Monday, August 31, 2020

What is the difference between grasshoppers and crickets?

It started with an innocent Google search to try to identify the common flying crickets/grasshoppers that we see around here (I'm pretty sure they are Carolina grasshoppers). But then I went down a rabbit hole, as happens so often, over the difference between crickets and grasshoppers.
I was always under the misbegotten impression that grasshoppers are green and crickets are brown (which is why I always thought that Carolina grasshoppers were actually crickets). But of course, like the whole butterfly/moth dichotomy, it's nothing like that simple. It never is. Anyway, here goes.
Both crickets and grasshoppers are part of the insect order Orthoptera, which covers grasshoppers, locusts (which are actually just grasshoppers that have a migratory phase), crickets and katydids. Grasshoppers and locusts are in the sub-order Caelifera, while crickets and katydids are in the sub-order Ensifera. So, grasshoppers and crickets are closely related, but as cousins rather than siblings, so to speak.
They both have those long back legs that allow them to jump huge distances, but there are various differences between the two, as a picture of a generic grasshopper and a generic crickets shows:
A grasshopper is typically bigger and has a more rectangular body, while a cricket has a more streamlined (teardrop-shaped?) body, and many look almost beetle-like. Grasshoppers have relatively short antennae, while crickets have long antennae, often as long their entire body.
Other differences? Grasshoppers are mainly herbivorous and can be quite a pest for farmers, especially when  they swarm in their billions like African locusts; crickets are mainly predatory or at least omnivorous. Grasshoppers are mainly diurnal (active during the day); crickets are main nocturnal. Grasshoppers "stridulate" by rubbing their hind leg against their forewing, producing a kind of buzzing sound; crickets rub their forewings together, to produce a more chirping or trilling song. And, if you happen to get close enough, grasshoppers have their auditory organs on their abdomens, while crickets have theirs on their forelegs, and grasshoppers have short ovipositors compared to the long, extended ovipositors of crickets.
And yes, most grasshoppers are in fact green (although some are not), and most crickets are brown or a paler green (although some are bright green). Oh, and most types of grasshoppers do actually fly, not just hop (they use those huge, strong back legs to push off before they start to use their wings); but most species of crickets also fly, although some species fly much better than others, and some are short-winged or actually wingless and therefore hop rather than fly. Confused yet?

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Toronto ecologist told she needs to cut down her pollinator garden

A woman in the tony Hillcrest area of Toronto has received a notice from the City Council that her garden contravenes the Toronto Municpal Code's rules on grass and weeds.
Nina-Marie Lister is an urban planner and ecologist and her garden is full of milkweed, goldenrod, black-eyed susans, and other mainly indigenous flowers that are like catnip to butterflies, bees and other pollinators. To some of Ms. Lister's neighbours, however, it is just plain scruffy - "a challenge to lawn order", as the Globe article has it - and they have called on the City to issue a notice to the woman, on the grounds that the city Code calls on householders to "cut  the grass and weeds on their land" when they grow above 20cm.
Ms. Lister, however, argues that her garden is full of flowers, not weeds, a label which is not actually defined anywhere, but essentially refers to plants that grow up unintentionally (or, as Ms. Lister says, "plants that someone doesn't like"). Her plants are most definitely not unintentional, and Ms. Lister is willing to take the issue to court. A couple of previous similar court cases have both resulted in vindication for the creative, environmentally-conscious gardeners, so it seems likely that Ms Lister's will go well too, particularly given than the City of Toronto is also in the business of offering $5,000 grants for pollinator gardens.
Maybe time to update the City's Municipal Code?
On a related matter, a homeowner in Windsor, Ontario, was told recently that he needs to cut down his beloved sunflowers on the grounds that they are too tall and obsctruct sightlines for commuters, traffic and safe access to city property, all of which sounds slightly ridiculous. Mr. Allossery has filled his tiny front garden with giant sunflowers, which he and his 5-year old daughter love. He sounds remarkably equanimous in the face of the demands, and says he plans to package up sunflower seeds and offer them to as many neighbours as possible, "to share the love", as he says.

The term "Latinx" is so awkward - what's wrong with "Latin"?

I heard on the radio for the first time today the term "Latinx", the supposedly gender-neutral word designed to replace the use of the gender-specific "Latino" and "Latina" to describe people of Hispanic background. I also found out that it is pronounced "Latin-ex", not "Latinks". Who knew?
It is, I think, one of the more awkward among many awkward gender-neutral neologisms. It is used almost exclusively in the USA, and is not recognized in any Spanish-speaking country. It is also used extremely infrequently, even in the States, principally among young politically active student and academics, and has not achieved mainstream recognition.
But it occurred to me to wonder: why not use the equally gender-neutral and much simpler "Latin". It would be pretty clear in context that this does not refer to the language of the ancient Romans. Apparently, the word "Hispanic" has also accumulated baggage and negative connotations over the years, although I am still not entirely clear why. But Latin is safe (and gender-neutral), isn't it?

Friday, August 28, 2020

Sports boycott against police violence on Blacks an attention-grabber

Thursday 27th August was quite a day in sports, as most major North American leagues shut down in support of protests against the continued plague of police killings and maimings of unarmed black men. It was an unprecredented and more-or-less-spontaneous response, galvanized by initial unilateral actions by the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and by black Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka on Wednesday. Most other sports either joined the bandwagon or were shamed into action on Thursday, although things look as though they will be more or less back to business-as-usual on Friday.
It was a powerful spontaneous action, quite effective in creating a conversation on the subject, as well as an indication that sports is becoming more and more politicized. The general support the boycott received, from the professional sports bodies and from fans, is an indication of just how much the politcal landscape has changed in the USA since the rather bemused reaction to Colin Kaepernick's protests in 2017. It has also annoyed the hell out of Donald Trump, which is always a good thing.
Ms. Osaka, for one, seems to think that the job is done. When she pulled out of the Western and Southern Open (a second rank competition anyway) on Wednesday, she issued a combative statement, saying that she was "ready and prepared to concede the match". (The statement also said that her boycott was "in support of racial injustice and continued police violence", which was a bit unfortunate, but we know what she meant. Calling it a "continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police" is also an extremely loaded phrase that is going to do her no favours with people who have connections to historical genocides.) A further statement on Thursday, though, indicates that she will continue with the competition on Friday, giving the impression that she was persuaded by the tennis authorities. Her comment that, "in my mind, that beings more attention to the movement" makes very little sense, though - how can giving up on a protest and going back to the status quo bring more attention than carrying through with the protest and depriving a major sports competition of its world number 4 ranked competitor?
Anyway, enough kvetching: her initial action was one of the most attention-grabbing moves in what is proving a very interesting period in professional sports, and she deserves full credit for that.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Korchinski-Paquet case is not one that merits protests

The SIU investigation into the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet back in May has published its final report, and some people are predictably upset.
Coming as it did just two days after the very public death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet's death was always going to be highly politicized, and there were immediate accusations that her case was another example of systemic anti-black racism and police brutality, even though the immediately-available facts made that seem extremely unlikely.
The SIU report makes it clear that Ms. Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death while trying to hop from one balcony to another from her 24th floor apartment, well away from any police officers or their influence. If anything she was trying to escape from being taken to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which is what her mother was requesting. The report confirm that the police officers involved did not inflame the fraught situation, and indeed tried their level best to de-escalate it, and were nowhere near the woman when she fell to her death. There was no evidence of bullying or peremptory behaviour on the part of the police.
So, no police brutality, no obvious racism at work. But that will clearly not satisfy some people, though, who see this as a racism issue regardless of any evidence to the contrary. There will probably be protests and demonstrations and expressions of outrage regardless. There has been no shortage of recent events, both in Canada and the USA, where the police are quite clearly at fault, and these should be called out and protested. This, however, is not one of those events.

