Monday, November 30, 2020

Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed doesn't look much like a peacemaker now

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was granted the Nobel Peace Prize just last year for his peaceful transition of power in perennially-embattled Ethiopian. He ended a long-standing state of emergency, established democratic reforms, negotiated peace with neighbouring Eritrea after years of conflict, welcomed back exiled dissidents and released political prisoners, apologized for past abuses, liberalized some of Ethiopia's draconian internal laws, and publicly railed against war. He seemed like a breath of fresh air after decades of militaristic repression.

But now, just a year later, Ahmed is presiding over a brutal and bloody war against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country. He has summarily cancelled planned elections, and blamed the unrest and ethnic violence in the country firmly on his old political opponents - and for many years the dominant faction in Ethiopian politics - the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) with, it must be said, little or no evidence. Government forced claim to have succeeded in taking major cities in the region, but it seems likely to settle into a guerrilla warfare, which could drag on for years.

Now, some of the same people who nominated Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize are starting to second guess themselves. How come Ahmed has made such a complete volte face? How did a committed peacemaker become a warmonger in the space of less than two years?

To be fair, the ethnic troubles in the region have been brewing for years. But human rights observers had already noted that Ahmed was starting to fall into old repressive ways, locking up critics and curtailing the Internet, and blocking independent media reporting. The United Nations is warning of alarming rhetoric from the government, and points to the targeting of ethnic groups. Ahmed has rejected any compromise, vowing to continue the fight until the TPLF's leaders (whom he calls "criminals") are arrested and their arsenals destroyed, hardly the language of a peacemaker.

The Nobel Committee say they are concerned and troubled - I'll bet they are! - but how far will things have to go before they retract the prize? They are desperately trying to paper over the cracks, claiming that "it is now that Abiy Ahmed's efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement". But you can inagine a very different conversation going on behind closed doors. Did they jump the gun? Can a leopard change its spots (he is an ex-soldier, after all)? Were the signs there before the prize was awarded?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Pierre Poilievre goes from attack dog to full populist demagogue

Pierre Poilievre is turning into the Canadian Conservative Party's very own mini-Trump. In his attitudes, his aggressiveness and his way of speaking, you can see who he is modelling himself on, and it's not mild-mannered Stepehen Harper.

After Poilievre's super-aggressive and downright rude performance at the parliamentary investigation of Justin Trudeau WE Charity involvement, the man seems to have reinvented himself as Erin O'Toole's attack dog, partly perhaps to make up for O'Toole's ineffectiveness, and partly, I am guessing to do O'Toole's dirty work so that he himself can remain relatively clean and give the impression of being above the less salubrious elements of party politics.

Poilievre has long had a reputation as a young, brash, energetic and spirited performer, unafraid to get his hands dirty in a political fight. But, more recently, you see the closet populist coming out in him more and more, and it would not surprise me one bit if he wasn't grooming himself to become a conservative populist leader in the mould of Trump or Boris Johnson.

He certainly has the populist language down pat. Take, for example, last week's extended harangue of Trudeau's "Great Reset" pretensions. While the feckless O'Toole contented himself with musing on whether it might not be better to "build back stronger" rather than "build back better", Poilievre, by contrast, took flight, ranting about "global financial elites" attempting to re-engineer economies and societies (like that was a bad thing, and not something that both sides of the political divide regularly talk about and attempt whenever they get the chance). He went on at length about the Liberals' plan to "empower the elites at the expense of the people", and cautioned that Canadians must "fight back against global elites" and their "power grab" in order to "protect our freedom" and to "end plans to impose the 'Great Reset' ".

Now, it was just another hyperbolic political speech like many another. But when Conservatives harp on about "global elites" (whatever that might mean) and protecting the "people", you just know they are going down that populist route. It usually doesn't end well, either for the elites or the people (c.f. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Jason Kenney, and any number of others). 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Let's not talk about Western alienation - it's Alberta that is alienated

I think we need to do something about the well-worn (not to say over-used) phrase "Western alienation".

I imagine that British Columbia, Canada's most westerly province, must be really pissed off whenever they hear the oft-repeated phrase. BC has much more in common with Ontario and Quebec than it does with closer neighbours Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When we talk about "Western alienation", what we really mean is "Alberta alienation", maybe at a pinch "Alberta and Saskatchewan alienation". "Prairie alienation", perhaps (Manitoba kind of straddles the two solitudes). Those provinces are so out of step with the rest of the country that they probably have more in common with the central (redneck) states of the USA than they do with Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.

So, let's not lump BC in with the rednecks of Alberta. Let's be more specific in our language.

Seven Russians die after drinking hand sanitizer

You have to wonder. Yahoo News Australia is reporting that seven people in Tattisky in eastern Russia have died after drinking hand sanitizer at a party

Apparently, the alcohol ran out and someone obviously spotted the "69% methanol" on the sanitizer label, and nine of the partygoers thought this would be a good idea. Now, seven of them, ranging in age from 27 to 69, are dead, and the other two are in a coma in intensive care.

Firstly, what were they doing having a drinks party in the middle of pandemic in which Russia is suffering 25,000 new cases and nearly 500 deaths a day (or at least that is what they choose to disclose)? And secondly, hand sanitizer? Really? Apparently, the Russian health authorities have specifically warned people against drinking hand sanitizer, in full knowledge of the extent of the serious alcoholism problem in Russia (30% of deaths in the country are attributable to alcohol, sustantially more than any other country).

