswick Provincial Court, where he won. When the case hit the Supreme Court of Canada this week, though, that decision was overruled, and many of us still don't really understand why.
S.121 of the Canadian Constitution clearly states that goods moving from one province to another must be "admitted free", i.e. the country is effectively just one big free trade zone. That seems pretty clear and unequivocal, but the Supreme Court - probably worried about the political, economic and legal fallout from admitting that - ruled that the phrase is "ambiguous" (how, exactly?), and that it must be interpreted in light of the "principle of federalism", which allows for the reflection of regional diversity and local concerns. That would mean that the country is not a free trade zone at all, and is therefore subject to all the ridiculous restrictions on the movement of crops, livestock, cigarettes, alcohol, etc, etc, that we are currently saddled with. The way the Court gets around what is clearly the letter of the law is by saying that, although a province cannot set out to impose trade barriers, it can regulate the movement of goods for a different purpose, which may just look like a trade barrier. Calling it by its real name, this is in fact protectionism, something we are supposed to be against in this country, inter-provincial protectionism by means of what is known in trade policy circles as "disguised barriers to trade".
Some are describing the decision as a "classic Canadian compromise", and are lauding it for its function in stymying inter-provincial cigarette and medications smuggling, and preventing the transportation of other hazardous materials across provincial borders. Others see it as a victory for government monopolies at the expense of the man and woman in the street. Me, I'm more of that mind, and see it as a woolly and mealy-mouthed decision, designed to merely protect the status quo and not the interests of the Canadian citizens. I'm sure that Gérard Comeau is not pleased either.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Swaziland is now eSwatini - plus ça change

Well, this doesn't happen too often. À propos of nothing at all, King Mswati III of Swaziland has decided to change the country's name to the Kingdom of eSwatini, which means "land of the Swazis", i.e. Swaziland.
The new name - which, to me, has unfortunate resonances of e-cigarettes or iPhones - is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Swazi independence, as well as the king's own 50th birthday. The name change doesn't actually change much of substance, though, and the tiny country is still dirt poor and failing, still beset by the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection, and still basically surrounded by South Africa.
The colourful King Mswati, also known as as "Ngwenyama" (or "The Lion"), is one of the few absolute monarchs left in the world, and his profligate spending ways and 15 wives (his father, the long-reigning King Sobhuza II, was reputed to have had 125 wives) has led to many popular protests. This latest distraction from the pressing need for economic reform will not have helped his case.

3G Capital's ravenous appetite for profit is killing Tim Hortons

Yet more articles are surfacing about how Brazilian company 3G Capital's rigid cost-cutting and profit-maximizing regime is gutting businesses like Tim Hortons and Kraft Heinz, which have spent decades building up their brands only to be bought up by the Brazilian investment company, which cares little or nothing about employees, franchise loyalty or brand reputation.
Tim Hortons probably will (and probably should) become an important university economics case study. Once one of the defining brands of Canada, the popular and successful coffee-and-donuts chain was first merged with Burger King under the ownership of Restaurant Brands International (the start of its downward slide), which was then in turn gobbled up by 3G Capital. 3G's capitalism-on-steroids business model stresses short-term profit maximization through stringent and drastic cost-cutting. This is not just an exercise in trimming excess fat; this is an obsessive paring back of all the things that make a family franchise operation like Tim Hortons tick. So it's probably not a big surprise that the company's stocks (like those of Kraft Heinz) are fading fast, or that, as previously reported, the once powerful name and reputation of Tim Hortons is curently sinking without trace.
3G, however, probably doesn't care that much, and will just offload any investments that no longer meet their profit requirements. They certainly don't care about a company's loss of national icon status, nor the plight of the franchisees who have spent years or even decades building up their businesses, nor for that matter whether the company is still in existence in 50 or even 10 years time. This is the ugly face of rampant globalized capitalism.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The story of Onan: more dubious moral advice from the Bible

