Friday, February 28, 2020

"Dord" really should be a word

But it's not.
"Dord" did, however, find its way into the 1934 edition of Merriam's New International Dictionary, where it stayed until the next edition was published in 1947. Apparently, rge error arose due to a note card by a Merriam's chemistry consultant indicating that density has two possible abbreviations, D or d. And, lo, "dord" was born.
It's a lovely story, and places "dord in the rarefied company of other dictionary errors and ghost words like like "hink", "kime", "adventine", "dentize", "foupe" and "morse".
But they really should be words.

Discharged gay art teacher wins $100,000 settlement

Stacy Bailey, a Texas art teacher, twice voted teacher of the year, was put on "administrative leave" (i.e. temporarily laid off, but with pay and benefits intact) by Mansfield Independent School District, near Fort Worth, Texas. The reason? Complaints from a single homophobic parent, who was incensed that Ms. Bailey had the temerity to share a humorous picture of herself and her then fiancée, Julie Vasquez.
But Ms. Bailey stood up for herself, and has just won a court case and received a $100,000 settlement. The eight-month leave has been expunged from her record, and Mansfield ISB is to receive mandatory training on LGBTQ issues. Ms. Bailey still teaches at Lake Ridge High School, and she and Ms. Vasquez are now happily married. She donated part of her settlement to a local non-profit organization that deals with LGBTQ issues, as did her lawyer out of his reduced fees. The school board is left with egg on its face, and the disgruntled parent is ... probably just as disgruntled and intolerant as ever.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Scotland first to provide free sanitary products for women

Today, Scotland became the first country to make feminine menstrual products like tampons and sanitary pads absolutely free.
In a move that even the progressive countries of Scandinavia have not got around to, Scotland's parliament voted 112-0 (with one abstention) to make sanitary products freely available at pharmacies, community centres and youth clubs, at an annual cost of over $30 million. The bill still has to pass the second stage, where amendments can be made, but it is expected to pass unopposed.
It follows a bill in 2018 that provided free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities.

Props to Bernie Sanders for his stand on Israel

Well, I know I have just posted an entry arguing that Bernie Sanders is perhaps not the right guy to take on Donald Trump in the US elections later this year, but I have to give the guy props for his recent stand on Israel.
Sanders, who was born of Jewish emigrés and who claims to be "very proud of being Jewish", used a Democratic debate to make his position on Israel very clear. He called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "reactionary racist"; blasted the influential US pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC as a "platform for bigotry"; called for cutting back American foreign aid to Israel and redirecting it to Palestine; and said that he would seriously consider reversing Donald Trump's contentious decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Israeli government responded to Sanders' comments in their usual heavy-handed and outraged manner.
How refreshing to hear an American Jew calling out the state of Israel, and publicly pointing out that there is a difference between Israel and Jewishness. (I know that there are many such progressive American Jews - it's just nice to hear such a high profile one state these things for the public record.)
Say what you like about Mr. Sanders, he is certainly a man of principle.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Hippos run wild in Colombia

In a bizarro twist, hippopotamuses are running rampant in Colombia of all places.
There are now up to 80 hippos living wild in the area around the Rio Magdalena, south of the city of Medellin, which is messing with the local ecosystem and posing a security risk for tourists and locals alike. Tourists in particular love to photograph and  feed the animals, little realizing just how dangerous they can be (hippos actually kill more people in Africa than crocodiles, lions, leopards, or any other animal species).
These Latino hippos are all descended from 4 animals brought the country by drug lord Pablo Escobar to populate his own personal menagerie. After Escobar's arrest, the menagerie fell into disrepair and, although most of the big cats were taken into other zoos, the hippos were just too big and heavy to move. They were allowed to roam wild and have clearly flourished.
Their numbers are expected to quadruple over the next ten years, and could eventually reach thousands. Surgical and chemical sterilization programs are being considered, but this is a big and ineffectual job with hippos, and it is not expected to be sufficient to reduce their numbers significantly. Hippos seem to be there to stay.

Teck's pull-out from Frontier oil sands project nothing to do with government policies

Canadian mining giant Teck Resources Ltd has pulled out of its proposed $20 billion Frontier oil sands project in Alberta, publicly citing Canada's uncertain climate change policies as the main reason.
This seems disingenuous to me, and a convenient way of laying the "blame" elsewhere. The government was due to make a final decision on the mega-project tomorrow, Tuesday. The fact that Teck announced their pull-out on Sunday evening, before even hearing the government's decision, suggests to me that they are actually abandoning the mine because they are just not confident that they can make any money out of it in the current climate of low oil prices. They have never been able to show that the project would be commercially viable, and the uncertainty around the price of oil is not going away any time soon. Had the government given the go-ahead on Tuesday, Teck would feel obliged to follow through with a project about which they clearly have cold feet.
Interestingly, Teck Resources has previously expressed its support for carbon reduction plans, calling themselves "strong supporters of Canada's action on carbon pricing and other climate policies such as legislated caps for oil sands emissions". They even aim to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
Blaming the death of the Frontier project on the Canadian government is therefore just a face-saving ploy for Teck, and perhaps a way of giving more long-term ammunition to the Conservative opposition and pro-oil provincial governments like those of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Not cool, Teck.