Given all that, what was NDP leader Jagmeet Singh thinking when he tweeted, "Regis Kochinski-Paquet died because of police intervention. She needed help and her life was taken instead. The SIU's decision brings no justice to the family and it won't prevent this from happening again."
This is tone deaf, inflammatory talk, ignoring the finding of what appears to be a well-run and comprehensive investigative report. If Singh persists with this line, he merely comes across as anti-police, and decreases his own credibility.

Painting one wind turbine blade black significantly reduces bird deaths

Research by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research has produced some pretty convincing evidence that a simple expedient like painting one blade of a wind turbine black can have a huge effect on the number of birds killed by the turbines' spinning blades.
Scientists have been trialling this idea at the Smøla wind farm in Norway since 2013, and their results show that turbines with one black black result in 70% fewer bird deaths than all-white turbines. The spinning white blades of a turbine can confuse birds and blur their vision due to "motion smear". Simply painting one of the blades black (or presumably any other colour) breaks up the smear and makes the turbine more visible to birds, giving them time to avoid a potentially fatal encounter.
While bird deaths from turbines have often been overstated (and it certainly pales into insignificance as a source of bird deaths when compared to cars and cats), it has been a sticking point for many environmentalists. This simple, cheap idea could significantly help the cause of renewable energy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

RNC video of "Biden's America" is actually "Trump's Spain"

The 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) has been a continuing source of amusement and embarraassment. It is essentially a distillation of the last four miserable years of Trump's mismanagement, with all the lies, mistruths and misleading statements that have made it up. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and any number of Trump relatives and hangers on, have expatiated at great length on the wonders of Donald Trump and how his policies have improved the lives of the American people and made the world a better and safer place. They say it all with such apparent conviction, and with no reigning in by fact-checking, that many people will probably believe them. Trump's own concluding speech was a tour-de-force of barefaced lies, unjustified speculation and interminable repetition.
One of my favourite parts of the RNC, though, was the video clip of rioting and burning streets which the voiceover tells us is a "taste of Biden's America" (given that Trump, not Biden, has been president for the last four years, wouldn't it actually be a vision of Trump's America?)
Even better, though, it turns out that the video footage was actually from Barcelona, Spain, taken during the 2019 Catalonia separatist riots, and freely available on Shutterstock.
Way to go, guys!

Those leggy insects in your kitchen sink are not all bad

I've been planning for years to look up those many-legged insects you see so often scuttling around the house. They are not quite as alarming as cockroaches, but they can still give you a bit of a shock when they scurry away from you when you open a door or switch on a light.

Well, it turns out they are called house centipedes, or scutigera coleoptrata if you are Roman or an entomologist. They are originally from the Mediterranean region, but can be found pretty much worldwide now, and have made themselves quite at home in the human world. They have fifteen pairs of legs, two very long antennae, and two equally long appendages at the back, so you can't quite tell which way they are facing until they set off.
They eat spiders, bed bugs, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ants, and a bunch of other beasties much less desirable than they are. So, they may be a nuisance as they wander around your kitchen sink of a morning. But don't just squash them: catch them and put them outside if you must do something. They do serve a higher purpose.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Kimberly Guilfoyle goes "North Korean propaganda lady"

Kimberly Guilfoyle is not someone I had ever heard of before (apparently she is an ex-Fox News broadcaster - and Donald Trump Jr's girlfriend, good luck with that, Don - so that might account for it). But she has certainly distinguished herself by delivering what may be the most over-the-top, shouty speech ever delivered as part of the Republican National Convention.

Maybe she was confused by the empty room she was addressing (COVID, you know). Maybe she was channelling "North Korean propaganda lady", as one Twitter feed claims. It was certainly a bizarre piece of political theatre, and worth a giggle if you have the stomach for it.

Who are these people who still support Donald Trump?

Interesting article from an American pollster and political analyst on CNN. If you can't get our head around why some people (lots of people, in fact) still support Donald Trump after all the proof the last four years has given us that he is singularly unsuited to be a president of any country, let alone the United States, and still less can you understand who these people actually are, read on.
These are people who believe, against all the evidence, that a businessman is the best person to run the country economically. They believe that COVID-19 was not Donald Trump's fault (hard to argue with that), but that he's doing his best to contain it (argument there!) They are people who do not distinguish between genuine Black Lives Protesters and the looters and rioters who are taking advantage of them. They don't want historical monuments torn down, and they think that defunding the police in any way is ridiculous and shouldn't even be discussed. And, yes they really do want America to be first in everything, whether it deserves it or not. The oppose immigration completely and utterly, as well as any other policies that they see as giving foreigners benefits at their expense. And, perhaps most importantly, they want a non-politician who will fight for them relentlessly, and who will "tell it like it is", as the phrase goes (even if "telling it like it is" actually involves lying constantly).
Note that there is noting here about supporting someone who will do the right thing in a tough situation, about someone who will look out for the poor and the downtrodden. That's because these people truly believe that they ARE the downtrodden, even though they are generally speaking not. They are Mid-Western middle-class middle-of-the-road regular folks.
Another important factor is that these are not necessarily Fox News-watchers - that's a whole different type of Trump supporter, and there is nothing that can be done about them. These are not even national cable network watchers. These people typically get their news from local television, regional websites and Facebook. They don't see even a small part of the vast amounts of media coverage of national and international politics that is available, and they care even less. They care about having a job, and they care about being better off than they were yesterday, however that advance may be achieved.
The only possible saving grace in all this depressing news is that most of these people have zero loyalty. Many of them voted for Obama, and may actually be Democrat "by nature", but changed to Trump in 2016, for the reasons described above or just for no particular reason ("a change"). And if they can swing the almost inconceivable distance from Obama to Trump, they can just as easily swing back to a more middle-ground Joe Biden.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Canada's "Minister of Everything" gains a new portfolio

In the wake of Bill Morneau's resignation debacle, Chrystia Freeland has been named as the new Finance Minister of the beleaguered Liberal government.
Indeed, it could hardly have been anyone else. Trudeau does not have any ministers available of the appropriate seniority who also have a finance background. Ms. Freeland does not have a finance background either, but she is perhaps Trudeau's most trusted and loyal minister, and has the enviable reputation of being able to adroitly handle anything she is presented with, whether it be NAFTA re-negotiations as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, or holding the country together in what could have proved a larticularlt fraught and fractious time of pandemic as Minister of Intragovernmental Affairs. She has also been Deputy Prime Minister since the government's re-election in November 2019, and the de facto minister in charge of the government's COVID-19 response. In fact, she has earned herself the moniker "Minister of Everything" (and "Warrior Princess" from the Globe and Mail).
So precipitous has been her rise, it's easy to forget that Freeland has only been an MP for 7 years, and that she's only 52 years old. Prior to 2013, she was a journalist, writing for the Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, and Thomson Reuters, working her way up to become managing director of the latter. She is also, if that is not already apparent, a smart cookie: from humble beginnings in Peace River, Alberta, she earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and has degrees from Harvard and Oxford.
And, furthermore, she seems to have the happy knack of getting on with pretty much everybody, on both sides of the political divide. Even arch-Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford is a big fan, and commented recently, "I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland. She's amazing." Perhaps even more importantly, she is baggage-free, and seems to be able to avoid scandals (so far, at least).
Is her lack of financial experience going to be a problem in her new role? Probably not. She seems to be able to take most things in her stride. Most commentators, including people who have done the job before her, seem to think that her political experience, and the invaluable experience of negotiating the new NAFTA deal will stand her in good stead. And all that goodwill is probably not going to hurt.
In fact, most people are just assuming that she will be the next leader of the Liberal Party, when Trudeau has finally pissed enough people off and got fed up of apologizing. After all, as Elizabeth Renzetti notes, "If she is so good at fixing things, why isn't she in charge of ensuring that things don't get broken in the first place?"