I guess they have an acute commonsense problem too. It's hand sanitizer! Put it on your hands!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Why the COVID vaccines need to be stored at such low temperatures

The first two COVID-19 vaccines to get some serious traction are the Pfizer/BioNTech one and the Moderna one. Both vaccines are on the home straight right now, and appear to have an excellent effectiveness rate of around 95%. There are hopes to get them both fast-tracked for use early in the new year.

The vaccines are quite different, but both use varations of a relatively new technique called synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA). Because mRNA is rather delicate, and constantly at risk of damage from other molecules in the environment, it is wrapped within the vaccine in a protective layer made of nanoparticles of fatty lipids, and it needs to be stored at very low temperatures to slow down any chemical reactions and enzyme action that might affect the vaccine's effectiveness and potency.

The Moderna vaccine can be stored long-term at just -20°C (-4°F), a temperature that can relatively easily be achieved in most common freezers. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, however, needs to be stored at around -70°c (-94°F), which requires specialized equipment that is usually available at most urban hospitals but may not be available at smaller rural hospitals

I have not been able to fully ascertain why one needs to be stored at a much colder temperature than the other, but Moderna argues that its lipid nanoparticle protection is superior, and that they just have more experience in the relatively new field of mRNA vaccines. It's also possible that Pfizer/BioNTech may decide, over time and with more testing, that its product can be stored in less extreme temperatures. But, for now, and in the interests of getting the virus out as quickly as possible, they are choosing to err on the side of caution.

Either way, it could well affect the logistics of how the different vaccines are distributed (e.g. the Pfizer product may be reserved for larger population centres with better-equipped hospitals). Some wealthier hospitals are already buying up specialized freezers, despite express advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against such actions. 

Between the two vaccines, though, and the many others which are set to announce their testing results soon, it is thought that everyone will be accommodated. All we have to do now is to persuade people that they should actually get the vaccine ...

What the hell is a K-shaped recovery anyway?

You may have read about the possibility of a K-shaped recovery from the economic woes brought on by the pandemic, and wondered what the hell they were talking about. Ex-Bank of Canada head Stephen Poloz was predicting it just recently for Canada, for example. 

A V-shaped recovery or a U-shaped recovery are pretty easy to visualize: economic activity goes down and then it goes up again, more or less quickly. But K-shaped?

Well, you might not be able to visualize it because it is not a very good visual image. The idea of a K-shaped recovery is that some sectors of the economy take off again, while others continue to languish. I guess they needed a letter that would give the impression of two different economies concurrently going off on different and diverging trajectories, and someone was probably very pleased with themselves for coming up with the letter K.

But, while the right hand side does go off in different directions, the left hand side is a vertical line, and does not indicate at all the downhill trajectory of the economy before the recovery. 

Having said that, I'm not sure that I can suggest a better option - a Y on its side, perhaps.

Trump using lame duck period tonsettle old scores and force through a few more pet projects

Have you ever wondered why there is such an unconscionably long delay between an American presidential election and the new president's inauguration? The election was on November 3rd; Joe Biden's inauguration will not be until January 20th, a full ten weeks later.

To us non-Americans, it seems ridiculous, and a recipe for potential disaster as the old president plays out his "lame duck" period, still with full presidential powers. Of course, the US Constitution was not designed with a spiteful and unpredictable character like Donald Trump in mind, but why is it even like that?

Well, supposedly, the period was instituted as a deliberate measure to allow a smooth changeover to occur (ha!), at a time when communications were poor in a large and still developing country. In fact, the very first election, in 1789, allowed for SIX MONTHS from election to official inauguration. It was rapidly realized that this was too long, so it was changed to four months. This period continued until 1932, when Herbert Hoover's dithering at the height of the Great Depression persuaded Congress that even that was too long, and it was changed to the current two-and-a-half months, through the passing of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, so that President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt could come in and actually do something.

Fast forward to 2020, and Trump is using the period to sow doubt and mistrust, doing his level best to stage a coup. as well as to pass a bunch of measures that will only have to be reversed by the new president. 

He has already started, including firing a bunch of people in Homeland Security, FBI and CIA and installing his own people, selling off oil drilling leases in the protected lands of the Arctic National Refuge, cutting military troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continuing to undo as many key environmental regulations and safeguards as he can. He is known to be planning to make a slew of ill-advised judicial pardons (as all presidents tend to do). There are rumours he is even planning a military strike against Iran, which could foment all-out war. Given that even he must know that he only has a limited period in power now, this could prove to be the scariest part of his whole administration.

And it's not only Trump that is abusing the system. Israel's Benjamin Natanyahu (something of a lame duck Prime Minister himself) is using the interim period while he still has an ally in the White House to push through more (many more) illegal settlements on the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and Golan Heights, as well as agressively attacking Iranian military targets in Syria. It's anyone's guess what others among Trump's dictator and populist friends (Putin, Erdoğan, Kim, López Obrador, name your favourite unpleasant leader here) may be planning.

Time for a new Amendment to the 20th Amendment?

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Why we need to lock down hard, not pussyfoot around the pandemic

Globe and Mail columnist André Picard hit the nail on the head in his column recently, including snippets like, "If you want to halt the spread of a pandemic illness, half measures are not sufficient", "You can't slow the spread of the coronavirus by loosening restrictions", and finally, "As long as we have high levels of circulating virus ...  the economy won't thrive". 

