Friday, June 29, 2018

How did all those female Saudi drivers get a license?

As of a few days ago, Saudi Arabian women are finally legally allowed to drive cars, and the news is full of reports of joyful/excited/apprehensive women driving around the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah. Whoop, whoop! Many women are even signing up to become drivers for ride-hailing operations like the Uber knock-off Careem.
My question was: how do these women suddenly have valid drivers' licenses (and for that matter, cars)?
The cars question is perhaps the most easily answered. Most of these women are pretty well off, and are probably members of families that boast several cars to choose from. Or, if need be, they could probably just go out and buy one for cash.
But the licenses? Well, it turns out that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is way ahead of us, and made arrangements for licenses to be obtained in advance for those women who already have overseas licenses. Many of them were educated in North America or Europe, for example, and may have obtained drivers' licenses there during their education years. The first ten licenses for Saudi women were issued on June 4th, in preparation for the June 24th lifting of the ban, and many thousands more have followed suit since then. This is literally a case of swapping an overseas license for a Saudi one, with no road test necessary. Several foreign driving schools (e.g. Ford's Driving Skills for Life for Her) are now setting up in the lucrative business of female driving lessons in Saudi Arabia.
It's certainly a big step in the right direction for Saudi Arabia, although there is much more still to be done for equality in the country (and some women driving activists are still in jail for their actions and protests, despite the lifting of the ban). Certainly, having women drivers is not likely to make the country less safe: Saudi has an execrable record of automobile safety, and Arab News reports that some 78,487 people died in car accidents in the ten years to 2016.

Why is Canada putting taxes on these imports, and how does it work?

With all the talk about changes to American tariffs on steel, aluminum, etc, and retaliatory Canadian tariffs on pickles and mustard (not to mention steel and aluminum!), you might, like me, be a bit confused about how these tariffs actually work, and why Canada is targeting obscure items like licorice, toilet paper and beer kegs. Well, a handy tariff primer from CBC might help a bit.
The first thing to appreciate is that there are import tariffs and export tariffs. In most cases, we are talking here about import tariffs. When a targeted product arrives at the importing country's border, there is a whole load of paperwork to complete before it can continue its journey, and part of that paperwork will now involve an import duty of 10%, 15%, whatever it might be. When the exporting company pays the tariff, the money goes straight into the federal treasury of the importing country, like any other tax, and can be used for general government expenditure. In the case of steel products, cars, etc, where a product might cross the border several times during its production, the duty is technically assessed each time it crosses, although it is possible to apply for a rebate (a "drawback" or "remission") in these cases.
But, as well as "punishing" the exporting country and making life more difficult for exporting companies (with the additional theoretical benefit that the slack will be taken up by the importing country's internal market, with less need of actual imports), import tariffs usually result in higher prices in the local market, as overall production operates less efficiently and as prices are marked up as a result of the tariffs if the distributing companies can not (or will not) swallow the extra cost.
So, anyway, against its better judgement, Canada has decided that it has no alternative but to levy tariffs on various goods imported from the USA in a dollar-for-dollar retaliation (to the tune of some $16.6 billion) for the tariffs the Trump administration levied a month ago on Canadian steel and aluminum, and in an attempt to prevent Trump's further threats of a 25% tariff on cars and other vehicles. Thus, we Canadians find ourselves embroiled in a full-scale trade war, through no fault of our own.
As for why Canada has chosen such disparate and apparently random products to tax, they are actually far from random. The products on which new tariffs are being imposed have been carefully chosen to wreak maximum inconvenience to industries in regions of the USA that are strategically and politically important to Donald Trump and to key Republicans. That's how we ended up with a retaliatory list that includes things like pizza, quiche, strawberry jam, ketchup, mustard, pickles, maple syrup, mineral water, orange juice, chocolate, licorice, bourbon, hair lacquer, toilet paper, paper towels, handkerchiefs, mattresses, lawn mowers, sailboats, etc, as well as just steel and aluminum. So, you can probably expect American-sourced versions of many of these things to go up in price here in Canada.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

11-year old Nigerian makes hyper-realistic pencil-and-paper pictures

Here's a ridiculously talented 11-year old Nigerian artist, who makes hyper-realistic pictures using just a pencil and paper - and his cellphone for source material.

Khill cleared of murder because he used to be an army reservist

In a virtual re-run of the Stanley-Boushie trial earlier this year, Hamilton man Peter Khill was found not guilty of murdering Jonathan Styres yesterday.
One major difference in this trial was that Khill made no bones about actually shooting Styres, who was trying to steal his pickup truck at the time. But Khill claimed that he was acting in self-defense, even though it is not clear to me why he felt himself mortally threatened, and the jury seems to have believed him. So, instead of calling 911, like most people probably would in the circumstances, he just shot the guy. Twice.
Crucially, the trial hung on the fact that Khill was an ex-army reservist, and that his army training automatically kicked in. So, the fact that the army turns out potential psychopaths and dumps them on the street is somehow a defense for an otherwise unjustified killing?
About the best that can said about this case is that it does not seem to have been racially motivated (unlike the Stanley-Boushie case). But it's still a pretty dark day for Canadian justice.

We don't need "babe cam" coverage of the World Cup

In today's Globe and Mail, John Doyle points out something that I too have noticed during the TV coverage of the 2018 Russia World Cup: those long, lingering shots of female fans, usually blonde, generally painted up with nationalistic symbology, and often skimpily-dressed.
TV cameras often pan around the stadium at major sports events, taking in the atmosphere and showing the depths of emotion to which some fans take their support. It's kind of interesting, sometime funny, and often heart-warming. But it's been many years since this kind of "babe cam" display has been foisted upon us, and it is generally considered sexist and frowned upon. As one commentator says, "They're reducing women fans to the bubbly cute cheerleader in the stands. To boil fans down to boobs and cute outfits is beyond me."
Maybe it's the fact that the World Cup this year is in Russia, which still harbours many antediluvial (and certainly ante-#MeToo and -#TimesUp) attitudes to women and their place in society, I don't know. But, frankly, we can do without this.

False Canada-US tariff chart just more Trumpian fake news

A fake chart is doing the rounds of Facebook, Twitter and many alt-right pro-Trump websites, which suggests that Canada is charging the USA large and unfair tariffs on various imported items.
The chart (here is a version on Twitter with the true figures superimposed) shows, which purports to be based on figures from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the US International Trade Commission, and the Canadian Minster of International Trade, first appeared after the recent Group of Seven summit in Quebec, when Donald Trump started make all sorts of allegations against Justin Trudeau. It shows a whole host of random false Canadian tariffs - such as 48% on copper; 45% on aluminum, HVAC equipment and televisions: 35% on vacuums and cable boxes; and 25% on cars and steel - none of which actually exist in reality. It also shows falsely low US tariffs on its own exports.
Like so much false news, it is not clear who is actually responsible for the chart, although it is wrong in so many ways (including sloppy spelling mistakes) that it is clearly cooked up by an amateur to back up Donald Trump's narrative on Canadian-US trade, and provide ammunition for Trump supporters in the run-up to the mid-terms elections later this year.
The Globe and Mail pointed out the errors to a few websites who are complicit in distributing these trade fibs, but none of them has actually changed their site. No doubt, the fake news will do its job, and then fade into obscurity, leaving the truth (and the American and Canadian people, not to mention international trade in general) the real victims.