My bathroom calendar's word of the day today is "onanism" and, while I knew that it means masturbation and that its etymology is based on some guy in the Bible named Onan, I got to wondering what on earth the Bible was doing discussing masturbation. A little research on Wikipedia reveals that, perhaps predictably, the Bible was not actually offering useful practical advice for teenage boys, but the usual mish-mash of anachronistic mixed messages.
It turns out that Onan was the younger brother of Er, and second son of Judah (patriach of the land of Judea, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel). When Er was summarily killed by God because "he was wicked in the sight of the Lord", as happens a lot in the Bible, father Judah called on Onan to fulfill his duty by taking his older brother's place with his wife, Tamar, and impregnating her in order to carry on the family line (this is sometimes referred to as a "levirate marriage", and yet another reason why we should not be taking the Bible seriously in the 21st Century).
It seems like Onan was nearly as outraged as we might be with this idea (and as Tamar probably was too, had anyone bothered to ask her). But, unwilling to give up the chance of a good screw, he went along with that part of the plan at least. However, for reasons that are not really clear (but may be something to do with the fact that any child of such a union would be considered his brother Er's under this kind of weird levirate marriage), he decided to withdraw before orgasm and, in that inimitable Biblical phrase, "spilled his seed on the ground".
Thereupon, God did his smiting thing again and Onan was toast, leaving somewhat vague exactly what it was Onan did that was evil: whether it was the having sex with his sister-in-law (probably not, that kind of thing happens all the time in the wonderful world of the Bible), the disobeying of his psychotic father and the contravention of the bizarre rules of levirate marriages (that was probably the lesson that ancient Jews would have taken away, although smiting still seems a little harsh), or the spilling of the seed and the criminal "wasting" of Onan's procreative juices.
This latter view was the one that the early Christian commentators decided was the best interpretation to suit their own prurient agenda. The Catholic church went on to use the story as a cautionary tale against any kind of contracepted or non-procreational sex (e.g. coitus interruptus, anal sex, whips and bondage), and the Protestants of the 16th and 17th Century later extended this to include masturbation. Well, why wouldn't they?
So, as you can see, the connection between Onan and masturbation is tenuous at best, but that is just what onanisn came to mean when it was introduced into the English language in the Protestant-dominated early 18th Century. What it really calls for, though, based on the original story, is for us to schtup our brother's wife if he doesn't get around to it himself - more invaluable moral guidance for the modern age from the good old Bible.

Yes, Virginia, it does snow in Toronto every April

The spring ice-storm in Toronto - two days of ice pellets, freezing rain and raging winds - took everyone by surprise. But to call it unprecedented, as many have, is a stretch.
As I tell people every year - just call me Eeyore - when a bit of warm spring-like weather in March gets them all excited, it pretty much always snows at some point in April ("April is the cruellest month...", yada, yada). We just conveniently forget that each year.
And, just to make sure I'm not talking through my hat, I looked it up. Sure enough, weather stats from Environment and Climate Change Canada confirm that every April for at least the last 10 years has seen some snow in Toronto, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (April 2016 was the snowiest month of the whole winter, but that WAS admittedly unusual).
So, I hate to say "I told you so!", but...

Monday, April 16, 2018

These Hindu nationalists are every bit as bad as Muslim extremists

What really shocks, though, is not just the thought of an eight-year old Muslim girl (her name was Asifa, and she was an illiterate nomadic shepherd) being repeatedly raped, mutilated and ultimately killed by a group of eight Hindu men over a period of days. What really shocks is the reports of the Hindu lawyers who tried to impede the arrest of the suspects and to stop the case being brought to trial, and of the right-wing Hindu nationalists (including two ministers from Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party) who protested and rioted over the arrests. And then the accused have the audacity to plead "not guilty", which has led to a boiling over of righteous public anger over the case.
And, yes, I note the religion of these people advisedly. The crime took place in a Muslim-majority region of a Hindu-majority country, and religion is very much at issue in this case. One of the eight suspects is a Hindu priest, and the girl was dragged to a temple in the woods, where the atrocities were carried out. In case you still associate Hinduism with peace-loving hippies, levitating sadhus, cool blue avatars, and wacky multiple-handed elephant-headed gods, this is the modern face of Hindu nationalism, and it is neither cool nor pretty.
I find it quite literally impossible to imagine what can have been going though theses men's minds as they were committing this heinous crime, which was, remember, premeditated and protracted, not a spur-of-the-moment crime passionel. Were they thinking, "Well, this is a good time!"? Were they thinking, "Oh, this is so wrong on so many different levels, but if I don't join in, what will my buddies think?" And how can it possibly be socially, let alone legally, acceptable in this day and age for anyone to support and protect such people.
The thought that groups of people can so bury their decency and humanity as to commit (or condone) horrific crimes of this nature, and all in the name of a so-called religion, just strains credulity. And please note that it is not Muslims, not ISIS or Al-Qaeda, committing the barbarity here. But the common link is - go figure! - religion.

