Friday, May 07, 2021

How to recycle an old house

Here's an idea I like: British Columbia company Nickel Bros literally picks up and moves old houses with architectural value to new locations, saving them from demolition and apparently also saving the buyers a substantial amount of money in the process. Recycling at its (biggest and) best.

The article focuses on how BC bureaucracy and regulations are making such a move increasingly fraught and difficult. But I found myself wondering about the practical logistics of moving a house. I mean, you can't just scoop it up and stick it on a truck. Can you?

Well, the truth is way more complicated than that, of course, but in essence that's pretty much what happens. A video on the company's website gives a pretty good idea of how it all works, although it does still gloss over the initial lifting part, which was the part that I could least imagine.

Fascinating stuff.


Thursday, May 06, 2021

Why a Belgian farmer moved the French border stone is the least of the questions raised

The story about a Belgian farmer accidentally (or was it?) moving a stone on his property that happened to mark the border with France has been reported by many news outlets. I guess it is seen as a fun little break with the grinding bad news of the pandemic.

The farmer in question moved the 200-year old stone marker because he was fed up of it getting in the way of his ploughing, and in the process he moved the Belgian border 2.2 metres further into French territory. His actions were outed, even though this was in "a really isolated spot" where "almost no-one passes by", and apparently he was told to move it back.

Setting aside that it seems very unlikely to me that, in this digital day and age, the stone is actually the legal marker of the border, what struck me was the fact that there is "a sharp-eyed group of Frenchmen, who for the past few years have wandered the countryside of their local area in northern France, following the border and checking each marker they encountered against a map showing the stones' original locations".

Say, what? Who are these shadowy individuals? And why do they have nothing better to do than to check the locations of stones against a map? That and the fact that someone actually cares that the border is two metres wrong.

How did we ever outsource visa processing to the Chinese?

As more and more comes out about how first Canada, and now New Zealand (as well as Britain, Ireland and apparently several other otherwise sensible countries), have outsourced their visa and passport processing to the Chinese mob (sorry, let's be serious here, a Chinese company owned by the Chinese state police, and therefore by the Communist Party of China), the more one has to stop and wonder.

Why would Canada, or any country for that matter, do that? Surely, if there is any one thing that should be done in-country, it is visas and passports, or indeed anything to do with citizenship and national security. Why would you choose a country with a known human rights problem and pretensions to world domination to look after sensitive national information like that? Hell, I'm not even sure I would trust Bangladesh or the USA or even New Zealand with that kind of job. I certainly wouldn't trust China as far as I can throw it.

The answer, of course, is almost certainly money, cost-saving. Sure, China can do pretty much anything cheaper than Canada, because they pay their workers a pittance and allow them next-to-no workers' rights. But it's one thing buying electronics and plastic knick-knacks from them, and entirely another buying sensitive consular services.

We have the technology and the expertise to do this work right here in Canada. Yes, it would cost a bit more, but how much more? How many visa and passort applications are proessed each year? A couple of million? I've no idea, to be honest, but the cost savings as a fraction of government spending would be miniscule.

It really beggars belief thay we (and New Zealand) are in this position.

Climate change study sea level rise prediction is not going to worry anyone

A new climate change study has concluded that global warming of 3°C (5.4°F) - which is about what we are currently on target for, despite the Paris climate agreement target of 1.5°C - 2°C - could lead to a "catastrophic" sea level rise of 0.2 inches per year 2060, as the Antarctic ice fields melt.

Which made me stop and think: "catastrophic"? 0.2 inches (about half a centimetre, if you prefer) is about half the thickness of the cellphone I am currently holding. It's really not a lot. Yes, I understand that this is each year and the effect is cumulative, and I understand that there are potential positive feeedback loops involved here. But, even so, it's a little hard to get excited about 0.2 inches. After all, tides vary by up to several METRES each day (as do rivers each year).

Now, I do have plenty of faith in climate scientitsts who are trying to lead us through this potentially ruinous climate trajectory we are on (for what it's worth, this report comes from the Earth System Science and Policy Lab at Rutgers University, and I have no reason to suspect that this is a dubious outfit), and if they say it is catastrophic then I have to believe them. 

But I can't help but think that it may have been better to keep quiet about this particular conclusion. It sounds so underwhelming to the average Joe in the street, and can only serve to make people even more complacent.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Why your veins look blue

I was in for a blood test this morning, so I got to idly wondering - as you do - why do veins look blue when blood is most definitely red? Well, of course I'm not the first person to wonder that, and the answer was not hard to find, in various different formulations.

It turns out it's all to do with how we perceive colours and how deep under our skin our veins are. The first thing to know is that we see colours when light of that colour hits (either directly or as a reflection) our eyes, and that things of different colours absorb those parts of the spectrum making up white light from the sun or electric lighting, and reflect back the rest. 

You probably already know that different colours of light have different wavelengths, and you may also know that the red end of the visible spectrum has a higher wavelength and the blue end shorter. Red light, therefore, with its longer distances between peaks and troughs, is less likely to be deflected and scattered by the materials it travels through (including skin), and it can easily penetrate the 5-10mm to where our larger veins are located. There it is largely absorbed by the red veins it encounters (technically, by the hemoglobin, the protein that makes our blood red). The shorter-wavelength blue part of the spectrum, on the other hand, is much more easily deflected and does not penetrate as far (and is therefore mostly reflected back).

Pulling all this together, when light hits your skin, a mixture of colours will be reflected back, but where there are veins under the skin, relatively little red light is reflected back (because it has been absorbed by the red veins), and your veins appear blue compared to the rest of your skin.

At this point, you are probably regretting even expressing an interest, because some of this stuff, although quite logical when you think about it, does seem a bit counter-intuitive. But the bottom line is that, although your veins are in fact red (being filled with blood and all), they appear blue when seen through the skin because of the relative wavelenths of the colours, and the extent to which the different wavelenths are absorbed or reflected back. Got that?

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Is S-2L the future of viruses?

This is kind of fascinating, in a geeky kind of way.

You may (or may not) know that pretty much all life on Earth employs the same four nucleotides in its DNA: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G), and all the genes that make life as we know it tick are made up of long strings of these organic molecules. This creates the familiar (or maybe not so familiar) genetic alphabet ATCG.

I say "pretty much all life on Earth" advisedly, because, since 1977, scientists have been aware of a specific bacteriophage (a virus that attacks bacteria), with the unassuming monicker S-2L, that turns this rule on its head. This DNA virus cyanophage has evolved to substitute all instances of adenine with 2-aminoadenine (also known as 2,6-diaminopurine), which has been given the alphabetic label Z for some reason, yielding a ZTCG genetic alphabet.

Why this originally developed is not certain, but is thought that it is just a new tactic in the ongoing war between viruses and bacteria, effectively taking the arms race to a new level. The Z base forms a triple bond to the opposite T base on the "rungs" of the DNA ladder (as opposed to the double bonds in the usual ACTG-type DNA), making it stronger and more difficult for the bacteria to prise apart and destroy.

S-2L was long thought to be an anomaly, just one of those random things that nature throws at us from time to time, like duck-billed platypuses, octopuses and black holes. But turns out that it is not so unusual after all. Three separate studes from France and China have shown that there are actually a whole army of Z-genome bacteriophages out there, and identified the proteins and enzymes involved in their assembly.

Of course, we are only beginning to speculate on what it might all mean for us and the living world that we know. I just hope that COVID-19 doesn't find out about it; otherwise we are cooked!

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The PROs and CONs of vaccine passports

There was a fascinating exhange about vaccine passports on CBC today (the audio is here, skip to minute 32:50 for the relevant section). I knew that the issue was controversial, but this debate, between a Dalhousie University philosophy prof and bioethicist (who warns against vaccination passports) and an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto (who is for them), brings home just how messy the whole issue really is.

