Thursday, January 31, 2019

Canadian embassy staff in Cuba still experiencing unexplained brain injuries

Canadian diplomats in Cuba are still experiencing bizarre unexplained mild brain injuries, and, following the latest victim on December 29th, the Canadian embassy in Havana has just halved its diplomatic staff there from 16 to 8, causing something of a diplomatic incident in the process.
Both the Canadian and American embassies in Havana have been reporting symptons of mild traumatic brain injuries (although without any actual trauma to explain them) since late 2016. Among the symptoms are headaches, nausea, dizziness and trouble concentrating, and the episodes were often associated with unexplained irritating sounds (crickets?), vibrations and feelings of pressure. There have been 26 cases reported among American embassy staff, and this last case brings the Canadian total to 14.
What's really weird is that, after all this time and despite working closely with the Cuban government to try to identify the cause of the injuries, neither country has any idea of what might be happening. Possibilities such as microwave assaults, sonic weapons, viruses, chemical agents, mass dlusions and malfunctioning surveillance equipment (my own personal favourite theory) have all been suggested, but the actual cause remains unknown.
Even weirder, since this last summer, American consulate staff in Guangzhou, China have been reporting very similar experiences, and several US diplomats, employees and their families have been evacuated and medically evaluated. Still no conclusions. Very strange.

A primer on climate change effects for Mr. Trump

With Canada and most of north central USA still stuck in a "polar vortex", Donald Trump did his usual, "What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!", which makes most people want to scream, and a certain limited number of American Republicans snicker or guffaw, depending on their personalities.
Well, Donald, this is it. This is exactly what you get with global warming: messed up weather.
The polar vortex, a swirling circulating mass of very cold air, is nothing new. It always hovers over the poles. What is new is the frequency with which it ventures further south in recent years. And this happens because climate change is disrupting the jet stream, the normally smooth and stable air flow that sweeps west to east acoss North America and the North Atlantic. Because the Arctic is warming two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the jet stream can become wavy or kinked, and the polar vortex it normally protects us from can become split. Part of it can separate off as a separate little polar vortex, and this is what is currently hovering over north central North America.
This is causing some extreme weather eliciting an excess usage of the word "unprecedented", one of the press' favourite words, with temperatures approaching record lows in parts of Minnesota and North Dakota (windchill readings of around -50°F, which is about -45°C) and even colder north of the border, along with some extended and record-breaking snowfalls.
Now, I don't expect Donald Trump to underestand anything as complex as climate and weather - he apparently has problems with some much simpler concepts - but he does need to try. If it helps, here are a couple of kids, aged 8 and 10, explaining some of the concepts to Mr. Trump.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ariana Grande is a "huge fan of tiny bbq grills"

Ariana Grande's newest tattoo has backfired somewhat.
She had some Japanese kanji symbols (why?) tattooed on the palm of her hand (ouch! why?). But a couple of symbols were missing from the tattoo, and instead of saying "Seven Rings", the name of her latest single, it actually says "shichirin", which is a kind of Japanese portable barbecue grill. She has taken the Instagram photo of the tat and all associated comments off social media, but nothing gets erased from the Internet and the damage is done (literally). Her final comment ("huge fan of tiny bbq grills") almost rescued it ... but not quite.
It has confirmed my long-standing belief that tattoos are stupid. I mean, what was she planning on doing when she releases a new single? Do these people really think ahead?

Maduro's supporters all have one thing in common

It's interesting to note the various international reactions to Venezuela's current consitutional woes.
A week ago, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly and principal opposition to President Nicolás Maduro, unilaterally declared himself acting President of the country on an interim basis, with the professed intention of calling a legitimate election. Maduro, following in the footsteps of his mentor Hugo Chávez, has presided over the economic collapse of this once-wealthy country, and his re-election last year was almost universally panned as illegitimate and fraudulent. Guaidó's move is not a coup as such, not involving any military intervention (the military, after years of kickbacks and preferential political and corporate postings, is largely loyal to Maduro, although that could change), and he has justified his declaration on legal and constitutional grounds. Guaidó's move is seen as widely popular among the Venezuela people, who have suffered for decades under Chávez and Maduro, notwithstanding some strong continued support for Maduro among some demographics.
Within hours of Guaidó's announcement (suggesting a certain amount of prior knowledge), most North and South American countries declared their support for Guaidó, including most of the so-called Lima Group (Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panamá, and fellow Lima Group member Canada), as well as USA, UK, Australia and Japan. Most European countries hedged their bets, calling for free elections first, even though the likelihood of free and fair elections while Maduro is still in power is very slim. Mexico, also a member of the Lima Group, has. for whatever reasons of its own, remained doggedly silent.
A small group of countries, though, have been outspoken in their continued support for Maduro: China, Russia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Turkey, Iran, Syria. And what do these countries all have in common? Autocratic leaders with a marked disdain for the democratic process. Coincidence? I think not.
The UK, France, Germany, Spain and 12 other European leaders have now all recognized Guidó, after Maduro (predictably) rejected the European deadline to call election.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

And Dubai's Gender Balance Award goes to ... a man

This is hilarious. Dubai, the most populous of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), held an award ceremony for their much-ballyhooed push for gender balance - and all the winners were men!
Talking up a storm, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, hereditary leader of the Emirate of Dubai, waxed lyrical: "We are proud of the success of Emirati women, and their role is central to shaping the future of the country ... Gender balance has become a central pillar in our governmental institutions".
Then, the three awards were announced, two of them to two male members of the royal family (one of them Sheikh Mohammed's own brother), and the other to two male government officials.
The World Economic Forum's 2018 Global Gender Gap report has the UAE in 121st place out of 148 countries, although that still puts it the third best in the Arab-dominated Middle East and North Africa, and the Global Gender Gap report does mention that things have improved in UAE in recent years. So, I guess they are trying, in their own little way.
In case you were wondering, the top four places in the Global Gender Gap report are occupied by Scandinavian countries (go figure!), and Canada is in a reasonably creditable 15th position.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Vaccine hesitancy leads to a public health emergency in Pacific Northwest

Washington state in the USA has declared a public health emergency after 31 cases of measles were reported in Clark County.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases around, and it can sometimes prove fatal in small children. But for decades now it has been held in check by the very effective MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. However, Washington finds itself caught up in the anti-vaccination hysteria which I have already vented about in a previous post.
Also, the (generally pretty enlightened and progesssive) state of Washington and the next-door state of Oregon, are much more permissive than other states when it comes to allowing parents to opt out of vaccines. In Clark County in particular, nearly 8% of children obtained vaccine exemptions for non-medical reasons (i.e. for philosophical or religious reasons) when entering kindergarten, as compared to a national average of around 2%. The exemption rate in neighbouring Oregon has also increased dramatically in recent years from 5.8% to 7.5% this year. 16 other states allow vaccination exemptions for moral or personal reasons, and almost all of them have seen their rates of exemptions increase in recent years. This creates a big potential problem when the "herd immunity" threshold for measles is around 95%.
So, a nasty disease that was essentially eradicated has been allowed to return due to ignorant people and cowardly state legislatures. Well, maybe this latest outbreak will encourage these states to be less permissive and more zealous in policing child vaccinations. If the population is too stupid to look after its kids, then the state has to step in and insist on certain basic levels of health education and child protection.

The "vaccine hesitancy" outbreak has spread north, and a cluster of 9 measles cases has been reported in British Columbia.
Even worse, the Philippines has seen 136 deaths from measles this year, the vast majority children, although this is less due to middle-class qualms than a more general leeriness towards vaccinations in the country.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Is it actually legal to make movies about living people?

