Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Solar panels a thousand times more efficient?

I have a roof full of solar panels, and they are great, but they don't supply enough power for our daily electrical needs (about half, actually). Imagine, then, if I had solar panels that were a thousand times more efficient.

Well, that's the promise of a totally new kind of solar panel being developed in Germany. Researchers at  Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg have produced a solar panel using alternating crystalline layers of barium titanate, strontium titanate and calcium titanate, instead of the traditional silicon-based cells. The new cells use about 500 alternating layers of these ferroelectric and paraelectric materials, each about 200 nanometres thick. This arrangement apparently separates the positive and negative charges in the same photovoltaic device, thereby increasing their efficiency by orders of magnitude (somehow).

It is still early days in the development of this new technology, and I have no idea how rare or expensive the ingredients (or whether the supply is controlled by China!) But, nevertheless, it is an exciting new avenue that seems to have lots of promise for the future.


Friday, October 08, 2021

UN declares a clean environment to be a human right

The UN Human Rights Council has voted to recognize that access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental human right. The motion, jointly proposed by Costa Rica, Morocco, Maldives, Switzerland and Slovenia, noted that the global environmental crisis, particularly climate change and poor air quality, leads to some nine million premature deaths every year.

The motion passed with 43 votes in favour, with just Russia, India, China and Japan abstaining (the Council is made up of 47 rotating countries; Canada and USA are not currently members). Britain initially opposed the motion, but eventually came around and voted for it because of its committment to deal with climate change, but stressed that the fact that it is not legally binding was a major factor in this decision...

It's true that the ruling doesn't have any actual legal standing, but it does send a powerful moral message, and it is thought that it may have some significant impact on legal cases currently underway in various countries concerning climate change and other environmental matters.

Many emvironmentalists are lauding the decision as a game-changer, but the more hard-nosed economists and politicians are pretty much ignoring it as so much hot air (which seems appropriate). Me, I'd like to think it might be important, but the cynical part of me, which grows as I age, has lower expectations.

Alberta whining about equalization again

Alberta is whining again. Well, what's new? How many times have I written those, or very similar, words?

This time, the provimce has decided to add in a referendum question to the upcoming municipal election ballots, asking for Albertans' views on equalization. The question asks: "Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 - Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments - be removed from the constitution?” 

Equalization - established back in the 1950s, and enshrined in the Canadian Constitution in 1982 - is part of a system of provincial transfer payments, along with the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer. It is a system of wealth redistribution, based on the putative "fiscal capacity" of the various provinces. The "have" provinces effectively pay tax funds into a pot to be shared among the "have-not" provinces, in the aspirational belief that Canada is a country, not just a collection of private fiefdoms. 

Quebec is by far the largest recipient of equalization payments (although PEI receives the most per capita), and Manitoba and the Maritime provinces also benefit. However, it is not the case that the "have" provinces contribute these funds directly: as the Library of Parliament explains, "Equalization is financed entirely from government of Canada general revenues", i.e. it is raised through federal taxes on all Canadians.

Many in Alberta, though, want to keep all the fortuitous advantages of its natural resources, particularly after a couple of (relatively) lean years in the province. This is a selfish, dog-eat-dog, deeply conservative attitude, profoundly uninterested in the common good. It's not even that they want to conserve the fruits of their honest labour; they just happen to live in a place that has a bunch of lucrative fossil fuels. But, hey, that's Alberta.

The people of Alberta have been force-fed the idea that the province is being unfairly treated by the country by their Conservative government for years, and specifically the idea that the equalization formula is unfair to Alberta. So, it is more than likely that the referendum will return the response the current government wants. Not that this will have any actual practical effect, of course - ending equalization payments is not within provincial jurisdiction - it's all about political optics. And the foundering Kenney government needs all the help it can get right now.

But the reality is that Alberta is still by far the richest province in Canada, and is in no position to complain. According to StatsCan, Alberta had a median family income of $101,780 in 2018 (not sure why 2018 should be the latest figures available), way ahead of Saskatchewan ($89,760) and Ontatio ($89,270), not to mention lowly New Brunswick ($77,020) and Nova Scotia ($78,920).  The territories of Yukon and Northwest Territories had even higher median incomes than Alberta, but they are tiny economies and populations which have to deal with an extremely high cost of living.

Just for good measure, the Canadian Income Survey for 2019 shows that the median after-tax income for families and unattached individuals in Alberta was $72,500, compared to $66,600 in Ontario and $65,700 in British Columbia (and $53,300 in Nova Scotia and $55,600 in Quebec, at the other end of the scale).

So, don't cry for Alberta. Despite decades of mismanagement and short-sighted investment decisions, it's doing alright thank you. Of course, the oil nd gas won't last forever, so it does need to get its act together soon. But for now, it remains a "have" province, and it owes it to the less fortunate parts of the country to contribute its dues. That's the Canadian way.

Just so you know, the other referendum question onnthe upcoming ballot is "Do you want Alberta to adopt year-round Daylight Saving Time, which is summer hours, eliminating the need to change our clocks twice a year?” Heady stuff!

Monday, October 04, 2021

Supreme Court or Santa Claus Convention?

There was a great picture of Canada's Supreme Court in this weekend's Globe and Mail.

But it's really hard not to think of a Santa Claus Convention.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The day of the "peep peep peep" reversing alarm isnover

Every morning I wake up to the "peep peep peep" sound of reversing alarms from the construction machinery just up the street. It's not quite the dawn chorus. In fact, it's possibly the most annoying noise I hear all day. And I do hear it all day...

But, you say, that's the point of reversing alarms: they have to be annoying and intrusive or people won't notice them. But that's just the thing - they are SO ubiquitous now that people don't really notice them any more for the purpose for which they were designed, only as a vague annoyance in the distance, and a contribution to the overall noise pollution that assails our cities in this modern day. There's also some evidence that the vehicle drivers nowbpay LESS attention while reversing, relying instead on the alarm to warn pedestrians and other workers out of the way. This thing has come full circle.

The beep-beep reversing alarms have been around since the 1960s, when they were introduced in the USA and Japan. They spread rapidly in the 1970s, as studies showed that they did indeed cut down on the carnage on our construction sites, and soon became mandatory on work sites around most of the world.

By the 1990s, though, questions were starting to be asked about how effective they really were, and noise pollution concerns were starting to starting to be taken more seriosusly. By the early 2000s, a more broadband "sshhhh-sshhhh" white-noise reversing alarm was developed, which is supposedly more directional, gentler on the ear and easier for pedestrians to pinpoint. I think this is what I hear from our garbage trucks each Tuesday, and it's marginally better, but still pretty nasty.

It seems to me, though, that the development of obstacle detection radars and 360° camera monitors, such as I have in my car, are a much better solution than either of these options. Even relatively budget cars now feature these, so the cost cannot be that high, although retrofitting older vehicles is probably a tougher sell. Do we even know that new construction vehicles are being fitted with these features? Probably not: inertia is a powerful force, and laws will need to be adapted. 

In the meantime, we are stuck with that excruciating "peep peep peep". All day.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Ryder Cup: an embarrassment or a celebration of macho culture?

I don't know much about golf, and I've never knowingly watched a match, even on television. I've never seen the point in whacking little ball around a field. But it is undeniably a popular spectator sport, and one of the most popular golfing events is the annual Ryder Cup competition between the USA and Europe.

