Thursday, December 23, 2021

Provinces' new healthcare plan seems totally illogical

I'm no health expert but, from a purely logical standpoint, Quebec and Ontario's latest plan seems like a particularly daft idea. 

Desperate to keep as many healthcare staff as possible on the job, both provinces are apparently considering mandating that infected but asymptomatic health workers stay at work, even as they continue with daily self-testing. 

I understand that the provinces need all hands on deck at the moment, but this seems like a particularly short-sighted and counter-productive plan. Surely, in the era of Omicron, it will just lead to more transmission within the workplace, and more and more people infected, some of whom will be asymptomatic, but some of whom will be symptomatic. So, the healthcare sector will lose even more active personnel, and the provinces will be in a worse situation than ever.

Am I missing something?

Casu martzu and other disgusting ideas

I happened to read in a novel about a Sardinian cheese called casu martzu (or casu marzu, or a few other local dialect spellings), which I had never heard of before.

It's one of those unlikely local delicacies, along the lines of durian fruits, stinky tofu, monkey brains, etc, that give the impression that someone has gone out of their way to create something deliberately disgusting and offensive.

Casu martzu is a cheese, originally a sheep milk cheese similar to pecorino, that has been allowed to be infested with live cheese fly larva (okay, yes, maggots).  The digestive action of the maggots promotes an "advanced level of fermentation", so that the cheese becomes very soft, with some seeping liquid (làgrima, or "tears"). 

Of course, partakers risk the larvae surviving their stomach acid and infesting the eater, so casu martzu has been banned for some years by the European Union on health grounds, but that hasn't stopped a vigorous black market in Sardinia, Corsica and a few other areas of Italy, and production is believed to be worth around €2-3 million.

People are weird, right?

Canada's infrastructure planning process is the worst - it's official

It should probably vome as no surprise, but it still smarts nevertheless. A study comparing the infrastructure planning processes in Europe, Switzerland, USA, Australia and Canada, has marked the Canadian system as the least rigorous and most ad hoc.

The study concludes that Canada is the only one of the countries under consideration in which major transportation projects are not planned as part of a national long-term strategy. Furthermore, there is little coordination among the various different levels of government involved (leading to second-rate projects being undertaken, and huge time and budget overruns), and no discernable system for performance monitoring and evaluation after projects are implemented. Sounds about right.

And we can't just blame it all on our size and our decentralized federal system: the USA, Australia and Switzerland all have similar federal systems, and they seem to be able to make it work. It particularly smarts that (what we think of as) dysfunctional America performs better than Canada. 

This study, which comes from the unlikely source of the European Court of Auditors, should be a wake-up call for all levels of Canadian government. But, somehow, I'm not expecting anything to come of it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Toronto's worst COVID numbers are now in the affluent areas near the lake

In the early (and even middle) days of the pandemic, all the talk was about how the areas in Toronto with the highest COVID cases were the poorer area in the north of the city, largely populated by immigrants carrying out essential services, and how the virus was - yes, I actually saw this written! - racist. At the very least, it was said, the pandemic was accentuating the polarization of the city, and highlighting existing inequalities.

Well, nearly two years later, an analysis of where Toronto's cases are being recorded now paints a very different picture (here's a link to the original interactive map by Toronto Public Health, part of a treasure trove of information on local COVID stats). Neighbourhoods like the downtown core and the Beaches, where I live, which had very low case counts last year, are now leading the pack, and the Rexdales and Agincourts of the city are now doing relatively well. The Toronto Islands and the Downtown Waterfront is the current hotspot with 625 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by The Beaches with 612. These rates have tripled in just the last two weeks. 

