Thursday, December 23, 2021

Provinces' new healthcare plan seems totally illogical

I'm no health expert but, from a purely logical standpoint, Quebec and Ontario's latest plan seems like a particularly daft idea. 

Desperate to keep as many healthcare staff as possible on the job, both provinces are apparently considering mandating that infected but asymptomatic health workers stay at work, even as they continue with daily self-testing. 

I understand that the provinces need all hands on deck at the moment, but this seems like a particularly short-sighted and counter-productive plan. Surely, in the era of Omicron, it will just lead to more transmission within the workplace, and more and more people infected, some of whom will be asymptomatic, but some of whom will be symptomatic. So, the healthcare sector will lose even more active personnel, and the provinces will be in a worse situation than ever.

Am I missing something?

Casu martzu and other disgusting ideas

I happened to read in a novel about a Sardinian cheese called casu martzu (or casu marzu, or a few other local dialect spellings), which I had never heard of before.

It's one of those unlikely local delicacies, along the lines of durian fruits, stinky tofu, monkey brains, etc, that give the impression that someone has gone out of their way to create something deliberately disgusting and offensive.

Casu martzu is a cheese, originally a sheep milk cheese similar to pecorino, that has been allowed to be infested with live cheese fly larva (okay, yes, maggots).  The digestive action of the maggots promotes an "advanced level of fermentation", so that the cheese becomes very soft, with some seeping liquid (làgrima, or "tears"). 

Of course, partakers risk the larvae surviving their stomach acid and infesting the eater, so casu martzu has been banned for some years by the European Union on health grounds, but that hasn't stopped a vigorous black market in Sardinia, Corsica and a few other areas of Italy, and production is believed to be worth around €2-3 million.

People are weird, right?

Canada's infrastructure planning process is the worst - it's official

It should probably vome as no surprise, but it still smarts nevertheless. A study comparing the infrastructure planning processes in Europe, Switzerland, USA, Australia and Canada, has marked the Canadian system as the least rigorous and most ad hoc.

The study concludes that Canada is the only one of the countries under consideration in which major transportation projects are not planned as part of a national long-term strategy. Furthermore, there is little coordination among the various different levels of government involved (leading to second-rate projects being undertaken, and huge time and budget overruns), and no discernable system for performance monitoring and evaluation after projects are implemented. Sounds about right.

And we can't just blame it all on our size and our decentralized federal system: the USA, Australia and Switzerland all have similar federal systems, and they seem to be able to make it work. It particularly smarts that (what we think of as) dysfunctional America performs better than Canada. 

This study, which comes from the unlikely source of the European Court of Auditors, should be a wake-up call for all levels of Canadian government. But, somehow, I'm not expecting anything to come of it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Toronto's worst COVID numbers are now in the affluent areas near the lake

In the early (and even middle) days of the pandemic, all the talk was about how the areas in Toronto with the highest COVID cases were the poorer area in the north of the city, largely populated by immigrants carrying out essential services, and how the virus was - yes, I actually saw this written! - racist. At the very least, it was said, the pandemic was accentuating the polarization of the city, and highlighting existing inequalities.

Well, nearly two years later, an analysis of where Toronto's cases are being recorded now paints a very different picture (here's a link to the original interactive map by Toronto Public Health, part of a treasure trove of information on local COVID stats). Neighbourhoods like the downtown core and the Beaches, where I live, which had very low case counts last year, are now leading the pack, and the Rexdales and Agincourts of the city are now doing relatively well. The Toronto Islands and the Downtown Waterfront is the current hotspot with 625 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by The Beaches with 612. These rates have tripled in just the last two weeks. 

I have not seen any good explanation of this turnaround, either medical or sociological, although suggested reasons include unequal access to testing facilities, post-infection immunity in the early hotspots, or excessive social gatherings in more wealthy areas. But all those outraged race activists have certainly gone very quiet.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Canada is so predictable and that is maybe not a bad thing

Invest Canada, a government agency established to attact overseas investment in Canada, is running an advertising campaign abroad which culminates the tagline, "Canada is so predictable", suggesting that Canada is a safe and cautious, even if unexciting, place for foreign investors to park their money. It has a stable macroeconomy and safer-than-safe banks, and you may not make a killing here but you won't lose your shirt.

Some Canadians in the financial industry, though, are incensed and shocked - shocked, I tell you! - that Canada would sell itself short in this way. They argue that Canada's advertising  should be all about innovation, entrepreneurship and ambition, as well as equal opportunities, multiculturalism, tolerance and respect.

Well, I haven't seen the ad, but it seems to me that Canada could do a lot worse than portray itself as a safe amd reliable country, especially after the roller-coaster ride of the last couple of years. Some people thrive on stress and risk, but many more don't, and, particularly as I get older, I am right there with them. 

There are still many risky places where you can gamble your money - you could go into tech startups, cryptocurrrencies or the developing markets. But there are not that many places where you can mitigate your risk while still making a respectable profit, and I can well believe that there is quite an appetite for that kind of thing at the moment. Canada is one of those places and I for one, am more than happy to be considered polite, boring and pedictable in these perilous and precarious times.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Joe Manchin is a Republican in everything but name

What a strange beast is Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is nominally a Democrat, and yet he has repeatedly voted against the Democrats' every move. 

The latest is his decision to vote against Joe Biden's sweeping $1.7 trillion social and climate spending bill, the so-called Build Back better Act. He admitted this during an interview on Republican mouthpiece Fox News - well, of course he did - despite previous promises to toe the party line, and his private discussions this week with President Biden. Nobody really knows why Manchin is taking this line on this particular bill - he muttered something about inflation, and something about Joe Biden knowing the "real reasons" (something to do with White House staff, maybe)- it would be too much tonm expect him to justify himself.

With the Senate equally balanced (nominally), a vote anywhere other than with the Democratic caucus is essentially a vote for the Republicans. Indeed, the Democrats have lambasted Manchin, almost to a person; the only support he has received is from Republicans. Go figure. The Republican Party has repeated tried to get Manchin to cross the Senate to the GOP side and, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to. But if he continues to consistently oppose the Democrats, then he is a de facto Republican anyway, wherever he sits.

The Democrats have now had enough of Manchin. He has now gone past the stage of being a thoughtful, independent and principled maverick; he appears to be deliberately sabotaging the Democcrat agenda. You have to wonder whether someone isn't paying the man. Certainly, West Virginia is the centre of America's beleaguered coal industry, so that wouldn't surprise me at all.

The important bill is not quite dead in the water yet, but without Manchin's vote in the ultra-polarized political landscape of modern America, it will be very hard to pass it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Quebec company's concrete alternative absorbs rather than emits carbon dioxide

Good news is in short supply these days, so lets celebrate the possibility that concrete, one of the most carbon-intensive and ubiquitous building materials we have, might be approaching its end-days.

Concrete is everywhere, and it's manufacture is responsible for at least 8% of the world's greenhouse gases. If the global concrete industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter, after only China and the USA. Most of concrete's carbon footprint comes from the manufacture of its binding agent, cement, which involves heating limestone to 1,400°C (usually using a fossil fuel). As the limestone breaks down, it releases another dose of carbon dioxide. Double whammy!

What, though, if we could do away with cement completely? Well, Quebec start-up Carbicrete's product not only eliminates cement completely (and its GHG emissions in the process), but it uses steel slag, a by-product of the steel-making process, as a binding agent, which can be injected with carbon dioxide from industrial plants, thereby converting it into a mineral (a kind of carbon capture and storage process). So, it turns the manufacture of concrete from a CO2-emitting process into a CO2-saving one - negative carbon emissions! - while, at the same time, utilising the steel slag waste. What's more, Carbicrete is 30% stronger and 10-20% less expensive than traditional concrete. Win-win-win!

Carbicrete's process can easily be incorporated into any existing concrete production plant, and a collaboration with Quebec comcrete manufacturer Patio Dummond is already going ahead. Let's hope this one takes off.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry a little too ... entertaining

I will confess that I don't really care much about Formula One (F1) motor-racing. My Dad used to love it, so I was forced to sit through hours of it as a kid in England, but I never progressed past finding it noisy and tedious.

