Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Mercator Projection distorts the map of rhe world, but what is the alternative?

I know that the way maps of the world are usually shown exaggerates the area of countries further away from the equator. 

The map of the world as we know it is based on the Mercator Projection, a way of showing our three-dimensional spherical earth in two dimensions within a rectangle devised by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator way back in 1569. It shows lines of longitude and latitude as straight lines and neatly lines up with the cardinal directions, making it easier for ships to visualize their routes along straight lines. It is familiar and convenient.

BUT ... it really distorts the shapes and sizes of areas futher from the equator, and the further away they are the more it distorts them. Greenland, for example, looks to be about the same size as the whole of Africa, whereas in fact it is 14 times snaller; Ellesmere Island, in the north of Canada, appears about the same size as Australia, whereas in fact Australia is 39 times bigger; Madagascar and Great Britain look to be about the same size, but Madagascar is actually over twice as large; etc.

Mercator Projection

This has long been known, but attempts to address the problem have introduced their own issues. 

The Goode Homolosyne Projection was developed in 1923 by John Paul Goode is an interrupted pseudocylindrical equal-area composite map, often called the "orange peel map" because it looks like a flattened orange peel. The main drawback is the "interruptions" or discontinuities it results in (which are designed to mainly fall in the oceans), although it does a good job of maintaining relative sizes of countries and regions.

Goode Homolosyne Projection

In 1954, Buckminster Fuller came up with his Dymaxion map, which maps the globe onto a 20-faced icosahedron, which can then be flattened out into two dimensions. The result is a rather strange looking shape, heavily interrupted and difficult to use, but with a reasonably accurate representation of the areas and shapes of the countries and continents, even if their alignment and positionings leave something to be desired.

Fuller Dymaxion Projection

In 1999, the Authagraph Projection was designed by Japanese architect Hajime Narukawa. Building on Fuller's idea, Narukawa mapped the globe onto 96 triangles, which he then transferred onto a tetrahedron (while maintaining area proportions) which can be expanded into a 2-dimensional rectangle. Many people believe this to be the best projection available, combining good relative  area representation with ease of use, even if the layout and directions are no longer so intuitive. It can even be folded back into an approximation of a sphere, earning it the nickname of the "origami map".

Authagraph Projection

Do you think we could ever get used to this?

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Ever Given container ship in numbers

The container ship that was stuck for over a week across the Suez Canal has finally been freed (at least partially thanks to a full moon and higher-than-normal tides). But it's interesting to look at a few figures, because most of us have no idea just how damned big these ships are, and just how much international trade goes through the Suez Canal.

The Taiwanese-owned Ever Given is about 400 metres long (1,312 ft), about as long as the Empire State Tower is high, and substantially bigger than the largest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas. It weighs nearly 220,000 tonnes, and can carry about 20,000 of those huge standard 20 ft x 40 ft containers (it was carrying about 18,300 containers at the time it was stranded last week).

The Suez Canal, which was opened in 1869 (although it was substantially enlarged in 2015), sees about 12% of global sea trade pass through its 193 km (120 miles) length. This amounts to about 18,500 container ships a year (over 50 a day). At the end of Ever Given's week of blockage, some 369 other ships were held up waiting to pass through, representing an estimated $9.6 billion in trade. Egypt was losing about $15 million a day in canal revenues. 

Quite an expensive fender-bender!

Health authorities are actively contributing to vaccine hesitancy

There's really no other way to say it: Canada's (and Europe's) public health authorities are currently making a real hash of things as regards the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and are actively contributing to the already worrying levels of vaccine hesitancy. 

First, they tell us it's not proven to be safe and efficacious for over 65s, whereas in actual fact all they meant was that the initial test data did not include sufficient test subjects over that age. There is no reason to suspect that the vaccine is any less safe or effective for 66-year olds as it is for 64-year olds, and an abundance of real world data from the UK and Europe has shown it to be perfectly safe and very efficacious for any age group, ESPECIALLY over-65s. Anyway, both Canada and Europe changed their minds on that and, having put unnecessary worries in many people's minds, recommended that the vaccine be used for seniors too.

