Sunday, October 31, 2021

Perdido Street Station is not your every day fantasy novel

I have read and enjoyed several of China Miéville's books, but never one quite like Perdido Street Station.

It is a 700-page fantasy tour de force. You could call it steampunk, I guess, but not in a recognizable William Gibson/Bruce Sterling kind of way. Some of it seems recognizable some of the time, but then Miéville will throw in bizarro aliens or dimension-shifting or entirely improbable thaumaturgical pseudo-science, just to keep you off-balance. It is, perhaps, alternative reality steampunk.

The book is set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, and the city is perhaps the most important character in the book, its protagonist. It bears some passing resemblance to some of the most sordid parts of Dickensian London, but more extreme and more varied: "...this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god". Words like "suffocating", "stinking", "gloomy", "monstrous", "grotesque", "decayed", "wasted", "putrid", "chaotic", "grubby", "noisome" and "gangrenous" abound in descriptions of the city's streets and neighbourhoods.

In the main, science has not progressed past steam power, gas lighting, trains and airships, and horse-drawn carriages are still the norm. But thaumaturgy (low-level supernatural or quasi-magical intervention) has been raised to an almost sciento-religious art, allowing for the incorporation of mechanical intrusions into flesh-and-blood bodies, rudimentary robotic helpers, and the grafting (both voluntary and otherwise) of other body and animal parts onto human bodies. Proto-computers, using punched-card technology, even put in an appearance. There are bits of science and pseudo-science thrown in for good measure (including "crisis mathematics"), but hard science fiction this is most definitely not.

Plus, there are bona fide alien species thrown into the mix: insect people; flying beings; water-based creatures with the power to mould and control water; cultured giant spiders that straddle different dimensions at will; giant moths that feed on the dreams of sentient species; intelligent cactus people, for God's sake! For most of these species, it's a dog-eat-dog-eat-garbage-eat-whatever-they-can-get-their-hands/claws-on world. Mistrust and cynicism are essential life-skills, and quiet desperation is the norm. It's not an edifying vision of civilization.

But, into this mix are thrown some genuinely likeable characters, both human and alien, and the book revolves in large part around the struggle of these lovable, error-prone "good guys" against some of the nastiest and most violent of the others. The most important character, though, is the city itself, in all its lurid and dissolute glory.

And, best of all, it is well-written, something that often gets overlooked in fantasy and science fiction circles. Everything about life in New Crobuzon is excessive, and much of Miéville''s prose is too. But this is a 700-page book, so words like "palimpsest", "scoriatic", "mephitic", "sussurus" and "ossified" are going to find their way in, no? The dialogue reads quite naturally too, not like the usual stilted sci-fi offerings.

For all its ambition, it remains immensely readable. I'm a slow reader, and 700 pages a big ask for me. But this one just flew by.

Why Pfizer's vaccine for kids will be different from the adult vaccine

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for kids between the ages of 5 and 11, which is about to be approved in the US, Canada and elsewhere, will not be the same as the vaccines given to adults and teens thus far, and it's not clear to me exactly why. Or maybe it is...

I understand that kids are little people and so the dosage will be different (it will be a third of the size of an adult dose). However, the diluent, storage requirements and even the formulation of the vaccine itself will also apparently be different. I have not seen a good explanation (or ANY explanation, come to think of it) of why that is.

My guess is that Pfizer don't want us using the same vaccine with a different dosage. They want to be able to sell a whole load (billions!) of new vaccines. Knowing that they have us by the proverbial short and curlies, they know that, desperate as we are, we will buy whatever they are selling.

Cynical? Moi?

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Another Toronto hospital changes its name

As another Toronto hospital changes its name, you have to stop and think where all this is leading.

Bridgepoint Hospital, built in 2013 and now part of the Sinai Health hospital system, is described as "Toronto's pre-eminent complex care and rehabilitation hospital". It's a beautiful facility, partly, I suppose because it is so new, and much less pokey than most of the city's older hospitals.

Then, this year, Jay and Barbara Hennick gave a "transformational" $36 million gift, which is described as "unrestricted". It's certainly a huge and inspiring philanthropic gift, and kudos to the Hennicks for such a generous donation.

Except that clearly it wasn't unrestricted, as now the hospital has completely changed its name to Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital. Setting aside the question of how many millions it will cost to change all the signage, all the stationery, all the online references and websites, and everything else that will now need to be changed, I just can't get my head around why a thoughtful and philanthropic (and clearly very rich) donor would insist on such a name change. 

