Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Trudeau did not slow down relief efforts, so give him a break

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, but who would be a politician? In particular, who would be a Prime Minister or President?
Case in point: when Justin Trudeau visited the Ottawa region community of Constance Bay recently to help with the ongoing sandbagging operation against flooding, of course it was going to end badly. One of the volunteers complained to Trudeau that he (and his security detail and the press corps that follow him everywhere) was holding up the relief efforts. The poor guy was trying his best, but various Conservative MPs and the right-wing press made hay by lambasting his efforts, blowing them off as insincere, meaningless, or even cynical, photo-ops (criticisms conspicuously not levelled at Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford, federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and other Conservative MPs and MPPs doing the same thing just a few days earlier).
But what's a mortal to do? NOT going there was not even an option, and would have laid Trudeau open to criticisms of Liberal elitist insensitivity.  Typically, to be seen not doing something is even worse than to be seen doing something badly. But how frustrating it just be to the right thing, knowing that it will still be criticized.
The PMs office did all the right things in checking in adclvance with the relief organizers that a visit would not impede efforts. After the event, an RCMP spokesperson confirmed that Trudeau did NOT in fact slow down sandbagging efforts at all. So, all this was purely partisan politics at play, individuals looking to score cheap points in an election year.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

NEWS: Ground-breaking Taylor Swift video - ho, hum

I was amused to find an article - on the website of the august BBC, no less! - painstakingly deconstructing the new Taylor Swift music video.
I imagine it's just one of hundreds such articles littering the internet, because Ms. Swift is one hot commodity these days (and, make no mistake, she is a commodity). The new video for Me! Became the fastest music video in history to reach 10 million views (just two hours), and it hit 57 million in its first 24 hours, if you are about such things.
But what mainly amused me the breathless way the video was analyzed, with much talk of Easter eggs - which is probably this year's most overused phrase - and symbolism and arty references and what-not, in what is probably actually just another stock music industry product (because heaven forefend that a single be released without an accompanying video - now that WOULD be radical). Sure, the video's production values are high (read: expensive), but then Swift can afford to throw as much money at it as she likes, so why not?
And the music? Oh, just the usual foregettable sugary bubblegum. But the kids will probably love it.
**SPOILER ** Oh, and she might have a new cat! Check your Twitter and Instagram feeds now!

Friday, April 26, 2019

China's Belt and Road Initiative spectacularly badly-named

If you keep reading about China's "Belt and Road Initiative" and really àdon't know what it means, then you are almost certainly not alone.
Part of the problem is that the strategy is just really badly named. Up until 2016, it used to be called the "One Belt and One Road Initiative", but I guess the Chinese PR guys realized that that sounded a bit too pushy, a bit too my-road-or-the-high-road. It was also at one point known as the "Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road", which is likewise unlikely to pass muster in marketing focus groups. So, they ended up with Belt and Road, which is just plain confusing.
According to Wikipedia, what it is is a Chinese development strategy aimed at radically increasing Chinese influence and general dominance in global affairs throughout the world, but particularly among the poorer countries of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and Oceania, as well as even some more developed parts of Central and Eastern Europe. It involves infrastructure investment, education, development of transportation corridors, power grids, real estate, resource extraction, and improving and modernizing industrial capacity  China has already invested an estimated $90 billion in these projects, and 71 countries are currently signed up for participation, including India, Russia, Thailand, New Zealand, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and many more, representing in total (including China) a third of the world's GDP.
Part and parcel of the initiative is a complex web of hand-outs, business advice, loans, and what many Western commentators have characterized as "debt-trap diplomacy". Some in the West, and America in particular, is warning developing countries against being taken in by Chinese promises, and saddling themselves with decades of unmanageable and unsustainable debt. Recent cancellations of large-scale projects in Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and Sierra Leone, over worries about the countries' ability to pay their share of construction costs, have made some countries a little more leery of signing on the dotted line.
However, many poorer countries are understandably enticed by the prospect of Chinese financing and technical expertise in building bridges, high speed railways, deep sea ports, and many other infrastructure projects that they would otherwise have no chance of achieving.
So what, then, is all this "belt and road" stuff? Well, supposedly, the "belt" part refers to overland routes for road and rail transportation, essentially a modern re-creation of the old Silk Road trading route (i.e. what I would probably call a "road"). The "road" part, on the other hand, refers to intercontinental sea routes (i.e. not roads at all). Maybe it loses something in the translation from Chinese, but it does seem spectacularly badly-named.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Official oil sands emissions estimates may be understating the problem

