Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The day of the "peep peep peep" reversing alarm is over

Every morning I wake up to the "peep peep peep" sound of reversing alarms from the construction machinery just up the street. It's not quite the dawn chorus. In fact, it's possibly the most annoying noise I hear all day. And I do hear it all day...

But, you say, that's the point of reversing alarms: they have to be annoying and intrusive or people won't notice them. But that's just the thing - they are SO ubiquitous now that people don't really notice them any more for the purpose for which they were designed, only as a vague annoyance in the distance, and a contribution to the overall noise pollution that assails our cities in this modern day. There's also some evidence that the vehicle drivers now pay LESS attention while reversing, relying instead on the alarm to warn pedestrians and other workers out of the way. This thing has come full circle.

The beep-beep reversing alarms have been around since the 1960s, when they were introduced in the USA and Japan. They spread rapidly in the 1970s, as studies showed that they did indeed cut down on the carnage on our construction sites, and soon became mandatory on work sites around most of the world.

By the 1990s, though, questions were starting to be asked about how effective they really were, and noise pollution concerns were starting to starting to be taken more seriously. By the early 2000s, a more broadband "sshhhh-sshhhh" white-noise reversing alarm was developed, which is supposedly more directional, gentler on the ear and easier for pedestrians to pinpoint. I think this is what I hear from our garbage trucks each Tuesday, and it's marginally better, but still pretty nasty.

It seems to me, though, that the development of obstacle detection radars and 360° camera monitors, such as I have in my car, are a much better solution than either of these options. Even relatively budget cars now feature these, so the cost cannot be that high, although retrofitting older vehicles is probably a tougher sell. Do we even know that new construction vehicles are being fitted with these features? Probably not: inertia is a powerful force, and laws will need to be adapted. 

In the meantime, we are stuck with that excruciating "peep peep peep". All day.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Ryder Cup: an embarrassment or a celebration of macho culture?

I don't know much about golf, and I've never knowingly watched a match, even on television. I've never seen the point in whacking little ball around a field. But it is undeniably a popular spectator sport, and one of the most popular golfing events is the annual Ryder Cup competition between the USA and Europe.

However, this is not a genteel sporting event. This is not St. Andrews or Augusta. This is a raucous, alcohol-soaked bro-fest (and make no mistake, you don't see many sis's at the Ryder Cup). This is drunken guys yelling "U-S-A" (or "Fra-a-ance" or "Ger-ma-ny"), booing the opposition, cheering the opposition's muffed shots, and generally being boorish. In particular, it's a bunch of macho guys wearing baseball caps backwards, being stereotypical Americans (and a few brave stereotypical Europeans) and generally making a hyper-partisan spectacle of themselves, while a game of golf continues somewhere in the background.

As it turns out, the Americans won this one handily - the home team almost always wins the Ryder Cup; maybe it's something to do with all that booing? - although the Europeans still lead the series, which began back in 1979. But the score is almost secondary to the event itself, that celebration of manliness and buffoonery. Some golfers roll their eyes at it; some just lap it up.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

German Word of the Day - Merkel-Raute (Merkel rhombus)

 Named after the rhomboid hand clasp that Angela Merkel has long favoured:


She (and it) will be missed.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

China enters a new phase where optics are no longer important

The release of Canada's two Michaels at the exact time that Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from her house arrest and flew home to China - the two flights probably passed each other somewhere over Northern Europe - gives the official lie to all the outraged Chinese claims that there was no link between Ms. Meng's arrest and the incarceration of the two Canadian civilians.

No-one outside of China seriously doubted that the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig was anything other than an arbitrary and spurious tit-for-tat action that is best characterized as "hostage diplomacy". But China has been at pains to insist that this was not the case, in a vain attempt to have it appear slightly less egregious in the eyes of the world. 

Most commentators - including me, I have to say - were predicting that, once Ms. Meng was released, through the intercession of American lawyers and diplomats (and almost certainly Joe Biden himself), the two Michaels would NOT be released immediately, because that would too obviously link the two events, which would be bad optics for China.