This particular crime seems to have incensed middle-class Indians more than any of the many other similar occurrences, leading to candle-lit vigils and a #JusticeForAsifa hashtag. Finally, even the government has seen fit to take some action: India's Cabinet has approved the use of the death penalty for child rapists, puting it in the same category as a number of other serious crimes that already carry the death penalty in India.
But this is not really what most people are asking for. The death penalty has its own drawbacks, of course. What is needed is for child rapes - which appears to be increasingly common in the country (54 children EACH DAY are raped) - to be taken seriously and prosecuted, along with other rapes and sexual assaults in general. What is needed is to change the whole culture in India, particularly in rural India, that allows such crimes to take place in the first place. How the crimes are actually punished, once prosecuted, is a secondary matter.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Doug Ford's populist bluster eerily reminiscent of Trump's

If you thought, or hoped, that Doug Ford might have learned little restraint and circumspection from his years in the desert out of politics, his recent announcements should have brought you thumping back to earth.
It looks like the approach of the recently-elected leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party will continue in the vein of what might best be described as "populist bluster". Clearly, he has seen the success this approach has yielded south of the border, without learning the lessons of the havoc that Trump's actions are wreaking on his country and his political system.
Take his latest outburst, for example. Ford vows that, if elected Premier in the Ontario provincial elections this June, his very first action will be to fire Mayo Schmidt, the CEO of Ontario electricity utility Hydro One. Now, Schmidt is admittedly overpaid, and Hydro One have admittedly often been less than efficient in their decision-making over the years. But summarily firing Schmidt - whom Ford refers to in an eerily Trump-esque manner as "Kathleen Wynne's six-million dollar man" - is a rather puerile and deliberately dramatic response. And, unfortunately, as even his own aides admit, the Premier does not even have that ability, as the province no longer has a majority shareholding.
Similarly, Ford's easy populist message that a Conservative government would cancel the province's current cap-and-trade system and refuse to participate in any carbon tax would, even if you agreed with it in principle, be extremely difficult and inadvisable, and open the province up to any number of unforeseen costs and legal challenges that the simplistic message chooses not to address.
But these kinds of details will not worry Ford. The point of a populist message is to ramp up the outrage of the unwashed and less-educated masses against the "elites" (Ford may not be a billionaire like Trump, but he is at least a millionaire business owner, and thus an elite in most people's eyes, were they to think about it).
Still, this kind of bluster has served Ford well enough thus far in the absence of solid policies, and has got him elected PC leader, and positioned him as favourite in the election race against the terminally unpopular Wynne. The parallels with Trump's 2016 campaign are all too troubling, but populism is designed to appeal to knee-jerk social conservatives who don't like to trouble themselves by thinking too deeply about issues and consequences.

Isn't bombing chemical weapons sites a tad dangerous

With the latest bombing of Syrian chemical weapons site by the US, UK and France, in retaliation against the recent Syrian use of said weapons in its civil war, it occurred to me to wonder whether it's not a bit risky dropping bombs on places where dangerous chemical weapons are stored? Is there not a risk of spreading harmful air-borne chemical across the whole country (and beyond)?
I found it difficult to find a good answer to this, but the best one seems to be in The Guardian, which suggests that the risk is probably less than I had feared. Of course, there is always the minor risk of setting off World War Three, but the American strikes seem to have been specifically designed to avoid any Russian or Iranian troops in the area, and the action came as a surprise to no-one after careful and transparent preparations. So far at least, a Russian retaliatory response seems to be unlikely (at least in conventional military terms, although you can probably expect some covert cyber-warfare to ramp up). Another constant worry in these matters is that a small miscalculation could also lead to substantial civilian casualties, and this too seems to been avoided thus far.
But in terms of the chemical weapons themselves, it seems that these things are almost always stored in "binary form", i.e. the chemicals are kept separately and only become volatile and dangerous when combined. According to chemical weapons experts, "a small stockpile of materials for chemical weapons held in binary form probably wouldn't cause a huge hazard if bombed". The modifying words "small", "probably" and huge" still give me pause for thought, and it still seems to me that bombing the place could easily achieve that very chemical combination, or at least something similar. However, other "experts" state unequivocally that, "The best way to destroy chemical weapons is to blow them up".
Well, there you go, the experts have spoken. Feel any better?
Of course, the practical effects and usefulness of these strikes is unknown and unlikely to be significant in the scheme of things - it is more a way for the Americans to take the moral high-ground with the Russians, whatever else they may claim - but that is a whole other matter for discussion. And, as per usual, Mr. Trump's actions on the international are less about Syria than they are about, well, Mr. Trump.

