Thursday, July 30, 2020

So, why does Trump think that mail-in ballots lead to massive voter fraud?

Donald Trump has been banging on about how mail-in voting automatically leads to fraud for some time now. It's no surprise, then, that he's now suggesting that the November 3rd election should be delayed because of the possibility -nay, probability, nay, absolute certainty - of massive voter fraud from absentee or mail-in ballots. Many states are looking at mail-in voting as a way to reduce risks during the ongoing pandemic.
This, of course, is in spite of the fact that Trump himself, as well as several other Republicans who are speaking out against mail-in voting, has availed himself of mail-in voting several times in the past (for example, this March in the Florida primaries, and in New York in the 2018 election). Trump's response to this, when asked about it, was that, "I'm allowed to". Duh...
And bear in mind that absentee voting and mail-in voting are essentially the same thing, and subject to the same protections, despite Trump's attempts attempt to separate the two. His claim that, "With Universal Mail-in Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history" is therefore total bunk.
Trump seems to be obsessed with the "tremendous potential for voter fraud", which, he says, "for whatever reason, doesn't work out well for Republicans". It's not quite clear why he believes that any fraud from absentee ballots or mail-in voting should benefit the Democrats; the last time voting irregularities were blamed on mail-in votes, it was a consultant working for the Republican party that was charged (this was in North Carolina in July 2019).
That said, study after study has shown there is no significant evidence of intentional voter fraud. One study covering 14 years found 31 instances of voter fraud out of about one billion votes. There were precisely 4 cases of fraud out of the 135 million votes cast at the 2016 federal election. So, not exactly "widespread", then.
So, why is this such a big deal for Trump? He says it is because he doesn't want to wait "three months" for mailed votes to be counted, he wants instant gratification. But that doesn't ring very true. He says mailed ballots tend to favour Democrat candidates at the expense of Republicans, although no-one is very sure why he thinks that.
I can only speculate that he is trying to get out ahead and either use it as an excuse not to have an election, or if an election cannot be avoided and he loses badly (as the polls suggest he might), a reason not to accept the result. What would be the point in delaying the vote? Unclear, except that Trump gets to sit in the Oval Office a bit longer, and maybe wreak a bit more of his havoc in the country. Who knows what the man thinks?
What's ironic is that some Republicans are worried that, when mandatory mailed ballots become necessary, as they probably will given the way the pandemic is going in America, Trump's rhetoric on the subject could actually result in Republicans losing out. Sensible Democrats will probably gratefully avail themselves of the socially-distanced option (and polls confirm that), while many Republicans will probably not vote at all because they have been persuaded by Trump not to trust the system. Ah, well, you reap what you sow...
There again, there is also evidence that Black voters, who tend to vote predominantly Democrat, are even more wary of voting by mail, because they do not trust the administration to count their votes. Several studies have shown that mail-in votes from Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be rejected than those of white voters, whether due to signatures not matching or ballots being received after the deadline. So, it's a bit of a conundrum.

Who is this strange "doctor" Trump has latched onto?

So, who is this wacko doctor that Donald Trump has latched onto? Essentially, she is a nobody, medically speaking, but Trump finds her "very impressive" and an "important voice" (which should in itself be enough to warn most sensible people away).
Dr. Stella Immanuel is originally from Cameroon, and obtained her medical degree at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. She is licensed to practice medicine in Texas, and is currently based in Houston. She also has a double life as a practising pastor in Texas, and founded her own church called the Fire Power Ministries, which she uses as a platform to promote conspiracy theories about the medical profession and her own non-scientific theories. These include that alien DNA is being used in medical experiments, that scientists are working on a vaccine to make people irreligious, that prayer can be used to remove a generational curse transmitted through the placenta at birth, that gay marriage can somehow result in people marrying children, and that some medical conditions can be blamed on witches and demons which have sex with people in their dreams.
Hoo boy. "Important voice"? You bet.
She only came to Trump's attention because she has been touting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment and cure for COVID-19 (sound familiar?) Facebook and Twitter have both taken down Dr. Immanuel's video as contravening their policies on misinformation, but not before Trump retweeted it. Her response was, reasonably enough, that Jesus Christ will personally destroy the social media platforms if her video is not reinstated.
Hydroxychloroquine, as you might remember, has been shown by numerous studies to be ineffective agaist the virus and potentially dangerous for many people, and the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration, and top American doctor Anthony Fauci have all warned strongly against it. Trump, though, seems to think it is a good idea, and he doesn't like to be proved wrong.
Dr. Immanuel's rise to fame has also highlighted a shady organization called America's Frontline Doctors (AFD), a name that must really rankle with America's actual frontline doctors. AFD is a collection of doctors critical of the scientific consensus around how to deal with COVID-19. It is backed, by among other equally shady organizations, the pro-Trump Tea Party Patriots, Breitbart News, and at least one Republican House Representative, Ralph Norman.
The group believes that masks and shut-downs are not necessary to deal with the pandemic, and have been calling for an end to the lockdown since May. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has also tried to close down their accounts for spreading false information after they broadcast a video press conference this Monday.
And these are doctors? What a place this America is?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

More strange beasts from the ocean depths that you might not have seen

You have probably, like me, seen a whole load of David Attenborough documentaries about weird and wonderful sea creatures from the depths of the ocean. But here are a few that are new to me, mainly courtesy of

  • Gulper Eel: one moment, it's a regular looking skinny black eel thing, the next it has balloned up into something from your worst nightmare (or possibly a muppet, depending on how your mind works), thanks to an expandable jaw. It is also known as a pelican gulper or umbrella-mouth gulper.
  • Whale sharks: reasonably well-known as the largest shark in the sea (indeed, the biggest fish of any kind), but did you know that whale sharks' eyes are covered in teeth. Actually called "dermal denticles", these tiny proto-teeth are part of the whale shark's impressive battery of protective adaptations. They can also retract their eyeballs back into their sockets if need be.
  • Ravioli starfish: this strange beast looks for all the world like, well, ravioli. Pillowy and pentagonal, this starfish has been know of for many years (actually, since 1884), but still very little is known about it and its behaviours.
  • Bloody-belly comb jelly: this intriguingly-named jellyfish is lit up with moving cilia like flashing Christmas lights. It can change its colour from almost transparent to amber to deep red making it all but invisible in the gloomy depths where it lives, but its stomach remains a dark blood-red colour to mask the light from any bioluminescent prey it may have eaten. Confusingly, these voracious predators are also known as sea gooseberries, sea walnuts or Venus' girdles.
  • Vampire squid: a cross between a squid and an octopus, the vampire squid can turn itself inside out. Despite its name, it does not drink blood (the name comes from its dark coloration and the skin connecting its arns which looks - a bit! - like a cape). In fact, it is the only known cephalopod to eat non-living foods, including "marine snow", which it collects with a long sticky filament set out in the dark like a fishing rod.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

If you are female, question your medical results

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I thought it  worth mentioning that our daughter just got a blood test done at the popular and well-known Dyna-Care blood labs and, because in this day and age the results are available online, she was able to see her results, and the Dyna-Care analysis and recommendation.
Now, it doesn't really matter what the test was for these purposes, or what the recommended range actually means in practical terms, but Dyna-Care concluded that her levels of whatever were a little high but still well within the acceptable range (her reading was 18 something-or-others, and the "normal" range is up to 35, according to Dyna-Care).
She still has to have an appointment with her family doctor to discuss these results, of course, but I imagine, in most cases, that would probably be the end of the process: the doctor would just say, "Oh, your test came back normal, nothing to worry about". But being a proactive sort of a person, and a biology PhD student (although not in the medical field), our daughter did a bit of digging, and what she found was, well, disturbing.
From what she found online, the most commonly used normal range for that particular test is up to 18 whatever-they-ares, which puts her right at the very top end of normal or, arguably, the bottom end of abnormal. Even more digging yielded the fact that the 18 limit is actually for men; a more suitable limit for women would be 9, putting her result at twice the recommended maximum! Nowhere could she find any mention of the 35 limit that Dyna-Care seems to be using.
So, it does throw into question to what extent we should rely on these kinds of lab tests. This particular one may have been an anomaly, or it may not - how would we ever know? The other thing it highlights is the well known, but still unaddressed, problem that studies and tests in the medical field are almost all geared towards men and not women, and, in many areas of medicine, women - who make up over half of the population, after all, and certainly more than half of the population with medical problems - are physiologically very different from men. Their readings are different, their "normal" is different, they react differently to medicines and treatments, etc, etc. This is known.
So, I guess the moral of the story is: Ask. Question. Do not take things for granted. Especially if you are female.

