Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Meditation is not a cure-all and may even be harmful

Meditation is one of those trending ideas whose time has seemingly come. It is often touted as a cure-all for pretty much everything, from sleeplessness to Parkinson's to heart attacks. At the very least, it is peddled as a what-do-you-have-to-lose solution, an it-can't-do-any-harm option.
Well, apparently meditation can indeed be harmful. Apparently, there is such a thing as "meditation anxiety" and even "meditation paranoia". Some people who are not completely well-adjusted mentally - i.e. the kinds of people who typically seek out meditation as a solution to their own mental issues - can even experience suicidal ideation after meditation, and more than one person has committed suicide as a specific result of a meditation course.
Many more people, who go into meditation and mindfulness courses expecting the moon and who don't experience nirvana on Week 4, blame themselves for their lack of success, leading to more feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. The truth is, it is not for everyone, and even those for whom it may be beneficial need to be careful to choose the right kind of course for themselves (yes, there are different types of meditation). There are also, of course, good teachers and bad teachers out there.
A study by Brown's University last year showed that meditators often experience - in addition to any positive effects - feelings of fear, anxiety, panic and paranoia, and meditation teachers admit that this is a common response and only to be expected. An older study concluded that almost two-thirds of meditation students experienced negative side-effects, including anxiety, confusion and disorientation.
This is not something you get told when you sign up for a course at your local community centre or gym, and meditation teachers are typically not trained health-care workers, and are not able either to spot or to deal with any mental issues that might occur. This is especially important given that the kind of people who are drawn to experimenting with meditation and mindfulness techniques are often already experiencing some mental challenges.
I suppose we should have more sense than to expect ANYTHING to be a cure-all, but it does seem like meditation maybe needs more of a health warning than most people think.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Corporate taxes do not affect economic growth, and the sky will not fall with an NDP government

The so-called business "community" tends to take it as an article of faith that lower corporate taxes are a good thing and will help grow the economy, and many business writers take an almost reflex sky-is-falling attitude to any talk of a possible NDP "socialist" government. Well, there is a distinct possibility of an NDP government in Ontario very soon and, predictably enough, yet another such article appeared in the Report on Business section of the Globe today.
But, as articles of faith so often are, such beliefs are built on very shaky empirical evidence. While economic theory - with all its various assumptions and simplifications - may suggest that lower corporate taxes should lead to companies investing more in their businesses, increased wages for workers, lower costs for consumers, and all sorts of other good things, in the real world the extra cash is actually more likely to end up lining the pockets of already-wealthy shareholders. Various real-world studies have tried to follow the effects of corporate tax rates, and have come to the conclusion that they actually have very little effect on companies performances and on the economy in general.
Just this year, the prestigious Kellogg School if Management published a study suggesting that lowering corporate tax rates only spurs the economy when those rates are extremely high, and by "rates" they mean the effective rates rather than the official posted rate (just before Donald Trump's much ballyhooed recent tax cuts, the official US rate was an ostensibly high 35%, but with the various rebates and discounts available, the effective rate was actually typically below 20%). In general, though, the study concludes that history shows no strong link between corporate tax rates and economic growth.
Several other studies, including ones by the Institute for Policy Studies, New York University and Cornell University, have come to broadly similar conclusions.
Given all this, and bearing in mind that this is a 2018 NDP with a very centrist, non-radical platform, not dissimilar to that of the Liberals, but very different (and less radical) than that of the Progressive Conservatives, then I would have thought that the hordes of Ontarians who are, reasonably enough, looking for a change from Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals would be much safer parking their votes with the NDP. The sky is very unlikely to fall.