An aerial study by Environment Canada suggests that the carbon pollution by oil operations in northern Alberta's oil sands, already the largest single carbon polluter in the country, may be severely understated.
Analyzing air samples above four major oil sands operations, the study concluded that greenhouse gas emissions were an average of one-third higher per barrel of oil produced than the mines were reporting during the same period, with one offender (SynCrude, if we are naming names) showing about two-and-a-quarter more than reported.
This may have been just a snap-shot, as the mines in question are complaining, but it is indicative of a problem in the "bottom-up" method of reporting used for everything from reporting national emissions to calculating carbon taxes (bottom-up calculations rely on some ground measurement and a lot of mathematical modelling).
It also questions the wisdom of setting the fox in charge of the hen coop, so to speak, by relying on self-reporting by the oil companies. I don't know what kind of auditing procedures have been established, but clearly they are not sufficient, and perhaps some combination of bottom-up and top-down emissions estimates is needed.

Pharmaceutical pollution is the latest environmental issue needing attention

The presence of active pharmaceutical ingredients in our lake and river water is an acute and increasing problem.
A Pollution Probe/Clean Water Foundation study recently found traces of painkillers, antibiotics, anti-depressants and worse in Canada's Great Lakes and the rivers that feed them, backing up previous research by Ontario's Environment Ministry and the US Geological Survey.
In addition to expired or unused pharmaceuticals flushed down the toilet by consumers (and, of course, those that end up in waste water through our urine and feces), a big part of the problem arises from pharmaceutical manufacturing companies discharging untreated waste into sewers and rivers, which is inexcusable, and represents a larger problem than had previously been assumed (and admitted). Municipal waste-water treatment plants are just unable to adequately deal with these compounds which, of course, consequently end up in our drinking water, to say nothing of their effects on aquatic wildlife. The problem, then, must be dealt with at source, both through better education of consumers, who still insist on flushing this stuff down the loo, but increasingly at the manufacturing level.
Granted it is not easy to deal with the chemicals that make up the huge amount of pharmaceuticals we consume each year. Pharmaceutical companies can dispose of compounds and contaminated liquids by boiling it away and incinerating it (yes, this contaminates the air to some extent, but it is still a much better option than throwing it in the lakes where we get our drinking water). However, this is inefficient and energy intensive, and most pharma companies are unwilling to spend money on it.
Other solutions do exist, though, like the proprietary technology of companies like Vancouver-based Axine Water Technologies, which can install automated drug-destroying water technologies right at the pharma companies' manufacturing facilities. It uses electrochemical oxidation (no chemicals are required) to break up the harmful compounds into harmless trace gases like oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
But this too will cost money, and so what is needed - as usual - is government regulation to force Big Pharma to at least pretend to be responsible corporate citizens. And that requires political will, which appears to be sadly lacking.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Kernza is being touted as the new miracle grain

Kernza is a tiny little grain, just a fifth the size of a wheat grain, although scientists at the Land Institute in the US are trying to develop a larger version of the grain which might be more attractive to farmers and food producers (the Land Institute is the organization that is mainly responsible for kernza's development). They are also working on a dwarf variety which is expected to have improved bread-baking properties.
Kernza was supposedly developed from wheatgrass some 20 years ago, although as I understand it wheatgrass is just the early sprouts of a regular wheat plant, so I am not really sure how that works. Up until now, it has mainly been used in animal feed, but it is starting to enter the mainstream, and at least one brewery is already using it in their products. Pasta, pizza, bread and even a General Mills cereal (through its organic line, Cascadian Farms), all made from kernza, are available in the US if you know where to look for them.
And how is this new grain going to save the planet? Well, it's not, really, but it does have some advantages over regular grains. Principally, it is a perennial, and so does not require reseeding each year. Unlike wheat, corn, barley, etc, its roots can be left in the ground to regrow after harvesting, doing away with the need to clear fields, plough and reseed fields. This saves energy and reduces the farmers' chemical use and carbon footprint. Also, the plant's roots extend over 3 meters below the surface, helping to stabilize soil, retain water, and improve wildlife habitat. If that is not enough, it also traps carbon in roots roots, acting as a kind of carbon sink, as well as trapping nitrogen and preventing it from reaching streams and rivers. And did I mention that the crop is quite hardy, and well suited to the northern prairies of the USA and Canada, and it can be harvested using existing farm machinery?
It will be interesting to see if kernza takes off commercially. If you see it, buy it: it has to be better, ecologically speaking, than regular grains like corn and wheat.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Alberta reverts to type - oh, ye gods...