I have not seen any good explanation of this turnaround, either medical or sociological, although suggested reasons include unequal access to testing facilities, post-infection immunity in the early hotspots, or excessive social gatherings in more wealthy areas. But all those outraged race activists have certainly gone very quiet.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Canada is so predictable and that is maybe not a bad thing

Invest Canada, a government agency established to attact overseas investment in Canada, is running an advertising campaign abroad which culminates the tagline, "Canada is so predictable", suggesting that Canada is a safe and cautious, even if unexciting, place for foreign investors to park their money. It has a stable macroeconomy and safer-than-safe banks, and you may not make a killing here but you won't lose your shirt.

Some Canadians in the financial industry, though, are incensed and shocked - shocked, I tell you! - that Canada would sell itself short in this way. They argue that Canada's advertising  should be all about innovation, entrepreneurship and ambition, as well as equal opportunities, multiculturalism, tolerance and respect.

Well, I haven't seen the ad, but it seems to me that Canada could do a lot worse than portray itself as a safe amd reliable country, especially after the roller-coaster ride of the last couple of years. Some people thrive on stress and risk, but many more don't, and, particularly as I get older, I am right there with them. 

There are still many risky places where you can gamble your money - you could go into tech startups, cryptocurrrencies or the developing markets. But there are not that many places where you can mitigate your risk while still making a respectable profit, and I can well believe that there is quite an appetite for that kind of thing at the moment. Canada is one of those places and I for one, am more than happy to be considered polite, boring and pedictable in these perilous and precarious times.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Joe Manchin is a Republican in everything but name

What a strange beast is Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is nominally a Democrat, and yet he has repeatedly voted against the Democrats' every move. 

The latest is his decision to vote against Joe Biden's sweeping $1.7 trillion social and climate spending bill, the so-called Build Back better Act. He admitted this during an interview on Republican mouthpiece Fox News - well, of course he did - despite previous promises to toe the party line, and his private discussions this week with President Biden. Nobody really knows why Manchin is taking this line on this particular bill - he muttered something about inflation, and something about Joe Biden knowing the "real reasons" (something to do with White House staff, maybe)- it would be too much tonm expect him to justify himself.

With the Senate equally balanced (nominally), a vote anywhere other than with the Democratic caucus is essentially a vote for the Republicans. Indeed, the Democrats have lambasted Manchin, almost to a person; the only support he has received is from Republicans. Go figure. The Republican Party has repeated tried to get Manchin to cross the Senate to the GOP side and, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to. But if he continues to consistently oppose the Democrats, then he is a de facto Republican anyway, wherever he sits.

The Democrats have now had enough of Manchin. He has now gone past the stage of being a thoughtful, independent and principled maverick; he appears to be deliberately sabotaging the Democcrat agenda. You have to wonder whether someone isn't paying the man. Certainly, West Virginia is the centre of America's beleaguered coal industry, so that wouldn't surprise me at all.

The important bill is not quite dead in the water yet, but without Manchin's vote in the ultra-polarized political landscape of modern America, it will be very hard to pass it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Quebec company's concrete alternative absorbs rather than emits carbon dioxide

Good news is in short supply these days, so lets celebrate the possibility that concrete, one of the most carbon-intensive and ubiquitous building materials we have, might be approaching its end-days.

Concrete is everywhere, and it's manufacture is responsible for at least 8% of the world's greenhouse gases. If the global concrete industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter, after only China and the USA. Most of concrete's carbon footprint comes from the manufacture of its binding agent, cement, which involves heating limestone to 1,400°C (usually using a fossil fuel). As the limestone breaks down, it releases another dose of carbon dioxide. Double whammy!

What, though, if we could do away with cement completely? Well, Quebec start-up Carbicrete's product not only eliminates cement completely (and its GHG emissions in the process), but it uses steel slag, a by-product of the steel-making process, as a binding agent, which can be injected with carbon dioxide from industrial plants, thereby converting it into a mineral (a kind of carbon capture and storage process). So, it turns the manufacture of concrete from a CO2-emitting process into a CO2-saving one - negative carbon emissions! - while, at the same time, utilising the steel slag waste. What's more, Carbicrete is 30% stronger and 10-20% less expensive than traditional concrete. Win-win-win!