Friday, May 25, 2018

National security should not be (mis)used as an economic argument

"National security" has been used as a kind of get-out-of-jail card for many different reasons and by a variety of different regimes over the centuries. Most recently, it is the excuse du jour for national economic policies.
Donald Trump's trade team is threatening to use the national security argument to justify a 25% import duty on automobiles entering the country. Now, either there is a national security threat from the cars (in what way, exactly?) and they should be barred from entering the country, period, or there is not. But it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the threat miraculously disappears if the overseas companies pay an extra 25% duty. Then again, we are long past expecting logic and consistency from the Trump administration, and Trump's aims are as simple as blatant protectionism.
But the Canadians are at it too. The Canadian government has just nixed a take-over bid for Canadian construction giant Aecon Group Inc. by Chinese government-controlled conglomerate China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC). As it turns out, the Canadian company's fortunes have turned around quite significantly since they put themselves up for auction last year, and they appear quite happy to remain an jndependent Canadian company now, but CCCC won the bidding war fair and square, and Aecon's management certaibly seemed quite content to become yet another Chinese asset.
But then the Canadian government stepped in, as they have a right to do in cases where an acquisition is deemed injurious to either national security or the good of the country. The government justified the bar on the grounds of national security, which is basically the easy option because it seems to brook no argument - national security is the trump card of international negotiations (if the phrase "trump card" had not acquired an unfortunate pejorative association in this day and age), and typically it is taken as axiomatic in some way, with no need for further explanation.
Except, wait ... Aecon is a construction and engineering company. As their own CEO points out: "We are a construction company. We install things, we cut and weld things, we have no intellectual property, we have no secret information." Over the last few decades, Canada has already sold nuclear and hydroelectric power stations and high-speed transportation to China. There are really no state secrets to be lost here, and it is unlikely that China would be using CCCC to spy on Canada's roads, bridges and buildings (they could just use Google Street View...)
What Canada is really worried about, and rightly so, is increasing Chinese trade dominance and competitiveness, which could well come under the heading of a threat to the national net benefit. Certainly, Aecon's domestic competitors were extremely worried about how CCCC might affect the local market. As much as anything, we just plain distrust China, because it is non-democratic and non-transparent, and because it has a proven record of sharp and overly-aggressive business practices, and its companies oftenbenefit from unseen subsidies. But don't raise the hoary spectre of national security when it does not apply: that merely cheapens the whole argument.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Trump's North Korea summit cancellation not just "the art of the deal"

So, Donald Trump has just unilaterally cancelled the summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, which was scheduled for June 12. You know, the one that took years of careful diplomatic negotiations on the parts of many diplomats from several countries. And this just hours after North Korea upheld their end of the bargain by demolishing their nuclear test site as foreign journalists looked on.
Trump's justification is the "tremendous anger and open hostility" in the latest North Korean communiqué. What this actually amounts to is a response by a North Korean official to previous comments by US Vice President Mike Pence that North Korea "may end like Libya". So, who started this particular little spat? Who was it that decided to carry out military manoeuvres off the Korean coast a few weeks before a major peace negotiation? These people are like kids in a sandbox, and do not deserve to be let out into the grown-up world of international diplomacy.
And, of course, Trump just couldn't resist adding, "You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used." In other words, "Mine's bigger than yours! So there!"
If this is all part of Trump's plan to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - and I can believe that might well be a large part of his motivation in this whole affair - then things are not going so well. If this is part of his concept of "the art of the deal", then I can see why so many of his businesses have failed, and why he is mired in so much litigation. But we are not playing with some little tin-pot companies here; the stakes are much higher, and failure is not an option. And he must know that, if he keeps changing his mind at the drop of a hat - and this has been one of the few constants throughout his tenure - no-one will ever trust him ever again, although that does not seem to be a major concern if his.
Mainly, this is just Trump being Trump, and I would say that America deserves everything it gets from him ... if it didn't happen have such potentially catastrophic ramifications for the rest of the world.