Having just watched Vice, the slightly wacky and far-from-flattering Oscar-nominated biopic about American politician Dick Cheney, I wondered whether filmmakers have to get permission to release a film about a real live person, and why Cheney would not want to sue over such an unflattering portrayal. I had the same thought after watching The Crown series, and other movies.
Well, apparently, the answer is no, no such permission is needed. It is absolutely legal to make a movie about a real live person (or a dead one), however fast and loose the movie may play with the facts. Technically, a person may have recourse to the courts under the laws of libel if they feel that a work of art is not factual and has thereby damaged their reputation. But the level of proof required may be high, and it is usually difficult to demonstrate damage to a reputation, and in practice the rights to freedom of speech usually win out over a person's rights to privacy.
The other consideration is the possible negative publicity of being seen to be trying to stifle the creativity of an artist. Going to the courts to protect one's privacy or reputation can also have the negative effect of just drawing more unwelcome attention, and may ultimately be counterproductive. This is often referred to as the Streisand Effect, after Barbra Streisand's 2003 legal attempts to suppress photographs of her private Malibu residence actually drew even greater public attention to it.

Diet for a healthy body and a healthy planet

As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the new Canada Food Guide has recently come out strongly in favour of replacing meat and dairy with healthier plant-based alternatives. But even before that Guide was published, an independent study commissioned by EAT-Lancet called Food in the Anthropocene came to the conclusion that a diet with less meat (particularly less red meat, and even more particularly less beef) is better both for our personal health and for the health.of the planet.
The report, by some of the top names in nutrition science, recommended less than half an ounce of red meat a day (the equivalent of a regular portion about once a week), five or six times less than what the average North American currently consumes. Because red meat, and beef in particular, requires so much land, water and feed, and because livestock contributes so much of our greenhouse gases,  cutting back on, or preferably cutting out, this source of protein from our diets, and reducing our intake of poultry and dairy products, would go a surprisingly long way towards achieving the kind of GHG emission cuts we need to be making to deal with climate change.
The report also concludes that such a diet would also be much healthier for us as individuals, although the meat industry and lobby has been vociferous in its condemnation of the report, as have some prominent promoters of trendy diets like the keto and paleo diets, and the Animal Agriculture Alliance has quickly issued its own detailed rebuttal. The EAT-Lancet reports does no more, though, than confirm what the majority of nutritionists and food scientists have been telling us for decades: follow a diet low in meat and high in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, and eat as little processed and sugary food as possible. As Michael Pollan famously expressed it: "Eat food, not too much, mainly plants". As a vegetarian of 35 years, it makes me feel pretty smug.

Peak global population may not be as unsupportable as we thought

There was an interesting article is the today's paper about immigration, and how Canada is poised to deal better with peak population and declining birth-rates because of its relatively open policy on immigration. What particularly struck me, though, were some of the statistics on global population and fertility.
The UN sees the world's population continuing to increase until about the end of his century, increasing from about 7 billion today to about 11 billion in 2100, after which it is expected to start falling, although very gradually. That is the model I am familiar with. However, there are a growing number of other comparing models that predict a much earlier and lower peak in global numbers: the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) sees the world's population peaking at just over 9 billion some time around the middle of this century, and a Deutsche Bank reports has it peaking at less than 9 billion, also mid-century.
It's all to do with fertility rates and the replacement rate. Many richer countries that do not have much immigration (e.g. Japan, Kofea, Spain, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe) are already shrinking. But, more importantly, fertility rates are plummeting in some of the largest developing countries. China's fertility rate (i.e. the number of live births per woman) is actually very similar to that of Canada, USA and UK, all of which are well below the 2.1 rate of replacement. But, unlike those countries, China does not supplement its population with immigrants, so within a few years it will start losing population. The same is true of Brazil, and even India's population is only just above the replacement rate and falling, so soon it too will start to lose population.
The decrease in global fertility statistics is partly because of increasing urbanization (families in cities do not need children to help work the land; in fact, children in the city are a liability and a drain on resources). But also, as women move to cities, they acquire education and start to exercise more autonomy and to take control of their bodies, often leading to fewer children. Africa is the main exception to this trend, and it remains largely poor and rural, although even there there is some hope, as women start to demand more autonomy in countries like Kenya and Rwanda, and even countries like Nigeria has reduced it fertility rate from seven to about five in just a few decades.
So, it seems that there is a good chance that the global population may not actually be much more than it is currently, which is still going to put a lot of strain on the environment, especially if global warming continues to stress it as expected. But it may not be completely unsupportable in a Malthusian sense.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Breast ironing and other enormities

I sometimes wonder why I even read the news. I keep discovering horrors and depressing facts I had no idea of. They say that knowledge is power, but they also say that ignorance is bliss, and I'm beginning to wonder whether I wouldn't perhaps prefer bliss to power.
Case in point: I had no idea there was such a thing as "breast ironing" and yes, it's as gross as it sounds. In several African countries, and in various African diaspora populations around the world, it is a common practice for mothers to "iron" the breasts of young girls with a hot stone, in order to "break the tissue" in some way and thereby slow the growth of the girl's breasts.
The idea is to protect the girls from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment and rape, so you could argue that the mothers' intentions were honourable. In fact, though, it leads to physical and psychological scars, an inability to breastfeed, infections, deformities, and even breast cancer. It is, in effect, child abuse, even torture, much like the similar issue of genital mutilation. And now that I know it exists, I can't un-know it.
This "cultural practice" is aparently only recently coming to light in the West, and because of its hidden nature, it's difficult to know how extensive it is, and even more difficult to stamp it out. Some activists and social workers are working to bring this iniquitous practice out into the light of day, though, and all credit to them.
I just wonder what other enormities I am still completely ignorant of...

Friday, January 25, 2019

Romeo the Sehuencas Water Frogs finally finds a mate

And finally a bit of good news. A Sehuencas Water Frog called Romeo has spent the last ten years in an aquarium in Cochabamba, Bolivia, thinking he was the last of his kind.
Now, five more Sehuencas Water Frogs have been found in a remote area of Bolivian cloud forest, the first to have been seen in the wild in ten years. There are three males and two females so, together with Romeo, the hope is that the species can be brought back from apparently certain extinction.
Go Romeo!

This caption is a lipogram's word of the day today is "lipogram", which I'd never heard of until today. Apparently, it refers to a written piece that completely omits a particular letter of the alphabet, often the letter "e", which is the commonest letter, in English as well as in most European languages.
As you can imagine, it is not a particularly useful concept, but merely a kind of fun literary challenge. Here is a more detailed  explanation, also written as a lipogram, along with links to others.

Predictions of future top economies are not particularly reliable

An opinion piece in today's Globe and Mail gave me pause, with the bald and unvarnished prediction that, by 2030, the world's top 5 economies will be China, India, USA, Indonesia and Turkey. Turkey? Indonesia? It all seemed a bit improbable, so of course I checked.
My first recourse was to Wikipedia, which gives forecasts based on Pricewaterhouse Coopers' predictions for 2030 and 2050, using nominal GDP estimates using official exchange rates. This shows China and USA way out ahead in 2030, followed by India, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Brazil and, yes, Indonesia in 9th position. Hardly a mention of Turkey, which PwC has in 17th place. By 2050, China, USA and India are expected to be way out ahead of everyone else, followed by Indonesia in 4th position, then Japan, Brazil, Germany, etc. Turkey? In 12th place by 2050.
The Globe article, it turns out, is quoting from a recent forecast by Standard Chartered Plc, which does indeed have China, USA, India, Indonesia and Turkey as the top five economies in 2030. A look at the fine print, though, shows that this forecast is based on purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account differences in the cost of living of countries which is notoriously variable and difficult to predict.
Interestingly, PricewaterhouseCoopers' forecasts for 2030 on a PPP basis are quite different from Standard Chartered's, and has the top countries in 2030 as China, USA and India, followed distantly by Japan, Indonesia, Russia, Germany, etc. The situation in 2050, according to PwC, is not significantly different. And Turkey? 11th and 12th respectively.
Which just goes to show ... what? That long-term economic forecasting is a mug's game, and the results probably not worth the expensive paper they are probably printed on.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

What actually is freezing rain?