It is still very popular in Europe and particularly in the UK, especially in this era of local hero Lewis Hamilton, and I have in-laws that are obsessed by it. It is also becoming increasingly popular in North America, not least, it has to be said, as a result of Netflix's behind-the-scenes series Drive to Survive. Some observers wonder, though, if it's not becoming less of a sport and more of an entertainment, similar in some says to (dare I say it?) professional wrestling. The grand finale of the latest season makes that suggestion even more plausible.

Lewis Hamilton was the favourite to win this year's championship, giving him record-breaking eight title (he is currently tied with all-time great Michael Schumacher). That was the expected fairy tale ending. But, enter the "bad guy", Dutch racer Max Verstappen. After a controversial race last week, in which Verstappen "brake-tested" Hamilton and was handed a penalty, the grand finale was just as controversial

Hamilton was comfortably in control of the race from the start until, with just five laps to go, another driver, Nicholas Lafiti crashed. After a combination of controversial decisions by the race control people, clever tactics by the Verstappen team, and some sheer blind luck, Verstappen pulled ahead of Hamilton on the last lap, and won the race and therefore the championship. Hamilton's team objected, Verstappen thanked his lucky stars, and the media was chock full of reports, explanations and heated commentary.

Heady stuff, and heaps of excitement for F1 fans. But, perhaps a little too ... dramatic, do you think? I'm not saying the whole thing was fixed, but all the necessary ingredients for such a convoluted, stirring and edge-of-the-seat finish to the season were hard to imagine. 

Anyway, like I say, I don't really care that much about F1 racing. But lots of people do. And now many more are hooked on the sport.

Doug Ford hates electric vehicles but he wants to make more of them

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, in his usual muddled way, wants to establish the province as a leader in the manufacture of electric cars (EVs) which, like it or not - and Ford definitely likes it not - are the vehicles of the future.

Ontario has, through no efforts of Premier Ford himself, managed to secure contracts for big auto makers like Ford and GM to build EVs here. But Mr. Ford wants more.

This is the same Doug Ford who, among his very first actions as Premier, scrapped Ontario's generous $14,000 EV rebates (at the same time as he scrapped the cap-and-trade system that funded them), stopped building charging stations (and even removed some!), and dropped a requirement for new homes to include the wiring for EV chargers. All told, Ford has done more than anyone else to discourage electric vehicles in Ontario. 

Mr. Ford certainly has no intention of reintroducing EV subsidies, although Prime Minister Trudeau may do it for him. But then, you see, he doesn't necessarily want to see EVs on the street, he just wants the big auto manufacturers to be producing them here. He's a complicated man is Doug Ford, that's about as charitable as I can be.

Ever seen a barreleye fish? Me neither

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) recently filmed a rarely seen fish, deep in the ocean off the coast of California.

The barreleye fish (Macropinna microstoma) has a bulbous translucent head, and its light-sensitive eyes, which glow bright green in the camera's light, are housesd inside the fluid-filled shield that covers the fish's head. It's eyes can be orientated either straight up or straight ahead as needed. The two dark-coloured spots at the front of the fish's head, which look like eyes, are actually it's smell organs. The fish lurks around motionless in the twilight zone of the deep ocean waiting for unwary zooplankton or jellyfish, which it then snaps up.

The barreleye fish is probably not that rare, but has only been seen a total of nine times, and this is the best video footage obtained thus far. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

If you think that Omicron is just another variant...

If you were in any doubt as to just how virulent the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is, then a recent article in The Guardian should put those doubts to rest:

  • 80 out of 111 guests at a party at a restaurant in Norway contracted the virus, most of them the Omicron variant, despite them all being double vaccinated and having tested negative in a rapid test before the event (what they were thinking having such a large indoor event at times like these is an open question).
  • All 7 of a group of German tourists who travelled to South Africa came down with the Omicron variant, despite double vaccinations AND a booster shot (again, why go to South Africa, of all places?)
  • 17 out of 21 attendees at a "night out" in Britain caught the virus, despite vaccinations and boosters (sigh! - 21 lads having a "night out": why?)

These are just anecdotal reports, of course, but the fact that the Omicron variant is spreading so rapidly (the reproduction number for Omicron stands at 4.1, compared to 1.32 for other variants, leading to case numbers doubling every two or three days), and establishing itself as the dominant variant so conclusively, suggests that we should be treating it very seriously. And maybe quit with the large parties? 

Admittedly, symptoms of the new variant seem to be relatively mild in the main (although there is some controversy about even that claim), but some of the people contracting it will have other co-morbidities, and the more cases that run wild, the more new variants are likely to arise, some of which may not be so benign. And, anyway, never forget that the Omicron variant can still kill.

The next few months are going to see high, probably record, cases, both here and everywhere else, regardless of our stellar vaccination rollout and any other public health measures we care to throw at it. Some people are taking solace from the fact the South Africa's Omicron cases are maybe starting to dwindle, possibly suggesting a relatively short wave. But South Africa is a very different place from Canada, particularly in the numbers of people who have already contracted the virus, so nothing is a given. Buckle up for a bumpy ride.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Missouri forced to abandon its COVID measures

Maybe the jurisdiction where you live is not handling the COVID-19 pandemic all that well, but spare a thought for the poor people of the American mid-western state of Missouri.

Earlier this week, Missouri's Attorney General Eric Schmidt issued cease-and-desist letters to the state's public health departments and school districts, which will force them to abandon any COVID tracking and prevention work, including mask mandates, quarantine orders, case investigations, contact tracing and announcements of cases and deaths. This comes as the state, like so many other regions, is seeing a worrying spike in COVID cases (124% increase over the last two weeks) and hospitalizations (50% increase).

And the reasoning behind this? Well, there isn't much. Apparently, some Missouri citizens have conplained that health authorities were overstepping their constitutional remits by trying to help people and save lives, and the state's Republican politicians have of course jumped on this because, you know, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without anyone telling you what to do, the usual stuff.  God bless America because it needs all the help it can get.

If we are all settlers, who "owns" Canada?

I was listening to a documentary on the radio about who really "owns" Canada, and specific parts of it. The most recent arrivals, the British/Europeans, are widely considered to only possess the land by a legal construct known as "de facto possession" which is essentially the same as squatters rights.

The Indigenous population does not recognize the colonial powers' ownership of the land at all. In fact, one Indigenous spokesman on the programme was at pains to point our that there is no concept of ownership of the land at all in Indigenous culture, and that the land is actually owned by future generations. That sounds all very laudable, but it struck me as a bit theoretical and disingenuous, and I would bet that, if you asked ten Indigenous people, nine of them would say that they owned it.

Anyway, what I found myself thinking was that very few places in the world are peopled and administered by their original population, and maybe that is just the way of the world, the way of history. The "native" population of the British Isles, for example, is actually made up of invading peoples from various European sources, from Vikings to Germanic tribes to French-Norman peoples. Even the "original" Celtic tribes actually emigrated there from Europe in the first place.

So, are the Iroquois the rightful owners of Quebec and Ontario, for example? The Iroquois/Haudenosaunee were "an imperialist expansionist culture" which took much of modern-day Eastern Canada and the USA by force during bloody wars over many centuries. Further east, the war-like Mi'kmaq people pushed out the "original" Iroquois settlers from much of the Maritimes. Do they have a better "right" to the land than the later invading Europeans? It seems to me that we are all settlers, all colonists, if we go back far enough. Who, then, is to say who can lay claim to a particular piece of land.

The same problem of how far back into history you want to go is at the root of many other intractable conflicts throughout the world - whether it be Palestine, Taiwan or Nagorno-Karabakh - and there is no real solution to it.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods (or is it?)

Much as I admire Salman Rushdie, and enjoyed his book of essays, Languages of Truth, it turns out that he is probably not quite correct about his analysis of the Norse word Ragnarok. Whether we are talking about AS Byatt's book, or the Marvel movie, or the Norwegian young adult TV series, that is the usual spelling we English speakers use, but the origins of the word are way more complicated.