Sanders looks set to win Democrat leadership race, but he is no Obama

As Bernie Sanders handily wins the Nevada caucus, after finishing neck-and-neck with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is looking more and more like he is probably upstoppable in his push to become the the official Democratic candidate for the 2020 election.
Sure, the other Democratic leadership candidates are still talking themselves up -  after pumping all that money and effort into their campaigns, what else can they do? Joe Biden vowed (again) to bounce back; Elizabeth Warren said that, despite having lost again, she somehow has the momentum; no-show Michael Bloomberg just faded into the background; Pete Buttigieg contented himself with dissing the winner; and poor Amy Klobuchar seemed quite content with her 6th place finish, which seems like a good indication that she should save her money and bow out of the race.
Sanders confounded his opponents by finding support on all sides in Nevada, including among moderates, voters of colour, the middle-aged, and the non-unionized, and not just among his natural support base of the young, radical and white.
So, is this a good thing? However much I might agree with most of Sanders' policies and rhetoric, and however much I might respect his commitment and his energy, I can't help but worry that he is not the right person for the job. The "job", remember, is to beat Donald Trump. Nothing else matters even remotely as much. America needs to be saved from itself, and I could put up with pretty much any of the current Democratic leadership contenders (well, maybe not Bloomberg) if I thought they had a chance in hell of beating Trump.
To do that they need to take back some of the votes that swung to Trump for no good reason last time. But the more ideologically extreme Bernie Sanders is, if anything, more likely to push swing voters right into the hands of Donald Trump. For one thing, he is campaigning on a high spending platform, and is apparently not able to say how much it will cost or how it will be financed - how is that going to play with fiscally conservative America?
As things stand, and however bizarre the idea may be, I don't see any of the Democrat contenders having the strength and the moral authority to overcome the irrational and inexplicable appeal of Donald Trump, even after three or four years of what has undoubtedly been the worst US leadership in living memory. Buttigieg might have served - he is at least young, personable and refreshingly gay - but his policies are weak and his experience still weaker. Sanders, though, is just another old white guy (and, God knows, America has not been well-served by old white guys in recent decades). And his fire-brand policies and demeanour is not likely to endear him to swing voters and fence-sitters.
Oh, for a young, charismatic, moderate Democratic leader to sweep the country off its feet, and instill a measure of pride, ascendency and international respect again. Someone very much like Barack Obama... But alas there is no such candidate today.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ontario's unreadable blue license plate imbroglio goes to new heights

An indication of just how ridiculous Ontario's new unreadable white-on-blue car license plate issue is becoming is that some jurisdictions like Toronto are being asked to change and improve their photo radar camera systems, rather than just going back to the perfectly good old license plates that work fine with the photo radar cameras.
If that's not ass-backwards, I don't know what is.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Facial recognition technology: naivety vs paranoia

Here's another minefield of an issue that has civil rights groups across the globe all worked up into a lather: the use of facial recognition software like Clearview AI, which uses huge amounts of legally-obtained data "scraped" from the Internet and some clever coding to identify individuals
The Toronto police force is the latest to call a halt to use of the technology, pending a thorough review. And again, while some people seem to be able to see the issue clearly in black and white, it's by no means obvious to me.
I can't see any reason why individuals or commercial companies should be able to use it in the pursuance of profit or even less worthy goals. Ditto autocratic governments like China in pursuance of dodgy racial policies. But the police and security forces of a civilized democratic country? Is it any different, any worse, thsn using CCTV security cameras or DNA analysis in crime solving and prevention (yes, I know that civil liberties organizations tend to object to those too, but I have always taken the view, perhaps naive, that, if I am not engaged in criminal activity, I have nothing to hide from a camera).
Am I being too naive, or are they being too paranoid?