In fact, it seems that a group of Republican governors and representatives DID nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing his "successful policy of security through strength", and his achievement in forcing North Korea to the bargaining table by effectively decimating their economy. I think they were serious, although it is hard to tell.
The Nobel Committee has responded by saying that, sorry, Trump did not win the Nobel Prize, but he did qualify for a participation trophy. I think this is serious too, although again it is hard to be sure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Voice assistants change the way internet searches work

Here's something I had never thought about. As voice-activated artificial intelligence assistants proliferate - Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, and Microsoft's Cortana, among others - and as people gettig increasingly lazy, the internet search results we deal with are changing.
Google estimates that some 20% of questions are now aimed verbally at little electronic boxes, and some commentators see this increasing dramatically over the next few years, possibly to as high as 50%. So, this is not a trivial technological change.
Most importantly, a voice assistant answers your question with a single answer (or at best a handful), as though that were the definitive and unassailable truth if the matter. On the other hand, when we type a query into Google or some other search engine (are there still other search engines?), we get a whole host of answers from which we can select the one that best suits our purposes. At the very least, we get some alternative pespectives, which might broaden our understanding of a subject, or allow us to fact-check the first answer or obtain a quick second opinion.
Very few questions - other than things of the nature of "Who won the world series in 1993?" (it was Toronto, by the way) - are so black and white that there is absolutely no alternative context that might inform it. But if this is to be increasingly the way we obtain our information, then the stakes for companies to get their response to the top of the queue increase drastically.
It becomes, therefore, a winner-takes-all game, and the importance of search engine optimization (SEO) - and the risks of fake news - go through the roof. Arguably, we are aleady at the stage where the richest companies pay more to have their version if the truth the only version that matters; voice assistants will only exacerbate that situation. Smaller companies and organizations may be faced with expensive website do-overs and SEO advice they can ill-afford, in order to get themselves.out there.
The other thing is that voice assistants will typically give a much shorter, more simplistic answer than the wealth of information that tge internet actually shares, catering to the sound-bite-driven, short-attention-span world we seem to be entering.
All in all, the more I think about it, the scarier that future starts to look.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The world is watching Ireland's abortion referendum (and its social media)

As Ireland votes on relaxing its abortion rules, social media outlets like Facebook and Google are facing their first major test of how they can control political interference in the aftermath of the ongoing allegations of vote-rigging in the 2015 Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential elections.
The Republic of Ireland votes on May 25th on whether to relax the country's stringent rules on abortions. Early polls suggested that there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of relaxing Ireland's complete ban on abortions, although more recent polls show a much tighter race.
In an effort to be seen to be proactive, and to avoid the kind of negative fallout they are still dealing with after the US election, the major social media platforms have made some dramatic policy changes: Facebook has banned political advertising around the referendum issue by any groups or individuals based outside of Ireland; Google (which of course includes YouTube) has gone even further by banning ANY referendum ads on its sites. Interestingly, the bans have been met with howls of outrage and derision from anti-abortion ("No") supporters, and nothing but cheers from supporters of the "Yes" vote, which suggests that the right wing were perhaps relying on overseas interference to propagate their message.
Volunteer groups like the Transparent Referendum Inititative are monitoring social media using, among other things, an ad-tracking app called, which was developed for the 2017 British general election, and their preliminary analysis at this stage suggests that some 13% of referendum-based advertising is in fact coming from foreign organizations, principally in the USA, Canada and Hungary, so the problem is clearly a real and substantial one. Another 9% of Facebook ads were anonymous and therefore of unknown source, which is a whole other issues all on its own, and a loophole that Facebook needs to address right now. Granted, in this age of aliases and complex re-routing strategies, it will be very difficult to police the source of advertising, but more can and should certainly be done to try.
Ireland already has some very strict laws on political advertising on traditional media - all political ads on television and radio are banned, and all foreign donations to election campaigns are prohibited - but this has not yet been extended to online advertising, an oversight that has recently started to be addressed with an inter-departmental study group (as it also has in Canada and the USA), but any action will come much too late to have effect on the up-coming abortion referendum.
And in the meantime, as the director of Ireland's Insight Centre for Data Analytics points out: "The world is watching".
As of December 13th 2018, the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill has now passed all stages of the parliamentary process, and has become the law of the land.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

US-Korea war games show they were not really serious about peace

Why would the USA and South Korea hold joint military drills when they are in the midst of delicate and important peace negotiations with North Korea? What did they think North Korea's response would be? "Oh, those boys! Aren't they cute?"
Not surprisingly, North Korea issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the military exercises in their back yard, as well they might. And this comes hard on the heels of the recent Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea, which appeared to pave the way towards a final peace treaty to officially end the Korean War, and possibly even a reunification of the peninsula (and who can forget those cute pictures of the two leaders skipping along hand in hand). And the prospective summit meeting between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump, scheduled for June 12, has probably also now gone up in flames.
Could they really not wait a bit longer to play their war games, which had already been delayed from their original schedule during the Winter Olympic Games? Oh, unless they actually don't really want to negotiate a peace treaty after all...

