Friday, June 18, 2021

Vaccine lotteries make no sense

I have been reading for some time now about various sweeteners and incentives that several US states (and even a Canadian province) have been instituting, purportedly to overcome vaccine hesitancy and encourage more people to get themselves vaccinated in the pursuit of herd immunity. Free booze, free trips, free baseball tickets, free cash, free guns (in West Virginia, go figure!) and, perhaps most commonly, free lottery tickets. 

It always seemed a rather ridiculous ploy to me, and it left me, at best, non-plussed. But, I figured, it was harmless enough, wasn't it? Setting aside the ethics of rewarding people for doing what is already the right thing to do, what had never occurred to me was that the lotteries, for example, were extended to people who were ALREADY vaccinated, i.e. the majority that had already done the right thing. 

I understand that the idea is that some people will get the vaccine just so they too can participate in the lottery, thereby increasing the vaccination rates by, well, some undefined little bit. As for free beers and free spliffs, the same but much less so. $5 of free beer is hardly going to overcome the ingrained attitudes of a firm anti-vaxxer, and probably not even the scruples of a fence-sitter

My assumption had always been that vaccine lotteries were being offered to people who were NOT vaccinated but would agree to do so in order to participate. That at least would make some logical sense. The current ploys are just a waste of millions of dollars that could better be spent targeting, educating and persuading laggards, providing transportation, etc.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Annamie Paul may be undoing years of progress for the Green Party of Canada

The quite recently elected leader of the federal Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul, appears to be presiding over the party's very public implosion. There are loud howls for her to resign, but she is having none of it. The Green Party is teeing up a vote on the matter and she may end up being removed against her will. It's all getting quite nasty. Ms. Paul is fighting for her political life, and it's not pretty.

After one of the Greens' three MPs defected to the Liberals, and first two, and now five, of the Party's central governing Council  resigned, Ms. Paul has been on her back foot, especially given that it is her leadership style that is being blamed for the exodus.

Ms. Paul has not, however, just rolled over and taken it. She has come out swinging, and in the process has thrown even more oil on the fire. Not willing to accept that her own actions may be to blame for Jenica Atwin's defection, Ms. Paul has claimed that the Liberals actively poached her ("shady backroom deals" in her words). While it is true that the Liberals did reach out to Ms. Atwin - and why wouldn't they? - she claims that she was already definitely and actively looking for an out, feeling that she (and particularly her position on the Israel/Palestine conflict) was not respected within the Greens. Ms. Atwin is outspoken in her belief that Israel is an apartheid state, illegally repressing the Palestinian people. She insists that her defection is not merely an opportunist action, but says that she expects to find a more respectful debate within the Liberal Party. Well, good luck with that...

Ms. Paul lashed out at Justin Trudeau in particular, declaring with a look of thunder that "you are no ally, you are no feminist!" In fact, her response to almost all of the allegations against her from other Greens seems to be to call them "racist" and "sexist", even though there has been no mention of race or gender as far as I can see. She has a huge chip on her shoulder about being the first black, Jewish woman to lead a major Canadian party, and her response to criticism seems to be to hide behind appeals to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. In today's political climate, these are guaranteed conversation-stoppers, with little or no recourse allowed. But they are overused and often misused, as I believe in this case.

Ostensibly, the whole ruckus arose when Ms. Paul refused to repudiate one of her staffers (evidently a strident Zionist) who accused Green MPs of anti-semitism. But that is really only the proximate issue that has brought the divisions within the party to a head. In internal documents, the party council talks about Ms. Paul's "autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection", and claims that she has "displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues". Pretty strong language, that. They also say that donations are down, and that many rank-and-file members have been calling for her to step down. This is a full-blown crisis achieving a head of steam.

The Green Party of Canada is not a huge party. It boasts just two MPs (now), both in its heartland of British Columbia, representing less than 1% of elected members. But their small parliamentary representation belies their popular vote (nearly 7%), and pre-election voting intentions (over 10%). The Party had amassed a good and increasing following under previous leader Elizabeth May, and was finally starting to be taken seriously as a national political force and as a respected voice of conscience. Ms. Paul's recent shenanigans, and the media circus around it, could well undo those years of hard work and progress, almost overnight. 