Yesterday's bland admission that, yes, the detentions were indeed targeted hostage diplomacy after all, heralds a new phase in China's relations with the rest of the world, one in which optics really don't matter to them. Long used to splendid isolation (other than what bought support they can glean from their aggressive investment and development projects in South America and Africa), China is clearly signalling that it now believes itself strong enough not to need to observe the diplomatic niceties followed by most of the rest of the world. 

China now believes it can do pretty much whatever it likes with complete impunity, because no other country dare cross it due to its economic and military power. It is up to the rest of the world, or at least those who are not completely economically beholden to China, to show that this is not the case. Canada, as a middle power at best, should take solace from the fact that it has a whole network of supportive allies in North America, Europe and parts of Asia behind it, while China is essentially, and eternally, alone.

And, of course, now that the two Michaels are out of the picture, Canada is under pressure to make its long-delayed decision on whether or not to allow Chinese company Huawei to participate in the rollout of Canada's 5G telecommunications network. Actually, Rogers, Bell and Telus, having seen the writing on the wall, are all now pursuing 5G contracts with Eriksson, Nokia and Samsung anyway, so maybe the government may not need to put their neck on the line by making an official statement (or maybe they have already been speaking to Rogers, Bell and Telus behind the scenes for that very reason).

How do the Liberals manage to win elections but lose the popular vote?

Canada's "election that changed nothing" is over, and the new government is almost identical to the old government. Failed cynical power grab? Maybe. Waste of $600 million. Sure. Overwhelming mandate for the Liberals? Not really.

The Liberals ended up with a strongish minority of 159 seats in a 338-seat parliament, or 47% of the available seats, just shy of the 50% majority position. But they got to that with just 32.6% of the popular vote. The second place Conservatives gained 119 seats (35%) with 33.7% of the popular vote. The NDP fared even worse, winning just 7% of the seats with 18% of the popular vote.

Sure, this is just a function of the first-past-the-post electoral system we are stuck with here. Plus, the share of the popular vote won by the winning party - whether Liberal or Conservative - has been on a downward trajectory since about 1970, as has voter turnout, giving the 2021 Liberals the weakest mandate in Canadian electoral history. There are now SIX major parties in Canadian politics, not just the two of a hundred years ago.

But why is it that the Liberals seem to be able to form a government with only a third of the national vote, while the Conservatives perennially win the popular vote but are excluded from power? 

The Tories, of course, are convinced that it's all due to the nefarious dealings of the Liberals, and that  they have been unfairly treated by the system. The NDP and the Greens (and even the ultra-right PPC), arguably, HAVE been unfairly treated by the system, so it's no surprise that they are strongly pushing a proportional representation electoral system (an idea that the Liberals, who once professed to be in favour of it, have mysteriously dropped since they have been in power).

But the Liberals do not come by their seats by nefarious means. This is not a case of barefaced gerrymandering, such as plagues American elections. The fact is that most of the Conservatives' support is in Western Canada, specifically Alberta and Saskatchewan, and they win some Western ridings with over 80% of the vote. So, much of their Western support is "wasted", being far in excess of what they need to win the seats. The Liberals, on the other hand, have a much higher "vote efficiency", and so are able to win more seats with fewer votes, mainly because of their geographical distribution.

So, like them or like them not, the Liberals come by their election victories fairly. If, that is, you consider the first-past-the-post system to be fair...

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Suicide rate unexpectedly plummeted during the pandemic

Well, here's a surprise. We have been hearing ad nauseum from mental health experts over the last year or two that the COVID-19 pandemic was causing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions, and that lockdowns are unfair, even dangerous, and can be expected to lead to widespread poor mental health outcomes and probably a rash of suicides, something I have written about before in these pages.

However, the first major Canadian study on the matter, published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, shows that the number of suicides in Canada actually fell by 32% during the first year of the pandemic.

Suicide rates usually go up in times of economic, housing and health insecurity and, government benefits or not, 2020 was surely such a time. So, the study's authors are scrambling to explain the unexpected statistic, suggesting that maybe government-funded financial benefits and a deliberate increased focus on mental health might be the cause. Another causal factor may be the increased social cohesion the pandemic brought about, as neighbours met and helped each other out, with a sense of collective community. Well, maybe... 