Then, in a later article, Picard drives his point home even more forcefully: "They [the politicians] have to justify why they are  ignoring sound advice, and bear the consequences", and, "If your position is that businesses must remain open at all costs, and infections, hospitalizations and deaths be damned, then say so". Ouch!

So, here's how I see it.

I think everyone understands that locking down hurts the economy, so we have to be ready and willing to support it (probably at the federal level, as they have access to more, and cheaper, borrowing), in full knowledge that we will be paying for it for years to come. People also understand that a lockdown has mental health implications for some people - anxiety, depression, PTSD, even suicidal thoughts - and we need to be ready and willing to deal with that too, as well as possible (particularly the avoidance of suicides). And it too will cost money. But what would you prefer a month or two of highly subsidized economy followed by relative normality, or a year plus of subsidized economy (which is what we are staring at now).

These repercussions, though, are of unknown magnitude and seriousness, and arguably easier to deal with than a long-term out-of-control pandemic, with all the deaths and long-term health problems that will necessarily accompany it. These are known unknowns, to borrow a phrase.

No-one is really going to be happy with the kind of low-level, simmering economy we have at the moment. And even that level of economic openness is still enabling a rapid rise in COVID cases and constant deaths. And in the meantime, people are still suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental problems. This is not a situation we should be looking to continue. If our half-hearted semi-lockdown situation is causing economic malaise and psychologic trauma, then we should try and minimize it by a few weeks of really hard lockdown, and a return as soon as possible to near-normal.

We know that, as cases continue to rise and the hospitals reach saturation point, a full lockdown is going be needed at some point. Surely, it is better to do it now, before things get any worse and an even longer lockdown becomes necessary. If we just muddle along as we are now, cases and deaths will continue to rise, and we will be stuck in this for MANY MONTHS more.

If we are worried about how a lockdown impinges on people's civil liberties - this is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's line: "A lockdown constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people's fundamental rights" - well, sometimes we need to trample the rights of a few in the short term to ensure the rights of the many in the long term. Right now, MY rights (and, more importantly, the rights of medical personnel and essential workers) are being compromised by those individuals who insist on pretending that everything is normal and that parties and crowded bars are acceptable. 

The other conservative argument we hear a lot is, "I trust the public to do the right thing, and they don't need nannying". Even Justin Trudeau echoed this sentiment when talking to these very same premiers. How is that working for you Alberta? Manitoba? USA? Some of us have been doing the right thing since Day 1 (although even we have found ourselves taking some sloppy shortcuts in the absence of strong, clear, enforced rules), but some people feel that their own personal needs and way of life is more important than the general good.

But it can be done, with good simple messaging and strong policing. If the notoriously independent and individualist Australian people are willing to submit to a lockdown like the city of Melbourne imposed recently - and what a resounding success that was: ZERO cases for two weeks now, after a spike in cases almost as bad as Canada is now experiencing, with no riots, only minor protests, and the politicians involved are now riding a wave of popularity - then I'm sure Canadians can manage it. And yes, it will cost money too (the financial safety net instituted by Australia is significantly more generous than that available anywhere in Canada). The residents of Melbourne, and the rest of Australia and New Zealand and a handful of other proactive countries, are living a near-as-damn-it-normal life right now. If you need an inspiring story, then read that one.

So, we need to return to a much more serious lockdown than we are seeing currently. (In fact, this should have been done way back in early September, when it was clear that a second wave was starting.) Pretty much the whole medical establishment is in agreement on this, other than a few outliers of the Barrington Declaration persuasion. Yes, we're all suffering from "pandemic fatigue", but if my analysis is correct, we're just going to have to suck it up and go for it, otherwise this thing will go on indefinitely. A vaccine, which we may or may not get sometime in the next year or so, may or may not help long term, but we can't put all out eggs in that basket (and don't even get me started on herd immunity).

This does, however, require substantial political will and leadership, and we are just not seeing that from the current crop of conservative premiers in Canada (and the federal government understandably does not want to cross swords with the provinces on yet another major issue).

Friday, November 13, 2020

We are back to the "old" Doug Ford just when we can least afford it

Doug Ford has officially lost the plot and, with it, the credibility and authority needed to lead a province through this COVID-19 pandemic.

To be honest, he has not been as convincing in this role as many people had hoped earlier in the virus, when he seemed surprisingly empathetic, even if not very effective. People talked about the "new" Doug Ford, which was certainly an improvement over the old one that was voted into power, and that spent his first several months frantically undoing any good and progressive changes the Liberals managed to introduce during their tenure.

Ford is a populist who relies on dog-whistle politics and short-term gratification with no thought for the future, although he is certainly no Donald Trump, and I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. On the coronavirus, he genuinely seemed to get it for a while, talking about "following the science" and "flattening the curve", and expressing incomprehension and outrage at the "yahoos" who weren't willing to follow the rules and do their bit towards breaking the transmission of the virus.

He might have retained the goodwill of a good proportion of Ontarians, but I think that most people (apart from the more hardline business types and those of a more libertarian bent) have come to realize that he has lost his way during the second, and much more powerful, wave of the virus. He seems to be bending away from the medical community, and towards his more conservative and business-orientated base, perhaps concerned about his positioning for the next provincial election. 

His most recent pronouncements on how to deal with the huge and accelerating increases in case loads in Toronto and Peel region (and to a lesser extent the surrounding areas of York, Halton and Durham) have been way off the mark according to the medical authorities. The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) does not beat about the bush when it says: "It is clear the new tiered framework is not enough to control the virus, which is spreading among more and more people". What the new system designates as a "red zone", for example, actually allows for a significant relaxation of current restrictions, not a tightening of it. 