Carbicrete's process can easily be incorporated into any existing concrete production plant, and a collaboration with Quebec comcrete manufacturer Patio Dummond is already going ahead. Let's hope this one takes off.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry a little too ... entertaining

I will confess that I don't really care much about Formula One (F1) motor-racing. My Dad used to love it, so I was forced to sit through hours of it as a kid in England, but I never progressed past finding it noisy and tedious.

It is still very popular in Europe and particularly in the UK, especially in this era of local hero Lewis Hamilton, and I have in-laws that are obsessed by it. It is also becoming increasingly popular in North America, not least, it has to be said, as a result of Netflix's behind-the-scenes series Drive to Survive. Some observers wonder, though, if it's not becoming less of a sport and more of an entertainment, similar in some says to (dare I say it?) professional wrestling. The grand finale of the latest season makes that suggestion even more plausible.

Lewis Hamilton was the favourite to win this year's championship, giving him record-breaking eight title (he is currently tied with all-time great Michael Schumacher). That was the expected fairy tale ending. But, enter the "bad guy", Dutch racer Max Verstappen. After a controversial race last week, in which Verstappen "brake-tested" Hamilton and was handed a penalty, the grand finale was just as controversial

Hamilton was comfortably in control of the race from the start until, with just five laps to go, another driver, Nicholas Lafiti crashed. After a combination of controversial decisions by the race control people, clever tactics by the Verstappen team, and some sheer blind luck, Verstappen pulled ahead of Hamilton on the last lap, and won the race and therefore the championship. Hamilton's team objected, Verstappen thanked his lucky stars, and the media was chock full of reports, explanations and heated commentary.

Heady stuff, and heaps of excitement for F1 fans. But, perhaps a little too ... dramatic, do you think? I'm not saying the whole thing was fixed, but all the necessary ingredients for such a convoluted, stirring and edge-of-the-seat finish to the season were hard to imagine. 

Anyway, like I say, I don't really care that much about F1 racing. But lots of people do. And now many more are hooked on the sport.

Doug Ford hates electric vehicles but he wants to make more of them

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, in his usual muddled way, wants to establish the province as a leader in the manufacture of electric cars (EVs) which, like it or not - and Ford definitely likes it not - are the vehicles of the future.

Ontario has, through no efforts of Premier Ford himself, managed to secure contracts for big auto makers like Ford and GM to build EVs here. But Mr. Ford wants more.

This is the same Doug Ford who, among his very first actions as Premier, scrapped Ontario's generous $14,000 EV rebates (at the same time as he scrapped the cap-and-trade system that funded them), stopped building charging stations (and even removed some!), and dropped a requirement for new homes to include the wiring for EV chargers. All told, Ford has done more than anyone else to discourage electric vehicles in Ontario. 

Mr. Ford certainly has no intention of reintroducing EV subsidies, although Prime Minister Trudeau may do it for him. But then, you see, he doesn't necessarily want to see EVs on the street, he just wants the big auto manufacturers to be producing them here. He's a complicated man is Doug Ford, that's about as charitable as I can be.

Ever seen a barreleye fish? Me neither

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) recently filmed a rarely seen fish, deep in the ocean off the coast of California.

The barreleye fish (Macropinna microstoma) has a bulbous translucent head, and its light-sensitive eyes, which glow bright green in the camera's light, are housesd inside the fluid-filled shield that covers the fish's head. It's eyes can be orientated either straight up or straight ahead as needed. The two dark-coloured spots at the front of the fish's head, which look like eyes, are actually it's smell organs. The fish lurks around motionless in the twilight zone of the deep ocean waiting for unwary zooplankton or jellyfish, which it then snaps up.

The barreleye fish is probably not that rare, but has only been seen a total of nine times, and this is the best video footage obtained thus far. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

If you think that Omicron is just another variant...