I had exactly the same reaction when Toronto East General Hospital changed its name to Michael Garron Hospital a few years ago. Is it just vanity that would lead someone to insist on such a name change  sure, a hankering to see one's name up in lights? Sure, rename a wing or something, put up a plaque (or many plaques), but it seems pretty gauche to me to require the whole hospital to change its name.

I've made many charitable donations over the years, not of course on the level of $36 million, but I can't imagine the kind of ostentation needed to have one's name permanently emblazoned on the object of one's philanthropy. I don't mean that the donation should be completely anonymous: make it as public as possible pour encourager les autres. Praise the guys to the heavens. Just maybe don't rename the hospital. After all, over three-quarters of the hospital's financing still comes from the Ministry of Health, i.e. us taxpayers.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Should doors open inwards or outwards?

We had a bit of a discussion today on whether doors should open inwards or outwards. Ah, the level of our conversations. Deep, indeed.

I have vague memories of when we moved from the UK to Canada, many years ago, of the doors opening differently from doors in the Old Country, but I may be mis-remembering (I do that sometimes). Indeed, maybe there is no rule. Our front door opens inwards, and our back door opens outwards. Go figure.

After a little research (and a little more research), it seems like there are no fixed rules, but there are some conventions and some common sense recommendations. For example, interior doors tend to open inwards into a room, mainly so that they don't encroach on a narrow hallway or common area, and passing household members are not decapitated as they pass by. This may also save space in a restricted common hallway. Doors to restricted spaces like linen closets, though, usually open outwards because there is just no room to do anything else.

Exterior doors also tend to open inwards, but for different reasons, principally for security: an exterior door that opened outwards would have its hinges  on the outside which is a potential security risk. Inward-opening exterior doors are also less prone to being caught in the wind, damaged by rain, or blocked by a snow storm. Inward-opening doors may also be more easily fitted with additional security features like chains and latches, and make it easier to slam the door on unwelcome visitors.

On the other hand, exterior doors on public buildings, stores, etc, tend to open outwards for safety reasons: a panicked crowd trying to leave a building in an emergency can more easily do so through outward-opening doors. Fire escape doors (either official or unofficial) also tend to open outwards for much the same reason.

Sweden and some other Scandinavian countries, however, usually don't follow these rules, for reasons that are largely lost to history. Their front doors usually open outwards, probably following a serious fire at some point, or possibly so that snow does not enter when the door is opened. Sounds a bit suspect to me.

So, no firm rules, but some compelling reasons to follow the conventions. Unless you are Swedish.

Carbon dioxide continues to climb, even during the pandemic

Back in the early days of the pandemic, in what feels now almost like another lifetime, there was a frisson of excitement over global carbon emissions. With most of the world's economies all but closed down, and our usually busy streets echoing with a ghostly silence, the smog lifted, we could suddenly hear bird-song, and the inexorable increase in our greenhouse gas emissions began to abate. There was a fleeting moment of what felt like climate change hope. Maybe you remember it.

Well, it didn't last long. The latest report on the state of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the World Meteorological Organization makes gloomy reading. It shows that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 413 parts per million in 2020, and continues to grow at 2.5 part per million each year (in fact, that pace of increase has slightly increased over the last ten years, if anything, despite all our efforts). 

2020, the year of the plague, the year of climate hope, looks just like any other year on the graph of carbon concentration against time, which sketches a pretty straight upward slope from the 1980s to date. 2020, by year end, did not even show as a slight dip on that steady slope. (Actually, it did fall slightly by 5.6% in 2020, but that is such a negligible amount that the overall slope looks unchanged. Given the bounce-back of the economy in 2021, this year's increase seems likely to erase any such dip, however slight.) Increases were also observed in methane and nitrous oxide, the next two most important greenhouse gases, particularly methane.

All in all, it's a sobering report and, although climate scientists continue to remain optimistic, at least in their public statements, it's hard to see a silver lining in these burgeoning clouds. A goal of 1.5°C warming globally seems like a distant memory, and even 2°C seems unattainable: we are currently headed for about 2.7-3.1°C (i.e. catastrophic). It's no surprise, then, that most Canadians are pessimistic about the fight against climate change.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

What does "fulsome" really mean?

"Fulsome" is one of those words that politicians like to use a lot. A "fulsome apology", "fulsome praise", "in fulsome detail", a "fulsome investigation", that kind of thing. 

