Thursday, August 30, 2018

Canadian dairy is not a sacred cow

It's looking increasingly likely that Canada will have to abandon its perennially contentious supply management system for its dairy trade if it wants to cut any kind of reasonable deal in the NAFTA renegotiation. I have gone into the subject in some detail in the past, and concluded that the system is probably unjustifiable, and that abandoning it would not be the end of the world for Canada or even for its farmers.
The issue continues to be highly divisive, though, and not even necessarily along party lines. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is an example of the-sky-is-falling persuasion, as he warns, nay, almost threatens, Justin Trudeau that any move to leave behind supply management would be political suicide ("serious political consequences"), at least in the dairy-heavy province of Quebec. Actually, there are only 11,000 dairy farms in the whole of Canada, and these are split between many different electoral ridings, so this particular warning seems overblown at best. It should also be remembered that the dairy industry represents just a tiny proportion of our overall trade mix, a $6 billion industry of which just $150 million goes in exports to the USA (we already import about $470 million in dairy products from the US).
But an increasing number of articles (this one in the Globe and Mail, and this one in Macleans, being just two among many) are also concluding that maybe the time has come, and that the Canadian dairy industry's multi-decade free ride has run its course, and that, actually, that may not be such a bad thing.
Among other benefits of abandoning supply management are: the fact that Canada's terminally inefficient dairy sector will finally have to shape up and look for efficiencies as the competition breathes down their necks; lower prices for Canadian consumers of dairy products, especially the poor, who spend a disproportionate percentage of their incomes on food (the Canada West Foundation estimates that the system costs the average Canadian family about $600 a year, and another study estimates that poorer families are paying $339 a year more because of supply management); and, oh, just in passing, it might just get us a renegotiation of NAFTA and avoid 25% tariffs on auto exports among many other bad things.
So, Philippe Couillard's warnings notwithstanding, I think we could quite easily conscience an end to dairy supply management in the interests of the greater good. And we might even reap substantial local benefits at the same time. Other big dairy producers and exporters like Australia and New Zealand have shown that a supply management system is not a necessary part of a thriving dairy industry, and there is no reason why Canada cannot join them. If deemed necessary, a temporary compensation system for dairy producers could be introduced, in order to ensure an orderly transition. But it can be done. Dairy production is not an untouchable sacred cow.

US Open's sexist code violation umpire put firmly in his place

It seems kind of ridiculous that, in this day and age, female tennis players can be given a code violation for changing their shirts on court. And, indeed, when Frenchwoman Alize Cornet did so at the US Open this week, after realizing she had her top on back-to-front after a change during a heat break, there was a great outcry of "sexism!" The competition's management later issued a public clarification to the effect that the code violation decision was wrong and that women are in fact allowed to change their shirts on court, just the same as men are. The World Tennis Association also slammed the decision, saying that changing shirts on court is not against any WTA rules as there ARE no rules on that, either for men or for women.
So, in the end, no fine was levied, and Ms. Cornet went on to win the match. However, it still begs the question of what the chair umpire - let's name hin: Christian Rask of Denmark - was thinking in issuing a code violation in the first place. Shouldn't HE be issued a fine?

Kanye West belatedly apologizes for his slavery comments

Kanye West has finally got around to apologizing for his comments about slavery earlier this summer, when he called blacks' submission to slavery "for 400 years" something that sounds like "a choice".
The comments, in an interview with TMZ in May of this year, created quite a stir, but the notoriously Trump-loving rap star did not retract them. West also suffers from bipolar disorder, and that was his main excuse in apologizing for the outburst. It seems he has realized that his comments may be alienating the fee-paying public, so he has decided to make a public apology.

Pension changes the only issue that threatens Russia's love affair with Putin

Russia's a funny place. Throughout all the iffy machinations that Vladimir Putin has take the country through in recent years - from invasions of neighbouring countries to expanding his nuclear arsenal to severely curtailing the free press to political assassination attempts and imprisonments - the Russian public has remained reasonably equanimous, with just the odd protest or demonstration, swiftly quelled. Throughout it all, Putin's popularity had remained unconscionably high, at around 80% plus.
Then he decides to increase the retirement/pension age and all hell is let loose. To help an economy that has been sputtering for some years now, and to cut back on government expenditure the country can ill afford to maintain, he proposed increasing the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women, closer to the levels of most of the rest of the world, but something he once vowed never to touch. This has let to widespread unrest, and a huge hit to Putin's personal popularity rating, from 80% to 67% in just a few short months. Polls show some 90% of the population oppose the cost-cutting moves. Putin has since had to scale back his plans in order to placate the irate populace.
And THIS is the issue that finally gets the Russian people off their fat arses to challen? I'm almost tempted to quote Donald Trump: "Sad!"

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Beware, that fish you ordered could be absolutely anything

I don't eat fish - I've been vegetarian for the last 35 years or so - but I'm beginning to be quite thankful for that.
A study by advocacy group Oceana Canada shows that fish sold in restaurants and grocery stores is quite likely to be mislabelled. The study looked at 382 samples of fish sold in 177 retailers and restaurants across Canada, and used DNA barcoding to determine the actual species of fish. Around 44% (so, almost half) of the fish were not actually what they purported to be. 52% of the samples from restaurants were mislabelled, while grocery stores and markets fared slightly better with just 22% of the samples incorrectly labelled. Some types of fish were much more likely to be mislabelled: 100% of snapper, yellowtail and butterfish; about 50% of seabass; and around 30% of cod, halibut, tuna and sole. Most often, the fish actually turned out to be much cheaper fish like escolar (the fish dubbed "the laxative of the sea), tilapia or Japanese amberback.
The study draws no conclusion about where the mislabelling occurs - whether at the level of the retailing restaurant or store, or at the wholesaler stage, or even on the actual fishing boats themselves (that would be my guess). But, either way, it seems like you eat fish at your peril - it could be absolutely anything!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