Doug Ford seems not to understand our electricity system

Dog-whistle populist Doug Ford has been making a big noise about the compensation of the board of the privatized Ontario electricity utility Hydro One, and particularly of its CEO Mayo Schmidt, in the run-up to the Ontario elections. He has vowed to fire Mayo as one if his first actions if elected Premier.
Ontario's electricity generation is a subject he has latched onto as a potential wedge issue in his bid to be become premier on June 7th. It is something he thinks his potential votes want to hear, and, much like Donald Trump, he doesn't really care how true his allegations are, so long as they earn him some votes. Most recently, he has vowed to cancel Ontario's cap-and-trade system (a mainstay of the province's drive to reduce carbon emissions), and even reduce the regular provincial fuel tax, a move that would cost the province billions in lost revenue, and severely curtail the money available for public transit and other essential municipal services.
Ford calls Schmidt "Kathleen Wynne's $6 Million Man", as though Wynne had anything to do with his compensation package. As of this year, Schmidt did indeed earn $6.2 million, including a base salary of over $1 million. But this not necessarily out of whack with other comparable publicly-traded Canadian utilities. For example, the CEO for Fortis Inc, Canada's largest utility company, earns over $9.2 million; the CEO of Emera earns about $5.8 million; and several others earn around the $3 million mark. American equivalents may earn significantly more, with the top five making well over $15 million. If we look at Canadian companies more generally, then $6.2 millon would put Schmidt at a rather mediocre 55th in the list of CEO pay at Canada's largest companies in 2017. Yes, this sounds like an awful lot of money to us Average Joe's, but it seems to be what the market pays for people of a certain calibre to perform a complex and high-responsibility job.
Setting aside the question of whether Doug Ford would be legally able to fire the man - and the weight of evidence suggests not, especially given that Schmidt is not even a government employee, and the province is not even a majority shareholder in the company - such a move would trigger an estimated $10.7 million in severance fees. And then Ford would still have to find someone else to fill the position (a position in which job security will suddenly have become extremely precarious).
And as Liberal Energy Minister patiently points out, Ontario's electricity rates are not set by Hydro One anyway, but by the Ontario Energy Board (Hydro One is just responsible for the complex business of power transmission and distribution), and so taking out the whole board of Hydro One would have no effect on energy prices in the province. As I have explained before, and as the Globe and Mail does a good job of explaining, a variety of different factors and decisions have led to the current high electricity prices in Ontario, some of them going back decades, including an admirable attempt to charge the "real" price (rather than just shoving some costs conveniently under the carpet) and to pursue a low-carbon path, all of which is commendable and necessary. Mayo Schmidt's salary is not one of these factors, and Mr. Ford should be upbraided for his lack of understanding of the issues.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Yanny vs Laurel - a (sort of) explanation of a cultural phenomenon

I know everyone is talking about it, and I'm way behind the curve as usual, but it IS pretty cool. As an internet phenomenon, it is already on a par with the gold-and-white/blue-and-black dress from a couple of years ago.
Have a listen to the audio clip and see whether you hear "Yanny" or "Laurel". Apparently, it's all to do with how well you hear higher frequencies. I can only hear Laurel (unless I really concentrate), which I think just means that I'm an old codger and I don't hear higher frequencies well. Except ... when I hear it speeded up (i.e. with higher frequencies stressed), all I could hear was Yanny.
A linguist (sort of) explains it all here.

Aarghh! Now HuffPost has ruined it for everyone by revealing that someone has traced the recording to a sound clip of the pronunciation of the word ... "laurel". So, the 50% or so of people hearing "Yanny" are just plain wrong.

