Thursday, February 28, 2019

This year has not been exceptionally snowy in Toronto, but that ice...

People have been complaining about a "bad winter" here in Toronto. But then people always complain about the weather, don't they? People in Florida probably complain about the weather.
Me, I didn't think it had been that bad, so I thought I would check. The official Environment and Climate Change Canada stats on snowfall in Toronto show that this year has in fact been, well, about average (although to be fair, it's not over yet). Over the last 25 years, Toronto's snowfall averages out to about 110cm. This year we are up to 107cm. Other stats show that March and April typically contribute about a fifth of the year's total snowfall, so we may end up with another 20cm or so, which would put this year above average but not dramatically so. Certainly nothing like 2008's huge 216.5cm (I remember struggling to shovel snow onto next door's front yard, which was stacked up to the second storey).
What we have seen more of this year, though, at least in my mind, is ice. Nothing like the huge ice storm of 2013-14, although we have had several smaller freezing rain events. I mean the constant daily thawing and refreezing, patches of black ice on the sidewalks, parks completely covered in an enveloping layer of slick smooth ice. I must have used the ice-scraper almost as often as the snow shovel this year, and it's back-breaking work (I actually quite enjoy shovelling snow, but hacking away at ice is nobody's idea of fun).
Last year was almost as bad, as I remember, but, before last year, I really don't remember ice being such an issue. I assume that what is causing this is temperature variability - temperatures rising above zero during the day and then dropping below, often substantial below, zero at night (good maple syrup weather, I suppose). However, it is hard, if not impossible, to find useful statistics on temperature variability, even on Environment and Climate Change Canada's excellent weather stats website. I just know that the novelty has well and truly worn off, and I am already counting off the days until that Belize vacation in March.

Turns out, horseshoe crabs are in fact related to spiders not crabs

Horseshoe crabs (Xiphosura, if you want the technical name) are fascinating creatures. They have survive essentially unchanged for over 450 million years, shrugging off several global mass extinctions in the process. They have pale blue blood, they are ultra-sensitive to toxins, and they look like nothing else in existence. But here's the kicker: it turns out that horseshoe crabs are not crabs at all, but arachnids.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying the genetic material of the four existing species of horseshoe crabs from genome sequencing projects have concluded that they are in fact aquatic arachnids, related to the spiders and scorpions that evolved on land (and most closely related to the hooded tick spiders).
Well, I wasn't expecting that!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Rare semi-identical twins born in Australia - we should leave them alone

Apparently, there is a very rare phenomenon called sesquizygotic or "semi-identical" twins, and two were just born in Brisbane, Australia (the only other known semi-identical twins were born in the United States in 2007).
Twins are normally either identical (where one egg is fertilized by one sperm, but the resulting zygote then splits into two, resulting in two babies with identical genetic material) or fraternal (where two eggs are fertilized by two different sperm, resulting in two babies born in the same pregnancy, but with a genetic make-up no more similar than siblings born to the same parents but at different times).
With semi-identical twins, a very rare sequence of events leads to two sperm fertilizing a single egg. From this, three "genetic packages" arise, but the one that contains two sets of genetic material from the father dies off, leaving the other two to develop fully. What results is a pair of twins that are more genetically similar than fraternal twins, but not completely identical, hence the label "semi-identical". In this case, one twin is a girl and one is a boy.
Twelve years ago, the Anerican semi-identical twins had a bit of a rough go of it, with one twin losing an arm soon after birth due to a blood clot, and then having her ovaries removed at age three to avoid a strong risk of  to cancer, both due to the unusual properties of her genetic make-up. The Australian twins can probably look forward to a lifetime of scientific tests and instrusive press coverage, but we should probably give them, and their parents, a break, and not go down that route.

Canadians driving to work more than ever before

I came across a rather depressing statistic today. Apparently, according to Statistics Canada (and it's their business to know, after all), 80% of Canadians drive to work, 74% as drivers and 6% as passengers (which I think means that 68% drive alone).
Now, that of course is nationwide, and much of Canada does not even have the option of public transit, let alone good public transit like we do here in Toronto (despite what everyone will probably tell you).
At least that was the situation in 2016, and the percentage of drivers actually increased by 3% since 2011, while public transit use remained flat. I have no reason to suppose that it has improved much in the meantime, although it would be interesting to see if recent moves towards carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes in some provinces have had any impact.

Pipeline negotiations pit First Nations groups against each other

If it sometimes seems like Canadian politics is imploding and fragmenting - what with off-again-on-again pipeline decisions, far-from-transparent PMO machinations, difficult relations with various other countries from China to Saudi Arabia to, well, the United States - then that's probably nothing compared to what's currently happening in First Nations politics.
Resource and pipeline infrastructure development are pitting one group against another, not just one First Nation against another, but individual clans with different outlooks, diffferent administration systems, and even women against men. Take what's happening within the Wet'uwet'sen Nation in British Columbia, where opposition to the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline has led to a battle royal between male hereditary chiefs (who are largely opposed to the pipeline on environmental and what might be called spiritual grounds) and some of the more development-forward women of the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition, who have now had their own hereditary titles stripped from them.
Gloria George, who glories in the hereditary title Smogelgem of the Sun House of the Laksanshu clan of the Wet'suwet'sen Nation, along with Darlene Glaim (Woos of the Grizzly House of the Gitdumben clan) and Theresa Tait Day (Wi'hali'yte of the House Beside the Fire of the Laksilyu clan) - yes, you can see how this could get very complicated very fast - have had their matrilineal titles rescinded, and they have been sidelined from important meetings over the pipeline development. There is also strife between the hereditary chiefs of different clans and the elected band councillors on reserves. Traditionally, hereditary chiefs have been mainly responsible for the lands of an aboriginal group's traditional territories, while elected councils have mainly been responsible for social programs, economic development and governance on the reserves, but obviously there is a substantial overlap between those responsibilities.
The Coastal GasLink Pipeline, for example, has been agreed by all 20 elected First Nation councils along the route, including the five elected councillors of the Wet-suwet'sen Nation. But five hereditary Wet'suwet'sen house chiefs who object to the proposal are holding up proceedings, and they have organized a blockade of the road and bridge leading to the development area since early January. Some other First Nations have also called for the rights of these hereditary chiefs to be respected. The protracted negotiations over the TransMountain oil pipeline also showed that some hereditary chiefs toed the line on traditional lands and the environment, while others were quite happy to be swayed by promises of money or ownership rights.
It's a bit of a minefield. How federal negotiators and resource development companies are supposed to negotiate with and placate all these disparate groups is anyone's guess, which a good part why these kinds of projects take forever (if then) to be agreed. But, hey, it's their land, so there's not much that can be done, whatever your feelings are about this pipeline or that pipeline. It does kind of rankle, though, that, in this day and age, we are having to take into account the views of unelected officials. And it doesn't seem very fair to the First Nations themselves, who have voted for elected officials to administer their land for them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Chagos Islands should not be British, but should they even be Mauritian?

