Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Wind power inspires Trump to unprecedented flights of rhetoric

Donald Trump's speeches are often indecipherable streams of consciousness (or perhaps unconsciousness), although his supporters seem to like them. Gone are the days of oratory and rhetoric - and not that long gone: Barack Obama produced a few speeches for the ages. Indeed, gone are the days of whole sentences and coherence.
A recent campaign speech to young conservatives in Florida (yes, apparently the next election has already started) was one of his most incomprehensible and amusing. Wandering at random, over about an hour, the "speech" - reminiscent of a Rick Mercer rant without the pithiness, humour or political sophistication  ranged and raged over the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi, the impeachment process, and the Republican so-called Never Trumpers, whom Trump summarily dismisses as "the dumbest human beings on earth".
Pride of place in the speech, though, and the subject that brought him closest to apoplexy, was devoted to that scourge of the earth, wind power. No-one is entirely sure just why Trump has decided that wind turbines (or "windmills", as he calls them, possibly in an attempt at satire) deserve such unrelenting attention, although some believe it stems from a wind farm in Scotland that had the audacity to blight one of his golf courses. Be that as it may, the subject yielded some howlers at the speech earlier this week:
  • "I've studied it better than anybody I know."
  • "I never understood wind. You know, I know windmills very much. They're noisy. They kill the birds. You want to see a bird graveyard? Go under a windmill some day. You'll see more birds than you've ever seen in your life."
  • "They're made in China and Germany mostly ... But they're manufactured tremendous, if you're into this. Tremendous fumes. Gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So, the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon foorprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right? Spewing. Whether it's in China, Germany, it's going into the air. It's our air, their air, everything, right?"
  • "You see all those [windmills]? They're all different shades of colour. They're like sort of white, but one is like an orange-white. It's my favourite colour, orange."
  • "You know what they don't tell you about windmills? After ten years, they look like hell. They start to get tired, old."
Positively Shakespearean, and evem more difficult to follow. Cicero is probably doing cartwheels in his grave right now.

The P-word probably stands for pusillanimous

I came across a delicious little off-the-cuff article by David Sedaris in The Guardian about all those word that have become too politically incorrect to be spoken out loud, and and have to be rendered as "the initial-word" in polite conversation.
The N-word was probably the first to be given this treatment, and is probably still the most sensitive and sacrosanct, despite the fact that the majority of the black population of North America seem to positively over-use it. The C-word is perhaps not far behind, and while it is usually used for that part of the female anatomy that remains to this day the most shocking and risqué swearword, it is also used to stand for "cancer", "Chink", even, apparently, "commitment". D is for "divorce", E for "evolution" in some rarefied circles. F does not usually stand for "fuck", except in the more prudish parts of the mid-west, but is more likely to be used for "faggot" in New York City. The G-word is, I am assured, "gypsy", which is now pejorative and deprecated. And L? No, not "lesbian", which is still an acceptable term, for now at least, but "love", the feeling that dare not speak its name.
Ah, the power, and occasional pusillanimity, of language...

Hilariously, Burger King has just been called out by a bunch of Conservative American moms for using another D-word in an ad. The culprit. You probably won't guess it, so I'll tell you: "damn". Is that even a curse word any more? What lives these people must lead..

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Ontario tries to kill yet another wind farm for spurious reasons

Ontario's renewables-killing government is at it again, this time attempting to cancel an almost-completed wind farm on flimsy and spurious grounds.
The Nation Rise Wind Farm, just southeast of Ottawa, was approved by the previous Liberal government, after a full environmental assessment completed in January 2019, and construction began this last May. 16 of the planned 29 turbines are fully or partially built, and the project owners, EDL Renewables Canada, have already spent or committed $230 million to date.
Now the Ford government is calling for the entire project to be summarily cancelled, their stated reason being - wait for it - that it poses a threat to endangered bats in the region. So, Doug Ford has suddenly developed a concern about wildlife and endangered species? Well, no, but that is the stated rationale for the challenge. This is despite the fact that EDP's approval noted that the company had gone "far beyond industry standards amd provincial requirements" in this respect, including a requirement to monitor bird and bat deaths, with additional measures to be taken if bat deaths exceed 10 per turbine annually. They have also pledged to shut off turbines in low winds during the bats' migration period.
Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek now says that this is inadequate, despite advice fron bat experts who maintain that EDP is doing a pretty good job of protecting the relatively fee bats which do call the area home for at least part of the year. And this is the government, remember, that recently amended and weakened the Endangered Species Act to allow developers to pay a fee instead of implementing mitigating measures to protect an endangered species... And the government whose first action in power was to cancel 758 renewable energy contracts at huge cost to the taxpayer, and then another wind farm in Prince Edward County at a cost of $231 million.
Cancelling the project at this stage could cost the province's taxpayers as much as (another) $200 million, to say nothing of weakening investor confidence in the province (again!) The company is taking its case to the courts. But, really, what a government this is!