Then, there was the whole blood clot issue, as a result of which several European countries and Canada have ruled that people under the age of 55 should not get the AstraZeneca vaccine because of a risk of vaccine-induced blood clots (vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopemia, or VIPIT, if you really want the jargon). This is an extremely rare response that has occurred 25 times in Europe out of about 20 million AstraZeneca doses administered, lower than the rate of blood clots expected in the general population. There have been no blood clot events at all reported in Canada out of the 300,000 or so doses administered here.

However, some of the cases are an even rarer event, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), which can cause fatal bleeding in the brain, and has led to the death of 9 people in Europe. They mainly seems to occur in people who have low blood platelet counts, arguably a pre-existing condition, and mainly affect people between the ages of 20 and 55 (or 63 according to some studies), the majority of them women. 

Be that as it may, the week after the European Medicines Agency issued a report saying that it had investigated the issue and concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots, and that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh its possible risks, Canada has nevertheless issued its blanket warning that under-55s should not get the vaccine, at least for now. Most provinces have already followed suit, regardless of the fact that under-55s are not actually eligible to receive it yet in most provinces anyway. 

This advice will probably change too, like the over-65s ban did, but not before lasting damage has been done among a jittery population already prone to vaccine hesitancy for much less scientific reasons.

Incidentally, advice to people who have already had the AstraZeneca shot - like me - is hard to find, but VIPIT symptoms usually occur within 4 to 20 days after the vaccination. So, if you haven't had any symptoms (persistent and severe headaches, seizures, blurred vision, shortness of breath, chest or abdominal pain) in that time, then you are probably fine.

UPDATE

A new report from the UK shows more and more cases of the AstraZeneca blood clot issue are occurring, a total of 30 cases from 18 million shots (all women between the ages of 25 and 65), of which 22 were the more serious CVST event, and there have been a total of 7 deaths.

British (and European) health authorities, however, insist that the vaccine is a good one, and that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. As one Cambridge scientist points out, the risk of a blood clot outcome is around one in half a million, and a month's delay on vaccinating half a million people would, statistically, result in around 85 severe cases of COVID-19 requiring hospitalization, of which around 5 would be expected to die.

Looked at that way, AstraZeneca seems like a pretty safe bet. And, after all, no medication is completely safe for everyone. How many medicines have you ever taken where the impossibly fine print mentions "possible" side effects that include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and ... yes ... death?

UPDATE UPDATE

More recent studies show that the risks of getting a blood clot are much higher for those who contract COVID-19 than for those who receive a vaccine, by a factor of between 8 and 10. That particular statistic really turns the overreaction to the blood clot issue on its head. Unfortunately, the damage to public confidence in the vaccines has already happened.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Canada's Supreme Court rules federal carbon tax is constitutional - end of story, right?

Various Canadian courts have ruled that the federal carbon tax is perfectly legal and constitutional over the last few years, bilutvrhe Conservative premiers of Alberta  Saskatchewan and Ontario chose not to believe them, and insisted on spending more taxpayers' money by escalating it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Well, the Supreme Court has spoken, and ruled - surprise, surprise! - that Canada's federal carbon tax is indeed perfectly legal and constitutional, and that the federal government is well within its rights, under the "peace, order and good government" clause of the constitution, to impose a price on carbon in those intransigent provinces who will not do so themselves, on the grounds that global warming is a critical national and international problem that is too important to be left to the whims of provincial premiers with their own personal agendas.

After the judgement was handed down, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan basically, rolled over and said he would institute his own carbon tax, so that he can at least day he is in control of his own destiny (even if he is not). Ontario's Doug Ford despatched a junior minister to make a statement, and just mumbled something about at least Ontario still having their industrial carbon rules. Only Mad Dog Kenney from Alberta continued to bluster, as is his wont, vowing that climate change remains "a political issue", yada, yada, "a democratic issue", yada, yada, "not going to use the excuse of this decision or the federal carbon tax to "squeeze more money for the government out of Albertans", yada, yada (someone hasn't read up on how a carbon tax works).

Anyway, at least certain provinces will hopefully stop waxing lyric about how a national carbon tax is unconstitutional (don't hold your breath, though), although obviously the whole subject will remain a hot-button party political issue, especially in the wake of the federal Conservative Party's vote to effectively deny climate change, and leader Erin O'Toole's response to the legal ruling: "Canada's conservatives will repeal Mr. Trudeau's carbon tax". Sigh....

Do Magnitsky Laws actually work?