English friends and family tend to react with incomprehension and horror when we talk about things like freezing rain and freezing drizzle, such as we experienced this morning. They are familiar with sleet and snow, and way too familiar with rain, drizzle, "mizzle" and fog. But freezing rain is not something Britain ever has to deal with, it seems.
And I think a lot of Canadians don't really understand what freezing rain really is, although they are quite familiar with its effects. So, what is freezing rain, and how does it work?
Freezing rain may start, at cloud level, as rain, snow or hail. But at some point it travels through a warmer layer of atmosphere where it melts to rain. It then falls through a relatively narrow band of much colder atmosphere, where it "supercools" to just above the freezing point. So, it continues to fall as rain (not as ice, snow or even sleet), but it is very cold. When it reaches the (very cold) ground, it spreads out and freezes on contact, covering the ground, cars, trees and power lines with a smooth coating of pure ice called "glaze ice". This can make driving and even walking treacherous and, in the case of a full-blown ice storm, can build up and weigh down trees and power lines until they snap.
So, make you feel any better? Thought not?

New Canada Food Guide gets a passing grade

Canada's new food guide has taken a sharp turn away from the "eat so many portions of various food groups" approach it has taken for decades past.
I don't know how many people actually consult or take the Canada Food Guide seriously - apparently, it is among the government's most requested publications - but I think that most people have a pretty clear conception of the idea of food groups. and of portions or servings, which has been the basis of the Canada Food Guides since their inception in the 1940s. Most recently, this has featured four food groups: grain products, vegetables and fruit, milk products, meat and alternatives.
In this latest rendition, though, gone are the food groups, and gone are portions, replaced by the more immediately visual, and perhaps more intuitive, representation of a dinner plate split into half fruit and vegetables ("Have plenty of vegetables and fruits"), quarter protein ("Eat protein foods"), and quarter whole grains ("Choose wholegrain foods"), along with a simple glass of water ("Make water your drink of choice").
The plate shows multiple examples of various food choices all combined together, which is not necessarily how an actual meal would look, but it gives a good visual guide to what kinds of things a meal should include, and (crucially) in what proportion.
Notably, the protein quarter combines meat, dairy and pulses/legumes/tofu, with the latter being in a distinct majority. There is no actual mention of "meat" or "dairy" anywhere, and there's no exhortation to drink glasses of milk or juice, etc, so the government has clearly not given in to pressure from the powerful meat, dairy and juice lobbies, which is refreshing. The (increasingly powerful, but still disorganized) vegan lobby must be pleased.
Below the image of a plate is a set of general food advice snippets - short pithy sentences with photos - including, "Be mindful of your eating habits", "Cook more often", "Enjoy your food", " Eat meals with others", "Use food labels", "Limit foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat" and "Be aware of food marketing", and a final exhortation to "Eat well. Live well". All good sound advice, presented simply snd clearly, nothing controversial, nothing to get upset about.
Useful? Sure, although even this version of the Canada Food Guide is unlikely to change anything much. The people who need to see it will still not look at it, and those that do look at it are probably already following good habits. Certainly, though, the apparently conscious move away from meat and dairy is to be applauded, and just might give some borderline people pause. You might come across the Guide in doctors' offices or school cafeterias, and you might think, "oh, so the government endorses a more plant-based diet", and that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Nanokicking, a fascinating new medical technique

Here's an interesting scientific innovation. Researchers at Strathclyde University in Scotland have developed a technique called "nanokicking", which consists of vibrating human stem cells very precisely on a naniscale in order to encourage them to turn into bone, which can then be used to treat spinal injuries and conditions like osteoporosis.
Apparently, this mimics what the body does naturally when repairing tissues such as broken bones: stem cells in the area of the break are given a signal, in the form of vibrations in tiny and highly precise distances and frequencies, to start creating new bone.
The technique has been very successful in the laboratory, and the team is now applying it to human subjects with "disuse osteoporosis". There is also a thought that it could prove useful in the space program, such as for astronauts on the International Space Station who lose bone density due to the low gravity in orbit.

Misleading news headlines about Trudeau

It's interesting how news reports can give a skewed impression of a news item, even ones that are not overtly partisan in their outlook.
Take a recent headline on the Bloomberg website, for example. It blares out, "Fewer Canadians See Trudeau as the Best Bet on Trump, Polls Show". Setting aside the awkward grammar and Yoda-esque sentence construction, the article continues, "A diminishing plurality of Canadians see Justin Trudeau as the best fit for for dealing with US President Donald Trump".
Continue reading, though, and what the Nanos poll actually shows is that 36% see Trudeau as the best bet for dealing with Trump, slightly down from 39% the last time the same poll question was asked. This is twice as many as think that second-position Andrew Scheer would be the best person for the job, and he too saw his numbers fall, from 21% to 18%. The only increase recorded was that of "No Federal Leader", which is a bit of a cop-out anyway. The NDP's Jagmeet Singh languished down at 2%.
So, you might expect the headline to have read something like, "Poll Shows Canadians Have Twice as Much Condidence in Trudeau to Deal with Donald Trump as Other Federal Leaders". But that's clearly not what Bloomberg decided to go with (and that from a news outlet with a supposedly slight left-of-centre bias and a high factual reporting rating).

Let's talk about the economics of that wall

Whatever you may think about Donald Trump's pet construction project, one thing that can't be said about it is that it makes economic sense (well, that's exactly what Trump is saying, but setting that aside...) A detailed new study by researchers at Dartmouth College and Stanford University makes this abundantly clear.
The report suggests that the $5.7 billion price tag Mr. Trump keeps repeating is way too low to achieve what he requires; the real cost could be anywhere from $8 billion to $285 billion for the whole Mexico-US border.
Even if it were to be built, though, its touted economic claims are grossly exaggerated. A wall is likely to deter just 1% of illegal Mexican migrants, who would just resort to sea journeys instead. And, for every migrant the wall does keep out, the US stands to lose about $30,000 a year. The incomes of low-skilled US workers might see an increase of maybe $1 a year as a result, although the incomes of college-educated workers could see a fall of up to $8.
All in all, the report concludes that the overall impact of a border wall would be "largely negative" with a few "paltry" benefits for low-skilled workers.
Arguably, Trump was elected thanks to his "build-a-wall" rhetoric, but now most Americans don't want it - only 40% think it's a good idea according to the latest Pew Research Center poll. Don't expect any of this to sway Trump's course, though. Fake news, you know.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

We only see one side of the story in apprehensions of indigenous babies

The latest case of an indigenous baby apprehended by Manitoba's Child and Family Services comes with it's own video, streamed to Facebook by a family member. The viral video has of course sparked a commensurate outrage among the general public, as these things tend to do, and has probably reached many people who would not normally read a dense unvarnished article in the Globe and Mail (or even a short inflammatory one in the Star or Sun).
And, yes, it is affecting, even blurred out for anonymity. It is accompanied by pithy quotes from elders, along the lines of "we want to take back our babies because they belong to us", and expressions of anger and outrage from family members.
I am not trying to make light of the situation, which is clearly dire - 90% of the babies in care in Manitoba are indigenous, and such apprehensions happens an extraordinary once a day on average in Manitoba - there is obviously a major problem here, and in Manitoba in particular. The challenge is identifying just what that problem actually is.
What has never occurred to me before is that these events only ever reveal to the general public one side of the story. There must be another side, there always is. The story that is not being told is that of the police and the family services agencies. In this particular case, we are told vaguely that the baby was apprehended because the mother arrived drunk at the hospital to give birth, a scenario that family members dispute.
It seems to me that the family services people - who do what most be one of the crappiest and most stressful jobs imaginable, for little pay and recognition - do not intervene unless they absolutely have to, especially as they know that they are likely to be lambasted and pilloried in the press, or at least in the indigenous community, for their actions. They clearly do not do these things lightly, frivolously or sadistically. They are public servants serving the common good as best they are able, and they are privy to information and background details that we are outsiders and press members not usually privy to. They are acting to save babies from what they deem to be a worse fate than being separated from their birth parents, probably involving a sorry story of alcohol, drugs, addiction and domestic violence.
But we never hear their side of the story, I assume because of the legal and privacy legislation that must surround their line of work. The indigenous families, on the other hand, do get their stories out, at least sometimes, and even if they cannot be named for legal reasons, which is why we have the popular narrative of a broken child welfare system enacting systematic racism on a native population.
Now, maybe that narrative is correct (I'm sure it is correct in the minds of the complainants). Or maybe what needs fixing is not the child welfare system, but the underlying causes of native addiction and family violence. Without both sides of the story we will probably never know. And maybe it is even right that we should not know. We pay agencies like the police and child and family services to deal with the seamy side of life that we don't want to deal with ourselves. These organizations come with a set of checks and balances developed over decades by the best sociological and psychological minds, and they are not by nature racist and untrustworthy.
So, before we blithely accept one narrative or another, let's remember that we are only getting one side of the story here.