Friday, April 13, 2018

So maybe the Chagall doesn't need to be sold after all

The Canadian art world is all a-flutter over the news - apparently agreed as long ago as last June but only lately brought to the public consciousness by Christie's New York's recent promotional blitz - that the National Gallery of Canada is to sell off a Marc Chagall oil painting and a few other "ancient artifacts" in order to purchase (and thereby keep in Canada) an unknown work, described rather mysteriously as a "national treasure".
Well, it turns out that the unknown work is almost certainly Jérôme entendant les trompetes du jugement dernier by the 18th Century French painter Jacques-Louis David, which has been owned by the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec since 1938 (and has been in Quebec since the late 19th century), and which is currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). It seems that the parish is currently in dire need of money to renovate two old churches, and plans to sell the painting to fund it.
Now, whether the David work is any more of a "national treasure" than Chagall's 1929 La Tour Eiffel - which originally cost the gallery $16,000, and is expected to sell for $8 to $11 million or even more; the David painting is valued at around the same ball-park figure  - is an open question. Most people seem pretty sure which painting they would prefer to have hanging on their walls - the bright, fun Chagall, or the gloomy, depressing David - but that is not the point here. The National Gallery say they have another "better" Chagall anyway, which is why this one has spent so long languishing in the gallery's dungeons/archives. The plan is certainly contentious, though: the head of the Canadian branch of the International Association of Art Critics has called it an act of "monumental stupidity", although the eight art history PhDs who advised the gallery were apparently unanimous in recommending its sale.
However, now it comes out that the David painting is actually in no danger of leaving the country after all. According to Nathalie Bondil, the director of MMFA, "It would not be sold abroad, it's protected heritage", and anyway the MMFA and Quebec City's Musée de la Civilisation are teaming up to buy the painting without the National Gallery's help! It sounds like some people are not talking to each other.

The National Gallery still insists that it intends to sell the Chagall in order to buy the David, even though all of the above has now come out in public, and there is no longer any need to do so. It has become bizarre and embarrassing.
There is also a lot of claptrap being talked about the issue, from both sides.
A spokesperson for the Musée de la civilisation claims, "It's part of the cultural and social fabric of Quebec City and of Quebec ... This painting speaks to us as much, if not more, of Quebec civilization as of European fine arts." Claptrap. It's a French painting with absolutely no Canadian connection other than a financial one.
The director of the National Gallery, for his part, blusters, "It's going to Ottawa, for heaven's sake. I don't really understand what the big deal is." Claptrap. The big deal is up to $10 million of public money, and the fact that he is the one making a relatively small deal into a big one.
I can just see Ottawa and Quebec bidding against each other for the David painting in a bidding war. God, the cut and thrust of the art world! Ridiculous!

After weeks of controversy and outrage, the National Gallery has finally agreed not to sell the Chagall, apparently worried about "its international reputation and its standing in the arts community" (a bit late for that).
Now, maybe they might even consider exhibiting the painting, or at least letting sone other gallery exhibit it. It seems ridiculous that a well-known work by a top-flight painter is languishing in an archive basement somewhere.

Adding insult to unjury in some ways, an anonymous donor, rumoured to be BC realtor and arts sponsor Michael Audain, has agreed to cover the National Gallery's substantial but undisclosed fines for cancelling the Christie's Chagall auction.
The National Gallery is calling the donation "philanthropy at its best", but what is really happening is that someone is effectively covering up the Gallery's, and in particular its director's, errors. No new art has been created or displayed as a result of the big money that is changing hands. Just think what a multitude of other arts organizations could have done with that kind of money.