We've been charging cellphone batteries wrongly all these years

It turns out that we've been changing our cellphones wrongly all these years.
Most people - me included - have always assuned that it is bad for cellphone batteries to charge them in little bursts here and there, and that it is best to completely deplete the battery and charge it up on one fell swoop. In fact, I'm sure I've read that in phone user guides before now. Well, apparently, not so.
Information from a website called Battery University, produced by battery company Cadex, and summarized by Science Alert, suggests that fully charging a battery "stresses" it, and can reduce its potential life. Even worse, if you charge it overnight (and don't we all?), the battery constantly receives "trickle charges" to keep it at 100% while It's plugged in, and this keeps the battery in a stressed state, which breaks down the chemicals in the battery and negatively affects its lifespan.
So, it is actually better for the battery, and will extend its life, if we never charge it right up to 100%, and never leave it plugged in once fully-charged. Instead, we should be charging it in short bursts throughout the day, and keeping it cool (e.g. out of its case) while charging. Our batteries will thank us by lasting longer and performing more optimally.
It's funny how received wisdom takes hold and becomes the unquestioned truth. There again, maybe that perceived wisdom is actually right, and Battery University is just a ploy by Cadex to wreck out batteries and invest in new ones, or a malicious campaign by the Russians or the Chinese to unplug the West?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Plans are in hand to move the nesting Ottawa killdeer

The Canadian media has been all over the nesting killdeer that is holding up an Ottawa blues festival.
A killdeer is a reasonably common species of plover that likes to nest in rocky open ground. This particular one chose a cobblestone path near the Canadian War Museum in downtown Ottawa, which also happens to be the location the main stage of the annual 11-day Ottawa Bluesfest, which is due to kick off next week. Rather than just move the bird, organizers starting on the set-up for the festival have cordoned the bird off, and the National Capital Commission is providing round-the-clock security for the bird and its eggs. An Environment and Climate Change Canada license to move the bird had been arranged, and volunteers from he Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary are due any day now to move the bird to a more suitable spot about 50 metres away. Contingency plans are also in hand to deal with the hatching eggs, just in case the move freaks out the mother and leads her to abandon her brood.
It's all kind of ridiculous, but also rather heart-warming. The Bluesfest is expected to go ahead on schedule next week, although it might be a little noisy for the nesting mother. Maybe there should be a volume cap too?

The move seems to have gone well. It was llned with military precision, and involved a painstaking campaign of gradual moves of one metre each. Each time, there is a breathless wait to see whether the mother will come back to the nest in its new location. It's looking good so far.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Managed democracy" - like Russia, Hungary, Turkey - is really fascism lite

I was introduced recently to the phrase "managed democracy", also known as "guided democracy". This refers to a formally Democratic government which actually functions as a de facto autocracy, holding ostensibly free elections to legitimize power, which are actually drastically "managed" through the suppression, arrests and even sometimes the mysterious deaths of major opposition politicians, as well as misinformation campaigns and the widespread intimidation and repression of the electorate and the mass media, such that the result of the election is never in any doubt.
Vladimir Putin's Russia is probably the prime example of a managed democracy, joined earlier this year by Victor Orbán's Hungary after Orbán's re-election in a severely curtailed election.
And now, of course, we have the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has clearly learned his lessons well from his precursors. In fact, given the lengths that Erdogan went to to ensure his victory, and given how cowed the local populace is after 15 years of his autocratic rule, the result was remarkably close, and might even be seen as something of a moral victory for the opposition.
Anyway, "managed democracy", it's a thing. It might otherwise be called "fascism lite", but as long as the word "democracy" is in there, there is very little anyone can do about it.

Monday, June 25, 2018

ASMR may be a real thing but the science is largely missing

Hopelessly behind the curve as usual, I have just discovered ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. If you too are behind the ever-steeper and ever-more-slippery slope of the current cultural Zeitgeist, then be advised that ASMR refers to a kind of pleasant, tingling, static-like sensation, coupled with a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation, that many people experience from certain videos and sounds. It is sometime referred to, slightly more sensationalistically, as "attention induced head orgasm" or "attention induced euphoria" or even "brain orgasm". The sensation reportedly starts in the crown of the head and spreads down the spine to the rest of the body. Many people swear by it as a method of dealing with anxiety, depression and insomnia. Some people even get off on it sexually, although most stress that it is very much not a sexual phenomenon.
Not everyone, however, experiences the effects. It certainly doesn't seem to do anything for me, but maybe I am just too cynical by nature, and not entering into the spirit of the thing. Some of the videos I have watched, I swear, just have to be ironic, they are so weird and unlikely, and I am never entirely sure whether or not I (and potentially thousands of others) am being taken for a ride. Here is one of many tests that can be found on YouTube so you can assess whether or not you personally are susceptible. I have been unable to ascertain what proportion of people are able to experience the effect.
ASMR trigger sounds include a low whisper, vocal fry, rustling leaves, crumpling paper, candle burning, dry scratching, pen-on-paper, light tapping on a hard surface, stroking material, rubbing hands, running water, gum chewing, etc. Some people get a similar effects from watching other people have their hair cut or stroking plush toys, moving lights, pretend hugs, etc.
This is another example of a pervasive internet phenomenon with which the science community is scrambling to catch up. ASMR has been a "thing" for almost a decade now, and apparently there are now some 13 MILLION(!) YouTube videos devoted to ASMR (here are just a few examples). There is a whole sub-culture out there who are devoted to it, and there are ASMRtists (most of them involving, for some reason, good-looking young women) who make a healthy living off producing these videos. But is there actually any scientific basis for the phenomenon, or is it just another runaway YouTube meme with no substance to it?
Well, apparently there may be some scientific substance to it, although it is an understatement to say that it is still not well-understood. A University of Sheffield study has confirmed that ASMR does in fact result in a significantly lower heart-rate, comparable to the effects of other stress-reduction techniques like music and mindfulness. An earlier Swansea University study showed that ASMR triggers are remarkably consistent. Claims that the ASMR effect is related to oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone, though, remain unproven at best (and, for that matter, many of the claims for oxytocin are pretty unscientific in the first place), although it does seem like the personal attention people imagine they are getting is an important aspect of it. Some say it is a kind of synesthesia, even a sixth sense, but again these are not claims made from a scientific perspective. It resides rather uncomfortably in the domain of pseudoscience.
Essentially, the scientific jury is still out on ASMR, and study of the phenomenon still in its infancy. Which, given that there are 13 million videos out there, and some of the claims being made for it, is actually quite surprising.

The Dow Jones industrial Average may be in need of a name change

Tomorrow marks the end of an era in a slightly more literal way than that in which that phrase is normally employed to mark. After 122 years, General Electric Co. (GE), the last surviving member of the original 1896 Dow Jones Industrial Average, will be dropped from that well-known listing of US blue-chip stocks.
The Dow Jones was established back in May 1896, comprising 12 prominent American industrial companies:
  • American Cotton Oil Company
  • American Sugar Refining Company
  • American Tobacco Company
  • Chicago Gas Light and Coke Company
  • Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company
  • General Electric Company
  • Laclede Gas Company
  • National Lead Company
  • North American Company
  • Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company
  • United States Leather Company
  • United States Rubber Company
Of these, GE is just about the only company still recognizable today, although several others have morphed into companies that we would recognize (e.g. the American Cotton Oil Company has become Unilever in the intervening years, the United States Rubber Company has become Uniroyal, etc). Most of the others have just gone the way of the dinosaurs.
A quick look at the composition of the 30 companies that make up today's Dow Jones Index reveals a very different profile of companies, including many whose function was not even conceivable back in 1896 (Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco Systems, Verizon, Visa, etc). Indeed it reveals an almost complete redefinition of the word "industrial". After all, there has been a Second Industrial Revolution and then a Third Industrial (Digital) Revolution since 1896. Companies like GE - companies that actually make things - are no longer in the ascendancy.
It is perhaps no surprise that the company is struggling, despite attempts over the years to diversify and change with the times. It's paradoxical in a way: after all, the world still needs electrical equipment, power generation equipment, healthcare technology, industrial plastics, locomotives, aviation equipment, etc, all of which GE does very well. But it probably needs less of these things, and it is happier buying them for cheap from China and other countries in the Far East.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Truth a casualty in Canadian politics too