A little bit more information has surfaced since. It seems that the mother in the case had unsuccessfully been treated for addiction, and had used cocaine in the last three months of her pregnancy. She had also specifically asked about having family care the child.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cat Person - exceptional short fiction or just another humdrum story?

There has been so much virtual ink spilled about Kristen Roupenian's short story, Cat Person, that I felt I had to read it. Well, that's the way viral internet fads work, isn't it? The story originally came out in the New Yorker magazine back in December 2017, over a year ago now, but the 24-year old author has just published a book a short stories in which Cat Person also appears, so the fad has had a new lease of life (that's how the marketing of fads works, right?).
And, yes, it's OK, I guess. Maybe not the best thing I have read this year, and I'm not going to rush out and by Ms. Roupenian' new book, but it's a perfectly respectable piece of short fiction.
Why though has it garnered such praise (and citicism)? Why has it generated so much buzz, and become probably the first short story ever to go viral?
Apparently, it is being acclaimed because of the brutal honesty with which it describes the dating experience of young people in the 21st century, the awkwardness and anxiety of it all. It is its very familiarity that lends it power. For some people, it seems that the mere idea of story told from the point of view of a young woman is some kind of revelation, although I am not sure why, as there is actually no shortage of such stories.
Of course, not everyone has reacted positively to the piece. Some maintain that it's actually pretty ordinary, and that people who think it is great have not read enough short stories (and it does seem like a good part of its popularity is among young people more used to listening to podcasts and watching YouTube than reading short stories). Yet others think that this is a patronizing, even sexist, attitude to take, which it probably is. There is even a (fairly misogynistic) Men React to Cat Person Twitter group.
So, is it an extraordinary piece of fiction, a fat-shaming anti-men screed, or merely a passable but ordinary story by a reasonably immature young author? In a way, it hardly matters - it's just impressive that there is a whole debate going on about new literature. It seems to have been a viral event waiting to happen, an idea whose time just happened to come (perhaps in much the same way as Rupi Kaur's poetry became a best-seller out of nowhere). Whether we will still be discussing short stories in a couple of months time is much less certain. I have a suspicion something else will have snagged people's attention. Cat videos, maybe?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Recent spat with China shows how little Canada can trust China

As the diplomatic ballet between China and Canada (and the USA, which started the whole thing) totters along, the downward-spiralling level of diplomatic discourse may actually be a salutary warning for any country looking to cozy up with China from a trade perspective (and that would include both Canada and the USA). China does not do cozy or warm, and the recent shenanigans has given us a public glimpse of just how bleak and frosty the soul of modern China actually is.
Beginning with Donald Trump's peremptory and largely inexplicable demand for Canada to do its dirty work and arrest Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou, and Canada's ill-advised decision to actually do it, relations between Canada and China have followed a dizzying downward spiral. The tit-for-tat arbitrary arrests of two Canadians in China, was followed by the extraordinary retrial of Robert Schellenberg for drug trafficking offenses (his first trial took four years, partly due to the scant evidence against him - the retrial, however, took mere days to arrange, and a single day in court and a 70-minute deliberation by the judge was enough to convert a 15-year jail sentence into a death penalty). Meanwhile China's interrogation of former diplomat Michael Kovrig appears to violate all rules of diplomatic immunity enshrined in international law.
Canada then felt the need to issue a travel advisory for Canadian citizens thinking of travelling to China, due to a risk of arbitrary enforcement of laws in the country. So, of course, China did the same back, with the same justification, and followed through with complaints that Canada's actions and comments "lack the most basic awareness of the legal system" and that it should "stop making irresponsible remarks". And then, of course, the pièce de la résistance, the icing on the proverbial cake, when the Chinese ambassador to Canada accused Canada and other Western nations of "Western arrogance and white supremacy".
Meanwhile, Canada is also under pressure from most of the other members of the so-called Five Eyes group (comprising USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) to block Huawei from any role in building the new 5G communications networks in their various countries, on the grounds of security and spying risks (principally because Chinese companies are obliged to share data with the Chinese government). Although Canada has not yet made its decision on the issue, China has already responded to even the possibility with its trademark aggressive bluster, darkly threatening that "there will be repercussions".
All in all, it's been a pretty crazy few weeks from a diplomacy point of view, and there is no end in sight (until the USA gets its act together and arranges the extradition of Ms. Meng, which apparently could take months, Canada remains in China's firing line). The normally delicate art of diplomacy has sunk, in record time, to the level of a shouting match and schoolyard taunts. Some of it may be Canada's fault, due to having being put in an impossible position by one, Donald J. Trump, but most it come straight from Beijing.
China must know that Canada had no choice in the matter, bound as they are by extradition treaties with the USA (although I still maintain they could have avoided a lot of trouble by "accidentally" managing to miss Ms. Meng). They must also know that any stunts they pull in the way of reprisals against Canada are not going to have any beneficial results - Canada can not now "lose" Ms. Meng, who is currently under house arrest at her British Columbia mansion, they are committed to continuing on the course the USA has set for them. But instead of locking horns with the much more powerful United States, whose equally arbitrary actions precipitated the whole sorry chapter, China is targeting hapless little Canada (another ploy of schoolyard bullies).
The overwhelming feeling one gets, after all this tooing and froing, is that China is very difficult to deal with, to say the least, and that the Chinese are somehow just "not like us". Edicts can come down from Beijing, and circumstances can change, seemingly at the drop of a hat. A carrot can suddenly become a very big stick. For all of its talk about the "rule of law", China will happily ignore or wilfully misinterpret any rules that it finds inconvenient. And it has become abundantly clear that dealing with any Chinese corporation also involves dealing with the Chinese state and the Communist Party of China. Moreover, the Chinese attitude toward human rights is clearly very different from ours. Put simply, they can not be trusted.
Is this the kind of nation we want to strike a long-lasting and all-encompassing trade relationship with? Sure, trade is important, but some other things are even more important.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How can it ever be in the national interest to allow a foreign takeover?