Thin Blue Line flag in Barrie courts controversy

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) union building in Barrie, Ontario, is sporting a non-standard version of the Canadian flag, and appears surprised that it is creating controversy.
The flag is a black-and-white version of the regular red-and-white maple leaf flag, with a horizontal blue line through it. No, it's not a Black Lives Matter variant. Apparently, the black-and-white colouration is "purposely subdued to show respect" to police officers fallen in the line of duty (and more specifically, as a tribute to Heidi Stevenson, the police officer who lost her life in the mass killing in Nova Scotia this April), and the blue line is to represent the "thin blue line" of police between the general public and the forces of evil.
For some reason, the Barrie OPP Association thought that messing with the national flag was a good idea, and a union spokesperson claims that it was not intended to be a political statement. Perhaps predictably, the Blue Lives Matter movement against Black Lives Matter has claimed it as their own. Nevertheless, Barrie OPP seems intent on keeping the flag, flying regardless of conplaints, and regardless of the fact that it is no longer politically correct to claim to be colour blind.

Toronto student graduates with 100% average

A Toronto District School Board student graduated from Bloor Collegiate Institute with that rarest of achievements, a 100% average in her top 6 subjects.
Not content with just making the Honours List (80% plus), unassuming student Nomi Danzig averaged 100% in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Calculus, and two other subjects, while holding down a part-time job and a place on the school volleyball team. She only scored 98% in English, but that wasn't one of her top subjects. "Learning is interesting", she says.
She's off to study Engineering at the University of British Columbia this fall. Watch out for her in a few years' time.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Who owns the North Pole?

It has long been predicted that the Arctic is going to be the nexus of an international geophysical battle between the Arctic powers (Canada, Russia, Greenland/Denmark, Norway and USA). 

In fact, one has been simmering at a low level for decades now, and the main point of contention is the ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge, a huge submarine mountain range that runs from Siberia towards Greenland and Ellesmere Islands in northern Canada, pretty much incorporating the geographical north pole itself (albeit a long way under water/ice). Its Russian-sounding name is only a result of the original discovery of the ridge back in 1948 by a Russian research team; it does not mean that it is a Russian possession.
You might ask why it is even an issue, given that it is under water and not even land as we know it. Don't the sovereign rights of countries end with the Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 nautical miles (370km) from their land coast? Well, yes, but... The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf specifies that a country's territory can be deemed to extend underwater as long as there is land at a depth of no more than 2,500m which extends as a continental feature from a country's established shelf.
This might sound very specific, but official (and very expensive) studies by Russia, Greenland and Canada have all scientifically established such a link, so all three countries have a valid claim to the region (Norway and the USA make no claim on it). The UN Commission specifically declares that it will NOT involve itself in political disputes, and all three countries have signed another UN declaration that they are committed to an "orderly settlement" of Arctic border disputes (a declaration enacted after Russia unilaterally planted a flag on the seabed, claiming the North Pole for Russia, in 2007). 
So, the region remains in dispute. Russia was the first of the three countries to file its claim, which arguably puts it in a strong negotiating position, but the matter is by no means settled. Interestingly, all three countries publicly talk up the economic potential of the region although, in reality, oil and other natural resources are unlikely to be economically viable (or even technically possible) in such a remote area. And, even in a warmer ice-feee world, shipping lanes are not affected by underwater possessions. Canada and Denmark - notably, not Russia - also stress its ecological and environmental value. 
But really, its value is much more in the nebulous area of national pride (bragging rights, if you will). Canadians are used to thinking about the North Pole as being part of Canada (we learn from kindergarten that Santa lives there and has a Canadian postal code). Vladimir Putin, of course, will do anything that will aggrandize glorious Russia and his own personal brand.
All things considered, it is probably surprising that the rhetoric has been as mild as it has thus far. But maybe it's a good thing that profits are not such a major factor. Maybe the dispute will never be resolved, and that might actually be a good thing.

Anti-mask Arkansas Senator in hospital with ... COVID-19

Jason Rapert, the outspoken anti-gay Republican Senator for Arkansas, is a nasty piece of work. He has also been at the forefront of the anti-mask "movement" in Republican circles of the USA, calling Arkansas' recent mask mandate "draconian" and an "overreach of executive power", and has made many comments on social media about "liberal quacks" who are "spreading fear" about COVID-19, which he calls "the biggest political hoax in history".
Well, Senator Rapert has now tested positive for the coronavirus, and is in hospital being treated for COVID-19 and preumonia. I know it's not nice to crow, but can you spell schadenfreude?

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Why libraries may not be an unalloyed good

I was brought up in a small town in northern England, in a poor working-class family surrounded by other poor working-class families. Ours was not a literary household - indeed, it was barely literate - there were no books lying around to be idly picked up and consumed. There was no bookshop in the town, but there was a library, and this library gave my young curious self access to the accumulated knowledge and literature of the entire world, and I made full use of it.
So, I have always been grateful for, and supportive of, libraries. I still use them now, occasionally, in my comfortable 60s (Toronto Public Library, of which I am a member, is the largest neighbourhood-based library system in the world, with a higher circulation per capita and more visitors than any other library system in North America). I have therefore never questioned whether libraries might be anything other than an unalloyed public good. But there is another viewpoint to consider, that of book publishers and authors, and, from that viewpoint, libraries do not look quite so munificent.
Libraries provide a sorts of services nowadays, from free internet access to public education courses to help for immigrants to research facilities and databases to providing oases of comfort during heat waves and cold spells. But the main thing they still do is lend out books, in various formats, for free, which is a great boon for those who can not otherwise afford them. But many, if not most, of library users are actually middle-class and well-educated, people who probably can afford to buy books, which puts libraries in direct competition with book stores, both the large online facilities like Amazon and the (rapidly disappearing) small independent bookstores.
Libraries too have to buy the books they lend from publishers and authors. But each library book is lent out about eight times a year on average (and usually over multiple years) which, from one point of view is at least seven lost potential book sales. In practice, it is less than that, because some library borrows are not necessarily replacing book sales, but either way, the existence of libraries results in fewer book sales than might otherwise have been the case.
If you were in any doubt that libraries are in direct competition with bookstores, think about Toronto Public Library's clever but poignant advertising campaign for last year's Black Friday: "Black Friday Special: 100% off all books! Print! Digital! Audio! Don't miss the deals every day at the TPL!" Or think of the Wichita, Kansas libraries' checkout receipts that boldly state, "You just saved $164.80 by using your library", or the Massachussetts Library Association's "Library Value Calculator" that lets you calculate how much you have saved by not having to buy the books you borrow. In fact, a rough calculation suggests that Americans and Canadians "save" more by using libraries than all book publishers combined make in a year.
All told, roughly four books are borrowed from North American libraries for every book sold through a book store. Clearly, if bookstores are not selling books, authors are not making any money either: the US Authors' Guild estimates that American authors make on average (median) about US$6,080 a year, down from US$10,500 in 2009, and only about half of that comes from actual book sales as opposed to appearance money, sponsorship, etc. In Canada, the avarage author makes about C$9,380, down 78% since 1998. The average librarian makes five to eight times what an author makes.
So, yes, libraries are wonderful places, but in an age where K-12 educstion is compulsory, where schools have their own libraries, and where the classics are available online for free anyway, libraries are no longer what early public library funder Andrew Carnegie called "palaces for the people", a bulwark against illiteracy. And make no mistake, the vast majority of library lendings are not for education ir edification, but for relaxation, entertainment and enjoyment (that why libraries stock many more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than of Plato's Republic).
So, there you go. As this article (on which most of this blog entry is based) concludes, "For their funding, libraries rely on traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it. All the genuine good they do is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature". Food for thought.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

How do we decide which statues should be taken down?