The Donald Trump School of Politics (DTSP) - which essentially involves a complete lack of attention to the truth and facts - has come to Canada in a big way.
Arguably, Brad Wall, who just recently stepped down as Premier of Saskatchewan, has been a graduate of DTSP for years, even before it existed, although with Wall it was usually more of a case of refusing to be persuaded by the facts, rather than invention of new alternative facts. Doug Ford, the Premier-Elect of Ontario, is a definite practitioner of the DTSP, as he showed during his election campaign.
And now Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader of the federal oppositon, has realized that, hey, this works, maybe I don't have to be constrained by the facts any more. In recent weeks, Sheer has been posting on Twitter (sound familiar?) all sorts of erroneous and indefensible statements about Liberal taxation policy and wrong and misleading information about the costs of the national carbon tax the Liberals are in the process of bringing in.
Most recently he has been banging on about the swing-set Justin Trudeau has had put in as part of the upgrades at the Prime Minister's summer residence at Harrington Lake for the prime ministerial kids. Scheer insists on using a figure of $7,500 for the swing-set even though it has been repeatedly explained to him that Trudeau actually paid for the swing-set himself, out if his own pocket, and all the taxpayers have been billed for is $900 installation costs. But $7,500 makes a more compelling story at Question Time than $900, so Scheer has been merrily using the $7,500 figure as he uses up valuable Question Time trying to score political points any way he can, regardless of the true figure.
You can already see how the next election debates are going to go, and facts are clearly going to be the first casualty.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Delusional Trump at his "best"

I know I am fixating on Trump again, and I shouldn't give him the satisfaction, but this blog feeds on outrage, and Trump is the biggest single source of outrage out there.
Yesterday, he issued an executive order cancelling his "zero tolerance" policy of this April which called for the separation of the children of illegal immigrants from their parents, a policy that has met with almost universal condemnation across the world, including even within his own Republican Party. The most notable exceptions to this blanket condemnation are members of the White House staff who are doggedly holding onto their jobs, and who appear in public expressing sycophantic paeans along the lines of "I want to thank the President for his leadership on his issue", and members of Trump's own extended family, who are probably in much the same position of having to hold onto their "jobs".
The media show around the signing of this latest executive order, which is in fact a major climb-down for Trump, was a classic of Trumpian doublethink, delusional deception and duplicitous deflection. It's worth watching. He says things like, "I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated", "It's a problem that has gone on for many years, as you know, through many administrations", "We're keeping families together, which will solve that problem", "We're going to have a lot of happy people", etc. This, of course, follows on from his repeated defence of the policy, his blaming of Democrats for the law, his insistence that he was not able to change the policy even if he wanted to, and that it is the Democrats are blocking change.
Essentially, Trump attempts to portray the embarrassing about-face as a compassionate correction of a decades old policy that was mainly the fault of the Democrats (in fact it resulted from his own zero-tolerance executive order just a month or so ago). This twist of taking credit for something that is either bad or a belated correction of something that was even worse and his own fault, as well as the ploy of blaming the Democrats for pretty much everything regardless of the facts, is a hallmark of Trump's approach to politics. Whether it can truly be considered delusional depends on whether you consider that Trump actually believes the lies he utters or whether he know they are lies and utters them anyway.
Of course, just cancelling the old policy does not suddenly solve all the problems it has raised, and it remains uncertain what will happen to all the children who have already been separated from their parents by US Customs and Border Security. But fear not, help is at hand - Melania is coming to sort it all out!

Unfortunately, Melania turned up to a tour of an immigrant children's centre near the Mexican border wearing a Zara coat emblazoned with the words "I REALLY DON'T CARE. DO U?" God, what a family!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Japanese cleanliness goes viral

My favourite story from the World Cup so far is that, after Japan's unexpected victory over Colombia yesterday, the fans didn't go crazy and party like there's no tomorrow, but instead set about cleaning up all the garbage in the stadium, using garbage bags they took along for the very purpose.
The Japanese are inveterate neat freaks, and cleanliness is a national trait drilled into them from an early age. So, such an action would seem perfectly normal to them, but absolutely bizarre to much of the rest of the world. Certainly, here in North America, it is considered a God-given right to throw food and other garbage around cinemas, theatres and sports stadiums. Personally, I always take out my own garbage, but I must confess I have never gone to the lengths of clearing up other people's mess.
Anyway, the Japanese fans' public-spiritedness has struck a chord with many people, and created a major PR coup for the country. It has also already generated copycat actions, as Senegal's fans were also seen clearing up their area of the stadium after their own unexpected win (and Senegal is NOT a country known for its cleanliness and public-spritedness). Nice to see how one little positive action can lead to a cascade of goodness.

Mo Salah's soccer skills are nothing to do with his being Muslim

The only player of any note on Egypt's World Cup rather mediocre soccer team, Mo Salah has been riding a crest of popularity and renown after his stellar year with Liverpool in the English Premier League, although his World Cup performance so far has been distinctly sub-par, partly due to a crushing tackle from Barcelona's strong man Sergio Ramos just before the competition.
But the article, in order to make its point, insists on stressing Salah's Muslim religion. Yes, he is a practising Muslim: he offers a little prayer after scoring a goal, he is humble and self-deprecating, he even observes Ramadan fasting during training sessions. He is held up as the ideal of a "good Muslim" (presumably as opposed to a terrorist), although there was quite a media kerfuffle when Salah recently appeared arm in arm with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who many would argue IS a Muslim terrorist...
But why does his religion have to brought into it at all? After all, when Ramos scythed down Salah the other week, the headlines were not "Christian savages Muslim". Today's article asks, "Does this mean that Muslims must win Golden Boots, Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals in order to be respected?" Er, no, and as far as I am aware no-one (except perhaps the Muslim author of the article) is suggesting that.
A better question might be, "Why does religion have to try to insert itself into everything?" Can a fine soccer player not just be a fine soccer player, and not a fine Muslim soccer player? Must we charactetize most Latin American and many European players as Catholic players, just because they have a tendency to cross themselves whenever they go on the pitch (an action which is closer to an involuntary nervous twitch than evidence of religious devotion anyway)?
Maybe it's no coincidence that I happen to be wearing today a t-shirt that says, "There's probably NO GOD, now stop worrying and enjoy your life". A lot of people could learn an awful lot from such a philosophy.

How America lost the respect of the world

It's difficult to quantify the extent to which Donald Trump has set back the United States. The word "substantially" springs to mind, although it's not particularly illuminating.
It seems pretty clear from reading the international press that, in just a year-and-a-half of Trumpian misrule (yes, that's all it's been!) America has lost most of the respect, influence and credibility that Barack Obama spent 8 years building up. Obama was not a perfect leader (there is no such thing is politics), but his presidency was stable and essentually decent (he was, and is, an essentually decent man). The progressive and responsible measures he brought in after the instability and knee-jerk reactions of the George W. Bush years meant that the United States could finally hold its head up internationally again, and American backpackers did not need to pin Canadian flags on their backpacks to be taken seriously. Don't get me wrong, this is not just a Democrat vs. Republican preference: it is a demonstrable fact that George W. Bush was just out of step with most of the Western world. And Donald Trump is too, but very much more so.
And it is not lost on the rest of the world that it was the American public that (gerrymandering and the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system notwithstanding) voted the man in with a sizeable majority, and that many of those voters, shockingly, STILL support him (his approval rating recently went UP from the mid-30s to 43% - admittedly not high, but still half the American population seems to approve of his shenanigans). So, the responsibility for the current global instability and international resentment on trade, immigration, Middle Eastern relations, climate change, the environment, and many other issues, lies squarely at their door (even if most Americans that we personally speak to tend to be suitably abashed, apologetic and bemused by it all).
So, dust off those Canadian flags, backpackers. Get those alternative back-stories ready again, socialites. The big bad outlaw version of America is back again - in trumps.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Beyoncé's latest video vehicle earns the usual accolades