I, for one, had never heard of the Chagos Islands before this week. But the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has now weighed in and declared that the islands should not belong to Britain at all.
The Chagos Islands is an archipelago of tropical islands and attols in the Indian Ocean, roughly halfway between Madagascar and Sri Lanka, the largest of which (and really the only one anyone has heard of) is called Diego Garcia. It really is in the middle of nowhere. It has a few fish and coconuts, and the reefs and oceans that surround it are considered a diversity hotspot. But it has no real development, either tourist or otherwise, apart from a joint UK-US naval base which is considered strategic. It is officially administered by the UK as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
That, however, is where things get difficult. The ICJ has ruled that Britain illegally hived off the islands from Mauritius (then a British possession) in 1965, just before Mauritius was granted independence, although in fact they paid Mauritius £3 million in what seems to be a bona fide commercial transaction. Anyway, the Brits did not behave very well, and forcibly expelled about 2,000 of the native Chagossian  islanders from their homes, prohibiting them from ever returning, so that the whole place could be turned into a military base. At any rate, whether Britain bought the islands in good faith from Mauritius or not, the ICJ has ruled that it was "an unlawful act of a continuing character". While not actually legally binding, the decision puts a lot of moral pressure on Britain to release the islands back to Mauritius (although what then is to happen to the US naval base? Tellingly, the American judge was the only dissenting voice in the ICJ's decision).
However, when I looked up the Chagos Islands, I was surprised to find that they are actually nowhere near Mauritius. Diego Garcia is over 2,000 km from Mauritius. It is closer to the Seychelles (a bit less than 2,000 km), and much closer to the Maldives (just over 1,000 kilometres). Some parts of the archipelago are within 500 km of parts of the Maldives, and historically the islands were originally settled by traders from the Maldives. So, why, then, do the Chagos Islands revert to Mauritius, and not to the Maldives? Can we expect another ICJ court case some time soon, and another improbable mention of the Chagos Islands in the international press

Monday, February 25, 2019

Are the Oscars now too black? Still too white? Not purple enough?

I managed to sit through the whole of the Oscars awards last night for the first time ever and, yes, it was long, but not unbearably so. It just goes to show that much-maligned role of "presenter" is actually totally redundant and unnecessary.
It was the usual mix of the good, the bad and the ugly (in the latter category, of course, come some of the worst offences against fashion delicacy). Many commentators seem to agree with me that Green Book did not really deserve Best Picture or probably most of the other awards it picked up - it's a competent but unexceptional film - and that Bohemian Rhapsody was also probably over-represented in the winners' club (although Rami Malek's speech was one of the better ones). It was nice to see Olivia Colman win Best Actress (and deliver a funny but heart-felt speech), even if either one of her two co-stars in The Favourite could just as easily have been nominated for main, rather than supporting, roles, and I was disappointed that the film did not win more awards (ditto with Roma).
The overwhelming impression from the evening, though, was the number of black, Hispanic and Asian faces among the presenters, nominees and winners, to the extent that I was actually expecting a social media backlash this morning. The #OscarsSoBlack hashtag has been trending since the nominations were announced back in January, and yes, as I suspected, there is also an #OscarsTooBlack hashtag. There are several tweets suggesting that the Academy has over-compensated this year, running scared from more #OscarsSoWhite allegations. But the #OscarsSoBlack hashtag seems to be shared with, even dominated by, people who are genuinely pleased about the Oscars' new-found inclusiveness and diversity. Some are still fuming that Black Panther did not win more awards, although that would really not have been justified in my opinion, much as I enjoyed the film.
This year's Oscars representation by non-whites certainly seems to be disproportionate to the ethnic make-up of the United States as a whole (77% white, 13% non-white) - and the Oscars is essentially an American phenomenon after all. Does that mean that black people are just better at this kind of thing (as they seem to be at basketball, sprinting, rap, etc)? Is this a one-off blip, or a period of adjustment? Is it a case of over-compensation for white liberal shame? I guess time will tell.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

How Donald Trump singlehandedly decimated the American solar industry

President Trump, in his desperate bid to save a few jobs in the moribund coal industry, has just presided over the decimation of the labour-intensive solar panel installation sector.
After a bumper year in 2016, the solar energy industry was responsible for almost double the employment in the electricity power sector (43%) than the whole fossil fuel industry (22%). But then Donald Trump came along, promising jobs for the boys in the mining backwoods of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (in return for votes), and taking every opportunity to diss the solar and wind power industries, to play down its contributions, and to generally discourage investment in what was a burgeoning sector. One of Trump's first actions in his trade war with China was to slap a 30% tariff on imported solar panels in early 2018.
All of this has had the the very real, and almost immediate effect of pulling the whole solar industry up short, and it shed 10,000 jobs in 2017 and another 8,000 in 2018. Industry spokespeople are currently predicting a small turnaround in 2019, although that is what they said at the beginning of 2018 too! And, of course, a few choice words from Donald Trump could make any industry predictions completely moot.

Iceland votes to continue whaling, but for how much longer?

Hot on the heels of Japan's recently-reported decision to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the government of Iceland has voted to extend its "permission" for its whaling industry to keep killing baleen whales for another five years.
Iceland, which is still a member of IWC and does not see the need to leave the organization regardless of its policy on whaling, has sanctioned the killing of a maximum of 2,130 minke and fin whales over five years. Many, if not most, Icelanders seem to be in favour of continuing the island nation's whaling heritage, despite the country's progressive views on most other matters. The Icelandic business community, on the other hand, are less gung ho on the idea.
A growing number of Icelandic businessmen and politicians are counselling against continued whale hunting, not out of any moral scruples, but because it sees the country's tourism sector suffering as a result. International tourism is a mainstay of Iceland's economy, by far its most important export, whereas its whale industry is tiny and  is having increasing problems selling its  products internationally. As the Icelandic Travel Industry Association pithily points out, "Their market for whale meat is Japan, Norway and the Republic of Palau. Our market is the entire globe."
Iceland resumed commercial whale hunting in 2006, after the IWC blanket ban of 1986 - putting itself in a very small club of whaling mavericks, along with Japan and Norway - although it rarely kills its full quota of whales, mainly because it just can't sell them. It seems to be mainly a matter of national pride and independence, rather than a hard-nosed commercial decision. But maybe the tide is starting to turn back again.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Nine is a very strange number