They may say that any publicity is good publicity, but I don't think this applies to politics; this is unwelcome, negative attention.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Vancouver's abandonment of gifted programs will not have the desired effect

Vancouver School Board has set the cat among the pigeons by cutting advanced  honours courses in math and science for gifted students on the grounds that they are somehow discriminatory. Honours courses in English were phased out some years ago.

The Board says that such classes do not comply with its equity and inclusion goals because not all students can participate in them. Well, duh! The Board says that it is moving to a more inclusive model of education so that "all students will be able to participate in the curriculum fulsomely". (A gifted student would probably know that "fulsomely" actually means "excessively flattering" or, alternatively, "disgusting and offensive", and that the word the Board was grasping for is actually the much simpler "fully".)

So, the Vancouver School Board is actually deliberately dumbing down their education system in a vain and over-zealous attempt to be politically correct. George Orwell's Animal Farm comes to mind. 

Do they not want to encourage high-performing kids? Do they not realize that ultra-bright kids also tend to have a horrible time in school and are often bullied and picked on in regular educational streams? And what about special needs programs? Are they not also exclusive and prejudicial, and do not allow all students to participate?

Sigh!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How effective are vaccines against the Delta variant really?

There seem to be many different figures flying around for the effectiveness of various vaccines against various variants of the COVID-19 virus. It's hard to get a clear picture.

According to The Guardian, a source that I trust, there seem to be three main British studies:

  • Public Health Scotland says that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 92% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 79% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant. Two doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, on the other hand, is only 73% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Public Health England says that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 93.4% effective against the Alpha (British) variant and 88% effective against the Delta (Indian) variant, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is 66% effective against the Alpha variant and 60% effective against the Delta variant.
  • Another, more recent, study by Public Health England concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 88% effective against the Delta variant, compared to 67% for the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

There are some minor discrepancies here, but the general view is the same: Pfizer is very good, AstraZeneca just good. Moderna's results are likely to be in the same ballpark as Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen is likely to be similar to AstraZeneca. All appear to be very good in guarding against hospitalization and death from the virus (the figures above relate to the likelihood of catching, and potentially re-transmitting, it)  In all cases, a single dose is not very effective at all (Public Health England suggests as low as 33%) against the Delta variant, which is now establishing itself as the dominant one, and is the main one we need to be worrying about.

The jury is still out on whether it is advisable for people who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca to get a second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines, although the odds are looking good that this would be preferable to a second AstraZeneca dose, in terms of efficacy at least (NACI is now advising that a second mRNA dose is preferred for those who got a first AstraZeneca jab). That ship has already sailed for me, but I'm still happy to have had two doses, even if they were both AstraZeneca. (The only silver lining might be that some studies are showing that AstraZeneca creates a better T-cell response than mRNA vaccines, thus potentially giving better long-term protection).

Why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy

Finally, a good basic article on why Bitcoin mining uses so much energy.

You often read about how the worldwide creation of bitcoins uses as much energy as a country like Argentina, and how, if it were a country, it would be in the top 30 of energy users. But bitcoin "mining", despite its name, is essentially just a computer transation, so I have never fully understood how it can be so energy-intensive. Well, here's how.

When someone buys a bitcoin, multiple computer systems then swing into action in a race to create a new 64-digit hexadecimal number, or hash, which can then be entered into an online ledger or blockchain. The impetus for this competition is that the creator of this new hash number receives a "reward" of 6.2 Bitcoins, worth about $225,000 at the ridiculous current prices.

The problem is that generating a new hash of this size is an onerous task, even for a bank of computers. The computers involved are not just standard PCs like we know, but stripped-down machines with multiple graphics cards (GPUs) which require high wattage power supplies, and which are run 24 hours a day. As an example, a rig with three graphics cards uses over 1,000 watts of power, about the equivalent of running a domestic air conditioning unit, and rigs may have many more than three cards. 