Canada, in concert with the US, UK, and EU, is on a roll recently as regards imposing long-overdue sanctions on China and on Russia. These are Magnitsky-style sanctions on individual officials, rather than on the country as a whole, but I can't help but question how effective such sanctions are in practice. 

I can see how countrywide sanctions could effectively hurt a pariah state, but how is slapping sanctions on individuals (and, note, the individuals sanctioned are not leaders, but "officials", mid-level functionaries at best) going to change the way those states behave? In many cases, I am not even sure how the individuals involved are discommoded at all, let alone the countries as as whole. These sanctions involve freezing any assets these individuals have in Canada, banning them from travelling to Canada, and banning Canadian citizens and businesses from providing them with financial services. So, unless these people have offshore money lodged with Canadian banks, or cottages in Muskoka, or plans to visit the Rockies, how are they going to be directly affected at all? China's knee-jerk sanctions back will presumably have even less effect.

I can understand that there is a certain, limited, diplomatic impact - take that, you varlet, see how cross we are! - but  I can't see this having any effect at all on the likes of inveterate offenders such as Russia and China. They are not going to turn round and say, "oh, sorry, I didn't realize you were so serious, I'll change our polices at once!" 

It's hard to find data, or even opinions, on the matter. It's almost as though Western democracies have taken it as an article of faith, and closed ranks around the whole concept. Probably the best exposition and assessment of the arguments I have found is this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Bill Browder himself - anti-Putin zealot and architect of the original Magnitsky Act back in 2012, who has spent his life ever since flying around the world trying to persuade other states to enact similar legislation - argues that making officials who were involved in specific civil rights abuses or corruption scams into international pariahs in this way works, and also has the effect of making other officials think twice about getting involved in similar schemes. Says Browder, "It's creating a new culture around the world. A general in Belarus might think twice when they're given orders to commit atrocities. And it will only get stronger the more country use these sanctions." He also says, "It's not enough, but it's something." Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney adds, "You many not be able to solve every problem in the world or respond to every abuse, but you can make sure that your country is not a safe haven for despots and war criminals."

And maybe they're right.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Conservative Party of Canada shows its true colours (hint: not green)

The Conservative Party of Canada voted at their annual policy convention recently on the issue of whether to include some more environmental statements in their constitution. Answer: Nope.

They couldn't even agree to include a statement that "climate change is real" and that the party is "willing to act", a rather innocent-sounding motion that nevertheless met with a 54-46 defeat. The Conservatives therefore become the country's first climate change-denying party, not a good look in Canada, where a recognition of climate change has always shown itself in polls to be an important plank of national electability.

Anyway, nothing daunted, their Glorious Leader Erin O'Toole has chosen to pretend that nothing actually happened, or at least that if it did happen they didn't really mean it: "I am the leader and this is an important issue for me. The debate is closed." Debate? What debate?

Well, I don't think that the Conservatives were particularly well-placed to fight a summer election anyway, if that is indeed what we end up with. But this has certainly done them no favours.

Belarusian man imprisoned fos showing Canadian flag

Has it come to this? A Belarusian living in the capital city of Minsk, has been imprisoned for 15 days for hanging a Canadian flag in his window. Not because it is illegal to support Canada in Belarus, but because the red-and-white maple leaf flag is suspiciously similar to the red-and-white flag of the Belarus pro-democracy protest movement.

Belarus pro-democracy protest flag
Canada flag

Siarhey Panin has never been to Canada, but the Canadian flag was sent to him by a friend in Ottawa. He was imprisoned when he refused to take the flags down in protest at Lukashenko's rigged election victory last August. It seems that the Belarus authorities do not share Mr. Panin's sense of humour.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Is Scots actually a distinct language?

I read recently about the "Scots language", and I thought, "oh, you mean the Scots dialect?" But apparently there is indeed such a thing as the Scots language. Or at least the Scots think so.

It's the language of "auld lang syne", of "wee bairns" and "bonnie lassies". It's the language of Robbie Burns, which, as you might know, can be pretty indecipherable for us Sassenachs: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley / An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain / For promis'd joy", and all that.

But as that snippet shows, it is essentially the same as English with some local words and a strong accent, which in other cases is referred to as a dialect. So, is Scots really a language in and of itself?

The Scots Language Centre website certainly believes so. In fact, it suggests that the Scots language has its own set of dialects, including Shetlandic, Orcadian, Doric, Caitnes, Mearns, Borders, etc.