Public Health Ontario (PHO) did not sign off on the latest colour-coded tiered regional system - despite Ford's almost Trumpian protestations that he was following their advice, and that black is in fact white - and they suggest that the criteria for relaxation of lockdown rules are much too lax, in fact four times too lax. Ford calls the PHO's opinions, "one doctor's perspective", although it seems to be the opinion of pretty much the whole medical community in Ontario. The Ontario COVID-19 modelling consensus table claims it was not consulted at all about the new guidelines, again despite the Health Minister's express claims to the contrary. Who would you believe, the doctors or the politicians?

Toronto and Peel, the hardest hit areas in the second wave, and the ones most at risk from an uncontrolled runaway deteriotation in the situation (which arguably is already underway), are basically ignoring the provincial guidelines and instituting their own stricter guidelines, making the Ontario rules all but redundant. Ford has some tame officials and enablers among the health authorities who seem to be willing to back him up (for example, the almost universally derided Ontario chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams), but he clearly does not have the support and the respect of the province's largest cities or the province's medical authorities.

For one thing, the new regs are way too complicated, and nobody really understands them (including the Ontario government, I suspect). And they are cetainly not strict enough, given that things are way worse now than they ever were in March, when a full shutdown was the correct decision. Ford says that he will "not hesitate for a second if we have to go further". Er, OK, now would be good. You're hesitating right now.

So, anyway, back to my original point: I guess we are back to the old Doug Ford at the very time when we can least afford it.

Monday, November 09, 2020

There was no world-dominating female chess player like on Queen's Gambit

Even though I am not a chess player myself, I have been enjoying the mini-series Queen's Gambit on Netflix. It has the air of a "based on a true story" story, so I was a bit surprised when I found out it wasn't based on a true story at all, but on an entirely fictional Walter Tevis novel.

So, the protagonist of the series, the quirky female chess prodigy who goes off the rails but then finds love, is very much fictional. This is not to say that there have been no female chess prodigies: the Hungarian Grandmaster Judit Polgár, still widely regarded as the greatest female chess player ever, became the youngest ever Grandmaster in 1991. But, even at her peak, she only ever reached No. 8 in the world ranking, and she remains the only woman ever to have so much as qualified for a World Championship tournament. (And don't me started on her and her sisters' upbringing, and their father's weird experiment to prove that "Geniuses are made, not born").

But it seems to be a fact that there are relatively few great female chess players. Only 31 out of 1,429 chess Grandmasters are female - about 2% - and there are only 2 women who rank in the top 100 (as of 2015). And even this is a very recent development: Georgia's Nona Gashprindashvili became the first ever female Grandmaster in 1978, and even she did not make the World Championship. 

Why, then, are women not able to compete with men in an intellectual pursuit like chess, and why do so few women and girls even play the game? 

Apparently, this wasn't always the case. In medieval times, women were as likely to play it as men. But this was not the same game as we have today; it was a leisurely game played between lords and ladies. All this changed in the 17th century with some important rule changes in the game, principally the changes to the queen and the bishop, which used to be relatively weak pieces with a very limited range of movement, but became powerful pieces able to range widely across the board. This (somehow) had the effect of making chess into a much more competitive and aggressive game, one considered unsuitable for ladies to partake in.

Since then, and up until very recently, it has never quite been considered a ladylike pursuit, much like it would never have occurred to 18th or 19th century women to play cricket or rugby. And male chauvinist attitudes only reinforced this, leading many to conclude that because they didn't play it competitively, they were constitutionally unable to. As recently as 1962, famous US Grandmaster Bobby Fischer opined, "They're all weak, all women. They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess, you know." Even more recently, Grandmaster Nigel Short suggested that women "just don't have the killer instinct".

At any rate, the main reason there are so few women at the top of chess seems to be that there are so few at the bottom too. Not that many girls take up the pastime in the first place, and those that do tend not to want to pursue it to a competitive level, given the preponderance of loud, aggressive and hyper-competitive boys in competitions, especially during the socially awkward teenage years. Teemage girls are more likely to abandon chess and take up other, perhaps more social, hobbies. 

There is even something called "stereotype threat": studies have shown that young girls are already so aware of the stereotype that "boys are good at chess", that they play differently against boys, less confidently and generally worse. And another study showed that, when boys play girls, they often play even more aggressively than when they play other boys, for some obscure psychological reason.

Another issue, which leads on from all this, is the lack of female coaches, and the fact that most parents are understably reticent to let their teenage daughter hang out with some older guy, supposedly playing chess all day. And neither would they want to get into the logistical issues around sharing hotel rooms (or paying for two rooms) while attending competitions. Not to mention that girls need to be coached differently (and may even need to be taught to be more competitive, unlike boys).

And then, of course, there is the whole issue of why there is such as thing as the Women's World Chess Championship, open only to women, separate from the World Chess Championship, which is technically open to men and women (before 1986, it was called the Men's World Chess Championship, and was NOT open to women). I understand the need for separate women's competitions in, say, tennis or soccer: there are umavoidable physical differences that make the two games very different. But an intellectual sport like chess? 

