Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Freedom Convoy's funds withheld by crowd-funding platform

It's interesting to read that GoFundMe is withholding the $4.7 million raised on its platform by the so-called "Freedom Convoy" of Canadian truckers opposed to the vaccine mandate for essential workers crossing the Canada-USA border (in both directions). It had never occurred to me that they would be allowed to do so.

In its statement, the crowd-funding platform says, "We require that fundraisers be transparent about the flow of funds and have a clear plan for how those funds will be spent". Fair enough, but the campaign states that the funds will be used for food, fuel and lodgings for the truckers involved. Isn't that clear and transparent enough?

It is estimated that some 16,000 (about 13%) of the 120,000 Canadian truckers who regularly travel across the border are not vaccinated, and these are the individuals who will lose their jobs as a result of the government's vaccine mandate. But, you know, they've had a long time to fix that, and they have deliberately chosen not to, and I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for them.

I've read letters suggesting that long-distance truckers don't really interact with anyone, just some spending all their time on their own in the right cab, so why the need for vaccination? But clearly that is rubbish: as another letter points out, truckers routinely interact with dispatch offices, warehouses, truck stops, publish washrooms, coffee shops, repair shops .. oh, and their own homes and family dwellings. And I think we, as a country, could probably afford to have 13% of our food missing from grocery shelves anyway, at least temporarily.

It's hard to be sympathetic to the protesting truckers. The Liberals oppose the "Freedom Convoy", especially given some of the violent language that has been circulating on social media, as does the NDP and the Canadian Trucking Association (the Conservatives, predictably, are unwilling to oppose them). But interesting that a fundraising platform like GoFundMe can actually withhold funds already raised.

Sale of Canadian lithium mine to China ill-advised

When the state-owned Chinese mining giant Zijin Mining Group made its bid to buy up Canadian lithium mining company Neo Lithium Corp, I imagine most people expected a strict formal national security review, and most would have expected a negative ruling. After all, Zijin has already bought out several Canadian copper and gold mining companies, and lithium is arguably an even more strategic resource.

It came as quite a slap in the face, then, when Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced in record time (45 days, the fastest possible timeline for approval under the security review rules) that the takeover would be allowed. And no formal review was actually carried out, as the company itself confirms.

Lithium, of course, is the new oil, a critical mineral essential for electric car battery production and many other high-tech uses. Canada currently has no lithium production or processing facilities, most of which are either owned, or in the process of being bought up, by China. And given the way China operates these days, do we really want to hand it complete control over such an essential mineral?

When questioned about why a more in-depth review was not carried out, Minister Champagne prevaricated and waffled. Granted, Neo Lithium does not actually have a Canadian lithium mine in its portfolio, just a mine in Argentina, but it's still puzzling why Champagne would conclude that lithium from "so far away" would not find its way into the Canadian supply chain. 

He also states that lithium carbonate (which is what Neo Lithium is offering) is not of strategic value to Canada, whereas lithium hydroxide might be. In fact, lithium carbonate is extremely valuable, and more widely used in the industry than hydroxide (given the current shortage of lithium carbonate, some companies are even paying to turn hydroxide into carbonate).

Minister Champagne insists that a "rigorous" national security review was carried out, and concluded that the sale of the Canadian company was not against the national interest. However, he seems to be labouring under some serious misapprehensions, misapprehensions that are contributing to the continued hollowing out of Canadian industry. As Industry Minister, he needs to do better. And what is the security review system there for if not just this kind of transaction?

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What does Putin really want in Ukraine

As Vladimir Putin plays soldiers along the borders of Ukraine, I have to stop and wonder just what it is that he wants and why he wants it. Granted, it's a little difficult for me to put myself into the head of a megalomaniac dictator but, try as I may, I still just really don't get it.

Putin has now moved over 100,000 troops and a whole load of military machinery to the borders of neighbouring Ukraine, including some into adjacent puppet-state Belarus. His intentions appear to be either to invade sometime soon, or to pretend he is going to do that for whatever twisted reasons he may have.

But why would you want to rule over a population that you know is going to hate you (in the main). Yes, there are a good number of ethnic Russians (about 17%, maybe 8 million individuals) in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of the country, but the 77% ethnic Ukrainians that make up most of the country are not going to welcome a return to a Russian-led pseudo-Soviet Union. So, why would you want to put yourself in that position? What would make it worthwhile?