In addition to the energy used for the processing power of these crypto mining rigs, they also generate a lot of heat, and so each rig will typically need multiple cooling fans to ensure the components do not melt down. Where there are many such rigs gathered together in a factory, external cooling is also required, all if which requires more and more energy. Crypto mining businesses can have hundreds or even thousands of these rigs in operation 24 hours a day (one in Kazakstanstan reportedly boasts 50,000 units).

So, taking all this into account, it is estimated that creating one Bitcoin used 1,544 kWh of electricity, about the equivalent of 53 days' worth of power for a typical American household, creating an energy bill of about $200 (depending on local energy costs) and a pretty ugly carbon profile (again depending on the energy production in particular jurisdictions). And remember, we are not talking about just Bitcoin here: there are many other cryptocurrencies these days - Etherium, Dogecoin, Litecoin, Monero, and many, many others - all of which use a similar production process. So you can see how it all adds up.

One-time cryptocurrency fanboy Elon Musk has recently made a point of refusing to accept Bitcoins for Tesla purchases, after his earlier high profile espousal of the cryptocurrency, and he did so because he has belatedly realized the true carbon footprint of the technology. And bear in mind that some US states with struggling coal sectors are going out of their way to attract bitcoin mining operations. It's a messy old business. And for what? Yet another avenue for speculative investments for the already-rich? Do we really need that?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Heat pumps - an idea whose time might well have come

I like to think of myself as a responsible citizen, particularly as regards environmental matters. Hence, I am pretty careful with our energy use; I have solar panels for hot water and electricity production; I drive an electric car; I choose to live in province with a largely green electricity production profile; I subscribe to Bullfrog Power (which uses an additional levy on power bills to reinvest in renewable energy projects). I try to walk the talk, as they say.

One thing that really rankles, then, is our need to rely so heavily on natural gas for winter heating and for the very few occasions we need recourse to air conditioning in Toronto's increasingly hot summers. Gas is one of our largest single bills each month but, more than anything, it is the unavoidable hit to our carbon footprint that rankles.

But is it unavoidable? Just recently, I have been looking into electric heat pumps. There's a whole lot of technical stuff to get my head around, an the more practical aspects of installation, cost, payback periods, etc. It does look promising, though, at least in principle (I have not even started to look into costs, etc, yet).

So, what is a heat pump?The simplest explanation I have come across is one on The Conversation, although a more detailed, and more Canada-centric, explanation can be found on the Province of Ontario's guide to heat pump technology. In fact, I seem to be seeing more and more articles about heat pumps just recently, but that may just be because I am primed to do so.

A heat pump works on the same general principle as a refrigerator: it extracts heat (or cold) from the outside air, concentrates it, and then transfers it, using a small amount of electricity, to the inside of the house to provide space heating (or cooling). While traditional furnaces and boilers convert fuel into heat with much less than 100% efficiency, heat pumps actually operate at efficiencies of well OVER 100%, and are an estimated three to four times as efficient as furnaces.

More specifically, a very cold fluid circulates through coils of tubing in an outdoor unit similar to an air conditioning unit, absorbing energy in the form of heat even in winter conditions (at least up until outdoor temperatures fall VERY low). The fluid vaporizes and circulates in a compressor, which generates heat (compressing any gas heats it up). This heat is then transferred through the walls of the house, and circulated through indoor coils of tubing or  the existing vent system to heat the house. The same system can be used in reverse, taking heat from inside and transferring it outside, very much like a refrigerator does.

This, at least, is the model for an air-source heat pump, the cheapest and most commonly-used technology. In areas of more extreme cold, a ground-source or geothermal heat pump system may be more appropriate. This uses the more stable temperatures underground as a source of heat in winter and as a reservoir for rejected heat in the summer. The need for drilling makes this a substantially more expensive option, though.

I'm just in the early stages of my research, but heat pumps are looking like an interesting possibility at this point.