The study's authors do also point out that deaths from opioid overdoses did surge during the pandemic, and intentional fatal opioid overdoses are traditionally NOT included in suicide figures for some reason (why?) Perhaps concerned for their grant funding, some researchers are suggesting that maybe the suicide rate will surge AFTER the pandemic, as people emerge from "survival mode", and "battle fatigue" starts to manifest.

The Canadian study echoes the findings of an earlier metastudy of 21 other countries which also shows a reduction in suicides rates during the pandemic, so this does seem to be a general finding. However, it should be noted that the countries that did best were those who suffered the least, both in economic and in public health terms.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The irony! - a shortage of carbon dioxide

In a world that is seemingly awash in carbon dioxide (CO2), and is desperately trying to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by modern human life, it is ironic in the extreme to read that the UK is staring down a major shortage of CO2  to the extent that a big potential hit to the economy is envisaged.

I had no idea, but apparently CO2 is used in a variety of industrial and commercial activities, including extending the shelf life of packaged fruit and veg and meat, cooling nuclear power plants, stabilizing body cavities during surgical operations, purifying drinking water, freezing off warts and moles, stunning livestock before slaughter, producing dry ice for transportation of fresh produce and for visual effects, and of course putting the fizz into fizzy drinks.

The UK mainly produces this industrial CO2 as a by-product of the manufacture of ammonia, alcohol and (mainly) fertilizers. Specifically, 60% of its total production comes from just two fertilizer plants in northern England owned by a US company, CF Industries, that now wants to shut down the plants. This is a prime example of the UK having too many eggs in one basket.

The biggest single input cost in CO2 production is natural gas, and surging natural gas prices have already forced some fertilizer plants to close down, leading to a shortage of CO2. The UK government has apparently struck a temporary deal with CF Industries to stay open, despite the natural gas prices, but this is only a temporary fix. Prices of CO2 are predicted to rise by up to 400%, and all of the products that rely on it, from produce to meat to nuclear power, will feel the pinch accordingly.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Reducing polling stations "due to COVID" makes no sense

We voted the other day, not at our usual polling station, but at another one further away. It was pretty busy, considering this was advance polling and not the actual election day, but not too bad. Apparently, there are much fewer polling stations this election, "due to COVID-19".

Wait, hold on. Elections Canada has cut down on the number of polling stations "to meet physical distancing requirements"? That makes no sense. We now have more people crammed into fewer stations, longer lines, and therefore LESS physical distancing. Surely, if anything, we need MORE polling stations.

Now, apparently, some regular polling stations like schools and private businesses have declined to lend their premises for voting purposes during a pandemic, which is perhaps understandable. But that is not the major reason for the reduced number of polling stations. It's all about physical distancing.

We also had to throw away the little pencils we used to vote with (or we could take them home), another largely pointless COVID protocol. It has been many months since the idea of the virus spreading from touching things has been demoted to nonsense status. Nevertheless, millions of little pencils are being junked regardless.

It's not a big deal, in the scheme of things. You can see that they are trying to make it as safe as possible under the circumstances. It's just that so many things are described as "due to COVID-19" or " because of the pandemic" nowadays that we have almost stopped questioning them. It has become the excuse du jour (d'an?) for pretty much every non-standard or cost-cutting policy instituted anywhere, and there is little anyone can do about it, because public health and safety trumps everything.

A comparison of federal parties' climate change plans

Respected climate economist Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University has put the climate change policies of the three main federal parties under the microscope in the run-up to next week's election, and his conclusions make interesting reading.

All three parties have ambitious carbon reduction targets: the NDP is pursuing a target of 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, the Liberals 40%, and the Conservatives 30%. But, as Professor Jaccard notes, these mean nothing if there are not policies in place to achieve them, and these are what he has been analyzing.

The Liberal plan (a carbon tax rising to $170 a tonne by 2030, with protections for exporting industries) gets a score of 8/10, and Prof. Jaccard believes the measures are sufficient to achieve the target, and will result in a bearable 2.5% drag on GDP over the next 9 years.