Sexist? Redundant? Limiting? Well, maybe, but the separate women's chess championship has many apologists who maintain that it is not an admission of inferiority. Notably, Judit Polgár always refused to play in the women's championship (although maybe her domineering father wouldn't let her!), and she argues that girls that only play against other girls end up limiting themselves and their ability to improve. Certainly, having a separate competition is not going to help those youmg girls overcome those stereotypes we talked about earlier.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

AOC airs her grievance over the Democrats' election performance

An interview with the ever-outspoken Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reveals her belief that the reason the Democrats did not perform better during the 2020 election was because the party is too centrist and does not have enough "core competencies", whatever that might mean.

This is in direct contravention to the complaints of some other Democrats that it was the very emphasis on Black Lives Matter and the Green New Deal by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other candidates that hurt the party. This election has definitely not healed the left-centre rift in the Democratic Party and, now that the election is over those grievances will start to surface again.

I do agree with much of what AOC says, but I'm not with her on this one. She seems to have a very inflated idea of how radical the USA actually is. She won her own Bronx, New York, area easily, but her policy beliefs would just not fly in less radical, less urban settings. And, like it or not, the Democrats need at least some of those votes to survive.

However much I might approve of Bernie Sanders' philosophies, I don't believe that he was the right leader for the times. A much more affable, middle-of-the-road candidate like Joe Biden does not excite me at all, but if the No. 1 job was to defeat Donald Trump, then he was probably a better bet than an in-your-face hard-left barn-stormer like Sanders. I can't see many middle-class voters who plumped for Trump in 2016 converting to Bernie Sanders overnight; I can, however, see them sliding the much shorter distance to a more moderate centrist like Joe Biden, if only because he seems like a nice guy, and Americans have probably had enough of stress and confrontation for a while.

The demographics of the US election

There was a fascinating analysis of US voting demographics in the Globe and Mail this weekend (based on Associated Press' data).

It reveals the extent to which Joe Biden can thank women and black people for his slim victory, and the extent to which white Americans, particularly white male Americans, still find themselves able to support Trump and Trumpism, despite the unmitigated disaster of the last four years.

Overall, 55% of women voted for Biden (compared to 44% for Trump), while only 46% of men voted for Biden (52% for Trump). When we start to take ethnicity into account, the discrepancy becomes much more stark: white people voted overwhelmingly for Trump (59% of white men, 52% of white women), while black people voted even more overwhmingly for Biden (87% of black men and a huge 93% of black women), with Latinxs somewhere in between (59% of Latinos and 66% of Latinas voted for Biden). 

The other analysis that sticks out like a sore thumb concerns where people live. Urban voters overwhelmingly voted for Biden rather than Trump (65%-33%), while rural voters overwhelmingly voted for Trump rather than Biden (also 65%-33%). Suburban and small town voters fall neatly and logically between those two extremes. This is the main reason the American electoral map shows such a marked pattern, one that is largely repeated election after election, with the east coast and west coasts and the north solid blue, and the more sparsely-populated centre and south of the country mainly red (although this has started to change to some extent, as ethnic demographics change and states like Arizona and Georgia start to turn blue).

Conpared to these demographics, considerations of income and education levels pale into insignificance, although generally speaking the more educated the more likely people are to vote for Biden, and lower income and higher income earners are more likely to lean Democrat, and middle income earners more likely to lean Relublican.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Trump tweets from golf course

Channelling his inner seven-year old, Donald Trump tweets, "I WON THIS ELECTION BY A LOT!" - from a golf course!


Pro-Trump armed protesters still holding voting centres hostage

I can't believe I'm still writing about the US election on November 7th, but I'm still writing about the US election on November 7th ...

It's just a bit unfathomable and surreal to us outsiders that there are openly armed citizens wandering around outside American polling stations where votes are still being counted

Mind you, it's pretty unfathomable to most people that they are still counting votes at this point. It's notnlike we didn't know that this would happen. Could they not just have passed a nationwide law specifying that postal ballots need to be received a week before election day, and that election centres need to have them counted before election day? That would have avoided all of this chaos and stress, the results would have been known on election day, and there would not be openly armed citizens wandering around outside American polling stations where votes are still being counted.

Pro-Trump protesters carrying rifles and hand-guns have been rallying around vote tabulation centres in Phoenix, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities where Donald Trump's initial vote surge appears to be dissipating as postal votes are counted, shouting "Stop the steal!" and "Arrest the poll workers!" and "Make Elections Fair Again!" (I kid you not), responding to Trump's repeated and unfounded claims that illegal things are happening and his election is being stolen from under his feet. A Hummer with two armed personnel with illegal guns was detained after a tip-off. Many election officials legitomately fear for their lives.

Meanwhile, African countries are pointing am accusing finger at the USA, which has repeatedly advised them on how democratic elections should be run.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

The monster of social media gets mixed results dealing with election misinformation

So, how has social media been handling this whole US election thing and its aftermath, specifically the inevitable misinformation that you just knew was going to attend it? Well, "mixed" is the word that springs to mind.

Twitter has been relatively tough on misinformation, including taking down several tweets from the President of Misinformation himself. It has been quite aggressive in calling out false and misleading posts, although not always before such posts have been extensively shared and retweeted. It slaps on a label saying, "Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about how to participate in an election or another civic process", and restricting how the tweets can be shared by removing reply and like options.

Facebook has been much less intrustive, limiting itself to a vaguer message like, "Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks", and not actually restricting or blocking viewing or sharing of the post.

YouTube has taken an even more pusillanimous (and less effective) approach. It maintains that it is dealing with the problem, but take, for example, a popular post from the pro-Trump One America News Network claiming that Trump has already won the election, that massive voter fraud is taking place, and that illegal votes are still being counted in order to steal the election from Trump. Sounds like an ideal candidate for taking down, no? 