However, this is not a genteel sporting event. This is not St. Andrews or Augusta. This is a raucous, alcohol-soaked bro-fest (and make no mistake, you don't see many sis's at the Ryder Cup). This is drunken guys yelling "U-S-A" (or "Fra-a-ance" or "Ger-ma-ny"), booing the opposition, cheering the opposition's muffed shots, and generally being boorish. In particular, it's a bunch of macho guys wearing baseball caps backwards, being steotypical Anericans (and a few brave stereotypical Europeans) and generally making a hyper-partisan spectacle of themselves, while a game of golf continues somewhere in the background.

As it turns out, the Americans won this one handily - the home team almost always wins the Ryder Cup; maybe it's something to do with all that booing? - although the Europeans still lead the series, which began back in 1979. But the score is almost secondary to the event itself, that celebration of manliness and buffoonery. Some golfers roll their eyes at it; some just lap it up.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

German Word of the Day - Merkel-Raute (Merkel rhombus)

 Named after the rhomboid hand clasp that Angela Merkel has long favoured:


She (and it) will be missed.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

China enters a new phase where optics are no longer important

The release of Canada's two Michaels at the exact time that Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from her house arrest and flew home to China - the two flights probably passed each other somewhere over Northern Europe - gives the official lie to all the outraged Chinese claims that there was no link between Ms. Meng's arrest and the incarceration of the two Canadian civilians.

No-one outside of China seriously doubted that the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig was anything other than an arbitrary and spurious tit-for-tat action that is best characterized as "hostage diplomacy". But China has been at pains to insist that this was not the case, in a vain attempt to have it appear slightly less egregious in the eyes of the world. 

Most commentators - including me, I have to say - were predicting that, once Ms. Meng was released, through the intercession of American lawyers and diplomats (and almost certainly Joe Biden himself), the two Michaels would NOT be released immediately, because that would too obviously link the two events, which would be bad optics for China.

Yesterday's bland admission that, yes, the detentions were indeed targeted hostage diplomacy after all, heralds a new phase in China's relations with the rest of the world, one in which optics really don't matter to them. Long used to splendid isolation (other than what bought support they can glean from their aggressive investment and development projects in South America and Africa), China is clearly signalling that it now believes itself strong enough not to need to observe the diplomatic niceties followed by most of the rest of the world. 

China now believes it can do pretty much whatever it likes with complete impunity, because no other country dare cross it due to its economic and military power. It is up to the rest of the world, or at least those who are not completely economically beholden to China, to show that this is not the case. Canada, as a middle power at best, should take solace from the fact that it has a whole network of supportive allies in North America, Europe and parts of Asia behind it, while China is essentially, and eternally, alone.

And, of course, now that the two Michaels are out of the picture, Canada is under pressure to make its long-delayed decision on whether or not to allow Chinese company Huawei to participate in the rollout of Canada's 5G telecommunications network. Actually, Rogers, Bell and Telus, having seen the writing on the wall, are all now pursuing 5G contracts with Eriksson, Nokia and Samsung anyway, so maybe the government may not need to put their neck on the line by making an official statement (or maybe they have already been speaking to Rogers, Bell and Telus behind the scenes for that very reason).

How do the Liberals manage to win elections but lose the popular vote?

Canada's "election that changed nothing" is over, and the new government is almost identical to the old government. Failed cynical power grab? Maybe. Waste of $600 million. Sure. Overwhelming mandate for the Liberals? Not really.

The Liberals ended up with a strongish minority of 159 seats in a 338-seat parliament, or 47% of the available seats, just shy of the 50% majority position. But they got to that with just 32.6% of the popular vote. The second place Conservatives gained 119 seats (35%) with 33.7% of the popular vote. The NDP fared even worse, winning just 7% of the seats with 18% of the popular vote.

Sure, this is just a function of the first-past-the-post electoral system we are stuck with here. Plus, the share of the popular vote won by the winning party - whether Liberal or Conservative - has been on a downward trajectory since about 1970, as has voter turnout, giving the 2021 Liberals the weakest mandate in Canadian electoral history. There are now SIX major parties in Canadian politics, not just the two of a hundred years ago.

But why is it that the Liberals seem to be able to form a government with only a third of the national vote, while the Conservatives perennially win the popular vote but are excluded from power? 

The Tories, of course, are convinced that it's all due to the nefarious dealings of the Liberals, and that  they have been unfairly treated by the system. The NDP and the Greens (and even the ultra-right PPC), arguably, HAVE been unfairly treated by the system, so it's no surprise that they are strongly pushing a proportional representation electoral system (an idea that the Liberals, who once professed to be in favour of it, have mysteriously dropped since they have been in power).

But the Liberals do not come by their seats by nefarious means. This is not a case of barefaced gerrymandering, such as plagues American elections. The fact is that most of the Conservatives' support is in Western Canada, specifically Alberta and Saskatchewan, and they win some Western ridings with over 80% of the vote. So, much of their Western support is "wasted", being far in excess of what they need to win the seats. The Liberals, on the other hand, have a much higher "vote efficiency", and so are able to win more seats with fewer votes, mainly because of their geographical distribution.

So, like them or like them not, the Liberals come by their election victories fairly. If, that is, you consider the first-past-the-post system to be fair...

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Suicide rate unexpectedly plummeted during the pandemic

Well, here's a surprise. We have been hearing ad nauseum from mental health experts over the last year or two that the COVID-19 pandemic was causing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions, and that lockdowns are unfair, even dangerous, and can be expected to lead to widespread poor mental health outcomes and probably a rash of suicides, something I have written about before in these pages.

However, the first major Canadian study on the matter, published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, shows that the number of suicides in Canada actually fell by 32% during the first year of the pandemic.

Suicide rates usually go up in times of economic, housing and health insecurity and, government benefits or not, 2020 was surely such a time. So, the study's authors are scrambling to explain the unexpected statistic, suggesting that maybe government-funded financial benefits and a deliberate increased focus on mental health might be the cause. Another causal factor may be the increased social cohesion the pandemic brought about, as neighbours met and helped each other out, with a sense of collective community. Well, maybe... 

The study's authors do also point out that deaths from opioid overdoses did surge during the pandemic, and intentional fatal opioid overdoses are traditionally NOT included in suicide figures for some reason (why?) Perhaps concerned for their grant funding, some researchers are suggesting that maybe the suicide rate will surge AFTER the pandemic, as people emerge from "survival mode", and "battle fatigue" starts to manifest.

The Canadian study echoes the findings of an earlier metastudy of 21 other countries which also shows a reduction in suicides rates during the pandemic, so this does seem to be a general finding. However, it should be noted that the countries that did best were those who suffered the least, both in economic and in public health terms.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The irony! - a shortage of carbon dioxide

In a world that is seemingly awash in carbon dioxide (CO2), and is desperately trying to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by modern human life, it is ironic in the extreme to read that the UK is staring down a major shortage of CO2  to the extent that a big potential hit to the economy is envisaged.

I had no idea, but apparently CO2 is used in a variety of industrial and commercial activities, including extending the shelf life of packaged fruit and veg and meat, cooling nuclear power plants, stabilizing body cavities during surgical operations, purifying drinking water, freezing off warts and moles, stunning livestock before slaughter, producing dry ice for transportation of fresh produce and for visual effects, and of course putting the fizz into fizzy drinks.