The Conservative plan (based on a much lower carbon tax, using a carbon savings account) garners a 5/10 score, and has a decent chance of meeting its goal, with a modest hit of 2% to GDP.

The NDP's plan, on the other hand, the most ambitious at first glance, gets a terrible 2/10 score, lacks critical details, and is considered unlikely to meet its goals without a carbon tax rate at least double that of the Liberals, with a huge 6.5% hit to GDP over the next decade.

Professor Jaccard, therefore, recommends that people for whom climate change is a top issue look at the plan in detail rather than just trusting to the stated goals.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Yes, lightning really does strike upwards

Just recently, a friend was trying to convince a skeptical me that, when lightning strikes, it strikes from the ground UPWARDS, not, as most people usually think, from the heavens down the the ground.

Well, we had a humdinger of a thunderstorm last night, and one of the video shots in particular, may have finally convinced me. The video in question is the one about halfway down that page, by Aleksander Onishchuk, and the point is that it is slowed down. The slow motion lightning strike clearly shows the lightning proceeding from the CN Tower upwards.

Actually, it's not quite as simple as that (of course it's not!) This NASA page explains that cloud-to-ground lightning first traces several paths of negative charge downwards in a series of "spurts", searching for the path of least resistance, although this is largely invisible to us here on the ground, because each one is not that bright. Then, because opposites attract, the generally positively-charged ground sends out a "streamer" up along the best path it found. When these two paths meet, a "return stroke" shoots upwards into the sky, and it is this return stroke, much brighter than the initial spurts, that we actually see. Here is another slowed down video to show the process.

So, yes, technically an upwards flash, but, as the whole thing happens within a few thousandths of a second, it really looks like a stationary flash of light, happening all at once. And, because the whole thing is initially generated up in the clouds, we tend to think of it as a downwards strike from the cloud to the ground

Imcidentally, the other video on that page that is well worth watching is the one by Dilshad Berman, if only for the young lady's unadulterated joy at seeing not one but five (five!) lightning bolts hit (or emit from) the CN Tower.

Once again, spurious antisemitism allegations have destroyed a politcal career

Less  than a week before the Canadian federal election, the NDP candidate for Toronto-St. Paul's, Sidney Coles, has "resigned" (i.e. she was pushed) after incriminating social media posts from some months ago were "discovered".

The tweet in question (now long deleted, so someone was saving up the screenshots for the opportune moment - looking at you Simon Wiesenthal Centre) suggest that Israel was maybe responsible for some missing COVID-19 vaccine doses in the United States. The NDP, of course, jumped on that like a pile of bricks, as would any of the other parties, deeming it racism and antisemitism of the highest order.

Now, maybe you think the tweet was puerile (agreed), maybe you think it was the worst kind of conspiracy theory or just poor humour (agreed and agreed). But am I the only person to think that this is not actually antisemitism? As far as I am aware, nowhere was there a mention of "Judaism" as a religion, or "Jewishness" as a race (a dubious contention at best: there is no separate Jewish race, and Jews being of the same Semitic race and background as the Arabs of the region), just "Israel", which is a country or state, just like Canada. 

Surely, we are allowed to criticize other countries, even in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Aren't we? Organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, B'nai Brith, and the Israeli state itself (and particularly its current Prime Minister) regularly make use of the damning antisemitism allegation whenever the state of Israel is criticized in any way at all, usually in order to close down the conversation and deflect all blame from the state.

Coles herself performed a complete mea culpa and deleted her Twitter account before "resigning". Coles (as well as Dan Osborne, an NDP candidate in a Nova Scotia riding, whose separate social media faux pas was less forgivable) - have "agreed to educate themselves further about antisemitism". But dare I suggest that maybe it is the party itself - and probably the other parties too, who are all falling over themselves to be more politically correct than thou, particularly if it is something that might conceivably be construed (or misconstrued) as racism - that needs to educate itself.

California recall vote just another example of America's wacky political system

So, a bunch of Republicans in California decided they dislike Governor Gavin Newsom so much that they called a vote just a year before the regularly scheduled vote would have occurred anyway.

