Monday, August 02, 2021

California's "ban on bacon" is not a ban on bacon

You may, or may not, have seen blaring online headlines stating that California is banning bacon (if not, just Google it, or "bacon to disappear", or any number of other sky-is-falling phrases).

California is the state that red stares love to hate. But even California wouldn't ban bacon. What is actually happening is that the state is making a minor change to its animal welfare rules, such that, as of early next year, each pig will be required to be allowed a minimum of 6' x 4' in which to live its sad life, rather than the current 5½' x 3½'. It is estimated that only 4% of California pig farmers currently meet this requirement; 96% are clearly intent on doing the bare legal minimum for their pigs. 

So, yes, changes will need to be made, but estimates suggest that farmers' costs (and presumably retail prices) may increase by 15% as a result. Not exactly a ban on bacon. But bacon is such a beacon (sorry!), and such an iconic part of a red meat-eater's lifestyle, that it has yielded this kind of online outrage and hyperbole. Suck it up, carnivores!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Why are Canadian women doing the heavy lifting at the Olympics?

I know we're barely halfway through the 2020/2021 Olympics but, thus far, Canada is doing quite well, and has won 12 medals (3 golds, 4 silvers, and 5 bronzes), with several 4th-place close calls (aka "the Canadian bronze"). What seems really strange, though, is that every last medal has been earned by a woman.

We do have some medal prospects among our male athletes and, by the end of the competition, we do expect more of a mix of male and female medal winners. But, at this point, the imbalance is stark.

So, I wondered, has it always been thus? Have women always provided a disproportionate share of Canada's medal haul? Well, apparently not. A quick perusal of Canada's Summer Olympics record, shows that, in 2016, for example, 73% of our medals were won by women; in 2012, though, it was 50%; in 2008, 40%; in 2004, 50%; in 2000, it was again 50%. The Winter Olympics results also reveal a pretty much even split historically

So, what gives? Well, we'll have to wait and see how things stand by the end of the 16-day games, but there does seem to be a trend of increase participation by Canadian women (60% of the athletes attending the Games are female). But it's also a quirk of the kinds of sports that are concluded earlier in the Games' schedule of events, with its emphasis on swimming, gymnastics, rowing, etc, rather than the track and field and team games that dominate the second week of the competition. In 2016 too, the first 12 medals won by Canada were won by women; by the end of the games, however, 16 of the 22 total medals earned went to women (still disproportionate, but not quite so much).

Either way, you have to think that changing gender roles and attitudes, and some positive media coverage, may be having some long-term effect on female participation and performance in sports. Some of this happens through enlightened government policy, and some of it just through the actions and tenacity of some strong individual women role models. Either way, we should encourage it and celebrate it.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Noise, noise, noise

We live in a relatively quiet, laid-back area of Toronto, not exactly the suburbs, but still far from the stress and hubbub of downtown. It's a middle-class residential area, probably upper middle-class these days, given recent house prices. A desirable area.

Our house is on a relatively quiet street, a couple of blocks from the quiet end of the main shopping street. It's not actually a cul-de-sac, but a short one-block street linking two cul-de-sacs. It doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not a short-cut to anywhere.

It is, however, right by the boardwalk and the beach, overlooking a pleasant park, and, although it is at the quiet end of the beach, it's a magnet for dog-walkers and paddle-boarders in the summer (it really is a quiet, peaceful place in the winter, when the residents get to reclaim their neighbourhood from the tourist hordes).

But, as I was sat out on the front porch with a cup of tea and the newspaper the other day, looking forward to a nice relaxing half hour on a sunny Wednesday morning, I was beset by noise from multiple sources. It was not so much traffic noise, although our little street has a surprising amount of that, including the ridiculously noisy impositions of garbage trucks, deliveries to the small lakeside sports club, and the occasional de-mufflered motorbike (why?)

No, the noise was mainly coming from my neighbours. In addition to yapping dogs (there are always yapping dogs, any time of day or night, it seems) and loud kids' summer camps (which it's hard to complain too much about, I guess), at any given time there are: lawnmowers and weed-whackers (both household and municipal); leaf-blowers; circular saws, drills and other construction noise; chain saws from the constant tree maintenance crews that tend the many mature trees in the area; compressed-air paddleboard inflators; screaming Sea-Dos out in the lake; and any number of other sources of noise.

Much of this cacophony seem totally unnecessary, but we have become so innured to all this ambient noise these days that often we don't even notice it. How I wish it weren't so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Why Simone Biles pulled out of rhe Olympics

After Simone Bules suddenly pulled out of the US gymnastics team mid-Olympics, there has been a lot of confusion and hypothesizing. Did she just choke? Shouldn't she be able to handle the pressure with all her high-level experience? Doesn't she owe it to her team-mates - to her country - to suck it up, whatever "it" is? Is she a "selfish, childish national embarassment", as one Texas politician has it?

In her press conference, the diminutive American gymnast stated that she was stopping for mental health reasons, not physical ones, so most people probably assumed that it was something along the lines of the anxiety attacks that have plagued other sports personalities like Naomi Osaka. And yes, she does suffer from anxiety and srress from the immense pressure of expectations on her small shoulders, what she has called her "demons".

But, it seems there is something in gymnastics called "the twisties", and this is what Biles has been suffering from, and what caused her to abandon hopes of personal and team glory, apparently in mid-flow. It is kind of the gymnastics version of "the yips", an equally poorly-understood psychological condition that can affect sports people in mamy different fields.

From the name, the twisties sounds like a spurious, frivolous, or at least mild, issue. But it is a recognized problem that has affected many gymnasts at different times (although rarely at such a crucial time). It can set in when a gymnast is doing high-level elements, typically in floor or vault, and it causes a gymnast's brain to kind of stutter, or forget basic moves that are normally part of muscle memory in a highly-trained gymnast. Without complete control or an accustomed perfect rhythm, such a competitor risks some pretty grave injuries, which is in no-one's interest, least of all the gymnast concerned. It can be overcome, but with time and training, and not overnight.

The twisties are well-known within the gymnastics discipline, which is why Biles' team seems quite so supportive and forgiving, but hardly known at all outside of it, which is why people like me were so confused by it. It seems like Byles made a difficult, but good, call.

Certainly, Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka between them have probably trained the spotlight on the mental health of high-level athletes like never before. "I say put mental health first ... It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus onbyourself", quoth Biles, which is all but anathema in ultra-competitive Olympic circles. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, though, that the International Olympic Committee already provides trained sports psychologists in the Olympic Village, as well as a mental health helpline available in no less than seventy languages.

Monday, July 26, 2021

De-sexualizing Olympic gymnastics (and beach handball)

Kudos to the German Olympic women's gymnastics team for bucking the trend and wearing a more skin-covering, full-length unitard

After various #MeToo revelations in the field of gymnastics, it is taking an unconscionable time for any attempts to de-sexualize the sport, which tends to feature barely-pubescent girls (and grown women who look like barely-pubescent girls) wearing skimpy, skin-tight, high-cut leotards, not for any reason related to the execution of the sport, just because that's how it's always been. 

It doesn't have to be that way, and the German team (which unfortunately did not progress to the finals) are leading the way, even if their new uniforms are actually still pretty damned skin-tight and, frankly, sexy.

This comes after the Norwegian female beach handball team - who knew that was even a sport?! - was recently fined €1,500 for having the audacity to flout the sexist rules and wear skin-tight shirts instead of bikini bottoms. The European Handball Federation found the team to have competed in "improper clothing" and fined all ten members €150 each. 

The International Handball Federation (EHF), which I'm guessing is run by a bunch of middle-aged guys, specifies that "women must wear bikini bottoms ... with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must of a maximum of ten centimetres." Why? Tbey may as well specify that the bikini bottoms be crotchless. Guys on the other hand can wear pretty much what they want.

Kudos to singer P¡nk too, for offering to pay the Norwegian team's fine in solidarity, and claiming on Twitter that "The European Handball Federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM". The EHF president has since announced that the Federation will "re-evaluate" their dress code. Don't be too surprised if crotchless bikini bottoms are specified, though.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

De-emphasizing COVID case counts would be a mistake

We seem to be at a bit of a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, maybe not so much because we are nearly out of it (cases remain low, if climbing very slowly, but a fourth wave is expected to ensue as the summer wanes and the Delta variant begins to outperform the vaccines). Rather, it is expected that Canada, and possibly much of the rest of the world, will move away from daily case counts and concentrate more on hospitalizations and deaths.