The UK mainly produces this industrial CO2 as a by-product of the manufacture of ammonia, alcohol and (mainly) fertilizers. Specifically, 60% of its total production comes from just two fertilizer plants in northern England owned by a US company, CF Industries, that now wants to shut down the plants. This is a prime example of the UK having too many eggs in one basket.

The biggest single input cost in CO2 production is natural gas, and surging natural gas prices have already forced some fertilizer plants to close down, leading to a shortage of CO2. The UK government has apparently struck a temporary deal with CF Industries to stay open, despite the natural gas prices, but this is only a temporary fix. Prices of CO2 are predicted to rise by up to 400%, and all of the products that rely on it, from produce to meat to nuclear power, will feel the pinch accordingly.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Reducing polling stations "due to COVID" makes no sense

We voted the other day, not at our usual polling station, but at another one further away. It was pretty busy, considering this was advance polling and not the actual election day, but not too bad. Apparently, there are much fewer polling stations this election, "due to COVID-19".

Wait, hold on. Elections Canada has cut down on the number of polling stations "to meet physical distancing requirements"? That makes no sense. We now have more people crammed into fewer stations, longer lines, and therefore LESS physical distancing. Surely, if anything, we need MORE polling stations.

Now, apparently, some regular polling stations like schools and private businesses have declined to lend their premises for voting purposes during a pandemic, which is perhaps understandable. But that is not the major reason for the reduced number of polling stations. It's all about physical distancing.

We also had to throw away the little pencils we used to vote with (or we could take them home), another largely pointless COVID protocol. It has been many months since the idea of the virus spreading from touching things has been demoted to nonsense status. Nevertheless, millions of little pencils are being junked regardless.

It's not a big deal, in the scheme of things. You can see that they are trying to make it as safe as possible under the circumstances. It's just that so many things are described as "due to COVID-19" or " because of the pandemic" nowadays that we have almost stopped questioning them. It has become the excuse du jour (d'an?) for pretty much every non-standard or cost-cutting policy instituted anywhere, and there is little anyone can do about it, because public health and safety trumps everything.

A comparison of federal parties' climate change plans

Respected climate economist Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University has put the climate change policies of the three main federal parties under the microscope in the run-up to next week's election, and his conclusions make interesting reading.

All three parties have ambitious carbon reduction targets: the NDP is pursuing a target of 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, the Liberals 40%, and the Conservatives 30%. But, as Professor Jaccard notes, these mean nothing if there are not policies in place to achieve them, and these are what he has been analyzing.

The Liberal plan (a carbon tax rising to $170 a tonne by 2030, with protections for exporting industries) gets a score of 8/10, and Prof. Jaccard believes the measures are sufficient to achieve the target, and will result in a bearable 2.5% drag on GDP over the next 9 years.

The Conservative plan (based on a much lower carbon tax, using a carbon savings account) garners a 5/10 score, and has a decent chance of meeting its goal, with a modest hit of 2% to GDP.

The NDP's plan, on the other hand, the most ambitious at first glance, gets a terrible 2/10 score, lacks critical details, and is considered unlikely to meet its goals without a carbon tax rate at least double that of the Liberals, with a huge 6.5% hit to GDP over the next decade.

Professor Jaccard, therefore, recommends that people for whom climate change is a top issue look at the plan in detail rather than just trusting to the stated goals.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Yes, lightning really does strike upwards

Just recently, a friend was trying to convince a skeptical me that, when lightning strikes, it strikes from the ground UPWARDS, not, as most people usually think, from the heavens down the the ground.

Well, we had a humdinger of a thunderstorm last night, and one of the video shots in particular, may have finally convinced me. The video in question is the one about halfway down that page, by Aleksander Onishchuk, and the point is that it is slowed down. The slow motion lightning strike clearly shows the lightning proceeding from the CN Tower upwards.

Actually, it's not quite as simple as that (of course it's not!) This NASA page explains that cloud-to-ground lightning first traces several paths of negative charge downwards in a series of "spurts", searching for the path of least resistance, although this is largely invisible to us here on the ground, because each one is not that bright. Then, because opposites attract, the generally positively-charged ground sends out a "streamer" up along the best path it found. When these two paths meet, a "return stroke" shoots upwards into the sky, and it is this return stroke, much brighter than the initial spurts, that we actually see. Here is another slowed down video to show the process.

So, yes, technically an upwards flash, but, as the whole thing happens within a few thousandths of a second, it really looks like a stationary flash of light, happening all at once. And, because the whole thing is initially generated up in the clouds, we tend to think of it as a downwards strike from the cloud to the ground

Imcidentally, the other video on that page that is well worth watching is the one by Dilshad Berman, if only for the young lady's unadulterated joy at seeing not one but five (five!) lightning bolts hit (or emit from) the CN Tower.

Once again, spurious antisemitism allegations have destroyed a politcal career

Less  than a week before the Canadian federal election, the NDP candidate for Toronto-St. Paul's, Sidney Coles, has "resigned" (i.e. she was pushed) after incriminating social media posts from some months ago were "discovered".

The tweet in question (now long deleted, so someone was saving up the screenshots for the opportune moment - looking at you Simon Wiesenthal Centre) suggest that Israel was maybe responsible for some missing COVID-19 vaccine doses in the United States. The NDP, of course, jumped on that like a pile of bricks, as would any of the other parties, deeming it racism and antisemitism of the highest order.

Now, maybe you think the tweet was puerile (agreed), maybe you think it was the worst kind of conspiracy theory or just poor humour (agreed and agreed). But am I the only person to think that this is not actually antisemitism? As far as I am aware, nowhere was there a mention of "Judaism" as a religion, or "Jewishness" as a race (a dubious contention at best: there is no separate Jewish race, and Jews being of the same Semitic race and background as the Arabs of the region), just "Israel", which is a country or state, just like Canada. 

Surely, we are allowed to criticize other countries, even in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Aren't we? Organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, B'nai Brith, and the Israeli state itself (and particularly its current Prime Minister) regularly make use of the damning antisemitism allegation whenever the state of Israel is criticized in any way at all, usually in order to close down the conversation and deflect all blame from the state.

Coles herself performed a complete mea culpa and deleted her Twitter account before "resigning". Coles (as well as Dan Osborne, an NDP candidate in a Nova Scotia riding, whose separate social media faux pas was less forgivable) - have "agreed to educate themselves further about antisemitism". But dare I suggest that maybe it is the party itself - and probably the other parties too, who are all falling over themselves to be more politically correct than thou, particularly if it is something that might conceivably be construed (or misconstrued) as racism - that needs to educate itself.

California recall vote just another example of America's wacky political system

So, a bunch of Republicans in California decided they dislike Governor Gavin Newsom so much that they called a vote just a year before the regularly scheduled vote would have occurred anyway.

Wait, what? They can do that? Welcome to the weird and wacky world of American state politics. Democratic Governor Newsom was voted in during the 2018 gubernatorial elections with 62% of the vote in this overwhelmingly blue (Democratic) state. But the state's rules dictate that, if just 12% of the electorate get together to demand a recall, a whole new election can be held, and (if the vote says so) a new candidate of their choosing can be installed as Governor.

You would think that that way madness lies, and every time a party loses an election they could trigger a new one (and probably lose all over again). But this has apparently not been done since Arnold Schwartzenegger (remember him?) was installed by this method back in 2003.