How Trump hopes to control the WTO

If you had any doubts at all whether Donald Trump is against trade regulations in any shape or form, your doubts will have been definitively put to rest as he makes his move against the World Trade Organization (WTO) itself. Given that the USA is currently defending itself against a bunch of major WTO cases, including against Canada and China, this could be a big deal.
The WTO is the intergovernmental organization that has attempted to regulate international trade since its founding in 1995. It has 164 member countries, and 23 more with observer status. It is not a perfect organization, but it is the only body that is willing to put itself out there and mediate in some if the world's thorniest trade disputes. Frankly, it is the best we have.
Unfortunately, in recent months, the WTO finds itself in something of a parlous state. It nominally has seven appeal judges from various different parts of the world, but it is currently down to four, with one of those due to be re-appointed on September 30th. Since the start if his term of office, Trump has effectively blocked all appointments to the body as existing judges' terms come to an end. If he also blocks the appointment on September 30th, the chamber will be down to three, the minimum number required for the dispute-resolution system to function.
Trump maintains that the USA loses too many WTO appeals cases because other countries have most of the judges. "Not fair!", "Sad!", you know the kind of thing. Except that, as usual, he has all his facts wrong. The US has a similar, if not better, win-lose rate to other countries, and research shows that the US wins about 90% of the WTO cases in which it is the appellant, and loses about the same percentage when other bring cases against it. Also, the WTO appellate body has always had at least one American on it, which is more than any other country can say. So, if anything, the US is over-represented and overly successful.
One can only conclude that Trump is looking to reduce the chamber to a group of three that the American member can more effectively control. Fair? I'll leave you to decide.
In his usual throwaway style, Trump told Bloomberg news that he would happily just leave the WTO completely if the US doesn't win more cases: "If they don't shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO". He is particularly concerned about a Chinese WTO claim against the US after Trump imposed new tariffs on them. He might have added, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair".

US court rules that political gerrymandering is unconstitutional

In a landmark legal decision, a special group of three federal judges has ruled that the political boundaries within the state of North Carolina have been deliberately gerrymandered to the advantage of the Republican Party, and must be rectified, possibly before the upcoming November mid-terms. This comes after a similar case in Pennsylvania earlier this year which also ruled that Republican-gerrymandered districts needed to be rectified.
If you aren't sure, gerrymandering is the practice of rigging the boundaries of political jurisdictions in order to strengthen the electoral propects of particular political parties, a practice that goes back at least to the 18th century. American electoral districts are notoriously gerrymandered, but a couple of legal cases before this one, one in Wisconsin and one in Maryland, were both thrown out on technicalities before a decision could be made.
The North Carolina case is even more egregious than those, though, and one Republican member of the the North Carolina General Assembly is on public record as saying, when the state's electoral districts were redrawn in 2016, just before the Federal election: "I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country ... I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats, because I do not believe it is possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats". Wow! It doesn't get much clearer than that.
As it turns out, North Carolina did indeed vote in exactly 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats in 2016, despite the Republicans only receiving 53% of the popular vote, providing an eye-popping example of just how effective - and how exact a science - gerrymandering is. The partisan map-drawing of this single state had a direct influence over granting Donald Trump a small majority in the House of Representatives. With the Supreme Court as a whole still with just 8 members, 4 Republicans and 4 Democrats, the lower court's ruling is unlikely to be overruled, and North Carolina's gerrymandering will need to be addressed before the November mid-term elections. As a result, the Democrats may have a much better chance of winning back the House this November.
I'm sure that both the Reublicans and the Democrats are guilty of gerrymandering in different states and at different times, just one example of how the victors can rewrite history. But this one case can hopefully help to redress the imbalance and the political machinations that go on behind the scenes of US elections, and it will almost certainly have wider national implications. Given that the USA is clearly not moving towards a system of proportional representation any time soon, that's probably the best we can hope for.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why is the hash or number sign also called the pound sign?

The hash sign # is absolutely ubiquitous these days, what with Twitter hashtags being bandied around with gay abandon. But have you ever wondered why it is also called the "pound" sign?
It usually gets that name - at least in North America; it is never called that in Britain - when used in the context of a phone keypad, as in "Press the pound sign to return to the previous menu" in those interminable phone menu systems. Funnily enough, when the symbol was first added to a phone keypad, by Bell back in the 1960s, it had a perfectly good name of its own: the "octothorpe" ("octo" for the eight points of the symbol, and "thorpe" for, well, no-one's quite sure about that). But apparently that name just never took off, and it became known as the "pound sign".
Why? Well, that's also not clear. The theory is that, back in the day, the abbreviation for a pound in weight, "lb" (after libra pondo, literally "pound by weight" in Latin), was often crossed like a "t" by bookkeepers and scribes, so that it kind of looks a bit like the # symbol, and that the symbol was therefore often used instead of "lb".
Well, no, actually, a crossed "lb" doesn't look like the # symbol actually, but so goes the theory, which I have seen propounded in many places. Personally, I find this explanation singularly unconvincing, as, apparently, do others.
Another, almost equally unconvincing, theory revolves around the idea that the shift symbol on the number 3 on a British typewriter was the £ (pound) symbol. On American typewriters, this was replaced by the more useful # symbol. This may be true, but still does not explain why the different symbol also came to be called "pound".
Of course, the symbol also masquerades under a variety of other names and has a wild variety of uses:
  • "hash" - this usage in computing arose in the 1970s, possibly as a bastardization of "hatch", and it has various computer usages in different programming languages. It has more recently become ubiquitous through the use of Twitter "hashtags".
  • "comment" - a secondary use in computing to mean that the line following the symbol is to be read as an explanatory comment and not as an instruction within the program.
  • "number" - to indicate ordinal numbers, as in "#2 pencil" or "cell block #9", a common-sense name that arose in Britain in order to avoid confusion with the British currency symbol (pound sterling).
  • "sharp" - an italicized version of # used in musical notation for centuries to mean "make the note a halftone higher".
  • "space" - used in copy editing to mean "insert a space between these words or sentences".
  • "equal and parallel" - a symbol used in mathematics and geometry. The symbol also has other uses in mathematics, including the cardinality of sets in set theory, the connected sum of manifolds in topology; the primorial function in number theory, etc.
  • it also has several other, less official names, including "square", "gate", "crunch, "tic-tac-toe", etc.

