Sunday, June 30, 2019

European electric cars now need to be noisy too

The EU, which purports to be strongly in favour of the increased adoption of electric cars as a means of fighting climate change, has just put one more barrier in the way of the increased adoption of electric cars by ruling that all new electric vehicles have to have a "noise-emitting device", which sounds like a traditional gasoline engine, i.e. noisy. Existing vehicles are to be gradually retrofitted with noise-makers by 2021. (The USA finally passed a similar law in 2018, after several delays, which is to come into full force by September 2020. Canada is still thinking about it.)
One of the many advantages of electric cars is that they are quiet. Modern life is already way too noisy, and anything that can be done to reduce the ambient noise we are all subjected to is most welcome. So, it seems an awful shame that such a law is considered necessary, but the impetus has come from charities like Guide Dogs for the Blind, which complain that the blind and the visually-impaired may be surprised by quiet electric vehicles, especially when reversing. The new EU law mandates an acoustic vehicle alert system (AVAS) on all new electric vehicles for when they are travelling at less than 20 km/h or reversing, supposedly the times when cars are most likely to put pedestrians at risk. You can hear an example here (and yes, it's horrible). At higher speeds, the noise of the tires on the road and the aerodynamic noise of the moving car is apparently sufficient, although some of the charities are calling for electric vehicles to make a sound at all speeds.
I do understand the reason for the law, although you can tie yourself in knots over arguments about how many people are affected, whether people have a right to a quieter environment, and whether more people have been hurt as a result of quiet electric cars (even that is not definitively proven: for example, a US Dept. of Transportation report suggest that hybrids and EVs are 35% more likely to cause pedestrian injuries, but other reports note that overall pedestrian deaths continue to decrease even as EVs become more popular). The irony is that some other non-electric cars are just about as quiet nowadays, and this is increasingly a goal of many car manufacturers.
I must confess I had high hopes for quieter cities running silent electric cars and trucks one day, but that day may be further off than I thought. What a shame.

It's ironic that it is down to the courts to rein in Trump's excesses

The USA is in the rather ridiculous and unfortunate position of relying on the unelected courts to guard against some of Donald Trump's more extreme decisions. A federal judge has just blocked Trump's use of billions in military funds to build a wall on the Mexican border.
But this is just the latest of many occasions where the courts have been the fall-back option, where the Democrat majority in the House of Representatives is just not able to have any say on the random decisions coming out of the White House (other recent examples are the court blocking of Trump's controversial citizenship question for the 2020 census, and the move by US asylum officers to use the courts to put an end to Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy for asylum-seekers). This is mainly because the US political system gives the President so much power to hand down edicts that never get discussed or debated by the country's elected representatives. Some of those decisions are just so extreme as to be illegal or unconstitutional, though, and the legal system can step in and overrule them.
I suppose we should be grateful that such checks and balances exist. But it is ironic that the country has to rely on unelected court officers to rein in a President gone berserk with power.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

How can bribes from Big Pharma be legal?

I still maintain it is an absolute scandal that Big Pharma pays big bucks to doctors and hospitals as sweeteners (read: bribes) to encourage them to prescribe their drugs. How can that even be legal?
The latest figures show that the 10 largest offenders paid out a total of $76 million to Canadian doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers in the last year (2018), marginally up from the previous year, with the largest sums coming from Abbvie, Novartis, Amgen, Roche and Merck (but they all do it). Now, it's good that the companies voluntarily disclose this information now - more than they used to do. But shouldn't we be doing something about it, like stopping them, for instance. I'm sure this wouldn't be allowed in other sector of industry. Can you imagine the outcry if the steel industry did this, or the telecom industry. How, then, can the pharmaceutical industry get away with it?