Anyway, the most recent attempt has failed miserably, with Newsom polling about 64% in his favour, and California is spared the scary prospect of being "governed" by Trumpian talk-radio host Larry Elder. Was this just political theatre, then? Just a game to be played because the rules say it can be?

Either way, the good people of California, Republicans and Democrats alike, are on the hook for the $276 million costs of this ill-advised foray into policy wonkiness, and there will be another (regular) vote anyway in just over a year's time. It has led to some calls to reform the rules around electoral recalls, so that's something. Don't hold your breath, though. This is America, after all.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Djokovic failed again, but you don't need to feel sorry for him

Well, after all the hype and all the anticipation, Novak Djokovic failed to win a Grand Slam (all four majors in one year), and failed to become the GOAT by winning a 21st tennis major to push Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal our of the limelight once and for all. This comes just a month after failing to win a so-called Golden Slam, when when he did not win the gold medal (or indeed ANY medal) at the Summer Olympics.

And he failed in spectacular fashion, losing in straight sets to an ascendent Daniil Medvedev, destroying his racquet in disgust (earning himself a code violation in the process), and narrowly avoiding taking out a ball-boy in a separate angry outburst. The guy does have anger management issues.

So, it seems that not only is Djokovic human, he's actually a thoroughly unpleasant human (certainly compared to Federer, or even Nadal). He's an outspoken anti-vaxxer for one thing. And the US Open crowd was just starting to like (or at least support) him after years of giving him a hard time. It's going to be a long climb back after this.

Not that I care much about him one way or the other. The reason I even write about this is that my wife happened to mention that she felt sorry for him. Sorry? For Djokovic? Isn't that kind of like feeling sorry for a billionaire because he didn't earn another superfluous billion?

Wilson-Raybould's attempts to sabotage Trudeau are personal not political

Jody Wilson-Raybould is still banging on about how unfairly she has been treated by Justin Trudeau, a year and a half after the so-called SNC-Lavalin "scandal".

The whole thing has been off the front-burner for a couple of years now and, even back then, polls indicated that it wasn't a big deal for Canadians (although you may not have got that impression from the Canadian press). It was very much a he-said she-said affair and, even if you considered it an ethics faux-pas on the Prime Minister's partit was not a big one. It turned out not to have been a particularly big issue in the 2019 election, and it probably won't be in this one either, despite Ms. Wilson-Raybould's best efforts. People who feel strongly about it will probably not vote for Trudeau's party even if their local candidate is the best option and even if the party has the best overall platform. That is their right.

But publishing a "tell-all" book - just Wilson-Raybould's version of events, mind you, not a definitive or objective account - a couple of weeks before a federal election just smacks of vindictiveness and small-mindedness. It is not a good look for her. 

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is not standing again in the 2021 election, as she is apparently disillusioned with top level politics. And this is also her right. But she just can't resist sticking her oar in, and doing whatever she can to sabotage Trudeau's chances of re-election. This is not politics, it is personal. And it is every bit as nasty and dirty as she claims federal politics to be.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

How is the UK doing with that whole "we can live COVID" thing?

We're hoping to visit the UK this Christmas, having not seen our parents for nearly two years, but I really don't feel very confident about the prospect.

I see the happy (usually drunk) faces of Brits inside and outside of ridiculously crowded pubs and at sports events on TV and in website articles, and it just makes me shudder a little. Revellers say things like, "It's done, COVID is over, for sure", and "It's like the common cold now". It all seems pitifully naive to me.

My family reports an almost complete absence of masking in supermarkets and in cinemas, which makes them shudder too. One American niece, currently living in England, says, "it feels kind of nice", but most other Brits I speak to are far from convinced.

Britain, like several other countries, has thrown itself wholeheartedly into the idea that we are never going to actually beat COVID, so we may as well just accept that and get on with our lives. As the common phrase goes, on the lips of Boris Johnson downwards, "we must learn to live with COVID".

So, how is that going? Well, depending on who you listen to, not that well. Daily cases are over 40,000 any rising - this, in a country with roughly double the population of Canada, which has about 3,500 daily cases (and possibly plateauing) - and deaths are well over 100 a day and rising (about 20 a day in Canada). 

It's never good to let a disease run rampant, if only because more cases means more likelihood of new (and worse, more resistant) variants arising. But it's the 100 deaths a day that worries more. Is the UK really OK with that?

The main justification in Britain - which is pretty well vaccinated, about on a par with Canada, if slightly lower - is that hospitalizations are manageable, at around 7,000 or about 7% of capacity. But many health experts there are warning that the winter will be hard, as people retreat indoors more, and many are predicting that the healthcare system will come under severe pressure again. There has also been widespread criticism of the decision not to vaccinate children 12-15 years olds. In much the same way, health officials in the US are also warning that things are from under control.

I guess we'll still try to go back at Christmas, unless things deteriorate catastrophically. But I can't pretend that I'm happy with it.

UPDATE

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced how he is going to manage the COVID-19 pandemic during the coming winter months

And the plan is ... no lockdowns, no vaccine passports, no mask mandates, and complete reliance on an OK vaccination rollout that has been shown to be some help but totally insufficient in averting a fourth wave of the virus. And this is supposed to make me feel good?

Sunday, September 05, 2021

What is the religious objection to COVID vaccines?

As we try to ramp up COVID vaccination efforts and mop up those holdouts who are reducing our herd immunity, and as vaccine passports become the norm, it is increasingly likely that we are going  to come up against the issue of religious and medical exemptions.

There are some bona fide medical reasons why some people should not get vaccinated, but these are rare. For example, Ontario's Ministry of Health recently explained that there are really only two good medical reasons why someone should not get a COVID vaccination: an allergic reaction to an element of the vaccine (which should be confirmed by a qualified allergist or immunologist), or if an individual suffered mycocarditis or pericarditis after the first dose of a vaccine (a very rare occurrence).

But what about a religious exemption? This is a much woollier, greyer area, and there is already some evidence that the religious exemption is being abused as people opposed to the vaccines for various reasons try to find ways round it, particularly in some of the more Gilead-orientated areas of the United States. Organizations like Liberty Counsel are ramping up their court case efforts, and threatening various states and companies with legal action over their vaccine mandates. There are detailed video guides on several alt-right websites on how to apply for a religious exemption to vaccination, and many evangelical pastors will provide exemption documents to pretty much anyone who asks.

To qualify, an individual needs to show "sincerely held beliefs" against getting vaccinated, a vague requirement not explained in law anywhere. There are two main religious reasons why people might claim a religious exemption. Firstly, they may object to the use of aborted fetal cell lines in their production (although as I have explained in a previous post, the cell lines used are cloned lines from two original aborted fetuses dating back to 1973 and 1985, and opposition on these grounds would also apply to any number of other vaccines developed over the last 30 or 40 years). 

The second argument makes use of a specific Bible verse claiming that the human body is "God's temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19, if you are really interested), and that defiling it by deliberately pricking a small hole in it is therefore a sin. This might seem ridiculous to most people, but there are a few fundamentalist religious types who probably sincerely believe this (and many more who might claim to because it is convenient). 

Anyway, thousands of people will probably claim a religious exemption as an excuse not to get a COVID shot, including many who have never objected to vaccination before, so politicized has this become. And all this despite the fact that Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have all advised their followers to get vaccinated, and Pope Francis has specifically called it "morally.acceptable" and even '"an act of love". But then, morality it ls not really what this is about, is it?

Monday, August 30, 2021

Can we believe what politicans are tellling us?