I often make attempts to appreciate the more popular aspects of popular music - on the basis that billions of people can't all be wrong - but I usually fail miserably.
My musical tastes are pretty catholic and eclectic (from punk to electronica to Irish folk to so-called alternative), but I tend to go more for the strange and slightly off-kilter, for something that shows some originality, whether that be in terms of lyrics, chord progressions, voice, arrangement or just the overall feel. So, it is perhaps not too surprising that I don't get on well with Top 40 style pop music, which mainly means rap, hip-hop, generic dance music and "R&B", largely by black artists, and usually Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life, so that it all sounds pretty much the same (at least to me). Now, I get it: this is the Zeitgeist, for whatever reason (even if the biggest reason is the marketing/publicity machinery, and not talent as such), and I'm not really resentful, although it does seem a shame that more talented and interesting artists don't get much of a look in. But, thus has it ever been.
Anyway, what I am blathering about at tedious length relates to my recent attempt to understand the hype around Beyoncé/JAY-Z ("The Carters")'s latest video single Apeshit. Like pretty much anything Beyoncé produces (and, to a lesser extent, JAY-Z), the critical press is just salivating over it. It seems that the woman can do no wrong (Rolling Stone's review is just one example among many similar ones). Now, I do have a certain grudging respect for Beyoncé. She's a good dancer with a commanding stage presence. It's hard to tell whether she is actually a good singer in this age of AutoTune, but I think so. I appreciate that she is a powerful woman who uses her position to talk (albeit indirectly) about race and gender in modern America, although she is far from the first or the best at it. And JAY-Z? Well, he's just hanging on her coat-tails, certainly on this song, and just generally.
So, what is all the fuss about? Well, I'm not really sure. The lyrics reveal nothing special: it's mainly just another hip-hop song about how cool it is to be rich and famous. The music is generic and, although Beyoncé probably CAN actually sing, she makes little attempt to do so here, content to do little more than talk into an AutoTune machine. JAY-Z is, well, JAY-Z: gratuitous swearing, cryptic references to the hip-hop in-crowd, clichéd mannerisms, all the usual stuff.
The video itself IS above average, it has to be said, with high production values and a big budget. It is filmed in that cathedral of European white culture, the Louvre, and features some of that museum's most famous pieces, juxtaposing black singers and dancers against the predominantly white subject matter of the paintings (well, go figure: it's a gallery devoted to old masters in a white European country - what do you expect? Jean-Michel Basquiat? Yinka Shonibare?). It appears to suggest, none-too-subtly, that Beyoncé, JAY-Z and all the semi-naked, gyrating black dancers are greater works of art than anything white Western art has ever produced. Yawn... The internet's music reviewers have analyzed and deconstructed the video to death, pointing out every little reference and irony, lest the punters miss them. One other irony: the video was produced by Ricky Saiz, a white guy as far as I can see (possibly Latino, judging by the name) - could they really not find a black guy to do it, if they are so intent on making a point?
Anyhoo... Where does that leave us? Pretty good video + mediocre song = fulsome and extravagant accolades. What's wrong with that picture?

Macedonia? Northern Macedonia? Who cares? Macedonians do

What's in a name? Well, quite a lot if you're Macedonian, apparently.
The Republic of Macedonia is a tiny country, once part of Yugoslavia until that federation split in 1991. But there is also a region of northern Greece, just next door, that is also called Macedonia, and there has been an ongoing dispute over the name for decades now, with Greece blocking Macedonia's membership of the EU and of NATO over it.
The historical region of Macedon covers parts of what are now Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia and Kosovo. For what it's worth, Alexander the Great, perhaps the only Macedonian that history will actually remember, was born in what is now the Greek region of Macedonia. For official international purposes, e.g. in the United Nations, the Republic of Macedonia is known as "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), which is admittedly a bit of a mouthful.
Anyway, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev have just signed an agreement to rename the Republic of Macedonia as the Republic of Northern Macedonia, in an attempt to break the deadlock, and Greece will then officially lift its political blockade, which will finally allow Macedonia into the EU and NATO.
However, the treaty signed by the two Prime Ministers is only the first step, and it must still be ratified by both parliaments and by a referendum in Macedonia, and all of that is by no means certain. Even the Macedonian President opposes the move, and angry protests continue in both countries over the agreement, with substantial parts of both countries seeing the name change as a sell-out.
It is difficult for us outsiders to get excited about it. Surely a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Well, not if you're Macedonian.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The "thunderwords" of Finnegan's Wake

I have attempted to read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake at least twice over the decades and, like so many before me, failed miserably. There is no shame in that: the book has defeated many a better mind than mine.
But I did recently come across a collection of the ten so-called "thunderwords" that appear throughout the book, nine of them 100 characters long, and the last one 101 characters. These made-up words are vaguely onomatopoeic, purportedly designed to conjure up the sound of thunder, but as much as anything they are just kind of fun:
  • Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk
  • Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun
  • Klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot
  • Bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapornanennykocksapastippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach
  • Thingcrooklyexineverypasturesixdixlikencehimaroundhersthemaggerbykinkinkankanwithdownmindlookingated
  • Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk
  • Bothallchoractorschumminaroundgansumuminarumdrumstrumtruminahumptadumpwaultopoofoolooderamaunsturnup
  • Pappappapparrassannuaragheallachnatullaghmonganmacmacmacwhackfalltherdebblenonthedubblandaddydoodled
  • Husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdamandamnacosaghcusaghhobixhatouxpeswchbechoscashlcarcarcaract
  • Ullhodturdenweirmudgaardgringnirurdrmolnirfenrirlukkilokkibaugimandodrrerinsurtkrinmgernrackinarockar

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Art of Banksy exhibition - sell-out or marketing genius

We have ($35) tickets to the Art of Banksy exhibition this weekend, an unauthorized show of many of his works, both well-knkwn and otherwise, in a trendy pop-up gallery in a trendily-dilapidated "urban" ex-warehouse zone in Toronto's trendy, semi-gentrified West End (very close, as it happens to a cirque training and fitness establishment I used to go to - see how trendy I am).
I quite like sole of Banksy's images - they are clever, ironic and irreverent - although I wouldn't describe myself as a fan of an acolyte. I was, though, in two minds about going to see this show. One, it is not authorized by Banksy (it was put together by his one-time agent and "affiliate" Steve Lazaridis). Two, it's not cheap. And three, it just seems kind of wrong seeing Banksy's work in a gallery setting, rather than discovering it accidentally under a bridge seomewhere, or something of that kind.
There is certainly a part of me that feels that Banksy has maybe sold out, but then if he has not actually authorised it, and is presumably not personally making lots of money from it, then in what way is he selling out. And, anyway, selling out from what? His work pokes fun at capitalism and the military-industrial complex, but is the man (woman?) himself necessarily a revolutionary firebrand, or just a guy (gal?) with a handy way with an artistic meme and a nifty line in self-promotion. Remember, the works in the exhibition are not ripped from the unsurpassed and portlands of Europe; these are gallery-ready versions and prints of some of his more iconic works (yes, he does produce such things) and works on loan from collectors who bought them at Banksy's own commercial shows (yes, he does those too), as well as photos of outdoor installations. His work already plays fast and loose with copyrights and intellectual property, so what exactly does "unauthorized" mean in this context (even if Canadian law does explicitly state that artworks cannot be exhibited without the owner's permission)? Whether you think he planned his commercial success or not, success he most definitely has had (the works in this exhibition alone are estimated to be worth some $35 million). And yes, you most certainly do have to exit through the gift shop (although, in this self-consciously postmodern environment, this could easily be some heavy-handed irony). I can even imagine today's theft of one of the works to be part of the show's promotion and hype-building (after all, property is theft, brother).
So, yes, it can make you a bit cynical (Now Magazine certainly is, as is even the more mainstream Globe and Mail). Or maybe it is people like me who have sold out by even attending this kind of an event.

1969 US-North Korea meeting was one long snooze-fest

Whatever you might think about Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un's recent summit meeting in Singapore - and many commentators are distinctly skeptical that it actually represents any kind of a concrete step forward - at least it WAS a meeting, and at least some kind of dialogue occurred (as well as much back-holding and an awful lot of hand-shaking), although I have my suspicions that much of it consisted of Trump blustering at great length, and Kim interjecting the odd "mm-hmm" from time to time.
I couldn't help but smile, though, at an article I came across about a 1969 meeting between the US and North Korea. It was the 289th meeting of the Korean Military Armistice Commission (yes, 289! - you can see how productive those meetings were) Apparently, Major General James Kapp and Major General Ri Choon-Sun sat across the table from one another for eleven and a half hours, during which time neither Major General ate, drank or used the washroom. Most of this time was spent trading barbs and insults.
During the last four and half hours of this epic meeting, though, not a single word was uttered, and the two just glared at each other, arms folded, across the table, presumably to see who would laugh first. Eventually, at 10:35pm, the Korean just got up, walked out the door, and drove away. So, I guess you could say the Americans won that particular staring contest.
So, you see, things could be worse.

