Sunday, May 30, 2021

Will Starling is a wonderful 19th century English Gothic novel by a 21st century Canadian

I've been thoroughly enjoying Ian Weir's book Will Starling (just as I enjoyed his Daniel O'Thunder).

Like Daniel O'Thunder, it is set in 19th century London, although in this case some decades earlier, specifically the year 1816. It is a lurid Gothic adventure tale of grave-robbers, madmen, prostitutes and amoral surgeons/anatomists. It is a tale of ambition, obsession, infatuation, perdition, redemption and, apparently, resurrection. And it reads very much like a Dickens novel - despite its modern, contemporary authorship - both in its colourfully idiomatic language (very much Dickensian rather than the more formal Austen-esque, despite its historical setting), in its larger-than-life characters, and in its painstaking detail and social commentary.

Mr. Weir is also a dab hand with an elliptically descriptive turn of phrase. Here are three sentences from different parts of just one page:

"There was an outer room where a Spavined Clerk worked at a table piled high with papers, the dust of ages rising and settling as he stirred."

"His wig lay strewn and lifeless in the corner, as if it had scuttled into the street at the unluckiest of moments and been run over by a carriage wheel."

"Eyebrows arched at the sight of me, like chalk-dusted caterpillars."

And he throws in some lovely, suitably Georgian-sounding exclamations, like "God's teeth!", "Christ on a biscuit!" and "By God's great swinging bollocks!" Who knows whether they are actually authentic early 19th century London-speak, but who really cares?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing, though, is that Weir is not a Cockney at all, but a Canadian (technically born on North Carolina, but brought up, largely educated and still living in Canada).

British "freedom" rally causes shops and restaurants to close

It's been a while since I made a posting, but I thought this was precious.

There was an anti-lockdown protest in a shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush, London, with the usual mob of unmasked protesters screaming that they want freedom, and they want it now.

Thing is, under the UK's new rules, the centre, and all its shops and restaurants, was fully open. And, as a result of the protest, the shops and restaurants had to close.

Freedom indeed!

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Israel and Palestine both - equally improbably - claim victory

It's a depressing confirmation of just how ridiculous war makes people that both sides in the recent Israel-Palestine exchanges are claiming victory.

Rich and militarily-superior Israel claims to have decimated Hamas' retaliatory capacity, and given the poor downtrodden Palestinian people a resounding warning not to mess with their masters. Even more improbably, the Palestinians are parading round the battered remains of their Gaza towns, claiming victory for something or other, presumably just the fact that some of them survived. Expectations are low in Palestine.

I guess when you live your whole life in the midst of internecine existential warfare, you do what you can to remain positive and upbeat. From the outside, though, it just seems faintly ridiculous for either side to be claiming anything other than deep loss.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Local foxes killed under suspicious circumstances

As happened last year, a family of foxes have made a home under the boardwalk on our local beach. As last year, they have provided endless fascination for the tourists, despite the fencing and plastic shielding that has been erected around them to stop idiots from feeding and taking invasive selfies with them.

But, also as last year, two of the kits have just been reported dead near the den. Last year, one kit died at the hands (or, rather, fangs) of a local dog  - The Beaches is Dog Walking Central, and not everyone keeps their animals on a leash. The deaths this year have not yet been pinned on a dog in so many words, and the circumstance are even more suspicious and mysterious: a camera set up to monitor the fox family was also vandalized and, even more worrying, so was the house of one of the volunteers who has been helping to look after the foxes.

Are the fox deaths the work of some misguided animal liberation type, then? I think the foxes need to be deterred in the future. This is not a good place to bring up kits.

The world's busiest airports

I've always thought that Heathrow was the world's busiest airport, but it seems, when you look up the figures, it's not even remotely close.

In 2020, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in China was hands down the busiest airport. In fact, seven out of the top ten were Chinese, the other three being American (Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver). Heathrow was sitting at No. 22.

Ah, but 2020 was not a normal year, you say. True, but looking back over the previous few years, Heathrow appears at No. 7, No. 7, No. 6, No. 7, etc. Back in 2013 and earlier, it made No. 3, but it still never equalled Atlanta and Beijing. Not even close. Going right back to the year 2000, Atlanta is a comfortable No. 1, with Chicago usually No. 2 in the earlier years.