Ah, Jason Kenney. Where to start? It had to happen, of course. Alberta's little experiment with left-wing philosophy was never going to last, and Albertans were always going to revert to type, i.e. oil-smeared red-necked prima donnas. Really, don't get me started!
Still, it's depressing. Among many other depressing plans, Kenney's first actions are going to be to cut off oil supplies to next-door-neighbours British Columbia, to cancel Alberta's carbon tax (and thus set up an ongoing war with the federal Liberals), and to cancel the NDP's plan to close down the province's coal-fired power stations by 2030 (yes, Alberta still produces almost half of its electricity from coal, and its voters clearly consider this a Good Thing). And, of course, the underlying philosophy of the whole administration - if philosophy is the right word - is that oil=good, renewables=bad, and dirty tar sands=doubly good.
Alberta is Alberta again, with all that that entails. The east-west battle is resumed, and the fragile Albertan ego is once again making the rest of Canada uneasy. Ah, plus ça change... Oops, sorry, that was French.

Link between screen time and inattentiveness cannot be ignored

Yet another study has shown a strong link between screen time and ADHD in children, but we are still no closer to establishing a causal link. But do we even need a causal link?
The new Canadian study of 2,300 kindergarten-age children in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, indicates that children who spend more than two hours a day staring at screens (of any kind, whether TV, computer, tablet or phone) are over five times more likely to be inattentive, and seven times more likely to show symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than children who spend half an hour or less in front of screens.
Granted, the authors are not able to come out and say that the screen time is actually causing the inattentiveness and hyperactivity, due to the difficulty in screening out (no pun intended) other factors. In particular, children who spend less time in front of a screen also tend to be more physically active, which seems to some extent to counteract the effects of screen time.
But it is yet more evidence that less screen time is better than more screen time, and surely we are now at the stage where all this evidence cannot be denied or ignored.

Hard on the heels of that report comes one from the World Health Organization (WHO) which concludes that children under the age of one should not be exposed to ANY electronic screen time at all, and that older children, from two to four, should be limited to just one hour a day. Writing on the wall, or what?

Redacted, schmedacted

So, what actually is the point in issuing a severely redacted version of Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 US elections?
The redactions are the work of Attorney-General William Barr, who is - go figure! - a creature of Donald Trump. So, there are not likely to be any great damning revelations made public. And yet the press and the Democrats still appear to be salivating over the prospect of the publication later today.
The only purpose I can see is a White House desire to string things out as long as possible. The first thing the Democrats will do as soon as the redacted report is made available is to start the legal machinery towards obtaining an unredacted version.
It's all just political theatre and posturing, and it has already got very old.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart is sub-par Virginia Woolf

