Friday, October 18, 2019

What the Unknown Pleasures album cover actually shows

Somehow - inexplicably - it has been 40 years since the release of Joy Division's first album Unknown Pleasures. I was a callow university student at the time, and I was dutifully blown away by it, different as it was from anything that had gone before, reaching a level of intensity few albums before or since have matched.
And then there was that album cover - stark, white on black, mysterious, textless, supremely evocative of the skittering, disquieting music inside. It has since come to be considered one of the most iconic album covers ever, in the august company of the Pink Floyd prism, the Velvet Underground banana, the Rolling Stones hot lips. It has wormed its way into the DNA of popular culture, and even today it can be found on t-shirts, tattoos, even oven glovers (apparently), and has been featured on The Simpsons, Star Wars and Ready Player One.
Some people think it represents music, some a medical image like a pulse, some an alien mountain range. One theory pegs it as a representation of a mathematical Fourier analysis. I listened to an interview, re-broadcast on CBC, with the album cover's creator, a (then) unknown young English graphic designer called Peter Saville, who explained that it was actually based on an astronomical image found in an encyclopedia by one the band members. The image is actually a representation of radio waves from a pulsar designated CP1919, a mysterious, powerful and distant astronomical phenomenon discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, originally nicknamed LGM-1 (for "Little Green Men"). Saville describes as "a dead star whose signal seems to transit forever", an eerie foretoken of the death of band leader Ian Curtis less than a year later.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A dying Canadian teen's plea to use your vote

I know it's been shared and re-tweeted countless times and, as usual I am late to the party, but who am I to ignore this. I refer to the viral video posted to Twitter by 18-year old Maddison Yetman, in which she uses some of her precious last moments to encourage Canadians to vote in the upcoming federal elections.
Ms. Yetman was diagnosed with terminal cancer just last week and was given just days to live. Yet she still found time and energy to vote in the first election in which she was eligible to cast a vote, and to make this simple but profound video. In it, she explains her condition with home-made placards, ending with "If I can find the time to vote, you can find the time to vote", and the Twitter hashtag #WhatsYourExcuse.
The video has been viewed over 730,000 times (and counting), and has attracted the attention and comments of at least two party leaders. Perhaps a strange choice of priorities for her last few days of life but, as she says in her tweet, "This is my last chance to make a difference". And she has certainly made her mark, I'd say.

The implications of a minority government in Canada

As Canada's depressing federal election lunches towards a conclusion, the word "minority" is much more in the air. The two main parties, the distinctly un-progressive Progressive Conservatives and the only-vaguely-liberal Liberals, are neck and neck at around 31-32% each in the polls - although poll can of course be wrong, and in recent often are - with the (left-leaning but basically liberal) NDP making a late bid at 18%. So, unless things take a very strange hop over the next few days, we seem destined for a minority government of some kind.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been surprisingly vocal about being open to a coalition with the Liberals, which is not too surprising as the two parties are not that far apart politically, and as his main goal is to avoid a Tory government at all costs. Many people see an NDP-supported Liberal government as a best-case scenario. Singh has also been equally clear that he categorically will NOT work with the Conservatives, who have no real support options in the event of a minority government (neither the Bloc Quebecois nor the People Party seem interested in forming a coalition with the Conservatives). Canada has seen minority governments and even semi-official coalition agreements before, but they are not that common, given our first-past-the-post electoral system. How might this work, then?
Well, what's interesting is the possibility that, even if the Conservatives do win more seats than the Liberals, the Liberals are still in a position to form a winning coalition, snatching a (qualified) victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. Technically, in the case of no clear majority, Trudeau remains Prime Minister after the election, and is not bound to step down until Parliament is recalled and he faces a no-confidence vote on a budget bill, or on the Speech from the Throne. Therefore, if Mr. Singh is willing to play nicely, and it seems like he is, then Mr. Trudeau gets to stay as Prime Minister. It does not have to be a full-blown official coalition, just ad-hoc support is sufficient: so long as Trudeau is able to persuade Governor-General Julie Payette that he has the confidence of the House, he can continue to lead a majority government. This is not a particularly common outcome in Canadian elections, but neither is it unprecedented. And Conservative leader Andrew Scheer certainly does not seem to be in a position to convince the Governor-General that the Conservatives are able to maintain the confidence of the House.
So, all is not lost yet...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Yams? Sweet potatoes? A quick primer

While cooking a white sweet potato for Thanksgiving lunch today, I thought I should figure out, definitively, once and for all, about the different kinds of sweet potatoes and yams.
Yams are the easy part. The confusion arises in that many people, and even many stores (in North America, at least), call some varieties of sweet potatoes "yams", and the two labels are considered pretty much synonymous in many people's eyes. Yams originally come from Africa and parts of Asia, and are related to lilies, palms and grasses. They have a tough, hairy, dark brown skin, rounded ends, and usually a hard creamy white flesh. They are starchy and dry and not particularly sweet to eat. There are some additional varieties of yam, including yellow- and purple-fleshed ones, but the only ones we are likely to encounter here in North America are the brown skinned white-fleshed ones, and even these are quite hard to find. Most of what you see marked as "yams" in the supermarket are actually sweet potatoes. You have probably never actually eaten a yam.
Sweet potatoes are more complicated, mainly because there are more varieties, and these are more widely available. Sweet potatoes originally hail from Central and South America (although many new cultivars have been developed in the United States in recent decades), and are actually in the bindweed/morning glory family, and only distant cousins to the nightshade family (which includes regular potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers). They come in a variety of smooth skins from tan to brown to copper to red to purple, they usually have tapered, pointy ends, and they sport a variety of different flesh colours and textures, from white to yellow to orange to purple.
The very sweet, soft, orange-fleshed ones that most people associate with sweet potatoes are actually most likely to be jewel, garnet or Beauregard sweet potatoes (although, of course, they may be labelled as "yams"), which are among the more recent American cultivars. They typically have brown to red smooth skins.
And, if you are interested, we had a purple-skinned white-fleshed sweet potato (no idea what the cultivar is), much less flavoursome than the orange-fleshed ones, but very nice all the same mashed with some pepper and butter.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

2-hour marathon barrier falls at last

Well, it had to happen: the 2-hour marathon barrier has been breached. and of course it was Kenya's Eliud  Kipchoge who made it happen. 35-year old Kipchoge, the current world record holder and widely considered the greatest marathon runner ever, has been dominant in recent years, winning 11 of his 12 major races with gradually improving times, and it seemed only matter of time before the barrier fell to him.
The race was in Vienna, Austria, and, although it was an officially-timed race, it won't count as a new world record because of the stringent rules around such things, specifically the use of 42 pacemakers (including some world elite runners in their own right) who rotated in and out throughout the race, and the delivery of water and energy gels by bike rather than the traditional method of picking them up from a table. This might seen picky-picky, but in the cut-and-thrust world of elite sports such rules are important to make sure that the conditions are equal for everyone.
Whether it counts or not, though, Kipchoge has shown that it is in fact possible. When you consider the history of marathon records, it is salutary to consider that the 1896 Olympics was won in a time of 2:58:50 (and the distance was probably well short of the official 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometres, at that), the 2-and-a-half hour barrier was broken in 1925, and the 2-and-a-quarter hour fell in 1963. It is quite an achievement, as Kipchoge himself is not slow to acknowledge, comparing the feat to Roger Banister's 1954 four-minute mile, and even the first man on the moon!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Finally, a common writing system for all Inuit languages and dialects

I always thought it was as simple as to say that the Inuit of northern Canada (in fact, all the indigenous people from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland) speak a language called Inuktitut. But, although there is only a shockingly small population of 47,000 Inuit in Canada, their language profile is actually extremely complex.
For one thing, in addition to Inuktitut, there is also something called Inuktut, which is the word used to represent all the Inuit dialects, or at least those spoken within the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, which is where the majority of the Inuit live. This includes Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and others. In fact, it turns out that there are 5 different dialects of Inuktut, and no less than nine different writing systems. The dialects are distinct, but they are related, so that speakers of different dialects can usually more or less make themselves understood. The writing systems, though, which were mainly developed by well-meaning Christian missionaries from the 17th century onwards, are less consistent. Some make use of syllabics (characters to represent syllables), and some use the more familiar Roman alphabet.
So, finding - and agreeing on - a common written system for all Inuit has become something of a linguistic holy grail, especially given that consensus is an important part of Inuit culture. But, after eight years of negotiation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the main "national" Inuit organization, has managed to come up with a new writing system, created by Inuit for Inuit, called Inuktut Qaliujaakpait. The system uses Roman letters to represent the sounds in all five dialects.
Of course, even with a consensus, not everyone is happy about it. Some still prefer the old system(s), even if it was a colonial imposition, and a "long transition period" is anticipated. Me, I will miss the aesthetically pleasing characters of Inuktitut syllabics, which I got to know and love on canoe trips to the Northwest Territories.