Huh. Who knew?

Saturday, May 15, 2021

China's fanciful and imaginative geo-political claims

I've been enjoying Bill Hayton's The Invention of China. It's a little heavy-going at times - all those names and dates and intricate detail! - but it gives a good glimpse into Chinese history, in all its chaotic and unsalubrious glory.

It also does a pretty good job of explaining one aspect of Chinese history I've never really understood, namely why China insists on claiming ownership of Taiwan and the islands of the South China Sea. Various bits of what China calls China - from Tibet to Xinjiang to Mongolia, even Manchuria - are more or less tenuously claimed, depending on how you read history. Much if it is based on myth or wishful thinking that managed to become reality, to some degree at least. 

China's Qing Dynasty invaded the island of Formosa (Taiwan) in 1683, and held it by force until 1895, when a much weakened Qing Dynasty officially ceded it by treaty to the expanding Japanese empire. Before that, it had been colonized by the Dutch and, briefly, the Spanish, in the 17th century, and before THAT, it was just populated by aboriginal inhabitants, occasionally visited by traders from the Chinese mainland. At no point in ancient history was it ever a part of "China proper".

After 1895, China made no claims on Taiwan for some time. It was considered a Japanese possession, acquired fair and square in war, and even the early Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the first part of the 20th century did not seem to think of it as a part of China. Indeed, the first time such a claim was made in more-or-less modern times was by Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Kuomintang (Guomindang) in 1942, when the Americans joined WW2 against Japan, and China saw an opportunity to stake a claim for the island. It was only after that that Chinese maps first started showing Taiwan as a part of China. 

With Japan's defeat in 1945, however, Taiwan was ceded back to China by international agreement (basically, by default)  The next few years in China, though, were years of all-out civil war between the Communists and Nationalists. After Mao Zedong's Communist victory in 1949, Chiang and his Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, where they ruled effectively by martial law. By this point, though, it was once again a completely separate entity to the mainland People's Republic of China, just as it had been before the 17th century invasion. In 1971, the United Nations officially recognized the Communist People's Republic of China in place of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the official representative of "China", and Taiwan began its time in the political wilderness.

Taiwan, cast adrift politically, gradually democratized ("Taiwanized") throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and the country developed as a largely independent nation. Martial law was ended in 1987, and the Kuomintang itself completely disbanded with the 2000 democratic elections. Any connections with mainland China were long forgotten by this time.

Given this history, it seems a bit rich for China to claim that Taiwan is, and has always been, just a wayward province of China proper. But nowadays, particularly since Xi Jinping's presidency began in 2013, that is very much the official story. The Chinese government likes to appear mortally offended by any suggestion that Taiwan is an independent state, and makes all kinds of threats to anyone who has the audacity to suggest as much. How things have changed!

If China's case for Taiwan is thin, it's case for all those shoals and islets in the South China Sea is downright non-existent. But when did that ever worry China? 

A "U-shaped line" through the South China Sea first appeared on official Chinese maps in 1948, marking China's new-found zeal for this stormy, inhospitable and apparently barren area, presumably marking the time that the region's rich fish resources became better known. As its potential for oil and gas became clear later, China's nationalistic rhetoric increased, to the extent that it now seems willing to consider all-out war in support of its claims.

It's still not clear just what those claims are, though. China lays claim to some specks of sand, tiny rocky islets or even completely submerged reefs, that are 1,500 kilometres from the nearest uncontested Chinese land (Hainan Island). These specks may be just 100 kilometres from Vietnamese, Philippino or Malaysian territory, putting them well within the jurisdiction of those countries according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But what does China care for such trivialities? 

In recent years, China has been muddying the waters still further by constructing artificial islands on some reefs to act as unsinkable aircraft carriers and military bases, as well as building oil platforms in contested waters.

The book explains how many of China's territorial claims in the region are based entirely on cartographic fictions or errors. Up until the 1930s, records shown that China was completely unaware of most of the islands and reefs it now lays claim to as having been Chinese possessions "since ancient times". It was only in the 1930s that Chinese geographers started renaming islets and archipelagos they found on European (mainly British) maps, including some of the errors THOSE maps contained. The errors compounded as China claimed as islands features that were in reality only underwater shoals, revealing that no-one had even bothered to check.

