Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tesla should just stick to what it does best

Tesla Inc, as a company, is going through a bit of a bad patch at the moment, but this is mainly a result of its obsession with automated driver assistance technology (AutoPilot), not of its development of an ultra-efficient, ground-breaking electric car.
Tesla's share price took another dive yesterday as the US National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that its AutoPilot system was responsible for three recent accidents. Yes, investors are also worried about the cash the company is burning as it continues to hone its product, but safety worries are going to outweigh all other considerations when it comes to cars.
The thing is, Tesla's products are already fine as they are, and it really doesn't need to add excessive design features by including an AutoPilot feature. This is a fancy-schmancy refinement that only a few people really want. What the world needs is a top quality reliable electric car that can serve as a role model for the evolution of the industry. So, my advice? Don't try to be everything to everybody, just do what you do best.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Bird deaths due to olive harvesting a bigger problem than wind turbines

If you are worried about bird deaths due to wind turbines, maybe you should be more worried about the significantly higher bird deaths due to the European olive harvest.
A report in Nature estimates around 2 million birds a year die in the olive harvest in Spain and Portugal alone (figures for other major olive producers like France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, etc, are not available). The issue arises from the suction machinery used to harvest the olives, particularly from October to January, which coincides with the major migration patterns of songbirds like warblers, thrushes, wagtails and finches. The harvesting is carried out at night, supposedly because night-harvested olives taste better, which also happens to be when the birds are asleep in the olive trees.
Should we be worried about bird deaths due to wind turbines? Possibly, although nothing like to the extent Donald Trump claims. Should we be worried about bird deaths due to olives? Oh, yeah.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Conrad Black's pardon by Trump is absolutely NOT an exoneration

One of Canada's most embarrassing products, Conrad Black, has been pardoned and  "exonerated" by his buddy and one-time business crony (in the days when Black actually had a business), Donald Trump.
Black was convicted by twelve good men and true in the American courts back in 2007 of fraud and obstruction of justice, and served over three years in a Florida jail, even though he has consistently averred his innocence.
Since then, Lord Black of Crossharbour, as he is also known since renouncing his Canadian citizenship to become a British Lord in 2001, has had his 1990 Order of Canada rescinded, and seen his business empire shatter, and has been renting a house he once owned in the tony Bridal Path neighbourhood of Toronto.
Black has also consistently praised Donald Trump as a great businessman and politician, and even wrote a hefty and glowing tome on the man, while Trump has returned the compliments in spades, commending Black's "tremendous contributions to business, as well as to political and historical thought".
So, it is perhaps no surprise that Trump has issued Black with a pardon - the President tends to issue pardons to people he likes rather than to the most deserving. Of course, Black insists that his personal relationship with Trump was nothing to do with his pardon.
What really rankles about all this, though, is Black's claim that Trump's pardon completely exonerates and vindicates him: "This completes the complete destruction of the spurious prosecution of me. It's a complete final decision of not guilty. That is finally a fully just verdict." Now, Black is clearly an intelligent, or at least very well-educated, guy, and he knows that is just not true, and that a word from Donald Trump does not completely outweigh an extensive trial by jury and judicial review. He must know that, even legally, what he says is not true. The US Department of Justice is very clear on this, specifying that a presidential pardon is nothing more than an expression of the President's forgiveness, usually offered to an offender who has accepted responsibility for a crime and exhibited good behaviour. "It does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence, or remove civil disabilities that apply to the convicted person as a result of the criminal conviction", the DoJ states in black and white.
Well, one thing the pardon does grant Black is access to the United States, once denied him by his conviction. So, we can but hope that he moves permanently to the USA. I'm sure he'd be much happier there.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Quebec's proposed ban on religious symbols impossible to interpret