As I have noted before, we are going through a bit of a reflex moment in which statues and monuments are being torn down wholesale, and buildings, roads and whole organizations renamed, largely in response to the demands of Black Lives Matter and similar anti-racist organizations. And, as I have also noted, not everyone is happy (is everyone EVER happy?), not even all black people.
Some statues are being taken down, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Take, for example the "temporary" removal of the statue of Christopher Coumbus in Chicago, which was ordered removed because of violent protests (the violence came from both protesters and police), and not for any high-flown ideas about educating the public or furthering the cause of anti-racism. Protesters are claiming it as a victory, gushing that they are "proud to see the removal of a statue that represents white supremacy, as a win towards the goal of decolonization". But, whatever you think about their conclusions, is the threat of violence really a good justification for anything?
I understand the theory behind it all - at its simplest, that we should not be celebrating individuals from history that may have had racist views or even participated in the slave trade back in the day. Set against that are people who argue that the past was a different country with different attitudes and norms, and people who had otherwise laudable achievements should not be judged according to modern standards that were not applicable then.
Well, make of that what you will; another consideration, though, is just how practical an action it is, not to mention who should make the decisions, and how far it should go. I have already discussed elsewhere the case for removing a statue of Gandhi, but as John Ibbitson describes in an article in today's Globe, almost no historical figure is wholly exempt from critisism of some sort, however much good they may have done in other respects: Margaret Sanger was a champion for women's reproductive rights, but she also embraced eugenics; ditto women's rights pioneer Nellie McClung; Egerton Ryerson, pioneer of public education in Canada, was complicit in the residential school system; influential prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King chose to lock up Japanese Canadians during the Second World War; even revered NDP leader and father of Canadian medicare Tommy Douglas spoke out about gay people being mentally ill; etc, etc.
Do we rip down ALL of their statues, rename all of their roads, buildings and community centres? If not all, then which? Who actually passes the test of sainthood (hell, even Mother Teresa has been accused of forced conversions and links to colonialism and racism)? And who gets to decide? And will it actually do any good anyway?

Elon Musk's satellite push is creating havoc with astronomy (and possibly wildlife)

A nice photo of the NEOWISE comet has been marred by a huge network of streaks of light caused by Elon Musk's broadband satellites in near earth orbit. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Musk already has permission from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for 12,000 such satellites, and has plans to launch 30,000 more Starlink internet satellites through his SpaceX company, at an estimated total cost of over $60 billion. It is all part of Musk's apparently laudable plan to make broadband internet available worldwide (oh, and enrich himself immensely in the process). However, it would represent about 20 times the number of operational satellites in orbit today, and five times the number of all the spacecraft launched since space travel began in 1957. Somehow, he seems to be getting permission from the FCC and the International Telecommunication Union to launch the satellites, but probably no-one asked the International Astronomical Union, which has already complained that so many bright objects are interfering with important scientific readings as well as the enjoyment of the night sky by amateur astronomers.
The night sky has been getting busier and busier for years now, but Musk's push is taking it to a whole new level (currently only about 540 of the planned 42,000 Starlink satellites have been launched, and it is already having a negative impact). And it's not just astrophotography (and astronomy in general) that is affected. Notwithstanding the opportunities satellites offer to human trackers of wildlife migrations, many animals, birds and insects use the night sky to navigate by, and no-one knows the effects of all these "new stars" on animal migration, etc (although I was susprised at how little information -or concern - I was able to find on this). And, of course, the sheer amount of space junk up there increases the possibility of collisions, and even makes the safe launch of rockets (including manned missions) increasingly problematic.
Musk has promised to put masking shades on the satellites, or perhaps to paint them matt black, in order to reduce the unexpectedly bright glare of the satellites. But is no-one thinking about this stuff before they go giving permission? There appears to be very little regulation on private companies sending more and more large shiny objects up into space.
And bear in mind that SpaceX is not the only company putting internet satellites into the night sky: others include Iridium, Oneweb and GlobalStar, and Amazon and Facebook are also talking about getting in on the act. Do we really need all these competing systems littering the upper atmosphere with their proprietary equipment? Is this the competitive edge that capitalism boasts of?

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Sleeping Giants of Montreal

High on the rooftops of Montreal are several huge hidden graffiti works, the Sleeping Giants.
Created by mysterious artists ELLA & PITR, most people never get to see them except on the artists' own Instagram page, and it's not even clear where some of them are. This video, however, has managed to track down a few of them and allow us a God's eye (drone's eye) view. They located high on the tops of high rise buildings, and may be as large as a city block. Often the giants seem to be crammed in to the available rectangular space or squeezed in to awkward angles. They may be snoring, with arms akimbo, or tangled up with a partner.
There's lots of interesting grafitti and mural art in Montreal, but these are definitely special.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Sorry Forbes, national prosperity DOES depend on the government

I've touched on this issue before, but a new analysis by Forbes shows with great clarity that the stock markets do much better under Democratic presidents than under Republicans.
The difference is stark: an average increase of 10.6% under Democrats compared to 4.8% under Republicans since the Second World War. The big winners were Bill Clinton (210%) and Barack Obama (182%) while the big losers were George W. Bush (-40%) and Richard Nixon (-20%). Donald Trump is a middle-of-the-pack also-ran, with 43% to date.
Forbes concludes, though, that stock exchange performance merely reflects periods of economic expansion and recession, and is unrelated to the colour of the political party in the White House. This seems disingenuous to me: the economic conditions are generated - not wholly, but to a large extent - by the political decisions of the party in power. This is at least the case with the USA, which is in a position to be able to dictate world events (albeit less so since the Trump administration).
For example, Obama inherited a very shaky economy from George W. Bush, but quickly turned things around by smart decision-making. Trump inherited Obama's strong economy, and managed not to fritter it away too badly over the first couple of years despite some very bad decision-making (of course, then the pandemic hit....) To say that it really doesn't matter who is in power seems somewhat cavalier and indefensible to me.

Is the phrase 'Chief Executive Officer' cultural imperialism or a red herring?

In a ridiculously preachy article in the Globe and Mail, Catherine Roome, head of the Vancouver-based company Technical Safety BC, explains how she saw the light and decided to change her title from Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to Lead Executive Officer (LEO) after complaints from a "particularly courageous colleague".
She says that the use of the word"chief" as a title "represents something deeply meaningful to many indigenous peoples", a word that is "honoured and respected in First Nations culture". So, rather than be seen to co-opt a title that she sees as now belonging in some way to First Nations groups, she has chosen to change her own title to Lead Executive Officer.
Well, fine, she's the boss, I guess she can call herself what she likes ("head honcho", derived from Japanese, is presumably also out). But the fact remains that "chief" is a word that has been in the English Language since the 14th century, derived from the French word "chef" and originally the Latin "caput". It means "principal" or "most valuable" or "of greatest importance or influence", and has been used forbcenturies in a variety of contexts. In one of those contexts, it began to be used by European traders and settlers to describe the leaders of Indigenous nations they encountered during the colonization of North America (these groups, of course, already had their own words for their leaders, e.g. sachem, ha'wiih, and many more).
So, as a word imposed by colonizing European settlers, how "honoured and respected" can it possibly be? It is an English word with a specific English meaning entirely appropriate to the person in charge of a company or organization, and in this context it has no Indigenous context at all. The leaders elected to run companies are in no way appropriating Indigenous culture or language. To suggest that they are, as Ms. Roome does, is to twist things in knots, and to entirely miss the point.
I would even suggest that whoever made the original complaint to her, whether that person be Indigenous or otherwise, is also missing the point. You might say that I am not in a position to say that, that I am racist and enabling cultural imperialism. I would say that you are missing the point and, worse, creating an unfortunate distraction from the real issues of racism that DO need addressing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

What do bees do with pollen and nectar anyway?