With Newmont Mining Corp's buyout of Goldcorp Inc., Canada has now lost its two largest goldmining companies in quick succession (just a few months ago, Canada's Barrick Gold technically bought out South Africa's Randgold Resources, but it was, in effect, a reverse takeover, as management of the combined company was handed over to Randgold executives and Barrick's Toronto headquarters was gutted - a strange deal that I never did understand).
The phrase "hollowing out" is being bandied around again, just as it was ten years ago, when much of Canada's heavy industry was sold off (think Inco, Falconbridge, Alcan, Dofasco, Stelco, etc), not to mention other iconic Canadian companies like Hudson's Bay, Molson, Fairmont, Four Seasons, etc. It does seem like the country has lost control of an awful lot of its industrial powerhouses in recent years. But what does that actually mean, and what practical effect does it have on the country when a Canadian company is sold abroad?
Foreign mergers and acquisitions (M&A) do come with mutual advantages, whether from economies of scale, shake-ups of supply lines and management styles, improved productivity and R&D strategies, etc, etc. They have to, or such deals would not be struck or even mooted. But there must also be drawbacks, no? Under the Investment Canada Act, all major foreign takeovers are subject to a government review, and the final decision on whether to allow a takeover - essentially whether the deal would be a "net benefit" to Canada, from the point of view of employment, productivity, competition, national security - rests with the Minister of Industry. Some mergers are disallowed (usually from a national security perspective), but most seem to go through.
A major 2008 analysis of "corporate takeover effects" (CTEs) by the Conference Board of Canada called Hollowing Out - Myth or Reality? concludes that CTEs on acquired companies are typically "positive for shareholders, mildly positive or neutral for operations, capital, people and community involvement, and negative for governance". It also maintains that "there is no evidence of any decline in the overall level of head office employment in Canada" as a result of foreign M&A, which I must confess surprises me.
Surely, there must be more evidence from elsewhere - that's what the Internet is for, right? A 2014 German report on the impacts of foreign takeovers suggests a negative impact on employment and no productivity improvements to speak of, although it also notes that these findings are a direct contradiction of previous German empirical evidence, so it is not clear which evidence should be believed. A couple of years ago, the Dutch government put forward new rules that would hinder takeover bids by foreign companies, so they must have been convinced that foreign takeovers are bad in some way. The proposal met with almost worldwide condemnation, and dire warnings that it would put the Dutch market "in an unfavourable light" with foreign investors. After that, I start to struggle; there seems to be less evidence, on either side, than I had thought.
These reports are all well and good, but they are inconclusive, and they don't really answer my questions. How can it ever be in the national interest to agree to a foreign takeover of a major company (especially an iconic one)? My impression is that, after every takeover, there are a whole load of redundancies, usually as a drastic cost-cutting measure, but also to avoid duplication of core services. And wouldn't there also be a substantial loss of tax revenue as profits are repatriated elsewhere? It has not, though, been as easy to find out as I had anticipated.

Gillette's attempt at sensitivity backfires

Razor maker Gillette has experienced a huge backlash to its latest ad campaign, which tries to drag the company and its macho image kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Replacing the decades old tagline "the best a man can get" with "the best men can be", the new ad contrasts traditional aggressive male behaviour with a more sensitive vision of masculinity.
Well, it doesn't seem to have gone down too well with Gillette's core clientele, and has garnered about ten times more dislikes than likes (I don't have any stats on how many of each were male and how many female). An extraordinary number of complaints appear to be heart-felt grievances about how Gillette was considered a last bastion of support for "masculine men", who clearly feel themselves to be under siege from an epidemic of sensitivity in the aftermath of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Who knew that people took ads so seriously? Or that they even paid attention to them, for that matter? And who know the undercurrent of toxic masculinity was quite so vigorous and tenacious? Just shows how much I know about men...

Monday, January 14, 2019

Canada needs to be cautious about how it handles its newest refugee

Most people in Canada are, I think, pleased to welcome our latest immigrant, 18-year old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (yeah, she's going to have to do something about that middle name, especially given that she has renounced Islam...)
After an exciting, and necessarily high-profile, caper, worthy of a straight-to-TV movie, Ms. al-Qunun arrived in Toronto yesterday to much media attention. She seems a bright, engaging and personable young lady, and I'm sure she'll do just fine. You certainly have to admire her chutzpah.
I just worry that, if she is too high-profile, she is putting herself (and possibly those around her) at risk from malcontents, whether that be from Islamists, anti-immigration fascist types, or even other immigrants bitter at the ease and the manner in which she has just waltzed into the country while thousands of others are left hanging on for months, even years.
Because that's a whole other issue. Ms. al-Qunun has been "fast-tracked", a mechanism that, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) "is available only to a fraction of the world's 25.4 million refugees, typically those at greatest risk, such as women at risk". Certainly, she can never go back to Saudi Arabia (or any Islamic country, for that matter), given that apostasy is a capital offence there, and she has already received death threats over Twitter. Nor would she want to go back to a family which she claims have physically abused her.
But it must rankle with other refugees that she has basically skipped the usual immigration process through having the money to take a plane to Thailand at the drop of a hat, and having enough technological know-how to leverage social media to get through to some influential people. Some would call it gumption, but some would probably call it cheating. Ryerson professor and immigration expert Mehrunnisa Ali points out that, "the message we may be giving is that, rather than go through the system, reach a powerful person".
Global Affairs Canada is, obviously, playing down that particular narrative, merely repeating that UNHCR requested that Canada grant Ms. al-Qunun asylum, and that Canada accepted "out of concern for her safety". Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has, thankfully, contented himself with trotting out the usual platitudes that "Canada has always been unequivocal that we will always stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world". Which is just as well because, as former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak cautions, although taking in Ms. al-Qunun may have been the right thing to do, Canada should be careful not to "trot her out as a prop in a diplomatic game", but to encourage a low profile while things calm down (Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland was on hand to welcome the Saudi teen to Canada - that in itself was probably a higher profile start than may have been strictly wise). Canadian relations with Saudi Arabia are already at an all-time low, for a bunch of different reasons, and rubbing their noses in this particular politico-religious coup can only end in more tears.
The idea that the whole shebang was cooked up by the higher echelons of the Canadian Liberal Party in an attempt to make themselves look good in an election year, and distract attention away from their continued support for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as some contend, must be considered to be in the realm of conspiracy theories, though.
Ms. al-Qunun has said that she wants "to start living a normal, private life", but Ms. al-Qunun herself should quickly put aside any ideas that she is now on easy street. She is living under constant security surveillance (for her own safety), and is accompanied by a staff member from refugee settlement organization COSTI whenever she leaves her temporary accommodation. She is also concerned about how she will support herself financially (a GoFundMe campaign will help with that, at least temporarily). For now, she is still a cause célèbre, but it is possible that she may never live a "normal" Canadian life.

It turns that she has now completely dropped her family name, al-Qunun, since her family has officially disowned her (on social media!),.and nownrwferes to herself as Rahaf Mohammed. I guess she's OK with the name after all. But isn't it a bit like a lapsed Christian calling himself John Christ or something...?

Health Canada backtracks on restricting food marketing to children

Health Canada is paring back its plans to restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children. It probably comes as no surprise, but the food and drink and advertising industries took issue with the proposed revisions, and the food and drink industry in particular has a lot of clout, probably much more clout than Health Canada.
Currently, there is a system of self-regulation in place, whereby those advertisers participating in the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Inititative limit advertising to children under 13 for foods that do not meet the Inititative's own nutritional standards. Health Canada is merely seeking to extend and broaden that idea. But, predictably, there has been some serious push-back from industry, which sees its profit margins being potentially squeezed, and unwarranted government interference taking hold, both of which are absolute no-no's.
The government agency wants to limit advertising of foods that have more than a prescribed thresholds of salt, sugar and saturated fats to children, specifically on TV programs where children typically make up a certain percentage of the audience. It also wants to ban the sponsorship of childrens sports by the makers of such foods and drinks, which would include such heavy hitters as Unilever, Nestlé and the Dairy Farmers of Canada. It may sound laudable in principle, but the practice is beset with any number of difficulties, drawbacks and challenges, challenges that the food industry made the most of in their consultations and submissions in response to Health Canada's proposals.
Many of the points raised by the food industry were more or less valid, and I do have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea expressed by many companies that "there is no such thing as good foods and bad foods; instead, there are good diets and bad diets". They argue that, even if their products are not healthy per se, people should be allowed to have them as treats from time to time. Which is all good and fine, except that it presupposes that people are rational, restrained beings, and that they are definitely not (children least of all). And, after all no-one is seeking to ban unhealthy food - well, some people are, but that is another battle and another issue - merely to rein in some of the more questionable advertising practices.
Some points made buy commentators were not so valid, though. The Association of Canadian Advertisers and the Food and Consumer Products of Canada lobby group both argued that Health Canada's proposals would restrict advertiser's freedom of expression, and thereby contravene the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It seems to me that, that way, madness lies. Advertisers can not just say anything they like, claiming that they have freedom of expression - there are rules and there are ethics. Surely, advertisers have to operate within the laws of the land, and if Health Canada or the government (theoretically, at least, reflecting the will of the people) change that law, then the advertisers must change with it. And surely Health Canada has the authority to impose rules that the industry does not like, where the health of the Canadian people is involved - otherwise what is its value?
Be that as it may, the upshot appears to be that Health Canada has agreed to water down its initial recommendations substantially. It is a classic battle of free markets versus government regulation, much like we have seen many times before. We do need regulation - unbridled capitalism has repeatedly shown itself to have too narrow a purview. This particular battle, though, seems to be going towards a victory of corporate might over regulatory purpose, you might say.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Are faux meats really such a bad thing?