Trans Mountain pipeline - between a rock and a hard place

The stand-off continues between Alberta and British Columbia over the proposed $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline extension - "extension" because it actually just parallels an existing pipeline an adds new capacity to it - which is to be built between the Alberta oil sands and the BC coast by Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd (which, despite its name, is 70% owned by a Texas company).
Alberta's NDP government (as well as the opposition Conservatives, for that matter) is strongly in favour of the pipeline, going so far as to suggest that its building will make or break the province's oil-based economy (this despite the fact that its economy is actually doing pretty well after the big hits it took in the last few years as the price oil plummeted). It is even willing to go out on a limb and buy up the whole project if need be.
British Columbia, under its relatively new NDP/Green government, objects to the project just as strongly on environmental grounds, claiming that the increased shipping traffic would threaten the pristine and ecologically-sensitive coastline of northern British Columbia (and, having been there quite recently, I do have some sympathy for that view). But, while BC always talks a good environmental game, critics point out that its environmental record is not quite as spotless as they might like us to think, pointing to, for example, its controversial push towards liquefied natural gas (LNG) production, anyd the province's horrible stats on untreated sewage pollution (by far the worst in Canada), and the toxic mess remaining from around 1,800 abandoned mines in BC. Others maintain that introducing these considerations is a political red herring, and that the comparisons are nothing like equivalent. And what about the people of British Columbia? Well, it turns out that a majority of British Columbians are actually in favour of the Trans Mountain project!
Anyway, the inter-provincial spat has led to some pretty nasty exchanges, with BC threatening to bar exports of its wine to Alberta (oooh!), and Alberta threatening to impose punitive levies on, or even halt completely, its BC-bound oil and other related products, and calling on the feds to disallow some of BC's transfer payments. And BC in return is threatening to sue Alberta if it carries through its threat to choke off inter-provincial oil shipments. And so on and so forth.
And, parallel to all this, is the fact that, after long years of economic and environmental assessments, the National Energy Board and the federal government of Justin Trudeau has ruled that the project meets Canadian environmental standards and is in the national interests of the country, (although many opponents argue that the Harper-era environmental assessment was insufficient, and that there was insufficient public consultation, particularly with First Nations groups). Kinder Morgan has been issued with a whole slew of strict environmental safeguards they need to build in to the project, but they have essentially already been given the go-ahead by the federal government. Given that this is a project that crosses provincial boundaries, and therefore comes under federal jurisdiction, that should really be the end of it. And Canadian case law is clear that, where provincial or municipal laws conflict with federal law, federal law prevails: provincial or municipal laws can not apply if they would impair federal jurisdiction.
Trudeau has gone on record many times to say that the project is indeed in the national interests, that the rule of law will be upheld, and that the pipeline WILL get built, come what may, although he may have to squander some political capital in BC in order to force the issue. Many contend, though, that Trudeau has dropped the ball on this issue, and should have jumped on it weeks ago, although he is admittedly in an almost impossible position. And now, Trudeau is to set off on an official and long-planned 9-day overseas tour, which is certainly unfortunate timing given that this is turning into a full-blown constitutional crisis, although he does apparently plan on breaking up his trip in order to attend a summit with Alberta and BC on the Trans Mountain issue.
But now, at what might be described as the 11th hour, BC premier John Horgan is looking to extend the process by going to the courts yet again, asking for "clarification" as to whether he can legally pursue the matter further. Kinder Morgan, for their part, have brought things to a head, saying that they are fed up with all the delays, and have issued an ultimatum to the effect that, if all the regulatory obstacles are not removed by the end of May then they will just pull out completely, regardless of the millions they have spent to date, i.e. they will take their ball, and go home to Texas.
Personally, I am torn. I don't like the environmental challenges the project raises, nor the fact that it perpetuates Alberta's dirty, carbon-heavy oil sands production. But, on the other hand, whether you like the federal position or not, "rules is rules" as they say, and this is essentially a federal decision after all. A couple of decades ago, I might have relished the prospect of some civil disobedience in the interests of environmental protection; these days, in my dotage, I tend to see the value of democratically-voted rules and laws.
Plus, this kind of wishy-washiness on economic decision-making at a national level gives a bad impression of whether or not Canada is really open for business, whether it is in fact a safe country to invest in, an impression we can ill-afford to broadcast. It seems to me that the horse has already bolted and, this time at least, we need to hold our noses and live with it. Maybe we should be focussing our efforts on reducing our reliance on, and demand for, oil and its derivatives, and not tinkering with the supply parameters.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Does Facebook record our conversations? It records everything else