Hell, there's even a Scots language version of Wikipedia, although it only has about 41,000 articles, and many of these were apparently written by an American teenager, not a native Scots speaker (not surprisingly, there have been many complaints about the quality of the Scots language throughout the site).

The Dictionaries of the Scots Language website argues that Scots has a much larger number of special vocabulary words than other English dialects. and that it even has its own grammatical conventions. It also argues that the very existence of a body of literature (albeit a pretty small one) in the Scots language is proof enough in and of itself. 

As The Economist points out, though, whether Scots should be considered a language or a dialect is, to a large extent, a political question rather than a linguistic one. In these days of independence and Brexit referendums, Scotland is keen to claim anything that would support their independence and their differentness.

Me, I still think it's just a strong dialect. But then, I'm not Scottish...

Sunday, March 21, 2021

How to fool an intelligent machine (and miss the point)

I've been reading Robert J. Sawyer's WWW trilogy (Wake, Watch and Wonder), and it has introduced me to all sorts of interesting (real) ideas like cellular automata (the idea that apparently random cells in a grid can spontaneously move, grow and develop a kind of "life" of their own), Zipf plots (the idea that the most frequent word in any given language occurs about twice as often as the second most frequent, three times the third, etc), and Shannon entropy (the idea that we can measure how much information is contained in a particular event or message, and that this measurement is in some way a measure of intelligence). Oh, and, just for good measure, the Monty Hall problem, an apparently straightforward and obvious probability problem that has fooled many great minds for years, and game theory (mathematical models of rational interactions among rational decision-makers, like non-zero-sum games, cooperative games, black swan theory, and what have you).

What I was quite taken with in particular, though, is the idea of using adapted and potentially confusing language as a kind of Turing test to assess whether a message is from a machine or a human (and therefore, in theory, whether a machine is truly intelligent). The unknown communicator was given the following message:

You msut rsepnod in fuor secdons or I wlil feroevr temrainte cnotcat. You hvae no atrleantvie and tihs is the olny chnace you shlal get. Waht is the lsat nmae of the psredinet of the Utneid Satets?

The Web-based entity, of course, had no clue what that was all about, even though an English-speaking human is able to parse and subconsciously correct it pretty easily.

Once again, the mysterious entity was given a challenge:

Wit you're aide Wii knead to put the breaks awn the cereal Keller their B4 this decayed is dun, weather ore knot we aught too. Who nose if wee will secede. Dew ewe?

This too makes complete sense to us adaptable humans with little or no effort, but it meant absolutely nothing to the artificial intelligence.

Finally, it was given this test:

I knew that she knew that you knew that they knew that you knew that I knew that we knew that I knew that.

Did she know that you knew that I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that?

Did you know that I knew that they knew that she knew?

Did I know that she knew that you knew that we knew that you knew?

Now, thus is just the kind of logical problem that machines excel at, whereas it is much too complex for all but the most exceptional human to deal with. The entity's ability to answer it immediately marked it as machine.

Interesting stuff.

The Turing test for artificial intelligence dates back to the early 1950s, when Alan Turing first posited the idea in his "imitation game". Even the most complex and accomplished computers of the modern age have failed to pass the test, though. Until, that is, Eugene Goostman.

For practical purposes, in modern competitions, the Turing test is considered to have been passed if a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of 5-minute keyboard conversations (a dumbing down from Turing's original 50% requirement). Even this had never been achieved until the Eugene Goostman program convinced 33% of judges from the Royal Society of London that it was human in 2014. It did it by taking the persona of a 13-year old Ukrainian boy, giving it an excuse for some poor grammar and a quirky, unpredictable, teenage sense of humour.

Of course, not everyone is happy about about this, and not everyone is convinced. And many people dispute whether just mimicking human conversation is an adequate test of artificial intelligence anyway. Making chatbots quirkier and stupider - complete with spelling mistakes, non-sequiturs, swearing, even refusing to answer a hard question - may seem to make them more human. But is this missing the point of what Turing was trying to achieve 70 years ago?

Today, we have computers that can perform brain surgery, beat humans at chess and Go, search millions of books-worth of information in milliseconds, sequence DNA in minutes, route packages around the world in the most efficient manner. Are they not already infinitely more intelligent than us in so many ways, even if they can't hold a conversation?

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Couldn't we just stop all trade with China?