Mike Pence's claims that religion is booming in the USA rings false

Notoriously religious US Vice President Mike Pence recently claimed, in a commencement speech to a bunch of fellow Christians in Michigan, that "Faith in America is rising again because President Trump and our entire administration have been advancing the very principles that you learned here in the halls of Hillsdale College". He backed this up with a tweet in which he says, "I still believe with all my heart that FAITH in America is rising."
Unfortunately, this is just not true, however much he might want it to be. The Pew Research Center, the journal Sociological Science and the Public Religion Research Center, all concur that church attendance and religious observance in general has been slipping for some years.
But then, that is the beauty of faith - it doesn't have to be true so long as you believe it.

What kind of animal is Taiwan really?

With the news today that Air Canada is bowing to Chinese pressure not to call Taiwan "Taiwan", I decided to delve into the murky waters of what Taiwan actually is. Is it a country? Is it merely a province of China? What should it be called, and does it actually matter?
The last question is probably the easiest to answer. Clearly, it matters very much to Taiwan, whose very existential integrity is at stake. And it seems to matter just as much to China, which loses no opportunity to point out that it considers the island as part of its own territory, and which uses its vast economic clout to insist that the rest of the world recognizes that too.
Taiwan is an island of 23 million inhabitants, formerly known as Formosa, and located about 180 km off the east coast of China. It is technically known as the Republic of China (ROC), as opposed to the People's Republic of China (PRC), which is the official monicker of what pretty much everyone usually calls China. It has a tangled and complicated history, being annexed by first the Netherlands in 1624 and then the Qing dynasty of China in 1683, ceded to Japan in 1895, then established as the ROC after World War 2 in both the mainland and on the island, before abandoning its mainland claims and retrenching to its island base after the Communist revolution in China in 1949. For some years, the ROC represented the whole of China at the United Nations, until it lost its seat to the PRC in 1971 (it is now the largest economy that is NOT a member of the UN).
Although the people speak Chinese, and are ethnically identical (with a small indigenous population), in many other respects it is defiantly un-Chinese is nature. It is a multi-party democracy with a semi-presidential system. Internationally, it is highly-ranked in terms of healthcare, freedom of the press and economic freedom, and has one of the best-educated populations in the world.
However, China (i.e. the PRC) has consistently claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and, under its One China policy, it refuses diplomatic relations with any country that officially recognizes the ROC. Just 19 brave countries now maintain official relations directly with the ROC, mainly small and internationally unimportant states in the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean. This is the reason that Taiwan participates in most official international forums, rather confusingly, under the label "Chinese Taipei" (Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan). And it is for this reason that China is insisting, under unspecified threat of retribution, that Air Canada and other international air carriers describe its Taipei destination with the abbreviation "CN" for China, rather than Taiwan. It's a small and you might think picky requirement, but it is in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping's increasingly aggressive China-first policies. Marriott Hotels and even the Man Booker International Prize for literature are other examples of organizations that have had to kow-tow recently.
So, what kind of animal is Taiwan, really?Well, as we have seen, that is very hard to pin down. Taiwan believes it is independent, and for the most part it acts that way; China, on the other hand, sees it as merely a wayward and troublesome province. Like several other regions with contentious and convoluted histories (e.g. Palestine, Kashmir, Ireland, etc), it partly depends on when you decide to start history. I have to say, though, that to me Taiwan will always be Taiwan.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Google overstepping the mark again with Instant Apps

Like the introduction of AMP pages last year (which, to be fair, has since been improved by at least offering us the option of a return to a regular webpage), Google is once again overstepping the mark with the introduction of its Instant Apps service.
I first came across it today, not long after receiving my first mobile emergency alert, so I was beginning to feel like I was no longer in complete control of my own phone. Clicking on a link from Flipboard to view an article on the original CBC webpage, I was instead shown the article in the CBC News app, even though I have never installed the CBC News app. It's very clever technology I'm sure, but surely it should be up to me whether or not I want to use the CBC News app, and if I did want to, then I would presumably have gone ahead and installed it. But don't force it on me.
As things stand, there is a way to disable Instant Apps, but it involves jumping through some hoops, and it really shouldn't. You can disable it on an Android phone by going to the Google Play Store (where you go to download and install new apps), bringing up the Settings from the top menu, and then de-selecting the "Use apps without installation" option (here is a YouTube explanation of how to do this). Not too onerous, I know, but the onus should not be on us to fix things, and the average little old lady is not going to know what to do.