Nine is a strange number. You may be aware that dividing 1 by 9 gives an interesting decimal, 0.11111111... You may even be aware that dividing 1 by 99 gives the equally interesting 0.0101010101... , and dividing 1 by 999 gives 0.001001001001... , etc.
But did you know that dividing 1 by the squares of these numbers gives even stranger results?
1 divided by 81 (9 squared) gives 0.012345679012345679... , i.e. consecutive digits, but with the 8 mysteriously missing. 1 divided by 9,801 (which is 99 squared) gives 0.000102030405060708091011121314... , which seems to generate all the two digit numbers in consecutive sequence (including 8). But, guess what? 98 is missing in the sequence. One step further, 1 divided by 998,001 (yes, that's 999 squared) gives 0.000001002003004005006... , all the 3 digit numbers in sequence. But - you guessed it again - one number is missing from the sequence: 998. And, yes, the same kind of thing happens with 99,980,001 (the square of 9,999), etc, etc.
I'm sure if the ancient Greeks or Hebrews had figured this out, they would have ascribed all sorts of spiritual and supernatural significance to these findings. Me, I just find it kind of quirky and interesting.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Even if Trudeau is suspect, Scheer is probably worse

You may not a big fan of Justin Trudeau at the moment; I'm having difficulty coming to terms with some of his decision-making myself. But we should be wary of a knee-jerk lurch to his main competitor in the upcoming Canadian  federal elections. And, speaking of jerks, we should be very wary of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
Not known as a policy heavyweight, what we do know about Scheer should be enough to give us pause. And what better indication of where he is coming from than his attendance of, and support for, the United We Roll "convoy" earlier this week.
Ostensibly, United We Roll is a grass-roots Western Canadian pro-pipeline and anti-carbon tax initiative. In reality, it is suffused with far-right and anti-immigration philosophies. Some attendees were wearing "Make Canada Great Again" baseball caps, which should be enough to warn anybody off. Also associated with the group is the xenophobic Yellow Vests Canada contingent (have these people no imagination, that they need to beg, borrow or steal names and slogans from others?), some of whose members have recommended, among other things, that Justin Trudeau be shot, and others that he be charged with treason.
And who spoke at United We Roll's Ottawa rally: too-conservative-for-the-conservatives Maxine Bernier, who has railed against what he sees as Canada's "extreme multiculturalism"; far-right firebrand and ex-Rebel Media personality Faith Goldy, whose contribution included telling Indigenous counter-protestors "If you don't like our country, leave it"; and Saskatchewan Senator David Tkachuk who suggested to the rollers that "I want you to roll over every Liberal left in the country", which, in the aftermath of last summer's drive-by massacre in Toronto, was hardly politic, and for which he refuses to apologize. And, who else? Oh, yes, one Andrew Scheer.
Yes, Andrew Scheer was there, front and centre, apparently quite content with the company he was keeping, and even sent out Trump-esque tweets of his strong support for the rally. The Conservative Party of Canada is already moving further to the right under his leadership. For example, Scheer plans to end birthright citizenship if elected, and has made no secret of his opposition to same-sex marriage. He has also initiated an equally Trumpian, factually incorrect, misinformation campaign - taken up, notably, by the United We Roll people - concerning Canada's signing on to the UN compact on migration. And climate change? Don't get me started.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Trudeau has made some mistakes and missteps in the last year or two, sure. But who knows what steps Andrew Scheer would have made in similar circumstances. If it's a choice between a Prime Minister who has brought in some solid progressive advanced and rebuilt Canada's image on the world stage but shown himself to be all-too-human at times, and a pretender of uncertain morals and reactionary policies, then maybe we have to hold our noses and stick with the Liberals, on the grounds that the alternative is likely to be worse for the country. "Better the devil you know" may not be a great reason for voting, but deliberately voting in a worse devil as some kind of a protest is an even sillier idea.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes?

No, that's not the opening line of a puerile joke, it's a legitimate avenue of scientific study. Scientists have posited all sorts of possible solutions over the years, from staying cool to a attracting a mate to evading predators, none of which have gained much traction.
Now, though, researches at the University of Bristol and UC Davies California have come up with a reason that makes a lot more sense: the zebra's stripes confuse parasites like horse flies. It turns out that horse flies land much more often on horses than on zebras. The flies aim for the zebras, but then seem to get confused, and do not slow down to land like they do with horses. The stripes seem to confused the low-resolution  visual system of the flies as they come in to land. This is particularly important in Africa, where horse flies carry dangerous diseases like trypanosomiasis. Furthermore, the more prevalent horse flies are in an area, the greater the striping on the local zebras.
In a second study, the researchers even put zebra coats on horses to confirm that the theory works. And yes, it does. So, you can probably expect to see more horses dressed up as zebras in the future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

All seven kids in Syrian refugee family die in Halifax fire

It's difficult to imagine what is going through the minds of Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho today. The Syrian refugees arrived in Nova Scotia in 2017, sponsored by a volunteer group, and brought with them their family of seven children, ranging from four months to fifteen years of age: Adullah, Rana, Hala, Ola, Mohamad, Rola and Ahmad. By all reports, they were ideal immigrants, sociable, keen to integrate into society and to explore all that Canada has to offer.
Now, however, all seven children are dead, after a freak fire at their house in Spryfield, just outside Halifax. Ebraheim also suffered extensive, possibly even life-threatening, burns, as he tried to get to his kids, who were all asleep upstairs at the time. Kawthar is physically unhurt. but psychologically scarred, occasionally reverting to a kind of fugue state, constantly repeating the children's names. Ironically, the family was due to move from the Spryfield house in just over a week's time. It is thought that the fire may have started from a faulty baseboard heater behind a sofa, although there are also reports from neighbours of some kind of an explosion, so we will have to wait for the official report to be sure.
But what a turn of events: after years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, to the euphoria of a new life in Canada, and then this. A CBC interview with one of the family's immigration sponsors, and a close friend, will probably have you in tears.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

In SNC Lavalin political fiasco, no-one is even questioning the initial Globe allegations