I must confess this worries me a bit. Yes, I understand that the virus and our ability to control it has changed. Daily cases in many countries are already approaching the height of the second wave, even outstripping it in some, but the death rate is probably a tenth of what it was during the second wave. This, at least, is a good thing. 

But to begin to ignore case counts is to risk losing track of the fact that case counts are, or should be, still important, partly because a higher number of cases means that the virus is still circulating, meaning that we cannot let our guards down and pretend that life has returmed to normal. 

But also, we should be ensuring that no-one catches the virus, let alone becomes hospitalized by it, because even mild cases can lead to debilitating illnesses. Not only is there the risk (admittedly low, but nonetheless very real) of "long COVID", whose symptoms can persist for months, but also long-term lung, heart and brain damage are increasingly being identified as distinct possibilities. And now, it is becoming clear that there is a cognitive cost to even mild cases of COVID

If we start to get blasé about keeping track of cases, we risk losing track of these implications too. And that would be a shame. 

Certainly, abdicating all responsibility for the virus, even as new cases spike, as Alberta is planning to do (and as several US states have done already) cannot be a sensible move at this juncture, as most medical people, both within and without Alberta, are warning. This thing is far from over; pretending it is finished will not make it happen, as this  Globe and Mail cartoon says quite eloquently.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Dubai's cloud-seeding efforts a mixed benefit at best

I have seen several articles about how the Arab Emirate of Dubai has been seeding clouds to cause rain to mitigate the ongoing drought in the area. It is usually reported as an interesting and successful application of science to a persistent and at least partially man-made environmental problem. But the solution has some unfortunate environmental ramifications too.

The idea of seeding clouds with silver iodide in order to force precipitation is not new. It has been around since the 1940s, when the Americans originally developed it as a weapon.

Unfortunately, silver iodide is toxic. There is some evidence that the precipitation it encourages is damaging to marine life, as well as a threat to the purity of Dubai's expensively-desalinated water resources. It also increases water temperature, and its toxicity can also damage precious agricultural soil. Another issue is that provoking rainfall in one place may rob another place of its precipitation (there is, after all, only so much moisture in the air, and the silver iodide treatment does not, in itself, create more).

So, I guess the moral is: be careful what you wish for. These purely technological environmental solutions are often a mixed benefit (for example, look at various attempts to import predatory species to keep down pests over the centuries).

Friday, July 23, 2021

Olympics Parade of Nations order explained

If, like me, you are totally flummoxed by the order of countries at the Parade of Nations at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, help is at hand. Someone has already done the homework.

The country order might seem pretty random. In Japan this year, for example, El Salvador is followed by Australia, then Austria, then Oman, Netherlands, Ghana, Cape Verde, Guyana, Kazakhstan, Qatar, etc. Further down the list, China is followed by Tunisia, Chile, Tuvalu, Denmark, Germany, Togo, Dominica, etc

But there is actually some order to it, some theory behind it. Firstly, Greece always parades first, in recognition of its role as the original inventors of the Games, back in the 8th century BCE. This year, a team of mixed refugee athletes enters second. The last team to enter is always the host country, and this year a new innovation has taken hold whereby the next Olympics host country (France, 2024) parades second to last, and the next host country after that (USA, 2028) is third to last.

Between these poles, countries parade in alphabetical order IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE HOST COUNTRY. So, depending on the language of the host country, the order of the countries parading may be similar to what we mignt expect in English, but might be totally different. Wikipedia does us the service of giving the Gojuon Japanese script transliteration of the country names (Gojuon is the traditional listing of the phonetic pronunciation of Japanese characters). Thus, Iceland is Aisurando, and thus comes just before Ireland (Airurando) and Azerbaijan (Azerubaijan). Cayman Islands (Keiman Shoto) isnfollowed by Kenya (Kenia), Ivory Coast (Kotojibowaru) and Costa Rica (Kosutarika), etc.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Clueless (sorry, Fearless) Boxing Club bans vaccinated members

The aptly-named Fearless Boxing Club in west Toronto has banned vaccinated people from attending. Yes, you read that right, it is banning "vaccinated", not "unvaccinated", members.

Well, maybe you wouldn't expect much different from a boxing club. But this particular one seems to be making a stand for anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and anti-lockdowners everywhere by disallowing as new members anyone who has received "the experimental Covid vaccine", on the grounds that its current members "feel safer waiting until more research is done on the side effects being discovered right now". It declines to explain what those side effects are, and how they might affect other members.

I guess it is one person's way of establishing a (rather slim) marketing niche. Or it may just be sheer pig ignorance. Either way, remind me to avoid that particular part of Etobicoke, at least for a while.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The first billionaires in space - yawn!

I'm getting a bit tired of reading about the "billionaires' race to space". As Richard Branson narrowly beat out Jeff Bezos as the first billionaire in space - like there is a specific entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for this - and the mainstream media salivates over the youngest person in space and the oldest person in space (and probably the shortest person in space, or the first person in space with diabetes, for all I know), I am getting more and more bored and indeed more and more resentful.

Why does anyone really care what Richard Branson does in his spare time. Yes, they are going to space, technically, although the very closest and easiest execution of that definition, and for all of ten minutes (three minutes of weightlessness). A moonshot this is not. It's not even "outer space", really - the earth's thermosphere, the outer part of its atmosphere proper, extends to about 435 miles (700km) out, and the exospehere technically continues way beyond that, to around 6,200 miles (10,000km). Branson's and Bezos' trips, by comparison, are to 50 and 62 miles (80km and 100km) above the earth respectively, and even the International Space Station is only about 250 miles (400km). 

Bezos made it to the Kármán Line, the imaginary line that is often conveniently used as the boundary between aeronatics and astronautics, Branson not even that far (just enough to induce a little weightlessness). In fact, neither Bezos nor Branson may qualify for their "astronaut wings" under the US Federal Aviation Authority's Commercial Astronaut Wings Program, which used to automatically apply at 50 miles (80km) above the earth, because, on the very same day that Bezos flew, the FAA changed their policy and included a requirement for "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human flight safety". So, just paying a lot of money and being a tourist no longer qualifies.

And incidentally, for what it's worth, they are actually not even the first billionaires in space: Microsoft software engineer Charles Simonyi travelled on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station way back in 2007, and then again in 2009.

And the more I think about how much these trips are costing - yes, I know they can afford it, they are not short of a bob or two - the more I think how solipsistic and how vain they are, and how much better that much money could have been spent. Flights on Virgin Galactic's "space" flights are expected to sell for about a quarter of a million dollars when they become publicly available, but Branson himself obviously didn't pay that. Virgin Galactic's market value shot up $841 million after Branson's ego-trip. A public auction for a seat on Bezos' flight went for $28 million. Bezos even had the temerity to "jokingly" thank Amazon employees and customers for paying for his trip. Har-de-har, Jeff. Three people have already signed up to pay $55 million for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station, although that at least is closer to actual space, rather than just a rather high plane journey.

I'm not alone in thinking that these trips are the ultimate exercise in futility and vanity, in a world beset with a climate emergency, raging wildfires, devastating floods, crushing poverty, oh, and a pandemic that is still killing thousands as we speak. Buy, hey, you can't stand in the way of progress and economic development...

Proof: EVs are much more environmentally-friendly, whatecer the nasayers may say

Much of the push-back against electric vehicles, including from the automotive industry itself, is that, over the full life of the vehicle, from resources extraction and construction to end of life, EVs aren't much cleaner and environmentally sound than internal combustion vehicles. This has always sounded spurious to me, especially given that ICE vehicles have to be resourced and contructed too in much the same way, but I've never really had much evidence to support that feeling.

Now, though, there is a reasonably robust study that shows, even in countries with dirty carbon-heavy power grids, EVs are still a better option environmentally, and in more enlightened low-carbon economies they are MUCH better.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)  has produced a report that compares lifetime emissions of medium-sized EVs with their internal combustion engine equivalents, looking at the different cases of Europe, the United States, China and India, which between them make up about 70% of new vehicle sales globally, and which are pretty representative of most other countries not included in the study.