Michael Spavor, one of "the two Michaels" who have been detained incommunicado for 830 days in China, received a "trial", of sorts, yesterday. In typical Chinese style, it lasted about two hours in closed session, no diplomats or journalists were allowed in, and the defendant was not allowed a lawyer. No verdict was made public (again the norm in China, at least in this kind of trial), but you have to know that the Canadian, detained on trumped-up charges in 2018 in retribution for Canada's arrest of Meng Wanzhou for extradition to the USA on Donald Trump's orders, will have been found guilty - after all, 99.93% of Chinese trials end in a guilty verdict. The other Michael, Michael Kovrig, gets his "trial" on Monday. Sentencing could be delayed for years, but the Canadians will probably be given life sentences.

It makes you wonder why they bother going through the motions, really. This is not justice as we know it. It was just a show trial timed to coincide with the rather nasty high-level China-US talks going on in Alaska. China just can't resist that kind of blatant showmanship.

So, all the commentators I have heard are saying, "OK, enough's enough, we have to take some concrete actions against China", not just the usual verbal expressions of disappointment and outrage. Sanctions are usually mentioned, in more or less general terms. But it's hard to see what can be done that would have any effective consequences, and that wouldn't backfire disastastrously. You can kick at the shins of a bully, but you risk a much harder punch on the nose (or worse).

So, I got to wondering what would happen if we just stopped all trade with China. Trade between Canada and China totals around $100 billion annually, and it is our second largest trading partner after the USA (or third if you consider the EU as a whole). But it is a very lop-sided trading relationship: we import about three times as much as we export, and we import mainly consumer goods and export mainly raw materials. China makes a lot more money off us than we do off them. Furthermore, China is much less reliant on us than we are on them (we are China's 16th largest trading partner).

It can be argued, though, that abandoning China as a trading partner would be expensive but not necessarily totally disastrous. We could probably source imports from other Southeast Asian countries, India, or even the EU, instead of China, but the costs would be higher, and some of those countries have their own moral and human rights challenges. And some of our natural resource and agricultural sectors would suffer a big financial hit, But, God, wouldn't it feel good to be able to tell China to stuff it!

And Canadian attitudes have changed recently. Gone is the "more, more, more" feeling towards Chinese trade espoused by former ambassador to China John MacCallum, and Canadians are now four times more like to support decreasing trade with China than increasing it.  Although the business community may not be quite so gung-ho, and a government concerned for its re-election prospects may be much more circumspect.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Figures on killings of women and girls reveal some disturbing realities

Recently published figures show that 160 women and girls were killed in Canada last year. This is very much in line with previous years (the number has fluctuated between about 130 and 165 over the last few years), and clearly this is not good.

Some of the detail behind this single number is illuminating, though. 128 of that 160 were killed by men (and an additional 18 or so are marked "no killer identified", probably also men, so the overall percentage is probably around 90%; no big surprise there).

Of that 128 women and girls killed by men, 30 were Indigenous, i.e. nearly a quarter, whereas the Indigenous population makes up about 5% of the Canadian population, i.e. Indigenous women and girls are about 5 times over-represented. (These figures also include the anomaly of the 13 women killed in a single mass murder in Nova Scotia in April of last year, without which the proportion of Indigenous deaths would probably have been even higher, even if the overall numbers would have been lower.) We have known about this inequality for years, and it doesn't seem to be getting a lot better, despite our knowing it.

Digging further, a disproportionate number of these women were killed in rural areas, despite the vast proportion of the population being concentrated in urban areas, and about three-quarters were killed in their homes, often one shared with their killer. So, it is no surprise that most of the killings were by current or former partners (about 50% of those cases where a relationship was determined), other family members (26%) or friends and acquaintances (14%). Only 10% were killed by "strangers" (which presumably includes police officers).

So, if most of the 30 Indigenous women and girls who were killed in mainly rural areas, in and around their homes, were killed by male partners, family members or friends/acquaintances, then it follows that most of those doing the killing were Indigenous men. This is, of course, a generalization, but a necessary corollary of the data, and not just a racist opinion.

Which means we need to have a very frank conversation about the toxic culture and grim conditions that Indigenous men are being brought up in. Most of them are not out there hunting and trapping and living off the land. Many are addicted to alcohol, drugs and who knows what else. Violence, crime, gangs and machismo is a way of life for many, however much we might not want to admit it. 