The starting point here is that the EU, which is already establishing a Digital Green Certificate system for travel within the bloc, has just announced that Americans who have been fully vaccinated will soon be able to travel to Europe with a comparable vaccine passport for a vaccine that is recognized in the EU (sorry, China, Russia), and Canada may be able to join that exclusive club later.

CON: Because some people have been vaccinated and some not (mainly poorer people in more marginalized areas), the very idea of vaccine passports automatically introduces systemic discrimination, depending on people's access to vaccinations.

PRO: Digital vaccination passports are coming, and indeed are already here in some places, so we have little choice but to get on board. As of now, the passport system only accomodates the global North (EU and North America), but the situation is constantly changing and updating.

CON: There is still much uncertainty about the extent to which vaccines will stop transmission of the virus, how long the vaccines will be effective, the effectiveness of different vaccines (should there be different classes of passport/certificate?), how effective different vaccines are against different variants (e.g. it is thought that AstraZeneva may be quite ineffective against the South African variant), etc.

PRO: If we want to open up international travel, it is still safer to have a system of certification than not. Also, people from India, for example, who are currently completely blocked from travelling to many countries, would at least be allowed to travel insofar as they are completely vaccinated.

CON: It is unfair to only allow certification for those vaccines that the EU happens to have approved (Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson). It builds up barriers based on science, but also based on politics.

PRO: This is nothing new: we already have a system for requiring yellow fever vaccinations, for example, for countries where that disease is a problem.

CON: Yellow fever is very different from COVID in many ways: yellow fever certification is issued and managed by WHO (which has not, so far, approved COVID vaccine certificates); the yellow fever vaccine has been around since 1938, is single dose, life-long, and nearly 100% effective; there is just a single type of yellow fever vaccine, as opposed to the many different COVID-19  vaccines; the yellow fever vaccine is about protecting the traveller, not the country being travelled to.

PRO: Vaccine passports act as an incentive for people who might otherwise be hesitant to receive it, getting us closer to herd immunity.

CON: On the contrary, it is actually a kind of subtle coersion that might make vaccine-hesitant people and anti-vaxxers resentful and suspicious, and possibly even less likely to be vaccinated. And most poor, marginalized and racialized people, who are more likely to be vaccine hesitant, are not in a position to travel abroad anyway, and so will not be inventivized.

On balance, the PRO arguments here may be vaguer and more defensive, so the CON arguments may have won this particular exchange. But, speaking as someone who wants to get back to travelling, rational arguments are not the only things at play here. Tricky stuff!

Florida votes that school can indeed ban vaccinated teachers

Here's a good example of just how topsy-turvy, how downright WEIRD, life in the pandemic has become.

You may have read recently about a private Florida elementary school that ruled that teachers who have been vaccinated cannot have any contact with students, on pains of dismissal. Yes, you read that right, I wrote "vaccinated" not "unvaccinated". Not bothering to quote any studies (possibly because none exist), the school's owners maintain that the COVID-19 vaccination is dangerous, and can in some way interfere with a woman's menstrual cycles and reproductive systems. The school's children have been warned not to hug their parents and grandparents for more than five seconds due to the danger. 

The school owner admits that her views are "new and yet to be researched", but dismisses Florida Health Department's warnings that her policy puts workers, students and communities at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The school, which luxuriaties in the rather high-flown name of The Centner Academy, making it sound like a specialist college or a think tank or something, is run by a couple who have made substantial donations to the Republican Party. Go figure.

Well, many people to the left of rabid, conspiracy theory-prone hyper-conservatives thought this was ridiculous, and brought in a state bill that would prevent schools (and other businesses and government entities) from banning vaccinated people from entering or recieving services, and the bill was - get this! - promptly defeated. (To be fair, the final vote was 19-19, and some Republicans did cross the floor to vote for it, but the bottom line is that the bill did not receive enough votes to pass.)

So, in Florida, people who have not been vaccinated end up with more rights than people who have been vaccinated. What a world!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

How increasing the disbursement quote would help charities

There are increasingly strident calls for the government to increase the so-called disbursement quota (DQ) of Canadian charitable foundations, with claims being made that the current rate is inadequate and that a substantial incease in the DQ would greatly benefit charities at a time of great need. Last week's federal budget mentioned that the government was considering such a move, but fell short if actually instituting a change.

At first, I didn't understand how this would help them, so I did a bit of digging.

The disbursement quota is the minimum percentage of their holdings and investments that charitable foundations must release each year on their own activities and in grants to other charities. It ensures that foundation assets do not just sit there accumulating and hoarding and not being utilized for anything useful.

Since 2004, this rate has been set at 3.5% in Canada, down from the previous level of 4.5%, i.e. very little. Many charity activists believe that is should be raised to at at least 5% (the current DQ in the USA) or, according to some, to as much as 8% or 10%, at least temporarily, during the strictures of the pandemic. They justify this on the grounds that the long-term earnings of investments in, for example, the S&P stock exchange has been 10%-11% over the last centurty or so.

Others, however, urge caution, warning that increasing the DQ and setting the quota too high might damage the long-term viability of some foundations.

It seems to me that a temporary increase would be in order and, being temporary, would not harm the long-term health of the foundations in question.

Remember those corporate executives promising to take pay cuts when the pandemic began?

When the pandemic hit, there was a lot of noise from various rich CEO and board members about how we were "all in this together", and how they were going to take a pay-cut in solidarity with all the workers they were laying off, and for the general common good.

Well, Diligent Corp, a US-based corporate governance firm, have looked at executive pay at 240 large Canadian companies over the last year, and the results are illuminating but, frankly, not surprising.

It turns out that, in spite of all the bluster, those socially responsible executives only took a 5% cut in their total pay (including stock options, etc). If you include executive pay from those companies that didn't even bother making any attempt at being in it together with the rest of us, and made no pay cut announcements, that figure goes down to about 1%. That is, hardly anything at all.

So, if you thought at the time that it all sounded like content-free virtue-signalling, well, you were spot on.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

How can there be a racial supremacy group in lsrael of all places?

It's difficult to believe that, in Israel of all places, there is a racial supremacy group. 

Levaha is a Jewish supremacy organization, strongly opposed to assimilation, miscegenation and, indeed, any relations between Jews snd non-Jews. The group is quite active within Israel and growing. It has been blamed by many for the most recent outbreak of violence in the country, in which, of course, Palestinians are suffering much worse than Jewish Israelis.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. Israel is, after all, one of the most right-wing and repressive countries in the world (even if its right wing is riven by infighting), and is holding the Palestinian population in an apartheid stranglehold quite comparable to anything that South Africa was responsible for, back in the day. Notably, the younger generation in Israel is becoming even more right-wing than its elders.

It just seems surprising given the history of the Jewish people. Have they learned nothing from centuries of hate and prejudice?

The ethics of shopping in a pandemic

Interesting article in the Globe and Mail yesterday about the ethics of shopping during a pandemic

And it's not a simple thing. Many questions pop up almost every day, like: "Do I go to a store and put myself at risk, and potentially expose others to me?"; "Should I stay at home and order online, requiring other workers and delivery people to work on my behalf?"; "Is it wrong to order from mega-companies like Amazon that I know have poor protection for workers?"; "Should I only be buying things that are essential (and what does 'essential' even mean)?"; "Is it just being selfish to shop local?"; "Is there any point in taking a particular moral stance as an individual when millions of others are not even thinking about it, and when whatever good might flow from it may be offset by other concomitant evils?"

I remember at the start of the pandemic we were ordering all our food online for delivery or pick-up, until it was pointed out to me that there were people much less mobile than me who could not get delivery or pick-up spots (this was in the early days, before supermarkets honed their systems). So, I stopped ordering online and started shopping in person at smaller supermarkets whose distancing and sanitation systems I trusted.