Netanyahu finally bows out, but now look what we've got

It's going to be so nice not see Benjamin Netanyahu on the news and listen to his wheedling complaints that anything that is not exactly as he want it is somehow "anti-Semitic". After 12 years in power, he has failed to corral enough of Israel's plethora of political parties into a coalition, and has had to relinquish his position as Prime Minister of one of the world's most fractious countries.

The "opposition" - meaning everyone who hates Netanyahu more than they are willing to put up with him - has managed (barely, by a margin of 60 to 59, with one abstention) to establish a coalition of eight different parties, ranging from the ultra-nationalist right to the left-wing, even a small Israeli Arab party for the first time ever. At least two of the parties are openly pro-settlement (i.e. occupation of the Palestinian West Bank), and I have no idea how such a loose can be expected to agree policy.

Naftali Bennet, once a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party and now leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party (which actually won only a handful of seats in the latest election), gets to be Prime Minister for the first two years. (And don't ask me to explain how he was chosen.) He is almost as nasty a piece of work as Netanyahu. A tech millionaire and former commando, Bennett has described himself as "more right-wing" than Netanyahu, so don't expect any liberal policies any time soon. He is pro-Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, does not believe in Palestinian statehood, and wants Israel to annex even more Palestinian lands.

After a couple of years, he will be replaced as PM by Yair Lapid, leader of the more centrist Yesh Atid party. But in the chaotic rough-and-tumble that is Israeli politics, who knows if the current coalition will even survive that long?

UPDATE

We got a little glimpse at where Israel may be going when thousands of flag-waving ultra-nationalists marched through occupied East Jerusalem over the last few days, chanting "Death to the Arabs" and "May your house burn", and other fun little slogans. A couple of far right MPs joined in the parades. Centrist leader Yair Lapid denounced the protests, but we're still waiting to hear from Naftali Bennett.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ford's use of the "notwithstanding clause" is inexcusable

The very fact that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is even considering using the "notwithstanding clause" shows just how little he values the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Don't forget that when provincial election time rolls around next year.

When the Ontario Superior Court ruled earlier this week that Ford's proposed Election Finances Act infringes on Charter rights, most governments would respond by either appealing the ruling or redrafting the legoslation so as not to contravene the country's laws. Not Ford. His response is to "go nuclear" by reconvening the legislature and forcing the issue by invoking the notwithstanding clause (also known as Section 33 of the Charter).

That is technically his right; the possibility is enshrined in the law itself. But this recourse is considered by almost everyone to be a last resort, to be invoked only under extreme circumstances. That is made quite clear in the wording of the Charter itself ("extraordinary circumstances"). The clause has only been used very infrequently in the past, mainly by the province of Quebec, and never by Ontario. Doug Ford wants to use it to force through a relatively unimportant and ill-advised law that he believes will favour him in the upcoming election. That is really not what the provision was created for (as several of the Charter's original architects have made clear, warning that it should not be used merely to evade due process of law).

The proposed Election Finances Act is designed to limit third-party spending outside of an election year, and it widely believed that Ford is worried about union and corporate PAC advertising against his Conservative government. The Superior Court, though, ruled that several sections of the proposed Act were unconstitutuonal, unnecessary and excessively repressive of rights to free expression. Doug Ford, though, for whatever reason, sees the bill as absolutely essential for Ontario (read, himself), hence his recourse to the entirely inappropriate remedy of the notwithstanding clause.

As much as anything, Ford's response is a good indication of the shaky ground his re-election prospects lie on. But he must not be allowed to ride rough-shod over our rights and freedoms in this way. And, if you ask me, the whole notwithstanding clause loophole needs to be plugged: maybe its original intentions were honorable, but it is just too open to abuse by over-ambitious and overreaching politicians.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Electric car range is temperature-dependent, but still great

Back in January, in the midst of Canada's third wave of the pandemic, I finally bought an electric car, a Hyundai Kona Electric. And I have been thoroughly enjoying it ever since, particularly having all that power and acceleration at the press of a pedal, an area that my old Toyota Prius was sadly lacking in.