What's involved when charging an electric car? A beginner's guide

If, like me, you have been considering an electric car but are not quite there, either in your head or in your wallet, then information is gold. I have reached the hybrid level of auto evolution, but a combination of range anxiety, sticker shock and general ignorance has prevented me from going the whole electric hog thus far.
As electric cars improve their ranges, and prices come down (and maybe you are lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that offers government grants and discounts for EVs), I have been doing a bit of research into the practicalities of owning an EV or PHEV (plugin hybrid electric vehicle). One thing in particular that worried me, perhaps unaccountably, was the actual process and logistics of charging. So, I went out and got me some knowledge, because knowledge is power, apparently.
I found a few good videos and websites that show in detail how to charge an EV, and explain about the various options available. It seems there are three main methods: just plug it in to a regular mains socket; plug it in to a fast charger, either at home or on the road; or plug it in to a super-fast rapid charger of the type that can be found in various public locations in most developed countries. The first two of these utilize one type of connector port, the latter a separate special port (your EV will have both of these). You will often see charge times to 80% quoted; this is because, after 80%, the charging usually slows down so as not to risk overcharging the battery, so charging to 80% is the most time-efficient part of charging. Level 3 chargers typically only allow charging upto 80%, after which they shut off.
The good thing about being able to use a regular electricity socket (120v here in North America) is that you can charge up pretty much anywhere, whether or home or, say, at a B&B or a campsite (although I am not sure how a B&B or hotel would deal with such a request or how they might charge you). The bad news is that this kind of Level 1 charging is painfully slow, and can take anywhere from 8-20 hours for a full charge. Obviously, it takes less time for a lesser charge - you don't actually need to fully charge it each time - and the time for charging also depends on the battery size, which varies between different models of EV.
A 240v fast charger socket (Level 2)  is something you can install at your home (for a sum of money, as it has to be installed by a professional electrician), and this brings down the time required for a full charge to about 4-6 hours. This is also the most commonly encountered type of public charging station, although bear in mind that, in practice, the average EV driver does about 80% of their charging at home.
And then there are the Level 3 480v Direct Current Fast Chargers (also known as CHAdeMO) which can be found at some public charging stations - this is not an option for home. With a Level 3 charger, it only requires half an hour or so for an 80% charge. For this you would use the separate rapid charge port on your car, and not all EVs come with this facility. Some manufacturers like Tesla have their own "superchargers", using propriety connectors, but they will also charge to 80% in as little as half an hour.
There are various networks of charging stations (in the same way as there are various brands of gas station), some more widely available than others, some with the super-fast rapid charging facilities and some not. Also, not all EVs are compatible with all charging stations, and there may be different rates and payment methods involved (e.g. flat rate, by the hour). Some are even free! I guess it wouldn't take too long to figure all that out. Also, you can subscribe to more than one charging network (or.even all of them, to be safe). Typically, you tap a charge card to operate them, and pay off the card periodically, just like a credit card, or some are more like prepaid cards that you can top up as needed. Most EVs have an option where you can either lock the charger in place until you come and release it, or you can set it to automatically release when fully charged, so that someone else can use it for their car at a public charging facility.
There are a variety of phone apps that will show you where charging stations can be found, and which ones are currently free for use. You can pre-plan long-distance trips this way. With some you can even book chargers in advance for specific time periods using the app. You can check the progress on your charging on your car's dash, and often on the charger too.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but apparently you get used to it pretty quickly (remember the first time you had to fill up with gas, and how daunting that was?) You basically have to adopt a whole new mindset around charging, as compared to filling up with gas, and a fair bit more forward planning is required (depending on your car usage, of course - if you typically just drive a short distances around town, you may never need to use a public charger, and you may only need to charge at home every few days, or even once a week).
As for how much it costs to "fill up" an EV, that obviously depends on the cost of electricity in your area, and that can get complicated. For example, you can take advantage of substantially cheaper off-peak electricity rates at night in some provinces, like here in Ontario. One analysis by concludes that a reasonably basic EV like the Chevy Bolt costs anywhere from $1.16 to $4.21 to drive 100 kilometers (based on the cheapest and the most expensive electricity in Canada), as compared to $8.40-$9.24 for an equivalent efficient gas car like the Honda Civic (i.e. anywhere from eight times to twice as cheap). A luxury EV like the Tesla X might cost between $1.55 and $5.63 per 100 kilometers, as compared to around $18-$20  for a more-or-less equivalent Range Rover.
By way of corroboration, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation estimates that an average EV would cost about $300 a year ($0.78 a day) in "fuel", as compared to $1,000-$2,500 for a gas car.  So, looking at these studies, very roughly and taking an average, you can probably count on an EV costing around one-fifth of the cost of an equivalent gas car for its fuel.
The carbon footprint of your "fill-up" is a while other issue, and it also depends on the electricity generation energy mix in your area. Here in Ontario, about 34% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and almost 98% from non-carbon emitting sources (including nuclear), so the carbon footprint would be minimal. I also have solar panels on our roof, so I would feel even better about charging up at home.
So, am going to go out and buy an EV right now? Well, not right now, but when our trusty Prius starts showing its age, yes, probably.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How the English language has changed in 50 years

I came across an article called "9 grammar rules that have changed since you were at school". It assumes that "you" were at school in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (quite rightly, in my case), and the data on the rule changes comes from no less an authority than Brian Garner of Garner's Modern English Usage fame.
As for what consitutes "correct" English grammar, that is of course a subjective and highly contentious assessment, but Garner side-steps this by using a determination of the extent to which old rules have become redundant in regular (American) speech. He utilizes his own five-point Language Change Index, with 1 being misspellings or mistakes that are generally rejected as incorrect (e.g. "arguement" for "argument"); 2 being usages that have spread to more people but are still generally considered non-standard (e.g. using "baited breath" for "bated breath"); 3 being incorrect usages common even among well-educated people but avoided in careful usage (e.g. using "I better" for "I had better"); 4 being usages widely accepted by almost everyone except a few "linguistic stalwarts" (e.g. using "who" for "whom" for the object of a sentence - I think I must be a linguistic stalwart there); and 5 being usages fully accepted by everyone except eccentrics (e.g. using "contact" as a verb).
Obviously, you can quibble with the definitions, and even some of the examples used above, but among the level 4 and 5 changes that Garner has identified as being now acceptable usages, are:
  • "None" with a plural verb (e.g. "none of them are mine").
  • "Fine-tooth comb" instead of "fine-toothed comb".
  • "Graduate from" rather than "be graduated from" by an educational institution.
  • "Run the gauntlet" instead of the original "run the gantlet".
  • "Reason why" with the redundant "why" (e.g. "the reason why we took the trip").
  • "Over" to mean "more than" (e.g. "there were over 400 applicants for the job").
  • "Hopefully" to mean "I hope" and not just "in a hopeful manner" (e.g. " hopefully, they will let me in").
  • "Dove" for "dived" as the past tense of "dive" (making it consistent with words like "strove", "drove", etc).
  • Split infinitives ("to boldly go where no-one has gone before" finally achieves respectability).
It's difficult to argue that these have become almost universally used. But correct? Well... Phrases like, "the thing is, is that ...", "I will be there momentarily", "I must of fallen asleep", etc, are other examples of clear errors that have become widely used, but I still don't accept them. But then I'm a linguistic stalwart, aren't I?