Having just got back from our favourite vegetarian Chinese restaurant - we frequent several in the Toronto area, but our favourite is way out in the suburbs of Scarborough, a trek that we think is worth the effort - I got to thinking about something I have heard from several different sources over the years: why do vegetarians and vegans eat mock or "fake" meats, and isn't that kind of hypocritical?
In short, we do it because we can and because it tastes good, and no it isn't hypocritical.
The concept of producing vegan versions of popular meat dishes apparently dates back to 7th century Japan, although we have mainly encountered it in Buddhist Chinese restaurants, so there is clearly a Chinese tradition too. There is also a Jewish tradition, which includes a vegetarian version of chopped liver. Mock beef, pork, chicken, duck, sausage, prawn, fish, you name it - for pretty much anything you can find on a regular Chinese restaurant menu you can find a vegan equivalent in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. Veggie burgers, sausages, wieners, turkey, paté, pepperoni and bacon are widely available in supermarkets and in many restaurants, fast food and otherwise, sometimes employing cute, punny labels like "chick-un", "neatballs". "cheez", etc. Hell, I've even tried a veggie haggis and vegan tuna, although they were both just about as bad as I remember the real things being. A plethora of up-market vegan restaurants have also popped up in Toronto recently, many of which produce their own delicious vegan versions of cheese, egg, mayonnaise, gravy, etc, etc.
Some vegetarians and some meat-eaters find this hypocritical in some way, and some vegans consider it downright disagreeable, even repugnant, as though we are letting the side down in some obscure manner. Personally, I've never understood why. Most vegetarians are not vegetarian because they don't like the taste of meat, but for a variety of other reasons, and most convert to vegetarianism after some years of being meat-eaters, so why begrudge them vegan versions of familiar dishes and comfort foods? It is a quick and easy way of obtaining good quality protein in a familiar and easy format, and no-one ever said that being vegetarian or vegan had to be hard, did they?
There is also apparently a movement against vegetarian options being stocked in supermarkets along with their meat equivalents, rather than in a separate section, as though it would be a major problem if a meat-eater mistakenly picked up a veggie burger by mistake! France, that nation of paranoid foodies, has even passed a law prohibiting stores from calling faux meat "meat".
So, whether it's Quorn in the UK, Gardein or Beyond Meat in the US, or Yves here in Canada, let's celebrate being able to find good quality comfort food again. There is nothing inherently wrong in craving a good dose of umami, or even saltiness, from time to time, and wanting a wicked break from lentils and kale. Often, it may not be a healthy choice - many faux meats have high sodium and fat contents - and don't think too hard about the farming methods and industrial processing employed in the commercial production of tofu (or wheat gluten for that matter). But if it tastes good, let's not overthink it, let's just enjoy!

Is James Watson just a racist old fossil, or does he have a point?

James Watson is clearly a bright guy. He earned a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the 1950s on describing the double helix structure of DNA. Unfortunately, he has spent most of his time since then doing his level best to undo his legacy by making sweeping unscientific statements about all manner of things, and generally being as politically incorrect as possible. The great biologist E.O. Wilson has called Watson "the most unpleasant human being I have ever met".
In 2014, he became the first person ever to sell a Nobel Prize medal. The medal fetched over $4 million, some of which Watson has earmarked for a David Hockey painting he has always wanted. Watson said that he needed the money, given that he has now been ostracized by most of his friends and the scientific community, and that he feels like an "unperson" and that "no-one really wants to admit that I exist". The buyer of the medal, Alisher Usmanov, then the richest man in Russia, then promptly returned it to Watson, saying that he found it unacceptable that's great scientist should have to resort to selling his Nobel Prize.
The main reason Watson is persona non grata these days is his repeated assertion that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than fairer skinned individuals. He has also proposed various other less-than-scientific hypotheses, but it is his contentious views on race that have garnered the most attention. Back in 2007, he mused that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa", and stated, "All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas the testing says not really", which he followed up with the sucker punch of, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true". How scientific is that?
After he was removed from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a result of these views, Watson tried to walk back his comments, and apologized unreservedly. Now, though, in another public interview with PBS, he has reinstated them in full, effectively retracting his earlier apology. This has put him right back in the spotlight, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has responded by stripping him of all titles and honours.
Watson, just for the record, contends that he is "not a racist in a conventional way", and there are some (equally controversial) claims that Watson himself is 16% black. But he has certainly been pilloried by the press for his controversial opinions, and has had lectures cancelled and honorary titles withdrawn for his stated views on race, gender, etc.
But enough about the man. Is there any truth in what he claims?
I have struggled to find the "testing" that Watson refers to - he did not specify - until I came across an archived BBC article, also from 2007, which talks about the IQ findings of Richard Lynn at the University of Ulster, and I can only think that this is the "testing" that Watson speaks of. Lynn found that East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans) have the highest average IQ (around 105), followed by Europeans (100), Inuit (91), South East Asians (87), Native Americans (87), Pacific Islanders (85), black people in the United States (85), South Asian (84), North Africans (84), Sub-Saharan Aricans (67), Australian Aborigines (62), and, the lowest of all, the Pygmies of the Congo rainforest (54). In his 2006 book, Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis, Lynn hypothesizes an evolutionary explanation for this disparity (early humans migrated out of Africa to Eurasia, where the cold and the seasonal food sources forced them to become more creative and, arguably, more intelligent).
Another possible source is Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's 1994 book The Bell Curve, which looks at the IQ scores of different races within American society, and concludes that the differences are real, significant, and are probably both genetic and environmental in nature.
This research appears to bear out James Watson's claims, although of course we then get into the whole debate about IQ testing, cultural bias, and the nature of intelligence. What evidence, then, is there to the contrary? Again, I have struggled to find anything specific, although Stephen Jay Gould's earlier  (1981) critique of biological determinism, The Mismeasure of Man, does a pretty good job in general terms. Much more recently, an article in The Guardian by Kevin Mitchell argues that genetic variations in intelligence are "unlikely to be stable and systematic genetic differences that make one population more intelligent than the next". And Ewan Birney from the European Bioinfomatics Institute has taken issue with the idea of self-identification of ethnicity (on which the results in The Bell Curve are based), arguing that African-Americans actually have a substantial amount if European genetic ancestry. But, all in all, there is a surprising dearth of evidence directly challenging these controversial findings.
So, is Watson just racist, sexist, politically incorrect and everything else that goes with it? Is he a curmudgeonly old fossil who just tells it like he sees it? He is probably both of those things, and he definitely has the look of an ancient giant tortoise in his old age (he is now 90 years old). But we should also be wary of closing off the purview of science for political or religious (or any other) reasons. It can be argued that there is nothing inherently racist or scientifically illegitimate about at least investigating links between intelligence and race, although any results do need to be interpreted very carefully.
Having said that, there is also a case against pursuing any such research, often pejoratively referred to as "race science" or" scientific racism", on the grounds that any conclusions might be used by unscrupulous politicians of the alt-right to push through unsavoury and discriminatory policies. Another article in Scientific American, asks, "Why, given all world's problems and needs, would someone choose to investigate this thesis? What good could come of it?", and quotes from Noam Chomsky's 1987 book, Language and Problems of Knowledge: "Discovery of a correlation between some of these qualities is of no scientific interest and of no social significance, except to racists, sexists and the like".
I suppose that, as with anything involving race, emotions tend to run high, and a softly softly approach is called for.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Japan restarts commercial whaling - but for how long?