The studies results show that electric vehicles in Europe, which has a pretty clean electricity grid as regards carbon emissions, emit between 66% and 69% less carbon than ICE vehicles over their lifetimes. The equivalent figure for cars in the American market, with its slightly dirtier mix of power sources, is 60-68%. Even in China, with its increased reliance on coal, EVs work out to have 37-45% lower lifetime emissions, and in still dirtier India, EVs are still environmentally prefereable by a margin of between 19% and 34%. As countries around the world gradually reduce the carbon emissions of their electricity production, these comparisons will only improve.

So, don't let the naysayers bamboozle you with ill-researched and unproven claims: EVs are the way to go.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

South Korean hairstyles banned in ... North Korea, of all places

It doesn't get much more surreal than this. North Korean supreme, leader Kim Jong-un - he of the weird hair - has specifically warned North Koreans against adopting hairstyles popular among the K-pop crowd of South Korea.

Imagine a whole country walking around with Kim Jong-un hairstyles! How wild would that be!

The news is not all frivolous, though. In addition to banning South Korean hairstyles and the use of South Korean slang, North Koreans caught watching South Korean or American entertainment now face up to 15 years in a prison camp, and those caught with "large amounts" of South Korean media on their computers (whatever that might mean) might even face the death penalty.

Well, that's no fun! What a place!

How is it that more vaccinated Brits are dying of the Delta variant than unvaccinated?

You may have seen a report doing the rounds of the internet claiming that significantly more of the people dying of the Delta variant of COVID in the UK are vaccinated than unvaccinated. It's hard to pin down where the report came from - some articles say the low-life UK newspaper, the Mail on Sunday - but it has gone viral on Facebook and Instagram and apparently on some pro-Trump websites. It provides yet more ammunition for anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant.

But can it be true? It seems improbable, especially given the claims from the US that COVID deaths are almost all among the unvaccinated. Luckily, it is not hard to find refutations, or at least plausible explanations, from more reputable outlets like The Guardian and the BBC, as well as fact-checkers like Full Fact.

The original stats in which the claims are made come from the latest Public Health England (PHE) Technical Briefing (Table 4). It says that, of the 117 people who have died from the Delta variant in the UK, it was unknown whether or not three of them had been vaccinated (what? why?). But, of the rest, 70 (61%) had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 50 (44%) had received both, while 44 (38%) had not been vaccinated.

This might seem worrying at first glance, and lend credence to viral claims that the vaccines are ineffective or even dangerous, and that they make people more likely to die, at least from the Delta variant (which is now by far the most common variant worldwide, and particularly so in the UK). But, as more sober analysis reveals, it's actually not that unexpected.

For one thing, as the BBC points out, only 8% of recent cases have been among the fully vaccinated (although that's actually higher than I would have expected), so the vaccines are indeed quite effective at preventing the virus. But most of the fully-vaccinated people are among the over-50s, the very cohort that is significantly more at risk of dying if they do catch the virus, which is why they appear over-represented among the death statistics. An Israeli study shows just how much chronic "old people" comorbidites like hypertension and diabetes skew the death rates from COVID (only 6% with no comorbidities died, according to that study).

The vaccines are not perfect and, if everyone were fully vaccinated, then 100% of the deaths would be among the vaccinated. Britain has a pretty good vaccination rate, particularly among older adults, but some will always slip through the net and get infected and some of those will become hospitalized, and some of those will ultimately die. If the vaccines prevent 95% of deaths, as it is estimated they do, one in twenty will still succumb, more in the more deprived ethnic areas.

I kind of understand the logic of this as I read it, but it is really not easy to understand, and it does still seem a bit counter-intuitive. If a double-vaccination is supposed to reduce the likelihood of catching COVID by over 90% (and the likelihood of hospitalization and death by much more than that), then surely we should be expecting a figure closer to 1% or less for deaths among vaccinated people.

Also, I don't understand how these British statistics square with the American ones that suggest that very few unvaccinated people are dying (which is more in line with what I would have expected logically). The only difference I can see is that the US figures are over the last six months, during most of which a much smaller proportion of the population were vaccinated, rather than the much more recent past in the case of the UK figures.


Different figures were given in a recent news conference by Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, who reported (after a Twitter correction for an error in his verbal report) that 60% of British COVID hospitalizations were unvaccinated, suggesting that 40% were partially or fully vaccinated. This is still a hugely larger number than would be expected, and at odds with the American stats. 

Vallance explains it rather cursorily by saying that the vaccines are not 100% effective, and that, as more and more people are vaccinated, this kind of death level is not surprising. Well, I'm surprised.


This graphic, also apparently based on UK government data, should give us more confidence that things are going as they should.

It shows new cases and deaths from the first 50 days of the second and third waves of the pandemic in Britain. It shows how deaths have stayed very low during the third wave (right-hand graph) compared to the second wave (left-hand graph), even as cases sky-rocket once more.

Friday, July 16, 2021

We should be more careful what we claim about residential schools

Manitoba's new Indigenous Relations Minister, Alan Lagimodiere, is off to a rocky start in his new job, as he has to apologize for apparently defending residential schools

Mr. Lagimodiere, who is Métis, took over from Eileen Clark, who resigned recently under a bit of a cloud, following Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's own comments about residential schools.

Lagimodiere was chastised for saying that the people responsible for the residential school system believed they were doing the right thing at the time. He took particular flak from (Indigenous) opposition leader Wab Kinew, and was forced to admit later that he "misspoke". Such attempts to reach back in time and try to understand the context and thinking of the era are not considered publicly acceptable these days.

But here's the thing: what Mr. Lagimodiere said is actually right, politically correct or not. This in no way excuses the residential school system, which everyone understands was iniquitous and inexcusable, in its effects and even in its intentions. But to say that the system's architects - both politicians and Church officials - did not think that what they were doing was the right thing to do is clearly incorrect (or revisionism, or even censorship, depending on how you look at it). 

There were some more enlightened individuals who objected to the idea, even back in the day. But the evidence suggests that most people thought - rightly or wrongly - that educating and assimilating "the Indian" was the best thing white Canada could do for the Indigenous population. This was the prevailing colonial settler mentality of the times, similar to what was happening in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. And yes, this applies even to some of the (now) most reviled politicians of the period, like then-Chief Superintendant of Education Egerton Ryerson (who, by the way, learned to speak Ojibwe, developed close friends among the Mississauga people, and who consistently campaigned against corporal punishment in residential and other schools).

Yes, they were wrong-headed by the standards of modern ethics, arguably even by the standards of the time. Yes, the system continued way longer than it should have. But a large proportion of the population, and their political representatives at the time the residential school system was established, would have seen little or nothing wrong in the ideas behind it, even thought it commendable. This does not excuse it, but that is the reality, and to claim otherwise is to call black white.

Not a cure for cancer, but maybe a significant breakthrough

It's not a cure for cancer, but a very promising test for cancer has been developed at MIT. And, as we know, an early diagnosis is a good step towards beating the disease.

The test uses a simple urine test and nanoparticles, which sounds very science fiction but which actually is a practical reality these days. These particular nanoparticles can create "synthetic biomarkers" in urine if any kind of cancer is encountered anywhere in the body. Very simply, the nanoparticles introduced into the body are coated in peptides which get cut up by the proteases that cancers create as they spread through the body, and the scars on the peptides caused by an encounter with a tumour can be read as evidence of a cancer when the nanoparticles reach the person's urine. Clever!

Even better, if cancer biomarkers are found using this test, a secondary test can be performed to more accurately locate the problem area. This time, the nanoparticles are coated in specific peptides that are attracted to acidic environments like those that tumours tend to create around themselves. They will therefore tend to cluster around cancers, and the addition of a copper-64 radioactive tracer means that these clusters can be located using a PET scan. Also very clever!

So, no, it is not a cure for cancer, but we know that cancer outcomes are significantly improved the earlier it is diagnosed. The team envisage the urine test being routinely carried out at annual checkups. It is still in the long process of development and testing, but what a breakthrough that would be!


Japanese researchers are also looking at nanoparticles, this time to more accurately target radiation therapy to kill cancer cells from within while sparing healthy cells. Heady times in cancer research.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

What every American kid needs - a real gun that looks like Lego

What goes through these people's minds. Utah-based gunmaker Culper Precision starrted selling a custom modification of a Glock 19 pistol that makes it look like it is made from Lego blocks. It's called the Block 19. Ha! Get it?