Why the healthcare sector still uses fax machines

We were just talking about how strange it is that the healthcare industry - doctors, clinics, pharmacies, hospitals - still use faxes when, who'd have thought it, an article appeared in the Globe and Mail on that very subject.
I have a healthy (sic) respect for the Globe's health correspondent, André Picard, who is usually well-informed, nuanced and generally spot on. In much of this article, though, he seemed to be flying by the seat of his pants and is ultimately unconvincing.
Picard argues that the health sector's use of faxes is an embarrassing anachronism and should be curtailed forthwith. That has usually been my general view too, but his arguments did not seem to stack up, and now I am second-guessing my own opinions on the matter.
Mr. Picard argues that healthcare's obsession with privacy "trumps convenience and even common sense", but I actually think that faxes probably are more secure and less hackable. Every year there are more and more email and web server hacks, but as far as I know faxes are not hackable. He goes further, with unwarranted condescension and chutzpah: "The notion that paper-based records are somehow safer and more secure than electronic records beggars belief. Yet, rules and regulations still hold that a fax is a secure means of communication while email is not considered secure." Well, it doesn't beggar my belief, and until Mr. Picard provides me with some evidence to show that email is more secure than faxes, then I think that the "rules and regulations" probably have it right.
He further argues that, at least according to one study he found, one in five faxed requests to medical specialists do not receive responses, although it seems to me that there is no necessary link between that statistic and the use of faxes (correlation does not imply causation, Mr. Picard - as a scientist you should have that at the forefront of your thoughts). And why would he suppose that using email would miraculously fix this problem? I don't have statistics to back it up, but certainly anecdotal evidence suggests that most people are so overburdened with emails that a good proportion of them are overlooked, even supposing that they make it through the spam filtering process.
Picard further confuses the issue (deliberately, I thought, just to support his point) by adding that studies have shown "time and time again" that half of medical errors are the result of communication problems. This may also be true, but "communication" here does not just relate to the use of faxes, but to medical communications of all kinds. Let's not conflate different things.
I thought the whole article was uncharacteristically sloppy and unscientific. I am not on commission from Brother or Canon (or whoever it is that still makes fax machines), but in fact there are compelling reasons why fax machines are still so widely used in the healthcare industry, as well as in other businesses. Email may be easier and quicker in some ways, but this is not just a case of an old dinosaur industry stuck in the past and moving too slowly. Indeed, it turns out that faxing is on the increase, not decrease. Remember what people said about vinyl records when the CD was invented? And now look at the music industry.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Uncombable hair syndrome is a real thing

I know it's from BuzzFeed, but I still thought this was cool.
There is such a thing as uncombable hair syndrome (also known as spun glass hair syndrome), an extremely rare, recently-discovered genetic disorder that is only known to affect about 100 people in the whole world. It results in slivery-blond, easily-damaged, brittle, fly-away hair that sticks straight up from the head, and it is caused by inheriting two copies of a genetic mutation in the PAD13 gene (or a couple of other similar genes that are also expressed in the hair follicles).
It certainly looks very cute on a toddler (see photos), but you'd need to be a pretty strong-willed teen or adult to carry it off.

Why does Donald Trump do a Black Power salute?

A photo of a defiant American president getting on a plane yesterday after annoying the hell out of the rest of the Group of 7 industrial countries' leaders made me stop and think. What Trump often employs - at least when he's not doing that goofy thumbs-up thing - is basically what we usually think of as the Black Power salute, which achieved peak attention and  notoriety at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. This is not the involuntary fist-pump exhibited by many an athlete in the heat of the moment of victory. It is a distinct and deliberate salute involving a raised arm and clenched fist, and it has a long and varied history, long before Donald Trump picked it up.
It was perhaps first used in a deliberate and systematic way by the radical US trade union movement in the early 20th Century, and then by the leftist Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Since then, it has been adopted by many different protest groups from radical feminists to the Black Panther movement to white nationalists to Black Lives Matter, as well as by various individuals, from fascists like Benito Mussolini to killers like Lee Harvey Oswald, Carlos the Jackal and Anders Behring Breivik. Trump himself first used it at his inauguration ceremony, much to the consternation of some commentators, and he even used it on his official Christmas card, which is just plain bizarre
So, what is Trump's purpose in adopting the salute? Some have analyzed it as "anchoring", a gesture used at a moment of high emotional arousal, and then repeated later to recreate that emotional response, in a kind of Pavlovian conditioning. To me, that seems to be giving it more credibility and rationality than it perhaps deserves, although I can maybe imagine Steve Bannon coming up with such an idea back in the Bannon days.
No, I don't think Trump is either disciplined enough or intelligent enough to use it in such a slick, Machiavellian manner. Neither does it seem likely that he is deliberately using it as a general symbol of rebelliousness or challenge to the status quo. I really think it is a more or less spontaneous action on his part, probably with some vague subconscious intention of demontrating a general image of strength, power and triumph.
Except ... it has to be said that his hand does seem very small when he is doing it, which rather detracts from the effect.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

What is a reasonable age to get married these days?

Our daughter is now 23, has just finished a 5-year degree, and is about to start a 2-3-year Masters/PhD. Apparently, though, she sometimes worries that she is not yet settled down with a partner, and doing grown-up things like taking out mortgages and buying furniture.
Of course, we tell her, quite reasonably, that she is still way too young to be thinking about settling down, that she should use her twenties to have fun, play the field a bit, and make the best of her lack of ties and obligations, and that her mid-thirties would be a much better time to be finding a life partner and that kind of thing.
But then she, also quite reasonably, points out that her parents got together at university, as did the parents of several of her close friends, and that she even has several current university friends who seem to be settled together long-term and set up for life. Now, in our particular case, we may not have actually married until my wife was 6 months pregnant and I was about to be thrown out of Venezuela as an illegal immigrant, at a time when we would have been about 35 years old. But it is true that we have been together since we were about 21 or 22, and we are still together some 37 years later.
I actually think that all this evidence my daughter has cobbled together is actually sheer coincidence, and that it is not really that common an occurrence these days for people to settle down at such a tender age. But is it really? A bit of research suggests that, in Canada at any rate, the average first marriage takes place when the woman is 29.6 and the man 31, significantly late than the situation in the 1960s and 1970s when the woman was typically 23 and the man 25. A review of the stats for other countries reveals a wide range (e.g. Chile 32.6 for women and 35.3 for men, Morocco 29.8 and 34.3, Ukraine 25 and 37, Banglasdesh 16 and 23), but the general average for developed countries does not appear to be too dissimilar to Canada's, with the average for less-developed countries typically several years earlier.
All of which kind of backs up my theory, although it should be borne in mind that these stats refer to actual marriage, and not to the initial pairing off. Anyway, I think this may be another case for that well-worn mainstay of parental advice: "Do as I say, not as I do".

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Gulf Stream is at its weakest for 1,600 years - does anyone care?

With all the various distractions going on around the world - from trade wars to refugee crises to volcanic eruptions to sexual harrassment allegations to the Stanley Cup - it's easy to forget that climate change is still progressing apace, and little of substance is being done to address it (at least in North America).
So, it should probably come as no great surprise that a new report published the journal Nature concludes that the Gulf Stream is now at its weakest in the 1,600 years covered by the study. Using core samples off the coast of North Carolina, and other evidence from the shells of tiny marine animals in different parts of the Atlantic, the University College London study measures long-term ocean temperature trends and the strength and direction of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, better known by its more colloquil name, the Gulf Stream. The study provides a longer term context to other evidence that the Gulf Stream has slowed appreciably since reliable modern records of ocean temperatures started in 2004.
The Gulf Stream carries warmer water northwards up the American coast and then northeast across the Atlantic Ocean towards Northern Europe, before recirculating the cooler water back south. A weaker Gulf Stream could have some drastic, even catastrophic, climate effects, including more extreme winters in Western Europe, fast-rising sea levels on the Eastern seabord of the USA, and a disruption of tropical rains further south.
The indications are that the weakening Gulf Stream is at least partly a result of human-caused global warming. But with everything else that is going on, who is going to pay attention to a little matter like catastrophic climate change.