Here's a good example of just how careful we all have to be when listening to the election rhetoric of elctioneering politicians. 

Not only can you discount many (most?) of the promises they make, because in practice political parties of all stripes tend not to be able to deliver on their election promises when faced with the realities of running the country. But many of their claims about the other parties made on the hustings cannot be trusted either.

Case in point: all three main parties - Liberals, Conservatives and NDP - are claiming that the other parties have made, and/or are planning to make more, cuts to healthcare transfers to the provinces. Turns out, none of them is quite correct.

The Liberals are claiming that the Conservatives reduced healthcare transfers last time they were in power (under Stephen Harper), and that Erin O'Toole can be expected to do more of the same. In fact, Harper proposed reducing the rate of increase of the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) back in 2012, but never actually got around to doing so. Note that this was not a proposed cut, merely a slowing down of the annual increases. Also, there is no evidence that today's Conservatives under Erin O'Toole are looking to cut the CHT; in fact, they have specifically said that they will reverse the Liberals'cuts.

Which brings us to the Conservatives' claims: that the Liberals under Justin Trudeau did in fact cut healthcare transfers in 2017, neglecting to mention that it was the same Harper Conservative cuts that the Liberals acted on. Except that, of course, they weren't cuts at all, just a reduction in the speed of increase...

Anyway, surely, the NDP are above all this pettiness and fake news, right? Not so. The NDP is campaigning on a promise to "end the legacy of healthcare cuts" of BOTH the Liberals amd Conservatives. Except there weren't any cuts, remember, under any previous government in at least one-and-a-half decades, just a slow-down of the inexorable increases in CHT to the provinces.

One has to assume that all of the leaders and their party apparatchiks are quite aware that there have been no actual healthcare cuts. (If they are not, then they should be.) So, are these just lies, then, or "mis-speaks", or misunderstandings? A look at a graph of federal healthcare spending shows a steady increase, even when adjusted for population growth and inflation, and even as a share of GDP, and as a share of total healthcare spending in the country. It's pretty clear, and pretty incontravertible. So, I'm thinking lies.

It's almost enough to make you vote for the Bloc Québécois, or the imploding Green Party. You can see why people are so cynical about the main parties, and why the popular vote is so low (I'm guessing that this election will mark an all-time low). It's quite depressing.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Pushing back against the mainstream of race politics

I am finding Christine Louis-dit-Sully's latest book Transcending Racial Divisions: Will You Stand By Me both illuminating and thought-provoking.

Ms. Louis-dit-Sully is a black woman brought up in the French West Indies, France and the UK, and has only recently moved from academic biology research to political theory and commentary, since becoming disillusioned with the current state of race politics, identity politics, critical race theory, etc. It's a crowded field, but she brings her own lived experience and her clarity of thought and expression to it.

To give a flavour of the book, here are just a few snippets from the early pages, some of which may seem quite controversial, even shocking, within the current Zeitgeist of anti-racist opinion and the climate of politic correctness:

  • "Racism is about denying group members their individuality".
  • "The caricature of Serena Williams was racist and used specific well-known cultural tropes, but this does not necessarily mean that the author was or is racist."
  • "I am very open about my strong opposition to identity politics and to the anti-white bigotry promoted by some black activists."
  • "I do not agree with the notion that white authors writing about black characters in their novels, plays, comics, are necessarily being racist."
  • "I do not agree with the view that 'blackface' is always racist. People have blackened and blacken their faces for various reasons including just for the fun of changing their appearance."
  • "The prejudices, in the past, toward strangers or people from other communities like African tribes, Slavs or Germanic tribes were not racial prejudices unless one imposes our current view of the world onto people long gone."
  • "Self-defined identity groups are based on real or imagined grievances, the members of that group are defined as victims, and the identity is seen as positive."
  • "One of the reasons I strongly challenge identity politics is down to my opposition to the belief that emotional exhaustion, skin color, race, ethnicity, culture or personal experiences automatically give one access to the truth, and that that supposed truth cannot be discussed or challenged."
  • "Only a single individual would need to feel offended for a claim of cultural appropriation."
  • "Activists who describe racism as systemic white privilege or as the original sin have divided people into two immutable categories: the oppressors and the oppressed, showing their underlying mistrust in reason and autonomy."
  • "If an individual wants to see himself as black, he is forced to follow the norms and rules of the identity group, otherwise he is seen as 'inauthentic' or 'non-black'. The identity classification denies individual agency."

Strong stuff! Many (not all) of these views are similar to ones I have expressed myself in these blogs. The difference is, though, that I am white, and I walk on eggshells and risk online opprobrium and chastisement for espousing and disseminating such views. How refreshing, then, to read similar fare from a card-carrying black activist.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Canada's very own anti-mask lunatic fringe

We, here in Canada, are used to taking the Mickey out of our oversized neighbours to the south, and we like to flatter ourselves that there is no way that a phenomenon such as Donald Trump, or the January 6th Capitol riots, or even a political party remotely like the US Republican Party, could ever happen here. And, to a large extent, that flattery is reasonable and justified.

Nevertheless, we do have our own loony fringe here too, and they have been on full display over the last few days. Justin Trudeau's election campaign stops have been plagued by loud, raucous and potentially (but not yet actually) dangerous demonstrations by anti-maskers and anti-vacciners. And this has not occurred in redneck Alberta or Saskatchewan, but right here in relatively civilized and peaceful Ontario, the latest and perhaps worst example being in the sleepy commuter town of Bolton, Ontario, where Trudeau had to cancel a campaign stop because he could not guarantee the safety of attending supporters or politicians

It is worth following this link (or this one) to see some of the video footage taken at the rally. I don't remember ever seeing that degree of unhinged vitriol and hostility being levelled at a Canadian politician. Interestingly, a good proportion of the crazies seem to be women, and many had dragged their hyperactive kids along to add to the noise levels. And this, mark you, is apparently all over the relatively innocent (you might have thought) issue of vaccine passports. 

Many reporters seemed to be in a state of shock after the event, and the leaders of the main opposition parties were united in expressing their alarm and outrage at such scenes at a political rally on Canadian soil (several Conservative Party campaigners were prominent among the protesters, so O'Toole had to say something). It remains to be seen how all this might affect Justin Trudeau's re-election prospects.

So, anyway, it has been a salient reminder that we too have pockets of the crackpot right wing, perhaps not as established or organized as the American ones, but a threat to democracy, order and common sense all the same. 

In case you think I am exaggerating when I talk about "crackpots", some of them were talking about "microchips" in the vaccines, Trudeau as part of a human trafficking ring and a pedophile, Trudeau as Fidel Castro's son (I kid you not), many of which claims are familiar as part of QAnon's catechism. Some of the placards just basically consisted of swearwords; one showed Trudeau being hanged. Many of the protesters were literally screaming, manically and uncontrollably, and jabbing fingers and whole arms aggressively in Trudeau's general direction. This was protest at its most basic and it's most violent (short of actual bodily harm).

Maybe these people would prefer to go and live in Florida, or perhaps Tennessee. They really don't seem happy here. They don't seem to fit in.

UPDATE

To add insult to injury, these people - I'm guessing it's mainly the same people - have started protesting and picketing provincial legislatures, police stations and hospitals in Toronto, ostensibly over vaccine mandates, in an attempt to intimidate and demoralize the very people who are doing their level best to keep us safe and get us through this damned pandemic. This follows similar violent protests in British Columbia.