The best analysis I could find comes from  the Council on Foreign Relations website. Historically, Ukraine was the second most populous and second most powerful of the 15 Soviet republics, after Russia itself, and the home of much of the Soviet Union's agriculture and its military and defence industries. Since independence, thirty years ago, though, Ukraine has been very clear in its determination to steer its own course, and a noted preference for alignment with the European Union and NATO, rather than with Russia (and now we can see why that might have been wise).

To us in the West, Russia looks to be the clear aggressor in the current situation, particularly in the aftermath of the unilateral (and illegal, in the eyes of most non-Russian observers) 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. For its part, Russia argues that it is merely responding to Western aggression in its backyard, particularly the 2017 acceptance into NATO of the ex-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 90s, it was not actually promised a "sphere of influence" going forward, but President Putin has been very vocal in claiming such a "guarantee". Neither was there any promise that NATO should not expand not expand own influence in the region. In fact, Russia is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which is promised to respect Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, as well as the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which Russia agreed to the very NATO "expansion" it is now so outraged about. But then, Putin is not one to let the odd writen agreement stand in the way of his lust for power.

Of course, most ex-Soviet republics don't actually want to be in Russia's sphere of influence and, quite rightly, don't trust Russia. Bulgaria and Romania have been particularly outspoken in refusing to move NATO troops from their territories, arguing that Russia has no right to interfere in the decisions of other sovereign states. But, what Russia really wants to avoid in particular is larger countries like Ukraine and Georgia also joining NATO - what Putin refers to as the "eastward expansion of NATO" (as though NATO is invading Russian territory), and the "red line" that must not be crossed.

As a matter of principle, the USA and NATO will not give into Russian demands that it guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO: Russia will never be allowed a veto over who can join NATO, nor should they. Nor are they likely to give in to Putin's other major demand, that NATO remove all weapons and troops from Eastern European member countries. But it's far from clear that NATO actually has any intentions of allowing Ukraine to join, for a whole variety of reasons, however much Ukraine may want to.

So, is that really what Putin is after? Or is he just hung up on re-creating the Soviet Union, come what may (despite official protestations to the contrary)? I also have yet wonder whether he has not had his nose put out of joint by the increased attention on China in recent years - Putin likes to be top of the news cycle, likes to consider himself the USA's principal bugbear. It looks, for all the world, like he is suffering from paranoia, narcissims and delusions, increasingly out of touch with the Russian people and political reality, and a victim of his own culture of propaganda and disinformation. The man is as extreme a psychological study as his erstwhile buddy Donald Trump. 

So, might all these military machinations and chest-thumping, not be, in the end, all about President Putin's personal legacy and his delusions of grandeur? In which case, there may be no logical, strategic grounds for Putin's military moves at all, and no amount of negotiation is going to make any difference.

Prince Andrew retains one, highly appropriate, title

A canny Globe and Mail letter-writer points out that, although beleaguered royal Prince Andrew has had most of his various titles rescinded, one title he does retain is that of Vice-Admiral. Which seems poetically appropriate given his circumstances and the allegations he faces.

(Actually, it seems he is still technically a Prince and he also retains the title of Duke of York, as these were not conferred titles but his due by birth.)

Monday, January 17, 2022

China blames Canada for Beijing's first Omicron case

The first ever case of the Omicron variant to be discovered in Beijing (other Chinese cities have also seen cases) is a big deal for China. Alone among major countries, it is still chasing the elusive target of zero COVID cases, particularly with the Winter Olympics just around the corner. In a typical example of Chinese overkill, the whole office block where the infected individual works was immediately locked down, and everyone was essentially locked in with zero notice (pillows and bedding were seen being delivered to the office tower).

The 26-year old women in question has apparently not travelled outside of Beijing recently, nor had she had any contact with anyone else who has tested positive. So, China had to come up with an explanation, preferably one that implicated dastardly foreign powers.

Imagine our surprise, though, when the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to finger a piece of mail from Canada as the culprit. The Beijing woman apparently received a letter from Canada (via Hong Kong and the USA) about a week before her positive test. So, there you have it - obvious isn't it?

Predictably, pretty much every Canadian doctor, health organization and politician has pointed out in no uncertain terms that this is a ridiculous claim. Which, of course, it is. Calling the claim "implausible" and "ludicrous", and warning that it "doesn't sound credible" and "doesn't add up", Canadian health specialists and epidemiologists point out that has been many months since we have unduly worried about transmission of the virus on contaminated surfaces (fomites) - it is definitively an airborne disease, spread through relatively short-lived aerosol particles - and the chances of such particles surviving that length of time on piece of paper are exceedingly slim.