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

One study on red meat does not invalidate decades of other studies

A recent health study in the respected journal Annals of Internal Medicine has received an awful lot - probably too much - of media attention. That's because it goes against pretty much every other related study over the last 20 years. To call it controversial is putting it mildly and, of course, controversial sells papers, TV time, and internet advertising.
The meta-analysis (combining many different published studies and reinterpreting the result) was led by researchers at McMaster and Dalhousie Universities in Canada, and was commissioned, produced and paid for by an organization called NutriRECS, a little known outfit that purports to be "an independent group with clinical, nutritional and public health content expertise". It has resulted in headlines like "Eat less red meat, scientists said. Now some believe that was bad advice", "A study says full speed ahead on processed an red meat consumption", "Is it time to put red meat back on the menu?", "No, beef isn't bad for you: scientists conclude there is no need to eat less red or processed meat", etc, etc
What the study actually concluded was that, "Most people can continue to eat red and processed meat as they do now. The major studies have found that cutting back has little impact on health". It essentially found that the evidence it looked at was too weak to say for sure that there was a link between eating red and processed meat and life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Now, this is not quite as dramatic as some of the headlines, but it still flies in the face of most other studies and the advice of organizations like the World Health Organization, the US Federal Government, the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Canadian Cancer Society, Harvard University, Public Health England, Health Canada, etc, etc. The very fact that it contradicts so many other studies and august scientific bodies is a good indication that something is probably wrong with it, and a little further research indicates that MANY things are probably wrong with the study.
A WebMD article quotes one major nutrition expert as saying, "It's the most egregious abuse of data I've ever seen .. there are just layers and layers of problems". Several groups have requested that the journal postpone publication for further investigation. Among the "grave concerns" of these scientists are:
  • Omitted studies (that would have significantly changed the results and conclusions);
  • Incomplete picture (particularly as regards what other foods the participants were eating);
  • Inappropriate analysis (especially the absence, even the impossibility, of randomised control trials, and the use of observational data);
  • Contradictory data (using different assessment methods on the same data results in very different conclusions);
  • Confusing message (drawing conclusions nd making recommendations diametrically opposed to every other study can only result in confusions for consumers, especially given that there IS a consensus in the scientific community);
  • Unusual inclusions (such as a review of attitudes towards eating meat, which obviously resulted in a slant towards eating meat among meat-eaters);
  • Ignoring the environmental impact and animal welfare considerations (although, frankly, one would not expext these to be included in a nutritional study).
Anyway, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle. However poor the actual science, the comvenient conclusions will probably lodge in people's minds, and confirmation bias will probably take hold, much like the discredited but still often-quoted study on the link between vaccinations and autism. Hell, Donald Trump will probably get in on the act at some point.
The other conclusion we can draw from all this is that nutrition research is hard and emotive, and some people are always going to disagree.  Also, pulling together several studies with different methodologies and parameters and objectives is even harder, and more subject to misinterpretation. Plus, even if people can agree on the science carried out, some people will always disagree with the conclusions drawn (for example, if reducing red meat consumption results in 6 fewer heart attacks or seven fewer cases on cancer, should we conclude, as this study does, that the effect is minimal, or that it is substantial?) Kudos to the Globe and Mail (and specifically André Picard) for making this clear to their readers.
But, make no mistake, whatever this study suggests, you should probably still avoid it reduce your consumption of red and processed meats. As the BBC concludes, "The weight of scientific opinion falls on the side of reducing red and processed meat consumption". And if we can't trust the BBC, then what can we trust in this world?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Taxes on foreign online streaming services no longer politically toxic

It seems like a "Netflix tax" is finally becoming a politically acceptable concept to the mainsteam political parties.
Currently, foreign online streaming services without a physical presence in Canada, like Netflix, Google, iTunes, Amazon, etc, do not have to charge federal sales tax on their sales in Canada, something that local digital companies like Bell, Rogers, etc, argue is an unfair advantage. And it certainly does seem that way when you stop and think about it. But it has long been considered politically inexpedient - at least since Stephen Harper made it so as part of his election platform, even at a time when no other party was even considering it - to tax these digital behemoths.
Over the last year, a couple of provinces - Quebec and Saskatchewan - have been charging provincial sales tax on foreign digital streaming, and the sky hasn't fallen. Other jurisdictions, including Australia, South Korea, Japan and the European Union, have also taken the plunge and required foreign streaming companies to collect sales tax. The consumer market has not dried up overnight, and no major retaliation has been brought to bear.
With this in mind, presumably, Justin Trudeau has decided to reverse his opinion on the matter and has proposed a 3% tax on foreign digital sales, joining the NDP and the Greens, who have also already proposed taxing foreign streaming services. The Liberal plan will affect advertising and digital companies with sales of over $1 billion worldwide and over $240 million within Canada (i.e. all the major players like Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon), and is being billed as "making multinational tech giants pay their fair share". Why 3%? I am not sure, presumably so that they can be seen to be acting on the issue without pissing off the "multinational tech giants took much".
So, it may have become politically acceptable (unless you are a Conservative), but only 3% acceptable.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Who to vote for in the Canadian elections if you're an environmentalist

If you're concerned about climate change, who do you vote for in the upcoming Canadian federal election? A quick comaprison of the various platforms suggest that it is not an easy choice.
Well, first, if you're NOT concerned about climate change, then your best option is Andrew Scheer's Progressive Conservatives. Scheer was the only leader of a major party not to attend a climate walk yesterday and, although his party claims to have a climate change policy (i.e. they are not actually denying climate change), it is by far the weakest. They would cancel the current carbon tax and  clean fuel standards, and, although they say they want to uphold Canada's commitments under the Paris climate treaty of reducing carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, it is not at all clear how their recipe of weak regulations would achieve anything like that (independent fact-checkers suggest it would miss by anywhere between 109 and 179 megatonnes of carbon, or possibly even rise).
The Liberals - who are currently neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the polls, despite the leadership of Justin Trudeau - say they will not increase the rate of the carbon tax past the top rate scheduled for 2022, despite frankly admitting that this is not enough to achieve out Paris goals (their own figures suggest a gap of 79 megatonnes in 2030). So, although they have made some progress over the last four years (that gap was around 300 megatonnes when Trudeau took office!), substantially more than any Canadian government before them, arguably it is still nothing like enough.
The Liberals have proposed (in addition to keeping the carbon tax and clean fuel standards) new incentives for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles, tax breaks for clean-tech firms, interest-free loans for fuel efficiency home retrofits, and planting 2 billion trees over ten years. This will still leave the Paris goals very hard to achieve, and the Liberals still have the cognitive dissonance of  support for the Trans Mountain Pipeline hanging over their heads. Their latest salvo was to declare a goal of a completely carbon neutral country by 2050, a laudable goal perhaps, pand one that needs to be stated, but, even by their own admission, they currently have no idea how to achieve that.
The other two parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party, have stronger climate change platforms, but suffer from the fact that, in the absence of any huge changes, they will not become the ruling party, at best only acting as a prop for a minority Liberal government (and even then, the Greens say they will not support the Liberals while the Trans Mountain Pipeline is still ion their books; neither party says that they can work with the Conservatives, who are out on their own, come what may).
The NDP's stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, not just 30%, and the Greens go even further, promising 60%.  The NDP would energy retrofit half of all Canadian homes by 2030, and ensure that electricity production is net-zero, also by 2030. The Greens would also remove all fossil fuel electricity generation, and pledge to make ALL buildings carbon neutral by 2030. Both have the same net-zero-by-2050 target as the Liberals. But critics complain that even these parties do not have much substantive detail in their platforms about just how these laudable goals might be reached.
Whichever party you vote for still has the unenviable task of dealing with a bunch of intractable, climate change skeptical, and largely Conservative provincial premiers, which will make any meaningful progress on climate change difficult at best. The other conundrum is whether to vote for a party with a stronger climate change platform, and risk splitting the vote and allowing the Conservatives - by far the worst option for anyone with an environmental bent - to slip in through the back door. Personally, I am risk-averse, and willing to hold my nose and vote Liberal rather than risk such an outcome. However much I would like to vote Green on principle, and however much I feel that Justin Trudeau has been a disappointment, the spectre of four years of Conservative government is enough to drive me to hard-hearted decisions, not only for environmental reasons, but also for other social justice and economic reasons. (Actually, this is such a safe Liberal seat, I could probably still vote Green, secure in the knowwdge that the Liberal candidate will win anyway.)
The other aspect of all this is that what we actually vote for is not a party or a leader but a local representative, one that would usually accept and support most of the party platform, but who might still have some individual views on the matter. And that individual must also fit our requirements for a good, thoughtful and approachable human being.
So, like I said earlier, not an easy choice.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Abbey Road may be "iconic", but "the best of all time"...?