Anyway, you get the idea. It seems like Chinese governments have always been unreliable and rapacious. Xi Jinping is just the latest, and one of the most brazen, of a long tradition of Chinese fabulists.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Why is Boris Johnson suddenly so popular?

After Boris Johnson's British Conservative Party made significant inroads into even the most traditionally left-leaning shires in the recent council elections, as well as in a by-election in a northern enclave that has consistently voted Labour for decades, people are asking whether Johnson isn't presiding over a political changing of the guard, a huge groundswell of public opinion, and a shift in the British Zeitgeist.

Well, maybe, but personally I wouldn't read too much into it. The British public is still hopelessly divided over Brexit; the Scots voted overwhelmingly for Scottish Nationalist candidates, and are looking for another secession referendum, and, quite honestly, there's a lot that can go very wrong with respect to the pandemic in the next few months.

But Johnson is certainly benefitting from a brief burst of goodwill as Britain has effectively tamed the COVID-19 outbreak better than most other countries, and is gradually opening up its economy and rebooting its economy. Johnson's many missteps earlier in the pandemic seem to have been conveniently forgotten (conveniently for Johnson, that is). In fact, though, the country is emerging well from the coronavirus mainly because the National Health Service (not Johnson) has done a sterling job of rolling out the vaccines, ably abetted by thousands of volunteers.

He is also benefitting from an all-time low in the fortunes of the main opposition party. The Labour Party has been struggling to get its act together for years now, and its unpopular hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by the equally unpopular centrist Keir Starmer. Many long-time Labour supporters from their traditional base in the North and Midlands are fed up with the party's infighting and their apparent obsession with political correctness and "wokeness", to use a criminally over-used epithet. The third party Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, continue their decades of wandering in the wishy-washy wilderness. So, Johnson does not have a great deal of opposition to deal with at the moment, and he has shored up his position with some very un-Conservative big spending throughout the pandemic.

The dishevelled Johnson, with his plummy accent and his "boyish charm", as I have often seen it described, is a smoother political operator than he seems. But most of his current popularity has actually sprung from factors completely outside his control, so don't give him too much credit. He is, however, sensible enough to recognize his fortunate position, and will almost certainly try to consolidate his gains with an election before he manages to puts his foot in it again. 

Britain only potential relief seems to be the hope that a new Labour Messiah can emerge, and sometime soon. London Mayor Sadiq Khan anyone? 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The ethnic trial of Michelle Latimer

I'm probably going to upset somebody here - or I would if anyone were to read it - but another episode of Indigenous exceptionalism has annoyed me recently. Just a few years after the Joseph Boyden fiasco, Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer has been battling for her artistic and ethnic integrity, as she defends herself against claims that she is not Indigenous enough.

If you don't know her, Ms. Latimer is an internationally-renowned Canadian actress, director and filmmaker. She is also, to the best of her knowledge, Indigenous, which you'd think was a bonus these days, and she has produced several well-received documentaries and movies documenting the plight of Canada's Indigenous populations. 

However, a CBC documentary in December of last year questioned her Indigenous heritage (why? why would they even think to check?), accusing her of exploitation and appropriation, very grave sins in today's artistic community. Ms. Latimer has always claimed to be of Algonquin, Métis and French Canadian background, based on stories her grandparents told of living in an Algonquin community in western Quebec (she has never claimed to be a "status" member of any First Nations community or people). Because of the uncertainty and controversy this documentary generated, she promptly resigned from the helm of CBC's high-profile Trickster series, and watched as the National Film Board of Canada withdraw her Inconvenient Indian documentary from distribution. 

In short, Ms. Latimer's illustrious career is on hold, at least until she has proven ("verified") herself, and justified her existence. In fact, she went to the lengths of commissioning an official genealogical investigation by experts in Indigenous rights and Métis history, and it turns out - guess what? - that she does indeed have Indigenous ancestry through "two ancestral lines that run through her paternal and maternal grandparents". For what it's worth, she is also now suing the CBC.

The Globe and Mail article is a good read, partly to see the extent of Ms. Latimer's earnestness, humility and patience, but partly also to understand just how deep and how nasty this whole thing can get these days. It is no longer enough to base your heritage on hearsay from relatives: "verification" may be required before admittance to this exclusive club. There is an element of high-handedness and arrogance, almost of eugenic zeal, in this that leaves a very bad taste behind. 