So, good try, China, but really not very convincing. Maybe the contamination actually did occur in China after all. Maybe your system is not perfect. Maybe it's not all part of a despicable foreign conspiracy.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Is the Omicron variant really going to burn itself out

I've read several articles like this one recently, discussing the theory (or, rather, hypothesis) that the fact that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is so contagious but relatively benign could be the best thing that has happened recently. The idea is that the variant will rip through the global population, conferring a level of immunity on those who catch it (including - indeed, especially - unvaccinated people), while leading to relatively few deaths and hospitalizations. Like some fires, it could burn through relatively quickly and then put itself out.

Well, it's a nice theory, and perhaps a comforting one, but it's essentially speculative. We have no idea whether this virus has yet more curve balls to throw at us, or what new variants have yet to be unleashed (and remember, the more cases there are circulating in the wild, the more the likelihood of new variants arising, even though some scientists seem willing to overlook that).

The other thing is that protection from vaccination is up to 5 times more effective than "natural immunity" from having caught the virus, so relying on natural immunity is a pretty unreliable and risky idea. Some anti-vaxx politicians, though, are taking it to heart and setting policy around it, horrible Florida Governor Ron DeSantis being a case in point. DeSantis believes that natural immunity is much stronger than vaccination immunity, based on a cherry-picked Israeli study that backs up his own beliefs. (It does, however, seem indisputable that the combination of vaccination and natural infection is the best protection against current and future variants.)

The bottom line seems to be that relying on natural immunity is a risky and unproven solution, and one that is mainly used by people with a political point to make, not medical experts. It may or may not prove impossible to hide from Omicron, but health advisors are pretty much unanimous in cautioning that it is never a good idea to deliberately court the virus in the hope of acquiring immunity (in the same way as it was never a good idea to go to "chicken pox parties" back in the day). This will only lead to overloaded hospitals. Plus, there is a chance you could end up with Long COVID. Plus, you will probably pass it on to others who may be more vulnerable than you. Oh, and you could die...

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Ford takes greenwashing to a whole new level

If you want a textbook example of "greenwashing", then Ford Motor Company has just provided it.

Ford is making a big song and dance about a new development: it is to make wire harness clips for the Bronco Sport out of recycled discarded fishing nets found in the ocean. Yes, that's one tiny plastic clip weighing around five grams, and it is to be used only in Ford's gas-guzzling Bronco Sport SUV model (fuel efficiency between 17 and 21 mpg, depending on the model, or 11-14 L/100km for us Canadians).

Ground-breaking? Well, maybe. Significant? Not at all. Cynical? Absolutely.

Is it time for the filibuster to go?

Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema (aided and abetted by - of course - pseudo-Democrat Joe Manchin) has decided, in her wisdom, to vote down the Democrat's attempt to remove the filibuster rule, even in isolated cases. The existence of the legislative filibuster effectively requires a 60% majority to pass any kind of legislation. Given the current evenly-balanced Senate, that effectively rules out passage of the hugely important Democratic legislation to protect voting rights in the USA.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are both essential pieces of legislation to counter the rash of state-level legislation passed by Republican states recently, which are aimed at deliberately disenfranchising whole segments of the populace, and thereby ensuring Republican electoral victories. But Republicans in the Senate have already filibustered the two pieces of legislation - which have already been passed in the House of Representatives - four times, and look set to repeat that just as many times as needed until it goes away. Meanwhile, mid-term elections are coming up in 2022, which, thanks to the recent undemocratic Republican legislation changes, may mean that the Democrats lose any chance of passing ANYTHING at all for the rest of their administration.

So, the stakes are high, as Sinema and Manchin both know. Senator Sinema has made no secret of her love for the filibuster, which she sees as enhancing democracy, ensuring bipartisanship, and easing "the underlying disease of division infecting our country". Fine words perhaps, but impossibly naive and even disingenuous, especially at this particular political juncture. 

With the spectre of post-Trump Republicans pulling out all the stops to ensure future election victories by whatever means possible, this is not the time to be pursuing airy-fairy notions of how things should be. There is important work to be done, and the filibuster rule is getting in the way of democracy right now.

filibuster is, essentially, a way for a relatively small group of Senators to (legally) block an action by the majority. US Senate rules allow one or more Senators to speak on any topic they wish, for as long as they wish (thereby delaying the vote on a bill, potentially forever), unless three-fifths of the Senators bring the debate to a close by invoking "cloture".