I have avoided commenting on the whole Justin Trudeau / Jody Wilson-Raybould / SNC Lavalin fiasco thus far, mainly because there just seems to be so little in the way of actual facts to discuss.
There are still many unknowns (both known and unknown) in the affair and, while it is clear that Trudeau has mishandled it, the sheer wishy-washiness of the allegations is starting to bug me. Coming just months before the next federal election, the story is already a major election issue, even though we know next to nothing about what actually happened. If Trudeau is beaten in the 2019 elections, and we spend the next four years wandering in a Conservative wilderness under Andrew Scheer, then it will be cause if this single issue alone, and all because of a thus far completely unsubstantiated allegation.
The whole thing was generated out of nothing by a February 7th article in the Globe and Mail reporting allegations from an unidentified anonymous source. We don't know if it was a reliable source; we don't even know if it was a source that was in a position to know such intimate details of cabinet discussions. It was one of those "sources say" articles - that's all we were given. But the Globe, and then everyone else, ran with the story, and it took on a life of its own. It has been repeated in the press ad nauseam as a bald fact, and often does not even get the label of "allegations". No-one seems to be even questioning that.
Yes, the reactions of all concerned suggest that there may well be fire behind the smoke. But, at the moment, all we have is some smoke from an unidentified anonymous source. Let's not lose sight of that fact.
And, while I am about it, I would also like to put to rest another allegation that is being proposed and repeated with little or no discernment: the idea that because Jody Wilson-Raybould is female and "racialized", any decision or opinion that may operate against her is automatically sexist and racist. Just one example of this is the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs characterization of the debate as "sexist and racist innuendo", when all they were responding to was the report (from another"insider who didn't want to be identified") that Wilson-Raybould "was difficult to get along with, known to berate fellow cabinet ministers openly at the table, and who others felt they had trouble trusting". That does not paint a very complimentary picture, to be sure, but nothing in it is specifically sexist or racist. And let's not confuse that either.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The war against veganism has begun

Well, the backlash against veganism seems to have started in earnest. There were no fewer than three (rather whiny) articles in a two-page centre-spread in the Globe and Mail this weekend, mainly objecting to the holier-than-thou "virtue signalling" of the vegan movement (if movement it be). And now there is official action against the use of the word "cheese" by vegan cheese-alternative manufacturers.
Blue Heron, a small Vancouver vegan cheese store (there, I said it!) has been prohibited from using the word "cheese" to market its products, after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which apparently is also responsible for such nomenclature issues, received an anonymous complaint. Now, you can imagine where that complaint came from, can't you? (and one complaint?). Canada-wide the CFIA received all of 415 dairy product complaints of this kind in 2017-8, up from 294 in 2013-4, hardly a visceral groundswell of opinion, I wouldn't have thought, and well within the possibility that this is the work of dairy employees and their families. Not that I am a conspiracy theorist...
Of course, there are lots of other companies out there producing similar vegan cheese products (said it again!) and not being regulated, although this may be the opening salvo in an upcoming war. For now, Blue Heron, and others, are just politely asking exactly what the rules are, as that seems far from clear. Most of the rules that do apply date from the 80s and 90s, before good quality vegan cheese even existed. Apparently, Bkue Heron has also been told that it can't use hyphenated explanatory descriptors like "dairy-free" or "plant-based" along with the word "cheese" (so can they use them without hypens?), nor can they use sound-alike phonetic mis-spellings like "cheeze" or "cheez" (so where does that leave Cheez Whiz, which is actually less like cheese than many vegan products?). Blue Heron, specifically, doesn't even use the word "cheese" on its labels, only in its website description, so why they were singled out is anyone's guess. But it's no secret that the dairy industry is feeling a bit precarious at the moment, so the odds are that they are behind it somewhere.
It's all very confusing and vaguely ridiculous. I suppose "vegan jerky" and "chick-un" are for the chop next. The war against veganism has begun.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Are tattoos uncool yet?

I always knew, if I waited long enough, I could become cool again. Just like even the worst fashions from my childhood (bell-bottoms, platform shoes), eventually had a bit of a resurgence, even if briefly, fashions inevitably and ineluctably come and they go.
At the moment, I am holding out for the day when not having a tattoo becomes cool, because I am there already, way ahead of the pack. And that day may be coming soon. We're not there yet, I hasten to add. In fact, we are probably living through peak tattoo right now. A British survey in 2015 concluded that about 20% of Brits have a tat, and 30% of 25-39 year olds. An American survey in 2016 yielded a figure of 29% (up from 21% just two years earlier), including an extraordinary 47% of 14-34 year olds.
Those figures don't surprise me, looking a round on a summer afternoon, and in particular seeing the state of cool pop stars and sports people. But are they still cool if everyone is doing it? If what started as a  prison protest movement (just like those ridiculous baggy pants) has been taken up by soccer moms and accountants? Record numbers of tattoos are being removed, with 14% being removed to be replaced by others, and 61% being removed because the owners just don't like them any more. Have the likes of Justin Bieber and Adam Levine, with their garish whole-body displays, jumped the shark?
Well, I can argue so, can't I? Not that I really want to be cool anyway. It seems to stressful, expensive and time-consuming.

Canada's forests are actually hurting our climate change efforts

Well, here's a thing. Canada's apparently endless boreal forest, which most people have taken to be our carbon-sink and oxygen-emitting buffer against climate change, actually turn out to be a climate change liability, and have been for over 15 years!
Yes, Canada's trees, like trees everywhere, absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere as they grow. But they also emit CO2 when they die and decompose, or when they burn. Up until recently, the absorption of CO2 has always outweighed the creation of new CO2, and the forests could reasonably be considered a boon to the country as regards our contribution to global warming.
However, since 2001, the hugely increased number of forest fires and tree deaths from insect infestations - in fact, the results of global warming - have more than outweighed the benefits of our trees as a carbon sink, at least using data from the two-thirds or so of our forests that are considered "managed". In some years (like 2015, for example, which saw a record number of forest fires) massively so. And I had no idea!
I was equally ignorant of the fact that, for years, Canada has been excluding forests (and wetlands and farmland) from our official accounting for CO2 emissions, as we are "allowed" to do under the UN's FCCC regulations, which has therefore significantly understated our emissions. Even worse, for the last couple of years, we have been including the beneficial carbon sink effects of our huge forests, but excluding the negative effects of the forest fires and insect infestations that go with them, which has skewed our CO2 reporting even further.
And yet, even with this kind of creative accounting  we are still falling far short of our UN climate change commitments. I'm embarrassed that we are resorting to these kinds of disingenuous accounting tactics. I'm even more embarrassed that, even then, we are doing so badly in the struggle against global warming.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Life sentences and consecutive parole periods in Canada