Much is being made of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles Abbey Road album, released (in the UK, at least) on 26th September 1969. Many superlatives are being bandied around on radio stations and in the online and printed press. Many people seem to think it is the best album ever. It's certainly one of the most famous albums ever, and one of the few that justifiably fits into the much overused "iconic" category. But "all time great"? I don't know.
It's not particularly deep, not particularly experimental or revolutionary. It's much less influenced by John Lennon than previous albums, relying more on the (lesser) song-writing talents of McCartney and Harrison and (God forbid!) Ringo Starr. There are perhaps a handful of great songs on it - "Come Together", "Something", "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" maybe come into that category, maybe even "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight". But some of the other well-known cuts ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "Octopus's Garden", "You Never Give Me Your Money", I'm looking at you) are far from great. Even that rather dum-de-dum-de-dum song about the weather, "Here Comes the Sun", hasn't aged well, despite its fame. And there is a lot of rather uninspired filler - who can sing along to "She Came In Through tbe Bathroom Window", "Mean Mr. Mustard", "Polythene Pam" or "Her Majesty"?
Even the album cover is usually described as "iconic". Well, maybe - iconism is a strange thing - but really, when you look at it, it's just as pedestrian as it subject matter. The Beatles did knock out some good ditties in their time (although I was never a big fan, even as a kid), but not that many of them appear on this album. And extolling an album for its disjointedness and unevenness - making a virtue of a failing - is just plain perverse my view. If you want a more critical review to counteract the more general back-slapping and adulation, try this one.
I don't know. Maybe I'm just a jaded old sexegenarian, but - hell, this is supposed to be the apotheosis, the sine qua non, of my era - but I just don't feel it. I have a suspicion that it is most famous for being Fab Four's last studio album - so people just assume it must be the best. It was certainly not universally lauded when it first came out, before people knew that the band was soon to split. But, me, I find it a bit of a slog to listen to (I have tried, just today). Sorry.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Those fancy silken tea-bags? Bad idea

So, you know those fancy, white, pyramid-shaped, silken tea-bags you always thought were a bad idea? Well, it turns out that they are in fact ... a bad idea. Although possibly not for the reasons you might have thought.
I always assumed that they were actually made out of silk, or some similar kind of material, and I always thought how wasteful and unnecessary that was. Call me naïve, but I'm sure I wasn't the only person surprised to find out recently that they are made of plastic (PET or nylon).
And the reason this has all come to light is because a recent study at McGill University has shown that, when you make a cup of tea with them, a whole host of microplastics (and even smaller nanoplastic) slough off them, into your tea, and thence down your throat. And not just thousands of them, but BILLIONS of them in each cup of tea, more than in most other sources of microplastics in foods.
Now, thus far, there is no compelling evidence that ingesting this level (or any level) of microplastics is actually bad for human health, although my intuition is that a link to health problems WILL eventually surface. The same study looked at the behaviours of water fleas in that level of plastic contamination, and the water fleas started to swim more slowly and erratically, and physically started to balloon up. So something bad is happening there, and more research is called for. What we do know is that they do eventually end up in the environment, ultimately in
 the oceans, and we already nknow that that IS an issue
Anyway, fancy silken tea-bags - bad idea.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Is Joker any more likely to engender copycat violence than any other violent movie?

It does seem somewhat unfair that Joaquin Phoenix is being grilled by the media on whether the gratuitous violence in his latest movie, Joker, movie might lead to copycat real-life violence. He was forced to flee one interview in confusion when questioned about copycat violence, apparently having never even considered the possibility before.
The only reason the possibility is being even mooted is cause of the cinema shootings a few years ago (12 people were killed in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises). Yes, there is a plot connection between Batman and the Joker, but that is about as far as it goes. The US Army has apparently been put on alert for possible "incel" (involuntary celibate) shootings during the early days of Joker screenings this month, and they claim to have encountered possible planned threats on the "dark web" where these kinds of people hang out. The Joker character is considered to be the kind of bitter and sociopathic caracter that incels could easily identify with.
There are many other movies and TV shows out there just as violent (and some even more so), with absolutely no connection to Batman, that are surely just as likely to elicit copycat violence as Joker. And let's not even start on video games...
I do wonder why movies feel the need to pander to what is surely a rather limited demand for more and more excessive violence. Interesting character studies and disturbing plots are one thing (well, two, I guess), but is the ultraviolence really necessary to put those elements across? I think not. And people would still flock to see Joaquin Phoenix tackle the Joker character regardless.
Having said that ... do these media people have nothing better to cover in their movie star interviews?

Monday, September 23, 2019

Marine heatwave: another new concept, courtesy of climate change

Today, I was introduced to the concept of a "marine heatwave". As you might imagine, it is a period of unusual intense heat, much like a normal heatwave, but in ocean water.
The context was that the Big Island of Hawaii is currently suffering such a marine heatwave. Apparently, it suffered one in 2015 as well, and the coral reefs off the east coast are still in the process of recovering from the devastation that one wreaked on them. The current event may prove even worse, with ocean temperatures 3.5°F (!about 2°C) above typical values for the season. That might not sound like much, but over a period of three or four months, the marine heatwave of 2015 showed just how much damage a small sustained temperature increase can inflict on a sensitive ecosystem like a coral reef. And remember, this particular reef is still in the process of recovery from four years ago, and is still in a stressed state.
 Evidence of significant bleaching has already been recorded, and it is only expected to worsen in the months to come (coral bleaching is not just a matter of aesthetics, it is the first step towards the ultimate death of the reef as a vibrant and viable ecosystem).
And of course you know why this is happening. Yes, that good old climate change. More specifically, a persistent low pressure region and weakened winds over the North Pacific between Hawaii and Alaska, caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures, caused by ... climate change.
So, there you have it: marine heatwave. Get used to the term.

Why are monarch butterfly populations booming?

If, like me, you've enjoyed seeing so many monarch butterflies around, particularly this year and last, then you might want to thank ... the weather in Texas.
The monarch migration, which has been described as one of the natural wonders of the world, is coming to a head here in southern Canada as, after several generations of butterflies have lived and died over the last few months, one particularly long-lived generation sets off on the epic 4,000 km trek down to the mountains of Central Mexico (with much lesser populations heading for the Yucatan Peninsula, Cuba and coastal California).
After a couple of decades of poor (and worsening) numbers, resulting in an estimated plunge of 80%, last year and this year have seen a large uptick in recorded estimates. There was a 144% increase between 2017 and 2018 alone, although bear in mind that this is 144% more than what was a very low (and unsustainable) baseline. This year's figures won't be available until the Mexican government/WWF count towards the end of the year, but they area at least anecdotally, expected to be good (which bodes well for our trip to these them in Michoacan, Mexico, next February). Having said that, the monarch still remains on the "special concern" list - not actually endangered, but in danger of becoming endangered.
So what has changed in the last couple of years?
A dinner party guest of ours recently insisted that it was all down to human agency, that people have been planting more milkweed (the monarch's favourite, but not exclusive, food, and the only plant on which they lay their eggs), and the banning of various pesticides like neonicotinoids (a known threat to various pollinators and other insects). This all sounded convincing enough when expressed in an authoritative tone, but it also seemed a bit too simplistic to me, too good to be true. As I suspected, the proposed ban on neonics in Canada has not yet been implemented, and a final review on the proposal is not expected until the end of 2019. The province of Ontario has introduced regulations reducing the acreage treated by neonics, but a complete ban would cone under federal jurisdiction. A ban on neonics in the USA is even further away from reality (an Obama-era ban on neonics around National Wildlife Refuges was reversed by one, Donald Trump). So, a (non-existent) ban on neonics is clearly not the reason for the current resurgence in the monarch population.
Well, the latest theory is that monarch numbers are most sensitive to the weather, and in particular the spring weather in Texas, which is usually the first egg-laying port of call on the monarch's multi-generational northward migration from the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. Warm weather in early spring in Texas, creating prime conditions for milkweed growth, is strongly correlated with good summer numbers of monarchs in Canada, and vice versa. Last year's weather has been described as "Cinderella weather" by one scientist, and a "fluke of weather by another, hence the large surge in monarch numbers.
So, scientists are cautiously optimistic over the prognosis for the monarch butterfly, and it is good to know that they are able to rebound so impressively when the conditions are auspicious. But it would only take a couple of years of poor weather, particularly severe storms, to decimate their numbers all over again, which in an era of global warming seems more than likely. In fact, the twin threats of climate change and habitat loss remain the greatest challenges to the monarch's survival (among other effects, increasing carbon dioxide levels may be making milkweed too toxic for even monarch caterpillars to tolerate, and warmer temperatures are encouraging migrating monarchs to venture further and further north, leading to more dangerous migrations). And the other thing is, we still need to be planting and encouraging milkweed, because the bottom line is: no milkweed, no monarchs.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Beyond Meat missed the boat on environmentally-friendly packaging