I guess they thought it was amusing, and I'm sure they would have found buyers among the low-life yahoos of Utah. Their advertising suggests the gun is "super fun!" and that "we love shooting guns!", which sounds like it is designed to appeal to a five-year old, or at least adults with childish mentalities. The advertising also riffs on Denmark, and even mentions a villain from a Lego movie, but falls short of actually mentioning the Lego name.

The Lego company had to issue a cease-and-desist letter to Culper Precision, which has now withdrawn the product. But God, these people! What kind of a world do they live in? The company's president remains upbeat and unapologetic, claiming he was just trying to reawaken a bit of nostalgia and fun in his clientele. 

It seems that there are laws in the US against making toys that look like firearms, but no laws against making a real firearm that looks like a toy.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Are viruses alive? (and other old chestnuts)

Deep into Carl Zimmer's book Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means To Be Alive, it was only a matter of time before the issue of viruses had to be broached. 

Ask a scientist whether viruses are alive and you are likely to get an embarrassed cough or a roll of the eyes, and a "We don't really know", or "That depends", or more specifically, "That depends on your definition of 'life'". A few may be bold enough to say "Yes" or "No", and may even be able to justify their answer. But the very fact that some say "Yes" and some say "No", however confidently, reveals that the jury is most definitely still out.

Even a definition of life is tough to narrow down. The so-called NASA definition - "Life is a self-contained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution" - is a very careful formulation that hopes to avoid many of the pitfalls previous definitions have fallen into. So, are viruses "alive" under this definition? Well, "we don't really know" or "that depends"...

There are literally trillions of viruses in a human body, most of them not at all dangerous (and many even positively beneficial) to human life and health. Most of them infect the trillions of bacteria, fungi and other single-celled organisms that make up our microbiome, and indeed help to keep our microbiome in balance, paradoxically keeping us healthy. 

Also, there are literally trillions of different species of viruses in the world, many of which have adapted to very specific niches. There are more viruses in a litre of seawater or a spoonful of dirt than there are humans on earth. There are more viruses on earth than every form of cell-based life combined, perhaps by a factor of ten. Viruses are tiny, much smaller than even the smallest bacteria, but we now have powerful electron-microscopes that can see them. So why is it so hard to decide whether or not they are alive?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can generate energy, make their own food, move, and reproduce themselves (usually by binary fission, in which DNA is duplicated and carried down, much as it is in our own cells). Bacteria, it is widely agreed, are alive. Although viruses do exhibit some of the hallmarks of "life", and they certainly do evolve (as we have seen with COVID-19), they can only grow and reproduce inside the host cells they infect. They are essentially parasitic and, on their own, they just remain dormant. They do not eat or grow as such; they do not use enzymes to metabolize like our cells do; yes, they replicate, voraciously, but they do not really reproduce in the same way that we think of reproduction (a virus is just a "reorganized package of its host's own atoms"); some do not even contain DNA, having evolved to transfer their genes directly through RNA.

Wait, isn't DNA an easy way to decide whether something is alive or not? All cellular life we know of - animals, plants, bacteria, even archaea - uses the more stable double-stranded DNA genomes to transfer their genetic material. But, while some viruses also have DNA, many viruses use single-stranded RNA and still do a perfectly good job of passing on their genes, and it is thought that very early life on earth probably started out with RNA. Are RNA-based viruses any less alive than DNA-based organisms, then? Are some viruses alive and some not? You can easily run around in circles with these questions. 

And, of course, the very definition of life that scientists are working around is subject to debate, and there are many other alternative formulations, some more constrained, some substantially freer, than the NASA one (one study identified 123 different scientific definitions of life).

Anyway, as a result of all these considerations and more, many scientists consider that viruses only lead a kind of "borrowed life" or a "half life". Either way, you can see why this is such a fraught question in science. Of course, you might also say, "Does it really matter?" Just don't say it to a biologist or biochemist.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

The wonderful world of slime mold

I have been reading Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive by Carl Zimmer, and one chapter is devoted to slime mold, something I have never had cause to read about before. There are hundreds of species of slime molds, and they can be found in pretty much any forest, where they look like (if they can be seen at all) a kind of fine golden web spreading over decaying logs or fungi. They have no brain as such, and a very basic biology, but they do seem to exhibit some hallmarks of life: they use their own store of fuel, enzymes and the logic encoded in their genes to look for food and grow. While our cells divide and generate new cells each with its own nucleus, a growing slime mold generates new nuclei, but does not split its cells - it grows into a single gigantic cells with lots of nuclei, which is pretty cool, I'd say. Perhaps "not life as we know it, Jim", as Dr. McCoy might gave said, but life nevertheless.

A simple experiment shows how slime mold works: if it "smells" a food source, it extends tentacles out towards it, retracting any tentacles that were sent out towards any false food leads. If it encounters a barrier but can still "taste" sugars and other molecules that it considers food somewhere nearby, it will go around the barrier and continue the hunt for food. In fact, it can find its way through quite complex mazes in search of food and, even more amazingly it will eventually (and quite quickly) find the shortest and most efficient way through such a maze, and even the shortest path to several food sources at once. And all this without a brain!

It goes further. It turns out that slime mold ideally needs a food source that is two parts protein to one part carbohydrate. If presented with two different food sources - say, one with nine parts protein to one part carbohydrate, and the other with one part protein to three parts carbohydrate - it will actually "analyze" the foods in some way and "calculate" how much of each it needs to take to yield its ideal blend of food constituents. Again, all without a brain!

Slime molds even have their own rather bizarre version of sex. They make spores, which are carried away on the wind. If a spore lands in a promising spot, it tears open and cells called amoebae are released, each of which has just half a set of chromosomes, composed of different proteins, marking them as one of hundreds of different mating types. These amoebae crawl across the forest floor, and if they meet another amoeba of a different mating type, they merge to form the slime mold equivalent of an embryo. This embryo cell gradually grows tentacles, makes copies of its chromosomes, and a new generation of slime mold takes off. Sexy, eh?

It may not be what we normally think of as life or intelligence, but slime mold responds to a changing environment in a way that helps keep it alive. And, at base, that's what it's all about, right?

Thursday, July 01, 2021

The Canadian parliamentary system of passing bills is broken

Canada's parliament managed to pass two of the four supposedly priority bills it wanted to pass before the House breaks for the summer

The Liberals' budget bill (C-30) passed, finally, with the help of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, as was Bill C-12, the so-called "net-zero bill", which sets ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets for the country, and which passed relatively easily. Two other bills, however, which were specifically flagged by the Liberal government as priorities during this parliamentary session, have failed to pass: Bill C-10, which aims to apply Canadian content rules to online streaming sources, and Bill C-6, which would have banned gay conversion therapy.

Both of these bills got bogged down in the Senate, and their failure to pass is therefore not really the government's fault. But it does call into question the whole system of parliament and the senate taking these long summer holidays (and other breaks). Why do they need such long breaks? They are well paid, are they not? So, can they not put in a few more days if need be, and just take a few weeks off each year like normal working people?

The parliamentary calendar is detailed here, including that summer break from June 23rd until Labour Day in early September. But I have never seen any actual justification for it. Something to do with 19th century gentlemen taking time for hunting and fishing perhaps? Yes, there is "constituency work", but they are supposed to handle that throughout the year, aren't they? And even this does not apply to Senators. The important thing to remember here is that, if a bill is not passed by both chambers during a session, it "dies on the order paper". It can then be reintroduced in the next session, but the process starts all over again, and valuable time is lost irrevocably.

If there is important legislation to be passed, legislation that has already been debated and argued over for months, can they really not see their way to working a few days more to get the job done, as would happen any other occupation? It seems a bit ridiculous.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Difficult to believe that the US Republican Party is STILL in denial

This is fascinating. Over six months after the last US election, a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken on May 7-19 2021 has, found that 53% of Republicans still believe that Donald Trump is actually the "true" president of the USA. 

That's almost a quarter of the voting population. Perhaps even more bizarrely, 3% of Democrats believe that too! Fully 61% of Republicans persist in the belief that the election was somehow "stolen" from Trump. This, mark you, after endless failed Republican legal challenges to the election results, and repeated confirmations that Biden in fact won by some 7 million votes and by 74 electoral college votes.