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Clarice Lispector's 1943 book, Near to the Wild Heart.
I can't remember where I first heard about it, but I'm pretty sure it was in the context of "overlooked masterpieces". Other reviews I came across were equally effusive and superlative in nature - the Los Angeles Times review onthe back cover puts it "on the same shelf as Kafka and Joyce", for example, and The Guardian calls Lispector "a genius", pure and simple.
In fact, James Joyce comes up quite often in reviews of the book, which is strange really, because I didn't see parallels at all (apart from the fact that the book's title is borrowed from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a quote from which is excerpted at the start of the book). If anything, Virginia Woolf seems to me a better point of reference (or rather, sub-Virginia Woolf). Lispector's almost obsessive attention to detail could even be called Proustian, I suppose. That said, she definitely has her own, very individual, and quite innovative, voice. Her style is at times somewhat elliptical, to put it mildly, and the book moves as it progresses from reasonably straightforward language in the early chapters to much wilder, even unhinged, streams of consciousness in the second half (although not always with great success, I have to say).
Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but moved to Brazil as a baby to escape the political turmoil and Jewish pogroms in Ukraine. Her grandparents had died at the hands of the Russians, and her mother was raped and paralyzed (her mother finally died in Brazil when Clarice was just nine). It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she writes so well about the angst-ridden interior world of a very singular and precocious young girl, by turns wilful and headstrong, insecure and confused, and then a young woman experiencing the first throes of love and lust (Lispector was only 23 when she wrote the book).
There is little or no plot development in the book. What plot points there are - childhood, courtship, marriage, infideility, separation - are really just settings for the tortured thoughts and complex feelings of its main protagonist, Joana. Just a couple of excerpts:
As a young girl, infatuated with her teacher:
The teacher met her stare with raised eyebrows. What? What? he wondered with displeasure.
She held her breath.
"I can wait."
The teacher didn't breathe for a few seconds either. He asked, his voice the same, suddenly cold:
"Wait for what?"
"Until I become pretty. Pretty like 'her'."
As a young woman, in the grip of lust:
At night, alone in her room, she wanted him. All of her nerves, all of her sick muscles. So she resigned herself. Resignation was sweet and fresh. She had been born for it.
In the later chapters, the language becomes wilder and more chaotic:
Satisfaction, satisfaction. Pure sadness without hurt. Sadness that seems to come from behind the woman in pink. Sunday sadness on the quay in the port, the sailors lent to the earth. The light sadness is the realization of living.
Say what?
Although her much later novel, The Passion According to G.H., is considered Lispector's grande oeuvre, this book is nevertheless a good introduction to her writing, I guess You can see why it made such an impact in Brazil in 1943, although I'm not sure that it has held up quite so well over time. Even now, Lispector is considered something of a Brazilian literary jewel, even if she is not that well known in the rest of the world.
But I can't recommend it as a GREAT book (at least in the English translation - I can't speak for the Portuguese). I went in hoping for James Joyce, and I came out thinking "sub-par Virginia Woolf").

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Big bucks pledged for Notre Dame Cathedral despite ongoing humanitarian crises

It's interesting, isn't it? Within 12 hours of the Notre Dame fire in Paris, a group of mega-rich French businessmen had pledged a total of over 600 million euros (nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars US) to the renovation of the church. To put this in perspective, early estimates of the actual cost of the repairs have been in the region of 300-600 million euros.
Now, sure, it's a nice church, and it has a whole load of history behind it. But how can it be that easy to find big bucks for a building when France has a major poverty problem, with nearly nine million people living below the poverty line, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that about $22 billion is currently needed to address humanitarian crises in 2019 alone?


Monday, April 15, 2019

Now is not the time to risk Buttigieg as Democrats' presidential candidate

Pete Buttigieg may well be the "voice of millennials", as he claims, but he is only the voice of Democrat millennials, and unfortunately millennials are just a small sub-set of the voting public anyway. Furthermore, most millennials don't even bother voting, having the lowest voter turnout of any age group.
Mr. Buttigieg - in case you were wondering, his name is Maltese, and is pronounced something like "BOOT-edge-edge" - has been mayor of South Bend, Indiana since 2012, and has no national political experience. He is, neverthless, the man with the momentum at the moment, polling in third place in the latest polls, albeit with only 9%, way behind Joe Biden (who has still not even officially announced his candidacy yet), who is polling 27%, and Bernie Sanders on 16%, and barely ahead of the pack of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, etc. And who really believes in polls these days anyway?
Whether you like the fact or not, America is really not ready for a young, openly gay, left-wing president. He might have flown in Canada - hell, I might well have voted for him - but America is not Canada.
The US Democrats owe it to the country (and to the world) to field a candidate who is able to defeat Donald Trump, not just to stroke their own progressive egos. That means they need to wrest the middle ground away from Trump, not merely to satisfy and mollify existing died-in-the-wool Democrats. Mr. BOOT-edge-edge is not that person.
But, you may say, if not Mayor Pete, then who? And that's a very good question. Bernie Sanders is too old, and probably also too radical to gather the country behind him. Creepy septuagenarian Joe Biden? Well, I hate to say it but probably so. In terms of spring to the wishy-washy middle ground, he may well be the Democrats' best bet.