The sentencing last week of Alexandre Bissonette and Bruce McArthur for multiple murders have put the focus once again on Canada's laws on life sentences.
First degree murder attracts a mandatory life sentence, along with a minimum 25 years of ineligibility for parole. If parole is refused, hearings are automatically held every two years thereafter, until the prisoner either dies or is released. A person can not be sentenced to more than one life sentence (life is life), no matter how many victims they have killed, but the period of parole ineligibility can be tweaked. In 2011, the Criminal Code was amended by the Conservative federal government of Stephen Harper to allow consecutive periods of parole inelegibility in such cases, also known as "stacking" (e.g. 50 years, 75 years, etc). So, a life sentence is still a life sentence, regardless of single or multiple murders, but the parole rules can be tweaked so that "life" actually dies mean "life", rather than potentially just 25 years. In fact, in practice, parole hearings very rarely lead to a release in the case of serious crimes like multiple murders, but there is still a possibility, so this has an important psychological as well as legal effect.
Since 2011, this kind of parole stacking has been employed several times, the latest of those being for Dellen Millard, who was given a life sentence for three murders in December 2018, and it was specified that he will not be eligible for a parole hearing for 75 years. In the two most recent cases, though, McArthur was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for just 25 years for his 8 murders, and Bissonette is not eligible for parole for 40 years for his 6 murders. MacArthur is 66, so 25 years will take him to 91 years old, which is technically possibly but unlikely: this is effectively a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  Bisonette, though, is only 30, so he will come up for a parole hearing when he is 70, which is quite feasible (and a distinct worry expressed by some of the victims' family members).
So, in both of these high-profile cases, the judges chose not to take advantage of the legal availability of consecutive parole inelgibility periods. The Quebec Superior Court judge in the Bissonette case specifically argued that disallowing parole for 50 years or more (the prosecution called for the maximum of 150 years) would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" and would compromise Bissonette's rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that any sentence that exceeds a person's life expectancy and offers no hope of release is necessarily "grossly disproportionate and totally incompatible with human dignity". The sentencing will almost certainly be appealed, and many people do not consider that justice has been well served by these decisions.
It's a tough one, particularly when we are talking about multiples murders and hate crimes to boot (of Muslims in one case, and homosexuals in the other). How much dignity do these guys really have, or deserve? Shouldn't the murder of 6 or 8 individuals be punished more aggressively than a single murder? What kind of message do sentences like these send about the severity of the crimes? Shouldn't a life sentence be for, well, life, and not just 25 years? Can any prison sentence handed out for a multiple murder be considered "cruel and unusual"?
It certainly makes me glad I am not a judge.

Ron Joyce - nice guy, very successful, but no saint

The Canadian press is bingeing on encomiums for Ron Joyce, who died this last week. Joyce was the co-founder of Tim Hortons, and is often credited with much of the company's commercial success.
But, wait, wasn't he the guy who sold Tim Hortons to American burger chain Wendy's for a cool $400 million in 1996, which led to its sale to Burger King, which was then taken over by RBI, which has led to all the problems Tim's has been dealing with over the last couple of years?
Joyce may have been a highly successful businessman, and the kind of archetypal rags-to-riches story that is much beloved by the press. But, please, he didn't do it for Canada, and he was no saint (a 2013 sexual assault case is still ongoing).

Trump's border wall has already cost the country $11 billion

The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the 35-day government shutdown (from 22 December 2018 to 25 January 2019) cost the country $11 billion, $3 billion in December and $8 billion in January.
Now, I have no idea how that figure was calculated, but I have no reason to disbelieve the CBO, unbelievable though it may seem. So, Donald Trump's insistence on a border wall as part of a government funding agreement, which he knew would never be agreed to in these circumstances, and which he estimates will cost $5.7 billion (although other estimates put it as high as $285 billion!), has already cost the country $11 billion!
And it looks like he is willing to hold Congress hostage over immigration all over again. How's that Art of the Deal thing going?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mexicans have a strangle-hold over the Oscar for Best Director

I'm not much of an Oscar follower, so it came as something of a surprise to have pointed out to me that, if Alfonso Cuarón wins the Academy Award for Best Director this year, as seems more than likely, then Mexican directors will have won 5 of the last 6 Best Director awards:

  • 2018-9: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma.
  • 2017-8: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water.
  • 2015-6: Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant.
  • 2014-5: Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman.
  • 2013-4: Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity.

All, obviously, very good films. The only non-Mexican interloper in recent years was Damien Chazelle for La La Land in 2016-7 (not in the same league at all, in my humble opinion).
What is in the water down there?

How did I miss hearing about the WTF Star?

I seem to have missed the announcements completely at the time, but I have only just found out about the so-called WTF Star.
Supposedly standing for "Where's The Flux" Star, although with tongue clearly planted firmly in cheek, the star is officially designated KIC 8462852 (KIC indicates the Kepler Input Catalog, meaning it was one of the hundreds of thousands of stars monitored by NASA's Kepler space telescope as part of the Planet Hunter project). In actual fact, the star has been known of since as early as 1895, but it is also now sometimes referred to as "Tabby's Star", after Tabetha Boyajian, who was responsible for characterizing the strange properties of the star over the period of Kepler's monitoring between 2009 to 2013, and comparing it with earlier observations.
Over 4 years of monitoring, the star seemed to inexplicably dim and brighten in an irregular pattern, overall growing slightly fainter over the period. This irregularity all but precludes the likelihood of the passage of a planet or planets in front of it, which is what the investigators were initially looking for. In fact, scientists are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, although many hypotheses have been put forward including colliding asteroids, comet swarms, the rings of a huge gas giant and planetary debris.
One possible explanation that particularly caught the scientific and public imagination, though, is that we may be observing some kind of enormous artificial structure. This led to some breathless media chatter of an "alien megastructure". It seems to me that there is very little compelling evidence for this particular explanation, but hey, I'm not an astrophysicist.
Either way, the star's unusual amd inexplicable activity puts it into the same category of such other unexplained astral phenomena as the "Wow! Signal", an unexplained and unrepeated powerful radio burst noted in 1977, which some have posited may be an alien broadcast (if so, I would ask, why was it not repeated?), and the 1991 "Oh My God Particle", a one-off, hugely powerful cosmic ray burst, which continues to defy explanation. (Actually, the Wow! Signal may now have been explained, and we may be on the trail of the Oh My God Particle as well).
All it says to me is that there are a whole lot of cosmic phenomena out there that we just don't understand. Why we should attribute them to "aliens" is a mystery to me.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

US Green New Deal is a big deal (but is it too big?)