Friday, June 28, 2019

Federal Liberals 2 : Conservative Premiers 0, on carbon taxes

Sorry, Mr. Ford, but the courts have ruled that the federal carbon tax is actually totally legal. In fact, the Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that it is not a tax at all, but a "regulatory charge" for the entirely reasonable and necessary purpose of reducing the deleterious effects of climate change. And it is anyway a perfectly legitimate levy for a federal government to be imposing for the common good, and in no way in contravention of the Charter rights of Canadians, not does it intrude on provincial jurisdictions. So there.
This comes after a Saskatchewan court ruled the same thing a month or two ago. So, Federal Liberals 2 : Conservative Premiers 0. And in a federal election year too! Now, can we please stop spending taxpayers' money on spurious court cases, and get on with the matter in hand?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Trump's Palestinian "deal of the century" tone deaf and doomed to fail

As someone who claims to be all about "deals", Donald Trump seems to have very little idea about which deals are likely to be acceptable and which not.
Letting his son-in-law Jared Kushner loose on as thorny an issue as Arab-Israeli relations seemed like a bad idea to most observers in the first place. His reputation hovers barely above the level of "bit of an idiot". When he started calling his plan (his? Trump's?) the "deal of the century", with typical Trumpian swagger, most people just rolled their eyes. But, hey, give the guy a chance, I guess, you never know. Pretty much everybody else, including men and women with much greater diplomatic reputations than Trump or Kushner, have had a go at it and failed, but you never know.
The "deal of the century", though, was a spectacular bust. Palestine didn't even attend the conference in Bahrain but, when you consider the Trump administration's recent actions towards them - withdrawing humanitarian aid funding, shutting down its missions in the West Bank and Gaza, ejecting Palestinian diplomats from Washington, opening up its Israeli embassy in contested Jerusalem, and its unalloyed support for anything Israeli - you can see why they might have been a little cynical.
The deal itself? An offer of $50 billion as a kind of start-up fund for Palestinians in the region. So, not really a deal at all, more of a bribe, with no mention of a political agenda, a two-state solution, illegal Israeli settlements, or any of those kind of tedious details. It was, unsurprisingly, rejected out of hand by Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, and, as I mentioned, Palestine had no intentions of even considering it.
Now, $50 billion dollars is a lot of money, but money - which is really all Trump & Co really understand, if indeed they can be said to understand that much - is entirely redundant without a political settlement. As a senior PLO representative opined, "It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the occupation itself." Even Tony Blair deadpanned, "It is absolutely foolish to believe you can have economics without sound politics". Pretty obvious really.
The "deal" was tone deaf, and dead in the water before it even started. I could have saved Mr. Kushner the airfare if he had asked. But no doubt Trump will spin even this in a positive light, claiming that they tried in good faith, but the Palestinians are just not interested in a solution. Even in the "deal of the century".

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Drone technology in the hands of terrorists is a bleak prospect

The Economist has put some flesh on thoughts I had myself after the drone sightings that shut down Gatwick Airport this Christmas. I, and probably many others, wondered why more drones had not been used for terrorist attacks. The Economist article suggest that this may well change soon - they are predicting that drone disruption may be on the cards for the upcoming Extinction Rebellion climate change protests, for example - and that, even more worryingly, there is very little that can be done about it.
An estimated 235 diferent counter-drone systems are commercially available or under development, ranging from radio jamming to electronic hijacking to nets to projectile to even trained eagles. But there are a much more limited number of options available in a crowded and very public space like a major airport. To make matters worse, modern drones are much more nimble and fast than they used to be, reaching speeds of up to 260 km/h, and can even be pre-programmed to follow a set path, obviating the need for disruptable electronic communications. Adaptations and add-ons developed by hobbyists are legion and almost impossible to predict, including graffiti sprays, grabbing claws, firework launchers, flame-throwers, tasers, handguns, even chainsaws. The relatively low cost of drones also means that they can be employed in numbers, possibly larger numbers than counter-measures can deal with.
All in all, it doesn't really bear thinking about.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Claims that music study makes you smart remain unconvincing

I take the latest claims that music study gives students an academic boost with the same pinch of salt with which I have accompanied previous claims.
A new study, published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Educational Psychology this week, looks at public school students in British Columbia, and concludes that those kids who took musical instrument classes for several years had higher grades in math, science and English by the time of Grades 10-12.
I don't doubt that that was in fact the case. What I take issue with is the conclusions drawn from it. The study suggests a causal relationship that I find difficult to justify. One needs only look back to an earlier study by University of Toronto professor Glenn Schellenberg in 2004, which is often cited as proof of the same causal relationship. However, since that study was published, Prof. Schellenberg has renounced his conclusions, arguing that it is much more likely that pre-existing differences in the students' personalities and abilities (not to mention their parental support/pressure) explain why music students and non-music students perform differently in school. Basically, bright and engaged students are more likely to engage in music studies; it is not the music that is somehow, miraculously, making them smart, a notion that Prof. Schellenberg calls "just ridiculous".
The newer study claims to make some attempt to control for variables like gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and prior academic achievement, and various convincing-sounding hypotheses for the mechanisms by which music improves academic performance  have been out forward, but the conclusions are still widely disputed, and the hypotheses are just that, hypotheses. Me, I remain skeptical.