Generally speaking, I try to avoid using Amazon where possible, having read many horror stories about how staff are treated, despite it being one of the world's richest companies owned by the world's richest man. But if I can't get hold of something any other way, I am not above using Amazon, even for nice-to-have items that are definitely not essential. So, my morals are definitely relative. And, anyway, all those Amazon warehouse and delivery workers are relying on people like me with disposable income for their jobs (such as they are), aren't they, to say nothing of those poor underpaid, over-worked labourers in Chinese factories. 

Like anything to do with ethics, none of the answers are easy or clear-cut. It's no surprise that ethics have been debated for literally millennia, and we are no closer to definitive answers than the ancient Greeks were. All we can do is at least think about what we do and how it affects others, and at least try to do the right thing. It will almost certainly be a compromise to some extent, but that's OK. If everyone were to compromise a bit, the world would probably be a better place than it is.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Vancouver photo exhibit covered up: censorship or marketing ploy?

A controversial photography exhibit by internationally-acclaimed Canadian photographer Steven Shearer, part of Vancouver's annual Capture Photography Festival, was covered over last week by the billboard owner, Pattison Outdoor.

The seven large billboards along Vancouver's Arbutus Greenway showed random individuals sleeping. There was nothing risqué or pornographic or violent about the photos, but apparently some people - it's not clear how many - found them "creepy" or "disturbing", and the billboard company caputulated to the complaints and removed the photos.

This, of course, has ignited a whole wave of anguished debate and recriminations about the censorship of art, the sanctity of artistic freedom, and the removal of meaningful discussion of the pieces. 

But it seems to me that there has been probably more discussion of the exhibition since its removal than there ever was before. There have been many examples of artistic censorship over the centuries, from to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (urinal) to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks. All proved to be temporary bans and a product of their times, and in some respects have resulted in greater discussion (and even revenue) than their initial appearances ever generated.

Which makes me think of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for".

Is there really a "she-cession" going on?

Canada's recent federal budget made a big noise about addressing the "she-cession" Canada has been experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other announcements in the unprecedented high-spending budget was $30 billion towards a national child-care program, specifically aimed at boosting female employment, which the government claims has been decimated by the pandemic. Quoth Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, "The closing of our schools and daycares drove women's participation in the labour force down to its lowest level in more than two decades".

But is there really any evidence that women have been hit harder  over the last year or so? After all, many professions and essential businesses in great demand at the moment (e.g. nursing, care workers, factory workers) are largely female dominated. 

The reason I even ask is that The Globe's Andrew Coyne disputes the existence of such a she-cession at all. Now, I rarely agree with Mr. Coyne's point of view, and I'm always suspicious of his methods and motivations, but he purports to back up his claims with statistics. 

According to him and his (undisclosed, unfortunately) sources, male unemployment peaked last May at 13.9% compared to 13.5% for women, and the latest figures show 7.3% for men and 7.6% for women (i.e. not materially different). He also notes that, while employment participation rates did fall quite dramatically last spring, the gender differences were not that notable. In fact, men's fell by 5.7% and women by just 5.5%. (Just in passing, he also points out that the government figures showing a fall in overall employment rate from 74% to 63% actually uses April 2020 (i.e. the worst point) as the latest date, whereas the actual current rate is right back up to 73%. Ah, yes statistics can be slippery things.

So, where did this idea of a she-ceasion actually come from? Well, a CBC article from early March 2021 quotes a report indicating that unemployment among women remain 5.3% below February 2020 levels, compared to 3.7% for men, a very different profile to Andrew Coyne's, and it points to job losses in the food services and accommodation sectors, also women-heavy employers, which makes sense. The reoort, by the Labour Market Information Council also notes that employment for women in low-earning occupations is 14% down from pre-pandemic levels (compared to 12% for men), whereas high-earning jobs for both genders have largely recovered. 

A recent Royal Bank report also concluded that there has been a three-fold increase in the  number of women considered long-term unemoloyed, with an additional 200,000 women out of work for at least six months and ever-decreasing chances of getting back into the workforce. Low-earning women in particular have been hard hit, with a 30% reduction in employment compared to 24% for men in the same income bracket. Also, according to the report, nearly 100,000 Canadian women have left the workforce permanently since the pandemic struck, more than ten times more than men.

So, who do I believe, the disaffected, curmudgeonly Andrew Coyne, or the Labour Market Information Council and the Royal Bank of Canada? Hmm, let me see...

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The 2021 Carbon Clean200 list

If you are interested in such things, you've probably read many articles and reports on which companies are the greenest, which are guilty of greenwashing, etc. Well, as reported in this month's Corporate Knights, here's another one, with a slightly different focus.

The Carbon Clean 200 list is compiled by Corporate Knights and California not-for-profit As You Sow, and it ranks the top 200 clean companies, out of a global pool of 8,000 large publicly-listed companies, based on their total "clean" (i.e. socially and environmemtally responsible) revenues. It's a bit of a fraught calculation, but may give people a good idea of where to put some of their investment money, especially given that many so-called green investment funds and indexes are actually pretty unreliable.

Anyway, for what it's worth, Google parent company Alphabet Inc tops the list again this year with a huge US$135 billion in clean revenue in 2019 (accounting for 83% of its total revenues), followed by German industrial giant Siemens (US$56 billion, 44% of total revenues), Taiwan IT firm TSMC (US$46 billion, almost 61% clean), Germany's SAP (US$34 billion, almost 84% clean), and Spanish electrical utility Iberdrola (US$32 billion, about 62% clean). Tesla placed ninth, if you are imterested. The top-placed Canadian companies were Canadian National Railway Co and Canadian Pacific Railway Co (Nos. 35 and 62 respectively), followed by Bombardier (80), Cascades (86), Canadian Solar Inc (105), and Telus (167).

The top 200 companies represent thirty different countries, of which the USA accounts for 46, Japan 26, China 17, France 15, Germany 8 and Canada 8. On average, about 40% of the revenues of the top 200 companies are classified as "clean" (with the majority of other revenues classified as neutral), compared to about 8% for the other companies.

So, nevet let it be said that there is nowhere worthwhile to park your investment money.

Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts, great - but why on more than one count?

In case you missed it, Derek Chauvin has been found guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Justice has, belatedly been served, or at least a measure of police accountability, and worldwide demonstrations and riots have been averted.

But am I the only one left wondering how someone can be found guilty of second degree unintentional murder, third degree murder, AND second degree manslaughter? Wouldn't it be one or the other? How does that work?

CNN has done its best to explain what these different charges actually mean, interpreting the complicated legal jargon involved. But it's still not clear to me why all three of them apply to the same person committing the same act.

ABC News does a similar analysis, but also notes that each charge carries a different maximum sentence (40 years for second degree murder, 26 years for third degree murder, and 10 years for second degree manslaughter), even if, in practice, in Minnesota, sentences of 12½ years for each murder charge and 4 years for manslaughter are more normal. But the point is that he will only actually be sentenced for one charge, the most grievous one.

So that, I guess is the salient point: more than one charge is brought so that, even if the worst one fails, there are others there to backstop it. In practice, then, Chauvin will be sentenced based on the strongest charge on which he was comvicted, second degree murder.

What a Byzantine beast the law is!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

European Super League proposal has the potential for major disruption

The idea of an elite European Super League (ESL) has been around for years. Once ownership of major European football teams started to fall to Americans, Saudis, Russian oligarchs, etc, and soccer teams were appearing on stock exchanges, it was only a matter of time before business took over from sports and tradition.

But it's only quite recently that it's looking more like a fait acccompli, and the rhetoric is heating up commeasurately. Currently, 12 teams have signed up to the idea - Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter Milan - basically the top teams from England, Spain and Italy, but notably none from France, Germany, Portugal, or other major football leagues. They hope to attract another three top teams for a founding nucleus of fifteen, and then offer a further five places to qualiying teams annually, for a total of twenty. These elite teams would play high-profile mid-week games between themselves, but the expectation is for them to also play in their respective leagues. 