It's interesting to think about just how many ways Quebec's Bill 21 could go wrong. I don't mean in terms of turning the Bill into law - François Legault's right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec government seems intent on pushing it through, and they have the vote power in parliament. I mean in terms of policing, enforcing and interpreting the law.
Bill 21 is Quebec's attempt at enforcing secularism in public life, by banning the wearing of religious symbols by public employees (which includes teachers, police officers, court employees, etc). M. Legault insists that this is a "moderate" position to take, and that there a "consensus" in Quebec on the issue (the continuing protests against the Bill suggest otherwise)
Now, I've been an atheist for decades and am all in favour of a secular state, but I'm still not convinced that this is a sensible path (rabbit hole?) for the Quebec government to go down. I can see it proving a major headache for the government for very little positive value, as well as being a significant step down the slippery slope towards discrimination.
For one thing, the Bill does not bother to define what it means by "religious symbol". The usual examples quoted are Muslim hijabs (head coverings of various kinds), Sikh turbans, and the Jewish kippa or yarmulke.
So, a headscarf worn by a Muslim woman would be illegal, but a similar one worn by a Christian or atheist would not? And surely a beard sported by a devout Muslim man is just as much a religious statement as a hijab or burqa (the bill would allow the beard on the grounds that it is "part of the body", which seems a little arbitrary). The same would presumably apply to those weird payots, or curly sidelocks, worn by some Jewish men. But, then, what about a wig worn by a devout Jewish woman?
A Jew wearing a Star of David symbol, would presumably fall foul of the law, as would the Muslim Hamsa or Hand of Fatima, although some would see these as religious symbols, while others would see them as cultural artefacts or merely good luck charms. Similarly, a crucifix or even just a simple cross might be seen as a religious symbol for a born-again Christian or someone of traditional Italian descent, but not when worn as bling on the chest of a rapper.
The identification of religious symbols is a subjective and arbitrary process, and who will be in charge of determining whether this line in the sand has been crossed? Ultimately, the courts, I suppose, so Quebec needs to brace itself for a whole load of expensive and time-consuming court cases over this (really pretty unimportant, in the scheme of things) issue, which only actually applies to a tiny minority of individuals. Is this really the hill that the province of Quebec has chosen to die on?

You just can't call a kid Psalm West

Psalm West is officially the newest sibling to Chicago West, Saint West and (cringe!) North West.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's child-naming system lurches from the quirky to the just plain weird. You can just imagine them, high on something or other, brainstorming baby names, with nary a thought for what the kid might have to go through as a consequence.
If this is what their naming looks like, I hate to think how the rest of their parenting is. Neither of them seems like the maternal/paternal type. I feel sorry for any child of a celebrity marriage. I feel particularly sorry for the Wild West Bunch.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Another iffy sexual assault acquittal

Ontario's ageing and predominantly male judiciary is still showing signs that it does not quite understand sexual assault and harassment. The latest travesty come courtesy of Ontario Superior Court Justice Thomas Carey (yes, let's name names here), who shockingly acquitted ex-violin teacher Claude Eric Trachy of all 51 counts of sexual interference, sexual exploitation, sexual assault and indecent assault.
The charges date back to the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when Trachy would have been in his 30s or 40s, and his students were teens and preteens in the Chatham, Ontario area. He instructed many of these young girls to take their shirts and bras off, ostensibly so that he could measure them to better fit them for chin and shoulder rests for their instruments. In some cases, he did this two dozen times to the same girls over a period of two years, using the same justification. As part of this "measuring", he would touch their breasts and nipples with his hands and a ruler, on at least one occasion rubbing a girl's nipple between forefinger and thumb. Sometimes, he insisted the girls play the violin with their chests exposed. Sometimes, he even even made plastic moulds or casts of their chests. And in case you were wondering, no this is not a recognized procedure for violin teachers. Notably, he did not measure male students in the same way, nor his own daughter (for which we can only be thankful, I suppose).
Sounds like a pretty cut-and-dried case, no? But Justice Carey acquitted Trachy of all charges, arguing that Trachy was "motivated to innovate in the area of violin supports", and that he was not convinced that Trachy touched the girls' breasts for any sexual purpose. Say, what?
Some of the victims have since gone to the Ontario Court of Appeals to call for a revised verdict or a new trial, although it is not yet clear when this might happen.
I don't know. Is there any middle ground here, any doubt about what really happened? How many more times will these kinds of patently wrong judgements occur? And people wonder why women don't want to take sexual assault cases to court...

On July 23rd, the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed Justice Carey's poor decision, to the relief of many of the victims interviewed, and convicted Mr. Trachy of over two dozen sexual assault and indecent assault charges. Technically, he could appeal the appeal, and take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, although it's not certain he will do so. Justice Carey has been rebuked, in a very perfunctory and legalese fashion, but there has been no talk of sexual assault retraining for the judge (other than from some of the victims).

Who knew that old Eurovision Song Contest thing was still going?