Legal? Yes. Democratic? Maybe. But the American Founding Fathers certainly never envisaged a Congress where a 60% vote was needed to get anything done; the regular 50% simple majority is what is built into the Constitution. In fact, the filibuster rule was a 19th invention invention employed only sparingly over most of America's political history (and not always for defensible reasons - it was used extensively to prop up the racist Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, for example). In the late 20th and early 21st century, though, it suddenly became a much more popular ploy, used, it should be noted, by both parties, and again, not always for commendable reasons.

"Filibuster" is actually an old 19th century word for a plunderer or pirate, which gives a good idea of how it was seen when it was first introduced. How has it now become an indispensable part of democratic discourse? Given the partisan gridlock that characterizes American politics right now, it is, in my opinion, doing Democracy a disservice, and people like Sinema and Manchin need to wake you to that before it is too late, and the Republicans impose their ugly right wing vision for good and all.

It's by no means certain that, even without a filibuster, the Democrats would be able to pass the much-needed legislation (particularly given the presence of mavericks like Sinema and Machin). What's abundantly clear, though, is that it is never going to pass while the filibuster exists.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

It's official! Masks make you more attractive

You may not particularly enjoy wearing masks, but take some solace in research that shows that face masks make people more attractive.

It's true! Researchers at Cardiff University followed up recently on a previous (pre-pandemic) study which found that medical face masks made people less attractive, presumably because of the association with illness or disease. After a year or two of pandemic, however, both men and women find members of the opposite sex MORE attractive if they are wearing masks. This is partly, it's thought, because masks tend to direct attention to the eyes, but presumably partly because of the association with common sense and social responsibility.

Interestingly, any mask at all helps to make a person more attractive, but the most attractive? Those cheap blue disposable surgical masks. Maybe we've all watched too many hospital dramas on Netflix.

Cuba develops its own COVID vaccines

Shout-out to much-maligned Cuba for independently developing several COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccinating almost 90% of their population.

It's easy to forget that Cuba has always had a well-developed healthcare and medical sector. They have had to forge their own path for decades in the face of ongoing trade sanctions by the USA and other countries, and a remarkably good job they have done of it too.

It took a while, compared to the well-funded Pfizers and Modernas of this world, but Cuba now has no fewer than five working home-grown vaccines, all of which which have an effectiveness of around 90% with three doses. They are all "subunit protein vaccines" (similar to the Novavax vaccine and CORBEVAX), which are cheap to produce and do not need special deep-freeze storage. They could prove to be a game-changer for many poorer countries in Africa, Asia and South America, once they are peer-reviewed and approved by the World Health Organization (which seems to be taking an inordinately long time).

The tiny Caribbean country has already inoculated over 86% of its own population with three doses, with another 7% partially vaccinated. This is one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and includes kids from the age of two.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Compared to, or compared with?

I have never really known the difference between the phrases "compared to" and "compared with", and frankly it hardly even matters. Both constructions are grammatically correct, and in most instances either will do nicely, as the sense is usually pretty clear.

It's only when we get into more subtle areas of meaning that the distinction between the two becomes (slightly) important. And, if you look for advice on the Internet, you will find some confusion and inconsistency.

Many people would argue that the most commonly-accepted wisdom is that "compared with" should be used when comparing two things that are of essentially the same type or classification, while "compared to" should be used for two items of essentially different characteristics. So, use "with" to stress similarities (i.e. where the similarities are more important than the differences), and "to" to stress differences. For example:

"Her cover songs were favourably compared with the originals."

"He compared her eyes to the deaths of the ocean."

This is the conclusion to be found on websites like Grammarist (which I trust for most purposes), Difference Between, Experts Global, LetPub, Pediaa, MyEnglishTeacher, American Heritage Dictionary, etc. 

However, quite the OPPOSITE opinion - that "compared to" stresses differences or juxtaposes different types of things - is to be found in several other sources, like Lexico, Writing Explained, Writing Skills, HiNative, JForrest English, Doris&Bertie, etc. So, there is clearly no consensus.

Daily Writing Tips quotes advice from various different authorities, and even here there is some confusion: Strunk and White's Elements of Style avers that "with" suggests similarities and "to" suggests differences, but the Penguin Writers' Manual and the AP Stylebook both say the opposite. 