Sidewalk Labs' Quayside development may require too much of Toronto

Google affiliate Sidewalk Lab's proposed tech-heavy development of Toronto's Quayside area has been talked about for some years now, and most people still don't really have a clue about the practical implications of the project. Now, the company has issued a glossy four-volume 1,524-page development plan and, guess what, most people still don't really understand most of the practical implications of the project.
The tome waxes lyrical about small details like robotic trash cans, automated rotating rain-shields, self-driven small package delivery, adaptive traffic lights and speed limits, and dynamic configurable road widths. But it is still far from clear how Sidewalk Labs intends to use all the data it proposes to collect from residents and users, how it intends to get over the fact that the "mass timber" high-rise buildings it proposes are not currently legal in Canada, and how the plan is actually going to help housing affordability in Toronto as it claims (it uses a very different, and much broader, definition of "affordable" than the City of Toronto does). Indeed, the Master Innovation and Development Plan raises almost as many questions as it answers.
The planned development was originally to cover a relatively modest area of 12 acres in Quayside in Toronto's underutilized and undeveloped old portlands area, near the mouth of the Don River. But the report says that it is now to include the western half of Villiers Island as well, and it also raises the prospect of the partial development of a much larger area around it, as it now says it will need a much larger parcel of land (up to 190 acres, which Sidewalk Labs cutely refers to as the Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration district, or IDEA) in order to fully implement all the innovations and sensor-testing technology it proposes, land that I had understood was already part of the city's plan for the naturalization and flood-proofing of the Don estuary. Some of the land in question is owned by Waterfront Toronto, the intergovernmental body that is tasked with dealing with Sidewalk Labs and making the final decision, but some of it is owned directly by the City of Toronto, which complicates matters somewhat.
The proposal would also require substantial regulatory and legal changes at the municipal and provincial level, including amendments to the City of Toronto Act and the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. It would require new public transit (light rail), for which Sidewalk Labs graciously offers between $100 million and $400 million in loans towards the $1.2 billion total cost. Sidewalk Labs is offering the city a 10% share of profits from any new technologies it develops there over 10 years (if any), but it also calls for vaguely-defined "performance payments" from the city in return. Who knows what this will mean in practice? Indeed, the entire price tag for the project - and who would be responsible for what - remains worryingly undefined ("subject to future negotiations"). Make no mistake: Sidewalk Labs and it's parent, Alphabet Inc, are in this to make a profit (the development plan admits as much), not just to further its R&D, and definitely not for the social and economic welfare of the people of Toronto.
Now, I am not a technophobe - I have solar panels and a Prius and any number of apps on my cellphone - but I don't believe in adopting technologies willy-nilly, just because they are there (see my piece on 5G phone technology). We don't want to go selling our municipal soul for the promise of robotic trash cans, or even for some ill-defined possible boon to be acquired from a reputation as a tech-forward city (I don't drink Richard Florida's Cool-Aid, when he claims that the Sidewalk Labs project would automatically vault Toronto to the top of the urban tech charts, and that huge economic benefits will necessarily follow; I think it is Alphabet Inc. that will benefit and Toronto may pick up a few crumbs along the way).
I also believe that urban planning is the province of elected city officials and city departments established for that very purpose, not some faceless mega-corporation whose goals and ambitions may be a long way from those of the city and its residents. That sounds to me like the thin end of the wedge, the start of the slippery slope towards a dystopian future where we are all just pawns in a world of corporate powerplays. Hyperbole? Maybe. People may accuse me of not having enough "vision" (that is the usual come-back), but I'd prefer that to being considered recklessly speculative. What's so "smart" about that?
In a pro-Sidewalk Labs article, Globe reporter Marcus Gee complains that, "In the jaded eyes of its opponents, Sidewalk is a free-booting tech giant that threatens to steal our personal data, gobble up our most precious real estate and supersede our elected governments, making itself lord and master of the waterfront". Well, yes, that just about sums it up, and Mr. Gee does not provide much evidence or argument to refute that characterization of the project.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Is "rainbow capitalism" a bad thing?