If you were in any doubt as to just how virulent the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is, then a recent article in The Guardian should put those doubts to rest:

  • 80 out of 111 guests at a party at a restaurant in Norway contracted the virus, most of them the Omicron variant, despite them all being double vaccinated and having tested negative in a rapid test before the event (what they were thinking having such a large indoor event at times like these is an open question).
  • All 7 of a group of German tourists who travelled to South Africa came down with the Omicron variant, despite double vaccinations AND a booster shot (again, why go to South Africa, of all places?)
  • 17 out of 21 attendees at a "night out" in Britain caught the virus, despite vaccinations and boosters (sigh! - 21 lads having a "night out": why?)

These are just anecdotal reports, of course, but the fact that the Omicron variant is spreading so rapidly (the reproduction number for Omicron stands at 4.1, compared to 1.32 for other variants, leading to case numbers doubling every two or three days), and establishing itself as the dominant variant so conclusively, suggests that we should be treating it very seriously. And maybe quit with the large parties? 

Admittedly, symptoms of the new variant seem to be relatively mild in the main (although there is some controversy about even that claim), but some of the people contracting it will have other co-morbidities, and the more cases that run wild, the more new variants are likely to arise, some of which may not be so benign. And, anyway, never forget that the Omicron variant can still kill.

The next few months are going to see high, probably record, cases, both here and everywhere else, regardless of our stellar vaccination rollout and any other public health measures we care to throw at it. Some people are taking solace from the fact the South Africa's Omicron cases are maybe starting to dwindle, possibly suggesting a relatively short wave. But South Africa is a very different place from Canada, particularly in the numbers of people who have already contracted the virus, so nothing is a given. Buckle up for a bumpy ride.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Missouri forced to abandon its COVID measures

Maybe the jurisdiction where you live is not handling the COVID-19 pandemic all that well, but spare a thought for the poor people of the American mid-western state of Missouri.

Earlier this week, Missouri's Attorney General Eric Schmidt issued cease-and-desist letters to the state's public health departments and school districts, which will force them to abandon any COVID tracking and prevention work, including mask mandates, quarantine orders, case investigations, contact tracing and announcements of cases and deaths. This comes as the state, like so many other regions, is seeing a worrying spike in COVID cases (124% increase over the last two weeks) and hospitalizations (50% increase).

And the reasoning behind this? Well, there isn't much. Apparently, some Missouri citizens have conplained that health authorities were overstepping their constitutional remits by trying to help people and save lives, and the state's Republican politicians have of course jumped on this because, you know, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without anyone telling you what to do, the usual stuff.  God bless America because it needs all the help it can get.

If we are all settlers, who "owns" Canada?

I was listening to a documentary on the radio about who really "owns" Canada, and specific parts of it. The most recent arrivals, the British/Europeans, are widely considered to only possess the land by a legal construct known as "de facto possession" which is essentially the same as squatters rights.

The Indigenous population does not recognize the colonial powers' ownership of the land at all. In fact, one Indigenous spokesman on the programme was at pains to point our that there is no concept of ownership of the land at all in Indigenous culture, and that the land is actually owned by future generations. That sounds all very laudable, but it struck me as a bit theoretical and disingenuous, and I would bet that, if you asked ten Indigenous people, nine of them would say that they owned it.

Anyway, what I found myself thinking was that very few places in the world are peopled and administered by their original population, and maybe that is just the way of the world, the way of history. The "native" population of the British Isles, for example, is actually made up of invading peoples from various European sources, from Vikings to Germanic tribes to French-Norman peoples. Even the "original" Celtic tribes actually emigrated there from Europe in the first place.