In the face of this kind of magical thinking, it is hard to know what to think about American politics. If so many people can willfully disbelieve the facts before their eyes, based purely on partisan opinions, how can politicians continue to strive for democratic progress and the welfare of the common man? How can they even care about these people? I know that we are still talking about a minority of the populace, but it's such a large minority that surely it must make politicians think twice about even wanting to continue.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Kudo - a singular kudos?

I came across today for the first time the word "kudo" as a singular noun: the context was that a book "deserves every kudo it's received so far".

I was a bit nonplussed, assuming it was just a simple error, even though it appeared in the literature section of the Globe and Mail. But, notwithstanding, I looked it up, and it turns out that it is a word (sort of), and it does merit its own dictionary entry. But mainly it is just an error. 

"Kudos" is a singular noun, in use in English since the 19th century, derived from the Greek singular noun kýdos, meaning praise or renown. It became more commonly used in the 1920s, mainly in journalistic circles, and is still most often encountered there.

Although the -os ending is common in Greek singular nouns, -s is usually a plural ending in English, so some people thought that there must be a singular noun "kudo" as well as the plural "kudos" (with the sense of one accolade among many accolades). This is clearly incorrect, but it came to be accepted - although far from universally - as an example of a linguistic phenomenon called "back formation".

Back formation (or back derivation) is the source of words like "edit" (from "editor"), "escalate" (from "escalator"), "pea" (from "pease"), "burgle" (from "burglar"), "diagnose" (from "diagnosis"), "enthuse" (from "enthusiasm"), "surveil" (from "surveillance"), "sculpt" (from "sculptor"), "orate" (from "orator"), "hawk" (from "hawker"), etc. Although firmly established in the modern English lexicon, many of these were also established out of ignorance and error, which is the worst possible reason for the adoption of a new word. I am not against the evolution of the language, but I would much prefer that it evolve for positive, constructive reasons rather than as a result of officially-sanctioned mistakes.

As for "kudo", I am not going to be adopting it any time soon, and I hope that the journalism profession eschews it too. notes that, "Some usage guides warn against using them" (i.e. presumably both words).

Breaking up tent camps in city parks can be the right thing to do

Toronto Police and city staff are in the process of clearing out various homeless tent camps throughout the city (as is also happening in Vancouver, Montreal, and other cities). Maybe I should be outraged, but I'm really not.

Homeless advocates and poverty activists are speaking out, as they do, about callousness, cruelty and inhumanity (oh, and systemic racism, just for good measure). But living in a tent or one of those weird little box homes in a city park is not a good solution. Not only does it effectively leave the parks out of bounds for other users (at a time when other leisure activities and opportunities are still severely curtailed) and leads to gross littering and degradation of shared public spaces, but it can be downright dangerous and unsanitary for the campers, especially where toilet and shower facilities are not available. There have already been several fires, sometimes leading to severe injury or even loss of life. And, at the risk of sounding twee, it's just illegal, and laws are there for a reason.

The police operation has not been a callous and aggressive show of force; bodies are not being dragged away willy-nilly. It has been a patient, polite and respectful process, prefaced by an offer of safer housing in a shelter or hotel. Over half of the camp residents in Trinity Bellwoods Park, for example, have accepted the offers of alternative accommodation. Yes, there have been some instances of face-offs, mainly with the demonstrating poverty activists and their hangers-on, but these have generally been handled sensitively and well.

Toronto (and other cities) has put a lot of money into improving conditions in homeless shelters since the pandemic hit, and many new affordable and supported housing units have been added to the city's stock. Pandemic infection controls have been extended, and testing facilities stepped up. Vaccinations are now the rule not the exception. Sure, shelters are not ideal, but they are not as poor an option as they once were. A housing worker is being assigned by the City to each tent resident who is moved ou from the parks; no-one is being turfed out onto the streets and left to fend for themselves (unless they choose to do that, as I suppose some will always do).

So, call me callous and heartless. Call me a middle-class élite who just wants his middle-class parks back. But I still believe that, on balance, moving people out of these makeshift camps is the right thing to do.

Gypsy moths - one man's unfortunate legacy

Southern Ontario (and some parts of southern Quebec) is going through another gypsy moth infestation at the moment. This happens every decade or so (the last few occurred in 1985, 1991 and 2002). The current outbreak started in 2019 and this year is looking like it will break records again, like last year.

Although it is not an event comparable to the periodic cicada infestation going on just south of here, it is still a very noticeable phenomenon: park paths are covered in squishy and squished caterpillars (and their feces), and many trees have been denuded by the voracious caterpillars, mainly oak, birch, poplar, willow and maple. Oak trees in particular have difficulty regenerating so much foliage, and many may die as a result. Last year, a record-breaking 580,000 hectares (about the size of Prince Edward Island, if that helps) of trees were stripped bare, and many of them did not survive. A similar area of devastation is expected this year: this is not a paltry event.

Gypsy moths (or "LDD moths" among the more politically correct, after the Latin name Lymantria dispar dispar) are an invasive species originally from Europe and Asia. They were introduced into North America by a single individual, the amateur entomologist Étienne Trouvelot, in the 1860s. He brought them into the Boston area to see if they would be appropriate for American silk production (they weren't), from where they escaped, and have been spreading in increasing numbers ever since.

The caterpillars are brown-grey and hairy with blue and red dots, up to 6cm long, but usually much less than that. The adult male moths are pale brown and boring, while females are white and boring (and flightless). They can't survive winter temperatures of below -20°C, hence their concentration in balmy southern Ontario, but, with climate change, their range is expected to extend northwards. They particularly like a warm winter followed by a dry spring, like this year (a wet spring encourages the growth of a fungus that kills them).

So, what can be done about them? They can be killed by a bacterial spray, and some municipalities do employ this, but this also kills many beneficial and native caterpillars, so most jurisdictions (and Ontario Parks) are loath to go down that route. Some "high value" trees, particularly the more susceptible oaks, can be treated individually. But the preferred treatment is the more labour-intensive one of manually scraping or vacuuming off the eggs. You can also tie a band of burlap around a tree trunk around chest height; the caterpillars like to hide under it, where they can relatively easily be scraped off and disposed of.

But most scientists are of the opinion that, in the scheme of things, they are not that destructive, and we will probably just have to learn to live with them.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

COVID Delta variant disguises itself as an innocent cold

Studies from the UK show that the symptoms of the Delta (Indian) variant of COVID-19 can be quite different from what we've been used to looking for thus far. As the Delta variant becomes the dominant strain across most of the world, this could be an important factor, and I haven't seen much press coverage of it, at least not here in Canada.

The most common symptoms of the Delta variant are headaches, a sore throat, and a runny nose, making it seem for all the world like a regular cold, and leading many people to just shrug it off and ignore it when they should be getting themselves tested and self-isolating. Indeed, some British medical advisers are suggesting that ignorance of this change in symptomology may be one of the main reasons that the Delta variant is spreading so rapidly.

After headache, sore throat and runny nose, the next most common symptoms are fever and cough (which were once the main lay-person identifiers for the virus). Loss of smell, once a definitive COVID symptom, doesn't even make the top ten of Delta variant symptoms.

School houses back in the Dark Ages

We have been watching further series of The Last Kingdom on Netflix (see this earlier entry for some of the early English history surrounding the series), and it has put me in mind of the school "houses" we had for intramural competitions in my junior school, back in the Dark Ages of the 1960s.

There were Romans (red), Saxons (green), Danes (blue) and Normans (yellow). Interestingly, no Celts, which were arguably the "original" inhabitants of the British Isles. I was in Roman house, and we always used to win most things at that time, at least as I remember it. I remember getting shiny, sticky-backed red stars on my report card, and the occasional black square for naughty things (ah, those were the days!).

For what it's worth, at my senior school (grammar then, later, comprehensive), the houses were named for some of the great old families of that area of Derbyshire, an idea that somehow seems almost inconceivable today: Glossop (red), Barker (green), Taylor (blue) and Cockerton (yellow). Glossop always used to win most things, at least in the sporting arena; I, however, was in Taylor, which used to lose most things.