Friday, August 21, 2020

The vocabularies of rappers

I'm not a big hip-hop/rap guy, but I do listen to some from time to time. I found it interesting, though, that someone has gone through all the trouble to analyze the lyrics of a whole lot of popular rappers and has produced this ranking of rappers' vocabularies, based on the number of unique words used in their lyrics.
Perhaps not surprisingly, egghead rapper Aesop Rock (still my favourite rapper, as it happens, Long with, perhaps, Shabazz Palaces  and Run the Jewels) is way out ahead of the pack with 7,879 unique words used. Not too far behind him, though, comes Busdriver (whom I've never even heard of) with 7,324 words. A good jump further back come Jedi Mind Tricks (6,424) and GZA (6,390), whom I've also never heard of, and then, perhaps surprisingly, the Wu Tang Clan (6,196) and MF Doom (6,189), whom I have heard of.
After that the field starts to thicken. The really popular guys tend to be in the middle of the pack, like Jay-Z (4,275), Eminem (4,480), Kendrick Lamar (4,017), 2Pac (3,815), Snoop Dogg (3,797), Kanye West (3,760), Nikki Minaj (3,616), Drake (3,347), etc. "Middle of the road" in many ways, then.
Down at the other end of the list are Lil Uzi Vert (2,556), NF (2,472) and DMX (2,936). And yes, this does include swear words, which probably make up a good proportion of the total. The bottom ten also includes Lil Baby, Lil Durk and Lil Yachty, so if you see "Lil", you probably have a good idea of what to expect.
Now, just to put all that into perspective, the average 20-year old American has a vocabulary of about 42,000 words, depending on how you count them, although that does not mean that they USE that many words on a regular basis (their "active vocabulary is probably closer to 20,000). Even the average 8-year old has a vocabulary of around 10,000 words, and a 5-year old 5,000 words. For further context, Shakespeare supposedy used 17,000-20,000 different words in his very wordy plays (not the often-quoted 30,000, which includes all the different parts of speech derived from the same words).
But to put it in possibly a better perspective, a different version of the same study (available as a screenshot) also marks Shakespeare and Herman Melville's Moby Dick on the same scale, using the first 5,000 words of seven of Shakespeare's top plays and the first 35,000 words of Melville's opus (35,000 words is the what the rappers' analyses are based on). This puts Shakespeare at 5,170 words, and Melville at 6,022. So, in the upper echelons, to be sure, but not up in the rarefied atmosphere of Aesop Rock ad Busdriver. There again today's rapper have a lot more works to choose from - hell, Shakespeare had to invent a whole load of words, although around 400 of them, not the 1,700 often ascribed to him - and, arguably, Rhymezone rhyming dictionary or Theseaurus,com.
And, just for good measure, here's a little taste of Aesop Rock's weird and wonderful oeuvre: (this from 2012's Leisureforce):
Postcards from the pink bath paint leisure
As a cloaked horse through a stained-glass Saint Peter
Hack faith-healer, cheat death to the very end
Cherry wooden nickels on his specs for the ferrymen
X, o, zodiac a pentagram expo
Pet cemetery in electric fresco
Abaddon threshold flesh-forged in the galley
With undead orcs pulling oars through the algae
Smash cut to a smoke-bombed quarantine
Guards like "all signs correlate with sorcery"
It's more a dormant cell of valor as awoken by the smell of sordid power
And defecting shortly after
Fist bump dry land, brackish, cat nap 15
Back to swiss-cheese the flagship, uh
Blue in the menacing grip of a day for which you're manifestly unfit 
Final answer "not to be", "not to be" is right!
Next question - to build winged shoes or autophagy
Silk screen band tees, take apart a VCR, ringer off, canned peas
Cabin fever mi amor
Patiently adhering to the chandelier ta key-in-door
To usher in the understated anarchy of leisureforce
Led a purple tongue and ratty caballeros
Up over the black rainbow into the house of mirrors
To become a thousand zeroes
Echoing a twisted alchemy, freak flags, fluttering to circadian free jazz
Sleep apnea scratching "bring that beat back"
I doze off, clothes on, noise in the feedbag
Shhh. om nom nom, blinds drawn
Compost thrown to the spine pile, bygones, mangy
Intimately spaced pylons on a plot of inhospitable terrain
Hi mom!
Quite... Probably not too many rappers have "autophagy" in their repertoire. Or, for that matter, "vivarium", "terraforming", "scoliosis" or "sussurus".

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Canada will probably follow Europe into a pandemic resurgence

Whether you want to call it a second wave or just a resurgence of the first, most of Europe is right back in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike the USA, which never really got things under control, Western Europe had a very bad time of it back in April and May before controlling things pretty effectively through some often draconian lockdown and quarantine rules. Reasonably confident about their situations most countries gradually opened up their economies and their societies and relaxed their restrictions. All in all, they did pretty much everything right, and were probably patting themselves on the back for a job well done a month ago.
But now, it's back. Most European countries are seeing a resurgence that takes them right back to the worst days of April in terms of daily new cases. Yesterday, Spain had 3,715 new cases and 127 deaths, France had 3,775 cases, German 1,707, Italy 642. Other countries that seemed to have beaten the virus, like South Korea, Australia, even New Zealand, have seen similar spikes Their health systems are generally coping (they've had plenty of practice), but any thoughts of strolling through the back streets of Paris or lounging on a Spanish beach this year are fading fast.
And where Europe goes, the chances are, so goes Canada. We have followed a similar trajectory, a month or two later, and it seems inconceivable that, as we continue to open things up, send kids back to school, etc, we will be able to avoid a very similar renewal of the bad old days of the spring.
Canada's new cases are currently in a holding pattern of 200-400 a day - not bad, but hardly negligible. Most of the new cases are among younger people under 40, so deaths are typically much lower than they were in the spring, around 5-10 per day, but again not negligible.
It's difficuly to know what we can do to avoid a European-style resurgence of the pandemic. Now that people have had a taste of freedom again, it is going to be very difficult to lock them down again, either here or in Europe, for all that politicians keep repeating that they won't hesitate to do so if necessary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Trump passes more environmental absurdities while no-one is looking

When he's not centre stage and pulling embarrassing stunts in the full glare of the international press (and when he is not playing golf), it is easy to forget that Donald Trump is continuing to pursue other nefarious policies in the background. In fact, he is, if anything, accelerating his push as his current term dwindles away, and a second term appears ever more unlikely.
So it is that he has racheted up the US trade and investment embargo against Cuba to unprecedented levels while no-one was looking, for example, in an attempt to completely throttle Cuba's economy, because ... well, because they're rabid lefties, aren't they?
And so it is that he has struck another blow against the environment, as a parting gesture, by allowing oil and gas drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has been off-limits to drilling for over six decades. The ANWR is the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States, and an essential home for iconic protected species like polar bears and Porcupine caribou. But that of course means nothing to Trump and the Trump-appointed Interior Secretary, who claim to have completed the required reviews (characterized by environmentalists as wholly insufficient), and expect to auction off some drilling leases along the Refuge's coastal plain by the end of the year. Environmental groups will file lawsuits to try to block lease sales, and note that any company seeking to drill in the Arctic Refuge "will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks".
Given that demand and prices of fossil fuels remain depressed, and that exploring and drilling in harsh Arctic conditions would be difficult and expensive, it seems unlikely there will be that much interest from energy companies. Joe Biden has vowed to grant permanent protection to the Refuge if he is elected, but Trump is trying to pre-empt that by ensuring that some lease rights are granted before such protection can be brought about. Just another example of Trump's penchant for brinkmanship and underhand deal-making.