According to Mr. Rushdie, in the ancient Norse epic poem the Poetic Edda, the source of most Norse myths and legends, the word used most often is Ragnaråk, which means the "fall (or destruction) of the gods", and only once is the spelling Ragnarøk used, which changes the meaning to the more poetic "twilight of the gods", which was then used in Wagner's German translation Götterdämmerung (also "twilight of the gods"). But the original Norse epic chronicled the various gruesome deaths of Odin, Thor, Freyr, etc, so the sense is definitely of the "final destiny of the gods", not some beautiful romantic twilight event.

Checking with Wikipedia, which, I'm sorry to say, I trust trust more implicitly than Mr. Rushdie (especially as it comes with sources and references), he has it only half right. There is indeed some confusion between the "fall (or destruction or doom) of the gods" and the "twilight of the gods", but the former is actually spelled ragnarök, and the latter ragnarøkr or ragnarøkkr. (I may even have that wrong - it all seems to be unnecessarily complicated and convoluted). 

Anyway, it appears that we should have been using ragnarök all along, and any interpretation as the "twilight of the gods" is mere romantic poetic license.

A few photos from Crich

My daughter says I should post my photos of our time here in the UK on my blog (yes, this blog that nobody ever reads). And I would probably only delete them otherwise, so maybe I should.

We're here visiting ailing relatives, mainly my mother, and staying in an AirBnB well away from the madding crowd, in Crich, Derbyshire. Crich is a small village - a two-pub village, to be fair - perched on a hill in Derbyshire's Peak District (I know that very well from my morning runs - steep hills in every direction). It's probably not that well known as a destination (maybe among the hiking set), but it's a typical Derbyshire village of stone houses, maybe better preserved than most.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Why is RT-LAMP testing for COVID not more widely used?

We're currently in the UK visiting ailing relatives, and travelling here has been quite an undertaking, what with all the COVID testing and documentation to deal with. But we have managed it (although how people who are not vaguely tech-savvy and at least moderately educated I don't know). We have one more hurdle to jump through as regards testing, and that is the self-administered PCR test withing 72 hours of our return to Canada, and we have that waiting ready to go.

But I notice that Air Canada are offering (for Aeroplan members at least) RT-LAMP molecular tests that can be bought in Canada and taken with travellers, to be used before returning to Canada. The tests are self-administered in combination with a Telehealth Canada video session (so, yes, you need to be at least a little tech-savvy for this too). Results, though, are available within 45 minutes, which reduces the stress of waiting for a 24-hour or 48-hour result from a regular PCR test. 

The Air Canada "reduced" price for the RT-LAMP test is $149, so about the same as the pre-trip PVR test test did, although still not cheap, and more than the UK PCR test we booked. It might be a good option, though, for countries where testing is more expensive, or just difficult to arrange. And, yes, the tests are accepted by Health Canada for travel purposes.

The RT-LAMP test - the full name is reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification test, hence the shortened acronym - is pretty accurate according to studies, comparable with the gold standard PCR test. So, I wonder why it is not more widely known or used?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Watch robots packing our groceries order

We're en route to England, and we have a Tesco groceries delivery booked for when we arrive. 

But check out this video of how supermarket delivery order are process and packed by robots. Quite extraordinary.

Friday, November 26, 2021

New African variant highlights that Africa jas been largely spared by the pandemic

As countries around the world start worrying about a new super-variant of the COVID-19 virus discovered in South Africa, it only serves to underscore the fact that Africa in general seems to have been spared the worst of the pandemic thus far.

A new variant discovered in South Africa, labelled B.1.1.529, has health experts worried because of its "unusual constellation of mutations" and the big jump in evolution it represents. The variant exhibits about 50 different mutations, including over 30 on the spike protein alone, and it is radically different from the original virus that emerged in Wuhan, China, two years ago (yes, two years!)

Scientists are not sure yet just what the implications are for the variant's transmissibility, its symptomology, and the extent to which current vaccines will be effective against it. Thus far, just a handful of cases have been identified - 77 in South Africa, 4 in neighbouring Botswana, and 1 in Hong Kong (directly linked to travel from South Africa), but many scientists are noticeably jumpy around it.

Maps of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 across the world bring out the perhaps unexpected fact that Africa in general (with the marked exception of South Africa) has had a relatively easy time of  the pandemic compared to Europe, North America and Asia. Many researchers have remarked on this and tried to understand why COVID has had less of an impact in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. 

Top theories are: the relatively young age demographic of sub-Saharan Africa (the median age is half that North America, Europe and Asia); the almost complete lack of long-term care facilities (apart from, notably, South Africa); potential cross-protection from other locally circulating coronaviruses (including several from human-bat interactions); potential under-counting of both deaths and cases due to poor healthcare infrastructure in the region and a lack of adequate testing facilities; and, paradoxically, some rapid and effective government public health responses in the area (including early border closures, strict lockdowns, and the sharing of COVID-19 information across sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps the fact that Africa's healthcare system, such as it is, is more geared towards infectious diseases than much of the rest of the world). 

I might add that the poorer regions of the world probably have less international travel (and less travel in general) than other areas, which may have had a serendipitously beneficial effect during this time. 

It is certainly notable that the outlier in Africa is South Africa, which has seen a much worse outbreak than the rest of the continent. South Africa is a much richer and more developed country than most of sub-Saharan Africa, with a much higher median age, a long-term care sector, a higher prevalence of non-communicable non-infectious diseases, and a more developed healthcare system with better diagnostic capabilities and better documentation. So, it does all kind of make sense when you stop and think about it.


The new variant is now known as the Omicron variant, and is officially a WHO "variant of concern". Several countries, including Canada and the USA, have already banned travel from South Africa and a few other southern African countries. But the variant has already spread from South Africa to Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium (the latter not linked to travel from South Africa, but from Egypt, which is not known to have Omicron cases), so the genie may already be out of the bottle. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Why is America still the dream for thousands of Haitian (and other) migrants?

I find it hard to fathom the mindset of the thousands of Haitians (and Venezuelans and other nationalities, but mainly Haitians) who make the perilous journey to Colombia, through the roadless jungles of the Darien Gap into Panama, and then across the borders of a bunch of other Central American countries to Mexico and ultimately to the southern border of the United States of America. Nearly 4,000 kilometres on foot through hostile and dangerous territory, crossing around 80 rivers and at least two sections of open sea, all to get to the so-called Land of the Free ... which has said (and shown) repeatedly that they are not welcome.

Thousands have already been deported right back to Haiti from the Mexico-US border, after all that inconceivable hardship, injury and, yes, loss of life. Some get side-tracked along the route, sometimes spending years in South American countries like Chile, Brazil or Peru. But the USA is always the dream, the ultimate destination, even though it is no easier to get in now than it was under Donald Trump. A few are slowly starting to reassess those dreams, and considering halting in Mexico.

But surely they must know that their chances of getting into the USA are slim to nil and that, even if they do, they will be forever on the run, evading authorities, and living a liminal existence at best. What is the attraction of America in this day and age? is it just the promise of more money (even under the counter, in semi-slavery conditions), because the US is a richer country? Can that really be enough to risk so much, and to put up with so much hardship? 

I know that things in Haiti are grim, and that these are desperate people. But I still find it quite literally impossible to understand their frame of mind

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"The situation is fluid" - yeah, right

Hard on the heels of the catastrophic rainfall and floods in British Columbia (and a new downfall that theatens to wash away any repairs that have already been made there), comes a torrential downfall in southwestern Newfoundland on Canada's East coast. Chaos to the left of us and chaos to be right...
But, please, all those small-town mayors and provincial premiers need to stop talking about how "the situation is fluid", at least if they want us to take them seriously.

Attacks on mainstream cinemas showing Indian language films not a mystery

There has been another spate of vandalism in Canada's biggest cinema chain, Cineplex. Luckily, I suppose, there does not seem to be any racist underpinning to the attacks. Rather, it seems to be more in the way of a local turf war.

Four screens in two cinemas in the Greater Toronto Area showing a film in the Malayalam language of South India were slashed. This follows at least seven other similar incidents since 2015 in which screens were slashed and pepper or bear spray were released into the audience, disrupting movies in languages like Tamil, Talugu and Malayalam.

