Monday, August 30, 2021

Can we believe what politicans are tellling us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Pushing back against the mainstream of race politics

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Canada's very own anti-mask lunatic fringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

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

UPDATE UPDATE

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

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

Friday, August 27, 2021

The skinny on breakthrough cases in the Delta era

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Can you say "opportunistic"?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Where we currently stand on vaccines vs. variants

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

How popular are the Taliban in Afghanistan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

Canadian federal election a cynical exercise in politicking

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to talk to vaccine skeptics

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

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

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

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The Olympics event I could not watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Tokyo rhe greenest big city in the world?

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

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

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

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

So, no mention of Tokyo...

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

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

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

Friday, August 06, 2021

China plays the bully boy with foreign reporters

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

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

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

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

Is "technological doping" a job for WADA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Where are the COVID vaccines for kids?

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 02, 2021

California's "ban on bacon" is not a ban on bacon

You may, or may not, have seen blaring online headlines stating that California is banning bacon (if not, just Google it, or "bacon to disappear", or any number of other sky-is-falling phrases).

California is the state that red stares love to hate. But even California wouldn't ban bacon. What is actually happening is that the state is making a minor change to its animal welfare rules, such that, as of early next year, each pig will be required to be allowed a minimum of 6' x 4' in which to live its sad life, rather than the current 5½' x 3½'. It is estimated that only 4% of California pig farmers currently meet this requirement; 96% are clearly intent on doing the bare legal minimum for their pigs. 

So, yes, changes will need to be made, but estimates suggest that farmers' costs (and presumably retail prices) may increase by 15% as a result. Not exactly a ban on bacon. But bacon is such a beacon (sorry!), and such an iconic part of a red meat-eater's lifestyle, that it has yielded this kind of online outrage and hyperbole. Suck it up, carnivores!