A strange idea, houses. I wonder if they still exist today? Certainly not at my daughter's Canadian school, but there does seem something quintessentially English about it all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Iran's election a cynical exercise in chicanery

Iran's "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khameini is old and sick (suffering from cancer). But this has not stopped him from attempting to consolidate his ultraconservative theocratic legacy by ensuring the "election" of his pet presidential candidate, Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi takes over from the relatively reform-minded (but fettered and largely ineffectual) President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi has long been a Khameini groupie and, as long-time head of Iran's judiciary, has presided over violent crackdowns on anti-government protests which left thousands dead (Amnesty International has called for him to be tried for crimes against humanity, and he is already under US sanctions). He is widely touted as Khameini's likely successor as Supreme Leader.

But Khameini made sure that the hardline cleric Raisi was elected by disqualifying other presidential candidates from the election, leaving him as effectively the only game in town. Not surprisingly, then, voter turnout was an all-time low of 48% (less than 30% in more cosmopolitan Tehran), compared to around 73% in the last two elections. And even then a significant percentage submitted blank and void ballots in protest, enough to raise "Void" to second place behind Raisi.

So, this is most definitely not the voice of the people speaking. This is a fixed and fraudulent exercise in electoral cynicism that will leave Iran in the geo-political wilderness for some years to come.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Vaccine lotteries make no sense to me

I have been reading for some time now about various sweeteners and incentives that several US states (and even a Canadian province) have been instituting, purportedly to overcome vaccine hesitancy and encourage more people to get themselves vaccinated in the pursuit of herd immunity. Free booze, free trips, free baseball tickets, free cash, free guns (in West Virginia, go figure!) and, perhaps most commonly, free lottery tickets. 

It always seemed a rather ridiculous ploy to me, and it left me, at best, nonplussed. But, I figured, it was harmless enough, wasn't it? Setting aside the ethics of rewarding people for doing what is already the right thing to do, what had never occurred to me was that the lotteries, for example, were extended to people who were ALREADY vaccinated, i.e. the majority that had already done the right thing. 

I understand that the idea is that some people will get the vaccine just so they too can participate in the lottery, thereby increasing the vaccination rates by, well, some undefined little bit. As for free beers and free spliffs, the same but much less so. $5 of free beer is hardly going to overcome the ingrained attitudes of a firm anti-vaxxer, and probably not even the scruples of a fence-sitter

My assumption had always been that vaccine lotteries were being offered to people who were NOT vaccinated but would agree to do so in order to participate. That at least would make some logical sense. The current ploys are just a waste of millions of dollars that could better be spent targeting, educating and persuading laggards, providing transportation, etc.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Annamie Paul may be undoing years of progress for the Green Party of Canada

The quite recently elected leader of the federal Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul, appears to be presiding over the party's very public implosion. There are loud howls for her to resign, but she is having none of it. The Green Party is teeing up a vote on the matter and she may end up being removed against her will. It's all getting quite nasty. Ms. Paul is fighting for her political life, and it's not pretty.

After one of the Greens' three MPs defected to the Liberals, and first two, and now five, of the Party's central governing Council  resigned, Ms. Paul has been on her back foot, especially given that it is her leadership style that is being blamed for the exodus.

Ms. Paul has not, however, just rolled over and taken it. She has come out swinging, and in the process has thrown even more oil on the fire. Not willing to accept that her own actions may be to blame for Jenica Atwin's defection, Ms. Paul has claimed that the Liberals actively poached her ("shady backroom deals" in her words). While it is true that the Liberals did reach out to Ms. Atwin - and why wouldn't they? - she claims that she was already definitely and actively looking for an out, feeling that she (and particularly her position on the Israel/Palestine conflict) was not respected within the Greens. Ms. Atwin is outspoken in her belief that Israel is an apartheid state, illegally repressing the Palestinian people. She insists that her defection is not merely an opportunist action, but says that she expects to find a more respectful debate within the Liberal Party. Well, good luck with that...

Ms. Paul lashed out at Justin Trudeau in particular, declaring with a look of thunder that "you are no ally, you are no feminist!" In fact, her response to almost all of the allegations against her from other Greens seems to be to call them "racist" and "sexist", even though there has been no mention of race or gender as far as I can see. She has a huge chip on her shoulder about being the first black, Jewish woman to lead a major Canadian party, and her response to criticism seems to be to hide behind appeals to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. In today's political climate, these are guaranteed conversation-stoppers, with little or no recourse allowed. But they are overused and often misused, as I believe in this case.

Ostensibly, the whole ruckus arose when Ms. Paul refused to repudiate one of her staffers (evidently a strident Zionist) who accused Green MPs of anti-semitism. But that is really only the proximate issue that has brought the divisions within the party to a head. In internal documents, the party council talks about Ms. Paul's "autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection", and claims that she has "displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues". Pretty strong language, that. They also say that donations are down, and that many rank-and-file members have been calling for her to step down. This is a full-blown crisis achieving a head of steam.

The Green Party of Canada is not a huge party. It boasts just two MPs (now), both in its heartland of British Columbia, representing less than 1% of elected members. But their small parliamentary representation belies their popular vote (nearly 7%), and pre-election voting intentions (over 10%). The Party had amassed a good and increasing following under previous leader Elizabeth May, and was finally starting to be taken seriously as a national political force and as a respected voice of conscience. Ms. Paul's recent shenanigans, and the media circus around it, could well undo those years of hard work and progress, almost overnight. 

They may say that any publicity is good publicity, but I don't think this applies to politics; this is unwelcome, negative attention.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Vancouver's abandonment of gifted programs will not have the desired effect

Vancouver School Board has set the cat among the pigeons by cutting advanced honours courses in math and science for gifted students on the grounds that they are somehow discriminatory. Honours courses in English were phased out some years ago.

The Board says that such classes do not comply with its equity and inclusion goals because not all students can participate in them. Well, duh! The Board says that it is moving to a more inclusive model of education so that "all students will be able to participate in the curriculum fulsomely". (A gifted student would probably know that "fulsomely" actually means "excessively flattering" or, alternatively, "disgusting and offensive", and that the word the Board was grasping for is actually the much simpler "fully".)

So, the Vancouver School Board is actually deliberately dumbing down their education system in a vain and over-zealous attempt to be politically correct. George Orwell's Animal Farm comes to mind. 

Do they not want to encourage high-performing kids? Do they not realize that ultra-bright kids also tend to have a horrible time in school and are often bullied and picked on in regular educational streams? And what about special needs programs? Are they not also exclusive and prejudicial, and do not allow all students to participate?


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How effective are vaccines against the Delta variant really?

There seem to be many different figures flying around for the effectiveness of various vaccines against various variants of the COVID-19 virus. It's hard to get a clear picture.

According to The Guardian, a source that I trust, there seem to be three main British studies:

  • Public Health Scotland says that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 92% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 79% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant. Two doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, on the other hand, is only 73% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Public Health England says that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 93.4% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 88% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is 66% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Another, more recent, study by Public Health England concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 88% effective against the Delta variant, compared to 67% for the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

There are some minor discrepancies here, but the general view is the same: Pfizer is very good, AstraZeneca just good. Moderna's results are likely to be in the same ballpark as Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen is likely to be similar to AstraZeneca. All appear to be very good in guarding against hospitalization and death from the virus (the figures above relate to the likelihood of catching, and potentially re-transmitting, it)  In all cases, a single dose is not very effective at all (Public Health England suggests as low as 33%) against the Delta variant, which is now establishing itself as the dominant one, and is the main one we need to be worrying about.

The jury is still out on whether it is advisable for people who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca to get a second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines, although the odds are looking good that this would be preferable to a second AstraZeneca dose, in terms of efficacy at least (NACI is now advising that a second mRNA dose is preferred for those who got a first AstraZeneca jab). That ship has already sailed for me, but I'm still happy to have had two doses, even if they were both AstraZeneca. (The only silver lining might be that some studies are showing that AstraZeneca creates a better T-cell response than mRNA vaccines, thus potentially giving better long-term protection).

Why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy

Finally, a good basic article on why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy.

You often read about how the worldwide creation of bitcoins uses as much energy as a country like Argentina, and how, if it were a country, it would be in the top 30 of energy users. But bitcoin "mining", despite its name, is essentially just a computer transation, so I have never fully understood how it can be so energy-intensive. Well, here's how.