It is thought that the attacks may be a response to mainstream chains like Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas getting into the screening of Indian language films that were previously the sole preserve of small independent cinemas like the Albion, Woodside and York theatres. However, it has been impossible to directly implicate the small cinemas in these attacks so far. Spokespeople for these independents categorically deny any involvement in the attacks (well, they would, wouldn't they?), and say that they too have been attacked over the years, including the vandalization of washrooms.

This kind of lawlessness might be not unexpected in the wilds of small-town Southern India, but it is shocking to encounter it in supposedly civilized Toronto.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Japan's miraculous COVID turnaround

Remember the Summer Olympics? Japan seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster back in August, with COVID cases reaching record levels with no apparent end in sight. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ignored the advice of his health advisors in letting the Games go ahead at all. The Japanese vaccination rollout was widely considered to have been bungled calamitously, and vaccination rates lagged far below those of other developed countries. There were demonstrations in the street, and eventually Suga was forced to step down amid disastrous approval ratings. 

Fast forward just a few short months and we see a very different Japan. Suddenly, COVID infections have fallen to the lowest levels in over a year, vaccination rates are among the world's best, and most emergency measures have been lifted for the first time in months. Japan is now looking like a role model just as many other countries, particularly parts of Europe, are seeing their worst ever pandemic conditions.

So, what gives?

Well, those emergency measures are part of the story, particularly the widespread wearing of masks (which, in Japan, as in China, is a very normal thing to do during viral outbreaks like the flu), as are the high - and relatively recent - vaccination rates. 

But some health experts, including Prof. Ituro Inoue of Japan's National Institute of Genetics, say that even the mask-wearimg, social distancing, and vaccine coverage are not enough to explain such a precipitous decline in cases and hospitalizations, and argue that the Delta variant may have reached a point of "natural extinction" in the country, not seen elsewhere. The Delta variant became so successful in the country that it blocked all other variants. But then, for reasons still not clearly understood, it became faulty and was unable to make copies of itself. In this way, it could mutate itself out of existence in Japan (and conceivably in other countries too) as it turned down an "evolutionary dead-end".

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. This phenomenon is not well understood, and there is no guarantee that the same thing will happen elsewhere (particularly where there is a lot of international trade and traffic). In the meantime, wear your masks, avoid people in enclosed spaces wherever possible, get your vaccination (and your booster if available). Oh, and cross your fingers - it might just help.

Canada's Conservatives stick in a vaccine snafu of their own making

Canada's MPs headed back to Ottawa yesterday for an old-style in-person debate session, after an unconscionable long time out in t he wilderness (the election was way back on September 20th, and the Liberals dissolved Parliament over a month earlier, on August 15th). 

Parliament is due to recess again for Chrismas on December 15th, so they have all of 4 weeks to get a lot done. But all anybody could talk about yesterday was the Conservatives' vaccination status. With a new Liberal minority government in power, you'd expect the official opposition Conservatives to come out swing aggressively. But instead they were very much on the defensive over the issue of the parliamentary vaccine mandate.

You see, nobody knows which of the Conservative caucus members are vaccinated. Every other party has been quite transparent in disclosing that all their members are fully vaccinated (one Liberal MP who did qualify for an exemption got vaccinated anyway). The Conservatives have not done so, and leader Erin O'Toole and deputy House leader Michael Barrett claim not to know who might be vaccinated and who might have an exemption, and apparently they don't really care.

It is thought that multiple Conservative MPs are not vaccinated and have somehow obtained exemptions, even though statistically only 1 in 100,000 might typically be expected to qualify for a medical exemption. But we just don't know. What a weird situation. The Conssrvatives are the only party in Parliament that opposes the vaccine mandate for parliamentarians.

In the meantime, the Liberals and other parties can take the moral high ground, and the Tories are left with egg on their faces and are even more inept and ineffectual than usual.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Normality vs normalcy - which is more mornal?

As the pandemic continues to grind on, we hear many politicians and healthcare spokespeople (and even just regular folks) regularly talk about "returning to normality" or "returning to normalcy". But, wait, what's the difference?
Well, apparently there is no real difference. "Normality" has a longer pedigree, dating from the 16th century, while "normalcy" is first noted being used in an obscure mathematical sense in the 1950s, and did not become widely used until the 1920s, as a result of US President Warren G. Harding post-war "Return to Normalcy" campaign (it should be noted that he used it essentially in error, and not deliberately as a result of the earlier mathematical context). Nouns that end in "-cy" are usually based on adjectives that end in "-t" (e.g. "hesitant" > "hesitancy", "complacent" > "complacency" etc), so "normalcy" is not even a logical derivation or back formation.
Both words are now considered legitimate, although English dictionaries are likely to note that "normalcy" is a "chiefly US" usage. Google's Ngram Viewer shows that "normality" remains about three times more frequently used  than "normalcy" in books.
Me, I'll stick to normality, but then I'm of superior British stock...

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Sumas Prairie was a diasaster waiting to happen

The devastating floods in British Columbia have unstandably received a lot of media attention. The word "unprecedented" has been thrown around with gay abandon, just as it has so many times in these "unprecedented" times of late. 

Much of the attention has - also understandably - been focused on farmers whose livelihoods are at stake, many of whom are blaming the province for being ill-prepared (although quite how they should have foreseen this second "unprecedented" and catastrophic event within a few months, I am not sure). Of course no-one is willing to take any responsibility themselves for choosing to farm on a recognized flood plain...

I was particularly nonplussed by the complaining farmers of the so-called Sumas Prairie region in the Fraser Valley, which has been particularly badly hit. What is now referred to as Sumas Prairie was called Sumas Lake a hundred years ago. It was a productive lake, full of salon, trout, sturgeon, crayfish and freshwater mussels, and it was the mainstay of the local indigenous Semá:th people. In the 1920s, though, settlers drained the lake, moved the First Nations people out to a reservation, and installed about 3,000 white farmers, the descendants of whom are still there today.

It was probably only a matter of time before the lake reasserted itself, a proverbial disaster waiting to happen. Either way, it's hard to be too sympathetic to white settlers who chose to farm on a flood plain, on land forcibly taken from its traditional  Indigenous stewards.

Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted, and lots of people are very unhappy

You've probably seen Kyle Rittenhouse, the baby-faced teenaged killer of two white protesters in the wake of the police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin during America's extended period of racial unrest last year. You've probably seen him in tears, scared for his life and liberty, and desperately ruing some of his life decisions.

Well, Kyle Rittenhouse was just acquitted of all counts (intentional homicide, attempted homicide, recklessly endangering safety), and lots of people are not happy (including Joe Biden, although at least he distanced himself from his predecessor by standing by the jury's decision). If Mr. Rittenhouse's victims has been black, which they very well could have been in the circumstances, the whole country would now be riven by angry, potentially violent demonstration and riots.

Rittenhouse had been portrayed by the prosecution as a reckless vigilante who shot some innocent men who were trying to disarm an "active shooter"; the defence portrayed him as a civic-minded young man who had travelled from his home to try and help quell the race riots, a patriot taking a stand against lawlessness, and who only shot in self-defence. Improbably, the defence's version of events prevailed. 

Rittenhouse's attorney commented after the trial that, "He did not start this", despite the fact that he had taken the initiative in going there in the first place, toting his oversized semi-automatic gun; relatives of one of the slain men retorted, "It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street".

Which makes more sense to you?

Hopefully. at the very least, the trial outcome might trigger a serious review of some states' self-defence laws, and America's tradition of politicized elected judges. And would it be too much to expect a review of America's gun laws and their obscure loopholes? What's a 17-year old doing running around with a big-ass gun like that anyway, or ANY gun for that matter?

Tesla - technology for technology's sake?

I bought an electric car in January of this year. I tried a few different ones, as you do, and I chose in the end the Hyundai Kona Electric and have been very happy with it ever since. One of the cars I tried was the Tesla, of course, the sine qua non of electric cars. The main reason I rejected it was that it's just too strange, too different from what I am used to. It kind of felt like driving an iPad. Plus, company leader Elon Musk is a a very strange guy, and I don't quite trust him...

I am typically not an early adopter of new technology, I wait until the kinks are ironed out and then jump on the bandwagon. Teslas are by no means new, but there is so much new technology in them, and there is just so much that go wrong.