American economic success comes at a great cost

If Donald Trump is re-elected in 2020, it will be because the US economy is doing well. From GDP to unemployment to the stock markets, it seems incontestable that the US economy is going through a boom period, at least in general terms (the poor quality of the jobs being created, and the unequal distribution of the new wealth are matters for another blog). Trump, of course, maintains this is entirely down to him and his policies, although there is a good case to be made that he is to some extent still riding on the coattails of Barack Obama and the economic turnaround he achieved during his presidency.
Be that as it may, the elephant on the room is that it is not so hard to preside over a successful economy if you do away with most of the safeguards and regulations that have been instituted over the years to protect the environment, the longer-term health of the economy, and the social fabric of the country.
Trump rode to power promising to get rid of as many regulations as possible - what he characterizes as "red tape" that is strangling business, even though American business was actually doing very nicely thank you, even with the regulations - and he is doing a pretty "good" job on that score. Conpanies are, predictably, taking full advantage of the lack of regulation, and making hay (and profits) while the sun shines, the result being an apparently booming economy.
But those regulations were put there for a reason, even if not a reason that Trump would recognize. For example, if businesses do not have to pay or account for the environmental externalities of production, whether in terms of its carbon foorprint, pollution profile, or whatever else, then clearly it is much easier to make larger profits, to sell more abroad, and to generally appear successful. Other countries will see how well America appears to be doing and look to emulate its success, at the expense of their own environment, income equality and social safety net (looking at you, Canadian Conservative party). In a race to the bottom, ethics take a back seat to economics, and the world rapidly becomes a worse, more unsustainable and unstable place.
In addition, giving successful businesses tax cuts may encourage businessmen to fight even harder for higher profits, but if that comes at the expense of workers, they won't think twice. And, of course, less tax revenue means more national debt and/or cuts to government services, all of which gets overlooked in the simplistic GDP measurement we are used to: more hidden costs.
For all of this, we have Donald Trump to thank: for single-handedly lowering the tone of political debate, for making "caring" a dirty word, and for encouraging short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability. But, mark my words, those hidden costs will come home to roost eventually. Probably long after Mr. Trump is comfortably retired, but roost they most certainly will.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Trump is impeached, and still nothing has really changed

As the news comes in that President Trump has been impeached by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the reality also sinks in about how little this really matters.
Indicted on both counts (of abuse of power and obstruction of justice), the vote went, predictably enough, almost exactly along party lines, with not a single Republican daring to risk Trump's displeasure by voting with their conscience rather than with their party leader. The self-same thing happened at Bill Clinton's impeachment, even if the charges in that case were relatively paltry. And the same thing will happen when the second part of the impeachment process takes place, the vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. (Incidentally, many people, including Republicans, think that the result would be very different if senators were allowed a private or secret vote, but Republican senators are too scared of Trump's retaliation to vote agaist him publicly). So, the chances of Trump actually being removed from office are slim-to-none.
While the impeachment process may have been the right thing to do ethically, if only to remind the President that he is not above the law (not that he cares!), do not confuse this with political expediency. We are in much the same position now as we were before: the Democrats can justifiably call Trump out on his actions, and Trump can play the martyr. Few, if any, votes will change in 2020. Sad, but true.
Oh, and watch for Trump to double down on retaliation against Democrats (and any Republicans who dare to oppose him). If you think he's been pretty nasty so far, my preduction is: you ain't seen nothing yet.