The proposed league would be very similar to a North American franchise system, complete with revenue sharing and salary caps. The defectors have secured $6 billion in financing for the new league, mainly through American investment bank JP Morgan Chase, and each team is expected to receive as much as €300 milllion as a "joining bonus". As you see, this is big money. It might happen as early as August 2021.

The fan base seems divided but generally opposed is my impression (certainly fans of other league teams are vehemently opposed). The president of UEFA, which runs the European Champions League, and which probably stands to lose more than any other organization, has been extremely outspoken, calling it a "disgraceful, self-serving project from a select few clubs in Europe, fuelled by greed above all else", and griping that "we didn't know we had snakes working close to us". He is proposing that ESL players should be banned from playing for their countries at the World Cup and European Cup competitions.

Politicians are also getting involved, with British PM Boris Johnson in particular promising to do everything possible to prevent it from going ahead. But other European politicians, including Italian, French and European Union leaders, have also publicly expressed their displeasure.

It has certainly put the cat among the pigeons, and you ain't seen nothin' yet. This has the potential to disrupt Europe dramatically, and you can probably expect riots in the street at some point (there have already been protests outside English football clubs). This is football, after all, the religion of Europe, and the idea of the ESL is the equivalent of Martin Luther posting up his ninety-five theses on Wittenberg's church door.

UPDATE

What a difference a day makes. After further demonstrations by Chelsea fans, Manchester City and then Chelsea pulled out of the breakaway elite league, rapidly followed by the other four English teams. The Spaniards and Italians are expected to follow suit in short order. Manchester United's top executive Ed Woodward, a leading force behind the Super League, was summarily dismissed.

So, in little more than 24 hours, the revolutionary breakway has collapsed in ignominy, leaving the perpetrators with egg on their faces, and fans seething with rage, resentment and mistrust. Many are howling for punishments for the maverick teams and their greedy billionaire owners. As one English fan put it, "This was the most disgraceful episode in the history of English football".

What a difference a day makes indeed.

Monday, April 19, 2021

This may be the only way out of the hole Ontario is in

Ontario's latest lockdown measure have been almost universally panned by public health experts as misdirected and next to useless. Closing down playgrounds and golf courses snd restricting outdoor activities is not going to get us out of this third wave, and pretty much everyone apart from the Conservative government seems to understand that. 

Some of the sillier changes have already been walked back, and many police forces have given assurances that they have no intentions of conducting the draconian random stop measures that Ford was recommending (he also walked back that measure after all the backlash).

Where immediate action IS needed - industrial workplaces, warehouses, distribution centres, indoor religious meetings, public transportation - has seen little or no attention from the Ford government (apart from maybe some more targeted vaccinations, although vaccinations alone are not going to solve our problems). So, who exactly is giving the government scientific advice is not clear (possibly the consistently inept Dr. David williams, who conveniently just seems to say what Ford wants him to).

The Ontario COVID-19  Science Advisory Table, which is the voluntary body of top doctors convened to advise the government on health policy during the pandemic, are outraged, and several members have considered resigning, but worry that provincial policy will stray even further from the science without them. Peter Juni, scientific director of the Table, says he is at a loss to understand why the government is not following their advice. Others say they are dumfounded or angered or saddened. Hell, even the Washington Post is calling for Doug Ford to resign.

But to my point: there are increasing calls by some health advisers (not the Science Advisory Table, unfortunately) for one public health measure that might just help in a big way: mandatory N95 masks for crowded and at-risk workplaces, and the wider use of these superior masks in general. They are not as easy or pleasant to wear as surgical or cotton masks, but they are three to four times more effective. At a time where drastic measures are called for - and at a time when supply of N95 and equivalent masks, both locally produced and imported, has regularized following the early acute supply problems - the moment has probably come for such a policy.

For good measure (no pun intended), here is another such reasoned call-to-arms along the same lines, from a University of Toronto economist. I don't know how long it would take to convince Premier Ford (or even Dr. Williams) of this, though.

And, of course, as I end all my COVID-related entries these days, don't forget paid sick leave.

Punk - an exercise in nostalgia

I've been wallowing in nastalgia recently, reading Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution

England in the late '70s was certainly a heady time. I never dressed the part myself, apart perhaps from the ripped jeans, but I had all the records, and attended some pretty crazy gigs. I had forgotten, though - or maybe never even knew - just how extreme, excessive and over-the-top some of it was. Many rock and pop stars have always had a reputation of being "bad boys" and, occasionally, "bad girls", but really no-one could hold a candle to these guys, who made a point of taking it to the next level. I had also forgotten just how young a lot of the top bands were in their early days, barely older than I was.

A few choice quotes from the book (assembled from various musicians, managers, journalists and just hangers on) can perhaps give some of the flavour of it:

"Then I went into the kitchen and found his German manager drunk, flat out on the floor with his face in the cat's food dish."

"It started on the Anarchy tour. Until then we thought heroin was a female character in a 19th-century romantic novel."

"It was fun at the beginning. In 1976 we were the most hated people on the planet - we thought that was great."

"Slits - fantastic! They all started at the wrong time, doing different songs - superb."

"Jordan - she was amazing. She used to commute each day from near Brighton in this see-through lingerie and corsets and rubber dresses, which caused havoc on the train. In the end I think British Rail gave her a first class pass."

"Rotten looked the part with his green hair, but he couldn't sing. Then again, we couldn't play, so it was OK."

"Back then, 'Sex Pistols' was an outrageously shocking name."

"There were times when I had to push Johnny on stage, and I had to put a bucket out so he could throw up between songs, but you just deal with that reality."

"On stage, great front man; off stage, total fucking arsehole."

"Siouxsie who can't sing, Steve Severin who can't play bass, Marco Pirroni who can play guitar, and Sid Vicious who can't play drums. They make a wonderful racket for about 15 minutes."

"The Ramones came on stage, they counted off '1, 2, 3, 4' md they all started playing a different song. They threw down their guitars in disgust and walked off the stage. It was the best concert I'd ever seen in my life."

"I still don't know whose idea it was, but when they started doing the 17 minutes of music - 20 songs in 17 minutes without stopping - it became interesting."

"I hated the pogo. Being a dwarf, it was really frightening."

"They were throwing anything they could at us - pig's noses, beer cans, rat. It was really awful."

"We had one guitar, but junkies broke in and stole it. The whole thing was really squatsville. The funny thing that struck me about him was that we both liked Rupert Bear books and Tin-Tin when we were kids."

"Somebody dropped a brick on the rat and killed it, and we started calling Chris Miller 'Rat Scabies' because he had scabies and we killed the rat."

"What was exciting about Subway Sect was their total lack of interest in anything at all."

"When the band hit the stage, the whole place erupted. There was a lot of violence from the audience, and it seemed to be entirely directed towards the band."

 "By that time, the audiences had got really violent - they would get on stage and start a fight."

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Comparisons between Canada's and the US's COVID rates are misleading

Much has been made in recent days about statistics showing that Canada's 7-day average COVID-19 case rate has narrowly crept above that of the USA for the first time.

As of April 9th, Canada's cases per million inhabitants was 209.73, while the USA's was 205.12. This has created a good deal of national angst and soul-searching, and questions about whether Canada's much-vaunted universal healthcare is better than the US's lack thereof after all (which is, frankly, ridiculous).

If you really want a good meausre of how our healthcare systems compare, then you only have to look at the death rate per million. Even at a time when our case rates are about the same, the American daily death rate is at 2.97 per million, while Canada's is 0.85. So, where would you prefer to catch COVID-19?

So, yes, the whole case rate thing is admittedly a bit embarrasing, given how prone we are to comparing ourselves. But, a little perspective, please? And, hey, if we'd had access to as many vaccine doses as they have, it would probably be a different story. Hell, one American lab managed to mess up and destroy way more vaccine doses than Canada has received and administered IN TOTAL.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A new Conservative carbon pricing proposal - imagine!