Anyway, today I read that hundreds of Tesla drivers were locked out of their cars because the Tesla phone app was down and people were not able to connect to their cars. Now, I can use an app to open my car too, but I don't RELY on it; I have a key/control that I am not too proud to use.

Mr. Musk promised that it will not happen again (although, in this day and age, I am not sure how he can promise that - Tesla must be neat the top of the list of targets for hackers and disrupters), but isn't this just a case of technology for technology's sake?

Friday, November 19, 2021

What it's like to be pro-vaccination in Tennessee

Here is a compelling video from the BBC, about a couple living in Tennessee who were basically hounded out of the state because of their (perfectly reasonable) views on COVID-19, vaccinations, masks, etc.

The woman is a seasoned doctor, and she was given responsibility for the state's vaccination roll-out. Her husband worked for a local school board and was involved in the pandemic response of area schools. They had both lived in Tennessee for most of their lives, and were looking forward to retiring soon in their "forever home".

Unfortunately, they both ran afoul of Tennessee's virulent far-right politics and media, and received threats and condemnation for their part in trying to save Tennessee from itself (the state has one of the worst COVID death rates and lowest vaccination rates in America).

The 15-minute clip does a good job of showing just how aggressive and how off-the-rails the choice-and-liberty mob there really is, and it ends poignantly with the couple tearfully driving away from their "forever home" in a removal truck, just two more victims of America's misguided love affair with liberty at any price.

Expelling an unruly Senator from Conservative caucus is not going to help Erin O'Toole much

Ever since the Conservative Party of Canada performed poorly during the last elections, people have been saying that the party lacks leadership. Given that Erin O'Toole was selected as party leader so recently, and for the very purpose of leading the party to a resounding victory in that election, that's a pretty damning condemnation.

In order to quell the burgeoning dissent among the ranks of Conservative voters and representatives, elected and unelected, I guess he had to do something to assert his authority. What he actually did was to expel the outspoken Senator Denise Batters from the Conservative national caucus after she launched a petition calling for an expedited review of O'Toole's leadership (if that word "caucus" confuses you, it just means the members of a legislative body that belongs to a particular party or faction). And he says he will expel any other Conservative law-makers who have the temerity to oppose him. "My way or the highway" doesn't sound like a particularly justifiable or democratic solutIon to me.

I'm not sure how effective that is going to play out for Mr. O'Toole. Ms. Batters' immediate response was, "I will not be silenced by a leader so weak that he fired me VIA VOICEMAIL". Ouch! It's not even clear to me what effect banning an individual from the party's caucus has, and it seems like she is still part of the Senate Conservative caucus anyway. Puzzling.

All it has really achieved is to make O'Toole look like a testy would-be dictator, à la Putin or Xi. The Conservatives still look hopelessly divided between their left (centre) and right flanks. And it seems undeniable that O'Toole campaigned for the Conservative leadership on a "true blue", right-wing platform to placate the significant portion of the Tory base that is anti-abortion, anti-vaccine, anti-carbon tax (and probably anti-anti), before promptly changing to a pro-choice, pro-vaccine and pro-carbon tax stance when facing the country's electorate, in a desperate attempt to position his party as close as possible to Trudeau's Liberals in order to stand a chance in hell of being elected. So, the phrase "flip-flop" will probably forever be associated with the man (and possibly the party).

Meanwhile, the Liberals are surely rubbing their hands in glee as first the Greens and then the Conservatives implode in slow motion with no need of a helping hand.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

"That guy" sentenced to 41 monhs in prison

Well, it took a while, but Jacob Chansley - that guy from the January 6th Capitol riots, that ridiculous guy that everyone loves to hate, the soi-disant "QAnon Shaman", and one of leaders of the riot  - finally had his sentence handed to him: 41 months in jail

Chansley plead guilty to a charge of "obstructing an official proceeding", which sounds a lot nicer than "instigating an insurrection" or "violently breaking into an inportant federal building", but, hey, I'll take it.

While in the Capitol on that fateful day, Chansley left a note for Mike Pence.sayimg, "It's only a matter of time. Justice is coming." How right he was.

Monday, November 15, 2021

To vaccinate kids or not to vaccinate kids

As the child vaccine for COVID-19 is expected to be approved in Canada in the next week or two, health authorities are ramping up and preparing for another major vaccination push, this time for kids. But demand for the vaccine for 5-11 year olds may not be as brisk as you might expect.

Canada's vaccination effort among adults (well, over-12s) has been pretty good, I have to say, much better than I initially expected, with over 85% of the eligible (over-12) population fully vaccinated, and nearly 90% having had at least one dose according to CTV's Vaccination Tracker (this translates to about 75% of the entire population fully vaccinated and 78% with at least one dose), and booster doses already starting among the more vulnerable population.

But may parents who had no qualms about vaccinating themselves are less certain about having their small kids vaccinated. According to one major recent survey by Angus Reid, only 51% plan to get their kids aged 5-11 vaccinated as soon as a pediatric dose become available, with another 18% saying they will wait and see how things go. 23% say they will never get their kids vaccinated (and 9% just don't know). Well, if all 69% do as they say and vaccinate their children (eventually) that's actually not that bad, and will raise Canada's overall vaccination to a level that might just be enough for herd immunity (if that is still a concept that is current).

And, to be sure, it is a slightly different decision. Children are at a lower risk of serious outcomes than adults, and there is perhaps some small risk of more serious (but certainly not life-threatening) reactions like myocarditis. Many children are afraid of needles (around 60%), but there are strategies to overcome this anxiety and reticence, and some may need some coaxing, coaching, even bribing. For a few (maybe 4%) the prospect of an injection can even bring on panic attacks, fainting spells and insomnia. 

However, set against all this, some kids do in fact suffer some pretty serious impacts from COVID-19 (including, yes, hospitalization, intensive care, and even deaths), and long COVID is also an ever-present possibility (something like 5% of kids infected with COVID have long-tern symptoms that last for months). Oh, and there's also the issue of doing the right thing for the rest of the community, and actively trying to reduce community transmission so that we can actually get back to "normal", whatever that might now be. If it's good enough for the kids of every healthcare professional I have seen interviewed on the subject, then it should be good enough for everyone else's kids. The bottom line is that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, for adults and kids alike.

Just please don't give me stuff like "the vaccines were developed too quickly, and not tested properly", "it's a government conspiracy", etc. We are (or should be) long past that stage. And please let's not forget that vaccinations are not the be-all-and-end-all of the fight against the virus - we will still need masking indoors, reduced crowd sizes, and physical distancing where at all possible.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Is a PCR test better than a rapid antigen test for travel?

We will be travelling to the UK at the end of the month, and I have been busy lining up all the various testing ducks needed to travel abroad and to return to Canada. One of the requirements that is receiving a lot of attention recently is for a molecular PCR test within 72 hours of returning.

The travel industry hates it, the mayors of border cities hate it, the USA hate it. Many are calling for it to be be changed to a less onerous and less expensive rapid antigen test. Even Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Teresa Tam says the current PCR policy is being "actively looked at".

I have always been of the opinion that the PCR test is a better, more accurate and more definitive test than the antigen test, and we should be going with the gold standard and not dumbing it down to the level of safety required by places like the USA and UK. After all, look how badly they are doing compared to Canada's COVID situation. But the more I think about it and look into it, the more I am coming round to the idea that maybe the antigen test is the way to go, at least for fully-vaccinated travellers.

Yes, antigen tests are less accurate (by some estimates about 20% false negatives can be expected, because the test is not as sensitive to low viral loads as PCR tests). But set against that is the fact that results are essentially immediate, so the testing can be much more timely. So, rather than an accurate PCR test three days before travel, a not-quite-so-accurate rapid antigen test on the actual day of travel may be more useful, and account for activities in the final few days of the trip.

That said, I think the test should be done before flying, and not two days later as in the UK, although an additional test two days after arriving would probably be wise too.

Let's see whether Canada's policy gets changed before we travel.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Doug Ford is running on fumes, lots and lots of gas fumes

Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford has an election coming up in less than seven months, and can't you just tell!