With all the outrage and soul-searching over Facebook's data-mining practices going on at the moment, there has also been a resurgence of some of the other conspiracy theories that have been dogging the service for some years now.
One of these is the idea that Facebook (possibly along with other other social media/internet platforms like Google and Uber) is listening in to, and even recording, our conversations and phone calls, and using them to target its advertising. There are endless anecdotes out there of specific verbal convsersations - at the water cooler, at home, in the supermarket - triggering Facebook ads, despite there being no other way for the service to have gleaned the person's interest in a subject. So, for example, ads about adopting cats suddenly appear after a single offline conversation with a friend on the subject. It's spooky and it's inexplicable.
Apparently, Facebook does have the ability to record conversations (even if it requires specific preference settings), and its voice recognition software, while not infallible, is probably adequate to be able to identify conversation subjects. But Facebook has repeatedly and publicly denied using such a facility for advertising purposes, and some commentators argue that it would just not be efficient and cost-effective for it to do so.
How, then, to explain the many anecdotal examples that seem to indicate that Facebook is recording, or at least listening to our conversations, either through a computer microphone or, more likely, a cellphone? The usual argument is that it has accumulated so much data about our preference, tastes and movements that it just doesn't NEED to listen to us, and it can target ads with such accuracy that it knows the kinds of things we are likely top talk about. So, when we do actually talk about them, we tend to notice the timely advertising (which would have appeared anyway, whether or not we had that conversation).
The other thing I found out recently, which kind of blew me away, is that Facebook apparently records the keystrokes of posts and messages that we never send, and adds that to its ongoing database of information about us, which strikes me as a bit underhand and unfair somehow.
Well, the jury is still out on the extent to which Facebook spies and pries, but the very idea of a computer program that knows us that intimately is a scary thing in itself. Personally, I haven't used Facebook for over 10 years, and even then only sporadically and for specific purposes, so I never really became hooked. I am now considering myself as way ahead of the #DeleteFacebook curve.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Cryptocurrencies as a trendy meme with no other redeeming features

As the trendy Drake General Store makes a big song and dance about their decision to start accepting Bunz's new cryptocurrency BTZ, I realize that I still don't understand the point of cryptocurrencies.
I think I have a reasonable grasp on what a cryptocurrency is and how it works (which is probably more than many). I even understand why people might want to use it as a speculative investment (although that's not to say that I approve or recommend it). But why would a store, for example, want to get into using it for day-to-day transactions, when it's really not that user-friendly or convenient?
People may say, well, security, duh. But I don't see our current financial system - cash, credit cards - as being particularly insecure. Sure, there is the odd fraudulent transaction, and even long-term scams and other fraudulent schemes, although that is more a result of online fraud than a fault of credit cards per se. And, given the billions of transactions going through each day, the incidence of such errors is truly miniscule. Plus, whatever proponents may say, cryptocurrency transactions will also be hacked one day soon - it's just the way of the world.
Speed? Just how fast do you want your supermarket VISA payment to go through? Isn't it actually rather nice not to have to pay for a credit card transaction until a month later?
So, no, I just don't get it. Unless, maybe it's something to do with FOMO, wanting to jump on the bandwagon, wanting to appear hip and trendy. Surely, it couldn't just be that, could it?

No, a third of Americans probably don't believe in a flat earth, but 2% do

A recent YouGov poll reveals that as many as 2% of Americans believe that the Earth is flat, and, perhaps even more troubling, 4% of 18-24 year olds believe it.
This is embarrassing enough, although nothing like as bad as some of the headlines that have been drawn from this study. For instance, Forbes blares out "Only two-thirds of American millennials believe the earth is round", suggesting that fully a third of young people in the USA think that the earth is in fact flat, and a UNILAD headline comes straight out and says just that. But this is a rather misleading and incendiary reading of the poll results, due to the way the question was phrased. In fact, the poll details show that fully 30% of 18-24 year olds are either unsure or have doubts one way or the other, and only 4% actively believe in a flat earth. And even that presupposes that they took the poll seriously.
But, hell, 4% (and 2% overall) is bad enough! And there is some evidence that the belief is increasing. What are they thinking? Well, what they are mainly thinking is religion. Over half of the flat earth respondents in the YouGov poll claim to be "very religious" (as compared to about 20% in the general US population) and take their cues from the Bible, which was written about 2,000 years ago when cosmology was not a hot subject at university, and which merely happens not to mention that the world might be a sphere.
  • The horizon always appears perfectly flat, except in NASA's clearly faked pictures.
  • You never have to look down to see the horizon, no matter how much you rise.
  • If the earth was really a sphere hurtling through space, the water on earth would be wobbling and splashing all over, rather than flat and still as it often is.
  • If the earth was spherical, long rivers would have to travel uphill round the curve of the globe.
  • If the earth was a spinning globe, a helicopter hovering in place would see the land moving below it.
  • Likewise, airline pilots would constantly have to adjust their elevation and direction to avoid shooting off into space, and would be constantly battling 500mph headwinds due to the earth's spin.
  • If the world is spinning, then a bullet fired directly upwards in the air should land miles to the west, not back in the same place.