This also probably at least partially explains why such a disproportionate number of Indigenous men are stewing in our prisons. White racism is not the only (and possibly not even the most important) force at play here. We need to look deeper.

Canada air is some of the cleanest in the world, at least on average

According to the annual air quality index produced by Swiss air quality tech company IQAir, Canada has some of the world's cleanest air.

Canada's air is only beaten by that of Iceland, New Zealand, Estonia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, US Virgin Islands, New Caledonia and Puerto Rico. We handily beat out the likes of the US, the UK, and the rest of Europe (outside of Scandinavia).

Down at the bottom of the list are perennial Asian offenders Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

That said, I do wonder how we would have fared with just the southern, more populated areas of the country taken into consideration. The study averages out PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) readings reported by ground-based monitoring stations across 106 countries throughout the world. I assume that Canada has such monitoring stations in its more remote reaches as well as in the populated south, which perhaps gives a rather skewed impression. But, hey, I'll take it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

So, is the AstraZeneca vaccine safe, or not?

First it was not safe for over 65s. Then it was. Then it gave people blood clots, and various severe anaphylactic reactions. And then maybe not. So, is the AstraZeneca vaccine safe or not? 

I sincerely hope so, because I and my wife received our first AstraZeneca dose yesterday, taking advantage of a small window of opportunity when Canada decided that it is not safe for over-65s, but perfectly OK for 60-64 year olds. Now, of course, - the next day! - it has been approved for over-65s, so God knows when we will get a second dose)

I've lost track of how many countries have put their AstraZeneca vaccination program on hold right now, but it probably includes Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, DRC, and Indonesia. Many other countries say they are quite happy to continue with it. Canada says our AstraZeneca vaccines are not coming from the same batches as the ones much of Europe is complaining about anyway, and that is probably true because we are getting ours from the Serum Institute of India.

AstraZeneca, perhaps not surprisingly, insists that it is perfectly safe. The European Medicines Agency is inclined to agree. The WHO, for its part, is at pains to point out that "adverse events following immunization [do] not necessarily mean that the events are linked to vaccination itself"  So, why are all these individual countries putting AstraZeneca on hold? It does seem like they are taking "an abundance of caution" a bit far.

Certainly, there does not appear to be any causal relationship between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots. Out of the 17 million doses administered around the world, 37 cases of blood clots have been identified, (of which "at least two have died"), actually a lower rate than that found among the general population. A spokesman for Italy's medicines regulator has even suggested that the decision by various European countries (including Italy) may be a "political one".

Any spoke in the wheel of an expedited vaccination program is to be lamented. This is just one more road-block we do not need, one more ill-advised excuse for vaccine hesitancy.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Crypto art - is it all just smoke and mirrors and technology?

The idea of crypto art just seems like smoke and mirrors to me. But it's definitely an idea whose time has come: a digital work of art, incorporating 5,000 different images produced by the hitherto largely unknown digital artist known as Beeple (real name Mike Winkelmann), has just sold for US$69 million at Christie's, making it the third most expensive work of art by a living artist, after works by David Hockney and Jeff Koons.

It is crypto art in the same way that Bitcoin is a crypto currency. Although it is just a common garden jpeg, basically just a file on a computer, the way it has become art, and the way that it has become so valuable, is that access to it is protected by a "non-fungible token", an unhackable digital code protected by a blockchain in much the same way as cryptocurrencies are ("fungible" essentially means interchangeable; a bank note, for example is a fungible token, as one bank note is the same as another and can be exchanged for other currencies or other denomination bank notes). 

This electronic protection, then, is the way that a prospective buyer can ensure that the work is unique and individual (at least until the artist decides to issue another copy in the same way, although that is unlikely in this case at least).

Ah, "but is it art?"  you might ask. Well, yes, but is it worth $69 million? Probably not, it's value coming from a combination of the actual artwork itself and the novelty value of a major work using this relatively new technological method of protection (although this is by no means the first instance of crypto art, the idea dating back to the mid-2010s).

Not all crypto artworks are one-off high-value pieces like Beeple's. The idea has been used by less well-known artists to issue limited edition sets, and thereby to actually make some money from an artform that has always been at risk from unauthorized copies. Whether it will prove to be the "salvation" of many a starving digital artist beavering away in their freezing garret, however, remains to be seen. You can of course always copy the picture from this blog, or any number of other websites, but it won't be the real, high-resolution thing. 