China walking on the backs of Pacific islands

This rather bizarre image has set tongues a-wagging across the world. It shows the new Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking across the backs of local young men on the Kiribati island of Marakei, led by two women in local dress.
Some Islanders (and the Chinese) are justifying it as a traditional welcome and mark of respect often used in weddings and for VIP guests, stressing that it is merely a local custom and not a demonstration of subjugation. Hmm, maybe, but it's one thing for the groom of a traditional wedding to do it and absolutely another for a dominant foreign political power and major investor.
The optics are so bad that any country other than China would surely have thought twice about it. As an Australian parliamentarian comments,"I'd be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature".
It is particularly awkward as the small island nation of Kiribati, which spreads over a huge and strategically important area in the mid-Pacific, has just recently made a sudden and controversial decision to swtich Kiribati's recognition from Taiwan to China, after 17 years of support for an independent Taiwan. Who knows what deals have been struck to bring that about, although one can probably guess (the cringe-worthy speech of Kiribati's president at the official ceremony gives a pretty good idea). The USA in particular is worried that Kiribati will allow China to build dual-purpose civilian and military facilities on Christmas Island, one of its far-flung territories.
This is all part and parcel of China's new swagger. They feel that they no longer need to follow commonsense rules of diplomacy: they can use economic and military clout to get what they want.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Politics be damned: is she Black or isn't she?

I suppose it had to happen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden's pick for Democratic running mate and potential Vice President of the United States, is suffering the slings and arrows of racial questioning and second-guessing. And, in America's current hyper-sensitive racial politics, she is getting questioned from both sides.
Young(-ish), female and black, Harris was almost the only possible realistic choice for Biden (imagine if he had chosen an old white guy!), but already her credentials, both as a black person and as an American, are being questioned. As far as I know, no-one is questioning her gender, although I wouldn't rule it out.
Ms. Harris is a lawyer and California Senator (only the second Black woman to be elected to the Senate, as it happens, and the first of South Asian heritage). She was born - and there is point of contention here - in Oakland, California. Her parents, now long divorced, are definitely Black (AND naturalized Americans). Her father, Donald J.Harris, is a Jamaican-born economist and professor, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, now deceased, was a respected biology researcher from Tamil Nadu, India. Ms. Harris herself does not seem particularly Black to look at (I'm pretty sure I would not have guessed), and I wonder whether this figures at all in some of the accusations she is having to field.
Trump - he of little imagination, and the tendency to resort to the same tired old tropes over and over again - is of course revisiting his unfounded Obama "birther" accusations, just in case it influences a few undiscriminating Republican types, quipping, "I heard it today that she doesn't meet the requirements" ("I have nothing to do with it. I read somthing about it." Right! He may as well have started the sentence, "I'm not racist, but...")
But she is also, despite her popularity (recent polls show her favourability ratings as higher than those of Biden, Trump or Pence, and Biden's electability has gone up since her joining the ticket), seeing push-back from the other side of the fence, essentially questioning whether she is "Black enough"). For example, some progressive Black activists are claiming she is not truly African-American because she is not the descendant of slaves (what?!), and others that she opts in and out of Blackness whenever it is convenient (there may be some truth in this, and this is maybe a better argument, but still not a good one - as a Black female politician in a white man's world, you do what you have to do).
Well, no doubt she's well used to such barbs, if she has made it this far. But it seems a shame. And, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: why would anyone choose to go into a dirty game like politics?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The new and growing problem of recyling solar panels

Here's a problem I didn't see coming (like we need more problems...) Solar panels have been really popular in the last couple of decades, and very successful in advancing the cause of carbon-free, pollution-free power generation. But even solar panels don't last forever, and many are now getting towards the end of their working lives, and will need to be disposed of.
The disposal, or preferably recylinging, of solar panels is something that they young industry does not seem to have put much thought into. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates there will be 78 million metric tons of dead solar panels to be dealt with, increasing by 6 million metric tons each year thereafter. So, although this pales into insignificance at the side of all the other e-waste humanity produces, it is not a small problem. And standard electronics recycling methods are not appropriate to solar panels.
The most valuable materials in solar panels are silver and silicon. But the silicon cells are sandwiched between films of polymers and glass, and the whole is held in an almuminum frame. The junction boxes and cables contain valuable copper wiring. Solar panels also include toxic materials like lead that we do not want leaching out of landfills into our groundwater. A typical e-waste recycler would merely strip the aluminum and copper and just trash the rest as "impure glass". The recycled value of a solar panel may be as little as $3 on this basis, while it can cost anywhere from $12 to $25 to process. So, from an economic point of view as well as an environmental one, it behooves us to find a way to also recycle the copper, the aluminum, the glass, the silver, the silicon, the lead, even the tiny traces of rare earth metals.
The EU already requires solar panel producers to responsibly recycle their products at the end of their lives, and Japan, India and Australia are bringing in such rules, but there is no such requirement in North America, nor in most of the rest of the world. Best estimates suggest that no more than 10% is actually being recycled in a voluntary system. There are only a small number of dedicated Solar PV recyclijg companies, including Veolia in France and Recycle PV Solar in the USA.
Research, such as that at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US, is ongoing into more comprehensive and cost effective recycling techniques for solar panels, and there is research in Europe on how used solar panels can be re-used and re-purposed (although we have to be careful not to just ship old panels out to developing countries with poor regulatory systems, thereby merely dumping our intransigent problems onto poor countries). But the bottom line is: we're not there yet, and we really should be.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Trump's UAE-Israel deal not creating any peace in the Middle East

US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien thinks that Donald Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize for helping broker a deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first time the Jewish state has normalized relations with any Gulf state. UAE becomes only the third Arab state (after Egypt and Jordan) to even recognize the existence of the state of lsrael at all.
But, far from creating any kind of peace, in a region where peace is considered almost a dirty word, all Trump's "deal" has achieved is to stir up a slightly sleepy hornet's nest. It is certainly not the long-promised deal to resolve decades of between Israel and Palestine. I guess Jared Kushner is still working on that. Embattled Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whose fortunes this deal is designed, at least in part, to bolster, made it very clear that any suspension of Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands is very much temporary: "it is a temporary postponement. It is not removed from the table." It doesn't get much clearer than that.
Turkey is already considering suspending diplomatic ties with UAE over the agreement, which it sees as a move against Palestine, something it says is "not a step that can be stomached". Iran is calling it a "huge mistake" and a "treacherous act", and warns that it has just set Iran and the whole Arab world even more strongly against Israel. Palestine, predictably enough, sees itself as being betrayed and sold out by their "friends", especially at a time when a peace deal establishing a Palestinian state seems ever further from reality.
None of this sounds much like peace to me.

Ditto with the Bahrain and Sudan "peace" deals. These are not peace deals at all, but trade deals - there were no hostilities between these countries - and they represent low-hanging fruit, with little risk to Trump and little benefit to anyone else.
Trump is only involving himself in the first place with these small (and, let's face it, inconsequential) countries in order to ingratiate himself with Israel and the conservative Jewish vote in America. Its overall effect is to splinter the Arab world still further, and further destabilize the region.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Are stock market investors completely out to lunch?

I know I have talked about this before, but this week's figures have thrown it into even sharper relief. The S&P 500 stock index has just reached the record levels it last achieved in February of this year. Other stock markets are also looking pretty rosy, even if not quite to the same extent.
So, the stock markets are at record highs even though millions of Americans are out of work, and smaller companies (and even many bigger ones) are struggling to stay afloat. It all seems very wrong. But, as this article notes, "The stock market is not the economy".
Family restaurants, hair salons and pet stores are not listed on the stock market; big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook are (in fact, those five companies alone make up 22% of the S&P 500's total value). And those big tech companies have done pretty nicely out of the pandemic, thank you very much.
The other thing is that stock markets tend to reflect how the business community thinks the future will go, not necessarily how things are at the moment. So, the S&P's 34% plunge started on February 19th, well before the USA went into lockdown, based on future expectations. By the same token, if investors think that the future will be an improvement over what we have now - and God knows, it couldn't be a lot worse - then prices will tick upwards.
And finally, two other factors are relevant: interest rates remain low, and government stimulus money continues to drive the money supply higher.
So, it doesn't necessarily mean that American and Canadian investors are completely out to lunch. But it does mean that they are way more optimistic about a vaccine, the potential for international travel, and the way the general economy is going to go over the next several months than I am.

What are all these wacky craft beers?