It should be noted that not all Indigenous commentators object to her story; she has received a lot of support and sympathy from some people, and I'm sure there are a lot of others just don't care that much either way (which would be my attitude, I have to say). But a vocal minority is clearly willing to continue to make a big deal of this, with some claiming that, even if she can prove Indigenous heritage, being Indigenous is really about "lived experience", cultural practices and worldview (although, from what I read, Ms. Latimer has that too). This seems just ridiculously restrictive and condescending to me, and would probably exclude a good percentage of official "status Indians".

Anyway, I'm not Indigenous, and I only have a vague idea of what that even means. But to reject a woman of Michelle Latimer's quality, a woman who (like Joseph Boyden) has done more than most to advocate for and represent Indigenous people, and to fight in their corner, just seems self-defeating and counter-productive to me. And to do so for such (to me) inconsequential and irrelevant reasons seems doubly unfortunate. Whether she is Indigenous or not, she has always been a friend, defender and ally of Indigenous people and does not deserve to be cancelled in this way.

End of sermon. Go ahead, tear me to pieces.

Brood X periodic cicadas are due any day now

Brood X of the 17-year periodic cicadas are due to emerge in northeastern USA any day now. We won't see them around Toronto - just too far north - which is a shame because, alarming as the prospect of 1.5 trillion noisy cicadas emerging all at once is, it would nevertheless be pretty cool to experience.

It's such a bizarre idea. No-one really understands why there are populations of 13-year and 17-year cicadas only in eastern North America. No-one really understands how they manage to measure 13 years and 17 years so accurately, and why 13 years and 17 years anyway (prime numbers? really?) And no-one really know why these insects have a life so much longer than any other insect, the vast majority of it lived as immature nymphs deep underground in splendid isolation (there are theories about them outliving and avoiding predators, and the fact that the roots they live on are very low in nutrition so it take them a long time to mature, but these don't seem very convincing to me).

But, whatever the reasons behind it all (or lack thereof), the fact is that, when the soil reaches the magic 64°F temperature (about 18°C), emerge they most certainly will. And I for one am looking forward to seeing them, at least on video.


Some good pictures of Brood X. A bit late, but still great!

Why is anyone flying on planes at the moment?

I keep reading articles about the number of flights that are delivering passengers infected with COVID-19 into Canadian airports. The latest such article shows that, contrary to a few months, or even weeks, ago, most flights carrying infected passengers were domestic, not international, ones

So, really we're just spreading the disease more effectively around the country (particularly from hotspots like Alberta). Mind you, the ratio is only about 60:40, so there's plenty coming in from abroad too. In total, in the four months between January 1st and May 5th of this year, there were no less than 1,873 flights arriving or departing from airports in Canada that had at least one passenger who tested positive for the coronavirus. That's a lot.

It's all fascinating analysis. But my response is always: why is anyone flying anywhere anyway? Who are all these people? Pretty much the whole country is locked down - there's a pandemic on, don't you know? - so why is anyone jumping on a plane to anywhere?

I m missing travel, including international travel as much as the next guy. Possibly more so, because we had plans to ramp up our travel while my wife is still reasonably mobile. But all those plans were put on hold in March 2020, and since then we haven't even been out of our immediate area. That's what we're all supposed to be doing, right? So, why are some people going to cottages, visiting relative in other parts of the country, going abroad for sun holidays?

Monday, May 10, 2021

Why do those little flying insects swarm?

Those annoying little flying critters are back, especially around the waterfront where we live. They don't bite, but God are they annoying.

I've always called them "gnats", and that is a common name for them (although various species of gnats are really close cousins); others call them "lake flies". Technically, though, they are "non-biting midges" or chironomids, as opposed to biting midges (or "no-see-ums" in Canadian parlance). There are some thousand different species of them just in Canada alone, completely indistinguishable to us mere mortals.

But why do they have to swarm like that? Well, apparently,  the ones we see swarming are all males, and they hang out in clouds, often near water or around lights or other prominent objects, so that they are a more obvious target for females. Because pretty much all they do, and all they want to do, is mate. They literally are born, swarm, mate, and then die. They don't even eat. It all seems a bit pointless to me, quite frankly, although I'm sure they don't see it that way.