Everything I have heard or read suggests that the recently-announced carbon pricing proposal from the Canadian federal Conservative Party is in fact a serious one, and people are bending over backwards to give credit to Erin O'Toole for at least trying to drag his intransigent party into the 21st century.

At the very least, he deserves some props for having the audacity to release a plan to deal with climate change just a week after his party members voted not to recognize that climate change is even a real thing. It certainly takes some cogones to shrug that off and pretend it didn't happen.

Be that as it may, it looks like the carbon pricing policy Mr. O'Toule has outlined IS a serious one, even if it is far from perfect, and even if does come wrapped up in a whole bunch of inconsistencies and paradoxes.

Essentially, O'Toole proposes completely cancelling the current Liberal carbon-pricing model which he dismisses as a "tax hike", and replacing it with a very similar Conservative one, which he insists is "not a tax", conservatives being congenitally opposed to taxes, and all. The words "levy", "price" and "pricing mechanism" were used instead of "tax", which is of course a dastardly Liberal idea.

The main difference is that, whereas the current Liberal scheme redistributes the carbon tax levied back to individuals through a tax rebate in order to make it revenue neutral, the Tory plan is to create individualized green savings accounts, which will be credited by some mysterious mechanism every time they fill up with gas, and which can only be used for purchases of climate-friendly goods like bicycles, transit passes electric cars or energy-efficient furnaces. It is thought that gas-buyers would literally swipe a card, Air Miles-style, when they pay for gas, in order to get their green savings.

It's an interesting idea, I guess, if a bit gimmicky, but I can't imagine how well it would work in practice. Many commentators - including some Conservative apologists and, at one point, O'Toole himself - have openly likened it to a loyalty rewards program, except that it would mainly reward those who use the most gas, enabling upper income earner to buy goods that they would probably have bought anyway, and arguably encouraging the very behaviour a carbon tax is supposed to deter. You can imagine the Liberals preparing their "the more you burn, the more you earn" attack ads as we speak.

Oh, and the Liberals' price per tonne of carbon is currently $40, and is set to gradually increase by $10 each year to $170 by 2030 (which is barely adequate, as regards Canada's international Paris Agreement commitments), while the Conservatives would set their price at a lowly $20 per tonne, rising to a maximum of $50 (which is, of course, nowhere near adequate).

To be fair, there is more to the Tory plan. They plan to keep the existing separate carbon pricing system for large industry, and to follow the Liberals' planned price increase schedule for it, although confusing the matter somewhat by also talking about trying to link the industrial price to that of trading partners like the EU and US (which doesn't even have an industrial carbon price). 

On some fronts, though, they even plan to go beyond the current Liberal stance, by increasing the current Clean Fuel Standards (which the Conservatives originally railed against), and by requiring 30% of vehicle sales to be electric by 2030 (an idea it is rumoured the Liberals intend to pursue in the upcoming budget). They are also talking about additional taxes on luxury non-electric vehicles, as well as on frequent fliers. Finally, they are proposing a pretty comprehensive building energy retrofit program, additional funding for carbon capture programs and support for small modular nuclear reactors, and a carbon border adjustment tariff for products imported from countries with lower environmental standards than Canada.

All in all, it is not a plan to be laughed at, even if it is a bit vague and inconsistent in places. It is, however, a very liberal (i.e. un-conservative) plan, and it remains to be seen whether the party faithful can be persuaded of the merits of such a tax- and regulation-heavy program. It seems like a rather desperate case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". It looks increasingly like the realization that the Conservatives' best bet for getting elected is to move more toward the centre and becoming more and more like the Liberals. How many conservatives will be willing to follow O'Toole there remains to be seen.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Do we really care what the Canadian Olympics uniform looks like?

Another excellent article by the Globe and Mail's Cathal Kelly, ostensibly a sports reporter, but really a commentator on the human condition in general and the Canadian condition in particular, and with a wicked sense of humour to boot.

Beginning, "As usual, everyone hates Canada's Olympic uniforms", Mr. Kelly delves deep into Canadian sensitivity and self-consciousness, before concluding that Canadians are their own worst critics, with the exception of perhaps of the Americans.

The Canadian look for the Tokyo Games (if they ever, in fact, take place) was actually released back in August of last year, and there was little fanfare or soul-searching involved at the time. After all, it's really not a big deal, is it? It's only now that the Americans have released their own style statement for the Games (what Cathal Kelly calls "cruise ship retiree meets Socialist Realism") that they - meaning, Americans - have started looking around and making snide comments about other countries'. And that, in turn, has brought out Canadian insecurities in a big way.

Yes, the graffiti-daubed jean jacket is kind of weird, for an Olympics uniform anyway. But it's different, and - hey - it's getting some attention, and that's always good, no? Is it cool? Probably not, but certainly no less so than the safe and predictable American uniform. And does it really matter? Who cares about this stuff? Get a life!

Apparently, Canadian Olympic gear, however strange, is always a hot commodity at Olympics events. Let's take some comfort in that, if indeed we need some.

This is probably where COVID-19 is spreading

A photo taken at 5.07am on a crowded Bloor Street bus has gone viral, so to speak.

It has gone viral partly because people like me, who live in a relatively safe middle-class part of Toronto, have no idea how people working in "essential businesses", and living in areas with high COVID infection rates, actually live. 

I have struggled to understand how nearly 5,000 people a day are going down with with the coronavirus in Ontario (with predictions that this could soon rise to as much as 18,000 a day), a good proportion of them in Toronto. I don't know anyone who has contracted it, let alone died from it, and I have only a vague idea of who these 5,000 (or 18,000) people really are.

As cases and hospitalizations continue to spike, and Ontario mulls tightening restrictions still further, it's just hard to believe that closing down curbside pickups or instituting a curfew would have a substantive effect on the transmission of the virus. Surely, what we need to know is which industries and businesses are generating the infection spread right now (not six months ago) and, if necessary, closing those down. Is it in schools? Construction sites? Factories? Transportation? Why is this information not available? 

The best information I could find, on the Public Health Ontario website, still does not answer my questions. There is a new section on "acquisition types", although this does not break the figures down by industry or business, and the vast majority are merely categorized as "No information" or "No known epidemiological link", which is less that useful. The section on outbreaks is closer to what I was looking for, although in less detail, and this suggests that schools (362 on recent weeks) is the number one culprit, followed by workplace (162) and congregate living (131), but this does not give the total cases from each sources, just the number of "outbreaks", which may be large or small, and which may be based on different criteria.

Some cities, including Toronto and Hamilton, do publish information on workplaces outbreaks, right down to individual employer names. For example, in Toronto, over the last few weeks, the largest outbreaks have been at a marketing firm (53 cases), a sports uniform maker (26), an Amazon warehouse (25), and a construction site (21). In Hamilton, the largest outbreaks were at a logistics firm (32), a nursery and garden centre (30), and a construction site (22). Other outbreaks have occurred recently at a skincare firm, a car dealership, a maker of office furniture, a condo developer, a police training college, and a candy maker. Many, if not most, of these do not look very essential to me.

There again, the same article features a graph purporting to show COVID-19 cases associated with workplaces in Ontario, and it shows totals in recent weeks between about 80 and 120 (i.e. a tiny fraction of the 4,000-5,000 total cases in Ontario). It also shows the number going DOWN in recent weeks, despite the overall case numbers in the province shooting up precipitately! Are workplaces, essential or otherwise, not the main (or even a major) source of cases, then? Is this not where our effort should be directed? It's all very confusing.

Anyway, we are running out of policy ideas. So, we probably do need to look long and hard at the government's definition of "essential", for one thing (I learned just yesterday that real estate is included, for instance). Many health experts are suggesting just that: "take a really good look at what is truly essential, just for the next four to six weeks, and close everything that's not truly, truly essential for our society, to get through this".