It's difficult to know how to react to Japan's decision to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and to recommence commercial whaling, a decision they made public on 24th December 2018 (Merry Christmas, whales), perhaps hoping to avoid too much press attention and push-back.
On the one hand, any undermining of the IWC is unfortunate and to be censured. The organization was set up back in 1946 to address the over-fishing of whales of all kinds, and "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry".  However, as whale "stocks" continued to decline, the IWC imposed a complete moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, which has been observed ever since. And sure enough, the numbers of many species of whales have indeed recovered in spectacular fashion, although several species are still vulnerable, endangered or critically enangered.
Japan, however, feels that there has been too much conservation and not enough development, and has done its best to erode the IWC's mandate, most egregiously by exploiting a loophole in the moratorium which allows for the killing of whales for "scientific research". Japan kills about 300 whales a year, ostensibly in the interests of science (although the anatomy of whales is actually well understood - what we really need more science on is their social activities, which of course requires live whales in their natural habitats), and the resulting carcasses just happen to be sold in the fish markets of Tokyo and Osaka. No-one is under any illusions about Japan's real reasons, and even the International Court of Justice has called on Japan to stop this activity, although to no avail.
Not satisfied with this underhand activity, though, Japan has now decided to officially leave the IWC, setting a dangerous precedent. They will join fellow whaling mavericks Norway and Iceland in re-establishing a commercial whaling fleet, although only within Japanese territorial waters, thus leaving the sensitive Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary intact, which is at least something. Whether this will result in more or fewer whale deaths remains to be seen.
Japan has always insisted that whaling and the consumption of whale meat is an important cultural practice in Japan, but just because something was done historically is no reason to continue doing it (c.f. slavery, foot binding, etc, etc). In practice, the demand for whale products is falling fast, and, bizarrely, the main impetus for whale hunting may be coming from governments departments scared of having their budgets cut. Maybe the practice will self-destruct all on its own, but somehow I am loath to trust this one to the virtues of the capitalist system.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Do long-term ex-pats deserve to vote in Canada?

The Supreme Court of Canada is currently debating the law on the voting rights of Canadian citizens living abroad, with a public statement scheduled for later today. Since 1993, the law states that ex-pats can vote in Canadian elections for five years, after which time they lose the right to vote.
Many people, including many expatriates, seem to think that the law as it is currently framed discriminates against them, and makes them less of a Canadian citizen than those who choose to stay home. An op-ed example of this way of thinking appears in todays Globe and Mail. In outrage, Ms. Rafiei expostulates: "By stripping this right away after five years, our government makes a resounding judgment that expatriates are less Canadian because we live abroad."
Well, yes, that sounds about right to me. Five years is a long time. It is long enough for someone on a work contract abroad, and with intentions to return to Canada afterwards, to do their thing and still have their say on the situation in the country they expect to return to. If someone stays away for more than five years, then there is a distinct probability that they will not be returning. Even so, arguably, they are not any less Canadian, in that they retain their Canadian citizenship.
The five years is admittedly a more or less arbitrary timescale, but it seems about right to me. Anyone who lives broad for longer than that has clearly burnt their boats, at least to some extent, and made a definite choice not to live in Canada, for one reason or another. In that respect they are indeed "less Canadian", and deserve to have less say in the way the country is run for the rest of us.
Should retirees who move long-term to Florida or Costa Rica because they like the weather, for example, have an equal say over what is happening "back home"? I would argue that they have made a lifestyle choice and need to live with the consequences of that: become an American or Costa Rican citizen and vote locally, but don't expect to influence the political landscape in some other country where they don't live. I came to Canada from the UK, and I think I probably can still vote there, but I don't, because it just seems morally wrong. I would expect no different were I to move from Canada.
Well, the courts have spoken, and does anyone ever listen to me anyway?
The Supreme Court has ruled that ex-pats have the right to vote in Canadian elections regardless of how long the have lived outside the country. The Chief Justice summarized, "Any limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification", which sounds fine and dandy to me, but I guess his idea of a compelling justification is not the same as mine.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How is it possible for someone to get stuck in a clothing donation bin?

I find it unbelievable, in a whole host of different ways, that 8 Canadians have died in the last 3 years in those charitable clothing donation bins you see on the edge of parking lots. A similar thing is happening south of the border too.
I must confess I have never actually used one - we tend to take used clothes to Value Village, or have them collected by the Kidney Foundation - and I can't really visualize how they work or how a person might end up stuck in one. I can't imagine it would be easy, though. Apparently, it can happen when someone tries to retrieve an item of clothing from one, or decides to use it as a (relatively) warm nest in which to spend the night. So, essentially we are talking here about homeless people.
It's partly that I can't imagine anyone being desperate enough, or cognitively challenged enough, to want to crawl into one. I know that homeless shelters are not exactly pleasant, but they must be a better option than risking life and limb in a donation bin. But then, I also know that many homeless people suffer from various varieties of mental health issues, which of course must also be a factor.
For homeless activists to call the donation bins "death traps" is a bit strong, though. The average car is a death trap if used inappropriately (and god know, we have seen that often enough in recent years too), but you don't see people calling for them to be banned. I feel kind of sorry for the manufacturers of the bins, who now either need to withdraw them all from service, or at the very least seriously tinker with their designs. Here are people who thought they were helping charities make a hard-earned and much-needed buck or two, and now they are being branded as serial killers or something close? What a world we live in.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

How to understand a millennial

I don't often frequent BuzzFeed, but this article about millennials was forwarded to me by a millennial, my daughter. And it is a very well-written and well-thought out article. The author is pushing the limits of "millennial" at 38, but clearly identifies as one, and is much closer to her subject than I am. The article still might make you cross if you're of a certain age, but it also might just help you understand the most misunderstood demographic of our times.
I'm not going to paraphrase or summarize the article here - it's quite a long and wide-ranging piece - but I encourage you to read it. It starts off talking about why many millennials find it so hard to complete simple little domestic or administrative tasks, and concludes that this is a psychological response to a kind of emotional and cognitive burnout that millennials frequently complain of. But, before you start to roll your eyes about another whiny millennial slacker, this is not THAT article. It is a much deeper analysis, and a genuine attempt to try to understand (and explain) where these feelings and reponses come from, and why.
Even this author ultimately concludes that a full understanding may not even be possible, but that the very act of analyzing the claims, stereotypes and reality of millennial life as she does has been a therapeutic process. You might find it so, too.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019