I've always been of the opinion that most people are misusing the word in most cases, and that they would have been better served using a simpler word like "full" or "complete". But it seems like this is another word that has changed its meaning (or at least added a new meaning) in recent decades, quite possibly as a result of constant misuse leading to a de facto acceptance of the new (albeit incorrect) usage. "Momentarily" is another such example, and I am sure there are several others.

"Fulsome" is an old word, and it has gone through a whole host of changes in meaning over the centuries. Back in the 13th century, it originally meant "copious". Over the years, it began to be used to mean "plump" or "shapely" or "well-developed", but also "filling" or "heavy" (as in food). This latter sense gradually morphed to a more pejorative meaning of "cloying" or "excessive", and even "nauseating", "repulsive" or "offensive" (even though the root of "ful-" is not, as dictionary-maker Noah Webster apparently thought, the same as that of "foul"). 

At any rate the meanings of "offensive", "overdone" and "exceeding the bounds of good taste" became the SOLE sense of the word "fulsome" by the 18th century, as well as the equally pejorative sense of "excessively complimentary or flattering". These meanings can still be found in the dictionary, and it is particularly the latter meaning that I was brought up with, hence my conviction that all those politicians are just "getting it wrong".

But it seems that, in more recent decades, a meaning of "copious" or "generous" - not dissimilar to its early, medieval meaning - has once more come to be accepted, and this meaning too appears in today's dictionaries. Now, I don't have any direct evidence, but I assume that this has occurred mainly because it sounds like "full", but it sounds fancier, more official somehow, and not because someone did some exhaustive research into the word's ancient etymology.

So, maybe when Justin Trudeau issues yet another "fulsome apology", he is not so wrong after all. Maybe I am just living in the past, and the English language has just moved on without me.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Who will pay for Egypt's new capital city megaproject?

I had no idea, but Egypt is well underway in building a whole new capital city, about 45 km due east from the chaos, pollution and overcrowding of Cairo. 

A megaproject in the Egyptian mold of the Pyramids, Luxor, Aswan Dam, and the more underwhelming Sadat City, the new city is to be either the "birth of a new state" or "el-Sissi's vanity project" depending on who you choose to believe. One thinks of Brazil's equally ambitious Brasilia capital city project of the 1960s, a surprisingly successful venture, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its splendid architecture, but still beset with ongoing problems of liveability and cultural spirit.

The city appears to be as yet unnamed, generally referred to as the New Administrative Capital. "Egypt" is apparently one possible name, although don't rule out "el-Sissi City", or maybe the tongue-twister "Sissicity". It is being billed as a "smart" and "sustainable" city, wired with 5G technology and replete with energy-efficient buildings and train and elevated monorail networks.

The national Parliament and government complex (34 buildings over 800 acres, in modernistic Pharaonic style) is supposedly already 97% completed, and is rumoured to have cost around US$3 billion. The central business district (20 buildings over 200 acres, built by Chinese contractors, including the 400-metre tall Iconic Tower which will be the tallest building in Africa) is around half finished. Still to come is the residential portion of the city, which is expected to accommodate 6 million of Cairo's 22 million inhabitants (presumably the richest 6 million). Several new mosques are already open, along with the largest cathedral in the Middle East, a sop to Egypt's Coptic Christians who make up around 10% of the population. There is even a Universities of Canada in Egypt campus in prospect.

Sounds nice, eh? Except that Egypt is not the richest or most prosperous country in the world. Neither is it the most transparent or principled of countries. The total costs involved are not known, other than some elements, like US$3 billion for the government buildings, and $2.7 billion for the monorail network. Also not known are the financing arrangements, although one always suspects the finagling of China behind the scenes of such projects.

Anyway, the project is going ahead full steam, and I guess it will be completed some time soon. Whether it will achieve even the mixed success of Brasilia remains to be seen. And also, whether it will bankrupt the country.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Solar panels a thousand times more efficient?

I have a roof full of solar panels, and they are great, but they don't supply enough power for our daily electrical needs (about half, actually). Imagine, then, if I had solar panels that were a thousand times more efficient.

Well, that's the promise of a totally new kind of solar panel being developed in Germany. Researchers at  Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg have produced a solar panel using alternating crystalline layers of barium titanate, strontium titanate and calcium titanate, instead of the traditional silicon-based cells. The new cells use about 500 alternating layers of these ferroelectric and paraelectric materials, each about 200 nanometres thick. This arrangement apparently separates the positive and negative charges in the same photovoltaic device, thereby increasing their efficiency by orders of magnitude (somehow).