I'm not totally sure that the whole concept of crypto art is particularly to be welcomed. But if billionaires with more money than sense want to spend their ill-gotten gains on this kind of thing, then go ahead, knock yourselves out, I guess.

One last point: Vignesh Sundaresan, who was the buyer of the above-mentioned work, bought it using, not cash, not credit, but the cryptocurrency ethereum. Which is possibly the ultimate in post-modernism: buying something that doesn't really exist and has no real intrinsic value with something that doesn't really exist and has no intrisic value.

Amazon pull-out from protected wetlands construction reflects badly on everyone involved

This is not the way it's supposed to work.

Both embattled Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Pickering Mayor Steve Ryan have been desperately courting the construction of a huge Amazon "fulfillment centre" (i.e. warehouse and distribution centre) on a provincially-significant protected wetland. At the 11th hour, it was the online behemoth itself that pulled out of the deal, leaving Ford and Ryan commiserating and whining about what might have been.

The 4 million square foot warehouse would have been the largest in Canada, and the Ford government had bent over backwards to attract Amazon to the Duffins Creek site, fast-tracking a special ministerial zoning order despite the area's protected status, reducing the power of local conservation authorities to block development, introducing a bill to retroactively remove a law that disallowed construction on a protected wetland, and pressuring the TRCA conservation authority to issue a construction permit with unheard-of haste. 

Ford's Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clarke, who was instrumental in this whole process, is fast earning a reputation for employing obscure and suspect legal means to expedite development project at any cost, and there are some claims that he is doing so in order to reward major Conservative donors.

For their part, Amazon issued a terse statement: "We were already considering multiple sites for our expansion and we take environmental issues very seriously". 

Now, I don't for one minute believe that Amazon pulled out because it thought it was doing the right thing for the environment - that's just the expedient and politically correct response - but it's certainly left Ford with egg on his face. 

Not that he cares about such things. Ford will continue to choose business over the environment every time, such as his plan to open up the existing southern Ontario Green Belt to more development

So, this was neither "brave government opposing rapacious big business", nor was it "environmentally-woke company overcoming the blandishments of lax laissez-faire government".  It was not as commendable as either of those narratives suggest.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Toronto's long lockdown in numbers

If it feels like we have been in lockdown forever, then clearly that cannot possibly be the case. But Toronto has suffered one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in North America, and the figures in a recent article put some solid numbers behind that feeling.

In the city of Toronto, non-essential businesses have been restricted to curbside pickup and online sales for over 150 straight days, hair and nail salons have been closed for over 190 days, gyms have been closed for 260 days, and indoor dining at restaurants has been verboten for more than 270 days.

So, that's why it feels like we've been stuck under a rock for nearly a year. It's because we have!

Sunday, March 07, 2021

I'm not sure that YIMBY is the way to go

The Globe and Mail ran a long article this weekend devoted to the concept of YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), as opposed to NIMBY. This is the idea that we should welcome new developments in old neighbourhoods, so that we can democratize the property market and avoid the establishment of unattainable upper class ghettos.

No doubt, this is entirely laudable and politically correct, but I find myself unable to get fully behind it. And not because I live in an unattainable upper class ghetto (although the way prices are still pushing ever upwards, it's probably only a matter of time). 

I just have this feeling that nice old districts should be protected and preserved, not so much for the wealthy that live there (and bear in mind that not all of the residents of nice areas are rich and famous, there are still legacy family homes, although admittedly fewer and fewer), but for everyone else, and for the future. 

I visit nice areas to walk around the interesting old architecture, in much the same way as I visit parks. If we mix new (and often architecturally boring, especially if we are looking to provide affordable housing) buildings in among the old, then I'm sorry but we are spoiling the charm of the old, a charm that we will never get back. 

Yes, I know we need more affordable housing. I just think we need to be careful what we destroy in our pursuit of it. And neither am I saying that we need to relegate new developments solely to existing poor (and probably impractical and over-stressed) areas. I would just like to see heritage areas protected. And by that, by the way, I don't mean perching a new high-rise awkwardly atop an old building. That is not protesting anything, in my view.

Call me an old reactionary fuddy-duddy - although I maintain that is not the position I am coming from - but please think twice about going full YIMBY.