Once again, they were loud, disrespectful and aggressive, this being apparently the only way they can think of to get their point across. God forbid they should actually have a reasoned debate about it. In some cases, they were actually blocking access to hospitals, which seems particularly ill-advised.

UPDATE UPDATE

And now anti-mask, anti-vaccine protesters outside hospitals, some of them led by the shady and poorly-named Canadian Frontline Nurses organization, a tiny but outspoken outfit which opposes lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and which does not represent nurses, but does include some sacked and/or non-practising nurses.

Have these people no shame, no respect? Nobody really understands why they are targeting hospitals, as far as I know, but most people know it's seriously wrong. Hell, even Jason Kenney knows it's wrong.

Friday, August 27, 2021

The skinny on breakthrough cases in the Delta era

My wife (and therefore possibly me too) has had to get tested for COVID because a double-vaccinated friend of hers, whom she saw briefly last week, has tested positive. (UPDATE: Negative. Panic Over.) Welcome to the Delta era.

It's no secret that double-vaccinated people are catching the Delta variant of the virus. Indeed, these so-called "breakthrough cases" are expected to increase in frequency as more and more people are vaccinated (a still small percentage of an ever increasing number). Positive tests in vaccinated people still only account for about 1% of cases overall, although in recent weeks, when the more infectious Delta variant has been dominant, this is creeping up to 10%.

The vaccines are still doing their job, though (bear in mind that there are now three times as many vaccinated as unvaccinated people in Canada, and yet their infection rate is ten times less, not three times more). And, in particular, the vaccines ensure that those who do catch it have a much milder experience, and very few end up in hospital (and even fewer dead). Those vaccinated people who do end up hospitalized also tend to have other risk factors (e.g. old age, compromised immune systems, etc).

It may also be the case that some of the older (and more vulnerable) people who received their vaccines early may becoming due for a booster shot, as we now know that the efficacy of the vaccines starts to wane after several months, although this should not yet be the case for the general population. Protective T-cell responses to the virus seems to maintain their efficacy, though, even as antibody counts fall.

There has been a lot of media attention to the fact that fully-vaccinated individuals can carry as large a viral load as the unvaccinated, suggesting that they are just as contagious as unvaccinated people, but there is nuance here too. For example, the viral load falls off much quicker in vaccinated people, so they may be contagious for just a day, rather than five days. The vaccinated will also tend to have less of the live virus in their viral load, and so will be less contagious for that reason too.

All of which points to what we already knew: we need more people vaccinated, and we need to continue with other protections too, like mask-wearing and limiting large gatherings and indoor groups.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Man photographed as a baby for Nirvana album cover suddenly decides to sue

Forgive me for being a mite cynical about the news that the guy who was photographed naked as a baby for the cover of Nirvana's classic 1991 album Nevermind is now, as a 30 year old, suing anybody he can think of for child exploitation and pornography.

Spencer Eldon is suing the band, the estate of deceased band-leader Kurt Kobain, photographer Kirk Weddle, Universal Music, Geffen Records, Warner Music and MCA Music, for $150,000 each in damages. The photo was taken by Weddle, who was a friend of Eldon's father, and no official release was ever signed and no compensation paid (those were certainly simpler times and, hell, this is rock and roll...) 

Eldon's lawsuit claims that the photo - an iconic album cover, and one of the most recognizable in history - is sexually graphic, and claims to have experienced emotional distress and interference with emotional and educational development as a result of it.

Funnily enough, though, Eldon was interviewed as an apparently well-adjusted 17-year old high school student in 2008. At that time, he seemed fine with his fame (or notoriety): "Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis. So that's kinda cool. I'm just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I 'm here."

Can you say "opportunistic"?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Where we currently stand on vaccines vs. variants

If you were wondering where we are currently on vaccine efficacy and virus variant spread, in amongst all the other data hitting our newsfeeds, a recent British report stands out.

The University of Oxford and the Office for National Statistics has produced a study into the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines (the two most widely-used vaccines in the UK) against the Delta variant (now by far the most common virus variant worldwide).

We already knew that the Pfizer vaccine is 92% effective against the Delta variant, which is, of course, excellent. What this new updated study tells us, though, is that this efficacy drops to 78% just three months later. AstraZeneca, on the other hand, only showed an efficacy of 69% at first, but after three months this had only fallen to 61%. The researchers estimated that after 5 months the two vaccines may be about equally efficacious against the variant. 

The study did not look at the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but it seems likely that Moderna will behave similar to Pfizer, and J&J will behave similar to AstraZeneca. The reasons behind the differences are not entirely clear, but likely stem from the very different ways in which mRNA and viral vector vaccines work.

This sharp drop-off in efficacy for Pfizer may be part of the reason why Israel, which largely relied on Pfizer vaccinations, has seen a large increase in cases recently, despite one of the fastest and most comprehensive vaccination drives in the world. Either way, it has muddied the picture still further. Like we really need that right now. It may also add ammunition to the calls for contentious third booster doses, like US President Joe Biden recently called for, despite most of the world not having even had one.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

How popular are the Taliban in Afghanistan?

As disturbing images and videos of desperate Afghans fleeing a newly Taliban-ruled Afghanistan crowd our screens - people clinging to, and falling from, the outside of a departing American transport aircraft being perhaps the most disturbing of all - the impresssion we are left with is that Afghans hate the Taliban and will go to almost any length to escape them. There have already been many protests and demostrations against the Taliban coup (and several deaths as a result), but these are the bravest of the brave, remember, people who are literally risking their lives, and not a good metric of how much grass-roots opposition there really is.

So, just how popular are the Taliban within the country, really? Well, this is far from clear, and there seems no way to obtain an objective view of it. Taliban spokesmen say they weren't surprised at the speed of their occupation after the Americans pulled out, "because we have roots among the people, because it was a popular uprising of the people". But forgive me for not having much faith in the Taliban propaganda machine.

The Taliban is essentially a brutal Islamic fundamentalist army, with an estimated 85,000 members according to NATO estimates, in a country of around 38 million. But how many of that 38 million actually approve of the Taliban's methods, or even of their stated goal of establishing an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, along with strict Sharia law and the institutionalized oppression of women? How many would be comfortable providing a safe haven for al-Qaida, ISIS and other terrorist organizations (because you just know that is going to happen)?

If most Afghans were in fact in favour of those ideas and ideals, then you could argue that we should just leave them to their own little theocratic dystopia, however inimical to our western ideas and ideals it may be. But I have tried, and failed, to get any inkling of that. 

Although the Taliban have been comparatively restrained thus far, at least compared to most people's expectations, many Afghans are clearly anxious and afraid. There have already been some reprisals against people known to have been pro-American. As one man commented, "We have to smile at them because we are scared, but deeply we are unhappy". You have to think that most women and girls in the country must be doubly apprehensive, given the hardline marginalizing, anti-woman philosophy underpinning the Taliban, and there have already been a few examples of women being summarily removed from their jobs. The schooling of young women over the age of ten will certainly soon be a thing of the past in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. And, despite Taliban protestations that they are a reformed, much more moderate force than in their 1990s heyday, reprisals and targeted killings are starting to occur with increasing frequency.