Well, who knew it, the Eurovision Song Contest is still a thing. My memories of Eurovision date from Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was generally looked on as a bit of a joke and an embarrassment. With winning songs with titles like Boom Bang-a-Bang and Ding-a-Dong, I was never totally sure whether it was serious undertaking or some kind of camp subversive conspiracy.
But I'm told it has gone through quite a renaissance, and it is now the most-watched music show in the world, boasting an audience of some 200 million, as well as being considered a bastion of inclusivity and gender rights. It's also a forum for singers and bands from obscure places like Moldova, San Marino, Azerbaijan and Latvia to get major international airplay (and don't get me started on why a "Eurovision" contest includes countries like Azerbaijan, Israel and, of all places, Australia!)
From what I can see from the above-mentioned BBC article, the songs are still pretty middle-of-the-raod and forgettable, but the contest is most definitely alive and kicking, and is regularly the scene of international political scandals. And that can't be a bad thing, can it?

And you thought a ban on abortions was illegal in the USA?

Well, it had to happen at some point during the Trump administration, although the President himself has been uncharacteristically careful to ensure that it is Republican-majority states that are doing the heavy lifting, and not the feds.
Alabama (surprise, surprise) becomes the latest state to pass a bill banning abortion. "But that's illegal, isn't it?", you say. Well, yes, but then, that's the point. Alabama's Senate voted in the bill by a margin of 25-6 (for the record, all 25 were middle-aged white guys) in full knowledge that such a ban is illegal. A proposed amendment to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest was also voted down, albeit by a reduced margin of 21-11, leaving cases where the mother's life is at risk as the only cases where abortion would be allowed.
The point of the Alabama vote is to force the issue before the Supreme Court, in the hopes of reversing the 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade, which is the legal ruling currently disallowing abortion bans. Since Donald Trump's conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, the hope of some is that the Court is now sufficiently Republican and conservative to overturn Roe v Wade, although in a similar test earlier this year, the Supreme Court nevertheless narrowly voted to reject a similar attempt by Louisiana to ban abortions in that state, and several other states, including Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia, have also passed this kind of "heartbeat bill".
And, however this one turns out, we won't have heard the last of it: some 16 states, mainly in the Republican heartland of the South and Midwest, are currently in the process of bringing in anti-abortion legislation.

Canadian parliament votes "Yippee!"

I thought it rather cute that a Globe and Mail article reported the Canadian parliament as shouting out "Yay!" in response to a motion to apologize to Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
They must have been really pumped, because normally a vote requires "Yea" (yes, I know it's pronounced "yay") or "Nay". "Yay!" is kind of the equivalent of "Yippee!"

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

So, how are things politically in Canada?

We are due to have a friend from Australia visiting in a few weeks time, and I was lying in bed sleepless and bored, as I often do, thinking what I would say to the inevitable question, "So, how are things politically in Canada?"
Without going into too many details, how would I answer that, in general terms? Well, probably something along these lines:
It's a first-past-the-post electoral system here, both federally and provincially, so what happens in practice is that, for a few years we'll have a liberal/left party in power, and a bunch of stuff will get done, some money will get spent (somewhat inefficiently) on improving the lives of the majority, and the country will feel that it can hold up its head internationally for a while.
Then, politicians will become corrupt or lazy or just otherwise lose their way, or people will decide that a change is needed for change's sake, and a conservative government will get elected for a while. They will devote all their efforts to single-mindedly reversing out any progressive measures the previous administration managed to bring in, the country will gradually run down -  economically, socially, environmentally, and in terms of its international reputation and respect - and all that will really happen is that the richer people get even richer, which helps no-one, not even those rich people.
Eventually, the majority of people get fed up of that too, realize that they are not actually any better off than they were, and that any promises that were made were largely hollow, and another liberal/left government is installed. Rinse and repeat.
Call me cynical and jaded, but that is actually what tends to happen, long-term. It's probably no worse than many other places, and definitely better than most. Would a proportional representation system of some kind be any better? Well, maybe not. But maybe. So, why don't we give it a go, just in case. PR has its own drawbacks, of course - everyone knows that - but the current roller-coaster system is just so inefficient and counterproductive and frustrating that almost anything would be an improvement.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Chernobyl: maybe not a wildlife paradise after all