Surely Proctor & Gamble won't be allowed to trademark "WTF" - will they?

Global household products company, and the company behind brands like Febreze, Fairy and Mr. Clean, Procter & Gamble, has applied to trademark popular text-speak acronyms like "LOL", "NBD" and even "WTF".
If that seems like a ridiculous idea to you, then it also seems like a ridiculous idea to me too. But P&G is anxious to tap into the large and ever-more-affluent millennial generation. And it seems to think that, by putting out products and advertising using these acronyms, it will endear itself to the under-35 demographic.
It's by no means certain that the US Patents and Trademarks Office will allow P&G's marketing move - surely it is just like trademarking a regular word, like "ostrich " or "clean", and can't possibly be legal? - but it just shows the depths to which aggressive capitalism is willing to sink.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Reading books is good for you - it's official

I am one of the dying breed, those who still read books made of paper. I've never been tempted to invest in an e-reader, or to download books onto my phone to squint at. I LIKE books, especially secondhand books, and have found no compelling reason to abandon them for the sake of technology.
Well, it seems that a bunch of studies back me up in my decision. For example, readers of books have been shown to retain more of the plot than those who read from tablets, as well as having a better understanding of the narrative, and feeling more immersed in the story and more empathetic to the characters. Young children also have a better comprehension of a story read to them from a book than from an electronic source, partly because they get less distracted and focus better.
And there are other advantages: electronic books cause screen fatigue and eye strain, leading to blurred vision, redness, dryness and irritation; e-books also lead to more temptation to distraction on the internet (e.g. looking up words, etc) and trying, unsuccessfully, to multitask; blue light from screens messes with melatonin levels and circadian rhythms, making it harder to get to sleep, and leading to grogginess on waking; and the tactile feel and even the smell of books can result in a feeling of well-being that e-reader just cannot replicate.
So, I may be an unapologetic throw-back, but at least I have some scientific research behind me now.

Jeff Sessions, the seasoned sensible statesman (relatively speaking)

You know that American politics is in a tailspin when Jeff Sessions comes across as the seasoned, sober and sensible statesman.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Trump: chutzpah, sollipsism and denial in almost equal measures

As American federal politics continues to implode, it has reached the four-clowns-in-a-toy-car level of circus with the almost simultaneous announcement of Michael Cohen's damning plea deal and Paul Manafort's indictment on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. Donald Trump's response, though, is almost beyond belief, even though we have already become quite accustomed to Trump's level of solipsism and denial.
As Cohen was found guilty of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations on Tuesday, baldly stating in the process that Trump had directed him to make hush payments to two women with whom he had previously had affairs, Trump asserted, against all the evidence, that the campaign finance violations were not in fact a crime, and contented himself with quipping that Cohen is incompetent and that people searching for a good lawyer should look elsewhere. While that may be true it is a long way from the point. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the official Trump line: "Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn't mean that that implicates the president on anything". Well, not strictly true, as the renewed talk about impeachment indicates.
An unrepentant Trump has also continued to support the discredited Manafort as a "brave man" for not cooperating with the authorities.
The kicker, though, came in an interview on Trump's favourite TV show, Fox & Friends, on the subject of his possible impeachment. The President of the United States quips, "I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job ... I tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think that everybody would be very poor ... Because without this thinking [indicating his own head], you would see numbers that you wouldn't believe in reverse".
Once you figure out what he is actually saying, there is little one can do or say, other than to just sit there with dropped jaw. Chutzpah does not even cover it. He truly believes that he is single-handedly holding up the whole stock market (and possibly the universe).

After 14 centuries, Indian law finally bans the triple talaq

It may be merely a footnote in Canadian newspapers, but India's banning of the practice of "triple talaq" is a big deal for millions of women in the world's second largest Muslim population.
Triple talaq is the widely mentioned Muslim divorce procedure, whereby a husband can instantly divorce a wife by stating three times - either orally, in writing, or even in an email or text - the word "talaq" ("I divorce you"). It's one if those throwaway, out-of-context snippets that non-Muslims use to berate Muslims about how ridiculous their religion is (and it is, don't get me wrong).
However, the practice has already been made illegal in most Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Morocco. And where it does still apply it is usually softened by a three month waiting period. But, up until this week, it was the law in India. The Supreme Court of India finally banned the practice after a sustained grassroots campaign by Muslim women led by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan organization, which has spent years campaigning and tirelessly shining a light on the human misery caused by this misogynistic throwback practice.
As Sheena Khan points out in today's Globe and Mail, there is an example in the Koran itself of a strong woman called Khawla bint Tha'labah in the 7th Century who rebelled against a very similar ancient practice called "dhihar". She argued against Mohammed himself, and succeeded in persuading The Prophet that the practice was wrong and should be done away with.
Some 14 centuries later, Indian Muslim clerics have finally been corrected by a group of modern-day bint Tha'labahs. Next up: polygamy.

And the best-selling album of all time is...

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has updated their listing of the best selling albums of all time (in America, at least) to take into account digital downloads and streaming.
So, what would be your guess at the Number 1 album? Michael Jackson's Thriller perhaps? Something by Fleetwood Mac? Or Elvis? The Beatles? Maybe even Drake?
Well, I was a little taken aback by the answer: The Eagles' 1976 Greatest Hits album. Whut? It doesn't even include Hotel California (the eponymous album on which that appears actually came in at Number 3!). So, it seem like including digital sales has had the effect of raising The Eagles above The King of Pop. This is at least partly because the RIAA listing also includes the sales of singles of an album (sales of 10 singles equates to one album in their mind). Interestingly, a double album counts as two in RIAA's algorithm (although not if it fits onto a single CD!), but none of the top albums actually benefitted from that distinction. Noticeably, most of the top albums date from the 1970s and 1980s, not because the music was better then, but just because they have had decades longer in which to sell copies.
The Top 10 is as follows:
The Eagles: Greatest Hits (1976)
  • Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)
  • The Eagles: Hotel California (1976)
  • Led Zepellin: IV (1971)
  • AC/DC: Back in Black (1980)
  • Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1977)
  • Guns N Roses: Appetite for Destruction (1987)
  • Shania Twain: Come On Over (1992)
  • Elton John: Greatest Hits (1976)
  • Boston: Boston (1976)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Drive-through confession box a hint at how Ireland will welcome the Pope