Walking into a beer store used to be a pretty straightforward proposition. Since the much-vaunted "craft beer revolution", though, life has become much more complicated. There are thousands of craft beers to choose from now, coming to us from thousands of tiny unknown breweries, that seem to breed and multiply by the hour.
And it's not just different breweries: there are now a whole host of different kinds of beers, with names that may mean little or nothing to most of us regular folks. Saison? Gose? Radler?
The internet is full of beer. There are detailed guides like this one that list a ridiculous 75 dfferent styles of beer, or more general guides like this one from Time magazine. I'm just going to touch on a few that I happen to have noticed and occasionally been confused by. Read on.
  • Dark Lager: a lager is usually a pale-coloured, bottom-fermenting beer (i.e. the yeast accumulates at the bottom), considered an easy introduction to beer-drinking, as compared to the darker, more complex, stronger-flavoured, top-fermemting ales. Lager is "lagered", i.e. matured for weeks or months at near-freezing temperatures to give it the crisp, clean taste that lager-drinkers expext. Dark lager (Dunkel in Germany) is just a lager that looks more like an ale, but without all that challenging and confusing complexity.
  • Bock: a dark, malty, lightly-hopped style of lager from Germany, with a dark amber to brown colour, and a higher alcohol content than most lagers.
  • India Pale Ale: IPA is the archetypical "difficult" beer: strong-tasting, high-alcohol, often very bitter and/or hoppy, and it comes in a huge variety of different brands and flavours and finishes. English-style IPA (as opposed to English Pale Ale!) tends to be even maltier and bitterer, while American-style IPA (which comes in New England and West Coast styles, just to confuse things) is typically fruitier snd less bitter. But still complex and "difficult". If you want extra difficulty, go for an unfiltered IPA, which is cloudy, extra-strong-tasting, and usually ridiculously strong
  • Pale Ale: not necessarily the same as IPA, pale ales like American Pale Ale, English Pale Ale, American Blonde Ale, American Amber Ale, even English bitter, are hoppy and malty, but medium-bodied and relatively easy to drink. But ... they can be dry-hopped, double dry-hopped, single hopped, fresh hopped, imperial, fruited, "milk-shake", brettanomyces-yeasted ... it's complicated.
  • Session ale: a lower-alcohol IPA, with plenty of flavour but less alcohol (although still usually around 4-5%), allowing you, I suppose the derivation is, to have a good old session without getting too drunk. Not too strong, not too bitter, not too hoppy, not too malty - Goldilocks ale.
  • English Bitter: confusingly, often not particularly bitter at all, English or British Bitter is actually a kind of Pale Ale. In England, Bitter is the alternative to lager, and considered both more of a working man's drink and also a more cultured, gastronomic choice. Confused? Yeah, me too. But that's partly because it covers a bewildering number of different ales, ranging from the sweet to the sour to the bitter to the hoppy to the strong to the downright anodyne. The point seems to be that it is some sort of ale made in England.
  • Saison: not to be confused with Session ale (saison is French for "season", not "session"), Saison is a refreshing, highly-carbonated, fruity, spicy beer. Traditionally, it used to be low in alcohol, but these days it is more likely to be medium, even high, in alcohol.
  • Pilsener: I always thought Pilseners were just Eastern European lagers, but apparently they are closer to a pale ale, but crisp and drinkable. Czech Pilseners tend to be darker and more bitter than German ones.
  • Stout: surprisingly sweet, black-coloured beer that is thick and creamy, stout is not as "difficult" as you might think. American stouts tend to be stronger, bitterer, hoppier and maltier (i.e. less stout-like) than the original Irish and English stouts.
  • Porter: very dark in colour, like stout, due to common ingredients like dark-roasted malt and (yes) chocolate, porter tends to be more chocolatey and less coffee-y than stout. And yes, we are still talking about beer.
  • Belgian beer: there is a whole category of beer called "Belgian", because it comes from, well, Belgium, but this can encompass anything from pale ale to dark ale to fruity wheat beers to sours, so it is not a very useful label. Supposedly, Belgian beers are fruity, spicy and sweet, with high alcohol contents and low bitterness, but in practice there is a huge variety of tastes. Trappist beers, made by Trappist monks in Belgium, are very popular but very strong and definitely "difficult".
  • Wheat beer: "witbier" in Belgian or "Weißbier"  German, wheat beer uses malted wheat instead of malted barley as the main ingredient (or a combination of the two), giving it a light, almost bready, flavour, and typically low alcohol levels, making it a good light summer quaff, especially when combined, as they often are, with citrus and other fruits.
  • Sour ale: sours are, yes, sour and citrussy, and increasingly popular in North America. Even my daughter likes them. Their tartness comes from the encouragement of "wild yeasts" and bacteria, usually discouraged in the normal beermaking process, as they are fermented in open barrels, in order to create more acidity (lactic, acetic, citric) in the brew.
  • Gose: not a new beer at all, but newly-trendy, gose (pronounced goes-ah) is a millenium-old German style of sour wheat beer that has added salt and coriander to produce a slightly spicy sour beer that some find refreshing and others find absolutely disgusting. Tastes OK to me.
  • Lambic: a beer from (where else?) Belgium, lambic - and the related gueuze, kriek and framboise styles, the latter fermented using raspberries - is a kind of sour ale, relatively light on the alcohol, cloudy, with a "thick mouthfeel". Often described as "funky".
  • Radler: considered by some to be not beer at all, but a species of pop, radler is the German equivalent of English shandy (beer mixed with English-style lemonade, which of course is not actually lemony). It is beer liberally mixed with citrus fruit juice, usually grapefruit, to give a refreshing summery drink with a low alcohol content of 2-4%.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Trump's USPS shenanigans still has the power to shock

I'm not sure why anything that Donald Trump does still has the power to shock, after all the shocking things he has done thus far, but his open admission that he is starving the US Postal Service (USPS) of needed funds in a deliberate attempt at voter suppressionhas done just that: shocked me.
In an interview on Fox Business, Trump admitted that he is holding back funding of USPS in order to thwart Democrat efforts to have widespread mail-in ballots for the November federal election. He is doing this because he has convinced himself, improbably and inexplicably, that mail-in voting somehow benefits Democratic Party at the expense of the Republicans, and that, equally inexplicably, it is a source of wholesale electoral fraud (although the latter seems to be a lesser problem for him). He has claimed that, if mail-in ballots were to be allowed, the election results may not be known for "months" or even "years", because "these ballots are all going to be lost". Voting by mail is nothing new in the USA - one-in-four voters took advantage of postal ballots in the 2016 election - it does not seem to have led to any major irregularities or delays in the past. Predictions suggest that one-in-two Americans could resort to postal ballots this year, with more Democrats than Republicans traditionally taking advantage of the postal option.
Paradoxically, the increased postal voting that is expected this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, could in fact lead to delays, but only because of Donald Trump's deliberate actions and cost cuts to the USPS, including reductions in overtime, restrictions on mail transportation trips, and new mail sorting and delivery policies. The USPS is now openly warning states that it cannot guarantee that all ballots cast by mail will arrive in time to be counted for the upcoming November election, raising the prospect of massive disenfranchisement.
And, oh look, recently appointed USPS head, Louis DeJoy, just happens to be a huge Trump fan, and a top donor to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, and all current USPS board members are Trump appointees. Go figure! A congressional investigation into the scandal has now been called, but time is getting short for a resolution.
This kind of open tinkering with the democratic process is something you might expect from Turkmenistan or Belarus. But it retains its power to shock when we see it a suposedly civilized and democratic country, as we still think of the USA.

Why should we care about rare earth metals?