The Green New Deal, officially unveiled by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey on Thursday, is the biggest Democratic challenge to the status quo since the early days of Barack Obama's administration.
The slight 14-page document is a call to arms, to wean the US economy off fossil fuels, provide health care for all, increase wages for the poorest, and increase union rights. The proposed 10-year "economic mobilization" would stimulate the economy, but it would require a huge (unspecified) government outlay. It is bold, visionary, wide-ranging, a little vague ... and potentially divisive.
Many (but by no means all) Republicans are laughing it off at the moment, calling for the Democrats to bring it on, convinced that it is in their interests to show the American public just how loony-left and pie-in-the-sky the Democratic Party is now. They are using phrases like "socialist fever dream", "socialist manifesto", "policy piñata", "crazy" and "loony".
Many high profile Democrats have come out in strong support of the bill, but it has also split the Democrats to some extent, even among those who have been active on the climate change issue. Some senior, and more cautious, Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seem loath to pursue it at this time, worried that it may alienate the American public and split the Democratic caucus at a time when they have just begun to consolidate power, following their 2018 mid-term gains.
And I have to wonder if they're not perhaps right. Personally, I can find nothing to object to in the bill, but is it going to be too much too fast for notoriously small-c conservative America? Am I just being wishy-wash by advising that a dose of realpolitik be injected into the debate? Is there a risk of extending Donald Trump's reign of terror by pursuing a worthy but politically impractical goal?

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Is political correctness going too far? - a liberal perspective

Am I the only bleeding-heart holier-than-thou liberal who is starting to get a bit ticked off with the witch-hunt trajectory that political correctness policing seems to be taking these days, where transgressions against modern norms and values are being revisited on people forty years later.
As yet another Virginia politician gets hauled over the coals for having dressed up as a rapper at a fancy-dress party back in 1980, I am starting to wonder whether we maybe need some kind of statute of limitations on these things. The world was a very different place back then, and people just did things like that. Maybe that doesn't excuse them completely, but how was the teenaged Mark Herring - yes, he was a teenager! - to know then that one day it wouldn't be considered acceptable (I'm assuming that the Virginia Attorney-General wouldn't do the same thing today).
We are not talking here about someone who regularly attended KKK events, or someone who has a long-standing history of racism and deliberate discrimination. And I am not suggesting that Hitler be excused his actions on the grounds that it was an acceptable practice back in the 30s and 40s. I'm just saying that some sense of proportion is called for, and that a competent and reasonable politician (which is what I am assuming Mr. Herring is - I don't know him from Adam) should not have have his career destroyed for a one-off youthful indiscretion, which he was probably not even aware of at the time.
I may be pushing my luck here, but I'm not that sure that it should be verboten even today for people to dress up as something they're not - isn't that the point of a fancy-dress party? How is it so different for someone to dress up as a Disney princess than it is for them to appear as their favourite singer (who may or may not happen to be black)? As far as I can see, it's not even that it's disrespectful; it's more a form of homage. How is it putting putting black people - or indigenous people or Asian people or whatever - at any disadvantage?
Ah, my bleeding heart is clearly starting to congeal and calcify. But am I wrong? What am I missing?

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

The magnetic north pole is on the move - should we care?

I have already reported that the Earth's north and south poles are in the process of swapping over, as they do from time to time. But I was nevertheless shocked to learn about the speed of development of another magnetic pole phenomenon.

The magnetic north pole is in the move, and it is moving much faster than it used to. Due to turbulence in the Earth's liquid iron/nickel outer core (which spins at a different rate than the surface, and is subject to all sorts of dynamo effects and convection currents), the northern magnetic pole is moving north at about 55 km a year, headed out of the Canadian Arctic and towards Russian Siberia. Currently, by sheer coincidence, it is hovering quite close to the geographical north pole, deep in the Arctic Ocean. It has moved nearly 2,300 km since it was first identified in 1831, which is quite extraordinary.

It is also moving much faster than it used to: in the last 30 years, it has gone from moving at just 5-10 km per year, to the current 50-60 km per year. Furthermore, it used to move in a much more random fashion, whereas in recent decades it has kept up a steady trajectory towards the northwest. The World Magnetic Model, the main agency that keeps and publishes official records on the magnetic north pole, and funded by the US and UK military, used to issue updates every five years; now, they are having to do it more often.

Now, you might not think this is a big deal - we don't have to reprint all our maps or anything like that, and the geographical north pole is right where it always was - but cellphones, car GPS systems, some consumer electronics, airplanes, ships, and the military all make regular use of the magnetic north pole. Oh, and compasses if anyone still uses those. 

Apparently, for technical reaons that escape me, below a latitude of about 55°N - which is where most people live - the difference are not huge as yet, but for people navigating in the far north, it is beginning to become a major issue. It is also potentially going to have an effect on migratory birds, many of which use the magnetic north to navigate.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Do we even need 5G technology?

As Canadian (and presumably everyone else's) telecommunications companies agonize over whether or not to use Huawei's 5G network technology (and whether their government will even let them), there are some questions that are not even being asked.
As I have discussed before, Huawei is not just another company, it is effectively an arm of the Chinese government, and many countries are rightly wary of letting the company in to manage their telecommunications systems. Also, thanks to the Americans, Canada is now embroiled in a nasty war of words, morals and legalities with China, and with Huawei in particular. Given the way this is looking right now, Canadian telco companies Rogers, BCE and Telus would probably be wise to avoid striking any deals with Huawei in the near future. Some of them have been quick to point out that that will probably cost them - and their subscribers - a pretty penny, but notably BCE (Bell) say that they would be quite comfortable using a different supplier, and see no reason why that would lead to higher consumer bills.
Anyway, my point is - the elephant in the room - do we we even need 5G networks? Just because a technology exists doesn't necessarily mean that we should pump billions of dollars into acquiring it, although new technology tends to have a kind of self-fulfilling momentum to it these days.
5G (fifth generation telecommunications network technology) promises many things, mainly higher speeds and lower latency (delay) than the current 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks that most of us use. Personally, I really don't need faster speeds. Nothing I use my cellphone for has any appreciable delay or frustration. I don't engage in online gaming, and I don't download complete movies while I am sitting on the bus. 5G is also being touted as essential for the development of autonomous cars and fleets of drones, neither of which I particularly want to see, and neither of which I feel are ready to be unleashed on an unsuspsecting public. And I suspect that many, if not most, other users feel much the same way. Also, 4G networks are much faster than they were even just a couple of years ago, and they are improving all the time (the idea of Gigabit LTE has already been mooted - Long Term Evolution, right?).
And, bear in mind, 5G tech is not without it's drawbacks. Perhaps the main one is that the ultra-short wave, high-frequency spectrum that 5G uses means that the waves do not travel very far at all, and are easily blocked by buildings, trees, traffic signs, etc (and presumably by someone with criminal intentions). So, instead of those large, ugly (but relatively few) cell towers we currently see, 5G would require lots and lots of smaller antennas. And, in order to achieve the coverage we have come to expect, I mean "lots" - on houses, telegraph poles, traffic lights, street signs, buses, you name it, probably every 150m in built-up areas. And quite how that would work in rural areas, I'm not sure (and have not seen any solutions suggested). And who knows whether different network providers will use compatible system or not?
Something else that has not received anything like enough attention is the possible health effects of the higher frequency radiation emitted by 5G systems. Arguably, there is very little such research on the health effects of current network systems (the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies low- and high-frequency electromagnetic radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans"), but there is essentially none at all on 5G, and apparently none planned, although some activists like US Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal is attempting to raise the profile of the issue. 
Furthermore, 5G networks would require 5G phones (and vice versa). Your current phone can not just be "switched over" to 5G. It uses a whole different system, and so, yes, you will need a new phone (and a new internet-enabled thermostat, car, smart meter, etc, etc). So, as well as paying extra for your provider's upgrades, you get to pay more for your own hardware too.
Not sounding quite so attractive now, eh? We should put some serious thought into whether we even need to engage Huawei (or anyone else) in upgrading our cell networks. We could just let LTE evolve.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Separated (and confused and misled) by a common language