One of the main planks of his re-election strategy is building more roads for his beloved cars. (Whatever you might have thought about Ford's uneven pandemic performance, and despite his constant blandishments about supporting the little man and the worker, never forget that he is in reality an unreconstructed arch-conservative millionaire businessman, committed to cost-cutting, low taxes/low services, and oil and gas in preference to renewables - just review his first few months in power if you don't remember).

Specifically, Ford is touting the dubious benefits of two major new roads that will slash right through the Green Belt around Toronto: Highway 413 and the Bradford By-Pass. The 413 would run 53 kilometres around the western half of the city's outer suburbs, and is expected to cost at least $6 billion (add about 50% for the usual budget under-estimates and cost over-runs); the Bradford By-Pass would run 16 kilometres between Highways 400 and 404 about 50 kilometres north of Toronto, and is expected to cost at least $800 million (plus). 

The Ontario Liberals oppose the 413, and want more studies on the By-Pass, while the NDP opposes both out of hand, so it is set to become a major election campaign issue. Environmental and other advocacy groups warn that the real winners from the building of the highways would be the property developers who will develop the surrounding area, particularly as Ford's administration has already watered down the environmental and density requirements for the suburbs, and all but destroyed the Green Belt initiative.

To hear the Conservatives explain it, the 413 would save commuters and truckers some 30 minutes on a journey, and the Bradford By-Pass 35 minutes on an even shorter trip. However, no studies are provided to back up these estimates, and they appear to be a best-case scenario where drivers just use the the entirety of the new road and very little at either end. One publicly-available report suggests the 413 might actually save 30 seconds (not minutes), and another report suggests the Bradford By-Pass could save between 10 and 35 minutes, with an average of just 14 minutes. The other thing is that any time savings that do accrue are likely to be temporary, maybe five years, after which the roads would backfill - new roads just attract more cars, a phenomenon that has been shown again and again across the world.

The Conservatives also claim that building the new roads would be environmentally beneficial and actually reduve greenhouse gas emissions from commuters idling and stuck in traffic, although any number of researchers and experts have debunked this notion, at least one calling it "laughable", "hypocritical", "absurd", "ignorant" and "crazy".

Anyway, these kinds of details do not concern Doug Ford. Even were he to win the coming election, he will not see the roads up and running during his administration. He is only concerned with making the announcements, and pandering to the commuter and trucking community in the 905 suburban area, the region that will make or break his re-election bid. Although all the municipalities of any size in the area have been unanimous in their condemnation of the projects, it is thought that the individual voters are probably in favour of them on balance, although it is not clear to what extent.

For Ford, it works perfectly as an opportunity to show his love for the suburban commuter type that makes up much of his popular support, and to show himself as a man of action, sticking it to the "downtown urban elites". Well, you can't really expect a leopard to change its spots, even after a pandemic.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Charging an EV in just 5 minutes? Well, it's possible in theory

Well, this could be a game-changer (how many times have I written those words!)

Purdue University and Ford have enveloped a charging cable that can, at least theoretically, charge an electric vehicle in just five minutes. That's right, basically the same time as it takes to fill an ICE car with gas.

The main limiting factor on the speed of charging is heat: the charging cable just gets too hot for safety. The Purdue/Ford solution uses liquid phase-change cooling to up the ante, a coolant that starts off as a liquid and changes into a vapour as it absorbs heat, which can remove ten times more heat than liquid cooling alone. That allow for output of up to 2,400 amps, nearly five times more than current industry leader Tesla's chargers.

Of course, this type of cable has not been used in practice yet, and current EVs are not even able to receive that level of power. Plus, rolling out a network of such chargers will be a mammoth and extremely expensive task.

So, it's all pretty theoretical. But ... cool theory. 

Climate change conference vocabulary

I've been intrigued by some of the phrases and terms used throughout the Glasgow COP26 climate change conference. These climate conferences have engendered their own specialized vocabulary, some of which had worked its way into the general idiom.
Among others:
  • "implementation gap"
  • "stubborn optimism"
  • "keep 1.5 alive"
  • "sustainable development goals"
  • "nationally determined contributions"
  • "tipping point"
  • "nature-based solutions"
  • "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR)
  • "global heating" (as opposed to "warming")
  • "net zero" and "net zero is not zero" (which I have already looked at in more detail)
  • "phase down" (not "phase out")
  • "unabated coal"
Look for these words and phrases in next year's OED ("climate emergency" was 2019's OED Word of the Year).

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

World Food Program calls Elon Musk's bluff

Elon Musk, the richest man on earth, has a big one-off tax bill coming up. So, he thought he's ask his 63 million Twitter followers if they thought it was a good idea for him to sell 10% of his Tesla shares in order to pay it. He said he would abide by their decision. That's a weird thing to do, right? But Mr. Musk is a weird man, and this is far from the weirdest thing he has done.

Anyway, the point of the current story is that one of his Twitter followers, David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), responded to Musk's weirdness by suggesting that, while he was liquidating a few billion dollars of his share options, why didn't he also eradicate poverty in some old the world's poorest regions by donating $6 billion to the WFP, which could feed 42 million of the world's poorest for a year. This would represent a mere 2% of Musk's personal wealth.

Musk was intrigued, but skeptical of Mr. Beasley's figures, and responded: "If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it". Of course, Mr. Beasley had this information right there to hand - 42 million people ( the number of people in Integrated Food Security Phase Classifications 4 and 5, in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Madagascar and Democratic Republic of Congo) times the cost of supplying one meal per day (US$0.43, for the record - you try making a meal for 43c!) times 365 days in a year. It's all on the WFP website.

The ball, then, is squarely back in Elon Musk's court and, thus far, he has gone very quiet. Is he a man of his word, or just a weirdo who spouts random things he thinks are amusing? Will be become one of the world's biggest philanthropists overnight? If so, will he be doing it for the right reasons? Will David Beasley become known as the word's best bluff-caller? Will this whole very public episode encourage others to donate large amounts of spare money to eradicating world poverty?

Saturday, November 06, 2021

What about those B cells and T cells?

All this talk about waning immunity from COVID-19 and the need for booster shots seems to me to be ignoring one important element. 

The talk is that the number of antibodies in vaccinated people is dropping drastically 6 or 7 months after vaccination. But, wait, isn't that exactly what we would expect? Isn't that what happens with pretty much all vaccinations? Well, yes, it is. But short-term antibodies are just one plank of the body's defences against infections.

While the effectiveness of neutralizing antibodies is starting to wane, the second line of defence - longer-term memory B cells and T cells - continues to be effective and even to strengthen. Memory B cells can rapidly deploy more antibodies in case of later exposure to the virus, and even to variants. T cells, on the other hand, can attack already-infected cells. This, not antibodies, is what will protect us against the coronavirus in the longer term.

All the indications are that the cellular immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines is pretty stable and robust at least six months after vaccination, and should provide good long-term protection against the virus and its variants, whatever the level of antibodies. Furthermore, a third booster dose of the vaccines may top up antibody levels temporarily (which may be useful during a resurgence in cases), but it will do little to increase our longer term B and T cell protection.

So, in that case, why are we seeing a rebound in cases in Europe, Asia and America? Well, that's partly because not everyone is vaccinated, partly because no vaccine us 100% effective, and partly because many countries have let their guards down in terms of masking, distancing, congregating, etc. As the experts have been telling us all along, the vaccines are a great boon but they are not a silver bullet, and other public health measures continue to be equally important (are you listening Alberta, UK, etc, etc?).

Canadian flag raisers get a workout

Canadian flag raisers and lowerers are about to get more of a workout than they've had for quite some time. 

Official Canadian flags on federal buildings have been at half-mast since the end of May to honour Indigenous children who were found dead at former residential schools. Most Canadians were on-board with that, although a majority believe it is now past time to raise them again (and it is true that the impact of lowering a flag starts to fade over time, until it becomes all but meaningless). Indigenous groups, though, have been campaigning tirelessly to keep the flags at half-mast, arguing that raising the flag would disrespectful. War veterans, on the other hand, think that not being able to lower the flag on Remembrance Day would be highly disrespectful. What to do?