For decades now, China has had a stranglehold on the production of rare earth metals, and it is far from clear how the rest of the world is going to ever break that stranglehold. But as we have seen repeatedly, over-reliance on China is always a bad idea, and breaking that stranglehold is probably in everyone's (but China's) interests.
Rare earth metals or elements are a group of 17 broadly similar metals that have unique properties making them uniquely useful for a range of commercial purposes, particularly in the technology sector, and even more particularly in military and "clean" technologies. Mobile phones, wind turbines, electric cars, light bulbs, solar panels, high-temperature magnets, lasers, fibre optics, MRI machines, and military drones all use them to some extent. They are used for polishing optical-quality glass, for air pollution control, for illuminated screens on electronic devices, and many other essential 21st century uses.
Most of the names may not mean much to you: cerium, dysprusium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. Although not actually rare in the global scheme of things, it is rare to find them in economically-extractable quantities, and they are produced in vanishingly small amounts compared to more mainstream mining products like copper or zinc.
Up until the 1980s, the USA was the main producer, but in the 1990s Chinese production surged, and today China produces around 80% of the world's output, mainly in the Inner Mongolia region, followed by the USA and Australia. China also has by far the greatest reserves, followed by Brazil, Vietnam, Russia, India, Australia and Greenland (see why Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland now?)
In order to compete against China on the uneven playing field they have built up over the years, Western countries are going to have to beat China at their own game, with government intervention and capital commitment on a large scale to beef up their industries in order to compete. Chinese rare earth companies, with state help, can produce at prices low enough to drive most competitors out of business.
Companies (and consumers) that use rare earth metals may also have to suck it up and pay more for their supplies, or possibly even accept compromises on the environmental front, which would be an unfortunate development. A substantial proportion of China's production comes from small, rural and illegal opertions with little or no environmental regulation, and even its main official production in Inner Mongolia has led to major environmental damage and degradation. By its very nature, rare earth mining produces a lot of toxic and radioactive wastewater and tailings, which can leach acids, heavy metals and radioactive elemwnts into the groundwater.
Another avenue to explore is the recycling of rare earths from existing products, an area that Japan in particular is pursuing. There are challenges, but as prices of rare earths rise, recycling is becoming an increasingly economical option.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Retirement homes? Long-term care homes? Nursing homes? Confused?

While we're on the subject of clinics and healthcare, I had to do a bit of research on long-term care homes and retirement homes. This was not in the context of COVID-19 and the fact that the vast majority of Canada's pandemic deaths have been in care homes, but in relation to a friend who is probably going to have to make that decision sometime soon (yes, I've got to the age where friends are going into care...), and I realized that I really didn't know the difference between a retirement home and a nursing home and an assisted living home, etc, etc.
I found a good basic resource and ascertained that therefore are three main categories of senior care:
  • Long-term Care Homes - also called nursing homes (which I think is more of a British term), these are group homes where seniors can live and receive 24/7 nursing and personal care, inclusing help with daily activities like eating snd bathing. These are more suited to people with more severe needs who are not able to direct their own care. Costs vary depending on whether the rooms are private, semi-private or basic (3-4 people per room), and short-stay terms are also offered. The government covers the costs of the actual nursing and personal care; residents just pay the accommodation costs.
  • Retirement homes - privately-paid residenc for seniors who can direct their own care. Best for people wbo want to maintain a reasonably independent lifestyle in a safe, comfortable home-like atmosphere, but who need a bit of help with their daily living activities. They typically don't provide 24-hour nursing services, but they do usually provide two or more of: meals, bathing assistance, help with medications, incontinence care, early-stage dementia care, some nursing. doctor and pharmacy services. Within the retirement home category, though, there are four main types of care available: Independent Supported Living: a home-like environment, with the option for extra services as needed (charged separately); Assisted Living: a home-like environment with some care services (e.g. dressing, bathing, grooming and medication) included in the price, and others available at an additional cost; Specialized Dementia Care: the retirement home experience with extra services included (e.g. social, recreational and fitness activities) for those with mild dementia; Short-term Stay: for those who want to try out retirement living first, or for those leaving hospital needing a bit of extra help for a short while. Typically, retirement homes are a bit more expensive than long-term care homes, and Assisted Living (and Dementia Care in particular) are even more expensive.
  • Home Care - living at home and having a care provider visit your home regularly to offer healthcare-related services like personal support, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social work, meal preparation, wound dressing, dietetics, nursing, etc. This is usually a cheaper option than long-term care homes or retirement homes, but is only suitable for someone that is still reasonably independent and largely able to manage their own care.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How is it legal to have private clinics in Canada?

We have been looking into private clinics here in Toronto, to extend the options for our daughter, who has been to a succession of public system doctors and specialists over the years, and still lacks a definitive diagnosis and treatment for her (rather obscure) problem.

Both she and I are a little shamefaced about this, as we both harbour some generalized left-wing misgivings about private medicine, and believe that healthcare should be free and universal, as indeed it is here in Canada. And yet there ARE peivate clinics here in Ontario, and in most other provinces. How is this possible? How is it legal?

Saskatchewan introduced a universal hospital care plan back in 1947, but it was not until the 1984 Canada Health Act that private healthcare aas effectively outlawed throughout the country, mainly to guard agaist the wave of extra billing, user fees and copays that swept the country in the 1970s. However, it turns out that there is no blanket ban on private medicine in Canada, and technically any doctor that wants to set up a private practice can do so, provided they completely opt out of the public system. They must choose one or the other. The Canada Health Act seeks to remove any conflicts of interest (e.g. the temptation to siphon patients away from the public practice to their more lucrative private practice). In addition, most provinces ban private health insurance, making it difficult for a private sector doctor to find business, and some provinces also restrict private doctors from charging more for procedures than they can charge under the provincial healthcare plan.

However , there is a small Canadian private sector for medically necessary healthcare, estimated at aroud 1%, and many doctors are agitating for a more Euroean-style hybrid system. Because they are operating in something of a legal grey zone, private clinics tend to open up up quietly, and fly as far as possible under the radar of the press.  I was actually surprised at the choice that was available to us, right here in Toronto. I still don't really understand how they are able to offer these services privately - it is not really something that the piblic system is not able to offer (unless you argue that their ability to offer a complete 5-hour medical assessment, complete with immediate medical tests, snacks and gourmet coffee, is something the public system cannot offer, limited as they are to ten minute consultations by harrassed, overworked doctors).

Defenders of the single-tier system argue that expanding private medicine would siphon talent and resources away from the country's already over-stretched public health system (although that's actually not what has happened in European countries with two-tier systems). Some argue that private healthcare clinics tend to push unnecessary, even dangerous, testing, although it is not quite clear what the evidence is for that.

Proponents of a two-tier system counter that allowing those who can pay to take advantage of private medicine would free up more space in the public system for everyone else, resulting in shorter wait times for everyone. They point out that the existence of private clinics does not violate the principle of universal healthcare for everyone regardless of incomes, it is merely supplementary. They say they offer managed and preventative healthcare, rather than reactive event-based care, like in the public sector. They also give examples of people whose medical problems have become worse while they waited for procedures in the public sphere, in some cases leading to deaths, deaths that could have been avoided by the existence of private clinics with lower wait times. 

You can kind of see both sides of the argument, and you can also see where the arguments fall down. The bottom line, though, for us at least, is that, if the public system has let us down in this particular case, then we will explore all available alternatives, principles be damned. And, luckily for us, we can pay. Most of our dealings with public healthcare have been excellent, I would say, but we will do what we need to in order to safeguard the health of our family, even (God forbid!) to travelling to the States if need be.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The pandemic will probably mean global population peaks even lower

Whenever there is a major catastrophe or a persistent power failure or even just a big winter storm, there is often a kind of conventional wisdom, often accompanied by adolescent sniggers of the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more, squire" variety, that "Oho, in nine months' time, there will be a baby boom".
But in fact, studies show that the precise opposite is true: major blackouts and closed borders actually result in a baby bust as families think twice about bringing a new life into an uncertain and possibly hostile world. And the extended COVID-19 lockdown is expected to have this effect is spades. In fact, it could well have a material impact on the world's population as a whole. A Brookings Institute study suggests that up to half a million planned children will not be born in America alone, as parents delay increasing their families during uncertain financial times. Furthermore, once delayed, most of those babies will NEVER be realized. As the article expresses it, "A baby not born during a downturn stays unborn".
The newer population models are much less apocalyptic than older ones anyway, as I have already discussed in a previous post. Current predictions of global population see our present 7.8 billion increasing to just 9, maybe 10, billion by mid-century, before falling. As education and access to contraception for women (and for racial minorities) continue to improve, women are choosing to have fewer children, and to have them later in life. Most countries already  have a birth rate below replacement levels, and the others are expected to join them in the coming decades.
Millennial and Gen Z women are already having much fewer babies than even the models anticipated, and the pandemic will only exacerbate this effect. The long-term effects of all this on climate change and the environment (positive) and on society and the world's economy (probably negative) should be interesting to observe for our kids, and maybe even for some of us.