Like me, you have probably noticed a greater-than-ever amount of Pride-themed merchandise, both being worn and being sold (and yes, it's now Pride Month, not Pride Week - will we have made the ultimate progress when it becomes Pride Year?)
As LGBTQ issues become ever more mainstream, many retailers have discovered a lucrative marketing niche, much like the bandwagon Raptors apparel that suddenly sprang up with the unexpected success of the Toronto Raptors basketball team recently. Many large companies in the USA (like Macys, H&M, Target and American Apparel, among others) are also making sizeable donations to LGBTQ-linked charities and organizations, as well as pumping big money into Pride Parades around North America.
Such is the nature of marketing - exploiting niches is what they are all about - and it is difficult to complain about companies that are just doing their jobs and taking advantage of marketing opportunities. But some in the LGBTQ community are questioning whether the hearts of these corporations are really in it, and taking issue with the brazen opportunism of what they call "rainbow capitalism".
And it's a thorny issue. Can LGBTQ organizations afford to turn down sponsorship money which might also, coincidentally, be helping the bottom lines of major corporations? Where is the hazy line between support and control? Is it even possible to tell when a minority group is being taken advantage of? It also draws up the battle lines between those who believe that Pride Parades should be protest marches and those who feel they are merely celebrations of gay culture. Just how mainstream does the LGBTQ movement actually want to be?
It's hard to see the apparent outpouring of support for the gay community as anything but a positive thing. But I can quite understand those who are cautioning vigilence in the new zeitgeist.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Canada bans shark fin imports - yay, Canada!

Finally, something that Canada can be proud of on the international scene. Canada has become the first G20 country to completely ban the shark fin trade.
It has been illegal for the domestic fishing industry to harvest shark fins since 1994, but the number of Asians living in Canada has meant that it is the largest importer of shark fins outside Asia, importing about 148,000 kg a year. Although less popular and less politically acceptable than it once was, shark fin soup is still considered a great delicacy for many Asians, despite (or maybe because of!) the fact that the shark fin trade is believed to have contributed to the precarious status of many shark species worldwide. An estimated one-third of fins sole come from shark species that are at risk. 
In this period of environmental retrenchment, Canada does not seem to have had many victories to celebrate recently. So, let's celebrate this one: yay, Canada!

Pew! - The state of cannabis in Canada

Wondering how the cannabis industry in Canada is faring since legalization last October? Nah, me neither, really. I am still far from convinced that it was a sensible move, and I still think that some pretty deleterious effects will become apparent over time. But, if you are interested, an article in the Globe and Mail summarizes pretty succinctly recent StatsCan data on the subject.
The cannabis industry contributed $6.7 billion to Canada's GDP, which represents about a third of the amount spent on alcohol, and about the same as the amount spent on wine. However, only $2.3 billion of that was due to the legal licensed industry; the other $4.4 billion (i.e. two-thirds) came through the illegal black market, you know the one the newly-legalized industry was supposed to supplant. This is partly because of the spotty and inefficient roll-out of retail cannabis stores and on-going supply problems, but mainly because the average legal price of weed is $9.99 per gram, while the average from illegal sources is around $6.37, a discrepancy that was widely foreseen pre-legalization. Industry people say they expect a continued shift towards legal sources. Well, they would, wouldn't they?
What does seem clear is that, for better or worse, more people are using the stuff. Almost 18% of Canadians over the age of 15 used some form of cannabis in the first few months of this year, up from 14% before legalization. Perhaps more worrying, 13% admit to using cannabis before or during work. Men are more likely to be users (22%, as compared to 13% of women), which may just mean that more women than men are concerned about smelling like a skunk. And, of course, younger people are more likely to use it than older people (30% of 15-24 year olds, and 24% of 25-44 year olds, with a significant drop-off thereafter). Yukon, which can probably least afford it, spends the most per capita, followed by Prince Edward Island, and, perhaps surprisingly, Ontario and British Columbia spend the least per capita.
So, make of all that what you will. Personally, I haven't really noticed any more of a stink in our neck of the woods, but I guess over time usage is only going to increase. And who know what social, psychological and health effects will come of that. But, hey, think of the tax revenue!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Doug Ford's all-time low favourability rating