Wait, what? They can do that? Welcome to the weird and wacky world of American state politics. Democratic Governor Newsom was voted in during the 2018 gubernatorial elections with 62% of the vote in this overwhelmingly blue (Democratic) state. But the state's rules dictate that, if just 12% of the electorate get together to demand a recall, a whole new election can be held, and (if the vote says so) a new candidate of their choosing can be installed as Governor.

You would think that that way madness lies, and every time a party loses an election they could trigger a new one (and probably lose all over again). But this has apparently not been done since Arnold Schwartzenegger (remember him?) was installed by this method back in 2003.

Anyway, the most recent attempt has failed miserably, with Newsom polling about 64% in his favour, and California is spared the scary prospect of being "governed" by Trumpian talk-radio host Larry Elder. Was this just political theatre, then? Just a game to be played because the rules say it can be?

Either way, the good people of California, Republicans and Democrats alike, are on the hook for the $276 million costs of this ill-advised foray into policy wonkiness, and there will be another (regular) vote anyway in just over a year's time. It has led to some calls to reform the rules around electoral recalls, so that's something. Don't hold your breath, though. This is America, after all.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Djokovic failed again, but you don't need to feel sorry for him

Well, after all the hype and all the anticipation, Novak Djokovic failed to win a Grand Slam (all four majors in one year), and failed to become the GOAT by winning a 21st tennis major to push Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal our of the limelight once and for all. This comes just a month after failing to win a so-called Golden Slam, when when he did not win the gold medal (or indeed ANY medal) at the Summer Olympics.

And he failed in spectacular fashion, losing in straight sets to an ascendent Daniil Medvedev, destroying his racquet in disgust (earning himself a code violation in the process), and narrowly avoiding taking out a ball-boy in a separate angry outburst. The guy does have anger management issues.

So, it seems that not only is Djokovic human, he's actually a thoroughly unpleasant human (certainly compared to Federer, or even Nadal). He's an outspoken anti-vaxxer for one thing. And the US Open crowd was just starting to like (or at least support) him after years of giving him a hard time. It's going to be a long climb back after this.

Not that I care much about him one way or the other. The reason I even write about this is that my wife happened to mention that she felt sorry for him. Sorry? For Djokovic? Isn't that kind of like feeling sorry for a billionaire because he didn't earn another superfluous billion?

Wilson-Raybould's attempts to sabotage Trudeau are personal not political

Jody Wilson-Raybould is still banging on about how unfairly she has been treated by Justin Trudeau, a year and a half after the so-called SNC-Lavalin "scandal".

The whole thing has been off the front-burner for a couple of years now and, even back then, polls indicated that it wasn't a big deal for Canadians (although you may not have got that impression from the Canadian press). It was very much a he-said she-said affair and, even if you considered it an ethics faux-pas on the Prime Minister's partit was not a big one. It turned out not to have been a particularly big issue in the 2019 election, and it probably won't be in this one either, despite Ms. Wilson-Raybould's best efforts. People who feel strongly about it will probably not vote for Trudeau's party even if their local candidate is the best option and even if the party has the best overall platform. That is their right.

But publishing a "tell-all" book - just Wilson-Raybould's version of events, mind you, not a definitive or objective account - a couple of weeks before a federal election just smacks of vindictiveness and small-mindedness. It is not a good look for her. 

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is not standing again in the 2021 election, as she is apparently disillusioned with top level politics. And this is also her right. But she just can't resist sticking her oar in, and doing whatever she can to sabotage Trudeau's chances of re-election. This is not politics, it is personal. And it is every bit as nasty and dirty as she claims federal politics to be.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

How is the UK doing with that whole "we can live COVID" thing?

We're hoping to visit the UK this Christmas, having not seen our parents for nearly two years, but I really don't feel very confident about the prospect.

I see the happy (usually drunk) faces of Brits inside and outside of ridiculously crowded pubs and at sports events on TV and in website articles, and it just makes me shudder a little. Revellers say things like, "It's done, COVID is over, for sure", and "It's like the common cold now". It all seems pitifully naive to me.