SNC-Lavalin guilty plea achieves pretty much what a DPA would have

Well, l'affaire SNC-Lavalin petered out with something of a whimper yesterday as the company's construction division pled guilty to a charge of fraud related to its activities in Libya back in the early 2000s. It will pay a $280 million fine (which many analysts consider unexpectedly cheap), and is subject to a three year probation order. This comes just days after the former SNC-Lavalin executive Sam Bebawi was convicted for his personal part in the fraud.
The other, potential more damaging, charge of bribery under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act was dropped, and the company thereby avoided a criminal prosecution that might have resulted in the company as a whole being barred from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years (this, under a OECD anti-bribery comvention that Canada signed onto in 2012). This would have been a potentially ruinous outcome for SNC-Lavalin, and one that Prime Minister Trudeau and many others in the Liberal caucus were keen to avoid, if only because of the huge employment footprint the company carries. Justice has seen to be done, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, and the company can now pick up the pieces and resume business as usual. SNC-Lavalin shares surged with the news.
Sounds a mite cynical perhaps, but such is the nature of big business. These kinds of legal cases and deals are being entered into all the time. In the end, Mr. Trudeau was not able to swing his preference for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the company. But the net result was actually pretty similar - a fine, a bit of probation, and business as usual.
So, arguably most the political unpleasantness of the last year could have been avoided by allowing the company the take advantage of a DPA. But a certain MP, now sitting as an independent, decided to go nuclear on principle (or in promotion of her own political career, depending on your outlook and your level of cynicism), which probably also cost the Liberals their majority in the last election. In the end, Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not really get what she wanted either, even though she got her way at the time. And at what cost? Her loyal sidekick, Jane Philpott, definitely did not get what she wanted as she lost her seat completely at the last election.
Personally, I'm still not convinced that the PM exceeded his authority - the ethics commissioner's report notwithstanding -  and I'm still not entirely sure about Ms. Wilson-Raybould's motives. Neither am I convinced that the best interests of the country were served by her crisis of conscience. But anyway, it's all over now. Can we please get on with the important stuff.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Canadian show jumping team to miss Olympics due to a coca tea

I am all for the recent clampdown on illicit substances in sport, but occasionally you can't help but feel that the powers-that-be are being a little over-zealous.
A case in point is the rather harsh decision against the Canadian equestrian show jumping team, based on a positive drug test at the PanAm Games in Lima this last summer. One of the team of four, 26-year old Nicole Walker, tested positive for cocaine after drinking a coca tea in a Lima hotel. Coca is a widely-available and perfectly legal tea in Peru, and while it is techically made from the same leaves that are used to manufacture cocaine, the effects of coca tea are very mild. To add insult to injury, Ms. Walker, a big tea drinker, apparently intended to drink green tea, but the coca and green teas come in a very similar packages.
The worst part is that the whole team of four (and, arguably four horses!) will be disqualified from next year's Tokyo Olympics as part of this decision, which seems a bit ridiculous. The Canadian team placed fourth in the PanAm Games, and would be considered as medal contenders in Tokyo. Shades of 1995, when a four-person Canadian rowing team lost their PanAm gold medal because one member took an over-the-counter cold remedy!
I know we need strict rules against drugs because there are s lot of people out there abusing them (looking at you, Russia). But surely testing is sophisticated enough to distinguish between performance-enhancing drugs and coca tea or Robitussin! And why ban the whole team for the dubious sins or misjudgements of one member?
The team will appeal the ruling, and feel that they have a good case to make. Don't hold your breath, though, and definitely don't take any Benedryl.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Biosimilars instead of biologics? Why not?

So, what's with all this talk of biologics and biosimilars recently?
Biologics have been around for a while now. They are a type of drug or medication made of living cells that are injected or infused into patients by IV. They are typically used for chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, diabetes and to increase the white blood count of patients receiving chemotherapy treatments. And they are expensive. For example, one popular treatment for rheumatoid arthritis costs almost $1,000 per vial.
Biosimilars are near-copies of original biologic drugs whose patents have expired, making them much cheaper than the equivalent biologics. They are perfectly safe, having passed all the same tests as biologics, and in the vast majority of cases they will do the same job as the biologics they replace.
The reason these drugs are in the news is that Alberta (yes, Alberta again) is in the process of passing a law to replace biologics with the much cheaper biosimilars, in cases where patients are on government-sponsored drug plans (i.e. not covered by private insurance, and not patients who pay their own drugs out-of-pocket). Pregnant women and children are also excluded from the law. The province says it expects to save between $227 million and $380 million over four years (a huge spread, which suggests they don't really know), money that can be applied elsewhere in provincial healthcare. British Columbia and several European countries already have very similar laws.
This sounds pretty sensible at first blush, but some specialists in the affected medical fields are crying foul, saying that some patients will be adversely affected. The bulk of the  international evidence, though, suggests that biosimilars are just as effective as the biologics they mimic, and the Alberta plan does include a provision that a patient can apply for an exemption if their doctor can prove that there is a medical reason why switching would be inadvisable.
It seems to me that the law has thought of most possible drawbacks and made provision for them. So, much as I hate to offer support to an Alberta government that is getting so much so wrong, this is one case where it seems to be getting it right.
But another question I have is: what are these "government-sponsored drug plans"? Do Alberta and BC have some kind of provincial pharmacare system that I knew nothing about? If so, why doesn't Ontario?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Collatz Conjecture is a little closer to being proved ... say, what?