And, of course - how many times has this been said? - PAID SICK LEAVE!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

China and Russia's expansionist ambitions a dual threat

It's looking more and more like Vladimir Putin wants to invade Ukraine, whether to shore up his own faltering domestic popularity, or just out of some atavistic notion of recreating the glories of the Soviet Union. Who knows what Putin thinks? He doesn't seem very sure himself sometimes.

Ukraine has been fighting off Russian incursions since the invasion of Crimea back in 2014, particularly along the border region of Donbass. In the last year or so, though, Russia has moved nearly 80,000 troops to these border regions (now closer to 150,000), and it seems quite likely that Putin is testing out new US President Joe Biden, after four years of softness and appeasement under Trump. So far, he has been strongly supportive of the Western line of backing for Ukraine's position.

At the same time, China, under the increasingly paranoid and repressive regime of President Xi Jinping, has been ratcheting up its threats to Taiwan, both verbally and in the form of flyovers by bombers and fighter jets and other military activities. Chinese spokespeople have reiterated the party line that any further Taiwanese attempts to establish independence "means war" as far as China is concerned, and there is no reason to suspect that they are bluffing.

Both China and Russia are clearly in a belligerent and expansionist mood, and it seems like no coincidence that this is occurring at the start of a new US presidency, and that it is occurring concurrently. The latest National Intelligence briefing to the US Senate Intelligence Committee makes no bones about China and Russia, and particularly their combination, being far and away the greatest threat to the USA and to the world.

Notably, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently went out of her way to indicate that China and Russia are to a large extent moving in lockstep with each other, and "will give strong backing to each other on issues of core interests as important partners". Most Western commentators are reasonably dismissive of China and Russia's ability to work together, the differences in their approaches being too great, and their own specific ambitions being too overriding. But it's certainly not something that analysts are ignoring, nor can they afford to.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Why April is "the cruellest month"

I've lost track of how many times I've seen T.S. Eliot's line "April is the cruellest month" quoted recently. This is partly, I suppose, because it's April and it makes a good opening line for an article, however out-of-context. But it's partly because we are in a pandemic (I'll explain).

It must be the most-quoted line from T.S. Eliot, or indeed from any modern poet, although I doubt many people could continue with the subsequent lines from The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

(By the way, note the double "l" in "cruellest": Eliot may have been born in the US, but he moved to England at the age of 25, and all his major works were written there. He later renounced his US citizenship. Most of the articles I read "translate" it into North American, with a single "l".)

As to why he considered April to be the cruellest month, much of this is to do with the fact that Britain (and Europe and indeed the world) was just emerging from a global pandemic in 1922 when Eliot was writing The Waste Land. The Spanish Flu pandemic killed somewhere between 20 and 50 million people from 1918 and 1920, and infected almost a third of the world's population, making today's COVID outbreak look positively tame.

What Eliot is saying, then, is not that April in general is a cruel month. After all, April is traditionally a time of spring and renewal, a time of fecundity, hope and love. What he is suggesting is that, in the Europe of the early 1920s, ravaged by years of first war and then the Spanish flu, there seems to be little in the way of hope and renewal going on, so that the normally hopeful month of April seems doubly cruel, a mockery of unrealizeable possibilities. Don't take my word for it, someone else's blog explains it much better than I could.

So, you can see how that might resonate in April 2021, can't you? Here in Toronto, the daffodils and magnolias are blossoming, but we are still in lockdown, with no apparent end in sight. Cruel indeed.

Donald Trump, Donald Trump

Just thought I'd write his name. I've had no cause to do so for months. It's been very nice.

In praise of virtual workspaces

The COVID-19 pandemic has made many changes to our lives. One unexpected one (to me, anyway) is the rise of virtual workspaces or productivity sessions.

Simply put, this is the idea of using Zoom (or any other video conferencing facility) to link people together while working, a kind of virtual co-working space. There is some evidence that many people are more productive when working in the company of others, even if they are working on something completely unrelated, and even if they don't know each other. Some people crave the company - any company - at a time when they are starved of it and mental health is precarious. Some just like a structure imposed on their day in order to increase their productivity.

These productivity sessions may run all day, with programmed breaks, or just for an hour, depending on people's requirements. Sometimes they don't even require the video window to be kept open. They may (or may not) require a pledge of no phones or other distractions. They may give encouragement and exhortations from time to time, particularly towards the end of a session, and they often require a summary of work accomplished at the end of the session to increase accountability.

There are several companies and services established to supply this need for structure, including CaveDay, UltraWorking, Flow, FocusMate and similar names. Some are more intense, others are more laid back. There is something for everyone if you look for it. 

I'm not sure it would work for me, even if I were still working, but then I've always been a bit of an introvert and misanthrope. My daughter, though, who is doing a Masters degree at UoT, swears by it, especially when she has particular deadlines and needs to be held to account. Her university has a system in place for it, as presumably do most other universities.

It will be interesting to see if this is an idea with legs, one that will persists after the pandemic fades (if it ever does).

Monday, April 12, 2021

Why does the 200 nautical mile rule not give Canada full control over Northwest Passage?

As Russia makes a nuisance of itself again by claiming huge areas of the Arctic Ocean seabed (a subject I have previously vented on), I realized that I still don't really understand why Canada does not have complete sovereignty over the Northwest Passage (a separate issue, but equally contentious).

The Northwest Passage (of which there are several different variants - see map below) runs between several islands abutting the Arctic Ocean, all of which belong to Canada. Expanding out the coastline of Canada's various islands by 200 nautical miles (230 miles, or 370 kilometres), means that most of the Northwest Passage (whichever one you choose) should be completely within Canadian waters. So, why are we not able to legally dictate who enters and passes through it?

The problem is that the 200 nautical mile rule, established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), only delineates the country's "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ), the area within which the country has rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including fishing, power generation, drilling, etc.

That same UN convention defines the "territorial seas" of countries, the coastal waters which are considered the sovereign territory of the state. This only extends out to 12 nautical miles (14 miles, or 22 kilometres) from the land. This, then, leaves huge swathes of the straits between Canada's Arctic islands as international waters, so that foreign vessels do in fact have rights of transit passage.

So, although Canada can regulate fishing and resource development within the Northwest Passage, and can even regulate environmental conditions (albeit to a limited extent), it cannot block passage to shipping from other countries.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

A sad day for Northern Ireland - and the world

It's hard not to heave a wistful sigh at the recent news out of Northern Ireland

It really did seem like one of the world's heretofore intractable political quagmires managed to get itself resolved with the Good Friday agreement of 1998 (yes, it really was 23 years ago!) It gave us some hope that other intractable political quagmires - Israel vs Palestine, Catalonia vs Spain, India vs Pakistan, you list them - could also one day be resolved. It hasn't been completely without its challenges, but it has been a reasonably robust accord that has, in the main, put a stop to decades of unrest, violence and acrimony.

Until, that is, Brexit. Yes, a selfish act of chauvinism and hubris on the part of half of the British people (or a few self-indulgent politicians, depending on how you look at it) has thrust Northern Ireland right back into the stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails of the 1970s, except that these are the kids, and even grandkids, of the disaffected youth of the original "Troubles".

Northern Ireland was always going to be a sticking point for Brexit, and the agreed "solution" was never going to be acceptable to all. The best solution Boris Johnson and his Brexit henchmen could negotiate with Europe was to allow free movement of goods across the border with southern Ireland, while conducting checks on goods coming in from the rest of Britain, a solution that, obviously, smacks of betrayal to the Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland. It's less about religion now (possibly a good thing, I supposed) and more about tribal warfare and saving face (definitely not a good thing).

So, like a returning bad penny, here come the criminal gangs and paramilitaries, and the hell-raisers who just like a good fight, all over again. People will say that it was always an intractable political quagmire, and something was always going to re-awaken it. But to think that a totally inadvisable and unnecessary decision to leave Europe was the catalyst... A sad day indeed. I hope David Cameron is turning in his political grave.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Who can use the word "Indian", and should they?