To break up or not to break up indigenous protests - the impossible question

I always knew that, as we age, most people tend to get a bit more reactionary, a bit more (dare I say it?) conservative. That's not to say that we all turn into died-in-the-wool, blue-rinse, archetypal tories; we just get a little less radical than we were in our youth, a little more resistant to change, a little less patient and forgiving of radical youth. Whatever the reason for it, it does seem to be a fact of life (with some exceptions of course), which, in a world that is gradually ageing, is a scary thought.
So, maybe it shouldn't surprise me that, while I might once have been fully supportive of the disruptive indigenous protests occurring throughout Canada in support of the Wet'suwet'en opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in BC, I do not feel myself able to support such a protest with any enthusiasm. Maybe from an environmental point of view the pipeline is indeed a bad idea. But the idea of a handful of (mainly indigenous, with the usual rent-a-crowd bunch of anarchist types) protesters holding hostage commercial and personal transportation across most of the country sits awkwardly with me, and just seems a bit wrong. It also potentially risks putting Indigenous-Settler relations back decades.
It doesn't help that I am keenly aware that most First Nations, including the Wet'suwet'en themselves and all the First Nations councils along the proposed route, are actually in favour of the pipeline and the money and job opportunities such a development might bring to some poor, struggling indigenous communities. The democratically-elected band councils, are in favour of it; it is only the much more traditional hereditary clan and house chiefs who are opposing it, and even some Wet'suwet'en house leaders were in favour of it until they were unceremonially ousted from their (hereditary) positions by other house leaders. How is that possible, and how is it being condoned?
For their part TC Energy, the company behind the Coastal GasLink pieline, has done everything right: the project has passed the government's stringent environmental assessment, they have consulted and obtained consent from all 20 of the indigenous communities along its route, and they have had the project officially designated as in the public interest.
We should not lose sight of the fact that it is in support of these non-elected Wet'suwet'en hereditary leaders that the current protests across the country are being held. To support the views of an ornery, "traditional" few over the democratic majority? That can't be right, no matter what the environmental considerations might be. The other Indigenous protestors around the country (and their non-Indigenous hangers-on) are guilty, to my mind, of an over-simplistic reflex response, without giving the entire issue, and the wishes of the Wet'suwet'en people as a whole, full consideration.
The Wet'suwet'en people themselves are hopelessly split over the issue. It should be said that, to their credit, a couple of brave Wet'suwet'en hereditary sub-chiefs have come out publicly to say that the five hereditary chiefs that instigated the dispute and the protests do not actually speak for the Wet'suwet'en people, and are not following any traditional laws, but are probably only in it for themselves.
If nothing else, Indigenous people in general need to sort out who actually represents them. Some Indigenous groups have made some attempts to synthesize and rationalize their traditional and elected leaderships, but it has proven a messy and fraught process. As we see in the current Wet'suwet'en case, the two different branches are often leagues apart in their views and policies. Believers in the inherent wisdom of traditional elders (who I would guess are mainly the traditional elders themselves!), say that elected band councils are part of a "white" system imposed by the Indian Act. But I just bet that most Indigenous people, given a choice, would prefer a representative who is democratically responsible and accountable to the regular folk, and who can be judged on their merits and their policies. Otherwise, it is like Canada agreeing to be led by the unelected Governor-General and Lieutenant-Generals rather than by the elected government. Traditional does not always mean better, and Indigenous people deserve the opportunity to emerge from the dark ages of would-be kings and family dynasties.
The powers that be - from the police to the provincial and federal governments - are being very cagey and pussyfooting around the issue, despite the issue of a court order which would legally justify their wading in and turfing out the protesters. This is partly in order to avoid any chance of another Ipperwash or Oka or Caledonia, but partly also due to a new unwillingness to be seen to be crossing the will of the original inhabitants of this country, with whom we settlers are supposed to be pursuing a reconciliation. It is fraught with sensitive and delicate repercussions with which no-one wants to be seen to be ignoring.
So, how do we square that with ignoring the wishes of the majority of the country's indigenous people? It's an insoluble no-win situation, which Tories in non-governing positions like Andrew Scheer make light of when they complain that the government is doing nothing and letting the country go to rack and ruin out of weakness and ineptitude. That is just a reminder that Scheer is not able to understand the subtleties surrounding high-level political negotiations, and should make us very glad that he lost the last election.

Why do some conifers lose their leaves in winter?

Walking through the park today, we noticed a conifer tree that had either shed its leaves or was just plain dead. We then remembered that tamarack and larch trees are some of the very few coniferous trees that are not also evergreens. So, of course, the obvious questions occur, lIke "how?" and "why?", requiring recourse to the interwebs (yes, that old thing is still around!)
So, first things first. Wide-leafed deciduous trees lose their lives in winter to save energy and conserve water. Their large leaves can soak up so much sunshine and produce so much carbon dioxide during the summer growing season that they can survive the winter without producing more, so they jettison their energy-hungry leaves and live off their fat, so to speak. They basically go dormant for a while, similar to a state of hibernation.
Needle-bearing conifers, on the other hand, don't produce as much CO2 during the summer, but their requirements are much lower, and a waxy coating on the needles reduces water loss and snow accumulation in winter.
So, it's a case of horses for courses - two very different strategies achieving the same ultimate end: survival. The broad leaves of decidious trees live fast and die young; the needles of conifers are more energy-efficient and stay the course. (Incidentally, it is a fallacy that conifers lose all their needles over the period of a year - in fact, individual needles may live as long as 20 years before turning colour and falling off).
What then of tamaracks and their cousins, the larches? Why do they buck the trend and lose their needles each winter?
I've still not found a very satisfying answer but, from what I can gather, tamarack needles are sparser than most conifer needles and so can receive more sunlight, as they shade each other less than either other conifers or broad-leaf trees, and thereby accumulate more CO2 during the summer. Also, they have chosen not to produce such waxy needles, which requires less energy. And finally, they use nitrogen more efficiently than other trees, and are able to recycle and reabsorb more nitrogen than any other tree before they lose their leaves in the fall.
So, there you have it: not totally satisfactory perhaps, but at least an explanation of sorts.