Irish bookmaker company Paddy Power has erected a huge drive-through confession box in Dublin in anticipation of Pope Francis' upcoming Irish visit for the triennial "World Meeting of Families".
Located close to Dublin's Phoenix Park, where the Pope will preside over an open-air mass expected to attract 500,000 (a far cry from the 2.7 million that attended mass the last time a Pope visited, back in 1979), the confession box is a tonge-in-cheek barb aimed at the Catholic Church that was once so powerful and dominant in Ireland. Paddy Power says it will allow motorists a quick expiation of sins with a minimum of hassle, as they prepare for next week's open-air mass. The company points to polls that suggest that 80% of Ireland's once devout population do not go to confession regularly, and 29% can't even remember the last time they went. Only a third of the population even attend mass regularly (down from 90% at the time of the last papal visit in 1979).
Although this particular Pope is relatively progressive (at least by papal standards), Ireland has changed a lot in the last 40 years - gay marriage is now legal, as is abortion - and the Pope will be be met by a barrage of protests (particularly over the ongoing issue of sexual abuse within the clergy) rather than by adoring fans. There is a large online movement called "Say Nope to the Pope", part of which involves buying up tickets to the outdoor mass and then not showing up.
Whatever you think about Catholicism now, the organization has a horribly checkered past, and modern Ireland will leave the Pope in no doubt about what many people think of it. If only the drive-through confession box were large enough for the One True Church itself to enter into.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Google is still tracking us (yawn!)

It seems like the world has only just come to terms with the sheer amount data that Google records on us using its Location History feature. This is in order to "deliver better results and recommendations on Google products", from traffic predictions to shopping suggestions to regionalized search results to the grouping of photos by location, and I have to say it does a pretty good job of it. It is also why so many apps that we download and use ask for permission for the app to use Location History.
If you think this is an egregious infringement of your privacy then you can always opt out by going to Settings > Google > Location > Google Location History, and switching it off (this is in addition to switching off Location Services, which is the map-pin icon usually accessed from the top pull-down menu of your phone, or from Settings > Google > Location. But bear in mind that Google usual excellent artificial intelligence on what it is you are looking for is likely to be compromised. Me, I have nothing particularly to hide, and I feel like I am able to resist any advertising Google throws at me, unless I actually want it.
Now, however, it has become clear that, even with Location History switched off, Goyogle is still tracking our movements to some extent, in their never-ceasing quest to make us happy, and this has elicited more outrage from privacy people. It does this whenever a website or app associated with a person's Google account (e.g. Google Maps, weather widgets, fitness trackers, etc, on both Android and iOS phones) asks for location data. It does this through a service called Web and App Activity, which operates completely independently of Location History.
Because this is enabled by default, some people are crying foul (partly because, if you did go and turn of Location History, Google's message did not mention the fact that Web and App Activity was also tracking your every move.
But this too can be turned off it you really want, by going to Settings > Google > Google Account > Data & Personalization > Data and App Activity, and turn it off from there. It's a bit convoluted, but it can be done. Again, expect some diminution in Google's service if you want to go down this route.
Is this a major infringement.of our civil rights? Probably not, although different people have different comfort levels. When.all's said and done, though, Google is not a charity, and if you want to use its services, you have to pay for them in some way. Maybe you'd prefer a monthly charge?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Why won't the Parker Solar Probe melt in the Sun's corona?

I was reading an article in The New Indian Express (of all places!) about why NASA's Parker Solar Probe is not going to melt as it gets very close to the Sun, where the temperature is measured in millions of degrees.
The article explains all about the custom-built heat shield (Thermal Protection System, or TPS), which is made from carbon composite foam between two carbon plates. But then it says that the heat shield is tested to withstand heat up to 1,650°C, as hot as molten lava expelled from a volcano. I wondered, though, how this was going to help in the outer reached of the Sun's corona, where the temperature will be over a million degrees.
For an answer, I had to go to the horse's mouth, NASA' s own explanation of how the heat shield deals with such high temperatures. It turns out that there is a difference, which I had never appareciated before, between temperature and heat. Temperature is a measure of how fast particles are moving, while heat is a measure of how much energy is actually transferred. So, high temperatures do not always translate into heating an object. Think of the difference between putting your hand into a pot of boiling water, and putting it into a (much hotter) oven. More specifically, because the Sun's corona is basically empty space containing very few particles, it actually transfers very little energy to the spacecraft as it passes through. Therefore, the heat shield will only have to deal with heat of around 1,400°C. Which is hot, but not millions degrees hot.
So, there you go - science!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Why Kanye West hits it off with Donald Trump

I have never liked Kanye West. I find his music uninspiring and his character odious. I have never understood why he is quite so famous, other than the fact that he is linked to Kim Kardashian, who is famous for ... well, being famous.
But I hadn't realized just how much I disliked him until I watched the BBC's montage of some of his most objectionable and outrageous moments.
You can quite see why he might be bosom buddies with Donald Trump. The two were made for each other.

