Sunday, March 31, 2019

On top of everything else, Trump also cheats at golf

As well as being a pathological liar, a narcissist and a megalomaniac, a new book chronicles the extent to which Donald Trump cheats at golf.
Written by former Sports Illustrated columnist, Rick Reilly, the book collects together many anecdotes from various famous people about Trump's nasty habits when playing his favourite game. These include throwing opponents' balls away while supposedly unobserved, and having a caddy miraculously find lost balls. It also details his penchant for driving golf carts on greens, and generally eschewing normal golfing etiquette.
Mr. Trump also boasts of a 2.8 handicap, which should make him a pretty good golfer, probably the best golfing president ever (if that is an important metric for you). But, guess what, he cheats there too. That 2.8 is based on his best period, from September 2009 to June 2016, and has not been updated since. If he doesn't include all his games in his handicap calculation, but picks and chooses which games to include, then we have no real idea of his actual prowess at the game. This is otherwise known as ... cheating.
And this is the man voted by millions to be the leader of the free world....

America is raising a generation of traumatized kids

Apparently, some schools in America routinely practice "active shooter drills", lifelike drills that are supposed to better prepare school kids for the next mass shooting, complete with fake blood, role playing, and even mock "execution-style" shootings of teachers.
In fact, 32 out of the 50 states have laws in place mandating such drills, which were brought in in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, and even more after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. Many American school kids have never known anything different.
However, not surprisingly, counsellors and researchers are finding that the drills have the effect of unnecessarily traumatizing the kids, and may even be counter-productive in that they try to give the impression that they might be able to actually do something about such an occurrence, thus setting them up to fail badly in the event of a real emergency. Certainly, the evidence shows that the benefits of such drills are out of proportion to the potential psychological damage they wreak.
What I find most difficult to stomach is the idea of "deception drills", where students and even teachers are unaware that a drill is in fact just a drill, and believe that a real massacre is underway. That just sounds like psychological warfare to me. America is raising a generation of traumatized kids.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Why invest in a company that loses lost of money?

Uber is expected to go public (i.e. list its shares on the stock exchange) later this year, where it is expected to be valued at $100 billion or more. Like several other tech companies (Amazon, Netflix, Tesla, etc), Uber is a household name, and has pumped billions of dollars into development for a decade or more in an attempt to establish a dominant position in its market. But it still fails to make a profit, relying on deep-pocketed investors to keep it afloat.
Although investors are often blamed for being too short-term in their outlook, in some cases they seem to be ignoring the short term completely and looking to the future with some optimistically rose-coloured glasses. Uber has consistently made hundreds of millions (up to a billion) of dollars in losses each quarter and, while investors might hope for big profits in the future, they are by no means assured. With similar services like Lyft and DoorDash snapping at their heels, and with any number of court cases limiting their operations in various cities and jurisdictions around the world, or looking to control who Uber uses as drivers and how much they are paid, theirs is still a rather shaky business model.
So, will you be putting a bunch of money into a company that has made huge losses for years? I know I won't.

Uber's main competitor Lyft beat it in the race to go public, and it too sports a grossly overinflated valuation despite its own record of uninterrupted losses. And who said that investors were rational actors....

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Brunei bringing in brutal sharia law

In an unfortunate lurch back into the Dark Ages, the tiny south-east Asian country of Brunei has just announced that it will be bringing in a particularly brutal and conservative version of Islamic sharia law, which will include death by stoning for homosexuality, and the chopping off of an hand a foot for theft.
The tiny country, surrounded by Malaysia on the island of Borneo, was a British colony until 1984, and it has been ruled by the mega-rich Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (whose full title is Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah) since 1967. It has long been a pretty restrictive place, with ban on alcohol, and jail sentences for having children out of wedlock.
But the new laws will take this to a whole new level, bringing in the death penalty for homosexuality, sodomy, adultery and rape, and amputation for theft. The sharia laws are supposed to only apply to Muslims in the country (about two-thirds of the population), and other Muslims are supposed to witness the punishment. Shades of The Handmaid's Tale.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A really, really long, but totally useless, number