I've seen many articles over the last few years (this Popular Science article being just the latest) singing the praises of the wildlife around Chernobyl nuclear power station.
After Reactor #4 exploded and its radioactive core melted down on April 26 1986, spewing out about 400 times the radiation as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, 350,000 people were permanently evacuated and a 2,600 km2 exclusion zone was established around the plant. Thousands of animals died in the blast, and extensive areas of pine forests turned red and died overnight. Estimates of the accident's toll on human lives vary hugely.
But, in this newly unpopulated and unvisited area, nature eventually (actually, surprisingly quickly) reasserted itself, and many animals and birds took advantage of the absence of human interference. So, not surprisingly, it has become, over the last 33 years, a huge nature reserve, putting paid to early predictions that the area would become a wildlife desert for centuries. It is now inhabited by brown bears, bison, wolves, lynxes, Przewalski horses, and over 200 species of birds. In the last couple of years, some limited wildlife tourism has begun in the area, which some are touting it, apparently without irony, as some kind of new Eden.
A recent meeting of the main groups doing research in the restricted area confirmed the great biodiversity in the region, and reported that most animal populations appear stable and healthy, perhaps surprisingly so, with a general lack of major negative effects from the continuing radiation there. Some species have adapted, even in such a short time, like the frogs that have developed a darker skin colour than equivalent frogs outside the area (which may, or may not, be a kind of adaptation to the radiation), and some bird species tend to be a lighter colour than elsewhere, although it is not really known why.
However, not all reports are quite as positive as the Popular Science article. Canadian scientist Timothy Mousseau cautions that, if you start to dig a little deeper, a more disturbing picture emerges. One interesting and largely overlooked fact is that the radiation is not equally spread throughout the region, but there are still pockets of very high radiation right next to areas of much lower contamination, creating a kind of patchwork effect, for reasons that no-one seems to understand. Because of this, it is possible compare close populations of animals and assess the effects of radiation on them.
From Mousseau's research, it is clear that the radiation is in fact reducing fertility rates and population sizes. He also concludes that there is no evidence of any direct or successful adaptation to radiation. Birds in the more radioactive areas, for example, exhibit random changes in colouration (including albinism), genetic damage, increased rates of cataracts and tumours, smaller brains (linked to poorer survival rates), lower sperm counts, and reduced population sizes. And there is some evidence that these negative traits are being passed down to offspring, in some kind of unexplained genetic or epigenetic way.
So, not sounding quite so Eden-like after all.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Orange Pekoe? English Breakfast? Earl Grey? Isn't it all just tea?

Most black tea we buy in Canada is labelled Orange Pekoe tea, but you never (or rarely) see Orange Pekoe on the menu in Britain, that bastion of tea drinkers. So, what gives.
Tea, whether it's black or green or white or oolong, all comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, originally from China. How it ends up mainly depends on how it is processed after picking. White tea undergoes the least processing, and has a delicate and subtle flavour. Green tea is made by withering the tea leaves, and then steaming, rolling and drying them. Oolong tea is a partly-fermented green tea, with its own particular flavour. Black tea is made to go through an oxidation and aeration process, similar to fermentation, which gives it a stronger, more distinctive flavour.
Orange Pekoe is essentually a grade of black tea rather than a particular flavour. The orange pekoe leaves are the small leaves just near the bud of the plant, the "new flushes", which must be harvested by hand. The origin of the label "orange" is uncertain (it does NOT have an orange flavour), but it may refer to the slightly coppery tinge of the leaves that make up this grade of tea, or it may refer to the Dutch House of Orange, which was largely responsible for bringing teas to Europe on a commercial scale during the 18th Century. Either way, Orange Pekoe is typically a higher grade of tea, made from whole or broken leaves, and not from the poorer quality "fannings" and "dust". In North America, though, Orange Pekoe has become in recent years a generic name for any black tea.
So what, then, are things like English Breakfast tea, Irish Breakfast tea, Scottish Breakfast tea, etc. Well, they're all really the same old black tea from the Camellia sinensis bush, but they are different blends which give a slightly different flavours (note the word "slightly). Breakfast tea in general is a strong, flavourful black tea that lends itself to the addition of milk, such as a Brit would like to drink with a traditional English breakfast or fry-up. It is more robust and hearty than an afternoon tea blend. English Breakfast tea was originally made from Chinese tea leaves, but over time became a blend of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Indonesian teas. Irish Breakfast tea has a higher percentage of Assam tea leaves, which gives it a more robust, malty flavour, and a more orangey colour when brewed. Scottish Breakfast tea is even stronger, with a higher caffeine content, but is also blended from tea from a variety of different sources. However, there are no official regulations regarding what constitutes an English, as opposed to an Irish or Scottish breakfast tea, so there can be a good deal of variation.
Darjeeling (musky, spicy flavour) and Assam (strong, malty taste) are teas from specific regions of India (Assam tea actually uses a distinct sub-variety of Camellia sinensis). Chinese teas like Lapsang Souchong get their distinctive smoky flavours from exposure to the smoke of certain kinds of wood, and Pu'er teas are aged, often for many years, which adds complexity to the flavours, and are then compressed into hard cakes or buds of dried tea. There are hundreds of other regional variations in both India and China.
With Earl Grey tea, though, we move into the realm of flavoured teas. It is black tea flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot oranges (bergamot is a kind of cross between an orange and a lemon, with a little bit of grapefruit and lime thrown in). It is not therefore a type of tea, or even a grade of tea, but a tea that is flavoured during processing, like hundreds of other flavoured teas available today all over the world. It just happens to be one with a storied history (Earl Grey was the British Prime Minister in the 1830s). Lady Grey tea is a modern, more delicately favoured variant of Earl Grey (although still using oil of bergamot), wbich was developed and trademarked in the 1990s.
But, in the end, it's all just tea. Some people have very strong opinions about which particular flavour they prefer. Others (like me) are happy with anything warm and wet, with a manageable dose of caffeine. The rise in popularity of chains like David's Tea and many trendy independent tea shops in Canada, has led to a bit of tea snobbery of late. But in England, the quintessential tea-drinkers' land, you can still go into a little village cafe and ask for "a cup of tea". And that's just what you'll get. Just don't confuse the issue by asking for orange pekoe.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Imagine a world without a subsidized fossil fuel industry