Ruling aginst Monsanto will not be the end of this story

In a landmark court case in California, a dying man who contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma due to his regular use of Monsanto's RangerPro weedkiller (which uses the same glyphosate base used in the company's ubiquitous Roundup product), was awarded $289 million in damages, because the jury found that Monsanto knew that its Roundup and RangerPro weedkillers were dangerous but failed to warn consumers. There are some 5,000 other plaintiffs across the USA waiting to bring their own cases against Monsanto (which is now owned by European agrichemical giant Bayer AG), who will no doubt be very heartened by the ruling. For its part, Bayer says it will vigorously challenge the verdict, and it continues to maintain that its product is safe.
And it is a thorny problem to be sure. Roundup, and glyphosate in general, is the world's most commonly-used weedkiller and has been used throughout the world for some 40 years. It very effectively kills every plant that has not been genetically-modified to be able to cope with it, GM crops that are only available from - you guessed it - Monsanto. Glyphosate has been widely found in people's urine, in food, and even in beer.
But it has been dogged by claims that it is carcinogenic almost since the beginning. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Word Health Organization's cancer agency, concluded in 2015 that there was "limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans" and that it is "probably carcinogenic", which might sound like the end of the story. But, even before it was corrupted by the Trump administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to insist that glyphosate is safe and "not likely" to be carcinogenic to people, at least when used carefully, as does the US National Institute of Health (NIH). Even the usually circumspect European Union renewed its licence for glyphosate in 2017, although there is still much contention among member states. So, what is a farmer to think?
Some expert commentators have argued that the WHO's public and peer-reviewed analysis of the product is more reliable, and that the studies done by the EU and others rely on data from the producing company itself, which is potentially suspect. It is further argued that many weeds are starting to become resistant to glyphosate, leading to farmers using it in combination with other chemicals like 2,4-D (which was used in Agent Orange in the 1970s), in an ever-escalating war against ... weeds. Whatever you might think about its cancer-causing properties, some people argue that the product needs to be banned anyway because it is putting whole ecosystems at risk as it kills off the plants that support insects, which in turn support birds, etc, etc. And all in the interest of efficiency, and - let's face it - profits.
Anyway, the California ruling is certainly a ground-breaking one, and you can just hear the sound of new cases and class action lawsuits being prepared. But don't count out Bayer just yet: it is company with very deep pockets, and it will not easily abandon such a signature product, nor pay out potentially billions in damages without putting up a good fight.

Five months later, Bayer has been hit with a $2 billion fine in another California case, which ruled that a California couple's cancer was caused by Roundup weedkiller. The company will contest the award, but the final fine will likely still be in the hundreds of millions. An estimated 13,400 people are now lining up to sue the company over its Roundup product.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The myth that we only use 10% of our brains

You've almost certainly seen or heard this claim, even from perfectly sensible and intelligent people: "We only make use of 10% of our brains - if only we could learn to tap into the other 90%..." A friend tried to convince me of it just the other day. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is just plain wrong.
It is hard to even know where the claim came from. Early psychologist and author William James claimed in a 1907 article in the journal Science that we only use part of our mental resources, although he did not mention any percentages, nor did he offer any evidence for his claim. The figure of 10% was mentioned in Dale Carnegie's 1936 book "How to win friends and influence people", but only as an unsubstantiated piece of conventional wisdom. It has even been misattributed to Albert Einstein. Somehow, though, over time, it became a widely quoted "fact" in all sorts of articles, TV programs and newspapers. Health, lifestyle and self-help gurus (and even more-or-less respectable psychologists) avidly picked up on it as a means of touting their own particular brand of snake oil, and now apparently 65% of Americans believe it to be true.
However, as explained in simple terms in Scientific American among other places, the fact is that most of our brains are in use most of the time, even when carrying out the most basic of tasks, and even when sleeping. Over the period of a day, virtually 100% of our brains have been in use at some point, and fMRI testing at the prestigious Mayo Clinic has proved this. Hell, even TV's Mythbusters show has disproved the 10% myth. The "10% of our brains" claim now permanently resides - or at least SHOULD do - in the Urban Myths section.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Gun control in Canada - why does anyone really need guns?

As Canada reels after yet another fatal shooting incident, and new Ontario premier Doug Ford comes out in opposition to a handgun ban ("There's lots of legal, responsible handgun owners"), it occurred to me to research to what extent guns are actually used in self-defence in practice. After all, self-defence is the most common justification for owning a gun and, as Toronto Mayor John Tory said after Toronto's latest shooting: "Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?"
This seems like a reasonable question, but it turns out that, even in America where gun crime (and the ongoing debate over gun control) is rampant, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and a surprisingly difficult thing to measure. There is much controversy over those few studies that have been carried out, not least because the concept of self-defence itself is a loaded and subjective one. The non-partisan RAND Corporation's analysis of the available research concludes that more research is needed (and, in particular, that the NRA-sponsored ban on using federal funds to research it should be revoked).
Gun advocate Gary Kleck's survey of 5,000 Americans yielded the conclusion that 66 of them had used their guns in self-defence in some way in the last year, i.e. about 1.3%. Kleck then extrapolated this over the adult population of the country to arrive at a figure of 2.5 million, a figure that has been widely disseminated by the gun lobby and even used by the US Supreme Court. However, gun control advocates have argued that the survey was phrased in a leading manner, and that the data was misinterpreted anyway. Even Kleck agrees that victims of crime are better off calling the police than whipping out a firearm.
A different analysis by Harvard's David Hemenway concludes that victims use guns in less than 1% of contact crimes, that claims that millions of people use guns to protect themselves each year are invalid, and that guns are actually more likely to be used to escalate arguments and for intimidation (particularly of family members) than in self-defence. One way of looking at it is that, for every gun used in self-defence, six more are used to commit a crime. Hemenway further concludes that victims using guns are no less likely to be injured than those who employ other means of protective action, and indeed that most of the claims made for the benefits of gun ownership are in fact myths.
The Violence Policy Centre published an analysis in 2012 which enumerated just 259 instances where a violent crime had been thwarted by a gun used in self-defence during that year. This is in a country which owns about 300 million guns, and in which there are annually about 1.2 million violent crimes (i.e. opportunities in which self-defence could be employed).
So, although the data in Canada on the issue appears to be non-existent, and data in America is at best questionable, the weight of what evidence is available indicates that guns are probably not much use as self-defence. As with so many important moral questions, there are no easy conclusions. So, why don't we leave the decision up to the survivors, and the relatives of the victims, of the recent shootings in Toronto and Fredericton?