This StackExchange conversation shows a similar level of confusion and contradiction. It also quotes from Garner's influential Modern American Usage, which suggests that "with" should be the default preposition, and that it should be used to place two items side by side, noting both the differences and similarities between them, while "to" should only be used to point out likenesses between two things. 

EnglishForums.com quotes the equally influential Fowler's Modern English Usage as preferring "compared to" to suggest a similarity, and "compared with" to suggest a supposed or spurious similarity. The extract from Fowler also gives the enlightening examples of, "He compared me to Demosthenes" (suggesting a positive comparison) and "He compared me with Demosthenes" (suggesting a less favourable comparison). Subtle indeed.

GrammarBook manages to come up with a different distinction entirely, suggesting that "compared to" should be used when expressing an opinion or making a personal observation, while "compared with" should be reserved for occasions when the writer is looking to make an impartial or empirical comparison, which seems like a particularly fraught path to pursue.

Just for interest, a Google Ngram of the relative frequency of use of "compare to" and "compare with" shows a distinct historical preference for "compare with", but with a sharp reversal in the trend starting in the latter half of the 20th century, to the extent that "compared to" looks like it will be the more popular phrase in the 21st century (looking at an Ngam of "compared to" and "compared with", that cross-over has already occurred).

As you can see, then, there is much contentiousness and no consensus. Me, I would still go with "to" to compare different classes of things, and "with" to compare similar things. After all, Shakespeare didn't write, "Shall I compared thee with a summer's day" (and we should be glad of that!) The bottom line, though, is that it doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Study shows that virus does not live long in the air

A new study by the University of Bristol's Aerosol Research Centre - still not peer-reviewed, unfortunately - suggests that viral particles in the air lose most of their infectivity (up to 90%) within as little as five minutes after becoming airborne.

What are the implications of this? It means that most COVID transmission is likely to happen at short distances, so mask wearing and physical distancing are paramount (and, by the same token, ventilation and hand-washing probably less so). The chances of being infected by transmission several metres across a room should therefore be considered slight; what you need to worry about are the people in your immediate vicinity.

The study seeks to replicate the environment in which most of us are exposed to the virus, rather than a more theoretical environment using Goldberg drums, which is what most older studies have relied on. It also shows that, the more humid the environment, the longer viral particles can survive without drying out and losing their infectivity. So, offices, planes, etc, are probably safer than gyms and restaurants, and a North American winter is probably safer than the summer (although that is tempered by the increased ability to remain outdoors in the summer). The actual temperature of the air seems to make very little difference to the virus' ability to survive in aerosol form.

These results do not include analysis of more recent variants like Omicron, although the team is starting experiments of newer variants in the coming weeks.

Are automated traffic cameras really "race neutral"?

An article about the race implications of automated red-light and speed cameras caught my attention.

These cameras have been increasingly employed in many American and Canadian cities in an attempt to change driving behaviour in a "race-neutral" way". And they certainly do seem to work. After receiving a few automated tickets, people really do tend to slow down and to think twice about running a changing light. As a result, most cities that have adopted the strategy have noted substantial improvements in accident rates and pedestrian and bike casualties. You'd be forgiven for doubting it, but it has also led to fewer police-black confrontations over minor traffic violations, some of which tend to escalate out of proportion, particularly in gun-happy America.

I know from personal experience that, when Toronto started introducing speed cameras in earnest a couple of years ago, I got caught twice in quick succession, and I have since become much more careful about sticking to the speed limits wherever I drive (especially given that the cameras are moved around periodically).

But then some cities started to notice that the tickets being issued were disproportionately affecting black and Latino drivers, even when the cameras were situated equally in majority-black and -white areas. Policy-makers worried that the pandemic had resulted in more middle-class white residents being able to work from home, while working-class black and Latino residents in "essential" jobs had no choice but to continue commuting. Cities like Miami and Rochester New York abandoned their automated camera programs convinced that they were in some way still "racist".

But a speed or red-light cameras can't really be racist, can it? The people who receive the automated tickets are clearly contravening city traffic rules, rules that are in place for good reasons. Maybe, on average, black and Latino people are just more aggressive drivers, in the same way as Italian and Eastern European drivers tend to be aggressive? It would surprise me, quite frankly, because I think of middle-aged white guys in Audis and Mercedes as being more typical offenders, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility and it's not necessarily racist to suggest that, I don't think. And, if speed and red-light cameras are making our streets safer, then power to them, I say.