Was the Nagasaki bombing (or Hiroshima, for that matter) really necessary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world's second nuclear bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9th 1945. The first was dropped three days earlier, on August 6th 1945, on Hiroshima. The first one killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people, and the second between 39,000 and 80,000.
I have often wondered whether, even if the first bomb was justifiable as a "shock and awe" tactic that ultimately shortened the war and saved many lives overall (and that's a big if), was the second one necessary at all?
An interview with q Japanese historian and the daughter of two hibakusha (survivor of the nuxlear blasts) has made me seriously doubt that, and the argument is not the usual one about the horrors of war and the immorality of death on such a huge scale, but a strategic argument about the military history of the times.
It's no secret that Japan officially surrendered on August 15th 1945, just 6 days after the Nagasaki bombing, and Emperor Hirohito apparently came to the decision as early as August 10th, the day after Nagasaki, so it is easy to conclude that the surrender was a direct result and consequence of the bombing(s). What I hadn't realized, though, is that, at midnight on August 8th, i.e. between the two bombings, and just hours before the second bomb was dropped, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
Many (non-American) historians feel that the entry of Russia into the fray was more important in the Japanese decision to surrender than the American bombs. After the Hiroshima bomb, Japanese leaders had already started seeking Soviet mediation in talks with the US aimed at bringing hostilities to a close, and when the Soviets declared war, that was seen as the end of any possible mediation process, and the final nail in the coffin of Japan's war effort. The Nagasaki bomb, and maybe also the Hiroshima one, it is argued, was therefore redundant, and more of a war crime than a saving grace.
It's not clear to me to what extent the Americans were aware of the Soviet situation, and we should probably remember that communications were not as efficient in those days as they are now, but hell, they had phones didn't they? It potentially puts a while new complection on the final events of the war, doesn't it? But I suppose we will never really know.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Are there three or four centibillionaires?

There are now three centibillionaires in the world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has breached the $100 billion threshold, to join Bill Gates ($120 billion) and Jeff Bezos ($190 billion), to become only the third person in the exclusive club of those who are worth over $100 billion.
Interestingly, about a year ago, French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault was in the news as having achieved membership of the centibillionaire club (along with Gates and Bezos). Does this mean that Arnault has since dropped out of the club? Or is it just that Europeans don't count for some purposes? Or that only tech billionaires count? Or are there actually FOUR members of the club?
Well, it turns out that Arnault WAS actually the richest man in the world (even richer than Bezos), at least for a short time in January 2020. But then the pandemic struck, and Bezos, Gates and Zuckerberg made out like bandits, which Arbault suffered big-time, and by August 2020 his net worth was down to a measly $80.2 billion. So, no longer a centibillionaire.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Why (and how) flies fly like they fly

I was idly watching a housefly the other day - yes, a pandemic will do that to you! - and wondering why they fly like they do, i.e. jerkily, and apparently aimlessly and randomly.
First, a note about how flies fly. Most insects have two pairs of wings, which they move together in unison (in the case of bees and butterflies, the two pairs of wings are actually hooked together so that they move as one). True flies, though, have only two functional wings - they belong to the order diptera meaning two wings. The other pair of wings have shrunken over evolutionary time into two white drumstick-shaped organs called "halteres", which function as gyroscopes, measuring torque and angular momentum around the body. These halteres move in opposition (antiphase) to the front wings, attached mechanically to their respective wings, which is facinating to watch in slow motion.
Mechanically, video and modelling has shown that flies flap their wings over 200 times a second, generating enough force to move them and to react to changes extremely quickly, partly by flapping their wings in a way that creates something called a "leading edge vortex", a tornado-like phenomenon that creates enough force to stay in the air.
Why, though, do they fly in such an apparently erratic manner? This is mainly because they can only fly in straight lines, not curves, punctuated by rapid 90° turns called "saccades". They are not able to flap one wing faster or harder than the other in order to make turns, so they must roll their body to one side and pull up quickly, in a momentary spinning freefall, before re-engaging normal forward motion, rather like a fighter pilot in a high-G turn.
And their flight paths are far from random. They are actually an "optimal scale-free searching strategy". "Scale-free" in this context means that their flight path appears similar whether viewed up close or from a distance, like a fractal pattern. The searching, whether for food or mates, is also intermittent, in that they fly in (non-searching) straight lines and only re-engage search mode again every now and then when they make turns.
They are also making "on-the-fly" changes in direction to avoid crashing into objects and to avoid possible predators. Their small bodies, even their wings, are studded with sensors, and their complex eyes are simple but very efficient and give them an almost 360° view. Flies only have tiny brains composed of tiny neurons, but they do the limited number of things they are programmed to do very well and very quickly. If threatened with a fly-swatter, for example, a fly's brain calculates the location of the threat, works out an exit strategy, and position its legs or body ready for action, all with 100 milliseconds.
There is also evidence that flies also incorporate both visual cues and a sense of smell in their flight patterns. Furthermore, their apparently erratic and random flight paths actually follow a mathematical algorithm known as Lévy's distribution - kind of like sniffing, aseessing whether they are getting "warmer or colder", turn 90°, continue and repeat - which optimizes their chances of locating food or a mate.
So, it might all look pretty random and pointless, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
All of this, fascinating as it is, led me to one last question: do flies, and other tiny animals perceive time differently than we do? It seems like the smaller the beastie, the faster they do things (includimg reacting to fly swatters). Is that because time works differently for them? Do they see us as great lumbering hunks operating and moving incredible slowly?
Well, unlikely though it may seem, research suggests that they probably do. In fact, time perception appears to be directly related to size. The smaller an animal is, the faster its metabolic rate, and the slower time passes for it. Flies, for example, can perceive light flickering four times faster than we can.
So, there you go. Flies. Not just annoying pests. Well, mainly just annoying pests...

What has the Facebook ad boycott actually achieved?

The #StopHateForProfit campaign, organized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in the USA, managed to persuade a lot of very large and influential corporations (including Disney, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, McDonalds, Unilever, and over 1,000 others) to withold their advertising from Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram for the month of July in order to pressure the social media giant to do something about its lax policies on hate, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism and violence. Several Canadian companies also signed on to the campaign, including all five big banks, Lululemon, Mountain Equipment Coop and others.
Most of these companies have now re-started their Facebook ads and have returned to business as usual, including the Canadian banks. Unilever and Clorox committed from the start to boycotting to the end of the year, and Coca-Cola, Smuckers, Mars, Diageo, HP, CVS Health, Verizon and others have said they will continue to withold their advertising. In Canada, MEC and Moosehead Breweries have vowed to continue the campaign. 
But was all this just a cynical exercise in public relations that cost the companies very little, and that had very little effect on Facebook, which made nearly $5.2 billion in profits on advertising last quarter, up 98% from a year earlier? Financial analysts suggests that the concrete impact of the boycott will be "minimal", amounting to maybe $100 million (yes, that's "minimal" to Facebook).
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg certainly did not seem particularly put out by the campaign, quipping that the advertisers "will be back on the platform soon enough". But the public exposure of the campaign was enough for him to bring in some specific changes: the hiring of a "civil rights executive", the establishment of a team to study algorithm bias, the release of the results of a civil rights audit, the removal of content from hateful movements and problematic groups, and the conducting of an independent audit of hate content.
This all sounds quite impressive (although ADL Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt insists that the platform remains a "cesspool" of bigotry). Does this mean that the campaign was a success, though? Campaign organizers say that it "exceeded expectations", but that they are dissatisfied with Facebook's reponse, and have vowed to continue the campaign, albeit with a reduced roster of participants. Greenblatt says he expects to see "the movement get bigger and broader", but I think he may be overly optimistic (or just talking up a good game).
I know it is a tall order for a platform of the size and breadth of Facebook to police every post from every subscriber. It's tough to even identify hateful or deliberately misleading content, and to know just how gullible the general public is, and how susceptible they are to falsehoods and conspiracy theories. But, as Spiderman knew, with great power comes great responsibility, and the jury is still out on whether Facebook has done even the bare minimum to counteract the huge negative influence it has had for years on the more suggestible parts of its user base.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Monarchs, viceroys, mimicry, predation and misconceptions

I'm getting much better at identifying viceroy butterflies, as opposed to the very similar monarch. Viceroys are noticeably smaller, and they have a tell-tale thin black stripe towards the back of the hindwing.