And yet, YouTube claims that this does not violate its content policy, although it does apparently contravene its advertising rules (YouTube does not allow ads to run on videos that undermine election confidence through demonstrably false information). So, the video stayed up, but its advertising was pulled. Oh, and there is a little note below it stating the election results "may not be final". Hardly an effective strategy. I mean, is it misinformation or is it not?

It should be said that even Facebook and YouTube (as well as Twitter) agreed to ban Steve Bannon for calling for the beheading of top doctor Antony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray: "I'd put the heads on pikes". Some things go beyond rhe pale.

It's a tough gig (not to mention hugely labour-intensive end expensive) having to police the vast amounts of incorrect and misleading information people seem intent on posting to the internet, and walking the fine line between freedom of expression and censorship. But if you don't like how the business has developed, then get out of the business. Social media has created a monster: Mary Shelley warned what would happen way back in 1823.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

The US of A has officially jumped rhe shark, and there may be no way back

As I write this, the US presidential elections are still not decided, except in the labyrinthine mind of Donald Trump. Vote-counting continues in several key swing stakes like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. It is, as had become more and more likely towards election day, going down to the wire.

This, in itself, though is a damning indictment of the US of A. This election should not have been close. The very fact that Joe Biden has not cruised to an easy landslide, after four years of Trump-inflicted chaos and megalomania, is an indictment of the country as a whole. Whoever wins the election, Trump will probably receive nearly eight million MORE votes than he did in 2016 (although still 5 million - or about 3.6 % - less than Biden). How is that even possible? (Well, the answer is a 100-year record turnout of over 66%, compared to 59% in 2016, but still....)

That half of the country could even countenance four more years of international embarrassment, isolation and ridicule, surely means that there is no way back to international respect for the country that was once - it's kind of hard to remember back to the heady days of Barack Obama! - considered the moral authority and compass of the planet, and a guiding light in a murky, shadowy world (and I'm far from the only one to feel this way.)

Four years of legal murkiness; constant stress, disinformation and divisiveness; extreme polarization such as has not been witnessed in a generation; racial tension and violence; environmental and democratic degradation; roll-backs of anything even vaguely progressive; and the wilful dismantling of national and international institutions that took decades to develop - and still the country hasn't learned? The last four years has been exhausting, and I don't even live there. 

However this thing turns out, even if Biden does eventually prevail, the respect for the country is gone. Half of the country is apparently quite OK with what has been happening recently, and even want more of it. We are not just talking about the gun-toting, golf cart-driving, drive-in-frequenting, red-necked Republican stereotypes here. Millions of others have joined them, perhaps taken in by Trump's Svengali-like lies and exhortations, or his constant warnings against Biden's "socialist" tendencies, or perhaps just following their own single-issue obsessions, whether it be anti-abortion beliefs, 2nd Amendment rights, or climate change denial. These people (maybe) had an excuse in 2016 - he could, after all, have changed the habits of a lifetime and become all presidential (ha!), but they have no excuse this year.

And don't forget that millions of others with a more liberal outlook have apparently ignored all the warnings and admonishments of the Democratic campaign, and did not bother to vote one way or the other (although the Democrats do seem to have mobilized the black vote better this time around, Trump seems to have retained just as much of the white vote as he did in 2016). And you know what John Stuart Mill said about good men who do nothing...

So, that's it America. You had your chance. Almost everyone across the world feels as though America has turned in on itself, and is in decline. Maybe it had been going that way for some time, and it just took Donald Trump to bring it all to a head. Or maybe Trump managed it all on his own, in just four years. Either way, it will be a steep and painful road back.

Any election where citizens barricade up their business in the reasonable expectation of post-election violence (and they were so right) has to be considered a failure of public trust and democracy. When even Russia pans your election as chaotic and dysfunctional, you know you're in a bad place. Apologies to those good-hearted liberals who fought hard to stem this tide of filth, but you now officially live in a crappy country. 

And the best of luck, Joe - if you do manage to win and survive the browbeating, lying and legal machinations that will surely come from Trump, and indeed have already started - but you have one hell of a hole to dig out of now.


Ding dong the witch is dead! Biden wins, finally. The work starts here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

TV coverage of US election so subjective as to be meaningless

Well, I tried. I watched some of the US election. 

It was never going to be a final thing anyway, I realize that, what with delays in counting, postal votes, etc, etc. But it was omly when we started channel-hopping that we realized just how inaccurate and random the TV coverage was.

CTV (which was usimg Associated Press's coverage and statistics) was showing Trump 82, Biden 58 at one point, but other TV stations and networks had anything from Biden 110, Trump 97 to Biden 88, Trump 62  to Biden 39, Trump 34. Basically, whatever interim result you wanted, you could probably find somewhere on American television. They would probably all claim to be correct within their own definition of correct and according to their own analyses and calculations. And if they are all correct, then none of them are correct, and the whole thing becomes an essentially meaningless exercise.

I looked up how and why this might be happening, and found this explanation of how the different networks call the results of individual states. Supposedly, they all have access to the same database of information (the National Election Pool). But the different networks and TV companies have their own "decision desks" which crunch the numbers in real time (everything from precinct vote counts, county counts, early voting, postal votes, even exit polls) and assess whether a particular state has reached what they consider an unassailable lead, at which point they "call it".