Now, I'm no mathematician (although, after producing my History of Mathematics website some years ago, I still get emails from earnest, presumably young, mathematicians asking for my professional opinions on their latest revolutionary theorem or solution...), but I do find some of this stuff interesting.
For instance, I just found out about an interesting conjecture, posited by German mathematician Lothar Collatz way back in the 1930s. The Collatz Conjecture is sometimes called "the most dangerous problem in mathematics" or "a siren song" because it appears so simple, but it has confounded the best mathematicians ever since. Many a mathematician has been tempted to solve it, only to disappear down its rabbit hole for years on end, to the exclusion of other, more profitable or more meaningful, work.
In essence, the conjecture asks you to pick any starting number and, if it is odd multiply it by 3 and add 1, and if it is even, simply divide it by 2. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum. For example: 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1. Or: 320, 160, 80, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1. The conjecture is that, given that you start with a positive whole number, the series will always run down to 1, and not spiral away to infinity. In fact, it will always end up at 4, then 2, then 1. Which is certainly what seems to happen, but the trick is proving it (which is where the serious mathematics and algebra comes in).
Anyway, the reason, this came to my attention at all is because an Australian-American mathematician called Terence Tao has managed to get a little bit closer to proving the conjecture, by proving mathematically that the conjecture is "almost" true for "almost" all numbers. While this sounds like a distinctly underwhelming and unimpressive cop-out to us non-mathematicians, apparently this is considered one of the most significant proofs on the conjecture in decades, and the kind of thing that may open the floodgates to a complete proof one day.
So, there you go, a little glimpse into the obscure world of pure mathematics.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Alberta blackens its image still further after protests over elementary school project

If an example were needed of how far Alberta (and you could easily add Saskatchewan into the sentence) has gone wrong, how far it has strayed from Canadian normalcy, you could do no better than a quick perusal of the recent shenanigans over a school social studies project.
A teacher at a Blackfalds, Alberta, elementary school gave a Grade 4 social studies class a project that involved showing two videos about Alberta's oilsands, one (suitably positive) from the provincial government, and the other (predictably negative) from Greenpeace. Wow, you might think, maybe Alberta does have its shit together. That's a great project, with lots of scope for analyzing the different approaches, the different interpretations of "the truth", and the different ways in which videos can be used for propaganda and indoctrination.
Well, maybe, but what then transpired could only have happened in Alberta (or Sakatchewan, or some of the more redneck states south the border). Some parents of the Grade 4 class started to complain about the project on a Facebook group, alleging that the project is biased against the oilsands. Protests were mounted, culminating in some veiled, and not so veiled, threats of physical violence against the teacher, and more specific threats that resulted in the cancellation of the school's upcoming Christmas dance event.
To its credit, the local school district has come out strongly in support of the teacher, and the parent who made the strongest threats has received an RCMP ticket for "disturbing or interrupting the proceedings of a school". But the damage is done: the kids are traumatized, the dance has been postponed, and Alberta has cemented its reputation as a head-in-the-sand, backward-looking dinasaur with anger management issues. Way to go, Alberta.