In the annals of impressive but useless pursuits of scientific endeavour, a recent achievement by Japanese Google employee Emma Haruko ranks pretty high. Ms. Haruko has just calculated the value of pi (π) to 31.4 trillion decimal places (Hmm. 31.4? Coincidence? I think not). This handily beats out the previous record holder, which achieved a paltry 22 trillion digits. Google made the announcement on, you guessed it, Pi day (3/14).
You probably know that pi is an infinite non-repeating decimal (technically a transcendental irrational number), and you probably know that it starts with 3.14. You might even know that the next few digits are 159, but not many people know the next 31 trillion digits. Ms. Haruko's calculation required about 170 TB of data (the equivalent of around 34 million music songs, if that helps with your visualization), and took 25 virtual machines 121 days to complete. It would take over 332,000 years to actually say the resulting number.
And how is this increased accuracy useful? Not at all. Pi itself, as a concept, is very useful in all sorts of mathematical, engineering applications. But, as far as I can see, this new refinement is  the mathematical equivalent of vanity plates - just really, really expensive ones. So, thanks, Emma. Thanks, Google.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Netanyahu doubles down on Israel as Jewish nation-state

If you were in any doubt at all about just how racist the modern state of Israel is, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it more than plain for everyone.
Last year Israel passed a highly controversial "nationality law", which basically states that Israel is a state of the Jewish people only. This effectively makes 17% of the population of Israel (i.e. the Arabs that live there, as opposed to in the designated areas of Palestine) all but stateless. The law also downgraded the Arabic language from an official language to a language with "special status", whatever that might mean, leaving Hebrew as the only official language; it baldly states an "undivided Jerusalem" is the capital of Israel; and it stipulates that "Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it". Not much wiggle room there! It is essentially a Jewish supremacy law, which makes Arabs second class citizens at best.
Now, however, Netanyahu is in electioneering mode, with national elections coming up in April, and he hopes to boost his status with his hard right-wing base by playing up the Jewish nation-state narrative. In response to a criticism by Israeli actor Rotem Sela on Instagram, Netanyahu doubled down: "Israel is not a state of all its citizens ... Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only it".
Netanyahu, who leads what is perhaps the most right-wing government in Israel's history, may be facing an uphill battle in the April election, not least because he is currently facing an indictment for corruption, but also because he is up against a centrist coalition with strong security credentials. The relatively small Arab parties are unlikely to be part of any post-election coalition, but they must really be praying to see the back of Netanyahu by whatever political means possible.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Most white Republicans feel they are facing racial discrimination

A whopping 75% of Republican Americans believe that white people are discriminated against according to a new Hill-HarrisX poll. It's not quite clear in what way they feel this discrimination works, and only 19% of them believe that they personally have experienced this discrimination. The equivalent statistics for Independent voters is 55%, and even a surprising 38% of Democrats think there is discrimination against whites.
If it makes you feel any better about this news, 78% of Republicans, 82% of Independents, and 95% of Democrats feel that black people are discriminated against, and an overall 81% think that Hispanics are discriminated against. But it does still mean that most Republicans believe that white people face as much discrimination as black people, which is kind of bizarre. It seems to be all part of the victim mentality that Donald Trump has cultivated, and the whole "reverse racism" narrative promoted by Fox News and other conservative media outlets.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Guilt in SNC Lavalin government "scandal" is far from proven