So, are the Iroquois the rightful owners of Quebec and Ontario, for example? The Iroquois/Haudenosaunee were "an imperialist expansionist culture" which took much of modern-day Eastern Canada and the USA by force during bloody wars over many centuries. Further east, the war-like Mi'kmaq people pushed out the "original" Iroquois settlers from much of the Maritimes. Do they have a better "right" to the land than the later invading Europeans? It seems to me that we are all settlers, all colonists, if we go back far enough. Who, then, is to say who can lay claim to a particular piece of land.

The same problem of how far back into history you want to go is at the root of many other intractable conflicts throughout the world - whether it be Palestine, Taiwan or Nagorno-Karabakh - and there is no real solution to it.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods (or is it?)

Much as I admire Salman Rushdie, and enjoyed his book of essays, Languages of Truth, it turns out that he is probably not quite correct about his analysis of the Norse word Ragnarok. Whether we are talking about AS Byatt's book, or the Marvel movie, or the Norwegian young adult TV series, that is the usual spelling we English speakers use, but the origins of the word are way more complicated.

According to Mr. Rushdie, in the ancient Norse epic poem the Poetic Edda, the source of most Norse myths and legends, the word used most often is Ragnaråk, which means the "fall (or destruction) of the gods", and only once is the spelling Ragnarøk used, which changes the meaning to the more poetic "twilight of the gods", which was then used in Wagner's German translation Götterdämmerung (also "twilight of the gods"). But the original Norse epic chronicled the various gruesome deaths of Odin, Thor, Freyr, etc, so the sense is definitely of the "final destiny of the gods", not some beautiful romantic twilight event.

Checking with Wikipedia, which, I'm sorry to say, I trust trust more implicitly than Mr. Rushdie (especially as it comes with sources and references), he has it only half right. There is indeed some confusion between the "fall (or destruction or doom) of the gods" and the "twilight of the gods", but the former is actually spelled ragnarök, and the latter ragnarøkr or ragnarøkkr. (I may even have that wrong - it all seems to be unnecessarily complicated and convoluted). 

Anyway, it appears that we should have been using ragnarök all along, and any interpretation as the "twilight of the gods" is mere romantic poetic license.

A few photos from Crich

My daughter says I should post my photos of our time here in the UK on my blog (yes, this blog that nobody ever reads). And I would probably only delete them otherwise, so maybe I should.

We're here visiting ailing relatives, mainly my mother, and staying in an AirBnB well away from the madding crowd, in Crich, Derbyshire. Crich is a small village - a two-pub village, to be fair - perched on a hill in Derbyshire's Peak District (I know that very well from my morning runs - steep hills in every direction). It's probably not that well known as a destination (maybe among the hiking set), but it's a typical Derbyshire village of stone houses, maybe better preserved than most.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Why is RT-LAMP testing for COVID not more widely used?

We're currently in the UK visiting ailing relatives, and travelling here has been quite an undertaking, what with all the COVID testing and documentation to deal with. But we have managed it (although how people who are not vaguely tech-savvy and at least moderately educated I don't know). We have one more hurdle to jump through as regards testing, and that is the self-administered PCR test withing 72 hours of our return to Canada, and we have that waiting ready to go.

But I notice that Air Canada are offering (for Aeroplan members at least) RT-LAMP molecular tests that can be bought in Canada and taken with travellers, to be used before returning to Canada. The tests are self-administered in combination with a Telehealth Canada video session (so, yes, you need to be at least a little tech-savvy for this too). Results, though, are available within 45 minutes, which reduces the stress of waiting for a 24-hour or 48-hour result from a regular PCR test. 

The Air Canada "reduced" price for the RT-LAMP test is $149, so about the same as the pre-trip PVR test test did, although still not cheap, and more than the UK PCR test we booked. It might be a good option, though, for countries where testing is more expensive, or just difficult to arrange. And, yes, the tests are accepted by Health Canada for travel purposes.

The RT-LAMP test - the full name is reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification test, hence the shortened acronym - is pretty accurate according to studies, comparable with the gold standard PCR test. So, I wonder why it is not more widely known or used?