Canadian mobile emergency alerts creating a backlash

I had my first experience yesterday of Canada's new mobile emergency alert system, and I have to say it really freaked me out. A sound like a deranged klaxon was alerting me to, not an earthquake or a nuclear attack, but a missing boy in a small town in Northern Ontario, about two days drive from here. Another alert shortly after assured me that the boy had been found anyway.
Now, I understand the point of such amber alerts, and I certainly understand the need for emergency preparedness alerts for major floods, fires, terrorist attacks, etc, but they have to be at least geographically relevant in order to hold people's attention. Am I going to get tsunami alerts for the west coast of BC in the middle of the night, or a terrorist threat in Halifax? Research shows that too many alerts risk alienating users, and there have certainly been a lot of complaints about this particular one. Also, even though the authorities are calling it a successful test, there do appear to have been some substantial glitches in the system: some people might have received it late, and others not at all (my wife didn't, for example, despite having an up-to-date phone and using the same provider as muly daughter, who DID receive it).
And, what's more, there is no way to unsubscribe from these alerts, and that is really pissing people off. Despite the initial efforts of phone service providers (who wanted to make it an opt-in option), these alerts are mandatory for all phone users, and there is not even any way of changing the notification racket, short of turning your phone off or keeping it on mute.
I must confess to not being completely comfortable with the alerts, although if they are indeed few and far between, it might not be such a big deal. It just seems like another example of technology being foisted upon us willy-nilly, not dissimilar to the Google Instant Apps debacle, which I will write about next.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Elizabeth Renzetti's Shrewed is what a feminist sounds like

Elizabeth Renzetti is one of my favourite Globe and Mail journalists: insightful, witty and thought-provoking. She is a welcome feminist antidote to Margaret Wente's cynical, ill-researched and elitist diatribes in the newspaper.
So, I was very much looking forward to her book of articles and essays, Shrewed, which I finally managed to get from the library. And it did not disappoint. Through her anecdotal story-telling of her own experiences and those of others, she gives a good taste of what it's actually like to be a woman in the modern world. I consider it essential reading both for young women and, perhaps even more importantly, men. I recognized some essays, or parts thereof, from her Globe columns, but many more were new to me.
Snippets out of context are never a good guide to a book's content or its style, but maybe you can get some of the flavour of Ms. Renzetti's oeuvre:
  • "One if my classmates waved his hand frantically, desperate to speak his piece on women's reproductive freedom. Let's call him 'Tool' for the sake of brevity."
  • "A journalist who is also an advocate is considered a tainted version of both."
  • "It is one of the great benefits of age: I no longer get chased, groped, whistled at, or told I'm an ungrateful bitch when I refuse to smile."
  • "To suggest that young women should be fearless, that they should neither contain nor admit to fear, is to place yet another unattainable goal tantalizingly out of their reach."
  • "Don't feel you have to engage in the Olympics of one-upmanship that is the modern wedding."
  • " 'Do you want me to do the patch on your chin?' the aesthetician asks. What am I supposed to say? No, please leave the goatee. I'm auditioning for Bearded Lady at the circus later. I nod, and she rips it away with one quick yank."
  • "My mother shrugs the way Baryshnikov danced ... We are a gothic family; subtlety is not our forte."
  • "Technology proceeds at its own pace, untethered to morality, guided by a profit incentive unshared by most and understood by few."
I particularly enjoyed the final chapter, which is Renzetti's imaginary university commencement speech. It is studded with wise and revolutionary advice to graduating young women, and a brief excerpt will have to suffice here:
"Throw away your scale. Stop weighing yourself. Is there ever a reason to know your precise weight? Are you mailing yourself to China? Are you a bag of cocaine? Enjoy your mass, because one day you will be old and as shrivelled as an apple doll, and you will wonder where the rest of you went ... In meetings, speak first and resist the temptation to preface every statement with 'This may have already been brought up...' When a colleague tries to interrupt, hold up a hand and say "I'll be finished making my point shortly, Bob", and try not to picture what he'd look like with a stapler embedded in his forehead."
Shrewed is a good, quick and easy read. I am a hopelessly slow reader, and it still only took me a couple of days. Many of the essays are more serious and earnest than a lot of her newspaper columns, and perhaps Ms. Renzetti's signature acerbic humour did not punctuate the pieces as often as I expected or as I might have liked. But it still did not really disappoint. As t-shirts and baby's onesies from the 2017 Women's March had it: "This is what a feminist looks like".