Range anxiety has not been an issue. In fact, it has been a pleasant surprise. The car's specs suggests that it has a range of 414km on a full charge. In practice, I was seeing about 440km over the winter. As the temperatures started increase, though, that range started to increase too, to 480km, then 520. The last time I charged it, in early June, the dash showed 563km available. Granted that goes down a little (20-30km) when you turn on the air conditioning, but it's still way more than I was expecting.

It just goes to show the radical effect that the ambient temperature has on battery performance. I had the rather unnerving (if gratifying) experience the other week of seeing my range INCREASE while I was driving. Setting off from our house near the lake, I happened to notice that the range was showing as 395km. About 3 or 4km later, I happened to notice that it was at 398km, and a couple of kilometers further on, it was showing 402km available range. What I realized was that, as I drove away from the lake and into the interior of Toronto, the temperature was gradually increasing, and the car's range gradually lengthening accordingly.

Anyway, the experience has been a very positive one thus far, although I haven't tackled a long, multi-day trip yet, there being still nowhere to go just yet, while the pandemic grinds on. Maybe I'll report back when that does finally happen.

Gender reveal parties should stop (for a whole bunch of reasons)

The "gender reveal party", probably one of the daftest idea of the 2010s, needs to be abandoned and stromgly discouraged.

Just this last week, a gender reveal party in Northern Alberta involving ballistics targets and fireworks went catastrophically wrong and caused a dangerous wildfire (similar to one last year in California that caused a huge wildfire resulting in the death of a firefighter, and one in Arizona that burned down 47,000 acres and caused over $8 million in damages). More than one person has died as a result of this ridiculous exercise in vanity.

Even Jenna Karvubidis, the woman usually "credited" with (unwittingly) starting the trend of gender reveal parties, has publicly stated that they have got out of hand and should be stopped. Her initial event was a very modest affair, but, as often happens where social media is involved, it has grown into a monster. Not only is it potentially dangerous, it reinforces binary gender stereotypes. 

And anyway, nobody else really cares whether your baby has a dick or not. Excepting possibly Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the social media circus that is the main beneficiary of these events.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

"Mount Recyclemore" sculpture depicts the problems of ewaste

A rather impressive political sculpture has been erected in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, to coincide with the G7 meeting taking place in Britain.

Dubbed "Mount Recyclemore", it is constructed entirely from dead batteries and other assorted e-waste, and channels the famous presidential scuplture at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, but featuring the current G7 heads of state. 

Sculptor Joe Rush wants the installation to bring attention to the problems of disposing of electronic waste, and the need to make it more more reusable and recyclable.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Killing of Muslim family may be a hate crime, but almost certainly not a terrorist attack

Canadian Prime Minister Justin, along with many others, are calling the horrendous multiple murder of a family in London, Ontario, over the weekend a terrorist attack. "This killing was no acident. This was a terrorist attack", he said today, in no uncertain terms.

Nathaniel Veltman, 20-year old resident of London, Ontario, ploughed down a family on a sidewalk in his pickup truck, killing four and severely injuring one other member of the same family.  The troubled young man is apparently a pretty nice guy, not a member of any racist group, and seems to have acted alone. It was not an action by one group against another. This was, then, NOT a terrorist action. However shocking it was, and however upset about it people may be, let us be careful: words matter.  (Per the US legal code, terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents".)

It MAY have been a hate crime - the family were all practising Muslims - but, at this point, even that is not yet clear. We do not know definitively that he deliberately targeted the family because they were Muslim. A police spokesman has said that, "There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate. We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith", although to the best of my knowledge this has not been proved yet in a court of law. It seems likely, but not proven. 

Hell, it has not yet even been proven that this was a murder, and not just an accident. Again it seems likely, but not proven. True, Veltman has been charged with four counts of first degree murder and one of attempted murder, but he has not yet been convicted.

I don't mean to belittle the events of Sunday; the outrage rippling through Canada is entirely justified. But can we please stick to the facts, insofar as they are known?