When someone buys a bitcoin, multiple computer systems then swing into action in a race to create a new 64-digit hexadecimal number, or hash, which can then be entered into an online ledger or blockchain. The impetus for this competition is that the creator of this new hash number receives a "reward" of 6.2 Bitcoins, worth about $225,000 at the ridiculous current prices.

The problem is that generating a new hash of this size is an onerous task, even for a bank of computers. The computers involved are not just standard PCs like we know, but stripped-down machines with multiple graphics cards (GPUs) which require high wattage power supplies, and which are run 24 hours a day. As an example, a rig with three graphics cards uses over 1,000 watts of power, about the equivalent of running a domestic air conditioning unit, and rigs may have many more than three cards. 

In addition to the energy used for the processing power of these crypto mining rigs, they also generate a lot of heat, and so each rig will typically need multiple cooling fans to ensure the components do not melt down. Where there are many such rigs gathered together in a factory, external cooling is also required, all if which requires more and more energy. Crypto mining businesses can have hundreds or even thousands of these rigs in operation 24 hours a day (one in Kazakhstan reportedly boasts 50,000 units).

So, taking all this into account, it is estimated that creating one Bitcoin used 1,544 kWh of electricity, about the equivalent of 53 days' worth of power for a typical American household, creating an energy bill of about $200 (depending on local energy costs) and a pretty ugly carbon profile (again depending on the energy production in particular jurisdictions). And remember, we are not talking about just Bitcoin here: there are many other cryptocurrencies these days - Etherium, Dogecoin, Litecoin, Monero, and many, many others - all of which use a similar production process. So you can see how it all adds up.

One-time cryptocurrency fanboy Elon Musk has recently made a point of refusing to accept Bitcoins for Tesla purchases, after his earlier high profile espousal of the cryptocurrency, and he did so because he has belatedly realized the true carbon footprint of the technology. And bear in mind that some US states with struggling coal sectors are going out of their way to attract bitcoin mining operations. It's a messy old business. And for what? Yet another avenue for speculative investments for the already-rich? Do we really need that?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Heat pumps - an idea whose time might well have come

I like to think of myself as a responsible citizen, particularly as regards environmental matters. Hence, I am pretty careful with our energy use; I have solar panels for hot water and electricity production; I drive an electric car; I choose to live in province with a largely green electricity production profile; I subscribe to Bullfrog Power (which uses an additional levy on power bills to reinvest in renewable energy projects). I try to walk the talk, as they say.

One thing that really rankles, then, is our need to rely so heavily on natural gas for winter heating and for the very few occasions we need recourse to air conditioning in Toronto's increasingly hot summers. Gas is one of our largest single bills each month but, more than anything, it is the unavoidable hit to our carbon footprint that rankles.

But is it unavoidable? Just recently, I have been looking into electric heat pumps. There's a whole lot of technical stuff to get my head around, an the more practical aspects of installation, cost, payback periods, etc. It does look promising, though, at least in principle (I have not even started to look into costs, etc, yet).

So, what is a heat pump? The simplest explanation I have come across is one on The Conversation, although a more detailed, and more Canada-centric, explanation can be found on the Province of Ontario's guide to heat pump technology. In fact, I seem to be seeing more and more articles about heat pumps just recently, but that may just be because I am primed to do so.

A heat pump works on the same general principle as a refrigerator: it extracts heat (or cold) from the outside air, concentrates it, and then transfers it, using a small amount of electricity, to the inside of the house to provide space heating (or cooling). While traditional furnaces and boilers convert fuel into heat with much less than 100% efficiency, heat pumps actually operate at efficiencies of well OVER 100%, and are an estimated three to four times as efficient as furnaces.

More specifically, a very cold fluid circulates through coils of tubing in an outdoor unit similar to an air conditioning unit, absorbing energy in the form of heat even in winter conditions (at least up until outdoor temperatures fall VERY low). The fluid vaporizes and circulates in a compressor, which generates heat (compressing any gas heats it up). This heat is then transferred through the walls of the house, and circulated through indoor coils of tubing or  the existing vent system to heat the house. The same system can be used in reverse, taking heat from inside and transferring it outside, very much like a refrigerator does.

This, at least, is the model for an air-source heat pump, the cheapest and most commonly-used technology. In areas of more extreme cold, a ground-source or geothermal heat pump system may be more appropriate. This uses the more stable temperatures underground as a source of heat in winter and as a reservoir for rejected heat in the summer. The need for drilling makes this a substantially more expensive option, though.

I'm just in the early stages of my research, but heat pumps are looking like an interesting possibility at this point.

Netanyahu finally bows out, but now look what we've got

It's going to be so nice not see Benjamin Netanyahu on the news and listen to his wheedling complaints that anything that is not exactly as he want it is somehow "anti-Semitic". After 12 years in power, he has failed to corral enough of Israel's plethora of political parties into a coalition, and has had to relinquish his position as Prime Minister of one of the world's most fractious countries.

The "opposition" - meaning everyone who hates Netanyahu more than they are willing to put up with him - has managed (barely, by a margin of 60 to 59, with one abstention) to establish a coalition of eight different parties, ranging from the ultra-nationalist right to the left-wing, even a small Israeli Arab party for the first time ever. At least two of the parties are openly pro-settlement (i.e. occupation of the Palestinian West Bank), and I have no idea how such a loose can be expected to agree policy.

Naftali Bennet, once a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party and now leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party (which actually won only a handful of seats in the latest election), gets to be Prime Minister for the first two years. (And don't ask me to explain how he was chosen.) He is almost as nasty a piece of work as Netanyahu. A tech millionaire and former commando, Bennett has described himself as "more right-wing" than Netanyahu, so don't expect any liberal policies any time soon. He is pro-Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, does not believe in Palestinian statehood, and wants Israel to annex even more Palestinian lands.

After a couple of years, he will be replaced as PM by Yair Lapid, leader of the more centrist Yesh Atid party. But in the chaotic rough-and-tumble that is Israeli politics, who knows if the current coalition will even survive that long?


We got a little glimpse at where Israel may be going when thousands of flag-waving ultra-nationalists marched through occupied East Jerusalem over the last few days, chanting "Death to the Arabs" and "May your house burn", and other fun little slogans. A couple of far right MPs joined in the parades. Centrist leader Yair Lapid denounced the protests, but we're still waiting to hear from Naftali Bennett.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ford's use of the "notwithstanding clause" is inexcusable

The very fact that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is even considering using the "notwithstanding clause" shows just how little he values the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Don't forget that when provincial election time rolls around next year.

When the Ontario Superior Court ruled earlier this week that Ford's proposed Election Finances Act infringes on Charter rights, most governments would respond by either appealing the ruling or redrafting the legislation so as not to contravene the country's laws. Not Ford. His response is to "go nuclear" by reconvening the legislature and forcing the issue by invoking the notwithstanding clause (also known as Section 33 of the Charter).

That is technically his right; the possibility is enshrined in the law itself. But this recourse is considered by almost everyone to be a last resort, to be invoked only under extreme circumstances. That is made quite clear in the wording of the Charter itself ("extraordinary circumstances"). The clause has only been used very infrequently in the past, mainly by the province of Quebec, and never by Ontario. Doug Ford wants to use it to force through a relatively unimportant and ill-advised law that he believes will favour him in the upcoming election. That is really not what the provision was created for (as several of the Charter's original architects have made clear, warning that it should not be used merely to evade due process of law).

The proposed Election Finances Act is designed to limit third-party spending outside of an election year, and it widely believed that Ford is worried about union and corporate PAC advertising against his Conservative government. The Superior Court, though, ruled that several sections of the proposed Act were unconstitutional, unnecessary and excessively repressive of rights to free expression. Doug Ford, though, for whatever reason, sees the bill as absolutely essential for Ontario (read, himself), hence his recourse to the entirely inappropriate remedy of the notwithstanding clause.

As much as anything, Ford's response is a good indication of the shaky ground his re-election prospects lie on. But he must not be allowed to ride rough-shod over our rights and freedoms in this way. And, if you ask me, the whole notwithstanding clause loophole needs to be plugged: maybe its original intentions were honorable, but it is just too open to abuse by over-ambitious and overreaching politicians.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Electric car range is temperature-dependent, but still great

Back in January, in the midst of Canada's third wave of the pandemic, I finally bought an electric car, a Hyundai Kona Electric. And I have been thoroughly enjoying it ever since, particularly having all that power and acceleration at the press of a pedal, an area that my old Toyota Prius was sadly lacking in.