While watching some bees lately on our pansies, it occurred to me that I don't really understand the whole bee/pollen/honey process. I had some indistinct notion that bees collect both pollen and nectar, but how? why? I realized that I didn't have a clue. A job for Google...
A good, simple explanation of what bees do can be found on the Sciencing website, and The Buzz About Bees is another good source which does not get too detailed, as is the Terminix website.
Essentially, worker bees, whose job it is to collect food for the colony, visit flowers, attracted by the sugar-rich nectar that flowers produce for that very reason and by brightly-coloured petals (including colours into the ultra-violet spectrum that we cannot see). They drink down the sweet, liquid nectar from each flower they visit, using some for their own immediate energy needs, and storing the rest in a pouch-like internal structure in their stomachs called the "crop". When they get back to the hive, they regurgitate the stored nectar, which other house bees mix with enzymes and expose to the air (even fanning it with their wings to help the evaporation process) in order to create honey. This honey, which stores much better and longer than the raw nectar, is stored within the cells of the honeycomb of the hive, and protected with a wax cap. Honey and nectar, then, are the main carbohydrate and energy sources for the bees of the colony.
While collecting the nectar, the bees also collect protein- and fat-rich pollen from the flowers they visit, which sticks to their hairy legs (or some species collect it quite deliberately in special sacks called "pollen baskets"). Pollen is a powdery substance that contains the male genetic material of flowering plants and, as the bees move from one flower to another of the same species, some pollen rubs off and is used to pollinate the plants (i.e. it starts the process of producing fruits and seeds, which allows for the development of new generations of the plants).
However, this is merely an incidental occurrence as far as the bees are concerned, intent as they are on providing food for their colony. The returning worker bees deposit their collected pollen at the hive, where it is mixed with water and nectar to produce a protein-rich substance known as "bee bread", a less perishable and more easily-digestible product which is reserved for the fast-growing young larvae, which require much more protein than the adults. This bee bread is also stored in the honeycombs and allocated to the larvae as needed.
Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. For example, there is "royal jelly", a white secretion produced by young female worker bees, that is fed to young larvae during the first few days of their development, and to a few special larvae that are selected to become future queens thoughout their development, so that they grow extra-quickly and become twice the size of ordinary bees. Also, not all species of bees produce honey, only the social species that live in colonies. Most bee species are actually solitary and, instead of making honey, they just collect pollen and nectar and mix them together to produce a "pollen loaf", which provides all the food needed for one egg.
But, as a quick simplistic summary: bees collect nectar for energy food and to make honey (which is a longer-term stored food for the colony), and they collect pollen for a more protein-rich food source for the young larvae of the colony.

Yet another study details the inevitable demise of the polar bears

It's been a while since we had any dire prognostications about the possible fate of the polar bear, but they are a perennial phenomenon, usually accompanied by less-than-scientific anecdotal refutations along the lines of "well, I saw one just the other day, they must be fine!"
But now we have another such dire prognostication. This one, just published in Nature Climate Change journal, suggests that continuing climate change will result in the elimination of most polar bear populations as early as 2100, with the last remaining populations expected to cling on to the Queen Elizabeth Islands in Canada's far north. Many polar bear populations are expected to start experiencing reproductive failure as early as 2040 under the business-as-usual model, and even if greenhouse gases are mitigated to a moderate extent, most will be feeling the effects by 2080.
Polar bears, now reduced to about 26,000 individuals worldwide, are unable to find enough sustenance for their huge bodies on land, and are forced to venture out onto the sea ice to hunt. As climate change reduces the extent and the stability of sea ice, the bears find it increasingly difficult to catch their prey (mainly seals) from ice floes. If forced to fast for too long, the reproductive capacity of the animals will suffer, and their numbers will start to decline rapidly.
The study is very conservative in its assumptions, assuming energy uses and starting points that are probably unrealistically optimistic, so the actual effects could occur even earlier than the study predicts. We will wait for the inevitable push-back from Inuit hunting guides and tourist operations, but the study's authors suggest that polar bear managers and other stakeholders should be looking into contingency plans. Like, now.

Monday, July 20, 2020

A humdinger of a Trump interview

Hey, it's been a while since I talked about Donald Trump, hasn't it? I wonder what he's been up to? Oh, look, he just made possibly the most embarrassing interview of his entire three-and-a-half years in power. It was with Chris Wallace of Fox News, maybe the only TV channel with any respect for Trump, although Wallace is more critical, and less sycophantic, than most of their journos. I have no intention of fact-checking the whole interview, but it is worth watching if you have a strong enough constitution. CNN has identified the 55 most shocking lines from the interview, but you may choose others. And here's Lincoln Project version of it with a laugh track.
I was particularly struck by the language he used while showing off about "aceing" a cognitive test recently. From the evidence, it was probably the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test, which my wife, who has Parkinson's Disease, has done many times. It includes questions like: draw a clock face and show a time of ten past eleven; identify these animal pictures (camel, lion, elephant); connect the letters and numbers in order (e.g. 1, A, 2, B, 3, C, etc); count backwards from one hundred in sevens; remember and repeat five words (although he seemed not to be able to remember the actual five words during the interview, substituting "person, man, woman, camera, TV", which has generated a whole internet meme of its own); etc. It is designed to monitor cognitive decline over time, not to establish IQ, although Trump seems to see it as an indisputable proof of his "very stable genius".
The way Trump talked about it, though, shows that he really hasn't progressed much past kindergarten attitudes in some respects: "I'll bet you couldn't even answer the last five questions. I'll bet you couldn't. They get very hard, the last five questions. I guarantee you that Joe Biden could not answer those questions." He also challenged Joe Biden to take the same test: "Let's take a test right now. Let's go down, Joe and I will take a test. Let him take the same test that I took". And so it goes on.
This is the so-called Leader of the Free World talking on national television. Can you imagine Barack Obama or Shinzo Abe or Angela Merkel speaking in that kind of schoolyard bully phraseology? It's extraordinary.
But the whole interview is worth watching. Trump categorically denies all the recent polls putting him 8% - 14% behind Joe Biden: "I'm not losing, because those are fake polls" (all of them?) He repeatedly refused to confirm that he would accept the results of the election, even if it went against him, which is a scary prospect indeed. Regarding re-naming military bases: "I don't care what the military says". He repeated his claims that the US has "one of the lowest mortality rates in the world" from COVID-19, waving around a piece of paper to "prove" that all the evidence to the contrary is, you guessed it, "fake news". And of course the usual cases-are-up-only-because-we-are-testing-more fallacy. And his repeated claim that the virus will just disappear: "I'll be right eventually ... it's going to disappear and I'll be right". He does like to be right. "I've been right probably more than anybody else", as he says.
Like I say, it's a humdinger of an interview, on his favourite news channel, even though he says up front, "I'm not a big fan of Fox, I'll be honest with you". The day he is "honest" will be a news day indeed.

Fascinatingly, Trump's response to the interview, and the many incredulous press reports about in, was to say on Twitter, "Thank you for the good reviews and comments on my interview". It's not clear which "good reviews" he managed to find, and the conclusion by most is that this is Trump gaslighting again.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

A Black man critical of Black Lives Matter? Interesting...