Why a vaccine patent waiver is a contentious idea

Since Joe Biden unexpectedly set the cat among the pigeons by backing a temporary waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents, citing the old adage "extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures", there has been much discussion of the pros and cons of such an extraordinary move. India, South Africa and up to a hundred other medium- to low-income countries have been calling for a suspension of patents rules since last October, and the World Health Organization strongly supports the idea. But many higher income countries (including Canada) have been prevaricating and avoiding a definitive decision.

It sounds, at first blush, like a no-brainer. This is a global health crisis like no other. We are "all in it together" and "nobody is protected until we are all protected", and all that). So, in the interests of global equity and the common good, what could possibly be wrong with allowing poorer countries to produce their own vaccines if they can't afford the products being offered by Big Pharma, or can't get hold of them because of the prior claims of rich countries?

Well, a few things, apparently.

For one thing, coronavirus vaccines (particularly mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna's, but also the adenovirus products of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) are complex technical products. They are biological agents, rather than just chemical compounds that can be easily reverse-engineered. To replicate these kinds of vaccines requires access to the developer's "soft" intellectual property (the proprietary recipe, cell lines, manufacturing processes, etc). Developing, testing and quality-controlling such a product would take many months, if not years, for a country without (or even with) a high-level pharmaceutical and research base, and may not even be practical at all. For this reason, it is unlikely to be of much help in the short term.

In addition, potential manufacturers would need certain raw materials and other materials, like glass vials, bioreactor bags, and filtration equipment, which are already in short supply due to the overwhelming global demand, not to mention disruptive export restrictions.

Vaccine producers, and some countries that are against waiving patents, like Germany, argue that the price of the vaccines is not the main sticking point constraining vaccination in developing countries. It is true that the developers, while still making profits in some cases at least (AstraZeneca is being distributed on a not-for-profit basis), are not gouging as much as Big Pharma is often accused of, and have constrained their prices, especially given the billions of dollars in development fees they have swallowed, even after handsome government contributions.

Another issue is the potentially dangerous precedent that such a move creates. If patents can be waived at will, then much of the financial basis of the pharmaceutical industry starts to crumble. Will firms and individuals invest in vaccine projects in the future if there is no guarantee of profits? The reason patents were established in the first place was to provide incentives of short term monopolistic/oligopolistic profits as a recompense for research, innovation and technical progress. As Germany contends,"the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so". Now, I am not a big fan of Big Pharma, but it has to be admitted that the current system did yield several excellent vaccines in record time.

So, it's not as simple as it might appear at first sight. How do these arguments stack up against the bare fact that, as of April 9th, the 67 poorest countries in the world had received just 0.2% of the world's vaccines? Hard to say. Even if the moral argument supports a patent waiver, the fact remains that such a move would have little or no practical effect in the short term, and that's the term we need to focus on right now.

The debate rages on. Some countries like America, France and New Zealand, that were originally against patent waivers, have come around to the idea. The World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement requires a consensus, though, and many countries remain on the fence, and some - notably Germany - strongly against it.

Some people think that voluntary licensing would be a better solution than an outright waiver of patent rights. This would entail the developers entering into binding contractual agreements with generic producers, which would receive the necessary permission, know-how and assistance from the patent-holder to produce a vaccine for sale in a certain market. The patent-holder can ensure quality, and would receive royalties  in return, usually off less than 10% (as compared to the 25-30% profit margin companies like Pfizer are currently earning). AstraZeneca and Novavax have already entered into such agreements with India, Japan and South Korea. New agreements, it is argued, could be fostered, or even forced on the current patent-holders.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

China's uncontrolled space debris

Speaking of China, there has been much speculation in recent days about exactly where bits of the the Chinese rocket Long March 5B would come down to earth. The Chinese rocket scientists had no idea, having lost complete control of it some time ago, but blithely opined that it would probably come down somewhere in one of the oceans, on the basis that 70% of the earth's surface is water. They say it is "very unlikely to cause any harm", which is a rather vague assurance.

If this seems to you like a bit of a cavalier and risky attitude, then you'd be quite right. About 80% of the empty core stage of the rocket was expected to burn up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but this is a large and extrmely heavy object, estimated at between 18 and 22 tonnes, so that still leaves about 4 tonnes of metal debris to fall, God knows where.