I'm already getting a bit tired of the absolute outrage that has accompanied the Jodi Wilson -Raybould / SNC Lavalin allegations. But let's not lose sight of the fact that they are still just one person's allegations.
I'm not saying this out of blind allegiance to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, nor am i just trying to brush an inconventient truth under the carpet. All I am saying is that there are two sides to most stories, and sometimes it is six of one and half a dozen of the other.
Almost everyone in the Liberal organization, both past and present, as well as the upper reaches of the civil service, are saying that, actually, what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is reporting is perhaps not incorrect, but probably exaggerated or at least misinterpreted. Some of them may be doing so out of misplaced and excessive party loyalty, but I'm pretty sure not all of them are, still less the supposedly non-partisan civil servants and ex-politicians who have also commented.
Everyone on the Conservative and NDP side of the House, of course, is howling for Liberal blood and painting the government as blackly as possible. But that is what opposition parties do: they look for any opportunity to delegitimize the ruling party in the hope that they will benefit when the next election rolls around. They are not reliable or objective commentators either. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, for example, is insisting that the situation should be investigated by the RCMP, despite Ms. Wilson-Raybould's own testimony that nothing illegal has taken place - he does that because it plays well to his audience, and because it sometimes works for Donald Trump.
So, maybe, just maybe, people have it wrong. Maybe Ms. Wilson-Raybould was not pressured as inappropriately as she thinks. She was, afrer all, the only person who testified to that effect; everyone else seems to have  thought that the attempts to influence her decision was pretty normal politics. Now, maybe you don't like the system of lobbying and behind-the-scenes influence-peddling (no more do I), but it is not a new system, and neither is it a Liberal system. Several commentators, including other ministers and ex-ministers have testified that that is just how things work in government, and it is part of the job to deal with it.
So, why, then, is everyone so outraged, and why is everyone automatically choosing to believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould's version of the events? Why are we all assuming that she is the only one speaking the truth, the only one who has legitimacy, integrity and probity? The normally objective Globe and Mail in particular seems to be on a crusade on the issue, and it is interesting to see that there is, perhaps for the first time ever, more nuance and perspective in the Letters to the Editor than there is in the supposed "news" part of the paper.
It's rather strange when you stop and think about it: Ms. Wilson-Raybould has changed overnight from someone with a reputation of being somewhat troublesome, prickly and difficult to deal with, to a bastion of sincerity and trustworthiness in the face of institutionalized corruption and graft. Whether that is in some way something to do with Ms. Wilson-Raybould status as a woman and as an indigenous person, I don't know (I would hope not). As a former advisor to a former Prime Minister notes, "Nobody wants to go after an indigenous woman minister. It's become politically incorrect to question the former minister."
Certainly, no-one is coming out of this looking very good, and that includes both sides of Parliament, although commentators from many other countries are somewhat bemused as to what constitutes a scandal in Canada. Let's not assume guilt before any is proven, though.

Japanese inn has been in the family for 52 generations

My bathroom page-a-day calendar pointed out to me today that the world's oldest continuously operating inn can be found in a small town in Japan.
The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is a family-owned hotel and hot springs resort located in Yamanashi, Japan. It has been owned for over 1300 years by 52 generations of the same family, the descendents of Fujiwara Mahito, who first established the inn in 705 CE. The world's second oldest inn, Hoshi Ryojan, founded in 718 CE, is also in Japan, just a few hundred kilometres away.
Just for a bit of context, Toronto's oldest pub, the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, opened in ... 1849 (CE).