Who are these people who are determined to send Ontario back to the Dark Ages?

In the wake (and "wake" is a good description of the atmosphere in Toronto this morning) of the resounding victory in the Ontario provincial elections of Doug Ford and the so-called Progressive Conservatives, I have been trying to visualize what those hordes of people in rural areas who voted for Mr. Ford actually look like.
Being a city dweller, I don't actually know any, and so this is not easy. But I can't get the image out of my head of Grant Wolf's painting American Gothic. You know the one: the elderly couple outside their farmhouse, slightly stern and censorious-looking, intensely private and afraid of progress, but essentially harmless and probably none too bright. Now, this may just be my city dweller's stereotypical and probably none-too-accurate impression of country folk. And maybe it's not a useful exercise to try to lump together and pigeon-hole an electorate that is almost certainly surprisingly heterogeneous. But it's hard to stop it, just as I find it difficult to look at Doug Ford and not think of Shrek.
But 40% of the 57% of Ontarians that voted yesterday voted for Ford (even if indirectly, by voting for a perfectly reasonable PC candidate in their riding), and they were predominantly those in the rural areas of southern Ontario. Now, I know that only actually amounts to 23%, which arguably is hardly a resounding mandate, but it's still more than voted for any other single party. And because of our hallowed first-past the post system and the vagaries of riding demographics, this has translated into a large Conservative majority of 76 - 40 - 7 - 1. And this will in turn result in a gradual (and possibly not-so-gradual) rolling back of the progressive advances of the last couple of decades.
Yes, it was largely a protest vote against a Liberal government that had overstayed its welcome, and a Premier that, for whatever reasons, people intensely dislike. I understand that, but a sensible, thinking person also considers the ramifications, and does not just blindly vote for the most obvious anti-Liberals, and I am not sure how much constructive thinking actually went on yesterday. And so now we have Doug Ford. The guy is an idiot, with no relevant political experience, no tact, and anger management issues. This cannot bode well for the province. The 60% of the voters who voted against him realize that; 40% apparently do not.
So, yes, I feel like I need to put a face to these people who, wittingly or even unwittingly, have chosen to do this to the place where I live. Certainly, we will probably live to look back nostalgically, even fondly, on Kathleen Wynne. Which is, in itself, a scary thought.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

US judge rules that Pruitt must justify his climate change claims

Back in March 2017, Pruitt made the statement that "I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see". This of course flies in the face of previous EPA statements (not to mention generally agreed scientific opinion), and so an organization called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any agency documents that Pruitt used to come to this apparently radical opinion. The EPA stalled and stalled and so the employee group sued them for the information. The EPA stalled some more, but the District Court finally ruled that the EPA must provide the requested information by July 2nd at the latest.
Now, clearly there will be no EPA documents suggesting such a conclusion. So, what happens then? A public retraction? Pruitt's dismissal? Absolutely nothing? As so often in the Trump administration, we are breaking new ground here, and no-one really knows what will happen. But kudos to PEER for sticking to their guns and not backing down.

Government right not to extend Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry

Some members of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls say they are "disappointed" that the federal government has disallowed their request for a two-year extension to the Inquiry's work (and an additional $50 million in funds, effectively doubling the original financial allocation), granting instead just an additional 6 months. One member said she would "take a few weeks" to consider her continued participation in the inquiry after the decision...
Two years? Seriously? Are they sure they don't want a job for life? Such a culture of entitlement! I'm sure there are many more depositions they could have obtained from many more indigenous contributors, but what would be the marginal returns? Surely, they have more than enough evidence now to make some pretty strong and specific recommendations, and that, after all, is the job they were selected to do. Action is needed now, and leaving it until after the next federal election would be a gross mistake. Stringing this long-delayed inquiry out even longer would be doing a disservice to the very people it is designed to help.
The government is quite right to cut it short. The very request for a two-year extension just smacks of "gravy train" and "jobs for the girls". Just do your job, get it finished, and let's see some results and some action. This is not an academic exercise. It is not research for some museum display. It is an inquiry with a very specific function. Let's help these people now, and not at some unspecified point in the uncertain future (maybe).

Miss America drops its swimsuit (so to speak)

As the 100-year old Miss America competition votes to drop the swimsuit part of the competition, one has to question the need for a "best woman" competition of any sort.
The move comes after a management shake-up that resulted in women holding the top three leadership positions in the organization, and in the wake of constant protests by women's groups and representations from many of the contestants that parading around in high heels and swimsuits makes them feel awkward. Add to that recent body-shaming campaigns against certain ex-contestants, and, perhaps the final straw, the #MeToo movement, and the writing was on the proverbial wall. The contest says it will now emphasize its role as a scholarship provider, and not as a beauty pageant. Organizers are saying things like, "We are not going to judge you on your appearance because we are interested in what makes you you", and, "It's what come out of their mouths that we care about".
It's certainly a brave move, although the organization insists that it is not expecting a huge hit either to attendance at the Atlantic City pageant or to their television viewership (they say the swimsuit competition was never the highest-rated portion of the competition anyway). But the whole thing still seems to me a bizarre anachronism. Who are all these people who want to watch a bunch of women talk more or less convincingly about how they love animals and how they want to make the world a better place. It's just a slightly less offensive Bachelorette, or one of many other anodyne and embarrassing reality shows. I think we could probably do without it in this day and age.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Why all the fuss about banning plastic straws?

I seem to read almost every day about how environmentally unfriendly plastic straws are, how they should be banned, etc, etc. Several municipalities have indeed banned them (including Vancouver, Washington, Seattle, Miami Beach) and many others have plans in the pipeline (including New York City, California, Hawaii, and the whole of Britain).
But what's the big deal about straws? Aren't they recyclable anyway?
Apparently, Canada (population about 35 million) uses 57 million plastic straws EACH DAY, according to some stats, which just sounds plain unlikely. That's nearly two straws a day by every single man, woman, child, baby, senior and prison inmate(!), and I'm afraid I just don't believe that. I have not been able to find the source of that particular oft-quoted statistic. The USA (population about 320 million) apparently gets through 500 million straws a day, which is a similarly implausible and unverified statistic, however widely disseminated. But, however inflated those figures might be, the numbers are clearly large, and just as clearly we don't want all those straws ending up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Millions of people have watched the YouTube video of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle's nose (hell, that single video is probably responsible for most of the recent calls to ban straws!)
What is undeniable, though, is that straws make up a tiny percentage of the single-use plastic we use, as well as a tiny percentage of the plastic found on our beaches. But, for whatever reason, straws have become a major focus of the push to deal with our single-use plastics problem, and a bunch of organizations and pressure groups have sprung up, including The Last Plastic Straw, For A Strawless Ocean, Stop Sucking, and others.
Anyway, can't plastic straws be recycled? Well, yes and no. Straws are typically made from polypropylene, which can be recycled in most jurisdictions with a halfway decent recycling program. The problem is partly that, even though they can technically be recycled, not all municipalities have the required faculities, and partly that sraws often don't actually make it to the recycling plant (many straws are used in restaurants, for example, and many restaurants just don't bother, and most of the straws used on the street are just thrown in the regular garbage regardless).
Another problem is that small items like straws and bottle caps tend to fall through the gaps and cracks in recycling conveyor belts, and so end end up in the landfill anyway. For this reason, many municipalities discourage the recycling of plastic straws (Toronto is an example of a good recycling program that will not recycle straws).
And, yes, there are alternatives. Plastic straws have only been around since the 1960s, and paper straws were certainly good enough for us when I was a kid. And to say that we need to keep plastic straws for everyone because a few disabled people need them to drink with, as André Picard argues in today's Globe and Mail, sounds like a red herring and an example of excessive political correctness to me. If anyone actually NEEDS (as opposed to wants) a straw, I'm sure they could arrange to carry a reusable one around with them.
Anyway, I am not actively against the ban-the-straw movement (I don't even use them myself). It just seems to me like a bit of a bandwagon phenomenon, a bit of greenwash, and perhaps a bit of misplaced zealotry. If straws should be banned, then so should other single-use plastics. To their credit, many governments around the world - including India, Kenya, the EU, Britain, but NOT Canada - are pursuing just such a ban, and even the United Nations is starting to get behind the idea. And, of course, what we really need to be doing is reducing packaging, and establishing a manufacturers' responsibility program and a supplier-pays system on packaging, similar to what the Green Party proposes, and to what already exists in a few responsible countries like Germany.