Anyway, the government has been negotiating with all stakeholders, and believe that they have come up with a solution, albeit a rather labour-intensive one. The plan is that the flags will be raised on the 7th November, lowered on the 8th for Indigenous Veterans Day (which I must confess I've never heard of), then raised again (presumably on the 9th or 10th), so that they can be lowered to half-mast again on November 11th for Remembrance Day, and then raised again on the 12th for the foreseeable future (or until some other group complains).

Wow, what a performance! I don't mean to make light of it all; some people take this stuff very seriously. But after all, it's just a flag. Can we not play politics with it? Apparently there have been no less than six occasions since May when the flag would normally have have lowered - apparently, there are rules for these things - but that was not possible because it was already lowered. Prime Minister Trudeau, though, has vowed to keep the flag at half-mast "until it is clear that Indigenous People's are happy to raise them again". Do we need need a three-quarters level or something? It's all getting a bit ridiculous.

Friday, November 05, 2021

US study shows COVID vaccines' efficacy wanes even more than thought

There have been quite a few studies looking at the decline on effectiveness in COVID-19 vaccines over time, but none have been quite as depressing as a recent study of 780,000 US veterans.

This study, published in the journal Science, shows a huge drop in efficacy in all the vaccines in the six months between March and the end of September. Two doses of Moderna's effectiveness fell from 89% to just 58%; Pfizer/BioNTech's effectiveness fell from 87% to 45%; and the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine's efficacy fell from 86% to a paltry 13% over the same period. AstraZeneca vaccines have not been used in the USA, but you can probably assume that its performance will be more similar to the Johnson & Johnson shot than to the mRNAs.

The study only looks at US veterans, generally older and largely men, but this nevertheless seems to be a real wake-up call, and will only serve to increase the clamour for third doses after six months, which many developed nations are already embarking on.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Ontario's embarrassing "doctors"

Speaking of the anti-vaccine axis, it's embarrassing to report that at least four doctors right here in Ontario have been issuing COVID vaccine exemptions to all and sundry for money. Medical exemptions should be extremely rare, in tbe region of one in a hundred thousand, according to the province's medical regulator, and doctors have been instructed to be judicious in the issuing of exemptions.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario is applying to the Ontario Supreme Court to force the four MDs - yes, let's name them: Dr. Rochagne Killian, Dr. Mark Raymond Trozzi, Dr. Celeste Jean Thirlwell and Dr. Mary Elizabeth O'Connor - to cooperate with the medical regulator's investigations into their COVID-19 practices, including their issuance of medical exemptions for vaccinations. All four have refused to release medical records requested by the College, claiming that the medical regulator does not have the required jurisdiction (i.e. they don't want anyone poking around in their books, and are doing everything they can to obstruct the investigations).

Dr. Killian has had her medical license suspended, after having already been barred from issuing medical exemptions for COVID. She runs a website called Enable Air which claims it "facilitates the purchase of vaccination exemptions for a fee", and describes vaccination passports as a "fascist document". 

Dr. Trozzi was also barred from issuing exemptions last month, after arguing that doctors are "free to provide medical exemptions related to COVID-19 vaccinations as he or she sees fit". 

Dr. Thirlwell  says that the College lacks jurisdiction to "police" medical exemptions, and warns that any attempt to obtain records from her office will be "resisted physically, by secrity services".

Dr. O'Connor has, for some reason, called on the College to "define COVID-19", and has called the vaccines "gene therapy experiments ... being administered to humanity without consent". Don't ask me...

And this, mark you, is in Ontario. Not Texas. Not Tennesse. Ontario. I hang my head in shame.

Quebec and Ontario blink before anti-vaxxers

Quebec has just backtracked shamefully on its initial vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, and Ontario hasn't even bothered trying.

Quebec did have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for hospital and other healthcare workers, but it first extended its deadline, and then abandoned it completely when it judged that too many workers were still not vaccinated, and that the province faced potential shortages of medical staff if the policy were to be followed through.

Ontario had been mulling the idea of a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers for some time, but it too ultimately decided against it - in spite of the explicit advice of all major healthcare organizations and advisors - due to the "potential departure of tens of thousands of healthcare workers" (an unsupported claim). So much for "following the science"! Many hospitals have their own vaccine mandates, and some have had to lay off anti-vaxxers, but at least this can't be pinned on the Conservative government!

This is a pusillanimous abdication of responsibility on the part of the Ford government (and the Legault government in Quebec), and gives entirely the wrong message: anti-vaxxers will see this as a resounding victory. These decisions will almost certainly embolden the anti-vaccine mob at a critical time, with child vaccination just around the corner. 

Do you want to go for a hospital procedure and not know whether the doctor treating you, or the nurse helping you recover, is vaccinated or not? Can healthcare workers now refuse to take currently-mandated vaccines like Hep B? Can they choose not to wear a mask or wash their hands? Where does this all end? And, anyway, do we really want healthcare workers who don't believe in vaccines and don't trust the medical establishment. Sounds to me like an ideal time to weed out some proverbial "bad eggs"...

British Columbia, on the other hand, did not blink, and has had to lay off 3,000 healthcare workers who were either unvaccinated or unwilling to disclose their vaccination status (what's that about?). And, guess what, the sky hasn't fallen. It hasn't been easy, but they have coped, and are coping. 

In Quebec, an estimated 8,000 workers were at risk, or around 2.4% of the workforce, including 5,000 who are in direct contact with patients. Not an easy problem, to be sure, but doable. In Ontario, the numbers are less clear (the province is unwilling to release information on holdouts for "privacy" reasons), but certainly less than the "tens of thousands" improbably claimed by Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliot (it is probably in the region of 2-3% too). 

It is also far from likely that worst-case scenarios would pan out, when push comes to shove and well-paid unionized jobs are at stake. When the New York police force was faced with a vaccine mandate, there were dire warning that up to a third of the force would rebel; in the end, just 34 of 35,000 police officers (and 40 of 17,000 civilian employees) gave up their jobs. The City of Toronto has had to suspend just 248 of its 32,000 staff members (much less than 1%) for non-compliance with the City's vaccine mandate.

Yes, it is a complex issue", as Premier Ford says, and a vaccine mandate would almost certainly result in the suspension of some services in the short term and the delay of some operations and other procedures. But complex issues are exactly where he should be guided by the medical establishment, which states unequivocally that healthcare staff should be vaccinated, for their own health and that of their patients. 

Most hospitals in the province are instituting their own vaccine mandates anyway, in the absence of government leadership. The Globe and Mail found that, of over three dozen Ontario hospitals they contacted, only one did not have its own mandatory vaccine rules, and only a handful of staff at each institution are not in compliance with the mandate. 120 of the province's 141 hospitals signed an Ontario Hospital Association letter to the government calling for a province-wide mandate, with several more submitting their own letters in support of it. Minister Elliott's claims that "some" (unidentified) hospitals had expressed "concerns" over a vaccine mandate rings pretty hollow.

Both provinces now find themselves in the embarrassing position of airlines and schools taking a harder line than the government on the issue, and of relying on individual hospitals and health authorities taking responsibility for vaccine mandates because the government did not have the cojones to follow the recommendations of its owns expert advisors. Does the fact that there is a provincial election on the horizon in Ontario play into this? I imagine that Premier Ford does not want to be seen by his conservative base to be forcing through a liberal agenda. 

Does "doing the right thing" even matter any more? Anti-vaxxers 2, provinces 0.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Canada's carbon emissons are a bit embarrassing

All the speechifying at the COP26 climate change conference has brought home the importance of carbon missions per capita as a measure. For example, China says it does not need to do as much as other developed countries because it is at a "special development phase", and because anyway its emissions per capita as much lower than that of many other developed countries. The first of these arguments is hogwash (as I have noted in another post), but the second point is actually salient.

According to Worldometer (and I've no reason to disbelieve it), the top 10 emitters are, in order: China, USA, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada, Iran, South Korea and Indonesia. The top ten emitters per capita, however, are: Qatar, Montenegro, Kuwait, Trinidad & Tobago, UAE, Oman, Canada, Brunei, Luxembourg and Bahrain. The common element? The only country in the top ten of emitters and emitters per capita is ... Canada (at No. 7 on both lists). The only other G20 countries that even come close are Australia (No. 14 and No. 11 respectively on the two lists), and Saudi Arabia (No. 11 and No. 15), and maybe the USA, incidentally appears at No. 2 and No. 16.