Jamil Jivani is an interesting guy. He has one of those back-stories that the media and politicians love to quote: a Black man raised by a Scottish-Irish mother in Brampton after his Kenyan immigrant father disappeared; streamed into applied courses at school and not expected to succeed; pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, attended Humber College, then York University, and then Yale law school; followed this with a coveted internship at Tory's law firm, and a teaching job at Osgoode Hall law school; awarded Young Lawyer of the Year by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers; campaigned to increase voting in the poor black Jane and Finch neighbourhood; etc, etc.
But then, his detractors argue, he sold out and went over to the dark (white?) side, and had the temerity to criticize the Black Live Matter organization, argued that hip hop needs to clean up its act and move away from its gangster image, and even cast skepticism on the concept of "systemic racism" (which I have also dared to discuss), and downplayed the popularity and importance of the movement to defund the police (also discussed). And most recently, he has been acting as a community opportunities advocate with the Ontario government, and an advisor in Conservative Premier Doug Ford's just-announced elimination of Grade 9 school streaming, and changes to the system for suspension of young students in Ontario.
His credentials as a poor-Black-boy-made-good are impeccable but, because he is outspoken and critical of some aspects of radical black thought, he is derided and castigated by many Black activists. But this is just another example of the kind of inflexible thinking so common these days, and highlighted by the recent Letter on Justice and Open Debate, which I have discussed elsewhere.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Toronto Blue Jays need a "national interest" exemption to play at home

Although it hasn't yet been cleared by federal officials, the province of Ontario and the city of Toronto have both given their blessings for the Toronto Blue Jays to play games at home in the shortened 2020 baseball season that is about to begin.
All sorts of onerous protocols have been instituted for the team, basically resticting it to sports fields, hotels and airports, with strict physical distancing and masks in the "clubhouse". But it does mean that the Jays, and the visiting teams from all over disease-ridden America, will be criss-crossing the US-Canadian border many times during the short season, which, given that there won't even be a crowd cheering for the team in the Rogers Centre, seems like an awful lot of work for very little benefit to me. (The NHL's plans for resumption of the 2020 season are slightly different in that all 24 teams will be cloistered in two centres - Toronto and Edmonton, both notably NOT in the USA - to avoid the need for international travel).
Toronto Mayor John Tory said that he didn't want the Blue Jays to be the only MLB team not to be able to play in its home stadium, but surely the main advantage of a home stadium is the crowd, not just the abstract comfort of a known facility.
In order to make this happen, and for the baseball team not to be subject to the usual 14-day quarantine period that would normally apply to anyone crossing the border into Canada, the Immigration Minister needs to issue a "national interest" exemption for the league's players and staff members, as it did for their pre-season training schedule. That exemption is still pending (although if it was issued for spring training, I can't see why it would be withheld for the main season, apart from the fact that the US pandemic outbreak has become a whole lot worse in recent weeks...)
So, baseball games, and more specifically the Toronto Blue Jays, are in the "national interest"? Well, I guess so, but I'm sure that this is not the kind of thing the designation was originally designed for. It seems likely that an exemption will in fact be issued in time for the season opener next week, but, to employ a commonplace baseball metaphor, it's by no means a slam dunk.

Well, credit where credit is due, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Marco Mendocino, ruled against the Toronto Blue Jays playing at home for the 2020 season. He decided that the Blue Jays are neither immigrants, refugees or citizens, and that the circumstances of a full season of baseball play, and the current virus situation in America, are much different from a bit of spring training for a few weeks, and that the possible harm to the health and safety of Canadians does not justify a National Interest Exemption.
The Jays, the lone Canadian team in the MLB, will probably play their games in their training facility in Dunedin, Florida. Yes, THAT Florida, which is currently suffering one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks. The federal government held out the possibility that home games may move back to Toronto if the virus situation improves, but don't hold your breath.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

North Atlantic Right Whales now critically endangered

North Atlantic Right Whales have just been moved from the Endangered List ... to the Critically Endangered List.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which looks after these lists, made the move after the population of these whales has been reduced to just over 400 (409 at the last count). In the whole world. The next list they are headed towards is "Extinct".
Right whales were severely hunted, almost to extinction, in the 19th and 20th centuries, before making a bit of a come-back as a result of hunting bans in the 1970s. But recently their numbers have been dwindling again, critically so.
It is estimated that the current population needs to breed an average of 17 calves a year in order to grow, considered a tall order given their declining birth rates in recent years, and scientists believe they could be "functionally extinct" within 20 years. In the meantime, the animals continue to die - 31 in the last three years - mainly as a result of crashes with shipping and entanglement in fishing lines and nets. It has become worse as climate change pushes them further north into the busy St. Lawrence channel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mysterious structure in Lake Ontario not an alien city after all

If, like me, you have been puzzling for MONTHS over the mysterious structure taking shape on Lake Ontario, off the coast of eastern Toronto (Woodbine Beach and the Leslie Street Spit), prepare to be enlightened. What can it be? Oil platform? Theme park? Border wall? Lost city resurfacing?

We have watched the structure(s) come and go, change shape and position, generate and engender mini-structures, some of which remain and some of which disappear again, over many months now, at least since early spring. Bizarrely, the structures - which seem to consist of cranes, towers, platforms, and various other elements - change and come and go on a DAILY basis, so we're never quite sure what to expect from ome day to the next.
Anyway, it turns out that someone else has already done the legwork, and Ports Toronto has confirmed that the platform is actually a "jack-up barge" for the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant Outfall (ABTPO). That will mean very little to most people, but ABTPO is part of Toronto's wastewater treatment and purification system, and the barge is constructing risers for a 3.5km underwater tunnel or pipeline that will transport (clean, treated and disinfected) wastewater from the Ashbridges Bay plant out into the middle of the lake, where it will be safely discharged.
The project is expected to continue until mid-2023, so we will be seeing its ever-changing profile for some time to come. It's a shame really: I still prefer my own theory of a beneficent alien civilization much better.

If you want to see why Florida is in the situation it currently is...

If you wondered how things got quite so bad in Florida, this short video on the BBC website gives a fascinating insight in the bizarre mindset of the average Floridian.
Actually, I don't know just how prevalent this kind of thinking is in Florida, or in other states for that matter. Maybe these are not average Floridians, and I shouldn't tar the whole state with the same brush. But it is clearly prevalent enough to create the what is probably the worst pandemic situation in the world at the moment.
It seems to be based on a kind of obsession with what the alt-right perceives as "freedom", in a very broad and unstructured sense, i.e. freedom to do what you want with no sense of restraining responsibility to the wider world. I'm not sure this is quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind 200-odd years ago; this is kind of a Frankenstein monster of their vision of a Land of the Free.
But this kind of attitude is not based on any philosophy or political theory - it is just a free-form, knee-jerk response to what they see as oppression and constraint, and what most other people see as commonsense regulation. Rational argument and debate has no effect on this kind of attitude, other than to raise anger and violence levels, and I don't really see any solution to it other than mass arrests or just waiting for it to play itself out - presumably these people will eventually contract the virus, although Fate is not always so logical in its dealings.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Bars are the new centres of disease and contagion