Friday, March 01, 2019

Maybe constant economic growth is neither sustainable nor desirable

The idea that a country's, and indeed the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) need to keep growing and growing, preferably as much as possible, has been an article of faith for most of the 20th century, and now continuing into the 21st. However, even Simon Kuznets, the man who is usually credited with establishing GDP as the measure and benchmark of a country's prosperity back in the Depression days of the 1930s, was not totally convinced that it was the best measurement, and certainly didn't anticipate it becoming the be-all-and-end-all of economic welfare that it represents today (Kuznets, 1934: "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income")
Every time I come across an article like this one, I shake my head and wonder about the hold that GDP growth has on macroeconomic debate. The article decries the fact that the US economy only grew by 2.6% (annualized) in October-December 2018, down from 3.4% in July-September and 4.2% in April-June. Predictions for the next quarter are lower still, probably below 2%. Note that this is still GROWTH of 2%, not shrinkage - we are not talking about a recession here just a slightly slower rate of increase in the economy - but it is nevertheless accompanied by the-sky-is-falling noises. In the same way. Economists are making dire predictions about China's economy because it is "only" expected to grow by 6.1% this year, down from 6.6% last year, which was in itself the slowest in almost 30 years (it is still over twice the global average).
Do we really need this constant growth? And is any growth good growth, and the more the better, as is usually assumed? Well, there is some opposition to this orthodoxy. An article in today's Globe and Mail (which first alerted me to the reporting of the poor GDP figures for the United States, and which I can't find online for some reason), while very conservative in its language, suggests that slower growth reduces the likelihood of interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve, thus keeping the economy from "overheating", as the phrase goes.
But this extended article in The Atlantic from a couple of years ago suggests that more and more economists are coming round to the idea that GDP isn't everything, that high growth has not helped everyone in society (far from it), and that considerations like health, wealth distribution, leisure and the environment should be included (along with GDP) in any assessment of a country's prosperity.
And then there are those who believe that "sustainable degrowth" (the managed down-scaling of production and consumption in order to increase human wellbeing and I.prove the planet's environment) is a desirable and practicable solution. This is not a million miles away from the conclusions of the ground-breaking report The Limits To Growth, which came out, can you believe it, back in 1972.
The latter sounds a little utopian to me, much as I like the sound of it. But surely we can temper our single-minded pursuit of growth at all costs a bit. The poor of the world, and the world itself, will probably thank us for it.

Let go of SNC-Lavalin - they are really not worth saving

SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. has spent an embarrassing few weeks in the media spotlight, courtesy of the ongoing Trudeau-Wilson Raybould spat. Setting aside the small issue of Liberal political popularity in the province of Quebec, the Liberals' justification for the pressure for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) mainly revolves around the need to support SNC-Lavalin, which has the status of sacred cow in Quebec (too big to fail, and all that).
The company has been making noises about moving its head office to England - where it has a bigger operation than it does here in Canada anyway - if it were forced to go through a court case over its corrupt dealings in Libya (just one of the many legal issues it is currently facing). That is SNC-Lavalin's idea of negotiation, i.e. what everyone else would consider a threat. The media exposure of SNC-Lavalin due to the ongoing political scandal has maybe opened a few people's eyes as to just how scheming, corrupt and duplicitous the company really is. There is a whole sub-section on Scandals in the company's Wikipedia entry. Whether or not you agree with the whole idea of DPAs (which are relatively new in Canada, although countries like the UK and USA have used the same system for years), they are not supposed to be used to just allow companies to evade their legal responsibilities and to get away with serious crimes.
Well, perhaps the time has come to let go of government support for SNC-Lavalin (along with that other public funds-guzzling Quebecois shibboleth, Bombardier). SNC-Lavalin employs over 50,000 people in over 100 countries, but only about 8,500 of those are here in Canada, down from 20,000 just six years ago - i.e. it has already shed most of its Canadian employees. The company employs just 2,500 in its home province of Quebec, and its head office only has 700 employees. The employment effect of moving its head office away from Montreal is not, therefore, mind-blowing. Furthemore, Engineers Canada believes that demand for experienced engineers in Canada is such that most engineering staff potentially laid off from SNC-Lavalin would find new employment relatively quickly.
Is SNC-Lavalin really worth all the public money that gets pumped into it, not to mention all the political upheaval it is currently creating? Certainly, we should not be exempting or protecting it from facing up to its legal responsibilities around the world (however, don't make the mistake of thinking this is a particular failing of Justin Trudeau or the Liberals as a party - Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has also already been involved with the company - they are shameless and aggressive lobbyists - to discuss, guess what, deferred prosecution agreements, and, if he were in a position to exert any pressure, then he almost certainly would, despite his professed outrage over Trudeau's position).
SNC-Lavalin is a commercial company, not some kind of national treasure, and it should live and die on it's own merits and wherewithal. It is not a government department to be supported out of the public purse, and if they have broken laws they should pay the price for their poor judgement.