You probably know that viceroys are regarded as mimics of monarchs, which are distateful to most potential predators due to their diet of milkweed plants as caterpillars. Incidentally, milkweed - and therefore the monarch that feeds on it - is not actually poisonous, as it is often portrayed, it is just very bitter and unpleasantly.
Except that ... I found out recently that it is not quite as simple as that (of course it isn't!) It was long thought that viceroys were an example of "Batesian mimicry", mimicry in which an edible animal is protected by its resemblance to a noxious one that is avoided by predators. However, it turns out that the viceroy caterpillars feed on willows, poplars and cottonwoods that are also very bitter and avoided by avian predators. This is therefore an example of Müllerian mimicry, a form of mimicry in which two or more noxious animals develop similar appearances as a shared protective device. (Müllerian mimicry is named after the German naturalist Fritz Müller; Batesian mimicry is named after the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates).
And talking of misconceptions, we learned while visiting the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico earlier this year that not all predators avoid monarchs: spiders, fire ants, some birds and wasps are all happy to indulge in a bitter meal from time to time at various points in the monarchs' peregrinations, while in the Mexican sanctuaries themselves they are still at risk of predation from black-eared mice, black-backed orioles and black-headed grosbeaks. I wonder what the "black" connection is?

A few mysteries surrounding the Beirut explosion

The huge explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon yesterday was a disaster the unfortunate country could ill-afford to experience, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread unabated there, the economy is already in freefall, and daily protests and riots rock the country. The death toll is currently about 135 (and will almost certainly rise), with some 5,000 injured, and almost half the city was damaged to some degree. An estimated 300,000 people have been made homeless by the explosion. The blast was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, nearly 200km away. Local authorities say it was almost certainly an accident, although the exact chain of events remains mysterious.
I have seen various pictures of the devastation which show a huge structure apparently largely undamaged amid the rubble of the rest of the port area.

I guess it is some sort of grain storage silo, although on some pictures it looks suspiciously like a monolithic natural rock formation of some kind, particularly on the small screen of a phone. How did such a large, and apparently hollow, structure survive more or less intact when all around it was reduced to sticks and stones? It is kind of like the buildings that survived Hiroshima.
Secondly, why was 2,750 tonnes of explosives being stored in an area surrounded by businesses and people anyway? The chemical that exploded in such a dramatic fashion was ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer as well as a main ingredient in mining explosives. It had apparently been sitting unsecured in a warehouse for over six years. Why? Who owned it? Why was it not used for anything over a period of six years? And such a large amount.. ?
Well, get this: the original shipment was owned by a Russian national, last known to be resident in Cyprus, and since disappeared completely; the ship was registered in Moldova; the crew was largely Ukrainian; and the ship was en route from a port in Georgia to Mozambique! If that doesn't give some idea of how dodgy the whole transaction was, nothing will. The ship was impounded in Beirut as unsafe, and forbidden from sailing further (this was in November 2013), and he crew abandoned it and disappeared (although a few remained trapped on it for up to a year!) After a court order, the ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse in the port area of Beirut, and has been there ever since, supposedly pending auction or some other disposal.
Why did it explode? Interestingly, ammonium nitrate is not an explosive in its own right, and should have remained relatively stable under most cirumstances. Rather, it is an "oxidizer" which makes fires and explosions more intense. It only becomes highly explosive itself if contaminated, such as with oil, or in some other "extreme circumstances". Or, presumably, a fire (see below).
And why was someone filming the whole thing? My understanding is that there was a fire already burning in the area that was pumping out significant amounts of smoke, and that is what was being filmed by amateurs at the time. It was therefore (almost) completely coincidental that the explosion itself was caught on film. A fire would also be what was needed to ignite the otherwise relatively stable ammonium nitrate (see above).
And a final mystery: why does Donald Trump open his mouth before engaging what remains of his brain? He immediately called the blast a "terrible attack", likely caused by a bomb. "I met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was." Ah, well, there you go then. Thanks for that Mr. Trump and "great generals". You've really helped the situation.

WE Charity's corporate sponsors cut them loose before any irregularities are proven

Despite the lack of direct evidence of financial irregularities coming out of the parliamentary investigation of WE Charity, Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau, WE's corporate sponsors are cutting ties in droves, just in case, not wanting to be seen publicly supporting a possibly suspect corporate citizen in today's judgemental culture. The Royal Bank of Canada is the latest major sponsor to cut them loose, following Loblaws, Virgin, Telus, Goodlife, KPMG and the Globe and Mail out of the door. Westjet and DHL are said to be considering their options as we speak. These companies are not even bothering to wait to see what comes of the federal Ethics Commissioner's investigation. No detailed explanations have been forthcoming.
So, why are so many companies abandoning WE Charity in their hour of need, like rats from a sinking ship. It all comes back to that ultra-judgemental corporate climate I have mentioned before in this blog, and what has been labelled in recent years as "cancel culture", a public withdrawal of support from a person or organization that has gained the reputation, whether deserved or not, of being socially unacceptable or objectionable in some way. It often leads to an unofficial assumption of "guilty until proven innocent", which is not how things are supposed to work in Western democracies.
And that seems to be exactly what has happened here. It may yet come out in this political witch hunt against the federal Liberals that WE Charity is guilty of more than just a bit of financial sloppiness and a somewhat cavalier attitude towards contract law and organizational structure. But that has not happened yet, and all those corporate sponsors that are so frantically distancing themselves from WE are arguably guilty of sanctimoniousness and excessive prudence, as well as a tendency to throw partners under the bus at the first sign of trouble.

Trudeau/Morneau investigation turns into a witch hunt

It has probably not escaped your notice that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau are both under investigation for conflict of interests due to their, and their families', dealings and connections with WE charity.
The two main opposition parties are making a big production of the public inquiry. Pierre Poliévre and Charlie Angus in particular seem intent on dragging the charity through the mud, as well as scoring a few cheap political points against the Liberals. Poliévre - "the Tory pit bull", as I have seen him described - in particular has been really aggressive, disrespectful and downright nasty in his questioning. Luckily, thumbscrews are not politcally acceptable these days. Charlie Angus has been just his usual dogged, doctrinaire self.
Should Trudeau and Morneau have recused themselves from the cabinet vote on the program? Possibly, although a billion dollar contract in which neither the Prime Minister nor the Finance Minister were integrally involved would be a very unusual situation, and really neither they nor members of their families would obtain any financial advantage from the contract, and neither minister has any social ties to the Kielbergers (again contrary to what opposition politicians are alleging).
Thus far, though, the bottom line is that WE has not been shown to have done anything illegal or even immoral and neither have the politicans involved. So far, WE's evidence has not given Poliévre and Angus much satisfaction at all: everything the charity has done seems to have been above board and for the right reasons. As witch hunts go, it has been a pretty dismal affair (not to mention expensive and a huge distraction from the pressing matters all around us).