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Some Olde Englishe history, just because

We have been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix, because that's what you do during a pandemic: you watch all sorts of odd series that you would probably not have bothered with in the Before Times. Like many another series we have watched over the last year-and-a-half, it is incredibly dark and violent, but it has set off all sorts of quite fond memories of learning this history during my early school years.

The series is set in England before it was actually England, in the 9th century, when the island was composed of several independent kingdoms (Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria), all of which were buckling under the onslaught of the Viking "Great Heathen Army" from across the North Sea in Demark (yes, little Denmark! which at that time was a force to be reckoned with). Specifically, it is set in the reign of King Æthelred I of Wessex (not Æthelred the Unready, as we will see later), Wessex being The Last Kingdom, which had as yet not been subsumed by Danish might.

While watching, I have been trying to piece together the history of the period using Wikipedia, realizing that I know very little of it pre-Æthelred, and much less than I thought post-Æthelred. I think our school syllabus probably started at around the time the series is set, and it was probably thought that learning all those weird Saxon names was not worth our while, especially as England per se was not even invented at this point.

Working backwards from Æthelred I, who ruled Wessex from 865-871, previous kings were:

  • Æthelberht (or Ethelbert as it was back in the 1960s): Æthelred's older brother, who ruled from 860-865.
  • Æthelbald: Æthelred's even older brother, who ruled from 855-860, the first three years of which he was ruling in his father's place while the latter was on a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Æthelwulf: father of Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, who ruled from 839-858, and who ended a long Mercian dominance of Anglo-Saxon England.

Before Æthelwulf, came a whole host of even more forgettable names, like Ecgberht (or Egbert, 802-839), Beorhtric (786-802), Cynewulf (757-786), Sigeberht (756-757), Cuthred (740-756), Æthelheard (726-740), Ine (689-726), Caedwalla (685-688), Centwine (676-686), etc. Great names all, but none that mean anything to me.

Working forward from Æthelred, most (but by no means all) of the names are a bit more familiar:

  • Alfred the Great: Æthelred's younger brother, who ruled from 886-899, and who spent most of his reign fighting off the Vikings/Danes (reasonably successfully), and who probably didn't really burn any cakes while in hiding.
  • Edward the Elder: Alfred's son, who reigned from 899-924, and who succeeded in bringing Wessex, Mercia, and most of the rest of England outside of Northumbria, under one rule.
  • Æthelstan: Edward the Elder's son, who ruled from 924-939, and who finally wrested Northumbria from the Vikings in 927, making him the first king of all England (although the Vikings did regain York and much of Northumbria just after his death, and remained there for 15 more years).
  • Edmund I: Edward the Elder's son and Æthelstan's half-brother, who reigned from 939-946, a time of constant internal warfare.
  • Eadred (or Edred): Edmund I's younger brother, who reigned from 946-955.
  • Eadwig: son of Edmund I, who reigned from 955-959.
  • Edgar the Peaceful: younger brother of Eadred, who reigned from 959-975.
  • Edward the Martyr: son of Edgar, who reigned from 975-978.
  • Æthelred the Unready: who reigned from 978-1013, and then again from 1014-1016, with a brief interregnum by the Dane Sweyn Forkbeard (I kid you not!), and who was not so much "unready" as "poorly advised" (from the Anglo-Saxon unræd).
  • Edmund Ironside (or Edmund II): son of Æthelred the Unready, who reigned for just a few turbulent months in 1016.
  • Cnut I (Cnut the Great, or Canute, as I learned it): invading king of Denmark and Norway, who reigned in England from 1016-1034, and who almost certainly did not sit on a beach trying to turn back the tide.
  • Harold I (aka Harold Harefoot): Cnut's son, who reigned from 1035-1040.
  • Harthacnut (or Hardicanute, or Cnut III): another son of Cnut, who reigned from 1040-1042.
  • Edward the Confessor: son of Æthelred the Unready, and half-brother of Harthacnut, who ruled from 1042 to 1066, restoring the rule of the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex after years of Danish power in England.
  • Harold Godwinson (Harold II): appointed king after Edward the Confessor died without an heir, and who reigned for just 9 months in 1066, possibly ending with an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (also contested by historians, sorry!).