Good Country Index is completely dominated by Europe

I just came across the Good Country Index, which has apparently been going for a few years now (although the current year's results seem to be unavailable at present, despite a recent BBC posting on the index).
The index is a composite of data that purports to measure the impact of individual countries on the wider world, particularly as regards its ecological footprint, at least according to the BBC and the index's originator, Simon Anholt. In fact, it has a wider remit that that, being a composite of seven different categories: Science & Technology, Culture, International Peace & Security, World Order, Planet & Climate, Prosperity & Equality, and Health & Wellbeing. In that respect it is not dissimilar to sone other indices like the Best Countries Ranking and the UN Human Development Index.
Anyway, it is probably no surprise to find a bunch of European countries, particularly the Scandinavian ones, at the top of the overall index in the latest available data, which I think is from 2018, although it is a bit hard to tell from the website (which also only works in certain browsers, which frankly is just plain unacceptable in this day and age).
Here is the top 10:
  • Finland
  • Netherlands
  • Ireland
  • Sweden
  • Germany
  • Denmark
  • Switzerland
  • Norway
  • France
  • Spain
The list in the BBC article, which I think dates from 2019, even if it not currently available on the organization's actual website, has a similar but slightly different list of European countries at the top, headed by Norway, Switzerland and Portugal.
Canada, perhaps surprisingly to some, is the first non-European country on the index, and comes in at No. 11 (the next non-European country is New Zealand at No. 17, and then Japan at No, 24, such is the European domination of the list).

Sunday, April 14, 2019

It's Doug Ford's little actions that are most telling

It's no secret how much I dislike Doug Ford and everything that he and his administration stand for. His first budget for Ontario, vague as it is in most respects, includes any number of things that most progressive people would howl in anguish over (cuts to healthcare and legal aid, loosening of regulations around drinking and gambling in public, cuts to the environment ministry and Indigenous Affairs, post-secondary education funding tied to performance outcomes, funding for Toronto transit options not previously agreed on by anyone, least of all the City of Toronto, etc, etc). Even if it was not quite the Mike Harris-style slash-and-burn budget that many expected, it was definitely not good news on many different fronts, and not even the much-touted "budget for the people" (whatever that might mean).
But some of the smaller proposals are almost as annoying. Changing the Ontario licence plate slogan from "Your To Discover" (which is anodyne enough, and surely hard to object to) to "A Place to Grow" (which conjures up images of cannabis grow-ops), and, even worse,  "Open for Business" for commercial vehicles, makes one wonder where Ford's priorities lie. Is this - what a Globe and Mail editorial calls "the least significant initiative of any government, ever" - really what keeps him awake at night?
The other one that really rankles is his brain-storm of an idea to put stickers on all gas pumps in the province designed to attention to how much extra drivers are paying for their gas due to the federal carbon tax which into came into force in Ontario recently (and which came into force, it should be noted, because Ford cancelled Ontario's existing cap-and-trade carbon-reduction scheme). Ford and his ministers are calling this a "transparency" measure, although they are choosing not to be transparent about the income tax rebate that accompanies the imposition of the carbon tax or, for that matter, the costs of climate change itself and the costs of not imposing a carbon tax. Worse, Ford seems to think he is legally allowed to force gas stations to display his stickers on pain of a $10,000 fine - I can see there will be court cases over that. I sincerely hope that Greenpeace or somebody is hard at work as we speak producing alternative stickers to put Mr. Ford's partisan propaganda campaign into some perspective.
Issued in the same week as the release of the Environment and Climate Change Canada report "Canada's Changing Climate", which points out that Canada's climate is changing about twice as fast as the global average, and predicting a catastrophic increase in extreme weather events and coastal flooding, this petty little action seems particularly insensitive and blinkered.
But then, it's Doug Ford. What are you going to expect?