Drew Hayden Taylor is a celebrated Indigenous playwright and author here in Ontario (and a frequent Globe and Mail contributor), although I would imagine his fame does not extend far outside these borders. He writes an interesting piece about his latest project, a screenplay adaptation of one of his plays, and the decisions he has had to make about how often to use the word "Indian".

Because, of course, that is the word that Indigenous people use to describe themselves, even though it is verboten for us settlers to use it. It is a pejorative label with a racist colonial past, but one that has been reclaimed by its victims, in much the same way as "nigger" by Black people or "dyke" by lesbians. A regular Indigenous guy would probably feel quite self-conscious referring to himself as "Indigenous" or "First Nations" in anything other than an academic context. 

But Taylor is having to think about how a largely non-Indigenous audience of sensitive liberal "people of pallor" will take it. Any number of Indigenous books use the epithet ad nauseam, including Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian and Indians on Vacation, Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse, Michelle Good's Five Little Indians, and Taylor's own Cottagers and Indians. And, of course, there has been much hand-wrining in recent years over the use of the word "Indian" (and other inappropriate racial monickers) for North American sports teams. 

But you can see Mr. Taylor's difficulty. It's an interesting little moral quandary: risk perpetuating a harmful racist stereotype, or maintain internal authenticity.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Global minimum corporate tax rate - an idea whose time has come?

It's interesting that the idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate is finally coming into the light. The idea has, of course, been around for years, but now, with Janet Yellen and the USA showing some serious interest, it has entered into a whole new plane.

At its simplest, the idea is for an international agreement to ensure that corporations worldwide are taxed at at least some minimum rate, say 21%. Yellen says that this would "stop the race to the bottom", establish a "more level playing field in the taxation of multinational corporations", and ensure that "governments have stable tax systems that raise sufficient revenue to invest in essential public goods and respond to crises, and that all citizens fairly share the burden of financing government". 

In a minimum corporate tax rate world, countries like Canada that feel obliged to cut tax rates every time the USA does, to lower levels than they really want to, in order to remain "competitive" (i.e. to butter up global multinational companies), maybe wouldn't feel the pressure to do that. According to the IMF, average corporate tax rates have declined from 49% in 1985 to 24% today.

It would also stymie the legal but morally ambiguous activities of global corporations like Apple, Google and Starbucks in using legal loopholes in fragmented global taxation regimes to pay less tax. These huge and profitable companies shift billions of dollars in profits every year to low-tax havens like Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Luxembourg and various Caribbean islands.

It all sounds eminently sensible and admirable, no? And with the USA planning to increase its corporate tax from 21% to 28% (4 years after Donald Trump reduced it from 35%), Britain planning to increase its corporation tax from 19% to 25%, and most other countries surely mulling tax increases to pay for the huge outlays needed to fight the economic effects of the coronavirus, there has probably never been a better time. Plus, the G7 and G20 are both meeting (virtually) this month.

The IMF has long been un favour of it, as has the OECD. The IMF estimates that tax havens cost governments between $500 billion and $600 billion each year, and some $200 billion of that relates to lower income economies (this is not just a rich country issue). Hell, even Canada's Justin Trudeau has said he will seriously consider it.

Of course, not everyone is on board, particularly not those countries like Ireland that have set up their whole tax system to allow multinationals to avoid tax. And people like Andrew Coyne, the Globe and Mail's resident neoconservative, who waxed lyrical in his condemnation of the idea recently, employing grandiose (and totally inappropriate) phrases like "Ozymandian" to indicate the depth of his displeasure, as well as emotive (and equally inappropriate) trigger words like "global tax cartel", "collusion" and "extortion"

Also, such a global agreement would take forever to negotiate. What would cause Ireland, for example, to embrace it (some quid pro quo may be required, but what?) And you can see it getting quite complicated: Canada, for example, has a federal corporate tax rate of just 15%, but it also has provincial corporate tax in addition of anywhere from 8% and 15% (yielding an overall tax rate of between 23% and 30%). 

But just because something is difficult doesn't mean it is not also the right thing to do.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Canadian premiers blame the feds, and the feds blame the provinces

Ever since Canada's vaccination effort started back in January, there has been an ongoing feud between the federal government (which is responsible for acquiring the vaccine from overseas manufacturers) and the provinces (which are responsible for actually administering the doses to individual Canadians).

More specifically, there has been a feud between Conservative Premiers (principally Doug Ford of Ontario, Jason Kenney of Alberta, Brian Pallister of Manitoba and Scott Moe of Saskatchewan) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Procurement Minster Patty Hajdu, with occasional but much less trenchant contributions from François Legault of Quebec and John Horgan of BC. Because most the noise is coming from Conservatives, it is pretty easy to conclude that this is a party political activity, and not one based on real logistical and healthcare concerns. It is about point-scoring and  blame-shifting. Sad, but true. For either side to accuse the other of "playing politics" seems like the ultimate in duplicity, but that's exactly what they are doing.

The viewpoint coming from the provinces is that they are ready and organized, but they just don't have enough vaccine doses to administer, whch is all the fault of the federal Liberal government, and specifically of Justin Trudeau, as thpugh he is the guy running around with a forklift truck, physically wresting doses of vaccine from those stingy foreign suppliers.

Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Hajdu, on the other hand, maintain that they have worked miracles in obtaining as many doses as they have, and that they have distributed them all with a minimum of fuss to the provinces, which have then sat on their hands, hoarding doses, and administering them in a dilatory and lackadaisical fashion.

These narratives can not both be true, but whom are we to believe? A series of tweets from Patty Hajdu the other day gives a pretty comprehensive and apparently fact-based breakdown of how many doses the federal government has obtained and shipped out to the provinces, and how many of those doses have actually been administered by the provinces. For example: Ontario has received 4,022,875 doses and administered just 2,545,640 (63%) of them; 2,370,707 doses have been provided to the province of Quebec, and 1,552,215 (65%) of them have been used; Alberta has had 1,078,215 and administered 707,482 (65%) of them; Manitoba has reveived 364,230 and used just 210,088 (58%); etc.

On the face of it, then, the provinces do seem to be sitting on stockpiles of literally millions of doses (a million-and-a-half in Ontario alone), suggesting that their roll-out is maybe not as efficient as they claim. The provinces, for their part, are crying foul, and pointing out that these figures include shipments only delivered in the last couple of days - an unspecified number of doses - which obviously they have not had chance to use yet.

As with most of these things, both sides have their own figures, and never the twain shall meet. Statistics battle statistics, and no-one ever backs down, because that is politically unpalatable. Such is politics. But wouldn't it be nice if they could put the politics aside for once, and cooperate in this national emergency. Hah! Fat chance of that!

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Towards a quieter garbage truck

Walking around the steets on garbage day is not much fun, and not only because of the smell. Those things are just so LOUD. So, of course, I got to wondering is anyone working on a quieter garbage truck, like an electric one, for instance?

Garbage trucks, because of their unique requirements and mode of operation, typically get about 3 miles per gallon (78 L/100km to you and me), cover an average of 130 miles a day (210 km) with over 1,000 hard stops (full throttle for a few metres, full brakes, full throttle, rinse, repeat). They are just crying out for an all-electric solution.

Well, of course somebody is working on them. It turns out that there is the quadruple-battery-powered Mack LR, already in production and taking orders as we speak. The Volvo FE Electric has been used in Germany for a year or two. There is the California-based Wrightspeed garbage truck, which uses a lithium-iron phosphate battery for extra power. And there are almost certainly several others.

So, why don't we have them on our street. Well, COVID-19, for one thing (that's the excuse for most things that go wrong these days). But also up-front cost: very few municipalities are flush with cash right now, even if the long-term savings would be prodigious. Meanwhile, those noisy behemoths just keep annoying the hell out of me.