My family reports an almost complete absence of masking in supermarkets and in cinemas, which makes them shudder too. One American niece, currently living in England, says, "it feels kind of nice", but most other Brits I speak to are far from convinced.

Britain, like several other countries, has thrown itself wholeheartedly into the idea that we are never going to actually beat COVID, so we may as well just accept that and get on with our lives. As the common phrase goes, on the lips of Boris Johnson downwards, "we must learn to live with COVID".

So, how is that going? Well, depending on who you listen to, not that well. Daily cases are over 40,000 any rising - this, in a country with roughly double the population of Canada, which has about 3,500 daily cases (and possibly plateauing) - and deaths are well over 100 a day and rising (about 20 a day in Canada). 

It's never good to let a disease run rampant, if only because more cases means more likelihood of new (and worse, more resistant) variants arising. But it's the 100 deaths a day that worries more. Is the UK really OK with that?

The main justification in Britain - which is pretty well vaccinated, about on a par with Canada, if slightly lower - is that hospitalizations are manageable, at around 7,000 or about 7% of capacity. But many health experts there are warning that the winter will be hard, as people retreat indoors more, and many are predicting that the healthcare system will come under severe pressure again. There has also been widespread criticism of the decision not to vaccinate children 12-15 years olds. In much the same way, health officials in the US are also warning that things are from under control.

I guess we'll still try to go back at Christmas, unless things deteriorate catastrophically. But I can't pretend that I'm happy with it.

UPDATE

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced how he is going to manage the COVID-19 pandemic during the coming winter months

And the plan is ... no lockdowns, no vaccine passports, no mask mandates, and complete reliance on an OK vaccination rollout that has been shown to be some help but totally insufficient in averting a fourth wave of the virus. And this is supposed to make me feel good?

Sunday, September 05, 2021

What is the religious objection to COVID vaccines?

As we try to ramp up COVID vaccination efforts and mop up those holdouts who are reducing our herd immunity, and as vaccine passports become the norm, it is increasingly likely that we are going  to come up against the issue of religious and medical exemptions.

There are some bona fide medical reasons why some people should not get vaccinated, but these are rare. For example, Ontario's Ministry of Health recently explained that there are really only two good medical reasons why someone should not get a COVID vaccination: an allergic reaction to an element of the vaccine (which should be confirmed by a qualified allergist or immunologist), or if an individual suffered mycocarditis or pericarditis after the first dose of a vaccine (a very rare occurrence).

But what about a religious exemption? This is a much woollier, greyer area, and there is already some evidence that the religious exemption is being abused as people opposed to the vaccines for various reasons try to find ways round it, particularly in some of the more Gilead-orientated areas of the United States. Organizations like Liberty Counsel are ramping up their court case efforts, and threatening various states and companies with legal action over their vaccine mandates. There are detailed video guides on several alt-right websites on how to apply for a religious exemption to vaccination, and many evangelical pastors will provide exemption documents to pretty much anyone who asks.

To qualify, an individual needs to show "sincerely held beliefs" against getting vaccinated, a vague requirement not explained in law anywhere. There are two main religious reasons why people might claim a religious exemption. Firstly, they may object to the use of aborted fetal cell lines in their production (although as I have explained in a previous post, the cell lines used are cloned lines from two original aborted fetuses dating back to 1973 and 1985, and opposition on these grounds would also apply to any number of other vaccines developed over the last 30 or 40 years). 

The second argument makes use of a specific Bible verse claiming that the human body is "God's temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19, if you are really interested), and that defiling it by deliberately pricking a small hole in it is therefore a sin. This might seem ridiculous to most people, but there are a few fundamentalist religious types who probably sincerely believe this (and many more who might claim to because it is convenient). 

Anyway, thousands of people will probably claim a religious exemption as an excuse not to get a COVID shot, including many who have never objected to vaccination before, so politicized has this become. And all this despite the fact that Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have all advised their followers to get vaccinated, and Pope Francis has specifically called it "morally.acceptable" and even '"an act of love". But then, morality it ls not really what this is about, is it?