Since countries and regions have been opening up their economies, the new vector for COVID-19 has shifted to bars and house parties.
There have been new surges in cases almost everywhere as countries try to return to some semblance of normality. But these are not yet normal times, and these well-meaning attempts to allow people to return to their old lives (and for businesses to try and make an honest buck) have only resulted in rapid back-pedalling as new cases spike. Some regions have had to return to strict lockdowns reminiscent of the worst days of April or May; others remain staunchly in denial; a few are managing to control the new outbreaks. And remember, this is not the dreaded "second wave" of the virus: this is just a rejuvenation of the first.
In city after city - Montreal, OttawaLondon, Seoul, Tokyo, New Orleans, Sydney, Johannesburg - a pandemic that was starting to look like it was more or less under control has received new life (and the associated deaths) from the loosened restrictions in drinking establishments, possibly the very definition of "non-essential" businesses (unless you own one). This renewed pandemic, unlike the original flourish, is affecting mainly younger people, which at least means that the death rate is likely to be a bit lower, but as disease-spreaders youngsters are as good as, if not better than, us old geezers.
And it makes some sense that bars would be the new epicentre of contagion, when you think about it. As André Picard summarizes it: "Take a large group of people who have been cooped up for a few months - principally young people who already feel invulnerable amd randy - and cram them into a tight space, often with no windows and poor ventilation. Then crank up the music so they have to speak loudly and moistly, and pour them drinks so they don't wear masks. Shake, stir and sit back and watch them increasingly lose their inhibitions in this COVID-19 heaven." And, he might had added, for house parties, multiply by two.
So, you won't find me in a bar any time soon, even were it allowed in my neck of the woods, which it isn't. I did briefly sit on a patio (which IS currently allowed in Toronto), but I didn't feel particularly comfortable even there, outdoors. Indeed, I do wonder whether I'll ever feel comfortable, ever again.
A couple of bars on King Street, Toronto, have already been taken to task for their unrestrained and egregious flouting of the provincial pandemic rules. If the rules are relaxed still further, then bars and bar people will flout the rules even further, you can rely on that. Because the kind of people who like to hang out in bars are not among our most cautious and law-abiding citizens, that much seems clear. It does seem that, after a couple of beers (or more), people are just not capable ofbsocial distancing, this has been amply demonstrated, over and over again. It also seems that many people are just not capable of going out for "a beer or two", but they have to get stupid, falling-over drunk.
So why, given this context, Ontario is even considering opening up indoor bars next week (at least outside of the Golden Horsehoe and Essex County), I have no idea. In particular, a question that is being asked by many people is why is the province considering opening up bars and restaurants before it has a plan for opening up school and daycares, which is a perfectly reasonable question, and a pertinent check on the province's priorities. I really hope Doug Ford has more of an idea ofy reasonal what he is doing than I think he has.

Monday, July 13, 2020

No big surprise that Indigenous police force has never shot anyone

An article in today's Globe and Mail sings the praises of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), the small force that polices a population of 38,000 spread across 34 small, remote communities in Northern Ontario.
In particular, the article praises the fact that the snall force has not killed a single person in the course of its operations, and it (and the spokesperson for the force) put this down to its policy of building relations with the communities and its culturally sensistive policing mandate.
What the article (and the NAPS spokesperson) chooses not to mention is the fact that it has 203 officers to police those 38,000 people, an average of 187 per officer. Compare this to Toronto Police Services, for example, which has about 5,400 officers to police a population of 2.6 million inhabitants, about 481 per officer.
And the budgets? NAPS has an operating budget of $37.7 million, i.e. about $992 per inhabitant, or $187,700 per officer. TPS has a gross budget of $1,136 million, which equates to 437 per inhabitant, or $210,400 per officer. So, Toronto has a slightly larget budget per officer in a city which is orders of magnitude more expensive to live in, and about half of the budget per inhabitant compared to NAPS.
Now, I'm not saying that sheer numbers and money are the sole determinants of how many people the police kill in the line of duty, and I don't have a good idea of the level of crime (and particularly violent crime) the two regions encounter. But it just seems to me a bit disingenuous to say that the difference is all down to culturally sensitive community policing.
About 60% of the NAPS police force is Indigenous, so clearly they are going to have more in common with the largely homogeneous Indigneous population of the region than the Toronto police force, which has to deal with a veritable smargasbord of racial and cultural groups.
And finally, one other consideration: as far as I can make out, Canada-wide, there were 460 fatal interactions between the police and civilians over the 17 years from 2000 to 2017, i.e. an average of 27 per year. Over an average population over than period, that is about 0.00000079 deaths per person. Applying this to the 38,000 inhabitants under the protection of NAPS, and you would expect 0.03 deaths per year, or about 1 death every 33 years. So, not dissimilar to what we have seen.
So, is the Globe article cutting edge reporting on rampant racism and disparities in policing in Canada? Or is this just disingenuousness, and a lack of perspective and deep analysis.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

"The Letter" - blowback on Justice and Open Debate

It's not that often that I agree with much of what Globe columnist Marcus Gee writes - he lurks on the right margins of the paper's mainly middle-of-the-road politics - but I think he may have a point today, when he warns against letting a movement turn into an inquisition.
Perhaps his language is a little flamboyant for the matter in hand, but there does seem to be some evidence that we are approaching an age where all public personalities need to make a very public avowal that Black Lives Matter and that systemic racism is present in everything we do and say. To question this, or even to espouse it in a sufficiently luke-warm manner, is to risk outrage, condemnation and shaming, and sometimes to put an otherwise exemplary career at risk. Politically correct language has to be very carefully monitored, which may not be a bad thing in itself, but lapses are now indefensible. We have seen this with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki (which I have already commented on at some length) and CBC broadcaster Wendy Mesley (who was put on leave for referencing a book title that happens to include what we now call "the N word"), among other examples.
The latest outpouring of scorn and vitriol has been aimed at a public Letter on Justice and Open Debate, now familiarly known on social media simply as "The Letter", published in Harper's Magazine and signed by 153 intellctuals and "cultural luminaries" from all ends of the political spectrum (and from none), including Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, Noam Chomsky, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Steinem, JK Rowling, and many other household names (including - shock horror! - intellectuals of colour).
The letter decries the current climate of censoriousness, intolerance for alternative viewpoints, and a "blinding moral certainty".
It warns of a growing tide of illiberalism, and a weakening of "our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity". It also warns against the growing spectre of what is now known as "cancel culture", the practice of withdrawing support from anyone who has done or said something considered offensive or objectionable under the current zeitgeist, denying them a speaking platform, and preferably ruining rheir careers (a good example being the summary dismissal of Steven Galloway from his UBC lecturing post for an accusation of which he was later exonerated). This leads to a guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude that is antithetical to democratic Western values.
Now, I'm not sure I necessarily agree with ALL of the letter myself, but it immediately met with a whole lot of dismissive moral certainty on social media, many of them ad hominem attacks on the signatories, rather than considered refutations of the letter's content, along the lines of "privileged whiners" and "hypocritical elites". There was also a more official response, entitled  A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate, published on The Objective's website just a couple of days later, which takes the rather strange angle of guessing at specific incidents that may - or may not - have prompted the original letter and discussing them in detail (the original letter deliberately avoids specific instances because its whole point is the trends that we are seeing).
Of course, it didn't help the privileged whiners' cause that one of the signatories, Black historian Kerri Greenidge, retracted her endorsement of the original letter, claiming that she never gave permission, and another, trans writer Jennifer Boylan, asked for her signature to be removed when she found out the full list of signatories (it is assumed that she is objecting to being on the same list as JK Rowling, who has recently been accused of being anti-trans - this suggests that Ms. Boylan agrees with the content of the letter but is picky about who she wants to be associated with, not a very cool intellectual stance).
As Marcus Gee comments, "a revolution that becomes an inquisition risks losing the hearts and minds of ordinary people". This is partly about political correctness gone AWOL, but it is partly about just keeping perspective, or at least allowing perspective.

Why is there a post-pandemic litter epidemic, and what can we do about it?