Friday, April 06, 2018

US "qualified immunity" ruling is just storing up trouble for the future

In a court case which is really not going to help racial relations in America, the Supreme Court has effectively upheld the right of police to shoot first and ask questions later.
The court has voted to dismiss a claim of excessive force brought by a survivor of a police shooting in Arizona. The case involves one of the police officers who were called to deal with a woman who was reportedly hacking at a tree with a knife, back in 2010. When the police arrived, the woman came out of her house with the knife held at her side, and did not raise the knife either towards the police officers or anyone else, although she did not respond to police commands to drop it (it is not clear whether she even heard these commands). Police body cameras clearly show that she was not behaving erratically and not verbally or physically threatening anybody. No crime was reported, and the woman was not actually charged with any offense. Nevertheless, one of the three officers saw fit to open fire no less than four times, severely injuring but not killing the woman.
After recovering, the woman brought an excessive force suit against the officer who shot her, but a majority of the judges have now ruled that police officers are entitled to immunity in such circumstances unless previous cases tell them that a specific use of force is unlawful, a situation known in the trade as "qualified immunity".
This is a remarkably mealy-mouthed and unhelpful ruling, and appears specifically designed to bury this particular case without providing any useful precedent for the future. The judgement is described as unsigned and did not come with a full briefing and oral argument, which usually means that the voting was not even close. However, two of the judges, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor (both female and Democrats, go figure), have come out publicly saying that the ruling is a troubling one and that justice has not been well served by it.
As far as I know, the woman was white, as was the offending police officer. But you can see how this will play out with Black Lives Matter supporters, coming as it does amid a flurry of police shootings of unarmed black people.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