Yesterday's Globe and Mail reported that, according to its expert sources, the rocket night be expected to hit the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near the equator. Other expert predictions have had it coming down somewhere in the Mediterranean basin, or possibly anywhere from Costa Rica to Australia. Clearly this is not a very exact science. Part of the problem is that the rocket fragment is orbiting the earth every 90 minutes or so, travelling at about 8 kilometres per second, so any slight difference in timing can make a huge difference in its geographical location.

In the end, Long March 5B landed safely in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, nowhere near many of the earlier predictions.

This is the second time in a year that  Chinese rocket debris has fallen to Earth in a completely uncontrolled fashion. Long March 5B's predecessor fell on Ivory Coast in western Africa about this time last year, damaging several buildings, but thankfully leaving no human victims. Ten more such launches are planned by China in the coming years, as they assemble a new space station in Earth orbit. Their last space station also fell, uncontrolled, to Earth in 2018, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean, although again more by luck than judgement.

So far, then, they have been lucky. But it just seems irresponsible and wrong to take such risks. NASA is on record as saying, "It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris", although the USA and Russia have also been guilty of losing control of their space garbage in the past. But China is definitely the worst repeat offender. One day, one of these re-entries is going to land on a city and kill thousands. 

We should not be allowing uncontrolled crashes, especially when we now have the technology to use re-usable rockets. Furthermore, the remains of these various space experiments are now littering our oceans, contaminated with hydrazine, a toxic rocket fuel.

Why is China called "China"?

I am still in the early pages of Bill Hayton's The Invention of China - one of the very few non-fiction books I have read in recent years that does not boast a long, wordy sub-title: the title itself is entirely self-explanatory - and I have already discovered several erroneous tenets of conventional wisdom, or at least personal assumptions and misapprehensions.

It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that China does not call itself "China", in much the same way as Germany does not call itself "Germany", or Greece "Greece". The label is a European one, although nevertheless one whose origins are surprisingly hard to pin down. Even the early Portuguese and Italian explorers of the 16th century did not encounter a place valled China. They were introduced to a state called Tamen or, in more contemporary spelling, Da Ming, literally the "Great Ming", i.e. the country of the Ming Dynasty. 

Very few years later, other European explorers reported the name of this fabled land as Ciumquo or Ciumhoa, which would be spelled today as Zhong guo or Zhong hua, literally meaning, respectively, "Central State" and "Central Efflorescence" (with the sense of "Civilization"). And this is what the country is usually referred to today by Chinese people, the two names having a similar official/unofficial duality as "United Kingdom" and "Britain", or "United States" and "America". These labels have been found applied to various parts of what we now consider China for some 2,500 to 3,000 years, although with various different connotations: as a geographical place, as a culture as a political system, etc, and never continuously. So, the common claims by China of a unified civilization and state extending back 3,000, even 5,000, years, are fanciful at best.

The Song Dynasty, for example, called their home Da Song Guo (the "Song Great-State"), and the Ming Dynasty referred to it as Da Ming Guo (the "Ming Great-State"), each with different borders, different cultures and philosophies. The terms Zhong guo and Zhong hua were only really revived in China in the late 19th century in an attempt to reinvent itself and to stoke nationalistic fervour. And various other phrases were also widely used over the centuries, including Shen zhou ("spiritual region"), Jiu zhoi ("nine regions"), Zhong ru ("central land") and Tian xia ("everything under heaven").

So, where then does the European name "China" come from? It is often thought to relate to the Qin Dynasty (pronounced "chin"), originally just a small fiefdom in the northwest of current China in about 1,000 BCE, which came to occupy most of the central Chinese plains over the succeeding centuries, arguably becoming the first dynasty to unify the core territory of modern China, before being overthrown by the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century BCE. But it should be noted that even under the Qin Dynasty, the region was never referred to as "Qin" or "China". 

Sanskrit documents from India in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE talked about a place to the east called "Cīna"; the Greco-Romans referred to the area as Sina or Sinae; a mountain people from the southeastern part of modern China were referring to themselves as the "Zhina" as long ago as the 5th century BCE; the Manchu-speaking Qing (pronounced "ching") Dynasty from northeastern China came to the fore in the 17th century and gradually formed the territorial base of modern China; 17th century Latin texts talked about the "Imperiii Sinici", referring to the Qing empire. There are many alternative theories for the European name (and the origin of the "Sino-" prefix), no one of which is definitive or wholly convincing. What is certain is that China never called itself "China".