Lynne Murphy's 2018 book The Prodigal Tongue is subtitled The love-hate relationship between American and British English, and, as the title suggests it explores the uneasy relationship between our shared but often contradictory language.
Ms. Murphy is American-born, but married an Englishman and has lived in Britain for 20-odd years. And she is a linguist, who has lectured at universities on both sides of the pond, and who authors a blog called Separated by a Common Language, so she is well-qualified to comment on the two countries' usage (and abusage) of the language.
Mr. Murphy writes with an engaging style and wit, even if she is a little judgy and condescending at times. She tries to unpick and unpack some of the transatlantic language myths that abound, and to set the record straight where possible. To that end, she delights in ridiculing some of the attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes displayed by the more popular press, as well as by some so-called experts who should know better. Usually, this is done with a modicum of grace, although occasionally it comes across as merely irritating or pedantic.
She examines, among many others, the idea that British Engish is often perceived as more correct or authoritative, as well as less prudish, than American English, and that Americans are somehow wholly responsible for dumbing down and bastardizing the language. In the process, she points out many interesting little historical and linguistic quirks and ironies, like the revelation that the word toilet was actually imported into Britain fron America in the early 20th century (despite the fact that Americans now tend to prefer bathroom or restroom), and that the eminently British-sounding poppycock also originally came to Britain from North America, as did shambles and skive. The American use of ladybug, instead of ladybird, on the other hand, actually started in Britain, as did the adjective regular (to mean ordinary, or not large) and, even more surprisingly, "American" business verbs like incentivize and action. In fact, it turns out that the British verb at least as many nouns (and noun as many verbs) as the Americans, and a surprising number of verbifications date from long before America was even a place.
In some respects, America can be said to have preserved the language more than has Britain, which has seen several (more or less random) spelling and pronunciation changes over the centuries. The American pronunciation of a hard West Country r at the end of words, and the flat unrounded and flat a, are often mentioned in this regard. But American English also retains many antique (Elizabethan and Jacobean) words fhat have become lost to British English, like closet and faucet. Likewise, it was Britain that started using the punctuation word period before changing to full stop some time later, while America retained the more traditional period. In the case of quotation marks, Britain changed to using inverted commas for a good century and a half, before re-importing or reviving quotation marks back from America in recent years.
We all know that English is a notoriously illogical, confusing and inconsistent language, especially orthographically, but Ms. Murphy does a particularly good job of exemplifying just HOW confusing and how apparently random it is. And, although the Americans made some attempt in the 19th century, under Noah Webster, to fix some of the worst of it, they didn't really do a very good job. Take the -our/-or dichotomy as just one example. British English of course, uses colour, candour, tumour, etc (based on the Norman French spellings), but somehow retained u-less liquor, author, tremor and others. They have honour and honourable, but honorary and honorific, vapour but vaporize, etc, etc. America changed most of these to -or, both for simplicity and to adhere more closely to the earlier Latin roots, but for some reason they decided to retained the English u in glamour. There are similar inconsistencies and confusion, within both British and American spelling, in the -ise/-ize words, -re/-er words, etc. What a mess!
She points out many things that everyone knows, but has never really thought about. For example, why do we (Americans and Brits alike) say pasta in the singular, but noodles in the plural, even though they are essentially the same thing? How about a side dish of peas (plural) and a side dish of just as much corn (singular)? Weird! Then there is the whole math/maths conundrum: outraged Brits bluster that if mathematics is plural, then the contraction should be too; defensive Yanks counter that mathematics is clearly not plural because we say maths is hard not maths are hard, and that most linguistic clippings just clip from the beginning of the word (like lab, pub, etc). And who knew that words like gosh and golly were developed as Puritanical American euphemisms to avoid blasphemously saying the word God, just as the British were doing much the same thing in straight-laced Victorian times with cor blimey (God blind me), goodness me (God bless me), crikey (Christ), etc.
Finally, just in case you might still be convinced that the Brits use the language in a superior fashion, my own favourite linguistic anecdote quoted by Ms. Murphy is an actual dialogue caught on a British train:
Manboy 1: So what's the difference between whom and who?
Manboy 2: Whom is more correct.
Manboy 1: So I should say whom is that?
Manboy 2: No, it's only for plurals like whomever.
Manboy 1: Oh right, and like, whom's is that?
Manboy 2: Exact.
Anyway, I'm a bit of a word and language geek myself - hell, I did a whole website on The History of English a few years ago, as well as a Canadian, British and American Dictionary website - so this book was right up my street. Ms. Murphy spends much of the book justifying and legitimizing American English, usually at the expense of British English and British linguists, which, given my English background (and my Canadian foreground) sometimes rankles. Indeed, some of it seems unthinkingly pro-American, and unnecessarily dismissive and derogatory about the English way of doing things, and includes all sorts of sweeping generalizations on both sides, many of which seem unjustifiable. But its true that the Brits do tend to blame America for pretty much anything they don't like about our ever-evolving language, and it's often misplaced blame, which is precisely what Ms. Murphy takes issue with.
Either way, her love and respect for words and language always comes through. She dives into the history, vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and grammar of the two variants in some detail. And, trust me, some of this stuff is undeniably fascinating and often downright bizarre.