It seems that Doug Ford's populist fixation with beer and cars and interference in Toronto's politics is not fooling anyone. A poll taken at the end of May (which I missed until now) records an all-time record low favourability rating for an incumbent premier (-53.5%), substantially lower than even Kathleen Wynne's at the end of her tenure (-35.3%) - a pretty impressive feat in less than a year!
At the Raptors parade earlier this week, Ford was the only politician to elicit wild and sustained booing (even Justin Trudeau received a more or less neutral response). And this was from an audience that you might have thought was Ford's perfect target audience - no "latte-sipping urban elite" crowd this.
Now, opinion polls don't really mean anything (except as a very rough gauge of the popular will), and we are stuck with Ford for another three years, come what may. But it has renewed my faith, at least a little bit, in the Ontario electorate, after their almost unforgivable lapse in judgement last June.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Toronto Raptors' NBA victory a win for the ages

I'd be remiss not to at least mention the Toronto Raptors' historic victory in defeating the highly-favoured Golden State Warriors for the 2019 NBA Championship. Toronto has always been considered an outsider in professional sports in North America, as either the only Canadian team in the major American-dominated leagues, or at best one of a small handful. It has also largely been an underachiever and an underdog (although Toronto did win the MLS soccer championship last year, a fact often glossed over, even if soccer still does not quite have the cachet of hockey, baseball or basketball here).
So, the city's NBA win has become a major defining moment, of the type where people will say in years to come, "where were you when...?" Now, I have no idea where I was when J.F. Kennedy was killed (I was only four!); I was glued to the television in my home in Derbyshire when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon; and I have only vague memories of the morning of 9/11.
But I can say quite specifically where I was during the final game of the 2019 NBA Championship: I was in Stratford, Ontario, watching a good but rather earnest play by a little-known 18th Century German playwright (Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing). Well, what can I say? It was booked six months ago, and who knew then that the Raptors would still be paying basketball? So, I couldn't watch the game but, in the bus on the way back to Toronto, I and many others were glued to our cellphones for the final one-and-a-half quarters, including the interminable time-outs in the dying seconds. When full-time was called, we were on the 401 somewhere near Guelph, and a weak cheer and a series of whoops went up from our ageing contingent of theatre-goers.
The bus dropped on on the outskirts of Toronto, unwilling to brave the celebrating crowds and chaos in the city centre, and we had to get the subway back at around 12:30am. So, we did get to witness some of the ongoing celebrations at first hand, as delirious fans - on their way home from friends' or heading down to Jurassic Park for more extended celebrations - made their presences felt in a very noisy and boisterous manner. It was all good-natured, and did not feel threatening in any way. Hell, we even felt ourselves part of it.
Closer to home, nearer to 2am, fans were still cruising up and down Danforth Avenue, leaning on their horns, and everyone had a smile on their faces (as they did even the next day). It's not often Toronto wins something big (the last time the whole city got behind a sports team was the Toronto Blue Jays' glory days of 1992-1994, some 25 years ago, and before that another generation earlier, with the Maple Leafs dominance of hockey in the mid-'60s). This was a moment of pride, inclusivity and unbridled joy, regardless of the fact that Toronto's team is essentially composed of Americans. It brought all sorts of unlikely bedfellows together in a surge of goodwill and shared gratification. It was a victory for the underdog which will not soon be forgotten.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Toronto is looking to tackle noise pollution, and about time too