I was intrigued and annoyed by an article by a philosophy professor arging that "progressives" should not be in favour of carbon taxes, largely on the grounds that they are regressive (i.e. they disproportionately hurt the poor), and that the rebates governments offer to make up for the imposition of such taxes are not able to make up for this unfairness. It was a reasonably well-argued article, even if I didn't agree with it all, and even if the fact remains that revenue neutral carbon taxes are still the best market-based tool we have to change behaviours and fight climate change.
The intriguing part of the article was the idea that, instead of imposing carbon taxes, we should be stopping the wholesale subsidizing of the fossil fuel industry by governments. While I would agree with this in principle, I disagree that this aproach should take the place of carbon taxes. They are two complementary parts of the puzzle, as I see it.
The article coincided with the announcement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that worldwide fossil fuels are subsidized by governments to the tune of $5.2 trillion annually in 2017, a truly astounding sum representing about 6.5% of global GDP (and up by about half a trillion dollar from two years earlier).
A little more analysis, though, shows that only $ 296 billion - I say "only"! - of this sum is what we normally think of as subsidies, what the IMF calls "pre-tax subsidies": i.e. the difference between what people pay for fossil fuels and their actual costs to produce. Most of this is in the form of subsidies to help consumers buy fossil fuels, with a lesser amount coming as help for companies to extract and process the fuels.
The other 94.3% of the IMF's $5.2 trillion figure is made up of what it calls "post-tax subsidies" - what I would refer to as externalities - the costs of air pollution and the effects of climate change, traffic fatalities, and the depressed tax base as a result of the fatalities. It is an admirable belt-and-braces attempt at establishing a total cost, but it is based on a whole host of assumptions, and very difficult to estimate and justify.
The $296 billion figure, though, is incontestable, and it is still a very large amount. Imagine if that subsidy were withdrawn and people were faced with the real costs of a litre of gasoline. There would certainly be an awful lot more hybrids and EVs on the roads! Interestingly, though, government subsidies of the fossil fuel industry are on the wane. Total subsidies in 2012 ($572 billion) were almost double the 2017 figure. Several countries in the Middle East, of all places, have recently slashed their subsidies. 
Still, it's interesting to imagine the effects of withdrawing all government subsidies for fossil fuels. Don't hold your breath, though.

More Doug Ford cuts - Mike Harris Lite?