Is this "the safest, most powerful wind turbine in the world"?

Well, this looks brilliant, almost too good to be true. A Salt Lake City company has developed what it calls "the safest, most powerful wind turbine in the world".

Called the PowerPod, and developed by Halcium, this is not some huge mega-turbine. The 1kW turbine is about the size of a beer barrel, and looks like a littlegreen R2D2. So, it is ideal for residential properties, public buildings, even a sailboat or camper van. The special blade system in the pod has the effect of effectively increasing wind speed by up to 40%, by funnelling it into a smaller exit before it hits the internal blade. It can more easily produce power from low windspeeds, and can use wind from any direction (useful if the wind is swirling).

It can produce up to three times the power of an equivalent traditional mounted wind turbine, and does not need to be placed on a tall, expensive pole. For this reason, it is safer too, and because the moving blades are entirely contained within the shell of the unit, it is safe to use around pets, wildlife, etc. It can be hooked up to a house or to the local grid in much the same way as solar panels, or it can seamlessly connect with an existing solar system.

The company believes that it should be a cheaper and more efficient green power solution than solar panels, particularly in areas that receive less than 300 days of sunshine a year, which is pretty much everywhere. It has produced some comparisons of the power produced by a 1kW PowerPod compared to a 1kW solar panel array in different parts of the world. In Toronto, where I live, for example, it estimates 9.9kWH  power, compared to 3.0kWH for a solar panel.

I want one! It would look very cool next to my solar panels. Production is still in its early stages, but the product is already receiving lots of buzz among potential financial backers.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

What do you call a three-pointed geometric figure?

In the east end of Toronto, there an area called Thorncliffe Park. It is a low income, immigrant-heavy neighbourhood, currently a nexus of COVID-19 cases in the city, and it is dominated by two high rise buildings which are composed of three wings radiating out from a central core. The buildings are quite distinctive, and clearly visible on Google Maps.

It got me wondering, though, what is the name of that shape: three lines radiating from a point at 120° to each other.


It's the kind of thing that really ought to have a name, whether in mathematics or in design, architecture, art, or some other pursuit. My first thought was a "three-pointed star", but it's not really a star (the three-pointed Mercedes logo is much more star-like).
Well, it seems like I am not the only one wondering. The geeks at StackExchange are on it too, but there does not seem to be a recognized name for this very basic shape. Suggestions include "Y-shape" or " inverted Y-shape", " tri-point", "triradius", "caltrop", "forked cross", "inverse hexagon", etc, etc, although none of these suggestions enjoy universal approval.

It looks like the best bet may be "forked cross" (also known as "crucifixus dolorosus", "furca", "y-cross", "ypsilon cross", "robber's cross" or "thief's cross"), which even has it own Wikipedia entry, although I am not totally happy with this because of the longer downward-pointing line (like a capital Y), its inverted orientation, and its lack of rotational symmetry.

Anyway, just idle speculation. There are probably more important issues in the world.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Major League Baseball takes a political stand

Kudos to Major League Baseball (MLB) for making a political stand and moving the All-Star Game out of the state of Georgia in protest at their unconscionable new voting restrictions, which are aimed squarely, even transparently, at disenfranchising Black Americans and other racial minorities.

Professional sport is becoming more and more political but, given the influential position they are in, that may not be a bad thing. 

The first ever cellphone call (not by Apple, in case you were wondering)

An interesting Moment in Time in the Globe today: today is the 48th anniversary of the first official cellphone call.

The first cellphone was not the size of a brick; it was the size, and even the shape of a child's wellington boot. The call was made on April 3rd 1973 (no, not the 1990s, or even the 1980s), and it was a Motorola DynaTAC phone (no, not Apple, the Apple Computer Company did not even exist yet, and that first call was made to Motorola's closest rival, AT&T).

Friday, April 02, 2021

We need an industry-targeted vaccination push, and we need it yesterday

As Ontario heads back into what its government persists in calling a "lockdown" or "shutdown" or "emergency brake" (insert your favourite phrase here),even though those definitions have been substantially watered down in recent weeks, leading public health experts continue to criticize the Conservative governmemt's handling of the pandemic, and their ignoring of health experts' recommendations. We are in an out-of-control third wave, and drastic action is needed. 

But Doug Ford's watery "tough new measures" are not new at all. Toronto and Peel - which is where the worst numbers are, and have always been - have supposedly been locked down for weeks now, and the case numbers are still going up. How is more of the same going to make a difference? The usual inconsistencies continue: relatively low-risk activities like outside dining are being stopped, while relatively high-risk ones like indoor church services are still allowed. A group of 153 ICU doctors hace presented Ford with an open letter explaining just why his response is inadequate.

However, finally, I do believe that the right questions are being asked in a much more public way (e.g. on television news programs), in particular the idea of targeting the vaccination effort to the areas of most community spread, both geographically and industry-wise. 

The main effort so far has been targeted at age groups, in an attempt to vaccinate those most at risk of death or serious illness, which is a reasonable approach at the start. But now we have reached the stage where specific industries, racial groups and geographic areas need to be the focus, and health and infectious diseases experts are becoming increasingly vocal about it.

The general label that covers virtually all of those primary targets is "essential workers", whether this is healthcare workers, supermarket staff, or workers in factories, food production facilities, warehouses, distribution centres, or any number of other jobs that come under the general heading of "essential". For months now, it has been clear that essential workers are the largest single vector of new cases and viral transmission, and there is a huge disconnect between the sectors of society that are most at risk of contracting the virus (and psssing it on to others) and those who are being vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases and deaths in areas with most essential workers (blue line)

Unless and until we start vaccinating essential workers in a big way - and soon - any number of lockdowns, any analysis of whether hairdressers should be open or closed, or whether restaurants should be allowed to open their patios, is moot and all but useless.

And I don't mean just a grudging acceptance that essential workers should be allowed to compete against seniors for available doses. I mean an aggressive policy of actively encouraging vaccination in these sectors, including taking the vaccines to the workplaces, rather than just hoping that some of them will take time off work and travel to a mass vaccination centre. We finally have enough vaccine doses to be able to do this. It has to be a concerted push, and it's pretty clear that we can't rely on employers to do the right thing here. 

It's even more important to push hard because so many essential workers are racialized minorities, and so (for reasons that I still don't fully understand) are much more likely to be vaccine hesitant. We need union involvement, community leader involvement, celebrity involvement, whatever it takes to get as many of these people vaccinated as possible, for their own good and for the good of the country as a whole.

Vaccination coverage by risk areas

Paid sick leave would help too, although I've all but given up hoping for action on that.

All this is now being talked about seriously in a variety of public forums. I can only hope that it is just a matter of time before our governments realize what they need to do, and what they should have been doing for some time now.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

"Excess deaths" as a result of COVID precautions more than set off by deaths saved

In another case of "be careful what you wish for", and another example of how slippery statistics can be, there are two conflicting narratives around non-COVID deaths.

News articles are bemoaning how many more people have died from non-COVID causes this year, due to cancelled operations, fewer hospital transfers from long-term care homes, and other related changes arising from the restrictions out in place for the coronavirus. It's tough to tease apart the figures, but by some estimates there have been an additional 13,000 "excess deaths" over the last year as an indirect result of the pandemic (this includes things like increased deaths from substance abuse, which is hard to attribute).

Set against that, though, is a large decrease in deaths fron the annual flu season, largely as a result of the strict public health measures imposed to combat COVID. This year, there have been zero deaths from the flu in Canada, compared to an annual death toll of between 6,000 and 8,000, and only 66 confirmed cases, as compared to an average of 43,000.

Also, to be set against the "excess deaths" figure are all the potential COVID deaths that have been avoided by those same public health measures, an unknown (and unknowable) statistic that could range into the hundreds of thousands.

So, once again (see my last entry, on the mental health fallout of the preventative measures), a narrow focus can give a very skewed impression of what is really happening.