Except, each network uses different criteria, different opinions, different algorithms, different assumptions. Hence the widely differing real-time results we encountered. Part of the problem is that each state, indeed each COUNTY in each state, has its own rules on how voting takes place, and how they are counted, and how they are reported, which is kind of a ridiculous situation in a first world country in 2020 (one CTV presenter called it "medieval" at one point). The USA needs some serious electoral reform, and soon: the current situation is just embarrassing.

This election in particular was harder to call than any other election in history, and the final result probably won't be known for several days, for a whole host of reasons, regardless of what Donald Trump may say. I didn't want the stress of listening to Trump claiming victory, even when large chunks of votes have still not been counted - which is almost BOUND to happen - so I decided to cut my losses and go to bed, and wait until the powers that be sort it all out. Much better for my blood pressure.

Some of the vagaries of the US Electoral College system

Every time the USA has a presidential election, there are various articles in the press explaining how the electoral college system works (I tried one back in 2016). This is partly because many people, American amd non-American alike, just don't understand it. But it's partly because people can't believe that that one of the world largest, oldest and most influential democracies has an electoral system that is so creaky, so antiquated, and so open to abuse.

Setting aside the scary stuff that can happen if there is a tied vote, or if one candidate refuses to accept the results of the election, which I have already looked into recently, this huge and powerful democratic nation is subject to the whim and apparent whimsy of some distinctly undemocratic rules that those Founding Fathers saw fit to institute, and that the country has not bothered to - or perhaps not dared to - fix since.

The actual vote - the one that so many people will be glued to tonight even though it is very unlikely that a definitive result will be available tonight, what with postal voting and all - is only part of the process, and does not automatically decide who becomes president. As often as not, the candidate who wins the popular vote may not win the election (as Hilary Clinton found to her cost in 2016).

The actual decision is made by 538 people called electors, who together make up the Electoral College, and who won't actually vote until mid-December. These electors may be just regular folks - teachers, fire-fighters, lawyers - or they may be from within the political system - ex-politicians, functionaries, policy wonks, etc. As usual, each state has its own rules for picking these electors. 

In fact, each political party within each state has its own rules for picking electors - there are different sets of electors on call for each party within each state - and which party's set of electors is sent to the Electoral College in December for a particular state depends on which party wins the popular vote within that state (although - of course - some states are different: in Maine and Nebraska, that decision is based on a mix of the results by congressional district and the statewide popular vote - don't ask why, it just is). 

So, the whole state's vote in the Electoral College goes to one. For example, even if Pennsylvania, say, votes in more Democrat Representatives than Republicans, and even if the Governor it votes in is a Democrat, all 20 of its Electoral College votes will still go towards the Republican presidential candidate if 51% of the state votes for him/her.

And this is where another major problem of the US electoral system lies. Each state gets a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives, based roughly on their relative populations, which is as it should be in a representative democracy (except that gerrymandering is a whole other problem, as I have described before, as is the fact that Washington DC, which is not technically a state, is given a random three seats, while other non-states like Puerto Rico and.Guam are not). 

But then, for the presidential vote, each state gets that many votes in the Electoral College PLUS 2! So, small rural states with tiny populations like Wyoming (pop. 579,000) and North Dakota (pop. 762,000), get an automatic one Electoral College vote plus two more. This gives small rural states (which, as it happens, tend to be Republican strongholds) a disproportionate amount of power in the Electoral College, while devaluing the votes of big cities (and the more racialized population that tends to live in them).

But here's something else about the Electoral College system that I found out just this year. The electors in the Electoral College typically vote for the presidential candidate of the party that wins that state's vote. But they don't have to! The system technically allows for some "unpledged electors" that can vote whichever way they personally choose, although in practice, at least since the Republican abuse of that allowance during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, all electors are now pledged to vote for a particular presidential candidate. 

However, even the regular pledged electors can, if they so decide, break their promise and vote against the state mandate (known, reasonably enough, as "faithless electors"), which is kind of ridiculous. There was a high number of faithless electors - seven - in the last presidential election, you know, the one where that Trump guy got in against all the odds and by the slimmest of margins. These actions didn't actually change the final result, as it happens, but you can see that it might in a very close election. And there sems to be very little scrutiny of, or attention paid to, these electors.

It's just one more bizarre element in a pretty bizarre and indefensible system. The system was arrived at back in the 18th century, through a combination of the bare self-interest of certain states, the racism of slave-owning states, the practical logistics of a pre-industrial country where information travelled slowly, and a worry that elected congressmen would be too corruptible and too easily manipulated by political parties to be reliable electors of a president. Well, look at what a feckless bunch of lawmakers we have ended up with anyway!

The system is clearly in dire need of reform. A plurality of the American people would happily see it changed (around the level of 65%), and that applies particularly on the Democrat side of the divide. Such a constitutional amendment would require the votes of two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the individual states, a huge ask in these polarized, dysfunctional times. And don't expect any party that has just won under that system to change it! One Donald Trump used to favour abandoning the Electoral College - until he got elected, when his views completely changed!

Sunday, November 01, 2020

MAGA Drag the Interstate and other bizzarro election stunts

Yet another Trump post. Sorry. Anyone would think there's an election in the offing or something...

The latest wizard wheeze that the more lawless of Trump's supporters have come up with is the so-called #MAGADragTheInterstate: pro-Trump supporters in oversized cars and trucks have been blocking freeways across the country, including New Jersey, New York, Texas, Arizona and Washington. 