Speed cameras seem to be here to stay in Toronto, and in Chicago (which the article in question focused on), and in many other cities. Race activists will no doubt interpret the statistics however they like, but we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The great throat swab contoversy

I finally managed to obtain a couple of rapid at-home COVID test kits, after weeks of phone calls and failed attempts to score them at mass distribution outlets. 

We are being told not to go for PCR tests if we suspect we may have the virus, but to use rapid tests instead. But the damned things are almost impossible to find. I even ordered some online, only to be told a week later by an embarrassed vendor that "the government has taken all our capacity" and "our stock has been repurposed to the government". (I am hoping for my money back.)

Eventually, though, my persistence paid off, and a local pharmacy had some stocks of a rather dodgy looking self-administered rapid testing kit (or at least the various separate elements of a kit, with no instructions), sold to me in a brown paper bag. I jumped at it, regardless.

Now, I happened to know that there was some controversy about whether at-home rapid tests should involve a throat swab as well as nasal swabs. The only other rapid tests I had done were English ones, which specifically required a throat swab as well as nasal swabs, so it seemed like a reasonable question. I was told by the pharmacy, in no uncertain terms, that it should be nasal only, and that I should not even dream of swabbing my throat, what was I thinking?

So, what is the big controversy about rapid tests and throat swabs. Well, nasal-only rapid tests are notoriously prone to false negatives, particularly in this era of the Omicron variant, and there is lots of anecdotal evidence online about nasal swabs yielding negative results and a throat swab yielding a positive result. Plus, at least one South African study (unfortunately in pre-print only, and therefore not peer-reviewed) has concluded that throat swabs are much more accurate than nasal swabs, particularly as regards Omicron.

The official Canadian line, though, is that the rapid tests we have available have only been tested on the basis of nasal swabs. Throat swabs may indeed be better, but the test kits have not been tested for that location, and so caution dictates that we only use nasal swabs. The risk is that throat swabs may lead to false positive results (maybe). However, we can be pretty certain that the nasal swabs we are being told to use are yielding many false negatives (maybe of the order of 15%, or maybe more)

So, which is worse? I would have thought the false negatives were more dangerous, but I'm no scientist. Further study is, as they say, needed. But can it happen soon? - this is becoming reasonably critical.

How much does a convenience store make from selling lottery tickets.

Have you ever wondered whether all those little corner stores make any money out of lottery ticket sales? Me too. Well, someone has done already the hard work for me

It seems that, in Ontario at least, retailers make 5% on every online sale (which I take to mean Lotto 649 and Lotto Max sales through the electronic terminals) and 8% on offline sales (scratch cards?) In addition, they also make money when a ticket they sell wins: a 3% bonus on any in-store online prize redemption if under $200, and 2% on online prize redemptions under $300. Then there are prizes for selling winning tickets: 0.15% for a winning ticket of $1,000, 0.25% for a $500,000 win, 0.4% on a win of $250,000, and 0.01% on tickets with a value of $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 (these percentages don't make much logical sense to me, but that's what it says). But there's more: for selling a First Prize-winning ticket, a retailer earns $1,000 plus $100 for each time the previous jackpot was not won, with $500 for a Second Prize-winning ticket.

So, it's complicated, but you can see why so many stores are unterested in selling lottery tickets. Plus, as far as I can see, there do not seem to be any costs associated with being a re-seller or hosting an electronic lottery terminal, so no risks to speak of. I don't know, but I have a suspicion that they probably make more from lottery tickets than they do from selling candy, chips and pop.

Why are we still confused about the effectiveness of different masks?

It's difficult to believe that we are still having discussions about the relative merits of different kinds of masks at this point, nearly two years into the pandemic. But it seems we are. There are differing opinions still, even within Canada's provinces.

All the studies I have seen suggest that N95 and KN95 masks (or respirators, as they are sometimes, confusingly, referred to), along with similar or equivalent masks like the Korean KF94 and the European FFP2, are substantially better at filtering out viral particles than regular (blue) surgical or medical masks, partly because they tend to fit better, and partly because they have more layers. And both are a lot better than the cloths masks that most of us have been using throughout most this pandemic. Cloth masks may have cut it for the early variants (maybe); surgical masks may have cut it even for the Delta variant; but only N95s/KN95s are up to the job against the much more contagious Omicron variant. This we know, and have known for some time. 