Anecdotally, looking around the beach and parks in our own area, we see a lot more garbage strewn around since the gradual opening up of society as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to recede (a bit).
To us locals, this is annoying, frustrating and all but inexplicable. Who are these people who are littering, and why are the coming to our neighbourhood and messing it up? Of course, I should have known that the good old BBC has already looked into this phenomenon, and approached the appropriate experts. Britain too has seen an upsurge in littering since the lockdown has been relaxed, particularly in its parks and beauty spots. So, what gives?
It has long been known that littering depends on "social proof", i.e. copying the behaviour of others. So, if a place is already covered in garbage, people are more likely to think it doesn't matter, and if they see someone dropping litter they are more likely to do it themselves. While this seems to be asinine and inexcusable to me - I don't do that, why do other people? - it does seem to be a psychological fact among the general population. It has also been shown that littering is more common among young people, who typically feel a weaker bond to their community. Those same young people are also apparently establishing their worth among their friends and peers by openly and deliberately flouting the rules (What? Why would they do that? That makes no sense. They could just as well establish their worth by setting a good example.)
Anyway, be that as it may, the pandemic has also had a direct affect on the littering situation. Like so many other things, garbage collection has been affected, and bins may remain overfull for longer. Restaurants and pubs remain largely closed, so people are heading out to beaches and parks to socialize instead (certainly, our beach has bever been so busy), so that there is a larger critical mass of humanity for the social proof and peer pressure to work on. In the same way, there is more take-out food being consumed, with a concomitant increase in the amount of disposable packaging and therefore garbage available to litter with. Plastic and over-packaging are, as usual, the main offenders. The psychological stress of lockdown itself may lead people to adopt more risky, even anti-social, behaviour (that might also explain the spike in public alcohol consumption among younger people, technically illegal here in Toronto, and their propensity to hang out in large un-distanced groups). And finally, some littering is very clearly pandemic-related: plastic gloves, masks, etc.
So, yes, there are some very specific reasons for what we are seeing. But that doesn't make it inevitable. I don't litter. I never have (at least in my adult life, since I developed a social and environmental conscience). So, others too can learn to think before they do things, take home their left-overs and packaging, no?
Apparently, it's not that easy. There have been a few prominent success stories (Taiwan, for example, by, among other things REDUCING the number of garbage bins). But all sorts of touted solutions - watching eyes painted on walls, fines, verbal appeals, information blitzes, novelty garbage bins, etc - have often met with limited success. Good old social disapproval, particularly from within a peer group, is one of the most effective, but that requires thinking young people willing to transcend their peer pressure. I rarely bother to take litterers to task when I see them, and maybe I should, although I know the reaction I will get nine times out of ten. Particularly effective, apparently, is when people see others picking up trash (especially THEIR trash) from the ground and disposing of it responsibly. I do sometimes do that, but I could do it more often, and perhaps more blatantly.
It's all about changing behaviours and norms. So, let's see what we can do about that.

Cobalt-free batteries could make electric vehicles much cheaper

Tesla will be moving to a cobalt-free battery in its next generation of Chinese Model 3 cars.
Changing the current lithium ion batteries, which use expensive, environmentally-damaging and politically-insecure cobalt as a major component to help ensure the energy density the batteries need, is a significant move. Lithium ion phosphate (LFP, not LIP, for some reason) batteries could be a game-changer for electric cars, bringing their price down to much closer to the cost of a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) car at last.
The battery (or batteries) in an EV represents an estimated third of the overall cost, and expensive batteries are a good part of the reason why the cars remain so expensive to purchase. Although the lifetime savings in gas still make them an economic proposition, the initial sticker shock remains a huge disincentive to EV take-up. Eliminating cobalt from the battery could take the cost per kWh of electric power production down below $100, which is estimated to be the cost that would allow EVs to become cheaper than ICE vehicles (just 10 years ago, this was sitting around $1,000/kWh, 5 years ago it was $381/kWh, currently it is around $149/kWh).
Both Tesla and other EV makers continue to work on new battery designs, some not even using lithium (which is also an expensive and potentially politically-difficult metal). In the meantime, the cheaper LFP batteries could breathe new life into EV sales, at a time when low oil prices and the distraction of the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on the development of the electric car market.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Toronto anti-mask protest by a bunch of selfish prima donnas

Maybe it pales into insignificance compared to similar protests south of the border, and this was definitely not Serbia, but Toronto too has experienced anti-mask protests.
About 40 people used the subway without face masks and held a rather desultory and embarrassing little protest at Yonge and Bloor. Out of a population of 6 million or so, this hardly even merits the label "movement"; it was just a small group of ornery, disaffected individuals with nothing better to do.
They were objecting to the new Toronto rules that everyone should wear some kind of face covering when entering a store, restaurant, public transit or any enclosed public space (unless they are younger than two, or have a medical condition that prevents them from doing so). This is based on the latest science that masks, along with social distancing and hand-washing, are essential in controlling the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus, which is in all of our interests.
The protesters' line of reasoning revolves around the idea - I suppose you could call it libertarian if you wanted to be nice, although essentially it is just selfishness - that the state should never tell its members what to do, and that no individual should have to do something they don't want to do. Which is a bit of a ridiculous and precious argument (hence the small numbers). Among the comments by protesters were: "This is what has led to the worst atrocities in history", and "When the government mandates something, it is never in your best interests".
Part of the social contract we are part of as members of society is that we observe the rules set by our elected representatives, and they provide services and keep us safe. Hence the rules of the road, the policing of thefts and assaults, and innumerable small rules like wearing seat belts, childhood vaccinations, standing on the right on escalators, etc. Wearing a mask in the midst of a global pandemic that is killing thousands of people is another such small rule instituted for the common good, and most people realize that it is not particularly onerous, and it is not difficult to subjugate one's ego (over-sized or otherwise) for a period if it means that the spread of the virus can be controlled.
Some people, however, feel sufficiently entitled and special that they don't have to submit to this social contract. Well, they certainly are special, but not in the way they might think. The vast majority of us who are willing to follow sensible rules, for our own good and the good of those around us, are not just unthinking sheep; we are thoughtful, empathetic human beings who believe that a minor inconvenience is worth putting up with for the greater good. Do these protesters really think that they are somehow exempt from the privations and restrictions that everyone else has had to, and continues to, endure?

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Should we take Kanye West's presidential bid seriously?

When I first read about the possibility of Kanye West standing for US President in November 2020, I thought it was a joke. But apparently, it's an all-too-real possibility.
West is an over-rated rapper, fashion designer and a Black man, of course. But he is also a billionaire, a pretty bizarre and loopy human, and a rabid Republican and supporter of Donald Trump.
So, why then would he want to stand AGAINST Trump in November? The theory is that many Black Americans would automatically vote for West and, given that most Black people are natural Democratic voters, that would reduce the Democratic vote and drive a wedge through the anti-Trump vote, thus allowing their man to coast home.
It's a ridiculously cynical move, and predicated on the idea that Black people can't think for themselves but would just vote in knee jerk fashion for any Black guy, regardless of his policies (or lack thereof), or indeed his level of sanity. Unfortunately, whether you like him or not, West is a cooler and more interesting guy than Joe Biden - not a difficult feat - so the idea is perhaps not completely daft.
However, some people are of the opinion that, were Yeezy to throw his hat into the ring, there is just as much of a probability that he would attract Black Republican voters (yes, there are more than you might think) away from Trump, thus defeating the object of the play.
Time, though, is getting short, and West needs to move fast if he wants to get on to the ballot as the candidate of some small political party that might be willing to deal with him. The deadlines for registering as the presidential candidate of a party have already expired in a few states, and several more will expire this week. If, on the other hand, he wanted to register as an independent, he would need to get thousands of signatures from right across the country before the August deadline for that kind of registration. Or, finally, he could just rely on his supporters writing his name in on their ballots, which is, amazingly, also an option, albeit a less effective one.
West has the support of his wife Kim Cardashian and Tesla owner (and equally loopy) Elon Musk, although who knows if that is a positive or a negative these days. But West has threatened to stand for President before, and not followed through. He has also talked about standing in 2024, not 2020, so who knows what he is really thinking. It's pretty difficult to take the guy seriously were it not for his money and influence ... and his sheer wackiness and unpredictability. Psychologically, West is probably a delusional narcissist and egomaniac with a God complex, but, as we have seen, that is no bar to the presidency.