Tesla shareholders deserve more than a 50-character tweet from Musk

Speaking of Twitter and inappropriateness - and I was - there was a good example recently of the inappropriate use of Twitter in the sphere of business and commerce.
Elon Musk, CEO and largest shareholder of electric car-maker Tesla and undeniable genius as an innovator (even if something of a maverick), dropped a simple little 50-character tweet that has thrown his $70-$80 billion company into chaos: "Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured." Basically, Musk is frustrated at the red tape and constant market accountability and oversight involved with running a public company, and wants to go back to operating it as a private company. As a multi-billionaire, he probably has the wherewithal to do just that, although exactly what "funding secured" means is far from clear. The other shareholders are still waiting for some more information.
The audacity of using a short tweet like that for something so major is staggering. One parody tweet neatly put it in perspective: "Am considering going to Chipotle. Funding secured." Surely, the other shareholder deserve a little more than 50 characters.

Just kidding! Musk has changed his mind, after a board meeting in which pretty much everyone warned him against it, and will now no longer be taking his Tesla company private. And this time, he didn't just drop a tweet: he made it much more official and made the announcement in a blog entry on the company's website!
In the meantime, the company's shares have lost about 20% of their value. And all because of an ill-advised tweet!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Twitter is not an appropriate medium for international relations

The Canadian government has reaffirmed its confidence in the use of Twitter as a means of international diplomacy, even as Saudi Arabia continues to ramp up its expressions of outrage and its more concrete retaliations in response to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's tweeted criticism of the Kingdom's approach to human and civil rights.
The Saudi shenanigans were kickstarted by a single tweet last week, although it was merely a public expression of government views and values, and should not have come as a surprise to Saudi Arabia. Arguably, it was the message, not the medium, that so offended the insecure and oppressive Saudi government. Also arguably, the Saudi response, in withdrawing and ejecting the two countries' respective amabassadors by tweet, was an even more egregious use of the platform, equivalent to firing an employee or breaking up with a partner by Twitter (which apparently also happens).
The affair has served to highlight, though, the potential pitfalls of "Twitter diplomacy" (or "hashtag diplomacy" or the rather awkward label "Twiplomacy"). According to many international relations commentators (and according to me), Twitter is just an inappropriate medium for high-level foreign affairs, and encourages the kind of ill-considered spur-of-the-moment shoot-from-the-hip exchanges we have seen so often from Twitter addict Donald Trump, by far the worst offender in this regard. The tone and childish content of some of his exchanges with North Korea and Iran just beggar belief, especially given the geopolitical import of the communications. But there are many other examples of where Twitter diplomacy, and it's relentlessly public nature, has been all but disastrous.
Proponents maintain that there is something to be said for straight talking and immediacy. But it is at best a blunt tool, and lacks the facility for nuance and precision that international relations require and deserve. Matters of international moment often need detailed discussions in private, preferably face to face. Furthermore, to me, it just seems vaguely disrespectful.
Be that as it may, for reasons that I still don't really understand, Twitter has become ubiquitous in foreign relations circles, with 131 foreign ministries and 107 foreign ministers maintaining active Twitter accounts. Major policy initiatives are first brought to light through 280 word (and often much shorter) tweets. Whole departments have been set up to monitor Twitter 24/7 for anything that might affect governments, politicians and companies, and that might need immediate responses. It's kind of ridiculous.
We may live in an age of short attention spans - and Twitter is only making that worse - but surely we can still deal with an old-fashioned press release, carefully researched, worded and edited, and analyzed for its potential political, economic and social implications. I'm no Luddite or technophobe, but I still maintain that Twitter is not the right place for high-level political discourse.

Cannabis impairment while driving is a real can of worms for Canada

As Canada's legalization of cannabis approaches, and we continue to be inundated with articles and opinion pieces on the various implications (see my piece on Is Canada's legalization of cannabis actually a big deal?), more questions are being asked about how it will be possible (or not) to police driving under the influence of cannabis.
Canadians are clearly worried about the issue: a recent survey shows that a large majority know that cannabis reduces reaction times and the ability to concentrate while driving (although 9% inexplicably believe that cannabis makes them a better and more careful driver!), and a similarly large majority agrees that driving under the influence of cannabis is no less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol, and that people often don't realize that they are driving impaired by cannabis. Other research shows that about one in 7 Canadian cannabis users admit to having driven within 2 hours of usage within the last three months. Men are twice as likely as women to drive while high, and daily users are about 4 times as likely to do so as occasional users. Some 1.4 million Canadians have been driven by someone who had consumed cannabis in the previous 2 hours. And all of that's BEFORE legalization!
The science (driving simulations and on-road experience, cognitive tests, and crash collision statistics) certainly agrees that driving while high IS a problem, despite any number of anecdotal reports to  the contrary. For non-daily users, who do not have a baseline blood level of THC already, it takes about 6 hours for the effects of one joint to dissipate. A "15 minute pause" as many people suggest is therefore clearly not going to be much use.
Granted, regular cannabis smokers may be more aware of their impairment status than are drinkers, and crash statistics suggest that drinking is a much greater hazard than joint-smoking as regards road accidents, but the risks (to the smokers and to others on the road) should not be down-played. Cannabis users are typically more cautious drivers than are drinkers, but they still tend to weave around on the road in much the same way, and are much less likely to be able to react to emergency situations than sober drivers. Cannabis combined with alcohol (a common practice) is a particularly lethal cocktail.
Part of the problem in policing marijuana use is the establishment of legal limits. The Canadian government is using 2 nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood as the limit for a summary conviction (a fine of up to $1,000), and 5 ng as a criminal offence punishable by up to 10 years in jail. This is roughly in line with other jurisdictions that have legal cannabis. But, unlike in the case of alcohol, it is not clear to people how many joints or show many puffs that means: it depends on how deeply the smoke is inhaled, the strength of the cannabis, the person's size tolerance and experience, etc. Cannabis in the form of lotions, candies, edibles and drinks presents even more of a challenge.
Even a person's THC blood levels is not always a reliable indicator of impairment, and this is further complicated by the fact that blood levels of THC tend to fall quite quickly after smoking, and then flatten out, although the THC remains in the brain for much longer, so a smoker may feel (and act) high even though their THC levels are relatively low. Some countries, like New Zealand, don't even use a THC reading to prove impairment, relying instead on a subjective assessment if the evidence for impairment (although this has its own drawbacks).
In Canada, the police are likely to employ initially a three-part sobriety test - walk in a straight line, balance on own foot, track a finger - as they do now, before legalization. If a blood test IS required, though, it needs to be administered relatively quickly, because THC levels, as has ready been mentioned, tends to fall quite quickly. A proposed saliva test is still not approved, and may not be distributed to law enforcement officers in time for the "launch" of the new law in October 2018.
The whole issue is fraught with challenges and, although many of these challenges exist even now, before legalization, you can bet that they will become substantially magnified after October. The subsidiary issue of cannabis impairment in the workplace is a whole other ball game, and companies are scrambling to adjust corporate policies to accommodate it. What a monster the government may be in the process of creating!