Is anyone keeping track of all the cuts Doug Ford's government is foisting on the province of Ontario? It seems that almost every week there is news of a new cut.
I guess the idea is that if all the cuts were announced together as part of the province's annual budget, then Ford would be seen as a new Mike Harris. By doing it in dribs and drabs, he is probably hoping that not everyone will notice his gradual dismantling of the social, economic and environmental fabric of Canada's largest province.
The latest cutback is to the Ontario Centres of Excellence, which has had its funding cut by half. The OCE helps high-potential tech startups and innovative companies find additional funding and personnel to take their ideas to market. In a business climate where innovation needs to be fostered not repressed, this sounds like a really bad idea.
This comes after recent announcements of cuts to the Toronto and Ottawa tourism budget, cuts to child care centres, cuts to the Ontario Music Fund, cuts to flood control measures (this at a time when floods were raging across eastern and northern Ontario), cuts to tree planting programscuts to inter-library loans and to Toronto Public Library's virtual reference library projectcuts to legal aid, cuts to public health, cuts to Trillium Foundation funding of charities, cuts to funding of specialized school programs for at-risk youth, cuts to after-school and tutoring programs, and increased class sizescuts to supervised drug-use sites, and others. That's a lot of cuts. I hadn't realized just how many there have been until I started to list them (and I am sure I have left out several), but that is probably the point. And of course, almost by definition, any government spending cuts predominantly affect the poor and the infirm.
This kind of nickel-and-diming is unlikely to have much of an effect on Ontario's bottom line or provincial debt, but it has a very real effect on people's lives, the environment and the health of the economy. It is small short-term gain at the expense of (potentially much larger) long-term pain. If the average Joe in the street were asked whether he thought that any of these programs should be slashed, he would almost certainly say no, not really. And yet, here we are.
Call it Mike Harris Lite, but remember how long it took Ontario to recover from Harris' nickel-and-diming.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Shock horror! Starbucks cup appears on Game of Thrones. Really?

I can't help thinking that the people who have been obsessing over the brief starring role of a Starbucks coffee cup on Game of Thrones  recently really need to get themselves a life. How is this even news, let alone headline news? Who really cares? Hardly anyone would have even known about it were it not for the incessant coverage on the interwebs and social media.
And how is the fact that the coffee cup has been digitally removed from the streamed version of the GoT episode also news? I mean, why wouldn't they do that?
If the GoT team has any sense of humour at all - and after 7 seasons of blood and gore, I'm pretty sure they have had any semblance of a sense of humour well and truly beaten out of them - they would arrange for a reprise cameo appearance for the cup in the final episode. And maybe ritually garote it or something.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Intra-indigenous cultural appropriation is now a thing

Ooh, an inter-cultural dust-up at the Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs)! Who'd a thought it?
Things got nasty after the most recent IMAs - surely an exclusivist, racist entity, by definition :) - when Cikwes (actually a Cree singer called Connie LeGrande) earned a nomination in the Folk Music category. Yes, Ms. LeGrande is indigenous, but her fatal mistake was to engage in throat singing, which apparently the Inuit have some sort of intellectual property copyright over. Inuit artists Tanya Tagaq, Kathleen Merritt, Nancy Mike, Piqsiq and Riit have all announced that they are boycotting the Awards in protest.
So, apparently this is a new category of intra-indigenous cultural appropriation, and my reaction to it is just as dismissive as it has been to most previous charges of cultural appropriation, whether it be white dudes singling blues or rap, white women writing about black or indigenous people, men writing about women, etc, etc. Can we not borrow without appropriating, etc, etc?
Maybe I shouldn't be so sarcastic and dismissive about it: these things are obviously hugely important to some people. I just can't help but think that Indigenous and Inuit artists (and for that matter, black artists, women artists, etc, etc) have much more important battles to fight, and should be using what energy, influence and clout they have (and I know this is probably very limited in the big scheme of things) for more significant problems.
Certainly, the rest of the world really doesn't know what to make it it. The Guardian talks about "self-appointed guardians licensing themselves as arbiters of the correct form of cultural borrowing".  The Wall Street Journal called it "reductio ad absurdam". These well-meaning people are running the risk of disappearing up their own asses, and making themselves a laughing stock in the process. It seems a shame.
But then, what do I know? I'm just a middle-aged white guy who couldn't throat sing if wanted to.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Toronto's pothole problem is only getting worse

Toronto - and probably most of Ontario, not to mention Canada as a whole - has a pothole problem (and a recent visit to New York brought home to me that this problem is not limited by the Canadian border). This is no secret, and no surprise given our winters, particularly the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of recent winters. But every spring it is a constant source of annoyance, rage and frustration. And it's getting worse.
Even anecdotally, I can see that this is clearly the case. But now a report by Applied Research Associates for the Transport Association of Canada makes it official. The report makes it clear that, yes, Canadian engineers do know how to build and repair roads well and durably, but that is not what happens in practice. The reason? You guessed it: money.
Municipalities and provinces (and, arguably, the taxpayers that vote for them) are just not willing to spend the money required to do a good job that will last. The result is the usual spring obstacle course that we have to contend with each year, and the estimated $1.4 billion's worth of repairs to Canadian vehicles each year caused by pothole-related damage.  Potholes are usually filled at some point (although not always these days), but usually this amounts to a guy with a bucket of tar, which you just know is going to disintegrate by, or often well before, next winter.
The recommended fix - hot-mix asphalt and sprays - costs more money, and our cash-strapped, short-term-thinking municipalities are just not willing to do the right thing when they can get away with skimping and corner-cutting, even if, long-term, that approach will actually cost the tax-payer more.
Some cities are apparently making some progress on road repairs, notably Montreal (long the butt of running jokes about car-eating potholes and poor road quality), Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton. But not, it seems, Toronto. The days of Toronto being "New York run by the Swiss" are, sadly, long gone.