A friend brought over a store-bought package of Beyond Meat burgers to share today - I don't buy them myself because I find other veggie burgers just as tasty, as well as cheaper and healthier - and I was somewhat disgusted by the amount of unnecessary packaging they came in.
Within the outside plastic film is a cardboard layer with all the branding and blurb. Then, another clear plastic film around a BLACK non-recyclable plastic carton. And, inside that, another layer of completely unnecessary wax paper, and then some actual food.
For a supposedly environmentally-friendly product, that an awful lot of non-environmentally-friendly packaging.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Deep breath: dressing up as a black character is not the same as minstrelsy

Here I go, risking my neck again. I know this is something I have written on several times now, but it keeps raising its hoary head and, at the risk of being branded racist, I do believe it is important and something that the political correctness movement, so necessary in so many other respects, may have got wrong, or at least got out of perspective.
Justin Trudeau is the latest to be pilloried for wearing what the press is calling "blackface", or sometimes "brownface", when someone managed to unearth a photo of him from eighteen years ago at a school pageant dressed up as a black character from Arabian Nights, complete with turban and black make-up. The press is having a field day, and opposition politicians are predictably playing it up for all they are worth. Trudeau himself immediately abased himself and apologized profusely for this youthful indiscretion (the photo dates from more than a decade before he even thought of going into politics), because that's just what you have to do for damage limitation in matters of this kind. This comes out just a month before a tight general election. Coincidence? I think not - someone with a grudge has been saving this up for an opportune moment.
Anyway, political considerations aside, this issue of blackface is a perennial one, and in recent years it is the kiss of death for any politician or personality fingered by it (and there have been several, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey being just two in recent months). You may say, and quite rightly too: blackface is a racist holdover from the minstrelsy shows of yesteryear in which white people dressed like caricatures of black people for purposes of entertainment, demeaning, shaming and dehumanizing them in the process.
This is what blackface looks like
Yes, I am familiar with minstrelsy, bizarre concept though it is. How could I not be? Every single article on the subject runs over the long, sordid history of the tradition, in more or less detail. My father used to love the Black and White Minstrel Show in the UK back in the 1960s, because he loved the music and the dancing. I'm pretty sure he never even thought about the fact that these were white people dressed up as black people, and neither did I, truth be told, even though I hated that "old people music" with a vengeance. Frankly, I'm not sure that the minstrel shows I saw ever actually "dehumanized" black people - I'm not entirely sure what that means in this context - but they sure stereotyped and caricatured them, in much the same way as other shows caricatured other individuals and segments of society. Hell, stereotypes and caricatures are what much of comedy is based on, even though I'm more of a subtle wordplay kind of guy myself. Anyway, I digress.
The main problem I have is that there is a difference between somebody dressing up as a stereotyped, even exaggerated, black person to deliberately portray them as a figure of fun, and somebody dressing up as a specific individual from fiction or from real life, often in a spirit of emulation or even adulation. Blackface is a very specific traditional performance genre, which does indeed have racist roots, but which has all but been eradicated today. Using make-up, including black and brown make-up, for other purposes is not the same thing at all. For example, someone dressed as Black Panther for Comicon, someone dressed as Muhammed Ali or Usain Bolt (or Dianna Ross or Rihanna) for a fancy dress ball, or a kid dressed as an indigenous princess (yes, I know, there's no such thing) or Snoop Dogg for Halloween. Or, for that matter, Justin Trudeau dressed as a character from Arabian Nights for a school fundraiser. Call it freedom of expression, call it what you like: what it is not is hate speech (or "hate dressing" if that is even a thing).
Indeed, this is not blackface: this is someone dressed up as someone they're not. People do it all the time, and they are usually not trying to demean or dehumanize anyone. A big part of the problem, I have realized, is the use of the word "blackface" out of context. As soon as the word is used, any conversation or debate is closed down, and battle lines are drawn. We are suddenly talking about a taboo subject. Look what happened to Megyn Kelly when she tried to talk about the subject last Halloween.
I am also aware of, and generally sympathetic to, the difference between intent and effect. Maybe it shouldn't be the case and maybe it should, but the effect on a viewer, their perception of what is occurring, always trumps any intent, well-meaning or otherwise, on the part of the perpetrator. So, then the question arises as to whether these perceptions have not become skewed over time by the political narrative around them.
Now, I am not black, and so am not in any position to make definitive pronouncements on this. But just take a more or less random example from today's paper, a Canadian woman of Malaysian background recounts her first experience of Canadian racism: a couple of white girls were discussing their summer and their tans, and one asked the other, "Am I as dark as her yet?", referring to the Malaysian woman. Racist? I would argue probably not - just a couple of silly girls overly concerned their looks, aspiring to have as "good" a skin colour as the unknown woman. There was no intent to demean or "dehumanize" (yes, I know, intent-effect!). But the Malaysian-Canadian woman clearly sees it as racist (or at least does so now - she doesn't record her reactions at the time). Should she? Is this politicization for the sake of it? Is it a heartfelt personal reaction, or an attitude influenced by the curent political Zeitgeist? I'm not saying I know better than she; I'm just putting an unconfortable question out there.
I don't know how many people of colour are offended by a young Trudeau dressing as a black Arabian Nights character for the entertainment of children. I would be interested to know, but I have not been able to find much analysis on the subject. Interestingly, in some interviews of random Canadians recorded by the BBC, most of the people of colour interviewed say that they don't really care about it, that's it's essentially a non-issue, and the only instance of outright outrage came from a middle class white woman. The reaction in Trudeau's home riding of Papineau seems to be equally sanguine, at least anecdotally, among both black and white respondents, with many expressing the view, contrary to what many press articles are asserting, that cultural sensitivities have indeed evolved over the last 18 years. Georges Laraque, a black ex-NHL player who went to the same school as Trudeau, says he doesn't remember anyone dressing in blackface, even in those days, but would have just laughed along if he had, adding that, in his view, blackface is only racist when it is used to amplify or satirize African-American stereotypes. This sounds like a reasonable line to me, but is it representative of black attitudes (outside of the highly-politicized or media-orientated classes)? I don't know.
If Trudeau had dressed as a woman, would women be offended? If he had dressed as a slightly whiter character from Arabian Nights, would slightly whiter people be offended? Is whiteface (yes, there is such a thing) racist? I don't really know, and we are not likely to find out in the current climate of taboo around the whole subject. But can we at the very least agree to separate out the idea of minstrelsy blackface from the more innocent practice of dressing up?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Kaillie Humphries' exercise in chutzpah and hubris

Love her or loathe her, Kaillie Humphries is a larger-than-life character and a genuine Canadian superstar within her rather esoteric winter sport of bobsleigh. She won back-to-back Olympic medals in 2010 and 2014 with brakewoman Heather Moyse (who hardly ever gets a mention, not having  Humphries' star-power and "dominant personality", as I have seen it described) and a bronze in 2018 with another brakewoman, Phylicia George, hanging on her coattails.
She has probably won many other competitions too, over the years, but no-one would know about that unless they were aficionados of this rather obscure sport. Because, as regards bobsleigh, the Olympics is it, the Olympics is (literally) the gold standard. No-one really cares what a bobsleigher does outside of the two or three weeks of the Winter Olympics, once every four years.
And that's important because, as Ms. Humphries continues her high-profile fight against Bobsleigh Canada, one has to be aware that it is Canada (and Bobsleigh Canada in particular) that has made her what she is today. Bobsleigh is not a sport you can practice in your backyard: Ms. Humphries has undenyably benefitted hugely from Canada's bobsleigh infrastructure and coaching. And now she wants to take all that she has become and put it in the services of ... the United States, no less. The opposition, the rivals.
Ms. Humphries recently married an American bobsleigher, hence, presumably, her desire to compete for America and not, say, Switzerland. She would still have to get her US citizenship fast-tracked somehow, and she would still have to qualify for the US team, but she seems confident that that can be achieved (and she is nothing if not confident, perhaps over-confident - she once tried out for the Canadian men's team, although she didn't actually do very well). Bobsleigh Canada says they are happy to continue with her as a Canadian competitor, despite her apparent desire to sever all links, but the atmosphere must now be decidedly frosty.
Ms. Humphries even took Bobsleigh Canada to he courts over all this - the "real" courts, that is, not the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada; that is her style - although the courts have just ruled against her. And she is still continuing with an emotional and mental harassment case against her Canadian coach, which is obviously something that needs to be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. But it is pretty clear that this is all about her. She wants to win at any price - the national pride that motivates so many other Olympians just doesn't come into it. And she might find that, in a sport like bobsleigh in particular, she needs more than chutzpah and a penchant for self-aggrandisement. As Cathal Kelly points out in the Globe and Mail, no-one likes a turncoat.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Purdue is not the only culprit in the opioid crisis