How "ideology" became a term of abuse

Another interesting opinion piece in the pages of the Globe and Mail comes from political author John Semley. In it, he looks at the way in which the word "ideology" and, particularly, the word "ideologue, have been subverted to self-serving ends, even "weaponized" as Mr. Semley tells it.
The word "Ideology" was actually coined by the French Royalist sympathizer Antoine Destutt de Tracy as he spent time in a revolutionary jail during the Reign of Terror in the 1790s. In de Tracy's formulation, it referred to the "science of ideas", particularly political ideas, and was a neutral, even a positive, concept. "Ideologue", on the other hand, was coined, just a few years later, by no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, and had from the start a much less positive connotation, especually as he applied it to the French Revolutionary movement.
Since then, "ideologue" has retained its negative, pejorative connotation, but "ideology" itself has also become a term of abuse, particularly in the mouths of, well, ideologues, like Jordan Peterson or Doug Ford. As often as not, the word is used in a phrase like "pure ideology" or "mere ideology", which is the speaker's attempt to brand a political opponent as morally and intellectually bankrupt, without having to justify such a contention.
As Mr. Semley says, "Ideology, then, has become something that someone else does". In the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is soon to face off in a debate against ideologue-in-chief Jordan Peterson himself, ideology is "a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts, and so on, destined to convince us of its 'truth', yet actually serving some unbowed particular interest".
How nice to hear a philosopher telling it like is (as opposed to a certain silver-tongued but disingenuous debater whose initials are not a million miles from JP...)

Nova Scotia's presumed consent experiment is a brave first step for Canada

I read with interest today an article about "presumed consent" for organ donations after death (i.e. where people are assumed to consent to organ donation unless they explicitly opt out).
The context of this is that Canada has a lamentable record of organ donation. About 20% have opted in to donate their organs, but much fewer than that actually successfully do so, mainly because healthcare professionals feel obliged to take into account the wishes of family, who often seem to contradict the deceased's own wishes. The other context is that the province of Nova Scotia is bringing forward a bill in its parliament to make presumed consent the default for its adult population, requiring people who object to it to explicitly opt out. The bill has cleared the first step in parliament, but is not actyally law yet.
Given Canada's poor record of opting in, and Canadians' general approval of organ donation, at least in the abstract, this seems like common sense, no? Like the proverbial slam-dunk? But course, it's not quite so simple in practice.
Some countries that do have a presumed consent policy in force, like Sweden, Luxembourg and Bulgaria, for example, have ended up with even worse donation rates than Canada (mainly, once again, due to interfering and/or sentimental relatives, who think they know better what the dead person wanted that they themselves did - and, yes, I know this is a trying time for family, but still...)
Some countries, however, do make the system work well, Spain and Croatia being good examples. These countries combine presumed consent with a good, highly-coordinated national organ-retrieval and allocation system, and they have invested in public education around the issue, and infrastructure and professionals to help families through the process.
Nova Scotia could learn from these success stories with its Human Organ and Tissue Donation Act, but it takes money and determination, which may or may not be available in this case. Plus, it has explicitly built its bill a requirement for consultations with next of kin. Which is a shame because they would become the first jurisdiction in North America to institute such a policy, so a lot is riding on their experience of it. Anyway, good luck to them - this is an important and brave first step for Canada - but many commentators are warning against elevated expectations.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Anti-spoiler technology has progressed by leaps and bounds

The lengths to which TV and movie producers go to these days to protect their products from leaks and spoilers is truly amazing.
HBO's Game of Thrones, perhaps the hottest property among many hot TV series, and the one with the most rabidly fanatical viewing base, outdoes all the others with it's almost paranoid anti-leak precautions (major plot twists from the last two or three seasons were leaked by over-zealous fans). These precautions include scripts for the eighth and final season in the form of password-controlled cellphone apps (as opposed to traditional paper, which can all too easily find its way into the wrong hands) and which basically self-destruct, Mission Impossible-style, once a scene has been filmed; "drone-killers" that can take out airborne drones (yes, would-be leakers do go to such lengths); and the filming and false leaking of spurious plot arcs and scenes, and possibly even a whole series of alternative endings (one particularly effective false spoiler was contrived by Maisie Williams on The Tonight Show, when she appeared to leak the "fact" that her character died in episode two of the new series, and her clever performance had the Twitterverse lighting up like a Christmas tree before people realized it was an April Fools joke).
But Game of Thrones is not the only show going the extra mile to protect itself from spoiler leaks. The feverishly-awaited Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame has also been involved in writing fake scenes and endings, and actors were only given script pages for their own scenes so that they were largely ignorant of the overriding story arc (notoriously spoiler-prone Tom Holland in particular had his knowledge of his character's contribution to the film limited as far as possible to avoid possible leaks, accidental or otherwise).
The final Star Wars movie in the main canon, due out this December, is another example of leak paranoia: scripts were printed on red paper to prevent photocopying, and had to be read under supervision (actors were not allowed to take them home overnight).
Of course, there are those cynics who argue that leaks and spoilers are all managed by the savvy production companies, and are all part of a sophisticated marketing campaign which makes rubes of us all. Many people also say that spoilers and leaks do not actually spoil anyone's enjoyment of the series and films anyway. And who's to say they're not both right. This desperate need for advance leaks on the more slavishly-followed TV and movie series is certainly a rather strange thing, though, and a relatively recent phenomenon at that - the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men had similar levels of hype, although attempts at obtaining leaks were positively amateurish and tame by today's standards.