One major recent Ontario study concluded that N95 masks filter out about 60% of aerosol particles (which is what we need to be focusing on), and KN95s filter out about 46%. This a lot less than the 95% they are named for, but these are real world figures. And compare it to 12% for surgical masks and 10% for cloth masks the same study yielded! Another study of the effectiveness of different masks against aerosols gave figures of 83-99% for N95/KN95 masks, 42-88% for surgical masks, 16-23% for cloth masks, and just 9% for bandanas. You get the idea. A surgical mask with a cloth mask on top (NOT the oher way round) can also be a reasonably effective combination, although still not to the level of a N95/KN95.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, has been touting the benefits of N95/KN95 masks for some time now, as has most of the medical profession. So, why then is BC's Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry (who was the poster-girl for sensible coronavirus advice in the early part of the pandemic), talking about the "incremental benefit" of N95s, and saying it is more important that whatever mask you wear fits well. Worse, why is Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deene Hinshaw, saying things like,"There is very little evidence that, in a community setting, using N95 masks is going to provide a significant additional benefit". Talk about mixed messages (although that has been Alberta's approach throughout)! 

Yes, N95s are more expensive than surgical masks (KN95s are a bit more affordable), and they are admittedly more difficult to find (although my understanding is that medical personnel are no longer unable to obtain needed supplies, as they were earlier in the pandemic, so we would not be depriving them of scarce, necessary PPE). So, if you are going to be spending substantial amounts of time indoors in a public space, whether you are a teacher or a student or a shop cashier, whether you are travelling on public transit or waiting for treatment in a clinic waiting room - wear a mask, and do all you can to make sure it is a N95 or KN95 mask.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Canada STILL looking good in the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking

Just over a year ago, I made a post expressing surprise that Canada was performing so creditable on Bloomberg's COVID Relience Ranking. At that time, we were positioned at No. 11 out of 53, which seemed pretty good.

Well, I happened to see the same Ranking index just the other day and, despite a perception and general feeling that things are getting worse, it turns out that Canada is actually doing even better, compared to the rest of the world, that is. So, things are getting worse, but maybe not as bad as we thought.

Canada is now sitting at No. 5 in the Ranking, which measures a combination of vaccination status, lockdown severity, flight capacity, COVID cases and death rates, universal healthcare coverage, etc. The front runners in the Ranking have also changed almost entirely from a year ago: Chile is top, followed by Ireland, UAE, Finland and then Canada. The UK is in 10th place and the USA US 12th. New Zealand and Australia are now way down the list, in 25th and 17th places respectively. How things change!


Thursday, January 06, 2022

Is the USA ready for a civil war/dictatorship/revolution?

On the first anniversary of the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6th 2021, it's extraordinary how may articles I have read recently about the crisis of politics and identity that the United States finds itself in.

You might think that the Capitol riots were the nadir of American politics, that they marked the end of the influence and the mischief of Donald atrump, and that there was no other way but up after them. But many of these articles maintain that things have actually become worse in the intervening year.

Some articles openly predict a new civil war in the increasing beleaguered and benighted country, that indeed it has already begun. Others are predicting a right-wing dictatorship in America by 2030 (and that dictator probably may or may not be Donald Trump). Or that the United States is entering into the gravest political and constitutional crisis since the (first) Civil War, with the expectation of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and an inevitable division into irreconcilable factions. Even a new revolution may not be out of the question.

It's certainly true that America has probably never been more polarized (that's almost entirely on Donald Trump). Trust in government is at an all-time low; the judiciary has been co-opted by the political right and grows less legitimate by the day; armed ultra-right militias stand ready for the word to strike; economic and political inequality continues to rise unabated; democratic voting institutions and rules are being wilfully dismantled, and policies putting place in some red states that deliberately undermine democratic representation; politicians and election supervisors regularly receive death threats; lurid and improbable conspiracy theories abound. Consensus has bever been further away, and democracy does seem to be in the process of unravelling there.

But a civil war? A revolution? A right-wing dictatorship? Is this just journalistic hyperbole, political shock tactics? Maybe, but most of these articles are deadly serious, and not just engaging in flights of metaphorical fancy. It's certainly going to be an interesting few years.

Quebec influencers gonna influence

You've probably seen it, the embarrassing video of a bunch of young maskless Quebeckers drinking, vaping and dancing in the aisles of a Sunwing chartered flight to Mexico.