It is still early days in the development of this new technology, and I have no idea how rare or expensive the ingredients (or whether the supply is controlled by China!) But, nevertheless, it is an exciting new avenue that seems to have lots of promise for the future.

Friday, October 08, 2021

UN declares a clean environment to be a human right

The UN Human Rights Council has voted to recognize that access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental human right. The motion, jointly proposed by Costa Rica, Morocco, Maldives, Switzerland and Slovenia, noted that the global environmental crisis, particularly climate change and poor air quality, leads to some nine million premature deaths every year.

The motion passed with 43 votes in favour, with just Russia, India, China and Japan abstaining (the Council is made up of 47 rotating countries; Canada and USA are not currently members). Britain initially opposed the motion, but eventually came around and voted for it because of its commitment to deal with climate change, but stressed that the fact that it is not legally binding was a major factor in this decision...

It's true that the ruling doesn't have any actual legal standing, but it does send a powerful moral message, and it is thought that it may have some significant impact on legal cases currently underway in various countries concerning climate change and other environmental matters.

Many environmentalists are lauding the decision as a game-changer, but the more hard-nosed economists and politicians are pretty much ignoring it as so much hot air (which seems appropriate). Me, I'd like to think it might be important, but the cynical part of me, which grows as I age, has lower expectations.

Alberta whining about equalization again

Alberta is whining again. Well, what's new? How many times have I written those, or very similar, words?

This time, the province has decided to add in a referendum question to the upcoming municipal election ballots, asking for Albertans' views on equalization. The question asks: "Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 - Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments - be removed from the constitution?” 

Equalization - established back in the 1950s, and enshrined in the Canadian Constitution in 1982 - is part of a system of provincial transfer payments, along with the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer. It is a system of wealth redistribution, based on the putative "fiscal capacity" of the various provinces. The "have" provinces effectively pay tax funds into a pot to be shared among the "have-not" provinces, in the aspirational belief that Canada is a country, not just a collection of private fiefdoms. 

Quebec is by far the largest recipient of equalization payments (although PEI receives the most per capita), and Manitoba and the Maritime provinces also benefit. However, it is not the case that the "have" provinces contribute these funds directly: as the Library of Parliament explains, "Equalization is financed entirely from government of Canada general revenues", i.e. it is raised through federal taxes on all Canadians.

Many in Alberta, though, want to keep all the fortuitous advantages of its natural resources, particularly after a couple of (relatively) lean years in the province. This is a selfish, dog-eat-dog, deeply conservative attitude, profoundly uninterested in the common good. It's not even that they want to conserve the fruits of their honest labour; they just happen to live in a place that has a bunch of lucrative fossil fuels. But, hey, that's Alberta.

The people of Alberta have been force-fed the idea that the province is being unfairly treated by the country by their Conservative government for years, and specifically the idea that the equalization formula is unfair to Alberta. So, it is more than likely that the referendum will return the response the current government wants. Not that this will have any actual practical effect, of course - ending equalization payments is not within provincial jurisdiction - it's all about political optics. And the foundering Kenney government needs all the help it can get right now.

But the reality is that Alberta is still by far the richest province in Canada, and is in no position to complain. According to StatsCan, Alberta had a median family income of $101,780 in 2018 (not sure why 2018 should be the latest figures available), way ahead of Saskatchewan ($89,760) and Ontario ($89,270), not to mention lowly New Brunswick ($77,020) and Nova Scotia ($78,920).  The territories of Yukon and Northwest Territories had even higher median incomes than Alberta, but they are tiny economies and populations which have to deal with an extremely high cost of living.

Just for good measure, the Canadian Income Survey for 2019 shows that the median after-tax income for families and unattached individuals in Alberta was $72,500, compared to $66,600 in Ontario and $65,700 in British Columbia (and $53,300 in Nova Scotia and $55,600 in Quebec, at the other end of the scale).

So, don't cry for Alberta. Despite decades of mismanagement and short-sighted investment decisions, it's doing alright thank you. Of course, the oil nd gas won't last forever, so it does need to get its act together soon. But for now, it remains a "have" province, and it owes it to the less fortunate parts of the country to contribute its dues. That's the Canadian way.

Just so you know, the other referendum question on the upcoming ballot is "Do you want Alberta to adopt year-round Daylight Saving Time, which is summer hours, eliminating the need to change our clocks twice a year?” Heady stuff!

Monday, October 04, 2021

Supreme Court or Santa Claus Convention?

There was a great picture of Canada's Supreme Court in this weekend's Globe and Mail.

But it's really hard not to think of a Santa Claus Convention.