West has taken the interesting democratic ploy of paying people $10 each to endorse his candidacy, and to get him on the ballot. And even then he has managed to mess up: 1,928 of his 3,218 signatures in Illinois were ruled invalid, leaving him short of the 2,500 signatories required to allow him to run for president in the state. Unbelievable cynicism and ineptitude!

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Now, NOT kneeling for the national anthem is a political statement

In a fascinating volte face, the new norm has become that players kneel, Colin Kaepernick-style, for the national anthem before professional sports games (don't even get me started on playing the national anthem before professional sports games....), and anyone that DOESN'T kneel risks getting the third degree from the media and that internet thingy. How things have changed since Kaepernick's ground-breaking and highly controversial decision to take a knee, way back in 2016.
There's not much professional sports going on right now here in North America, but one of the few leagues that has already started up is the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). And, before the first games this last weekend, pretty much everyone knelt for the anthem, which arguably defeats the object of a protest (how is it a protest if everyone agrees?) Because, between last season and this, we had the whole George Floyd / Black Lives Matter thing, and now it is politically important for people to be seen to be supporting BLM.
And so it was with Chicago Red Stars player Rachel Hill, who chose not to kneel with everyone else before the game this weekend, but instead to stand, rather awkwardly touching the shoulder of Black player Casey Short, who knelt in tears next to her. Fair enough, I guess, if that's what she wants to do, although I'm not sure what Ms. Short made of the gesture.
Ms. Hill did have to issue an official statement, though, explaining that she is not a white supremacist, but that she supports the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly, and will do everything she can to fight against racism and unequality, but that she "chose to stand because of what the flag inherently means to [her] military family members".
It's a bit of a bizarre state of affairs, but that's the way things stand at the moment. It remains to be seen whether her statement is deemed to adequately justify her actions, and also whether it sparks a Kaepernick-style movement all of its own.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

China's new security law is ridiculously, and scarily, broad and aggressive

China's new Hong Kong security law has elicited almost universal condemnation. It is so broad and, so comprehensive and draconian, that it could be used (and probably will be) against any comment anywhere in the world that even vaguely criticizes China and the ruling Communist Party of China. Hong Kong as we knew it is effectively no more.
In a mind-boggling feat of doublespeak, Hong Kong's "chief executive" Carrie Lam, says that the law is to "protect the life and property, basic rights and freedoms, of the overwhelming majority of our citizens", and that the new law bans organization and collusion against the Chinese state, but not mere criticism of it. But the first few arrests under the law suggest otherwise: one was of a young person holding a handwritten sign saying "Hong Kong Independence", and local Hong Kong authorities have openly confirmed that their interpretation is that even the verbal utterance of a "Liberate Hong Kong" chant would now qualify as a crime.
Worse, the law also applies to such offences outside of Hong Kong and Chinese territory, and could effectively criminalize much peaceful international advocacy, whether in the UN, the European Parliament, right here in Canada, even on Facebook. Hell, what I am writing now probably qualifies! It is not the first law designed to affect actions outside a country's own borders - the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and Canada's own Magnitsky legislation are other examples - but, unlike those examples, which have considerable safeguards built in, the new Chinese law has no such safeguards, and can be interpreted as broadly as suits their purposes. Any support for Taiwan's status as an independent state would also qualify as sedution and criticism of China under the new act, as would criticism of the despicable Chinese treatment of their Uyghur minority population.
A senior Chinese diplomat recently commented, publicly, that, "The era when the Chinese cared what others thought is in the past, never to return". This is an astounding comment to have on the public record, but this is the new, bold China. If there was any doubt about that, this new law has well and truly dispelled it.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

India's TikTok ban may be the beginning of the popular app's end

Much has been made of the fall from grace of the Chinese-owned video app TikTok.
India has banned the app (along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps) for its citizens, not only for future downwnloads, but existing ones too, and India was a huge chunk of its market (in fact, its biggest overseas market). TikTok's parent company ByteDance has spent upwards of $1 billion developing its Indian user base, and it now stands to lose $6 billion in revenues (THAT is how big TikTok is!) India says that TikTok and the other Chinese apps "pose a threat to sovereignty and security of our country".
This is more about politics than technology - TikTok does extract and store data from users' phones (that's how it makes its advertising income), but no more so than many another app. Specifically, this is more about India trying to get back at China after the skirmishes in the Himalayas recently.
However, TikTok has also been "caught" copying data from users' clipboards "secretly", after a new iOS update made such interventions more obvious. TikTok claimed this was an inadvertent function of its anti-spam filter, but this is also is no more than many other apps do these days. A Reddit user has also reverse engineered the app and flooded the internet with calls to delete it immediately, calling TikTok "a data collection service thinly veiled as a social network".
It seems more than likely that the USA will use the Indian action and the iOS revelations as an excuse to further its own anti-Chinese ambitions, along with its campaign against Huawei. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to praise India's "clean app" actions, claiming that such apps serve as an extension of China's "surveillance state". There is much less evidence that TikTok owner ByteDance is in the pocket of the Chinese state in quite the same way that Huawei is (although all Chinese companies are to some extent), but, essentially, no-one trusts China as far as they can throw it these days, and modern China is quite unthrowable.
We certainly haven't seen the last of this story, and TikTok's dizzying rise to prominence could well be followed by an equally dramatic fall if international opposition coalesces, as seems likely.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Young people are going to "COVID-19 parties" in Alabama - duh!

This is something you might not have expected, even in America, the Land of the Covidiot.
Young people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and possibly elsewhere, are attending pandemic parties, where infected people are encouraged to attend, so that others are there in the full knowledge that they may well contract the virus. In fact, to spice things up a bit, the first person to get infected as a direct result of the party "wins", and receives a pool of money.
Yes, this sounds like something out of a JG Ballard novel, but it's really happening somewhere in the backwaters of the USA. This is what the currrent "blank generation" is up to; this is the future of America. Presumably, it's all something to do with risk-taking and macho posturing (I don't know but I'm guessing that most attendees are young guys). And we are expecting these people to do the right thing and wear masks, wash their hands, keep their distance, etc?

Alberta's Kenney finally talks about diversification, but just talking

I've been writing letters to the paper for years about how Alberta should stop whining about how hard done by they are, diversify their economy out of the moribund field of oil and gas, and institute a sales tax like every other province, to the extent that I probably sound like a broken CD (remember those?)
Well, Alberta has just announced a post-COVID economic recovery plan in which Premier Kenney lays out his vision for Alberta's future. And Alberta's future, in Jason Kenney's vision, is distinctly black and sludgy. The $10 billion stimulus package, mainly revolves around corporate tax cuts (an expensive strategy that has not had a good track record of encouraging economic activity), and funding for traditional infrastructure projects, that good old Keynesian solution to economic stimulus, most of which had already been committed to anyway. Also included is $1.5 billion to purchase a stake in the dubious Keystone XL oil pipeline. In fact, it is business as usual as far as Kenney is concerned, and what else would you expect from a staunch conservative: that's just what they do.
The only ray of sunshine in the whole plan, and it is a faint one, is $175 million (out of $10 BILLION) in new venture capital funding, the majority of which I imagine will go to the tech sector. If any economic diversification were to happen, then, this is the sum of Kenney's contribution to it.
That said, the government statement that accompanied the announcement does mention the word "diversification" quite liberally, and even that most un-Kenney-like phrase "energy diversification" is briefly hinted at.  So, Kenney is clearly quite aware that his province really needs to diversify (more desparately than any other province). But he's not actually willing to put any money behind it.

Alberta has also just announced a new petrochemicals incentive program, whereby the province will award no-questions-asked grants to any company misguided enough to want to establish new petrochemical facilities in Alberta. Diversification? Not really.