Jason Kenney takes a Trumpian view of politics

If you want an example of how Donald Trump has changed the business of politics, you need look no further than Alberta's new premier, Jason Kenney. I don't so much mean the flavour of the politics - although Kenney is very much in Trump's populist, nativist, oil-loving, anti-environmental vein - but I mean more the way in which politics is approached.
For example, Mr. Kenney is strongly opposed to the Federal Liberals' proposed Bill C-69, which seeks to shore up the environmental assessment process in the country, and another federal bill which would limit oil tankers along BC's environmentally-sensitive north-west coast. Kenney, like many Albertans, sees both bills as existential threats to the already moribund oil industry in the province and, not wanting to look at alternative industries where the province could excel, he takes the true conservative approach to looking back to past glories (even though the world has moved on), to trying to turn back the clock, to resisting the moving on of the world.
But it is more the way in which he opposes progress that rankles. He may or may not be aware of it, but his immediate response is straight out of the Trump playbook. He responds with bluster, with sturm-und-drang, and with threats. Specifically, he threatens to sue the federal government over the bill (threats to sue are a favourite ploy and a typical modus operandi of Mr. Trump). Moreover, Kenney threatens, in an only slightly veiled way, that Alberta could secede from the country, although that would involve waving goodbye to billions if dollars in health and social transfers from central government (Alberta should have billions saved up from the "good years" of high oil prices, but apparently it doesn't). He also responds with a very Trumpian victim-complex whining about "unfairness", about everything from environmental laws to pipelines to provincial equalization payments,  which is guaranteed to raise the hackles of everyone else, but which seems to play well with his political base.
This kind of histrionic approach seems just so un-Canadian somehow, but it is the same kind of right-wing populist track that Trump has been slogging down for a few years now. It has only brought Trump very limited success - many of Trump's initiatives have been countered by court cases or by Congress - but it has yielded some success. That "success", though, comes at a heavy price, and it is reducing the country to a gibbering basket-case of divisiveness and acrimony. Mr. Kenney (and Doug Ford, who is treading a similarly divisive slash-and-burn path in Ontario) sees it as a way to get what he wants, regardless of the devastation it wreaks along the way.
And, who knows, he may be right. But, God, how annoying it is for the the rest of the country. I get it, he sees himself as standing up for his province in an unfair, dog-eat-dog world. But I will be so glad when this particular phase of populism is over (and, yes, it will pass, as all phases in the roller-coaster that is politics do), and we can return to a more measured and progressive way of looking at things.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

A slap in the face for women althletes with naturally high testosterone

Caster Sememya is back in the news. You may remember the South African middle distance runner caused all sorts of controversy when she won gold in the 800 meters at the London Olympics in 2012, and then again in Rio in 2016. The issue is that Ms. Semenya is hyperandrogenic, i.e. she naturally has an unusual amount of male hormones like testosterone, a conditional sometimes also referred to as a difference of sexual development or DSD. This helps her to be faster and stronger than most women, giving her, according to some, an unfair advantage when competing against other female athletes.
In 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) brought in a new policy for hyperandrogenism, which required such athletes to conform to much stricter testosterone levels, in order to "create a level playing field in female sport". This basically requires athletes like Ms. Semenya and India's Dutee Chand to take androgen suppression medication to bring them closer to female norms, which of course has a direct impact on their athletic performance.
After this ruling, Ms. Semenya took her case to tbe Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing that the new IAAF policy discriminated against her. And the reason she is back in the news now is because - against the advice of both the World Medical Association and the Human Rights Special Procedures body of the United Nations - the CAS has just sided with the IAAF and ruled that the stricter hyperandrogenism policy should continue, at least for now, even though it admitted that the policy is in fact discriminatory, and that it could not be sure that it would be fairly applied.
She has 30 days in which to appeal the case to the Swiss Tribunal Courts. But as things stand, Ms. Semenya and Ms. Chand will either have to take the androgen suppression drugs in the run up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, or to miss the Games completely.
My take on all this? Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors is not banned from playing in the NBA because he happens to be seven feet tall. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Canada's recycling industry is broken, but there is hope