A vote for a local Conservative candidate is also a vote for Doug Ford

If you were looking for just one more reason to finally jettison Doug Ford in the upcoming Ontario election, then it has probably arrived.
It is difficult to believe in a Ford Nation, when even the Ford Family is crumbling in a torrent of dysfunctionality. Rob Ford's widow Renata is suing brother-in-law Doug for $16.25 million for being a negligent business manager and frittering away the family fortune, which is largely held in the family-owned company, Deco Labels & Tags Ltd. The action alleges that Doug and other brother Randy "lack the education and business ability to justify their employment as senior officers of Deco". Ouch!
Now, a good part of Doug's election credentials, like Donald Trump before him, are based on his supposed business acumen, and his reputation as a successful businessman. Having overseen the decimation of a $15 to $20 million company to the state where a third party valuation deems the company shares as essentially worthless, puts a pretty substantial spoke in that particular wheel. And the allegations that Doug and Randy have been pursuing the "ongoing liquidation of investments" to fund the company and their own interests, and that the company has no real business plan (sound familiar?), are pretty serious.
Whether the allegations are ultimately proven in court or not, you can just see that a Doug Ford premiership would go much the same way as the Trump presidency, with one lawsuit after another, and riddled with scandals. Having (barely) survived 4 years of a Rob Ford mayoralty - no thank you.
So, maybe you had managed somehow to overlook the fact that Ford lacks a real platform, has no idea how provincial politics works, is implicated in the party's corrupt internal organization, and once helped to enable his now-deceased brother in probably the worst mayoral administration in Canadian history. But surely this is a compelling reason not to vote Conservative this time, however much you may like your local candidate. In voting for a local Conservative candidate, you are also voting for Doug Ford. Let's not lose sight of that.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Just who are these "elites" that populist politicians talk about?

Donald Trump was elected on the promise of "draining the swamp" and fighting back against "the elites". The Brexit vote turned on Nigel Farage's disparagement of "the global elites" and "political elites". Doug Ford talks all the time about the "elites", or often more specifically "downtown elites" (as though the whole population of central Toronto, for example, were rich playboys), whom he comically characterizes as "drinking champagne with their pinkies in the air", just as his brother Rob did before him. "Elites" are a favourite whipping boy for populist politicians.
Technically, according to the dictionary, "elite" means "the richest, most powerful, best educated, or best-trained group in a society". But this is presumably not who Trump, Farage and the Fords are actually referring to when they use the term in their political rants. Hell, they ARE the elites: Trump is a billionaire businessman; Farage is the privately-educated ex-stockbroker and son of a stockbroker; the Fords are multi-millionaires who inherited a successful business from their father. You really think these people care about what they superciliously call "the little guy" ?Furthermore, much of the political base of these people is made up of rich and influential conservatives who want to stay rich and influential (i.e. "elites", by any normal definition).
So, who are these "elites", and why are they so denigrated by rich, powerful populists? Just to be clear, "populist" maybe also needs defining. The dictionary describes populism as "political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want". This gives us a clue as to where these elite populists are coming from. They need a way to appeal to the average working class Joe, the "ordinary people" of the definition, which is rea1not their natural political base. They do this by appealing to the working class' natural resentment (jealousy?) of the rich and the powerful, by establishing an "us-against-them" narrative, no matter how false and how disingenuous. It is essentially a deception, an attempt to establish fake credentials as a "man of the people".
Doug Ford's characterization of champagne-drinking denizens of the downtown Toronto core is particularly telling, as he has (and will always have) next to no support in downtown Toronto, so he can afford to use them as stooges in his demagoguery, to set them up as "other", as scapegoats. He really doesn't care if he offends them, because they were never voting for him anyway. And, after all, "elite" is a much more satisfying derogatory epithet than "well-educated" or "successful", and does not given the unfortunate impression that these people have intellectually weighed him up and found him lacking.
So, essentially, in this context, "elite" doesn't really mean anything. It is just a convenient stand-in term for "different" that is designed to appeal to the kind of less discerning rural voter who responds well to dog-whistle politics and single-issue campaign promises. I know I have just marked myself down forever as an "elite" But, you know, at this point, I just don't care.

Doug Ford is for the big guy - himself

Don't believe a word of it. When Doug Ford says, "I am for the little guy", what he means is, "I am for the big guy", namely himself.
He had no ideology and no platform other than to dangle tempting but politically empty ideas - cheaper gas and electricity, sacking the CEO of Hydro One, selling beer and wine in corner stores, "buck-a-beer" cheaper alcohol, lower taxes, subways, subways, subways - whatever dog-whistle populist issues he thinks might get him elected, with no thought for how they might be paid for, or how they might fit into some kind of an economic plan for the province. He is what The Guardian calls "a mercenary for the millionaire class".
I understand that people want a change from the Liberals, and that Kathleen Wynne.has been disappointing. Even she has now counted herself out. But if the choice is between Doug Ford-ism (I won't say conservatism, because some individual candidates are actually fiscal and/or social conservatives), and a reasonably centrist NDP (guilty as they are of a few dog-whistle policies of their own, e.g. subsidizing electricity), then please let's go with the party that has at least some sort of a cohesive plan. It may not be exactly the plan you would like, but any plan is better than no plan. Better the devil you know...
Don't let Ford do a Trump and turn the calendar back decades. Those were not actually the good old days.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Meet the world record holder in ... world records

Terry Reilly's CBC show Under The Influence often features some fascinating stuff about marketing and advertising campaigns. But this week's episode also included a piece about a guy called Ashrita Furman, who holds the Guinness world record for holding Guinness world records.

Mr. Furman manages a health food store in New York as a day job, but since 1979 he has made it his life work to break as many world records as possible. Since then he has broken a ridiculous 628 Guinness world records, and to this day he is still the world record holder in over 200 different disciplines.

I say "disciplines" advisedly because, although some of his records are relatively mainstream and certainly impressive, some others are just plain bizarre (although perhaps no less impressive). For example, he has broken world records in jumping jacks (27,000), sit-ups (9,628 in one hour), pogo-ing up all 1,899 steps of Toronto's CN Tower in under an hour, etc. But he has also broken records for some more unusual tasks, e.g. somersaulting continuously for 12 miles, walking over 80 miles balancing a milk bottle on his head, yodelling for 27 straight hours, and opening the most beer bottles in a minute using a chain saw.

Mr. Furman's own website lists even more: fastest mile on a kangaroo ball; jumping rope on a pogo stick; underwater pogo stick jumping; underwater cycling; underwater juggling; mountain climbing on stilts; sack racing against a Mongolian yak; the world's largest popcorn sculpture; catching ping-pong balls with chopsticks; balancing a lawnmower on the chin; slicing potatoes while hopping on a shovel; balancing 700 eggs on end simultaneously; etc.

As you can imagine, Furman invented many of these records himself, which just goes to show that you are only limited by your imagination. But it has to be said that even some of these more unusual records are still prodigious athletic feats.

Mr. Furman insists that he is not a natural athlete, and attributes his achievements and endurance to years of meditation with guru Sri Chinmoy (the name Ashrita, meaning "protected by God", was granted him by Sri Chinmoy - his real name is the more prosaic Keith). I'm not entirely sure what Sri Chinmoy thinks about Furman's propensity for stilt-walking and potato-slicing. It does not seem particularly pious somehow.