Purdue Pharma is applying for Section 11 bankruptcy after being hit with billions of dollars in legal claims for its role in the opioid crisis in North America.
Most people are probably cheering in a fit of schadenfreude, as Purdue is most definitely guilty of excessive and forceful marketing of its OxyContin pain-killer, even in the face of clear evidence of misuse and addiction and a burgeoning underground secondary market. It is estimated that as many as 350,000 deaths may be laid at the drug's door over the last few decades.
But Purdue is not the only culprit here, and it should not be carrying the bag for other players who bear at least some responsibility for the crisis. And I am clearly not the only person who thinks so (for example, this Guardian article dates back to March of this year).
For one thing, OxyContin is not the only narcotic pain-killer out there, and other Big Pharma companies are also guilty of using their money and lobbying power to influence regulators, politicians and the medical establishment in general in their favour. Furthermore, it was the Food and Drug Administration that opened the door wide for the prescription of powerful opioids in the first place, and which kept it open despite the warnings and recommendations almost ten years ago of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (one of the only institutions to come out of all this with any credit at all). Hospital corporations and health insurers readily bought into it, setting their own profits over their moral and legal obligations. Drug distributors, the mega corporations behind the scenes, deliberately turned a blind eye.
Other commentators (like this doctor and regulatory advisor) have identified a whole host of other institutions, including the American Pain Society, the Veteran's Health Association, the Joint Commission, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and well-meaning researchers like Press Gainey. There seems to be no end to the potential villains in this crime.
But, hell, the doctors themselves surely bear a huge part of the responsibility (as the aforementioned doctor candidly admits), and they are not even being talked about right now. MDs are on the front-line and can see the effects of their over-prescriptions at first hand. They are often portrayed as the unwitting pawns of the drug companies, unable to resist the blandishments and cajoling (and the downright bribery) of the pharmaceutical companies. But they are not merely passive instruments; they write out the prescriptions, and they can choose not to.
And, last but maybe not least, the patients themselves cannot abdicate ALL responsibility. They are the last line of defence when it comes to their own health and, while most people tend to defer to health professionals on the assumption that doctor knows best, they are quite capable of reading the warnings in the press and seeing which way the wind is blowing. A doctor cannot force a patient to take a potentially addictive narcotic, and when offered "heroin in a pill", as OxyContin has been called, patients could just say no. There are alternative treatments out there, and it is ultimately upto the patient to decide whether the cure might not be worse than the illness.

Who knew? Some chickens are black all the way though

Here's a bit of an oddity. Some breeds of chicken are hyperpigmented, due to a condition known scientifically as fibromelanosis.
What this means is that the Ayam Cemani chicken of Indonesia is a deep bluish-black colour. But not just the plumage is black, so is the skin, beak, comb, tongue, and toes. Even its bones are black, and its meat is also black-tinged. A few other breeds also exhibit this kind of dermal hyperpigmentation, including the Silkie chicken of China, the Black Hmong chicken of Vietnam, and the Svarthöna chicken of Sweden, although not quite to the extent of the cemani.
Apparently, this rare genetic mutation can be traced back to just one individual bird, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The strange colouration has not done these birds much harm though. They enjoy normal chicken lives and health, and have even become popular with show breeders and, predictably, with gourmands, who maintain that the off-color meat and bones have a distinctive and rich flavour.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Why Boris Johnson wants an election and Jeremy Corbyn doesn't

These days, I only keep half an eye on the embarrassing Brexit hornet's nest that continues to unfold in Britain under Boris Johnson. I have long given up on expecting anything sensible to happen there, and I don't have any expectations of a miraculous resolution to the seemingly insoluble snafu they have dug themselves into.
But, among all the Byzantine and ever-changing complications of the issue, I have been trying to get my head around one particular issue: why doesn't Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn want a general election? After all, he was constantly calling for just such an election not that long ago. What has changed? Why wouldn't any opposition party be salivating at the prospect of an election that might bring them to power? Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a two-thirds majority is needed to change the election date from the fixed 5 year date, and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and assorted dissident Tories could probably swing that if they wanted.
But why would Boris Johnson want to risk his current leadership position and call a general election? Isn't that counterintuitive? As far as I can tell, it's just a last-ditch desperate attempt to surround himself with enough Conservative MPs who are in favour of a no-deal come-what-may Brexit, to end the present stalemate on the issue. Currently, his party no longer has a majority in Parliament, and several Tory MPs have come out in favor of extending the deadline to negotiate a deal with the EU, something Johnson says he will never do. He seems confident that he could win a majority again in a general election,although in reality that is far from assured.
As for why Labour is opposing an early election,well, the first thing to unpack is that not all Labour politicians agree. Several Labour MPs and some of the large, powerful Labour-affiliated unions are in fact in favour of an election as soon as possible. But Corbyn and probably a majority of Labour members are currently opposing such a call.
The bottom line seems to be that Labour DOES want a general election but not at the expense of a no-deal Brexit. Alm the agonizing on the question within the opposition camps revolves around the timing of the election, and whether or not it should be delayed until after the 31st October Brexit deadline, so that Prime Minster Boris Johnson cannot repeal the recently passed legislation banning a no-deal Brexit, especially given that no-one trusts Johnson to do what he says he will do.
Johnson himself suggested a 15th October election, but in the latest vote, on 9th September, Labour abstained en masse rather than allow an early election, effectively kicking the can a bit further down the road. Johnson then took the contentious step of proroguing Parliament until 14th October, just two weeks before the final EU deadline, so there is now no possibility of an election before November.
This is all dangerous brinkmanship within a whole campaign of brinkmanship on both sides. I'm not sure you can say that the two sides are just "playing politics" - heartfelt opposing beliefs about Brexit are driving everything at the moment - but it sure looks that way sometimes.

Invoke the 25th Amendment! Wait, what IS the 25th Amendment?

There is increasing talk about the USA using the 25th Amendment to push out an increasingly unstable Donald Trump from the presidency. Talk about an impeachment has gone onto the back-burner recently for various reasons, but two Republicans who are looking to stand against Trump in the Republican primaries later this year (former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld and former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh) have openly mentioned the possibility.
But, for those of us who live outside of the US, what IS the 25th Amendment, and why is it being considered in the case of Trump, and what are the odds that it might ever actually be invoked?
The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution is a relatively addition, dating from 1965, in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It deals with the replacement of a president by the vice president in a case where the president is physically or mentally incapable of carrying out his duties as president. Generally this is done at the request of the president, as when Gerald Ford took over the presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation.
But Section 4 of the Amendment specifically allows for a president to be replaced by the vice president even against the president's wishes where the vice president and a majority of the sitting Cabinet secretaries (which, in the current 15 secretary setup, means 8 secretaries) deem the president to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office". If the president disputes this (and, oh, just imagine Trump's reaction!) a two-thirds majority vote of Congress can maintain the decision, even against the President's wishes. Section 4 has never been enacted, ever.
Given the sycophantic current vice president, Mike Pence, and the current make-up of the Cabinet, such an invocation is very, very unlikely to come about (and would anyone really want Mike Pence as president anyway?) So, the recent calls for the 25th Amendment to be applied to Mr. Trump are not really serious policy initiatives, but electioneering sound-bites for his opponents, safe in the knowledge that they are very unlikely ever to have to follow through. They are just a cheap way of highlighting just how unstable and potentially  dangerous a second Trump term could be, for America and the world.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Can a hairstyle be considered cultural appropriation?