I'm predicting that noise pollution will become a major environmental battleground in the 21st century, and I'm all in in favour of that. Maybe it is not so critical as air pollution and water pollution, and most people do not see it as a priority issue, it is certainly an annoyance, and it would be nice to see it addressed.
Noise is defined as any unwanted sound. There are municipal by-laws in place to keep unnecessary noise in check. For example, contstruction work that makes noise is only allowed between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday, and from 9am to 7pm on Saturday (it is not allows at all on Sundays and statutory holidays), although some construction projects are able, somehow, to obtain permits to make noise outside those times). Music venues and individuals are banned from allowing ammplified music  to spill out onto residential city streets from 11pm to 7am. There is also a by-law against persistent and loud dog barking.
These three sources are the basis of most complaints about excessive noise. But there is also the more insidious issue of general ambient noise in the city, and this is only now starting to receive some attention. According to surveys, the most bothersome sources of noise are condo and home construction and renovations, motorcycles, alarms, noise from within houses (e.g. music, shouting), traffic, pet or animal noise, garden equipment (e.g. leaf-blowers, lawn-mowers, etc), emergency vehicle sirens, garbage trucks, airplanes, and noise from bars or restaurants. My own pet peeves are motorcycles (some of which have aftermarket exhaust tweaks to beliberqtly make them even louder, which is inexcusable), trucks, leaf-blowers, and that horrible peep-peeping from reversing vehicles.
A report from Toronto Public Health in June 2017 found that ambient noise levels are above provincially recommended levels 62% of the time (about 10dB above on average), and the public perception is that noise level are increasing. Now, you expect a certain amount of noise - that is part and parcel of city life. But we are talking here about excessive or objectionable noise. There is no reason to just accept ever-increasing noise as the necessary back-drop to progress, and excessive noise (often defined as above 85 dB) has been shown to be a health hazard, with palpable impacts on our quality of life.
Some cities are taking action. Edmonton is trying out a sound-trap system that automatically identifies offending vehicles; Vancouver has started ticketing excessively loud cars and motorcycles; leaf-blowers have been severely limited in some parts of Montreal. Further afield, California has brought in strict regulations on environmental noise, New York City instituted a comprehensive noise code way back in 1985, and Portland, Oregon has introduced fines of up to $5,000 for contravention of its noise rules, which are widely considered a model for other municipalities.
And now, Toronto is stepping up to the challenge, and the Municipal Licensing and Standards is looking to update city noise regulations, which have not been updated since 2002. Personally, I look forward to it.

Doug Ford has a grudge against Toronto and he needs to let it go

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is a man with a few simple priorities and a long grudge memory. He has a big thing about energy (renewables bad, paying for top-notch executive oversight bad), and he has a big thing about beer (BEER GOOD! the cheaper and the more easily available the better). But, most of all, he has thing about Toronto.
Mr. Ford never really got over being soundly beaten at the polls for mayor of Toronto, and he is trying his level best to act as the mayor of Toronto even though he is actually supposed to be the premier of Ontario.
One of his very first acts in power was to blatantly interfere with the Toronto municipal elections, which were at that time well under way, slashing the number of councillors in half, and making the remaining councillors work twice as hard for twice the number of constituents. Then, he tried to assume provincial control of Toronto's subway system, which is clearly a municipal concern and is completely integrated into the rest of the city transit system, although thus far he has been stymied in his ambitions in that respect. Then, he threw a spanner into Toronto's mass transit development plan which, after years of arguing and inactivity, was finally starting to come together and reaching the stage where something practical could be achieved (in its place, he offered a half-baked, back-of-a-napkin plan of his own). And now, his latest incursion into Toronto politics is to interfere with the city's urban planning regime in order to allow more tall buildings along subway lines, perhaps a laudable attempt at increasing urban residential concentrations but, hey, that's quite clearly a city responsibility and there is a whole city department that does nothing else but look at such things.
So, why all this blatant interference in municipal politics. Well, Toronto is obviously the province's largest city and the engine that keeps the rest of it running. But, more importantly, he holds a grudge against the city for jilting him. It's like he really still wants to be mayor of Toronto, and is only doing the job of premier as a way of getting to pull at least some of Toronto's strings. Basically, he holds a grudge against those "urban elites" that foiled his plans to run the city. It's a kind of psychological condition, and it's really not healthy. He needs to let go and let Toronto get on with running itself, to allow the councillors who were elected to run it do just that. His interference is not warranted and it's not welcome.

Friday, June 07, 2019

It seems that money CAN buy you happiness after all

The UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network has published its latest World Happiness Report, which purports to rank the countries of the world according to the relatively simple metric of how its population rates the quality of their lives. It identifies various contributing factors to this rating, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.
The main listing can be found in Figure 2.7 of the report. As usual, the Nordic and North European countries are out there at the top: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, followed by New Zealand, Canada (No. 9), Austria, and Australia. The UK comes in at No. 15 and the US at No. 19. Bhutan, which makes a big deal about how happy it's people are, languishes as No. 95 out of 156. South Sudan is No. 156.
My conclusion is that, yes, money CAN buy you happiness.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

How much does it cost to charge up an electric car?