The arguments against theTrans Mountain Pipeline look more convincing

It is no longer news that the Canadian government's decision to pump $4.5 billion of taxpayers' money into buying up the Trans Mountain Pipeline extension project from American-Canadian pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, which was not willing to put up with the commercial and political risk of the controversial oil pipeline, which is to transport diluted bitumen from northern Alberta's tar sands to the British Columbia coast for export. However, the controversy has not gone away, and the project - and the federal government's inexorable support of it - continues to set economists, environmentalists and ethicists against each other.
As an example of how the issue has split opinions in two, a couple of the Globe and Mail's business commentators faced off in today's issue, each coming to diametrically opposite conclusions on the subject.
One the one hand, Barrie McKenna is persuaded by the evidence he sees that the government has taken a huge and irresponsible gamble on yesterday's technology. Even setting aside the environmental arguments against the project, McKenna sees nothing but bad things in the commercial and business outlook for the pipeline. Firstly, the government has now involved itself in something that is certain to attract increasing and potentially violent protests (imagine a Standing Rock situation, but in easily-accessible suburban Vancouver), protracted legal proceedings, and an extremely uncertain market for the dirty and carbon-intensive bitumen that the pipeline is to be used to transport, not to mention the potential (some would say certainty) of substantial cost construction overruns. All if this would make the government's resale of the project back to the private sector within a couple of years (its stated intention) much more problematic than it is publicly admitting, and some analyses suggest that the government has already paid well over the odds to Kinder Morgan in order to save the project.
One of the main commercial planks on which the government's decision rests is the need to export crude oil to the Asian market, and thereby reduce Canadian reliance on the unreliable USA. However, McKenna argues, the evidence suggests that Asia is actually very unlikely to pay more than the US, and it does not have the refining technology to deal with diluted bitumen anyway. So, the odds are that America will continue to be the major destination for Alberta crude anyway, with all that THAT entails. Currently, just 1% of Alberta crude makes its way to Asia, and that is probably not about to change significantly any time soon. The government could therefore be saddled with a very expensive white elephant, and the Canadian taxpayer is, of course, on the hook for it.
Free marketeer Andrew Willis, on the other hand, sees only sunshine and light, a tidy profit for Canadian taxpayers, and a better Canada in the process. Willis sees selling to the burgeoning Asian market (particularly China) as a panacea for the low margins Alberta heavy crude is currently experiencing from its American market. Willis maintains that "the public will come round to the logic of using the massive wealth locked up in Alberta's oil sands to help pay for the country's transformation to an economy based on other sources of energy, such as renewable power". That seems to be some tortuous pretzel logic indeed, and Willis tries to justify it by arguing that it is a similar situation to the idea that taxing cigarettes has helped in the fight against cancer (hmm...)
He further argues that Mr. Trudeau had basically no choice in the matter, because no private business would be willing to swallow the risks of protracted litigation and protests, although that seems to me to be a warning to leave well enough alone rather than to get involved. Even if Trudeau does manage to get some First Nations groups to participate as part-owners of the pipeline (and a few DO seem interested), you just know that many others will fight tooth and nail not to have the project anywhere near their land. Mr. Trudeau is persuasive and charming, but not THAT persuasive and charming.
As you can probably tell from my exposition of these two opposing viewpoints, Mr. Willis' seems a lot less convincing than Mr. McKenna's, not to mention more Pollyanna-ish and less fact-driven. The bit about using an oil pipeline as a means of shifting to a low-carbon economy seems particularly implausible and lame, not to say cynical. Imagine what a direct investment of $4.5 billion in clean-tech could do for Canada's renewable energy and carbon reduction plans. As it is, there seems to be no way we can even come close to our Paris Treaty commitments, and Trans Mountain can only make this worse, not better. Mr. Trudeau is still saying that climate change is still a key priority of his government, but his words are starting to ring increasingly hollow. I can't help feeling like Trudeau's protection of the moribund heavy oil industry is very comparable to Trump's espousal of the even-more-moribund American coal industry.

Non-cheering cheerleaders in the NHL are an embarrassing anachronism

I suppose it should come as no surprise, but it was nevertheless quite illuminating (and not a little depressing) to read that many National Football League (NFL) clubs employ non-cheering cheerleaders to just shmooze with the crowd, in order to "enhance" their event experience, as well as to hand out prizes, encourage audience participation, etc.
Some clubs describe them as "hostesses" or "ambassadors", although most just call them "cheerleaders" or "appearance-only cheerleaders", and deliberately try to conflate them with the real thing, as though they are a guilty secret, which is not far from the truth. These scantily-clad young females dress like the real cheerleaders, but are not required to have any dancing or gymnastics experience (although some application forms do call for specific body measurements). Instead, they are merely there to interact with the testosterone-laden and often alcohol-soaked crowd, in much the same way as Hooters waitresses are not really there to serve your drinks efficiently and politely. They are essentially sexualized saleswomen. In particular, they are considered a "perk" of the elite corporate and luxury suites, which provide football clubs with a substantial guaranteed income.
Predictably enough, these young women, who are generally paid minimum wage for their services, are constantly subjected to sexual harassment and groping. In the changed political climate of the #MeToo era, some women (both bona fide cheerleaders and non-cheering "alternative" cheerleaders) are starting to speak out and filing legal complaints for sexual harassment, although many are hampered by confidentiality agreements. And, because of #MeToo, organizations are having to be at least seen to be listening.
Formula One car racing has recently decided to stop using so-called "grid girls", and many professional cycling races are stopping this use of "podium girls". In both cases, organizations say that such things are at odds with modern-day societal norms. In football, however - proud last bastion of traditional, heterosexual, macho attitudes - the trend appears to be going in the other direction, and clubs are largely unapologetic for their cheerleading practices. Let's see whether a few adverse legal cases changes that.

Maybe millennial humour just isn't that funny

My millennial daughter has been trying to convince me that, in the millennials' world at least, humour and jokes do not have to be funny. I - old, haggard and unenlightened as I am - contend that she is talking about something else entirely, and that humour does indeed need to be funny in order to be humour, by definition. She merely shakes her head at me pityingly, secure in the knowledge (like all younger generations since time immemorial) that I just don't get it, indeed that I can NEVER get it, not being myself a millennial.
Well, I remember using similar arguments with my own parents, and I am sure now, in retrospect, that they are spurious. Every generation thinks they are special, that their way of thinking is the right way, and every generation is almost certainly wrong in that. It did get me wondering, though, about millennial humour. Is it actually so different, so special?
Many an established comedian would, and indeed has, argued that the millennial generation is the death of traditional comedy, necessitating stand-up comics to pussyfoot around, and often completely abandon, much of their stock subject matter (e.g. minorities, races, women, etc) in deference to the fragile sensibilities and political correctness of the younger generations (Jerry Seinfeld has been particularly outspoken on this, and now won't play colleges and universities at all because he sees them as too PC). Now, personally, I have never found this kind of "edgy", boundary-pushing humour particularly funny anyway, relying as it does on titillation and outrage, not actual humour, in much the same way as the previous generation of comedians relied on the gratuitous use of taboo swear-words and bodily functions to raise an embarrassed titter from its audience.
There has been a surprising amount written on millennial humour, probably because so few boomers really understand it. It seems largely to revolve around absurdity, abstractness, darkness, surrealism, sarcasm, self-reference and self-deprecation. There is nothing particularly new about any of these planks of humour, but this generation seems to take them to new lengths. Check out, for example, Tim & Eric, Hey Beter or the Harambe the Gorilla meme. Much of it is visual, involving memes that are tweaked to ever-more-absurd levels, often using Photoshopped images or low-fi, deliberately amateurish visuals, with short dead-pan captions which often have little or nothing to do with the visuals.
This, it seems, is highly amusing to a certain segment of society, to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else, who mainly find it mystifying and a little tedious. Commentators have posited that the flavour of millennial humour is a result of the fact that traditional sources of meaning (e.g. religion, family, work) have become less strongly for their generation, but I don't really buy that: it just smacks of over-earnest PhD theses to me. Let's not overthink it.
Anyway, none of this helps me understand my daughter's sense of humour. She does have a good sense of humour; I know that, because I often laugh at her jokes, as she does at mine. But, every now and then, she will throw in a comment that just sounds like a serious comment or at best a sarcastic throwaway quip, which is just not really funny, and that's when the eye-rolling starts. But, hey, maybe I'm right, maybe millennial humour just isn't very funny.