Range anxiety has not been an issue. In fact, it has been a pleasant surprise. The car's specs suggests that it has a range of 414km on a full charge. In practice, I was seeing about 440km over the winter. As the temperatures started increase, though, that range started to increase too, to 480km, then 520. The last time I charged it, in early June, the dash showed 563km available. Granted that goes down a little (20-30km) when you turn on the air conditioning, but it's still way more than I was expecting.

It just goes to show the radical effect that the ambient temperature has on battery performance. I had the rather unnerving (if gratifying) experience the other week of seeing my range INCREASE while I was driving. Setting off from our house near the lake, I happened to notice that the range was showing as 395km. About 3 or 4km later, I happened to notice that it was at 398km, and a couple of kilometers further on, it was showing 402km available range. What I realized was that, as I drove away from the lake and into the interior of Toronto, the temperature was gradually increasing, and the car's range gradually lengthening accordingly.

Anyway, the experience has been a very positive one thus far, although I haven't tackled a long, multi-day trip yet, there being still nowhere to go just yet, while the pandemic grinds on. Maybe I'll report back when that does finally happen.

Gender reveal parties should stop (for a whole bunch of reasons)

The "gender reveal party", probably one of the daftest idea of the 2010s, needs to be abandoned and strongly discouraged.

Just this last week, a gender reveal party in Northern Alberta involving ballistics targets and fireworks went catastrophically wrong and caused a dangerous wildfire (similar to one last year in California that caused a huge wildfire resulting in the death of a firefighter, and one in Arizona that burned down 47,000 acres and caused over $8 million in damages). More than one person has died as a result of this ridiculous exercise in vanity.

Even Jenna Karvubidis, the woman usually "credited" with (unwittingly) starting the trend of gender reveal parties, has publicly stated that they have got out of hand and should be stopped. Her initial event was a very modest affair, but, as often happens where social media is involved, it has grown into a monster. Not only is it potentially dangerous, it reinforces binary gender stereotypes. 

And anyway, nobody else really cares whether your baby has a dick or not. Excepting possibly Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the social media circus that is the main beneficiary of these events.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

"Mount Recyclemore" sculpture depicts the problems of ewaste

A rather impressive political sculpture has been erected in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, to coincide with the G7 meeting taking place in Britain.

Dubbed "Mount Recyclemore", it is constructed entirely from dead batteries and other assorted e-waste, and channels the famous presidential sculpture at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, but featuring the current G7 heads of state. 

Sculptor Joe Rush wants the installation to bring attention to the problems of disposing of electronic waste, and the need to make it more more reusable and recyclable.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Killing of Muslim family may be a hate crime, but almost certainly not a terrorist attack

Canadian Prime Minister Justin, along with many others, are calling the horrendous multiple murder of a family in London, Ontario, over the weekend a terrorist attack. "This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack", he said today, in no uncertain terms.

Nathaniel Veltman, 20-year old resident of London, Ontario, ploughed down a family on a sidewalk in his pickup truck, killing four and severely injuring one other member of the same family.  The troubled young man is apparently a pretty nice guy, not a member of any racist group, and seems to have acted alone. It was not an action by one group against another. This was, then, NOT a terrorist action. However shocking it was, and however upset about it people may be, let us be careful: words matter.  (Per the US legal code, terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents".)

It MAY have been a hate crime - the family were all practising Muslims - but, at this point, even that is not yet clear. We do not know definitively that he deliberately targeted the family because they were Muslim. A police spokesman has said that, "There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate. We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith", although to the best of my knowledge this has not been proved yet in a court of law. It seems likely, but not proven. 

Hell, it has not yet even been proven that this was a murder, and not just an accident. Again it seems likely, but not proven. True, Veltman has been charged with four counts of first degree murder and one of attempted murder, but he has not yet been convicted.

I don't mean to belittle the events of Sunday; the outrage rippling through Canada is entirely justified. But can we please stick to the facts, insofar as they are known?

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Some Olde Englishe history, just because

We have been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix, because that's what you do during a pandemic: you watch all sorts of odd series that you would probably not have bothered with in the Before Times. Like many another series we have watched over the last year-and-a-half, it is incredibly dark and violent, but it has set off all sorts of quite fond memories of learning this history during my early school years.

The series is set in England before it was actually England, in the 9th century, when the island was composed of several independent kingdoms (Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria), all of which were buckling under the onslaught of the Viking "Great Heathen Army" from across the North Sea in Demark (yes, little Denmark! which at that time was a force to be reckoned with). Specifically, it is set in the reign of King Æthelred I of Wessex (not Æthelred the Unready, as we will see later), Wessex being The Last Kingdom, which had as yet not been subsumed by Danish might.

While watching, I have been trying to piece together the history of the period using Wikipedia, realizing that I know very little of it pre-Æthelred, and much less than I thought post-Æthelred. I think our school syllabus probably started at around the time the series is set, and it was probably thought that learning all those weird Saxon names was not worth our while, especially as England per se was not even invented at this point.

Working backwards from Æthelred I, who ruled Wessex from 865-871, previous kings were:

  • Æthelberht (or Ethelbert as it was back in the 1960s): Æthelred's older brother, who ruled from 860-865.
  • Æthelbald: Æthelred's even older brother, who ruled from 855-860, the first three years of which he was ruling in his father's place while the latter was on a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Æthelwulf: father of Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, who ruled from 839-858, and who ended a long Mercian dominance of Anglo-Saxon England.

Before Æthelwulf, came a whole host of even more forgettable names, like Ecgberht (or Egbert, 802-839), Beorhtric (786-802), Cynewulf (757-786), Sigeberht (756-757), Cuthred (740-756), Æthelheard (726-740), Ine (689-726), Caedwalla (685-688), Centwine (676-686), etc. Great names all, but none that mean anything to me.

Working forward from Æthelred, most (but by no means all) of the names are a bit more familiar:

  • Alfred the Great: Æthelred's younger brother, who ruled from 886-899, and who spent most of his reign fighting off the Vikings/Danes (reasonably successfully), and who probably didn't really burn any cakes while in hiding.
  • Edward the Elder: Alfred's son, who reigned from 899-924, and who succeeded in bringing Wessex, Mercia, and most of the rest of England outside of Northumbria, under one rule.
  • Æthelstan: Edward the Elder's son, who ruled from 924-939, and who finally wrested Northumbria from the Vikings in 927, making him the first king of all England (although the Vikings did regain York and much of Northumbria just after his death, and remained there for 15 more years).
  • Edmund I: Edward the Elder's son and Æthelstan's half-brother, who reigned from 939-946, a time of constant internal warfare.
  • Eadred (or Edred): Edmund I's younger brother, who reigned from 946-955.
  • Eadwig: son of Edmund I, who reigned from 955-959.
  • Edgar the Peaceful: younger brother of Eadred, who reigned from 959-975.
  • Edward the Martyr: son of Edgar, who reigned from 975-978.
  • Æthelred the Unready: who reigned from 978-1013, and then again from 1014-1016, with a brief interregnum by the Dane Sweyn Forkbeard (I kid you not!), and who was not so much "unready" as "poorly advised" (from the Anglo-Saxon unræd).
  • Edmund Ironside (or Edmund II): son of Æthelred the Unready, who reigned for just a few turbulent months in 1016.
  • Cnut I (Cnut the Great, or Canute, as I learned it): invading king of Denmark and Norway, who reigned in England from 1016-1034, and who almost certainly did not sit on a beach trying to turn back the tide.
  • Harold I (aka Harold Harefoot): Cnut's son, who reigned from 1035-1040.
  • Harthacnut (or Hardicanute, or Cnut III): another son of Cnut, who reigned from 1040-1042.
  • Edward the Confessor: son of Æthelred the Unready, and half-brother of Harthacnut, who ruled from 1042 to 1066, restoring the rule of the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex after years of Danish power in England.
  • Harold Godwinson (Harold II): appointed king after Edward the Confessor died without an heir, and who reigned for just 9 months in 1066, possibly ending with an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (also contested by historians, sorry!).

And the rest, as they say, is history.