South Korea makes inroads into the problem of food wastage

Here's an interesting little factoid: the planet's one billion hungry people could be fed by just one quarter of the food that is wasted in the USA and Europe. Now, like most quotable little factoids, I'm sure there is an element of exaggeration and artifice in this. But, also like most quotable little factoids, there is probably also a good kernel of truth. Plus, what it doesn't tell us is how all that wasted food might practically be used to feed the starving billions. Food for thought, though.
The article in questions, focuses on South Korea, which used to have a huge food waste problem, but which has been taking some concrete steps to actually do something about it. First, it banned dumping waste food in landfills. Then, it instituted a comprehensive food recycling system, using special biodegradable bags and a $6 per month fee for the administration of the scheme, which covers about 60% of its costs. Technology has also been harnessed in the form of smart bins that weigh deposited food waste and automatically charge users. As a result, the amount of waste food recycled in South Korea has increased from just 2% in 1995 to 95% today. Most of the collected waste is used for fertilizer and animal feed. Also, moisture is removed at the processing plant and used to create bio-gas and bio-oil.
It seems like a very successful scheme, although I have a suspicion that South Koreans in general are probably much more socially responsible and tractable than North Americans and Europeans. Also, it does not address the elephant in the room, the fact that most food waste (by far) occurs at the production-to-retailing stage, not the consumer stage, although who knows what schemes South Korea might have instituted to deal with that particular problem. It just shows what can be done with a bit of determination.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Why is the replacement birth rate 2.1?

Have you ever wondered why the replacement birth rate is usually quoted as being 2.1 and not 2.0?
Logically, you would think that if a couple has two children in their lifetimes, then the next generation would exactly replace the old one. However, according to the World Bank, for various cultural reasons, about 107 boys are born for every 100 girls on average in the developed world, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) boys do not have babies. So, the replacement fertility rate is 2 × 107 ÷ 100, which is approximately 2.1.
A least that is the case in the developed world. In some developing countries this threshold can actually be as high as 3.4, and the replacement fertility rate globally is thought to be in the region of 2.33 children. Many, if not most, developing countries - including the European Union, North America, Russia, Brazil, China, Japan, South Korea and many others - are in a position of sub-replacement fertility (i.e. decreasing population, not including immigration and increased longevity effects).

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Daughters of the Vote protest makes them look bad, not the politicians

I can't help but comment that the Daughters of the Vote abused their privilege the other day, and what they may have thought was a bold protest actually showed them in a pretty poor light.
Daughters of the Vote is a laudable event organized by Equal Voice Canada aimed at encouraging young women to get involved in politics. As part of this, on one day a year, all 338 seats in the House of Commons are filled by young women in place of the usual hoary old MPs, as they listen to speeches by the party leaders and get a little taste of what life in politics is like.
Sounds commendable and praiseworthy, right? But this year several of the chosen attendees decided to abuse their privilege and make a little protest against some of the politicians, as between 25 and 40 (estimates vary) of the delegates walked out while Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was talking. A similar number turned their backs on Justin Trudeau during his speech in silent protest against (presumably) his politics and performance.
Now, I might have been tempted to do the same - Scheer is a dip-stick and his policies are rubbish, and Trudeau has turned out to be something of a disappointment too - but I would have resisted. Given the privilege they had been granted, the very least these young women could do was to listen with respect to their elders (and democratically elected representatives) and to try to learn something from the experience. Instead, they have brought the program into disrepute, and probably made the organizers think twice about future events.
And what did their protest achieve. Well, nothing really. I'm not saying that there is no place for a good well-organized protest, far from it. But this was neither the time nor the place, and everyone came out of it looking bad.