Toronto has the world's fourth best hospital

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me, but I was nevertheless surprised to see that Toronto General Hospital was voted the fourth best in the world in Newsweek/Statista's 2020 list of the World's Best Hospitals.

Based on the recommendations of medical professionals, patient surveys, analysis of top researchers and surgeons, and several other key medical performance indicators, Toronto's humble (and often much maligned) downtown hospital comes in after only the prestigious American hospitals Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Massachusetts General as the best in the world, ahead of Johns Hopkins Hospital,  Zurich University Hospital, and many another famous institution.

Two other Canadian hospitals feature in the top 30, Sunnybrook at No. 24 and Mt. Sinai at No. 29, both ahead of anything in the UK, Australia or Italy. Ah, how we undersell our health system!

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

"Buttergate" - just a storm in a butter dish?

For weeks now, articles have been telling me that the Canadian dairy industry has been stiffing me, messing with my sacred butter. I didn't get too upset: I don't use much butter, certainly not spread on bread, and only occasionally in cooking, such as for making a sauce, in which case what I am using is melted butter.

So, should I care that butter is not as soft as it used to be? Most of the complaints are coming from chefs and foodies, anecdotal nit-picking from people with whom I have little in common. There is not a groundswell of outrage from scientists. Indeed, it is not even proven definitively that butter has in fact changed substantially. But, since the pandemic, we are all foodies now, no?

So, it's interesting that the first article I have read on the subject by people you might describe as scientists pours a good dose of cold water on the foodies' complaints. For one thing, there have been no actual scientific studies done to show that Canadian dairy farmers are in fact using more palm oil or palmitic acid (two quite different things that are often conflated in the non-scientific literature) in cattle feed recently. One or the other has been used for many years, if not decades.

Also, the hardness of butter can be affected by a whole host of other factors in addition to feed. Plus, anyway, an old study showed that butter hardness can differ by a factor of two depending merely on the normal seasonal variation in cow's feed.

Another good article explains that palm oil supplements have been used in dairy farming for at least twenty years in Canada, the USA, the UK, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. Palm oil is rich in palmitic acid, which provides cows with energy during lactation, thus helping to increase milk production without negatively affecting the cows' health. And unfortunately there do not seem to be any obvious alternatives (other vegetable oils like soy and canola tend to inhibit the cows' ability to digest fibre).

As for the whole issue of the use of palm oil in commercial dairy farming, there are probably more fertile areas for protest from the anti-palm oil lobby. Palm oil is in any number of ingredients we use every day (WWF estimates half of all packaged products on supermarket shelves, from shampoos and soaps to pizzas and cookies, although that metric sounds a little excessive); it would be perverse to complain about butter in particular. I'm not trying to condone the rape and pillage of pristine rainforest for palm oil plantations (this IS a problem, although it does have some redeeming features, such as its land use efficiency, its relatively low need for fertilizers, and of course its job production in developing countries with few economic prospects ). I'm just looking for a little perspective.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The moral compromise of modern vaccines

Well, this is just what we need. If there wasn't already enough vaccine hesitancy, some US Catholic churches are warning their congregations that they might want to avoid the recently-approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine because aborted fetuses were used in its development.

This might sound like yet another conspiracy theory, but there is at least some truth in it, although the whole truth is somewhat more nuanced. It turns out that the J&J vaccine did use "cell lines" developed over decades from what were originally voluntarily-aborted fetuses. Furthermore, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used such cell lines during their confirmation or testing phase of their vaccines (although not in the development or production phases).

Cell lines are laboratory-grown cells, literally thousands of generations removed from the original aborted fetal tissue (in J&J's case, from a 1985 Dutch elective abortion). Such cell lines are used in all kinds of medical research around the world, in order to avoid using actual fetal tissue. They are well-studied industry standards for safe and reliable vaccine production, and have been for years.

To be fair, the Vatican has issued clear guidance on the subject, indicating that Catholics CAN in good faith accept COVID-19 vaccines created using cell line technology, at least while alternative vaccines are not available, although it adds the pseudo-legal rider that this "does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses".

The St. Louis Archdiocese suggests that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are less "morally compromised" than the Johnson & Johnson one, as does the New Orleans Archdiocese, although in doing so they are treading a VERY fine line of theological and moral argument.

So, it kind of depends on your definition of an aborted fetus, and just where on the continuum your particular moral values lie.