Have you ever wondered how much it costs to charge up an electric car? Me too. But, of course, somebody in the Internet machine has done that calculation for us (in this case CompareTheMarket).
Now obviously, the cost to charge up a vehicle will depend on the vehicle (i.e. its battery size) and on the cost of electricity in the area the car is being changed in. CompareTheMarket has given us estimates based on a variety of countries with a large variety of electricity costs, ranging from Chile (with a price per kWh of US$0.07) to Denmark (US$0.34 per kWh). Canada and the USA are somewhere in between at US$0.11 and US$0.13 respectively (costs may vary a bit within different states or provinces).
The cost to fully charge a Tesla Model S - which conveniently has a 100 kWh battery, sufficient to provide 259 miles, or about 417 km, of worry-free driving) - is therefore about US$11 in Canada and US$13 in the USA. That stacks up pretty nicely against filling up a car with enough gas to cover 259 miles (417 km) although, again, direct comparisons would require a knowledge of a particular car's fuel efficiency, the cost of gas in a particular state or province, etc. It's enough to provide a rough guide, though, and it certainly looks attractive.

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could revolutionize American politics

There is a quiet revolution going on in American politics that I knew nothing about. It's called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), and it represents a radical change to the current electoral college system that allowed Donald Trump to win the 2016 election, despite Hillary Clinton winning the national popular vote. Under NPVIC, a state awards all of its electoral college votes to the person who wins the overall national popular vote (in 2016 this was Clinton), rather than to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state.
Oregon has just become the 15th state to vote for the new system, which now has the support of  a total of 189 electoral college votes out of the 270 needed for a winning majority. The legislation will not take effect until similar bills are passed by enough states to ensure that majority, which currently means that states carrying another 81 electoral college votes are needed. According to the Compact's website, a vote in favour of the system has already passed in one of the two legislative chambers in a further nine states that would yield ... 82 electoral college votes! So, this is not some pie in the sky scheme: it seems quite likely to succeed, maybe not in time for the 2020 vote, but soon.
People have been complaining about the USA's 18th century legacy electoral college system for years. Finally, some states are putting their money where their mouths are. It holds out the tantalizing prospect of an American president that most people voted for, rather than the one best able to play the system.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Toronto Raptors fan takes Instagram exhortation literally

Like most of Toronto (and indeed much of the whole country), I have been caught up in the Raptors' improbably successful run in the 2019 NBA playoffs and finals. I had to smile, then, at the lengths some fans - more serious than me - will go to to broadcast their support.
After the team's Instagram page featured a particularly good photo of star Kawhi Leonard in mid-dunk, along with the caption "Hang this in the Louvre" - as one does - one fan, who found herself in Paris at the time, did just that!

Macron denounces UEFA's controversial plans for Champions League

Kudos to French President Emmanuel Macron for "interfering" in the proposed changes to the UEFA Champions League.
The Champions League is a high-profile competition aimed at establishing the best league team in Europe. The top teams from the top leagues in Europe battle it out each year for the accolade of being labelled the best team in Europe. However, UEFA's highly controversial new proposal is to lock in 24 of the 32 teams at the group stage, by granting "elite" teams an automatic entry. The Champions Cup would therefore become a kind of exclusive rich boy's club, and it would be increasingly difficult for smaller teams from smaller national leagues to gain entry to the limelight (not to mention the millions of Euros in broadcasting rights that come with it). The big rich leagues in places like Spain and Italy are strongly in favour of the changes; most smaller leagues are strongly against it.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin denounced Macron's opposition to the changes as "clear interference of politics in sports". However, his own proposed changes amount to clear interference of economics in sports. Macron has been outspoken before about the excessive influence of money in sports. So, who is the good guy here?