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Intense competition in Central America on Global Big Day

I am currently in the jungles of Panama, staying at an eco-lodge (quick shameless plug for Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge). Now, I am an interested but very much inept amateur birder, but I am surrounded here by a bunch of obsessive, mainly American twitchers. Our Panamanian guides - who have an absolutely extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge of the local birds, in English, Spanish and Latin, not to mention their calls, habits, distribution, taxonomy, etc, etc - are also, perhaps understandably, somewhat obsessive on the subject, and it is interesting to witness the competitiveness that Global Big Day has engendered here, at least among those who care.
For those who have never heard of it, and that included me up until a few days ago, Global Big Day is a kind of worldwide bird-spotting competition, organized by Cornell Lab and the online birding service eBird. The competition, now in its fifth year, involves birding teams around the world trying to spot as many different species as possible during one 24-hour period, which this year fell on May 5th. The rules are stringent and the competition fierce, as countries vie to make the top 10 or 20 in avian diversity, both for reasons of their country's tourism potential and apparently also for their own national pride.
Because of its geography, Central America, as a narrow land-bridge between two large continents, is a birding hotspot, and one of the fiercest Global Big Day competitions is between Panama and neighbouring Costa Rica, both of which bat well above their weight in the birding stakes considering their small size. Each year, the battle is close-fought, and the two small countries usually place in the top 10 in the world. Costa Rica, though, usually places just above Panama, often by the narrowest of margins, and, from talking to the Panamanians, this is clearly an irksome and aggravating turn of affairs.
It is a relatively big deal here, then, that Panama is cuttently sitting in 7th place, just ABOVE Costa Rica. The difference, though, is just ONE BIRD (659 versus 658), and what makes it a compelling spectator sport is that, although the 24-hour period is over, the competition is not yet finished. Because the counts are submitted online, though eBird, and because some of the areas involved are quite remote and far from cellphone coverage, the competition allows three days for submissions to be entered. So, the count and the rankings could still change, and we wait here with bated breath....
Just for interest, the overall rankings (subject, as mentioned, to minor changes over the next couple of days) are as follows: perennial winner Colombia in first, followed by Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, United States, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Argentina and India. Canada is currently showing in 19th place, which, considering our late spring, and the fact that many migratory species have not yet arrived there, I thought was pretty good.
Another interesting aspect of all this is the level of participation in the various countries, which can be measured in terms of checklists submitted. Far and away the most checklists were, perhaps predictably, from the United States (42,287) followed by Canada (6,893), and then, as befits its reputation as a birding superstar, Colombia (4,745). The UK, though, a country that I think of as a big birding country, only submitted 363 checklists, and France and Germany barely broke the 100 threshold. I guess the Europeans are just not as into it as I expected them to be.

Hold the presses! Costa Rica have just equalized, just 10 minutes after writing this entry! It's not over yet.

Well, the tension is over. Colombia once again tops the charts with a massive 1,535 species, followed by Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, with Venezuela making a late vault into fifth place, and confirming the continued dominance of South America in the birding world cup.
Panama is the top Central American country, handily beating out Costa Rica this year, and registering an impessive 750 species. That makes it the 6th best country in the world for bird species, with Costa Rica coming in 11th, just after Mexico, the United States, Bolivia and Argentina. The first Eastern Hemisphere countries are India (12th) and Australia (14th). And Europe - gaah, don't even think about it...