Most of Chinese history consists of centuries of warring states, bloody internecine power struggles, and invasions and assimilations by "barbarians" of various ethnicities. Any notion of a unified, benevolent state bringing civilization to the barbarian masses, and ruling in peace and harmony for thousands of years, is, of course, a convenient fiction for the demagogues and political spin doctors of the modern Chinese state (and interestingly one that only arose, even in China, in the early 20th century).  There is just one "official" language throughout China's territory (Mandarin, or putonghua - another early 20th century development), but in reality an estimated 400 mutually-unintelligible languages, as opposed to dialects, are used. It is no more accurate than to say that the European Union has ruled over a united Europe for centuries. Indeed, unity was the exception and not the rule in the region's real history. 

And "China"? Well, it never really existed.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

A census playlist is a bizarre but strangely endearing idea

I just completed the 2021 Canadian Census, but one thing I apparently didn't notice was a link to the 2021 Census Soundtrack, a series of playlists of Canadian talent for all tastes produced by the good people at StatsCan.

You can choose from Spark and Soul (some of Canada's chart-topping pop and R&B artists), Friday Night Kitchen Party (Canadian country and western hits), Studio Sessions (alternative and folk acts, which is actually not that bad, including the likes of Pottery, Weaves, Helena Deland, and many more even more obscure artists), True North Rap (self-explanatory), Voices from the North (Indigenous artists), and many more.

It's a bizarre idea. I guess the intention is that you nod along to your selected playlist to make the act of filling in the census seem less onerous. The Globe and Mail's ever-witty Cathal Kelly has contributed his own withering verbal demolition of it. But I just find the idea of StatsCan bean-counters getting together to come up with playlists rather endearing.

French language takes some halting steps towards inclusivity

French has always been a much more prescriptive and regulated language than English, and the Académie Française has had a strangle-hold over any innovations and foreign incursions for centuries (at least over "official" French - the language used in the street is a whole other matter). 

However, the winds of change are starting to be felt, albeit gently and haltingly, in the dusty halls of French academe. A recent edict from the French Education Minister (NOT the Académie Française, note) has taken steps to allow the increased feminization and inclusivity of some French words, particularly job titles, in schools, although it drew the line at a more radical practice that has become more popular recently in left-wing circles.

In French, adding an e to the end of a word has the effect of  giving it a feminine slant, and feminists have long complained that many words of power, like dirigeants (leaders) or élus (elected official) are nominally masculine, giving the false impression that those jobs are reserved exclusively for men. 

In recent years, some people have started using the more inclusive, although rather ugly and awkward, construction dirigeant•es and élu•es - that's a middle dot, like a decimal point - similar in some ways to the (equally ugly and awkward) English feminist construction s/he. The powers that be, though, have ruled that this is unacceptable, at least in schools.

As a compromise (or perhaps a sop), though, they are encouraging the use of feminized nouns like présidente, candidate and ambassatrice, in place of président, candidat and ambassadeur, where appropriate, or the use of both (e.g. "le candidat ou la candidate") where either is possible. This is probably the equivalent of the English switch from fireman to firefighter, or chairperson instead of chairman, although perhaps not quite as radical.

Commentators seem to think this is a major concession for the French government to make, even if the more radical feminist front see the banning of the • construction as a hindrance to their cause. And, given the glacial pace at which the French language progresses, they may well be right.

Friday, May 07, 2021

How to recycle an old house

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

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

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

Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

How did we ever outsource visa processing to the Chinese?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, don't get me wrong, I do have plenty of faith in climate scientists who are trying to lead us through this potentially ruinous climate trajectory we are on (for what it's worth, this report comes from the Earth System Science and Policy Lab at Rutgers University, and I have no reason to suspect that this is a dubious outfit), and if they say it is catastrophic then I have to believe them. 

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

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Why your veins look blue

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Is S-2L the future of viruses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The PROs and CONs of vaccine passports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida votes that school can indeed ban vaccinated teachers

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

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

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

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

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