But a good profile of what the general public really feel about the Taliban is difficult, perhaps even impossible, given the closed nature of the country, the poor communications within the country, and the general fear of Taliban reprisals. The best I could find was a 2020 Flash Survey by the Asia Foundation, which concluded that, at that time anyway: fewer than half of respondents believed that peace was achievable in the country within two years; a substantial majority (nearly 90%) were unwilling to accept a peace agreement that compromised women's rights (such as the right of women and girls to attend school); and there was strong support for women in leadership roles. 

If that does indeed serve as a snapshot of Afghan attitudes, then Taliban policies (being diametrically opposed to those attitudes) are unlikely to please most people, and they are therefore being coerced along a path not of their own choosing.

UPDATE

So much for the Taliban's reform. They now occupy and rule by force and intimidation a country in deep crisis: poverty, fear, displacement, overwhelmed healthcare facilities, closed schools. Sounds like the old Taliban to me.

UPDATE UPDATE

Seems like the "kinder, gentler" Taliban are also bringing back executions and amputations which are apparently "necessary for security".

Canadian federal election a cynical exercise in politicking

As far as I can see, just about the only people excited about the announcement of a federal election in Canada are Liberal politicians.

Using phrases like "pivotal, consequential moment", and "who wouldn't want a say?", and insisting that Canadians "deserve" a chance to "weigh in" on how the country is run post-pandemic (what, the pandemic is over? the pandemic is nearly over?) 

Opposition politicians, on the other hand - and pretty much everyone else I have heard from, including most Liberal-leaning voters - just see this as a cynical Liberal gambit to snag a majority at a propitious and opportunistic time. Nobody really wants an election right now (other than those Liberal politicians). Government has been working pretty well, even by Liberal standards, with the NDP (and occasionally the Bloc Québécois and the Greens) supporting the Liberals in almost everything they have wanted, and even the Conservatives not putting up much opposition, particularly as regards pandemic-specific policies.

But, tempted by a few recent polls showing the Liberals in majority territory, Trudeau just couldn't resist the lure of more power. That window of opportunity, though, may be already closing. Newer polls have been suggesting that a Liberal majority may not be achievable after all, and that all this disruption and expense will probably result in ... a Liberal minority government, exactly as we have right now. 

In fact, the very act of calling an election, two full years before the natural life-end of the current Parliament, may have dampened Liberal support. I can see that; I kind of feel that way too. I can't help thinking of David Cameron's ill-fated call for a Brexit referendum - what could possibly go wrong? Yet another case of: be careful what you wish for, or, at the very least, a rather ironic backlash.

UPDATE

Lo and behold, just a couple of short weeks after calling an election aimed at turning a Liberal minority into a majority, polls are showing the Conservatives with a five point lead over the Liberals. How's that minority government looking now?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Why is my carbon footprint so much higher than the UK's

I have been playing around with Wren, a website that lets you calculate your carbon footprint based on answers to a bunch of simple questions, and then gives you the option of "neutralizing" your footprint for a personalized sum of money which will be invested in a variety of low-carbon environmental projects, from regenerative agro-forestry to clean cooking fuel to tree planting to renewable energy.

It's a pretty simple idea, nicely realized. It's hardly revolutionary, treading much the same ground as carbon offsets or ideas like Bullfrog Power (which I also subscribe to). But it might well appeal to millennials in particular, and it may give people a cozy feeling of actually doing something, however little, about the carbon crisis (although, in practice, it seems to me it will probably only attract concerned people who are already "doing something").

According to Wren, my annual carbon footprint, for example, comes out at 15.7 tons (including two long-haul return air trips a year, not that I've been able to do that recently), which I can apparently neutralize for the low, low price of $29.48 a month. It's a lower footprint than the Canadian and American average (although less so than I had expected), and of course much higher than the world average. It's an interesting exercise to pursue, if only to serve as a wake-up call for even the most dedicated environmentalist.

But what I found particularly interesting was the other benchmark comparison offered. My carbon footprint is apparently almost double that of the average UK citizen. The UK's carbon footprint is given as 8.9 tons, compared to 19.5 in the USA and 19.1 in Canada (for comparison, the world average is 4.9 tons). This is no developing country, though: Britain's lifestyle is very similat to that in North America. How, then, is their carbon footprint so much lower than ours?

Well, when I asked Wren that question, it seems to be all about the UK's cleaner energy mix (based on gas and renewables instead of coal), falling demand for energy, low manufacturing emissions (less industry, more services?) and low landfill emissions. According to CarbonBrief, Britain's CO2 emissions have declined by about 38% since 1990, faster than any other developed country. In fact, by some estimates, the UK is now halfway to meeting its target of "net-zero" emissions by 2050, streets ahead of Canada, for all its positive talk.

I had no idea Britain had done so well in its fight against global warming. It's chastening.

How to talk to vaccine skeptics

For what it's worth, here's a pretty good look at various common excuses the vaccine-hesitant are using for not getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and refutations thereof.

Vaccination is not the be-all-and-end-all in the fight against the virus, but it is the best single action we can take, and a necessary one. And, to defeat the Delta variant, we need to achieve a 90%+ population coverage, which is going to be a struggle, so every new vaccination counts. 

So, talk to your cantankerous Auntie Maud, talk to your quarrelsome teenage son. We need all rhe help we can get.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The Olympics event I could not watch

So, the Olympics is over, although the pundits will probably continue arguing over whether it was the best, the worst, or (likely) somewhere in between.

Finished or not, my wife wanted to watch some of the equestrian events, not having seen any during the live presentations - I guess horseriding is not a sexy or mainstream enough sport for prime-time viewing, which I can quite understand. I, gamely, complied, despite not really liking horseriding, or horses for that matter (not since one bit me in North Wales as a small boy, and definitely not since an extended hack in the wilds of Colombia left me with compacted vertebrae that too many months, and a good deal if pain, to fix).

But I digress. The event in question was the cross-country part of the equestrian program (or "eventing" as it is now inexplicably called). Give me credit: I started to watch it. But, less than a minute into the first competitor's run, the horse and rider were faced with a gate leading straight into a steep bank and a water hazard. The horse stumbled on the bank, which was almost impossible to miss as far as I could see, and threw its rider into the drink, before following him in.

Apparently, all concerned were OK, but it just seemed to me a recipe for horse-crippling, and I couldn't watch any more. I went upstairs and did the ironing, it was that bad. I understand from my wife that most other competitors were able to cope with that particular jump, but I definitely wasn't going to watch just in case it was responsible for a lame horse. And I don't even like horses.

Just as an aside, I don't really understand why horseriding is even an Olympic sport. It does not seem to require the same kind of athleticism as other sports, even some of the more questionable ones like skateboarding and surfing. It is the only "sport" in which men and women compete equally, as far as I know, but that is really not a compelling argument for keeping it (and probably just underscores the fact that it does not require athleticism, as athleticism is commonly understood).

The modern pentathlon Olympic event also includes horseriding, and that too seems like a rather ridiculous event. Apparently, the competitors do not even get to use their own horses, but are allocated an unknown horse at random, some of which (perhaps understandably) don't really want to jump over barriers and gates for no apparent reason. And this is a test of the competitors' athleticism how?

So, I say: get rid of the horses, and bring in some serious sports like darts and tiddlywinks. Or at the very least squash and stand-up paddleboarding. Or even breakdancing - oh, wait, breakdancing WILL be an Olympic sport in 2024! What? Maybe keep the horses...

Is Tokyo rhe greenest big city in the world?