Oh, here we go again. And here I go again risking my online skin by questioning the political correctness Zeitgeist. But it has to be done, because this stuff is just getting out of hand.
Model and YouTube vlogger Nikita Dragun has offended a whole lot of black people by sporting braided hair. Now, I've never even heard of the woman, but apparently she's famous among a certain set, and I have to say that the platinum blonde braids do look very nice. But it seems that, because some black people like to wear similar braids, they are claiming some kind of copyright over them, and Ms. Dragun is being accused of "cultural appropriation", and even of being "anti-black" in some way.
She hastily sent out an Instagram post to her 5 million followers (5 million!) saying that she wore the braids "to show my love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life", and also that "being part Native American, we also have braids and stuff like that" - both of which sound a bit tenuous and desperate to me - and it seems like some people were mollified by these explanations, but some were even more outraged (and some, let it be said, were not worried by it in the first place).
Now, I have a lot of sympathy with victims of bona fide racial prejudice, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. But (as it also demonstrates) I have very little patience with this kind of holier-than-thou attitude, and I often (not always) disagree with specific allegations of cultural appropriation, which is a concept that I understand but find to be often (not always) too broadly or wantonly applied. This is just such a case in point, in my view. Just because some subset (a small minority at that) of black people like to wear their hair in braids, dreadlocks, cornrows, you-name-it, doesn't mean that they have a monopoly on such a fashion statement. Are black Americans culturally appropriating the hairstyles of West Africans? Or Australian Aborigines? Are black people who straighten their hair (and there are many, not to mention those who artificially whiten their skins) culturally appropriating white styles? Is paying homage to a certain style, or emulating it in a spirit of reverence or tribute, the same as cultural appropriation, which surely requires an element of flippancy, disrespect or scorn. Can hair even be considered a part of culture? The more you think about it the less justifiable it is.
Rant over. If anyone read this damn blog, I'd be waiting for the tsunami of abuse right now, because this stuff gets so personal and stormy. I just genuinely don't get the whole cultural appropriation thing. We live in a postmodern world where everybody appropriates everybody else. Why is that such an issue, and why is it always assumed to be antagonistic and injurious?

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Non-religious kids tend to be nicer

I'm sure there are other studies that conclude the exact opposite, but let it be herewith known that a University of Chicago study has found that children who are raised without religion tend to be kinder and more empathetic than those brought up in a religious household.
The study, which actually dates from 2015, looked at children from six different countries, and investigated their tendency to share and their responses to incidents of pushing and shoving. The children from religious households, whether Christian or Muslim, were found to be less prone to sharing, more judgemental, and more likely to want to punish perceived transgressions of social norms.
So, the non-religious kids were basically nicer, which maybe flies in the face of general perceptions of religious people, even if not mine. It also flies in the face of the widely held belief that religion is a sine qua non for moral behaviour.

The literary shenanigans surround The Testaments is fun to watch

The Handmaid's Tale phenomenon is a fascinating thing. The original 1985 novel was an instant success, winning multiple awards including the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Literature Prize, as well as nominations for many others including the Booker Prize and the Nebula award. It is still seen by many as the pinnacle of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre. It also, unlike most critically acclaimed books, became an international best-seller, and then did so all over again with the release of the (also critically acclaimed and best-selling) television series.
So, it comes as no surprise that the long-awaited sequel to the book, The Testaments, released earlier this week, has received such hype. Not since the Harry Potter books have we seen quite this level of anticipation and razzmatazz for the release of a fictional work. There was a midnight book launch event, live-streamed in cinemas across the globe; it has already been nominated for the Giller and the Booker prizes, with many more to doubtless follow; critics have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to obtain advance review copies; an embargo was established on early release by bookstores (which Amazon - go figure! - broke, supposedly accidentally); and there were even attempts to steal the manuscript before it was published. All in all, the media frenzy around the book has been little short of delirious. It is, I suppose, quite gratifying, both for Ms. Atwood and for the literary biz in general.
Me, I'm looking forward to reading The Testaments - I've enjoyed all of Ms. Atwood's books - but I'll still wait until I find it in a secondhand store, which is where I buy all of my books. In the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying watching all the literary and commercial shenanigans unfold.

Indonesia moving its bureaucracy to higher ground, but Jakarta stays right where it is

Indonesia has announced that it is undertaking what is perhaps the largest and highest profile climate change adaptation project yet. It is moving its capital city to a completely new location on a separate island, at an estimated cost of around $33 billion.
Jakarta is the commercial cultural and political centre of the country. The city's metropolitan area currently has a population of over 31 million, which is predicted to rise to 36 million by 2030, overtaking Tokyo and making it the most populous city in the world. It is a crowded, noisy melee of humanity, with some of the worst traffic congestion and air quality in the world.
But that is not why it is being moved. It is also sinking, faster than almost any other city - over 2.5 metres in the last 10 years alone - and almost all of northern Jakarta is expected to be underwater by 2050. This is due to rising sea levels from climate change, but also because, as it continues to drain the swamp on which it sits for drinking water, the city is also literally sinking downwards.
However, don't get the impression that all the residents of Jakarta will be moving en masse from the lowland swampy island of Java to the safer uplands of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, some 2,000 kilometres away. It is only the "capital" part of the city, the administrative and bureacratic functions and personnel, that is being located. Jakarta itself, with all its tens of millions of largely poverty-stricken inhabitants, will stay right where it is in its smoggy, run-down, gradually-sinking location on the edge of a soupy inland sea. Supposedly, tens of millions of dollars will be sunk into repair and adaptation projects in the old capital, but "sunk" is most definitely the operative word here.
Jakarta is not the first capital city to be moved. Brasilia, Abuja, Dodoma and Canberra are all essentially new planned cities, built to house governments and bureaucrats. But in all these cases, the old cities (Rio de Jeneiro, Lagos, Dar es Salaam and Sydney) remain the de facto hearts of their respective countries, and Jakarta will be no different. Except that Jakarta is sinking further and further into squalor and impracticality! And the fact remains that there are simply too many cities and populations around the world to be moved out of coastal locations threatened by sea level rise (the international network of cities C40 Cities estimates about 800 million people in 570 cities by 2050).
So, maybe we need to, you know, fix that climate change problem?

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Does Toronto/Canada need more toll roads? Maybe

An article in today's paper has resurrected an argument that surfaces from time to time in Canada, usually with little or no traction: the issue of whether or not toll roads are a "good thing".
Historically, the idea has been frowned upon in Canada, and we currently have just two toll roads (not counting several bridges and tunnels across the US border), the 407 around Toronto, Ontario, and the Cobequid Pass in Nova Scotia, both of them relatively short. Toronto probably needs a congestion change along the lines of London, Singapore or Stockholm, but the chances of that happening are very slim, and both the previous Liberal premier of Ontario and the current Conservative one have definitively ruled out such an eventuality, is considered downright "un-Canadian".
But is it? Toll roads can be a good way to raise money for infrastructure and public transit projects, and they can help regulate the transportation grid, reduce the demand for new roads, ease congestion, curb carbon emissions, and make for a quicker and less stressful commute. What's not to like? The old complaint that tolls are too difficult and expensive to collect no longer applies in this age of technology, and electronic transponders and licence-plate imaging has made such arguments redundant.
That said, the 407 is over 20 years old now, and I have still never used it, preferring to slog along the old congested 401 instead of paying out some money for an easier ride. It is partly that shock of confronting, in terms of hard dollars and cents, the effects of one's transportation choices that is both the main drawback, but also, arguably, the whole point, of toll roads and congestion charges. If I had to pay each time I used the short section of the Gardiner Expressway that I take to drive downtown, I'm pretty sure I would use public transit more often, rather than, as now, sometimes driving and sometimes taking the streetcar, i.e. it would work, it would have its desired effect. And, if the tolls were put straight back into extending and improving public transit, then I would be even more likely to use said transit.
Also I don't buy the argument that we already pay enough in gas and vehicle ownership taxes and fees. Clearly we don't, because out transportation system remains broken - one recent study fingers Toronto as the worst commute in North America, and the sixth worst in the world (after Rio, Bogota, Sao Paolo, Istanbul and Salvador), at least among the 74 cities selected for the study. Another study puts Toronto at 20th out of 220 worldwide, with only Boston and Washington DC showing as North American cities with a worse congestion problem.
Not good. So, maybe we need to try something different. Maybe tolls.