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Ford's "buck-a-beer" legislation is populism at its worst

I can't for the life of me figure out why Doug Ford's proposed "buck-a-beer" legislation is garnering so much media attention. Because that's just what is: an attention grab with very little substance to it.
Ford's plan (and a major plank of his election platform, if you can believe it) is to reduce the "floor price" of beers with under 5.6% alcohol from the current $1.25 to $1.00 a beer for a pack of 24. He claims that it will foster more competition in Ontario's beer market. With a manic grin on his face, Ford giggled, "Ontario, the day you've been waiting for is finally here". It was kind of embarrassing.
However, this doesn't actually mean that all beer is suddenly going to cost $1.00 in the LCBO or the Beer Store - most breweries already charge more than this theoretical minimum, and are not going to (can't afford to) change their pricing no matter what the allowed minimum might be. The change certainly has no effect on draft beer sold in pubs and restaurants.
It is only the big breweries, selling the bog-standard, nasty, basic beers - the Labatts Blue, Molson Canadian, Coors Lights of the Canadian beer world - who will even consider this, and it is far from clear whether even they will want to take up this "opportunity" to make less money - why would they voluntarily take a 25% hit to their bottom line?). The last time the minimum price of a can of beer was $1 was back in 2008, and we have seen about 16% inflation since then.
A quality beer, and certainly a small-batch craft beer, just costs more than that, and many small breweries have already come out saying that this whole circus just does not apply to them. In fact, the little guys will probably suffer, especially as Ford intends to offer "non-financial incentives" to those companies who take up the "buck-a-beer challenge", such as preferential in-store displays, promotion and advertising advantages, etc.
Beer Canada, a major breweries trade organization, has come out strongly against the plan, and Ontario Craft Brewers says that it doesn't expect any of its members to start selling beer at $1. Other organizations warn that the move is likely to encourage already rampant alcoholism, and likely lead to more drunk driving incidents (Ford's response to this claim was a rather callous "I think that people in Ontario are mature enough, they're mature enough to know when they've had one too many"). The opposition NDP has pointed out the callousness of such a move after the government has just cut the basic income pilot project, and they have also pointed out that this will not acgually be revenue-neutral for the government.
It's difficult for me to see why the Conservatives see this as such an important policy initiative. I guess it might help to bolster Ford's man-of-the-people schtick, and popularize him with the poorer and less discerning of the Ontario electorate. But how it can be seen as an important piece of provincial legislation, I am really not sure. This is schlock populism at its worst.

One week into Ford's much-touted buck-a-beer program, all of three breweries have taken up this tempting retail opportunity, and one of those is aparently regretting it. Barley Days Brewery, Cool Beer Brewing Company and Presidents Choice are the only three breweries to chose to sell beer at $1 a can, and Presidents Choice owner Loblaws is to stop it's promotion after just one week, claiming it was only ever intended to be a temporary measure.

Canada should not fear Saudi Arabia's blustering

Should we really care that Saudi Arabia has taken umbrage against Canada for its criticism of the repressive monarchy's human rights record? Probably not.
The Saudi reaction is to a tweet last week by Foreign Affairs Minister Christia Freeland in support of Canadian-Saudi citizen Ensaf Haidar and her husband civil rights activist Raif Badawi and sister-in-law Samar Badawi, who are under arrest in Riyadh for criticizing the Saudi regime, along with several other women's rights activists who have been recently arrested without due process. The offending tweet reads: "Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi."
Almost immediately the Saudi government issues a strongly-worded statement (on Twitter of course), chastising Canada for its "overt and blatamt interference the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" (I am unsure how such criticism in the form of a tweet constitutes internal interference). They summarily ejected Canada's Saudi ambassador and withdrew their own ambassador to Canada, and vowed to close down trade between the two countries. Most recently, they have cancelled all flights between the countries and signalled their intention to pull out all Saudi students studying in Canadian universities and place them elsewhere in more pliant countries (although that might not be quite as easy as they think).
To her credit, Ms. Freeland has doubled down on the Canadian position, and not just crumpled in the face of this attempted intimidation, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly backed her up, with no sign of the public apology Saudi Arabia is insisting on.
Despite a few recent examples of liberalization like allowing women to drive (oooh!), the kingdom is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world. It is also engaged in a nasty war with neighbouring Yemen that has attracted a lot of international criticism. Canada has made no secret of its criticism of the regime's human rights attitudes - indeed, the Canadian parliament unanimously called for the release of Raid Badawi over three years ago - even if the Liberals did still see fit to go ahead with a controversial sale of armoured vehicles to the country that was originally brokered by the previous Harper government.
Some Middle East commentators have posited that this outraged response to some pretty tame criticism by Canada is essentially a bit of posturing on the part of Saudi Arabia, which wants to send a message to other western countries that it will not tolerate any criticism of its civil rights record, choosing Canada specifically because the two countries do not have a large trading relationship, so that closing down trade would not cause too great a disruption for itself, but would still send a message to others. It is certainly an easier option than taking issue with Britain, which has also criticized the regime, but which has large numbers of very well-heeled and influential Saudi citizens living there.
Trade between the two countries amounted to about $4 billion last year, which might sound like a lot, but in the world of multinational finances is paltry. A good portion of Canada's exports to the kingdom is "tanks and tank parts", much of it due to the abovementioned controversial combat vehicle deal, which a good proportion of Canafians would happily see recinded. Most of what Canada imports from Saudi Arabia is, inexplicably, oil: apparently we buy some 75,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil each year from Riyadh, which seems kind of ridiculous for a major oil-producing nation, although experts argue that this could easily be replaced if necessary. In international trade terms, though, Canada's commerce with the kingdom is small potatoes, and neither of the countries is actually reliant on trade with the other. Indeed, there has been more than one article in the business press recently bemoaning the poor trade between the two countries.  The withdrawal of Saudi students in Canada is expected to affect about 15,000 (up to 20,000 including accompanying family members), and might have a financial impact on Canada of some hundreds of millions of dollars).
One has to wonder whether the whole thing has not been deliberately concocted by the Canadian government in order to allow them a get-out from the unpalatable armoured vehicle contract, which has left a very bad taste in the Liberal government's mouth, but which they feel obliged to honour for political / public relations / local employment reasons, even if there are many reasons why they would actually prefer to abandon it (I too would happily see that particular contract cancelled, and what better opportunity will we ever have). Maybe I am reading too much into it, but this would certainly be an ideal time for Canada to distance itself from an odious regime, and probably without offending (and possibly even extending) its voting base.
Either way, the Saudi overreaction to a bit of criticism of its human rights record (nothing new), has blown the whole issue up and highlighted for the world what Saudi Arabia would almost certainly prefer to keep hidden.