So, are we really in a position to be lecturing the rest of the world? Granted we live in a cold country that also gets very hot in the summer, but still...

And what about carbon emissions per unit. Of GDP, you ask? Well, Canada's up there too, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Canada appears in 11th place again, after a bunch of Eastern European countries and Russia, with the USA some five places below. Not good.

China's claim to be at a "special development stage" the height of hypocrisy

America may be "back" as regards climate change and their pledges at the COP26 climate conference, but, unfortunately, China is still China.

President Xi Jinping did not feel the need to attend the conference, sending instead his climate change lieutenant Xie Zhenhua to soak up the bad vibes that China was always going to receive at this conference.

When faced with criticism of China's continued reliance on carbon-spewing coal technology, Mr. Xie responded by saying that China is at a "special development stage", and so cannot be expected to rein in its coal-fired power stations any quicker than it currently is (i.e. it's not - China is continuing to build new coal power stations by the dozen). Xie insists that China is making its "biggest possible effort to address climate change", and just deflected the blame for the world's ills onto the USA, which is standard Chinese policy.

For China to play the aggrieved pauper - basically, it is saying that China is still a developing country and, as such, should not be expected to rectify a problem that was created by rich, developed countries - is the height of hypocrisy. China is the world's second largest economy, and the world's biggest emitter of CO2. To call itself a developing country whenever it suits the situation, based on its per capita wealth, is disingenuous in the extreme, and a slap in the face for real developing countries (including countries like Gabon, which is punching well above its weight on international change).

Buy, hey, that's just China being China, the country that every other country loves to hate but can't afford to antagonize.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Doug Ford's increase in minimum wage not out of deeply-held political convictions

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, after keeping a very low profile for several months as his popularity ratings tanked pretty much every time he made a public appearance and opened his mouth, has been making various announcements in recent days apparently intended to show his respect and his deep devotion to the lowly working stiff.

The latest such is an announcement that Ontario's minimum wage will be increased to $15 an hour in the new year. Wait, wasn't that the policy of the previous Liberal government, nearly four years ago? And wasn't it Doug Ford that cancelled the proposed Liberal increase in the minimum wage as one of his very first actions as the new Premier of Ontario, back in 2018? If he expects some credit for increasing the minimum wage now, after all this time, he must be very naïve. 

Besides, according to the Ontario Living Wage Network, a living wage in Ontario now, after the increases in the cost of living in the intervening years, is estimated to be between $16.20 an hour (Sault Ste. Marie) and $22.08 an hour (Toronto), with the provincial average therefore hovering somewhere close to $20 an hour. $15 is just not going to cut it.

So, why now? Has he spent nearly four years thinking about it, and decided that yes, it is a good idea after all? Er, probably not. For one thing, thinking is not Doug Ford's forte. And helping out the working classes is not one of his deeply-held political convictions.

No, this is all about timing. His handlers - the ones that persuaded him to remove himself from the spotlight as it was hurting his polling numbers - have reminded him that the next provincial election is just eight months away, and it is probably time to start burnishing his image a bit and portraying himself as a caring man of the people, and not a power-mad millionaire businessman.

It's a tough sell, and it won't be made any easier when people realize what his hidden agenda is - four more years in power.

What does "Net Zero Is Not Zero" even mean?

At the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, there are all the usual protesters and hangers-on that haunt this kind of international conference. At least one of the placards being hoisted by protesters outside the event reads "Net Zero Is Not Zero", and it wasn't entirely clear to me just what this meant. So, of course, I investigated.

It turns out that this protester's complaint concerns the whole concept of "net zero", which many environmentalists see as a dangerous development in the fight against climate change. Country after country has, in recent years, been espousing a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 (or 2060 in the case of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, or even 2070 in the case of India). However, this does not mean that, by 2050 (or 2060 or 2070), these countries will cease to emit any carbon dioxide at all.

What "net zero" actually means is that any carbon emissions are "balanced" by measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, whether this be in the form of mass tree-planting, carbon-capture-and-storage, or more hi-tech solutions like direct air capture devices. That may sound like a reasonable compromise, at first blush, but part of the problem is that it is indeed a compromise, and that it is open to misuse and perversion. 

There is also the phrase "carbon neutral", which is often used interchangeably with "net zero carbon", but may have some different connotations in some cases. "Net zero" usually refers to zero emissions of all owned or controlled types (including electricity generation), while "carbon neutral" refers to all types of emissions including those indirectly associated with an activity or country.

Some industrialized countries certainly seem to be relying on being able purchase carbon offsets from other more carbon-responsible countries. It's arguable whether that kind of figure-fudging should count towards a "net zero" pledge anyway. After all, there are only three countries that are actually carbon negative, Bhutan, Panama and Suriname, and those three tiny countries can't provide carbon indulgences for the rest of the world.

Opponents of this kind of strategy claim that relying on technology to rectify problems caused by technology is no solution at all. Furthermore they say, relying on technology that is not yet fully developed is risky at best. And, perhaps worst of all, having a goal that is decades in the future is just putting off the evil hour, and tantamount to a "burn now, pay later" attitude that the world can ill afford: it diminishes the sense of urgency we need to curb emissions NOW.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Perdido Street Station is not your every day fantasy novel

I have read and enjoyed several of China Miéville's books, but never one quite like Perdido Street Station.

It is a 700-page fantasy tour de force. You could call it steampunk, I guess, but not in a recognizable William Gibson/Bruce Sterling kind of way. Some of it seems recognizable some of the time, but then Miéville will throw in bizarro aliens or dimension-shifting or entirely improbable thaumaturgical pseudo-science, just to keep you off-balance. It is, perhaps, alternative reality steampunk.

The book is set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, and the city is perhaps the most important character in the book, its protagonist. It bears some passing resemblance to some of the most sordid parts of Dickensian London, but more extreme and more varied: "...this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god". Words like "suffocating", "stinking", "gloomy", "monstrous", "grotesque", "decayed", "wasted", "putrid", "chaotic", "grubby", "noisome" and "gangrenous" abound in descriptions of the city's streets and neighbourhoods.

In the main, science has not progressed past steam power, gas lighting, trains and airships, and horse-drawn carriages are still the norm. But thaumaturgy (low-level supernatural or quasi-magical intervention) has been raised to an almost sciento-religious art, allowing for the incorporation of mechanical intrusions into flesh-and-blood bodies, rudimentary robotic helpers, and the grafting (both voluntary and otherwise) of other body and animal parts onto human bodies. Proto-computers, using punched-card technology, even put in an appearance. There are bits of science and pseudo-science thrown in for good measure (including "crisis mathematics"), but hard science fiction this is most definitely not.

Plus, there are bona fide alien species thrown into the mix: insect people; flying beings; water-based creatures with the power to mould and control water; cultured giant spiders that straddle different dimensions at will; giant moths that feed on the dreams of sentient species; intelligent cactus people, for God's sake! For most of these species, it's a dog-eat-dog-eat-garbage-eat-whatever-they-can-get-their-hands/claws-on world. Mistrust and cynicism are essential life-skills, and quiet desperation is the norm. It's not an edifying vision of civilization.

But, into this mix are thrown some genuinely likeable characters, both human and alien, and the book revolves in large part around the struggle of these lovable, error-prone "good guys" against some of the nastiest and most violent of the others. The most important character, though, is the city itself, in all its lurid and dissolute glory.

And, best of all, it is well-written, something that often gets overlooked in fantasy and science fiction circles. Everything about life in New Crobuzon is excessive, and much of Miéville''s prose is too. But this is a 700-page book, so words like "palimpsest", "scoriatic", "mephitic", "sussurus" and "ossified" are going to find their way in, no? The dialogue reads quite naturally too, not like the usual stilted sci-fi offerings.

For all its ambition, it remains immensely readable. I'm a slow reader, and 700 pages a big ask for me. But this one just flew by.