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

How to produce lithium, responsibly

As the boom in electric cars, and all things clean- and high-tech, continues apace, the issue of green lithium has come to centre stage. 

Lithium is, for now at least, an essential ingredient in battery technology (along with nickel, cadmium and graphite), whether that be for cellphones, vehicles or mass power storage, and it is considered an essential part of our short-term green future. Traditional methods of lithium mining, though, are fraught with environmental problems. 

Traditional lithium production involves hard-rock mining, breaking it down with acids and then baking it, all of which uses large quantities of both water and energy, and leaves behind a decimated landscape and large piles of tailings, tainted with many other much less desirable minerals.

In some places, lithium is naturally found in subterranean brine or geothermal pools, already naturally separated from the bedrock. But it still needs to be kept in huge evaporation ponds for many months, using vast quantities of fresh water, and then subjected to the usual high-temperature isolation processes.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Canadian start-up Summit Nanotech is starting to extract lithium in Chile (with later plans for Canadian production) using a much more environmentally-friendly brine-based extraction process (go to minute 18:20 in the audio) compressing the raw materials down to a much smaller volume using very selective chemical sponges or "sorbents". This way, the lithium is isolated without the need for large amounts of water and land, or noxious gas emissions. On top of that, this new method is apparently much cheaper, and at least doubles the yield compared to traditional brine production. What's not to like?

Quebec company Lithion Recycling goes about the problem in a different way, by recycling lithium from old batteries (go to minute 24:40 in the audio). Lithium is now so valuable that it is already quite economical to recycle batteries to extract their lithium, and then re-use it in new batteries, a process that can apparently be repeated again and again (in theory, when there are enough batteries in production, this method could be applied to substantially cut down on the amount of new lithium that needs to be extracted from the ground). Using hydrometallurgy, Lithion's process can recover 95% of lithium-ion battery components and generate high-purity ingredients for new battery production, closing, as they say, the loop of battery life-cycle.

I'm sure these are just two (Canadian) examples among many of the kind of industrial innovation that the clean-tech industry will need in the years ahead. Kind of makes me feel good.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

What do all those B.1.1.7, B.167.2, etc, variants mean?

Have you ever wondered where those variant labels like B.1.1.7, B.1.617, B.1.135 and P.1 actually come from? They were introduced partly to avoid any stigma from labels like "British variant", "Indian variant", "South African variant", "Brazilian variant", etc, and partly also, I imagine, so as to sound a bit more "scientific". But what do the numbers and letters mean?

The labelling system is known as the "Pango nomenclature", and it was developed by British scientists as a simple and adaptable way of identifying mutations as the virus evolved. It has now become the default method of identifying virus variants worldwide.

When the COVID virus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in China in late 2019 and early 2020, two main strands were identified, reasonably enough, as A and B. As these initial strands started to evolve into variants, new lineages were designated A.1, A.2, etc, and B.1, B 2, etc. For unknown epidemiological reasons, the B strains were the main ones that escaped into the wider world. 

When these lineages started to develop their own mutations, they were identified with A.1.1, B.1.1, etc, and mutations of these lineages A.1.1.1, B.1.1.1, etc. B.1.1.7 identifies the seventh-discovered descendent of the sub-lineage B.1.1, and this is the highly-contagious variant of concern often referred to as the "British variant" or "Kent variant". B.1.167.2 is therefore the second-identified mutation of the 167th sub-lineage of the B.1 strand of the virus (three separate variants of the "Indian" B.1.167 lineage have been identified so far).

And that P.1 variant, the variant formerly known as the "Brazil variant"? Well, at some point, it was decided that the numbers were becoming too unwieldy, so some aliases were set up. For example, B.1.1.1.1, a sub-lineage first discovered in South Africa, was given the alias C.1. Later, D.1, E.1, etc, followed, as well as sub-lineages like C.1.1, C.2., D.1.1, etc. P.1 is actually an alias for B.1.1.28.1. And, of course, there is a P.1.1, P.1.2, P.2, etc. If you ask me, this has made things more confusing than before, but then I don't have to work with them all day long.