China Miéville's Iron Council is new weird fiction - in a good way

I have been enjoying China Miéville's 2004 book, Iron Council, and have belatedly discovered that it is part of a whole sub-genre I never knew existed.
It is actually the third book in a loosely-linked trilogy, after Perdido Street Station and The Scar, all of which take place in the Bas-Lag planet or universe, and particularly in and around the main metropolis, the sprawling, seedy, industrial city of New Crobuzon. I won't even attempt to go into the book's plot, which is many-stranded and involves, among other things: revolutionary underground cells in a cloak-and-dagger faction-against-faction conflict ; a "perpetual train" that cannibalizes the rails behind it to make the rails in front, and that is hijacked and absconded with by the railway construction workers (the "Iron Council" of the title); and a shadowy and seemingly endless inter-species war. Suffice to say there is plenty of it (both plot and war), and the political machinations called into play are complex and confusing.
What I was most intrigued with, though, was the imagination used to create the various strange types of beings and environments to be found in Bas-Lag. The general technology and "vibe" of the place is an interesting mix of Victorian-esque steampunk and a vaguely sciencey kind of magic, known there as thaumaturgy. Familiarity and strangeness, cheek by jowl. But the planet is populated by many different species of beings, both intelligent and otherwise, as well as a potentially limitless number of one-off hybrid beings created and enslaved by means of thaumaturgy.
As well as the regular essentially human-esque beings, there are many races of :xenians": the cactacae (large, powerful cactus-men), the vodyanoi (playful amphibious water-dwellers), the garuda (vulture-like nomadic flying beings), the Stiltspear (indescribable beings who have the ability to create "living" golems out of inanimate materials), inchmen (huge, aggressive caterpillars with humanoid torsos), the handlingers (a parasitic hand-like being which incorporates a dead human as its host), the matriarchal, downtrodden and scarab-headed khepri, the semi-intelligent rat-like wyremen, the mysterious and graceful borinatch, and many more.
Perhaps most bizarre of all, though, are the Remade, humans (or other species) that have been thaumaturgically changed or mutated as a punishment, before being used essentially as slaves (part of the plot revolves around the freeing of these beings, and the establishment of rights for them). This results in some bizarre and frightening invented beings, like men with their heads facing backwards, or with insect legs or crab claws or baby's arms protruding from their faces, composite animal-men beings, men fused with machines or with metal tubes or steam engines as body parts, etc. The ideas range from the whimsical to the ridiculous to the disturbing to the poignant, and are often wildliy inventive.
Likewise with some of the settings for the action. Some scenes are set in distinctly Earth-like and mundane places (although from time to time there may be a mention of a passing giant insect or glowing trees, just to jolt us out of anything approaching a comfort zone). Others, though, are exercises in extreme imagination reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, and remind us that we are most definitely not still in Kansas. For example, there are landscapes like the smokestone mountains, an ever-changing region where smoke billows out at random and then almost immediately hardens into rock, and particularly the mysterious and sinister expanse known as the Cacotopic Stain, where an unexplained magical force called The Torque causes random dimensional shifts and physical mutations (what Miéville calls at one point "spliced impossibilities"). It is a place where the normal laws of physics break down, where the ground pitches and yaws unexpectedly, where shadows do not lie in the same plane, and where colours pop and cycle at random. Some of Miéville's ideas here are quite startling.
And speaking of Michael Moorcock, it seems that both he and Miéville are classed as major authors of "weird fiction", a genre I had never even heard if before. Weird fiction is not just horror or fantasy, but encompasses the more macabre, grotesque, supernatural, fantastical, mythical and sometimes even pseudo-scientific stories of authors ranging from H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Mervyn Peake to the aforementioned Moorcock to the so-called New Weird, a sub-sub-genre which is represented by Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, M. John Harrison and others. The idea is that the genre combines elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and eschews the more romantic tendencies of many fantasy novels for more realistic, complex - but often bizarro and surreal - secondary-world settings. Interesting.

The tree-climbing goats of Morocco

And here, in an uncustomary lightness of mood for this blog, is a picture of some tree-climbing goats:
Tree-climbing goats of Morocco

Appearing like something out of a Dali picture, these Moroccan goats are apparently attracted to the fruits of the argan tree (argania spinosa), a rare and protected species grown almost exclusively in Morocco, and cultivated for the valuable argan oil that can be extracted from its seeds.
In fact, the goats (and their poop) perform a valuable function in the argan oil production process. Think about that next time you are shopping in Body Shop or the smelly section of The Bay.
There are more climbing goat photos at Atlas Obscura.

List of Canada's most reputable companies holds a few surprises

After a couple of weeks away, I am letting myself in gently with a quick item (and it's NOT about Donald Trump, who I have to say just bores me to tears now). No, it's just a comment about a small graph in the business section of the Globe and Mail today. I can hear the yawns already.
It seems like the top 10 companies by reputation in Canada in 2018 are headed up by Google (OK, fair enough), closely followed by Shoppers Drug Mart and Canadian Tire. Then follows a trio of international tech giants (Sony, Samsung and Microsoft), and then, of all things, Dollarama, and a group of international food giants (Kelloggs, Campbell and Kraft).
Perhaps the list shouldn't surprise me. It just seemed so random, though, so humdrum. Tim Hortons, that great Canadian icon, is currently languishing (and this is the point of the article) back at No. 50.
Maybe even more surprising is a second graph showing the reputation rankings according to 18 to 25 year olds, which is, well, pretty much the same. Microsoft does better (yes, boring staid old Microsoft), Canadian Tire a bit worse, and, yes, Netflix and Amazon make an appearance in the top 10, as does Canada Post, believe it or not. And Dollarama does even better, up at No. 4 (what's that about?) So, no Apple, no Nike, no young trendy edgy companies I have never heard of.
It seems like a victory for the middle-of-the-road and the safe status quo, and possibly an indictment of Canadian youth. It suggests that we are more likely to hit Dollarama than Tim Hortons for a good time. And, crucially, I would have thought, it probably has nothing to do with the amount companies spent on advertising.