Fake US university is nothing less than a government entrapment scheme

As a rather bizarre illustration of the lengths the USA will go to in order to prevent or discourage immigration, there is perhaps no better example than the University of Farmington.
In 2015, way back in the Obama years, even before Trump and his anti-immigration crusade took over, the fake university was set up by undercover agents from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as a method of exposing "pay-to-stay" immigration fraud, foreign nationals who enter the country on a student visa with the express intention of staying in the country. It was supposedly based in Michigan, and it had its own website, Facebook page and (fake) calendar of events. It advertised undergraduate tuition for $8,500 a year and graduate tuition for $11,000 a year. But there is no such university: it's grassy "campus" is actually in a business park in a Detroit suburb.
This last Wednesday, 130 students (129 of them from India) were arrested by ICE, and they face possible deportation if convicted. A further 8 people, who allegedly acted as recruiters, were also arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit. Prosecutors say that those who enrolled knew that the facility was illegal, but the Indian government is protesting and arguing that, while the recruiters may have known, the students may have been duped and tricked into enrolling.
Certainly, from my point of view, this looks like a clear case of entrapment by the US government. If the fake university had not been established, then the students would not have been in the USA in the first place. So, what then was the point of it, other than to lure and inveigle young foreigners into coming to the United States: it is effectively a problem of their own making. Some of the students may have understood what they were doing, other maybe not, and yes, I am sure that they hoped to be able to stay in the USA - that, in itself, is not a crime. Either way, this is a desperate and underhand ploy by the US government, and it should be discouraged in the future.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Is US force-feeding of Indian refugee claimants legal?

Indian asylum-seekers in Texas, USA, on hunger strike to protest the racist treatment they are receiving and the fact that they are not being allowed to post bonds to leave the detention facility in order to continue their fight against deportation like other asylum-seekers, are being forcibly fed and hydrated in almost torture-like fashion.
Dragged from their cells and strapped down onto a bed, the nine men (other reports suggest between 11 and 30, mainly Indians and Cubans) have liquid and nutritional supplements poured in through tubes that are forced up their noses. The pressure causes them to vomit, and the tube insertion leads to extensive bleeding and pain. The Punjabi men, most of whom have been on hunger strike in the El Paso detention centre for about a month now, do not speak English, but were able to get their story out through an interpreter. Lawyers from groups like Human Rights Watch and Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention are now involving themselves with the case.
So, is force-feeding even legal? The International Red Cross, the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association have all condemned the practice as unethical, arguing that it is tantamount to torture and contrary to international law, but it's legality is complicated. Federal courts have not even been able to conclusively agree on whether a judge's order is needed, and in practice the rules vary depending on the district and the type of court involved. Also, orders may be filed secretly. However, it is safe to say that court orders have been obtained to allow force-feeding in a prison context, but never before in an immigration detention centre context. So, we are entering new and very dangerous territory here.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who run the detention facility, say they have obtained a court order from a local judge allowing the force-feeding, a very rare occurrence, but investigating lawyers have been unable to obtain a copy. ICE also says that it fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinions without interference, but that is looking less certain as more details of the case emerge.
Of course, the other question is: why would young Punjabi men even want to live in the States? Wouldn't they be better off aiming for more immigrant-friendly Canada, or even the UK or Australia, where there are more of their own kind to help them acclimatize? What kind of life can they reasonably expect in today's US.

Extreme cold warnings depend on where you live

Here's something I've never thought about before. Extreme cold warnings in Canada vary depending in where you are. For that matter, so do extreme heat warnings, fog warnings, etc. And, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
An extreme cold warning is issued by Environment Canada for Toronto and the rest of Southern Ontatio when the temperature (including wind chill effect) is forecast to hit -30°C for at least 2 hours. In Ottawa, which typically has slightly colder winter weather, the cut-off temperature is -35°C . In Montreal, it's -38°C, and in Northen Ontario and most of the Prairies, it's a frigid -40°C. When you get up to the Yukon, nothing happens until the temperature gets down to -50°C, and in Nunavut, an almost inconceivable -55°C!
So, is this just because Toronto is a spoilt enclave of wimps and milquetoasts? Well, perhaps. But the main reason is that people in southern and more temperate regions are just not used to extremes, and may not have the clothing or the experience to deal with occasional colder temperatures. Another way of looking at it is that announcing extreme weather when the temperature falls to -30°C in Nunavut would just be inappropriate, because that would necessitate a warning most days during the winter, and people would just tune out and ignore it.
By the same token, though, Toronto is slower to issue extreme heat warnings than many other areas of the country, and fog has to be forecast for at least eighteen hours in notoriously foggy Atlantic Canada (compared to just six hours elsewhere). It all depends on what you're used to.

Back in the Cold War again

If there was any doubt that we are living through a period of retrenchment, reaction and reversal, one in which many of the progressive measures of previous years and decades are being systematically picked apart and annulled, then the recent abandonment of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by America and Russia should put those doubts to rest.
The USA has argued that Russia has been contravening the treaty for some time with their deployment of Novator 9M729 missiles (SSC-8 in NATO parlance) in Eastern Europe, and Canada, Europe and the rest of NATO agree with them on that. As long ago as 2007, Vladimir Putin declared that the treaty no longer served Russian purposes, particularly with a nuclear-armed China just next door and not constrained by any treaty obligations, and the source of the breakdown in the treaty can probably be fairly laid at Russia's door (or, more specifically, at Putin's door). The USA announced yesterday that it was suspending its participation in the treaty, due to Russia's non-conformity, and that has given Putin the excuse he has been looking for to officially suspend it himself. Putin now openly says that Russia will begin creating new weapons and, with Trump in the White House, you can imagine what the American response will be.
So, here we are back in the Cold War again, Mutually Assured Destruction and all the rest of it. You can imagine an alternative scenario, where more reasonable people take more measured responses to provocations. But this is not that scenario. It all feels so 1980s somehow, and that same feeling of instability and powerlessness is starting to seep into my bones again.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Toronto FC sells their two best players - why?

Inexplicably, over the last two weeks, Toronto FC have sold two of their best players, first Victor Vasquez, and now Sebastian Giovinco, the best player in club history and the biggest single reason for its recent successes.
After a stellar run for a couple of years, in which they were (unlicky) runners-up for the MLS Cup in 2016 and then outright winners in 2017, 2018 came as a big disappointment, and the team did not even make the playoffs.
Why, though, new general manager Ali Curtis would decide to sell perhaps their two best players remains a mystery to me. The new season is only a few weeks away, and American stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore can't carry the team alone (and Altidore's time with Toronto may be coming to an end soon). Maybe there will be a big surpise acquisition announcement but, without Giovinco and Vasquez, those playoffs are looking more and more like a distant memory.