So, there you go. They are not just random numbers after all. If you want a full list of Pango lineages, you can find it here., 

However, just when we have pretty much got used to those labels, the World Health Organization (WHO) has started to popularize a new variant naming system using Greek letters, at least for the most common variants of concern.

For example: B.1.1.7, first identified in The UK, will be Alpha; B.1.135, first identified in South Africa, is Beta; P.1, first seen in Brazil, is Gamma; and the main Indian variant, B.1.167, is Delta. The idea is to simplify it for the general public; scientists will continue to use the existing number system (there are way more than four variants currently - the list of Pango lineages lists hundreds).

The WHO says that, when the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet have been exhausted (a scary propspect!), they will start another similar series. The Mesopotamian alphabet, perhaps?

So now, do we have to say "B.1.167, the variant first identified in India, also known as Delta"? (I read that very phrase in an article just today). And this is progress?

Naomi Osaka challenges the status quo again

For someone that purports to be a private and publicity-shy person, Naomi Osaka certainly appears to court controversy. I think it's just that she's a woman of strong and deep principles who is willing to stand up and speak out about them. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that she actually sets out to deliberately bait the press and the powers that be. Whether she intends it or not, she has what I have seen described as "a flair for drama".

In her latest tangle with the tennis authorities, the Japanese-American tennis player, currently ranked number 3 in the world, has refused to submit to the traditional after-match press conferences during the Roland Garros French Open, which she says are stressful and anxiety-provoking and impact negatively on her (and others') mental health, particularly when discussing a loss. She says she is willing to discuss her performance after the competion ends, but she does not need the added stress of press deconstructions amd insinuations during the actual competition.

The Roland Garros organization says that Ms. Osaka is failing to meet her competition obligations and responsibilities and has slapped a $15,000 fine on her (which I'm sure she is not too worried about, earning as she does in excess of $30 million a year), and has warned her that she risks expulsion from the competition (she has withdrawn unilaterally) and from future Grand Slam events if she continues down her misguided path. 

And yes, it is in fact obligatory under the terms of the competition, athough occasionally others, including luminaries like Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams, have also in past years elected to pass on the media and just pay the fine. The question Naomi Osaka raises is, should it be? Part of Roland Garros' argument is that not participating in after-match press conferences would give her an "unfair advantage" over others who do have to submit to the intrusive and sometimes humiliating (as well as, all too often, formulaic and tedious) tradition, which is frankly ridiculous, and in itself a good indication that the practice should be terminated forthwith.

She has had little or no support from other top tennis players, who appear to have all drunk the CoolAid, and say things like the pressers are "part of the job" and "essential to promote and develop the game". Is a great performance and a thoroughly engaging display of skill not enough to promote the game, then? Even her own tennis-player sister gave only partial and highly-qualified support for her position, and even appeared to cast doubt on Ms. Osaka's claim to have sufferered from depression since her ascent to the top levels of tennis.

And yet, I see no compelling reason why a press conference should be considered a prerequisite obligation, part of the price the players must pay for their handsome earnings and their prestigious and influential positions in the world. Surely, years of grinding practice and professional development should suffice, no? What they really mean is that the press conferences are good for the competitions' television audiences, and therefore for their own bottom lines. 

So, maybe you could call Ms. Osaka's outburst a hissy fit; maybe she could be accused of being precious, and should have known what she was getting into. But surely there's no good reason why the players should be compelled into it. There are many sports people who are quite happy to talk about themselves on television for hours. Let them do so, if they like, but there should be no obligation. Just because that is the way it has always been (and remember, it hasn't "always" been this way), doesn't mean that it is the way it should be. Naomi Osaka, once again, is just the first person to publicly question the system, and to insist that the current set-up should be at least discussed. She says, "I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans". Well, power to her!