And, as far as I can tell, that's about it. They just sit there, gridlocked in their own traffic jam, hitting their horn, pumping their fists, and shouting inexplicable things like "Shut it down, baby!" and "You suck!"

No-one - with the possible exception of the perpetrators themselves, although don't rely on that - has a clue what they feel they are achieving, other than making people hate them even more. They seem quite pleased that they are able to make emergency services take a longer, slower route to the hospital (in at least one case) which is kind of bizarre.

Trump supporters in a "Trump train" also surrounded and harrassed the Biden campaign bus in Texas, on Friday, almost forcing one vehicle off the road, and causing the cancellation of several Democrat campaign stop. Trump, of course, tweeted his approval of this adolescent and dangerous behaviour, in a typically adolescent and dangerous manner. The FBI is investigating the incident, but I don't suppose that will unduly worry the guy, who is now completely off the rails.

Then, on Monday, a boisterous Trump vehicle rally in Temecula, California, using the same #MAGADragTheInterstate hashtag, just happened to cut off a voting centre, disrupting voting and violating the 100ft electioneering law.

This is just thuggery and intimidation posing as political action, freedom of speech and non-violent resistence. You just know that most of these people are packing weapons, and any resistence would quickly evolve into violence and full-scale riots.

All you can do, really, is shake your head and sigh. I just feel sorry for the Democrats that will have to govern these low-lives and  deranged individuals. What a country!

Trump's border wall threatens endangered species and indigenous cultures alike

With all the US election shenanigans, Supreme Court nominations, race riots, raging pandemic, and general chaos south of the border, it's easy to forget some of the more insidious mayhem the Trump administration continues to perpetrate, largely out of the public eye. 

For example, remember that walll? It's all too easy to dismiss it, as Trump hasn't achieved anything like what he promised (thank god!) But, nevertheless, some 400 miles of it has been built over the last four years, and it is having a significant effect, not so much on illegal immigration, but on the local wildlife and biodiversity and on indigenous cultural lands.

A towering metal fence between 18 and 30 feet tall now snakes its way across the remote and pristine Sonoran Desert, paradoxically one of the most biodiverse areas of North America, not to mention new roads, perimeter lighting, and other technology. This includes bisecting the UNESCO reserve of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Lower Rio Grande Wildlife Reserve, and the Madrean Sky Islands.

Mr. Trump's fence (or "wall", as he insists on calling it) is fragmenting critically protected habitat, not to mention desecrating sacred indigenous cultural sites. Construction of the border fence has been mainly on public "protected" land, and the Department of Homeland Security has used sweeping powers to waive and override environmental protection laws like the Endangered Species Act. At least 93 endangered and threatened animal species can be found in these borderlands, including key mammals like jaguarundi, ocelot, javelina, Mexican grey wolf and North American jaguar.

It is not just the fence itself that is at issue. The San Bernardino National Wildlife Reserve has been compromised by the draining of a crucial wetland for water for concrete production for the barrier, putting the four threatened or endangered species for which the reserve was created at renewed risk. The Department of Homeland Security has run roughshod over the strenuous objections and warnings of the US Fish and Wilife Service. 

The Tohono O'odham Nation has had its ancestral lands split by the wall, and cross-border cultural and religious events have been stifled. Water levels in the sacred Quitobaquito springs have been falling at unprecedented rates as construction crews tap the local aquifer for water to make concrete for the barrier. Monument Hill in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, another O'odham sacred site, was dynamited by construction crews, all with the blessings of the DHS. Native protests have been met with tear gas and an official show of force.

Very few people are probably even aware of what is going on in the environs of Mr. Trump's famous wall. I know I wasn't. Four more years of Trump idiocy and insensitivity could have permanent and dramatic ill effects on the wildlife of the area, and on indigenous relations. We really cannot afford such a travesty. Unfortunately, the kind of people who will vote for the man - and remember, we are talking about tens of millions of people here - care about neither of these things.

Main sources of Ontario's COVID infections - not what you might expect

Buried in all the copious online articles and opinion pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic, I found this interesting graphic in an obscure COVID-19 update from Ontario's Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables, an outfit I had never even heard of before.

It shows the known sources of virus outbreaks in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York (the main areas of infection in Ontario), and what it shows is quite surprising, to me at any rate.
In Toronto, for example, it shows that the majority of cases in the second wave are coming from Schools and Daycares (22%) and Long-term Care and Retirement Homes (18%). Perhaps less surprisingly, Restaurants, Bars and Clubs are another major source (14%), as is healthcare (10%). Gyms and Sports only provides a measly 3% (so you can see why gym owners are so fed up with the most recent restrictions), as, surprisingly, does Events, Ceremonies and Religious Services (also 3%), although there is a separate category of Congregate Settings (10%), which presumably refers to more informal gatherings, barbecues, etc. Grocery and Retail Service is also small, at 4%.
What the graphic also brings home is how much the sources vary from area to area. For example, in Peel, just next door to Toronto, Grocery and Retail Service generates a much higher proportion of cases (19%), as does Industrial Settings (22%), while Restaurants, Bars and Clubs (3%) and Long-term Care and Retirement Homes (1%) are much less important than in Toronto, and Healthcare does not feature at all. In Ottawa, on the other hand, fully 72% of the cases are coming from just two sources, Long-term Care and Retirement Homes (33%) and Schools and Daycares (39%).
Fascinating, if true. But how does it help the government create a realistic and logical plan to battle the spread of the virus? Probably not at all.