Global News has produced an excellent three-part series on the trials and tribulations of Canada's recycling industry:
Once the envy of the world (or at least the non-European world: Europe has always been way out ahead in this area, as on most other environmental issues), Canada's laudable attempt to recycle materials is currently foundering. What could once be sold at a profit now costs money to haul away, and more and more municipalities are cutting back on what they recycle, when they really need to be increasing it. Consequently, more and more recycling is being sent to landfills as cities and provinces balk at the increased costs of recycling.
Recycling was never a money-making proposition. The income from those items that do have some commercial value is used to subsidize the costs of processing the less desirable parts (aluminum is by far the most valuable and profitable resource for recyclers). But, as income from recycled materials is reduced or no longer available due to market shifts, then the whole house of cards is at risk of tumbling down.
To give some idea of the problem, in the last couple of years in Ontario, mixed paper prices have fallen by 110% (yes, it now has a negative price, as does mixed glass), and newspaper, cardboard and film plastic prices have dropped by 50% or more. More staff have been needed to be hired to sort (and often re-sort) garbage, in order to weed out contaminating item from ever-pickier recycling streams. Municipalities are therefore left with two options: raise taxes or cut recycling programs. And everyone knows how popular tax increases are...
For many years, Canada shipped about half of its recycling to China, with lesser amounts going to the US, India and a few other Asian countries. This was a convenient, if slightly suspect, policy, and it became something of a dependency for the industry in Canada. But, in early 2018, China closed its doors to 24 types of recycling waste, including some kinds of plastic and paper, and insisted of a much purer and higher quality of sorted materials for what it did take. This threw the whole industry in Canada into a tailspin. (It also came out that, for years, China had actually been extracting high value materials from its imported Canadian garbage and just junking and burning the rest. Surprise, surprise.) Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Taiwan have followed suit since, and are all taking much less from Canadian recyclers
North American recycling facilities just cannot cope. "Residual rates", the percentage of recycling that actually ends up being trashed, have sky-rocketed from about 10% to 25%, or even 40% in some cases (Toronto's residual rate, for example, has increased from 22% to about 30%). Some cities have completely stopped collecting some types of recycling that they used to collect, an unfortunate trend that further reduces public confidence in the whole process.
So, what can be done? Some municipalities - those that can afford it, like Peel Region just north of Toronto, for example - are investing in improved sorting facilities in the hope of opening up new markets and obtaining better pricing. This is a good first step.
The other hope for the future, though, is a model called "extended producer responsibility" or EPR, such as has operated in British Columbia since 2014. Under this system, any company that makes, sells or imports a product whose packaging is collected in the province's blue box recycling system is obliged to pay for the recycling of that packaging. Producers must recover 75% of the packaging they produce, or pay a fine for not hitting their target (although, amazingly, they have always achieved their target so far). There is also a provision for the province to increase that target as they see fit.
Under this "polluter pays" philosophy, retailers are therefore encouraged to reduce their packaging in order to reduce their recycling costs, or at least to use packaging that is more easily recycled. And now, of course, the onus to recycle is no longer on the municipalities and taxpayers, but on the companies who created the garbage problem in the first place. A group of some 1,300 companies (including Loblaws, Procter & Gamble, Boston Pizza, Apple, Keurig, and many other household names) have come together to form Recycling BC, a non-profit organization for residential recycling, and it is currently in the process of increasing the range of products it recycles while other municipal recyclers are cutting back. As a result, BC has by far the best recycling rate in Canada, estimated at 69%.
That makes so much sense to me. I bet Tim Hortons in BC doesn't use unrecyclable black lids on their coffee cups, and I bet Loblaws in BC doesn't sell sweetcorn on unrecyclable black styrofoam trays. Actually, I didn't realize it, but several other Canadian provinces have partial EPR systems - Ontario has a 50% system - but only BC has a fully-functional 100% EPR system (mind you, some of the more enlightened countries in Europe have been following this model since the mid-90s).
There are other ways in which regulation can help (this is one example where market forces just aren't sufficient). NDP MP Nathan Cullen introduced a private members bill last February which would ban any packaging that can't be recycled or composted. However, this seems to be too strong for the Liberals, whose support is needed to pass the bill, even though they say they support it "in principle".
The other thing that could be done - and that been at least partially implemented in California - is for government to mandate that all packaging contain a certain percentage of recycled content. This would create a built-in market for recycled materials, which would make the economics of recycling more palatable. There are no takers in Canada for such a move as yet, but we can hope.