I was a bit taken aback by one of the commentators of the Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony claiming that Tokyo is one of the greenest cities in the world in terms of parks and tree cover (this is quite apart from Tokyo's pretensions to being one of the greenest big cities in terms of its environmental record).

This immediately rang false to me. Yes, it's probably geener than most of us assume, but one of the greenest in the world? Well, me being me, I immediately fact-checked it and, of course, it's not as simple as it appears.

My first attempt led me to MIT's Sensible Lab and the World Economic Forum's Treepedia project, and the big cities with the most tree cover listed there might surprise you:

  • 19. Los Angeles, USA (15.2%)
  • 18. Turin, Italy (16.2%)
  • 17. Tel Aviv, Israel (17.5%)
  • 16. Boston, USA (18.2%)
  • 15. Miami, USA (19.4%)
  • 14. Toronto, Canada (19.5%)
  • 13. Seattle, USA (20%)
  • 12. Amsterdam (20.6%)
  • 11. Geneva, Switzerland (21.4%)
  • 10. Frankfurt, Germany (21.5%)
  • 9. Sacramento, USA (23.6%)
  • 8. Johannesberg, South Africa (23.6%)
  • 7. Durban, South Africa (23.7%)
  • 6. Montreal (25.5%)
  • 5. Sydney, Australia (25.9%)
  • 4. Vancouver, Canada (25.9%)
  • 3. Oslo, Norway (28.8%)
  • 2. Singapore (29.3%)
  • 1. Tampa, USA (36.1%)

So, no mention of Tokyo...

Another source, though, suggests that Tokyo does in fact have a whopping 52% tree cover. I'm not sure where that particular figure came from, but the article makes clear that much of this tree cover is in the western section of the city, Tama, a large area of natural forest and pine plantations that just happens to come within the demarcations of the city of Tokyo. Excluding Tama, the city, as we think of it, actually has a forest cover of around 23%, in line, the article says, with cities like New York (24%) and London (21%).  So, a pretty reasonable and perhaps surprising proportion.

Setting aside the fact that Treepedia has New York's tree coverage at 13.5% (not 24%) and London at 12.7% (not 21%), this is nevertheless quite impressive, and a far cry from the concrete jungle that most of us usually think of Tokyo as epitomizing. But it highights the fact that this is not an exact science, and, like most statistics, they can be used to prove pretty much anything (as this Guardian article also concludes).

What is more indisputable is that Tokyo, at over 37 million inhabitants, is the most populous city in the world (note, I do not say "biggest city" -  that would only get me into more statistical and semantic hot water!)

Friday, August 06, 2021

China plays the bully boy with foreign reporters

The always-touchy Communist Party of China is taking their condemnation of foreign press reports to new levels recently.

If anything even slightly less-than-exemplary is reported in a Western news report, howls of outrage blow up immediately, official complaints are lodged, and an army of social media minions back up the official line within hours. The BBC (perhaps the closest thing the world has to an unbiased news outlet) is a particularly common scapegoat, but many others from CNN to ABC to the New York Times are routinely lambasted as malicious and biased propaganda mouthpieces, spreading politically-motivated lies across the world. Their official press releases twist themselves into pretzels 8n an attempt to find malicious intent in even the most innocuous of factual reporting.

Whether it is floods in Henan province, local criticism of Olympic performances, or events in Hong Kong, China takes any portrayal as critical, and therefore biased, however factual the reporting. Many foreign reporters have been unceremoniously ejected from the country, and many more have been threatened and followed around, with their whereabouts publicly (and sometimes inaccurately) reported on social media.

It's all a bit of a bore, unless you are a foreign journalist, in which case it is downright scary. China's ultra-nationalist regime is happy to sink into the bully role it has already established.

Is "technological doping" a job for WADA?

One of the stories that has been all but lost amid the hoopla and razzmatazz of the Olympics is what is being referred to as "technological doping", the use of hi-tech equipment and materials to get ahead in sports.

Probably the first tlme most of us became aware of this issue was the "shark-skin" swimsuits (Speedo's LZR full-body swimsuits, that were responsible for 23 of the 25 records broken at the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Swimming's world regulatory body, FINA, realized that anyone rich enough to be able to buy the LZR suits had a substantial (unfair?) advantage over the others, and banned the use of the suits in official competitions in 2009.

The latest technological innovation is in running shoes. There has been an ongoing arms race by the major athletic shoe manufacturers to create a shoe that can make a significant difference to athletes' performances for decades now, and the potential commercial returns are huge (as world leader Nike has found). The most recent, and perhaps most dramatic, example was Nike's Alphafly shoes, the so-called "shoe that broke running". Using carbon plates and a ground-breaking midsole, these shoes provided an estimated 4% increase in running efficiency and a 3.4% increase in speed. That might not sound like that much, but it arguably abetted Eliud Kipchoge's revolutionary sub-2 hour marathon in 2019. The World Athletics Federation decided to ban the shoes in 2020, so they were not available for use at the Tokyo Olympics.

Nothing daunted, Nike produced a variation of the Alphafly shoe, called the Vaporfly, which elite athletes immediately latched onto. A few athletes got in early and sneaked the new shoes into the 2016 Olympics, but they mainly came to prominence after that event. For example, they were responsible for 31 of the 36 podium finishes in 2019. Some atheletes happily voided their other sponsorship contracts so they could wear the Nike shoes. In Tokyo, Italy's Lamont Jacobs shocked everyone by winning the prestigious 100m dash, and he was wearing ... guess what? ... Vaporfly shoes.

And if these shoes get banned too, Nike will just come up wirh another variation (indeed, I am sure they are already working on it as we speak). It is an issue that is not going away, but it is one that is not easily resolved. After all, why shouldn't athletes do everything in their power to give themselves the best possible chance of winning?

Should the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) get involved? Technically, their remit covers equipment as well as ingested substances, and they could ban particular items of clothing or equipment that they see as "against the spirit of the sport", but you can see why they might be reticent to open up that particular hornet's nest. In the meantime, is it fair that certain athletes with superior kit hog the medals at the Olympics and other meets? Where should such regulation start and where should it end? Tricky.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Where are the COVID vaccines for kids?

The COVID vaccines were created, authorized and rolled out in record time. First, there was a vaccine for 18-year olds and above. Very little time later, or so it seemed, Pfizer's vaccine was given emergency authorization for 12 to 18-year olds. However, there is still a sizeable chunk of the population - under-12s - that does not have an authorized vaccine available to them, and there has been little or no information publicly available on when that might happen.

Well, apparently, it could happen soon. Pfizer, at least, has been testing its vaccine on 5-12-year olds for some time, on 2-5-year olds for less time, and on 6-month to 2-year olds for even less. They are getting there, though, and an announcement on a vaccine for 5-12-year olds could happen as early as September. A vaccine for 2-5-year olds could follow by October or November, and data for babies/toddlers will  probably not be available until early next year. Official authorization by national health authorities - Health Canada, in our case - will delay things for a few weeks more.

Moderna has been less forthcoming with its own schedules, but it is thought that the end of the year is the earliest it can be expected. AstraZeneca's and Johnson & Johnson's vaccines are so frowned upon these days that I'm not sure the question has even been asked...

So, hang in there, people, help is at hand.

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.

UPDATE

In the end, Canada ended up with 24 medals at the Tokyo Olympics, a record haul. Women provided 18 of those 24 (75%), disproportionate perhaps, but not that different from 2016.

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.