I've been reading a 2014 book, "Would YOU Kill the Fat Man" by David Edmonds. It explores in some detail the ethical problem often referred to as "the spur" or "the trolley problem", which has given rise to a whole subsection of moral philosophy sometimes jokingly called "trolleyology".
You've probably come across it, or some variant of it: a man sees a trolleybus or train hurtling towards 5 people who are tied to the track, people who will surely be killed if the man does nothing. If, however, he pulls a signal switch, the train or trolley will be diverted to a spur track, but in doing so it will surely kill another person who is tied to the spur track. What should he do?
It or something similar has plagued philosophers for centuries - arguably it dates back to 13th century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas and his Doctrine of Double Effect - but this modern formulation of the problem is usually credited to the upper class Englishwoman, political activist and Oxford scholar (and friend of novelist Iris Murdoch) Philippa Foot, née Bonsanquet, as recently as 1967. Since then, it has ignited a whole mini-industry of sorts within academia.
This is not just some dusty old academic  philosophical chestnut with no real answer. It is a problem with some very serious real world repercussions. For example, Churchill's sleight of hand around German flying bombs towards the end of the Second World War, imperilling some areas in preference to others; President Truman's decision to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with two atomic bombs in an attempt to shorten the war and save even more lives; real life tales of sailors cast hopelessly adrift, who take the life of the weakest in order to save the rest; the decision to kill one conjoined twin in order to save the other; or for a mountaineer to cut loose a colleague so as to ensure that the whole group were not jeopardized. The list goes on. Another aspect of it might be the old argument as to whether torture ever justifiable in the interests of the greater good - to save a person's life? to save ten lives? a thousand? to save the planet? - or is there a "categorical imperative" (to use Immanuel Kant's phrase) that overrides this?
Interestingly, certain formulations of the trolley problem tend to elicit one response, and others the opposite. For example, people often see the spur problem as justifiable, perhaps because it is merely a diversion of an already existing threat, and perhaps because there is a slim possibility that the single victim who is sacrificed for the greater good can also be saved in some miraculous way, subsequent to the initial decision. In the case of the Fat Man version of the problem (the fat man of the book's title), a man has to be actively pushed off a bridge in order to save the five who are tied to the track, and most people find this much more problemmatic. The difference between intending and merely foreseeing a death appears to be key. In another example, that of an unwilling or unsuspecting donor who can save five other patients by the harvesting and transplant of his major organs, most people find this solution absolutely abhorrent, maybe because the death of the donor is such a deliberate, unequivocal and required act.
Other subtle variations of the problem make the decision-making even more complex, difficult and uncomfortable. Judith Jarvis Thompson has spent much time cooking up just such subtle variations, including the unfortunate fat man of the book's title, who needs to be physically pushed off a bridge in order to stop the trolley and save the five porential victims. Frances Kamm has devised other even more subtle, contrived and tortuous variations, some of which divide and baffle even trolleyologists.
So, where does all this leave us? How do we weight up positive duties and negative duties, doing and allowing, foresight and intention, acting and omitting, a concern for emotion and agency and strict numerical utilitarianism?
With the advent of "x-phi" or experimental philosophy, statistics have been gathered on the extent to which ordinary people agree or disagree on the various scenarios of trolleyology. There is a surprising convergence of opinion: for example, between 80% and 90% of people agree that the switch should be pulled in the basic version of the thought experiment, and a similar 80% - 90% agree that the fat man should not be heaved onto the railway line in that version of the story. There are very minor differences between women and men, between the religious and non-religious, between conservatives and liberals, between hospital workers and others, but generally speaking there is a remarkable degree of consistency, regardless of socioeconomic strata, education level, culture and geographical location. Differences can be introduced artificially by changing the order in which a series of scenarios are presented; by changing the person who is making the decision; by introducing personal elements like relatives in danger; by building into the storyline conplicating details like criminals or geniuses or children or dying people on the line, etc, etc. But even then, the deviations from the underlying trends tend to be relatively minor. Does this, then, mean that human morality is innate? Should we, then, be able to teach the agreed "rules" to robots, battle computers, or autonomous cars,
"Would YOU Kill the Fat Man?" is written in a clear and engaging style, and explains complex and confusing concepts in an accessible manner, and with many examples. It is a thought-provoking and mildly challenging read, but not really a difficult or long one. The book veers off towards the end in favour of a consideration of the effect of various drugs and hormones on people's reactions, and of another popular moral experiment known as the Ultimatum Game (interesting enough in itself), but in general it manages to spend almost the whole 200 pages talking about just this single ethical thought experiment. It seems that some moral philosophers have devoted their professional lives to trolley-type dilemmas. Make of that what you will.
So, what would YOU do? Would YOU kill the fat man?

Woman in vegetative state unexpectedly gives birth at Arizona nursing home

God! A woman in a persistent vegetative state for over a decade in an Arizona nursing home has just given birth to a baby. Which means ... well, you can figure out for yourself what it means.
The chief executive of Hacienda Healthcare, the corporation that owns the nursing home, has resigned in an attempt to defuse the situation, and is promising a full investigation, as are the local police. But what an unprecedented situation it is, to be sure! 

British companies are worried about Brexit, not Jeremy Corbyn

I was ill-advised enough to talk to my English father-in-law over Christmas about Brexit. He is one of the only people I know who unashamedly voted to leave the EU and, despite being an intelligent and clued-in individual, he still seems to think that this is a good idea. (Polls suggest that a re-vote would result in a comfortable Remain victory, whatever that might mean for the situation in practice.)
One particular claim he made gave me pause for thought, though. When I said that companies were already pulling out of the UK in droves, even before the divorce becomes official, he countered that "studies show" that those that are exiting the country are doing so because they are worried at the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn labour government, not because of a little thing like Brexit. This struck me as eminently unlikely, but, as I had no evidence to the contrary, there was little I could say.
After a bit of research, it seems that the study (singular, not plural) my father-in-law was referring to was reported recently in The Spectator, a right-leaning British magazine, and refers to a specific study of high net worth clients (i.e. individuals, not companies) by British wealth management company Saunderson House. The survey of these rich guys asked what worried them most. Actually, the survey showed that they were most worried about losing their jobs, but a "change in government" (note, no specific mention of Jeremy Corbyn) was second, and "global instability" (the closest the survey came to talking about Brexit) was third. The article also mentions a couple of other British wealth managers who claim, on a purely anecdotal level, that many investors are taking their money out of Britain because they are worried that Corbyn might come to power in the chaos swirling around, well, Brexit... In this context, what they are actually talking about is the threat of a wealth tax that a change in government might bring.
So, this is not quite the science-based evidence that my (rich, white, and slightly racist) father-in-law purported it to be. In fact, it is nothing to with company movement at all, does not mention either Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn, and is certainly not definitive even in what it does claim.
In fact, the evidence seems clear that many companies, particularly in the hugely-important finance field, are in fact pulling out of the UK in favour of new European operations, and banks and other finance companies have moved at least $1 trillion out of Britain and set up new European offices in recent months, specifically due to the uncertainty of Brexit. This represents about 10% of the total assets of the UK banking sector, and is probably a conservative estimate as it only includes those companies which have made public announcements about their moves.
I rest my case.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Relax, you really don't need to drink 2 litres of water a day

Do we really need to drink 2 litres (or 8-10 glasses) of water a day to stay healthy? Many people, including health professionals who should know better, people seem to be fixated on this, whole others maintain that - like 10,000 steps a day - it's just a more-or-less arbitrary number, essentially an urhan myth.
Like so many of these health fads, it seems like the whole 8 cups a day thing is not really scientifically valid. An Australian researcher, who has done lots of work on the subject, pooh-poohs the idea, and calls it an urban myth. He points out that water from other sources (food, juice and other drinks) is just as important, there is no additional benefit from imbibing pure water over other sources of moisture. Even tea and coffee, which have the unfair reputation of causing dehydration, are perfectly good sources of eater. He, and an American researcher in the area, also maintains that the 2 litre benchmark is probably overatated, and people should just drink when they are thirsty. Dark-coloured urine is also a good indication of dehydration.
Anyone with low blood pressure or a propensity for urinary infections may have to drink more than the average, but the typical person probably does not need to be forcing themselves to chug glass after glass of water. Neither do they need to obsess about hydration when working out in the gym, running on a treadmill or playing indoor sports (outdoor sports in hot sun, or long-distance running are another matter - use common sense).
The idea of the 2 litres of water requirement comes from the fact that we typically lose about 1.5 - 2 litres of water each day through breathing, sweating and urinating. American recommendations dating back to 1945 suggested taking in 2.5 litres of water a day, but did at least point out that most of that could come in the form of food (which is typically 40-90% water by weight), something that seems to have been forgotten in recent years. Most people will accumulate enough water just by normal eating, drinking coffee, etc, without the need for endless glasses of water in addition. More water will not help flush out toxins or help the kidneys in some way (the kidneys process many more times the volume of blood in a day than you will ever be able to drink as water).
Having said that, there is no real downside to drinking too much water (uses you have a kidney condition); it will just get excreted, which may at worst be inconvenient. So, don't sweat it: just eat and drink as usual, drink a bit more if you feel thirsty, or if it is hot and dry. But you really don't have to fixate on hydration, or force yourself to drink unpteen glasses of water.