The Overton Window of public discourse

At a dinner party last night, I was introduced to the idea of the Overton Window, a concept in political theory (also known as the "window of discourse") that posits a kind of window or range of political discourse that a democratic society deems acceptable at any one point in time.
The idea is far from new, but political scientist Joseph P. Overton visualized a kind of scale from policy to popular to sensible to acceptable to radical to unthinkable, a scale that runs in two directions along a spectrum from "more free" to less free". A political idea has to find itself in a widow within the acceptable range, based on the current climate of public opinion. Any ideas outside that range may be considered too extreme for a politician to either gain or hold office. Others, however, may seek to move or widen that window so that ideas currently deemed unacceptable move more into the range of acceptable discourse.
The obvious example of all this is the way that some of Donald Trump's more outré ideas and attitudes have change the perception among many people of what is considered reasonable, both in terms of policy and behaviour. It came up in our conversation in the context of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New Green Deal. By putting forward such an apparently extreme set of ideas (at least in the current Trump-driven political climate), the Democrats are attempting to shift the range of acceptable topics of political discourse and acceptable policies leftward, in order to correct the extreme rightward lurch that Trump has occasioned.
Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Noise pollution in the car showroom

I just had a rather depressing post-modern experience while waiting for my car to be serviced.
It was reasonably early in the morning and there was no-one else around in the waiting area. I helped myself to a free cappuccino, and settled down quite happily with Michael J. Fox's autobiography. After a while a young employee wandered over and switched on the huge flat-screen TV. I asked her to switch it off, as there was no-one around but me and I didn't really need it. She looked confused, even a little disappointed, for a while, and mumbled that "people want to know what's going on" (it was actually set to a generic American day-time talk show, not even a news channel), but she eventually complied.
A little later, the receptionist from the other side of the showroom walked over and switched on the TV. Again, I said that, if it was just for my benefit, she could switch it off as I didn't want it. This employee put up more of a fight, arguing that it was "too quiet" (despite the competing ambient noise of a radio station already blaring out in the showroom), and left it on. I was still the only person in the waiting area, so I switched the TV off as soon as she returned to her reception area, where she could not hear it anyway.
Finally, another customer arrived, and the first thing she did? - asked for the TV to be turned on. I went out for a walk.

India's destruction of orbiting satellite more irresponsible than impressive

India and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi are feeling very smug about its recent "successful" shooting down of an orbiting Indian satellite by a ground-to-space missile. Modi claims it was an "unprecedented achievement" (it's not), and that it establishes India as a bona fide "space power" (well, maybe).
Unfortunately, though, the action has made a huge contribution to the already acute problem of space junk. India's missile test has created over 400 pieces of orbital debris, including at least 60 pieces over 10cm in diameter (i.e. large enough to track). But the smaller pieces, which cannot be tracked, are perhaps even more of a problem, as collisions with even tiny objects can be catastrophic in space, given that are travelling at more than 7.8 km per second.
Although the satellite that was destroyed was in relatively low object (around 300 km above the earth), some of the debris has been tracked well above the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits over 400 km above the earth. A NASA spokesman has called India's actions "a terrible terrible thing", adding, "That kind of activity is compatible with the future of human spaceflight".
Kind of puts Modi's claims into perspective.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Great Green Wall a success story in climate-ravaged Africa

The Great Green Wall of central Africa is proof that not all walls are bad.
The Africa-led international project (no, not yet another well-meaning initiative from a Western charity, although many international charities have pledged money towards it) is part way through an ambitious tree planting project in the drought-stricken, global warming-devastated area of the Sahel, just to the south of the Sahara Desert. Spanning 11 countries and 8,000 kilometres, the 15 km wide band is being planted with drought-resistent native trees like acacias in an attempt to stall desertification.
The trees provide shade, and help to hold water in the soil, allowing long-dried up wells to function again, and allowing vegetable gardens to flourish in what was once a desert. Local economies have been rejuvenated, women in particular have good jobs in agriculture, and whole villages once abandoned have been re-established.
The great Green Wall is a success story in a continent in dire need of good news.