Canadian Chick-fil-A protests may be almost as miguided as the company's owner's politics

Chick-fil-A, the evangelical-owned American fast-food chicken chain, has started opening branches here in Canada and, as predicted, protests have followed, particularly against the owner's anti-gay views.
I have to ask, though, are the political and religious views of a company or its owners a good reason to call for it to be blocked entirely, to disallow it from operating? That certainly is the view of many of the protesters, both here and in the USA. Per one of the protest organizers: "It's more than just about chicken. It's about realizing that the rhetoric of hate is entering our city."
Well, this sounds like hell-raising hyperbole to me. If you don't like the owner's politics, then don't give him your business (I don't eat chicken, so I won't be going there anyway, but even if I did, I always have the choice of choosing a different unhealthy chicken outlet).
Of course, it's the old "ban hate speech vs ensure freedom of speech" dichotomy, and I sometimes find myself on one side of these arguments and sometimes on the other, depending on the severity and the particular circumstances of the issue under discussion. In this case, I don't see that the company owner's behind-the-scenes support for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army amounts to rebel-rousing hate speech. Misguided, yes; malevolent and injurious, probably not. Sure, allow the protester to protest, but is this really where their clearly abundant energies should be focussed?

Thursday, September 05, 2019

All languages appear to convey information at about the same rate

Maybe this is not interesting to everyone, but it's interesting to me. A study at the University of Lyon in France has established that there is probably a universal rate of information exchange common to all languages.
The study looked at 17 very different languages, from English to Vietnamese to Basque to Japanese. This is not a huge sample if languages, granted, but the unexpected consistency of the results justify a future extension of the study to other languages. What it found was that, regardless of the complexity, number of basic sounds, number of syllables, use of tones, etc, all languages come pretty close to the average of 39 bits per second when measured for the speed at which information is transmitted, suggesting that this might represent an optimal speed for communication and understanding. Thus, languages like Vietnamese that have a relatively high information density in terms of bits of information per syllable, tend to be spoken more slowly than a language like Basque which has a relatively low information density, so that the overall speed of information transfer is about the same.
It also makes you realize just how slow information transfer is in human speech compared to the millions of bits of information per second that computers can handle.

Cancer overtakes heart disease as leading cause of death in richer countries

A recent study shows that cancer is starting to overtake heart disease as the biggest killer, but only in certain countries, specifically higher income countries.
The analysis of the causes of death among middle-aged individuals across the world, published in the medical journal The Lancet, shows that, in recent years, deaths from cancer are now more common than deaths from cardiovascular disease in certain high and medium income countries like Chile, Argentina, Sweden, Poland, Tukey ... and Canada. On the other hand, deaths in lower income countries in Africa and Asia are more likely to result from cardiovascular disease than cancer. Separate studies within the United States suggest a similar trend among poorer and richer regions.
The studies are not definitive, merely illustrative, and they make no attempt to analyze quite why the change might be happening, but it seems like cancer is becoming more of a rich person's disease.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Boy who went blind from junk-food diet not just a cautionary tale for teens

We now have the first documented case of a 17-year old boy going blind (and deaf) from an unadulterated junk-food diet. The British teen, who has subsisted for years on a diet of Pringles, French fries, white bread, and slices of processed ham and sausage, has featured widely in the press worldwide, partly because it makes a good headline.
But this is not just a rebellious kid deliberately eschewing good dietary advice. In fact, he suffers from a rare psychiatric condition called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, which (in his case) makes him pathlogically averse to certain food textures. His resulting unhealthy and limited diet has led over years to a severe Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D deficiency, low copper and selenium levels, raised zinc levels, and low bone density. Ultimately, this led to a dysfunction of the optic nerve known as nutritional optic neuropathy and permanent vision damage. This is very rare in the western world, being more commonly encountered in areas of malnutrition due to poverty, war and drought.
So, we should be wary of using this as a salutary example of what can happen if we eat too much junk food. This is not just a picky kid, but one suffering from an extreme example of a debilitating eating disorder rarely encountered by health professionals.

Beanless lab-grown coffee is now a thing

As "vegan meat" is having an extended moment, and artificial or molecular meat remains at the commercially unacceptable "pink goo" stage, strides are being taken to make another sacrosanct shibboleth of society more environmentally sustainable.
Beanless lab-grown molecular coffee is now a thing. Seattle-based Atomo, led by a tech vet and a scientist with food safety experience, has just obtained $2.6m in seed financing towards its continued commercial growth, following a Kickstarter campaign. They have developed a method to produce convincing lab-grown coffee grounds without the water- and land-hogging traditional methods, skipping the bean stage completely, and circumventing the dire warnings about the existing coffee crop in the face of climate change. Its ingredients include things like quinic acid, dimethyl sulphate, 2-ethylphenol and niacin, but apparently it's not half bad.
As with pink goo, there remains a perception hurdle, and many people would not be seen dead drinking a lab-produced brew, but its advantages may come to outweigh its drawbacks, especially if the price of estate coffee rockets upward as many industry analysts expect it to. Thousands of agricultural workers in developing countries may end up out of a job, or they may end up improving their wages and working conditions as "real coffee" becomes a luxury item - who knows?

Monday, September 02, 2019

What will we do without the humble banana?

I found out a couple of interesting factoids about the humble banana recently, one good, one distinctly not.
Firstly, those brown spots that appear on ripe bananas are not actually a bad thing. There is no doubt that bananas are healthy fruits: they are high in energy, vitamins and minerals; they act as antacids, relieving heartburn and acid reflux; they are high in fibre, to prevent constipation; they increase potassium and reduce sodium, which helps reduce high blood pressure; they can help line the stomach, preventing corrosive acids and stomach ulcers; they are high in iron, boosting hemoglobin and red blood cell production; they contain tryptophan, which can help fight depression; they are rich in vitamin B, which can help relax the nervous system and improve mood.
But hey, what about those brown spots? Well, apparently riper bananas contain more Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF), which can help block the growth of tumour cells, and promotes communication between the immune system and body cells. These cancer-fighting properties are supported by the fruit's high level of antioxidants, which boosts the immune system and blood cell count.
So, the more brown spots, the better bananas work in the fight against cancer? Well, yes and no: TNF is acually a double-edged sword, acting to induce cancer cell death, but also potentially stimulating the growth of cancer cells. As usual, nothing is simple in the field of health and medicine. And whether you can deal with the taste of an "overripe" banana is another matter entirely.
The bad news about bananas came as quite a surprise to me: bananas as we know them are dying out. For decades the dominant breed of bananas commercially was the Gros Michel, but in the 1950s it was all but wiped out by a fungus known as Panama Diseas or banana wilt. Banana growers then turned to the Cavendish banana, which was found to be immune to Panama Disease. Nowadays, almost al the world's commercially-traded bananas, including all Chiquita and Dole bananas, are the Cavendish breed, clones of a breed of banana first cultivated on Chatsworth Estate in England back in the 1830s (just a few miles from where I was brought up, as it happens).
In the meantime, though, the Panama Disease fungus was morphing and adapting, and a new virulent strain is capable of infectng the previously immune Cavendish banana (as well as most other local breeds throughout the world). Now, almost all bananas worldwide are at risk, not necessarily in the next few years, but eventually. Containment of the fungus is all but impossible at this point, so the search is on for a breed of banana (or possibly a genetically modified version) that is resistant to Panama Disease.
The banana is essential to the economies of many countries, particularly in South and Central America, and an important part of the diet of many poorer countries. Worldwide it is the fourth most important crop, after wheat, rice and corn. Let's hope we can save it.

Decision fatigue makes a huge difference to judges' rulings

Interesting. The assumption is that judges are impartial and efficient judgement machines, not swayed or influenced by any other factors than the rule of law. But, of course, it can't really be like that. Judges are people too, and what they had for breakfast really does influence their decisions. Or more accurately how long ago breakfast was.
It's no longer news, but a 2011 study of judicial rulings in parole decisions shows that they are typically much more lenient at the start of the day (65% positive decisions). As the morning progresses, they become more and more negative until, just before lunch, they are rejecting almost all appeals. Then, after lunch, the positive decisions spike right back up to 65% again, before gradually winding down again to almost zero.
It's a spectacular example of what has become known as "decision fatigue", in which the quality of decisions deteriorates after a long session of decion-making. It applies to judges making bad decisions later on in the day, consumers making poor purchase choices late in the day, and poor impulse control and self-regulation in health and personal matters.
The moral of the story is: judges should not be just sitting there making decision after decision all day long. That, or if you have to face a judge, try to make sure it is just after breakfast or lunch.