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Be very careful when using emotive words like "genocide"

Back from vacation, and not much has changed: Canada is still mired in soul-searching and recriminations. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) finally released its long-awaited 1,200-page report and, as expected, there is a lengthy shopping list of "calls to justice" that the government has vowed to take seriously and act upon.
The report put the cat among the pigeons on one score, though, by baldly stating that it was an "inescapable conclusion" that the Canadian government's actions over the years amount to "genocide". Now, the G-word is used very sparingly and with a great deal of caution for good reasons. It is an extremely emotive word that immediately conjures up comparisons with the Holocaust in Europe, the Hutu mass slaughter of Tsutsis in Rwanda, Pol Pot's massacres in Cambodia, and the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine and Kazakhstan (each of which resulted in literally millions of casualties), as well as many other deliberate decimations around the world and throughout history with casualties numbering in the hundred of thousands. Bad as the Canadian problem may be, 1,200 Indigenous women hardly registers compared to these. Which is not to say that 1,200 Indigenous women do not matter - far from it - but we should be wary of using language for sensationalist purposes.
The word "genocide" literally means the deliberate killing off of a race or whole peoples (national, ethnical, racial or religious) and it is carefully defined by the United Nations in its Genocide Convention. You invoke it with great caution. Now, over the decades, the Canadian government has certainly presided over a pretty raw deal for the Indigenous peoples of the country. The residential school system and the 60s Scoop were iniquitous and inexcusable, and, despite the off-loading of shovel-loads of money to northern communities, it is incontrovertible that many reserves do not have adequate education, healthcare or infrastructure (although I sincerely believe that this is mainly due to the remoteness of many Indigenous communities, and not the result of some nefarious plot to kill them off as a race). All of this, though, does NOT mean that the Canadian government (or any previous Canadian government, for that matter, at least in the last century or so) has been guilty of, and indeed continues to be guilty of, a concerted campaign to rid the country of its Indigenous population - to "eradicate their existence" as Chief Commissioner Marion Buller clarified in her press interview - which is essentially what the MMIWG reports suggests.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, quite rightly in my opinion, was leery of using the "genocide" label in his initial public response to the report, despite pressure from hecklers in the audience, although he did carefully use it in a subsequent speech. It is clearly a big deal for many indigenous people that the word be used, and they seem to be getting some kind of validation from it. Indeed, they cheered when Marion Buller used it in her speech, which was a little bizarre, and the term is used with gay and unapologetic abandon in the actual report, including in the opening paragraph:."This report is about deliberate race-, identity-, and gender-based genocide".
The Canadian state may be guilty of many things: of failing to protect Indigenous people from exploitation, trafficking and killing; from physical, sexual and mental abuse in state institutions; from coerced sterilizations, forced relocations and the removal of children; and from a lack of funding for social services and the necessities of life. But they do not go out, as a state, with the intention of killing off whole segments of Canadian society. Indigenous women do disappear and die with disproportionate frequency, this much is clearly true, but it seems to me that this is at least partly a function of the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous women who choose, or who are forced into, marginalized lives, including prostitution and living on the street (and the systemic problems that have given rise to this situation). And, of course, the elephant in the room is that most deaths, rapes and abuses of Indigenous women tend to come at the hands of Indigenous men, and the MMIWG report does not even touch on the toxic cult of masculinity at the heart of much of Indigenous life. But that is a whole other can of worms.
Some say that focussing on the semantics of a particular word is missing the point and is detracting from the real issues. But that word was put there very deliberately by the report and, as a Globe and Mail editorial points out, " Words matter, especially when spoken by a judge". This is not mere semantics and pedantry. I don't mean any of this as a diatribe against the First Nations, MĂ©tis and Inuit of this country. I just don't like to see language abused for political ends. If we do that, then we are no better than Donald Trump, and who want that to be said about them?

An article by respected author and indigenous  advocate Erna Paris, entitled "The national inquiry report was marred only by its inaccurate genocide charge", makes my points much more eloquently than I ever could.
Just a few excerpts will serve here:
  • "The commissioners' otherwise excellent report was marred by the gratuitous charge that Canada has committed, and continues to commit, genocide against its Indigenous populations. Not cultural genocide, a concept that is broadly accepted today...but all-out genocide - without qualification."
  • "The men who killed Indigenous women were not gĂ©nocidaires, intent on destroying a group. They were commonplace domestic criminals - murderers and predators who ought not to have been elevated to fit a paradigm."
  • "Genocide, as opposed to cultural genocide, is the planned extermination of peoples. It is not, as asserted by the inquiry, 'the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed within this report'."
  • "The inquiry's conclusion that Canada is a genocidal state lines up with the distortion of language characterizing much of contemporary political discourse... shock and awe language may be seen as a way of propelling one's words above the din."