Why most of those Christmas songs were written by Jews

A new movie/dramatization/documentary celebrates the little-known factoid - which I did actually know, but had forgotten - that most of those schmaltzy, ultra-American, inescapable Christmas songs that take over stores, shopping centres, even whole radio networks for two months every year, were actually written by Jewish songwriters. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas investigates how Christmas became a staple of Jewish songwriters who didn't even celebrate Christmas.
And we are not talking here about a few Chritmas songs: most of the famous ones that you'll know, and either love or hate, were penned by Jews. I failed to find a definitive list, but songs wholly or partially written by Jews include (Jewish writers in bold):
  • White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells)
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks)
  • Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith)
  • The Christmas Waltz (Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne)
  • Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish)
  • It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (George Wyle and Edward Pola)
  • Silver Bells (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
  • Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (Johnny Marks)
  • I'll Be Home for Christmas (Walter Kent and Buck Ram)
  • A Holly Jolly Christmas (Johnny Marks)
  • There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays (Robert Allen and Al Stillman)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie)
  • Let it Snow (Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne)
  • Santa Baby (Joan Javits and Philip Springer)
  • You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch (Albert Hague)
  • Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector)
  • Silver and Gold (Johnny Marks)
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? (Noël Regny and Gloria Shanyne Baker)
And why, you ask? Well, no particular reason. It's just one of those odd cultural phenomena that seems like it should have a good, satisfying explanation but it really doesn't. It's not like a bunch of Jews set out to co-opt a popular Christian institution. It just so happens that many popular American songwriters in the post-War years happened to be Jewish, and songwriters would write whatever was popular, or whatever they were commissioned to write.
And it's not like these are deeply spiritual Christian songs. With the possible exception of Do You Hear What I Hear (which was actually written during the Cuban missile crisis as a peace song)they do not deal with "the Christmas story". They are not Christmas carols, which is a whole other genre of songs. They are generic songs about the Christmas time of year, as it is lived in America - winter, presents, parties, food, etc.
Which is why they have been taken up with such aplomb by schools in our politically correct, secular, inclusive times. Which I, as a secularist, should welcome. I just wish they were not so schmalzy and schlocky (good Jewish words both). And I wish they were not so ubiquitous and so pervasive.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Canadian LNG exports are no solution to climate change

New Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has injected an element of realism into the Liberal climate change plan when he plays down the prospect of Canada's being able to use exports of liquified natural gas (LNG) to produce carbon credits for Canada, despite what the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers may think.
Canada and some other countries have been feverishly  working on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which holds out the possibility of one country earning emissions credits when it exports a lower emissions fuel to another country. If that sounds to you a bit like smoke and mirrors and creative accounting, you may be right. Ex-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna seemed very keen on the idea, but new recruit Wilkinson is furiously back-pedalling and reducing expectations.  He has been quite clear that, in his view, Article 6 offers Canada no immediate promise for LNG.
And quite rightly too. There is little to no evidence that Canadian LNG exports will ever be accepted by the UN framework as a source of carbon credits. When British Columbia (which is where most of our LNG comes from) produces LNG, it substantially increases Canada's carbon emissions. LNG may create less greenhouse gases than coal per unit of energy - although even that is debatable, given that LNG produces much more methane than coal, in addition to carbon dioxide, and methane is a much more potent, if less long-lived, greenhouse gas than CO2 - but it is far from a zero-emission solution.
As the Globe's editorial today points out, if Canada exports LNG to say China, can we argue that we should get credit for reducing China's (and the world's) greenhouse gas production? Can it not be just as easily argued that it has increased the world's greenhouse gases by discouraging Chinese investment in zero-emission renewables? And why anyway should Canada and not China get that credit? And good luck negotiating such an issue with China in particular.
Anyway, I have always found BC's narrative on LNG - that it is environmentally-friendly, and the best option as we wean ourselves off coal - as disingenuous. Kudos to Mr. Wilkinson and the new Liberal administration for at least starting coming to terms with this, and for moving away from some of the more fanciful solutions to the climate crisis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Yes, Trump is still being impeached, it's just taking a while

The Trump impeachment process grinds on its weary way. Yes, it's a major and disruptive undertaking, and there needs to be checks and balances. I get it. But how many times now have we seen headlines like today's: "House Democrats expected to unveil formal charges in Trump impeachment".
Didn't they already do that? At least once before? The process seems interminable, composed of a near-infinite number of all-but-indistinguishable steps, apparently designed to string the process out as long as possible, maximising the chargeable time of lawyers, and tying up elected law-makers for the maximum possible time.
Just do it already, and let's move on. Throughout all this legalistic navel-gazing, the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and all of the needy domestic issues that have been on hold for months now remain on hold.

Russian athletes banned - again

Well, Russia has been banned from international athletics competitions due to its egregious doping habits. Again. If it feels like we've been here before, you're not wrong.
So, there will be no Russian flags at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But, just as in the last Olympics, there will be Russian athletes, competing under a "neutral" banner. The same will probably apply for the FIFA World Cup, if Russia were to qualify. And, just like all the previous times that Russia has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), there will be appeals, so don't even assume that this ban will stick.
Even some WADA personnel (including outgoing vice -president Linda Helleland) admit that the current ban is just not enough to deal with "the biggest sports scandal the works has ever seen".

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Who's two-faced now, Donald?

If Donald Trump calls Justin Trudeau "two-faced" and then adds innthe same breath that he is "a very nice guy"' doesn't that make him even more two-faced?