The limits of Saudi Arabia's outrage were made very clear just a few days later. Their Energy Minister made a pretty unequivocal statement that Riyadh's oil sales to Canada will not be affected by the ongoing political row: "the Kingdom's petroleum supplies to countries around the world are not to be impacted by political considerations" - i.e. if it's going to cost them money, they are not that interested. It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Canada's legalization of cannabis - is it actually a big deal?

I am getting heartily sick of reading about cannabis in Canada's newspapers. The hype is huge. In today's paper alone, there was advice on how to grow it, how to drink it, how to cook with it, how to buy it, how to bring in tourists with it, how to invest in it, and more. There is something pretty much every day, especially in the business pages, as investors rush to inflate what looks to me suspiciously like a bubble of astronomical proportions.
Yes, I understand that we, here in Canada, are about to legalize marijuana, and that this is a big deal for some people. But it's really not a big deal for me, as I am as little likely to take up smoking pot as I am to take up smoking tobacco. And I have to wonder whether it is actually a big deal for the country as a whole. Perhaps the best way of estimating that is to look at a state like Colorado, which now has four years of experience of legalized marijuana under its belt.
So, how is the cannabis industry in Colorado looking? It turns out that marijuana sales account for just 0.55% of the state's total consumer spending. So, in the scheme of things, not a lot. Cannabis businesses make up less than 0.7% of new businesses since 2014, and the industry employs about 0.7% of Colorado's workforce. Where it does come into its own, though, is in taxation: cannabis sales are heavily taxed, and total taxes collected from marijuana make up 2.3% of the state's tax revenues.
So, it's kind of a big deal, but not, I still maintain, enough to justify the blanket media coverage it is receiving in the Canadian press.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Why is Trump so intent on destroying environmental safeguards

I confess that I have never really understood Donald Trump and his administration and, in particular, their push to specifically negate any environmental advances that have been made in the last few decades.
The latest such move is to rescind a ban on GMO crops and insect-killing neonicotinoids in national wildlife refuges brought in by President Obama. Notice that this is not a general ban, but a ban in national wildlife refuges - you know those places that are designated as areas to protect wildlife.
Incomprehensibly, the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman justified the move by the need to maximize farmland production in those NWRs that include some farmland in order to ensure adequate forage for ducks and geese, the favoured victims of hunters (hunting on public lands appears to be a particular priority of this administration). And all the science behind the initial ban done by the previous administration? Well, that's just science.
Other than a desire to encourage hunting (why?), the only other reason that I can see for a move like this and others, like the recent initiative to abandon Obama-era car fuel efficiency requirements (and even to stop progressive states like California from establishing their own fuel efficiency rules), is an almost pathological libertarian desire to do away with all (and I mean ALL) regulations of any kind, no matter how sensible and justified. Oh, and that other pathological imperative to undo anything that Obama built during his time.
I tell you, psychologists will have their work cut out for years to come analyzing the motivations and psychic underpinnings of this government.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Ontario Tories cancel basic income pilot because ... er, why?

Fresh from a petulant little tiff in the Ontario legislature yesterday, in which the Conservative caucus refused to answer any questions during Question Time because of an alleged slur against one of their own, a slur that the Speaker of the House did not hear, and the recording microphones did not pick up, Doug Ford has returned to doing what he does best, and what is beginning to be the defining characteristic of his administration - cancelling things.
The latest such cancellation, after a slew of cancellations of Liberal initiatives like the province-wide cap-and-trade system, energy efficiency projects, wind farms, etc, is particularly egregious, as Ford is on record as specifically saying during his election campaign that he would NOT cancel the Liberals' 3-year basic income pilot project. So it came as something of a surprise when, yesterday, the Conservatives announced, with no real explanation, that they were cancelling the Liberals' 3-year basic income pilot project after just one year.
Poverty reduction is a stated goal of the new Conservative administration. Without a full-scale pilot project of this type, we will never really know whether a basic income system, such as has caught the attention of many different governments across the world in recent years, would be an effective means of reducing poverty among the most needy in our society. That was the point of the small-scale pilot project. So why then cancel it part-way through, leaving the participants in the lurch, wasting all the money it has cost thus far, and breaking a firm campaign promise in the process?
It may be futile to look for logic or consistency in this particular government, but this particular move seems entirely baffling. Unless, of course, it is just a case of "anything the previous administration did must, by definition, be bad, so let's cancel it". This is going to get old