Regardless of the fact that they were breaking pretty much every rule in the book, both as regards COVID and flying in general, they just looked so STUPID, so adolescent.

Well, after attracting comments from the country's Prime Minister to add to a tsumami of (negative) social media attention - bizarrely, Trudeau called them "des Ostrogoths en vacances" - the perpetrators are now largely stranded in Mexico. Sunwing has refused to transport them back, as has Air Canada and Air Transat. 

A few have already managed to make their way back to Montreal somehow, tails between their overdressed legs, but they probably face legal consequences (at least one passenger was seen being escorted in handcuffs, and there is talk of $100,000 fines and possible prison sentences).

It's not that we're all prudish and puritannical. I think we're mainly shocked at how loutish and clownish they looked. It just seemed so un-Canadian somehow. Because these things tend to go viral, and they affect how others think of us, as Canadians.

And what was it they were supposed to be influencing? I already bristle at the word "influencer"; it just seems to reflect the seamy side of social media, and advertising in general, and the idea that it is someone's job to make us think something against our will, against out better judgement, as likely as not through a campaign of misinformation. Well, they certainly nailed it ths time! If nothing else, vodka sales might go up.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Why restricting COVID testing is a bad idea

Ontario and several other provinces are deliberately restricting PCR testing of COVID-19 cases to the vulnerable and those who work in high risk settings. They argue that there just isn't enough capacity for more testing, and that, anyway, hospitalizations and ICU numbers are more important indicators of the progress of the pandemic.

Even Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Tam has argued that it is not necessary to test all cases, and that enough testing is happening to enable the identification of trends and waves. She also argued that other methods of detection are also taking place, like the testing of municipal waste water, in the absence of robust case testing.

Well, she's the Chief Public Health Officer and I'm not, but I beg to differ. It seems to me that, if testing is constrained to the current level of 140,000-150,000 per days, rather we really won't know whether there are 30,000 new cases a day, or 50,000, or 150,000. If testing is reduced, then new cases will also fall, as sure as night follows day. For example, the province of Ontario alone supposedly has capacity to process 100,000 PCR tests a day, but it's actual processing has gone down from 75,000 at the end of December 2021, to 60,000, then 50,000, to little more than 45,000, all due to a deliberate government policy. And, guess what, new cases reported have also  fallen! When Donald Trump suggested reducing testing back in 2020, people were bemused and outraged, but that is exactly what we are doing right now here in Canada.

New cases today translates into potential hospitalizations next week, so surely it is essential that the health authorities know about case spikes as soon as possible. New cases are the main metric we have used all the way through this pandemic, and the one that most lay people are most familiar with. They are all we have to give context to the progress of the pandemic, and to compare our "performance" with other countries and with the past. Also, if the official statistics erroneously show new cases plateauing or even falling, I worry that people will become complaisant and let up on their mask-wearing, distancing and general common sense, and that they will be even less compliant with any future emergency public health measures that may have to be announced. At any rate, we will not have a reliable comparative handle on just how bad things are.

It's not like we can just use rapid antigen tests instead, as they are in my huge demand and impossible to obtain (either the free government-issue ones, or even commercial ones). They are notoriously inaccurate compared to PCR tests, particularly for the Omicron variant, and many false negatives will still pass through the net (as well as a few false positives, take the case of Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, for example). Hell, it even depends on what time of day you do the test, with midday tests being twice as accurate as evening tests according to one study! And if no-one is keeping records on them, what use are they for public health planning?

Another good reason to keep up PCR testing is that, although rapid antigen tests are good for roughly establishing whether a person is likely to be infectious at a point in time (and therefore have a valid function in the mix of public health measures), PCR tests are needed to definitively register a case, so that otnshows up in statistics (which are another valid element of public health measures) and, also importantly, to analyse which variant the case is.

And, last but by no means least, keeping track of cases IS important, even if the illnesses the Omicron variant generates are relatively mild compared to earlier variants (maybe). They are important because the pandemic won't be over until new cases are reduced to a consistent and manageable level. Until then, we will be just lurching from one crisis to another, wading through one wave and then the next. Waste water testing is simply no substitute for this. Plus, don't forget, the more cases there are spreading in the wild, the greater the possibility of new variants arising (every new infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate). Do we really want this thing to go on forever?

USMCA ruling claimed as victory by both USA and Canada

In the first first dispute settlement case under the new revised North American Free Trade Agreement - or the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), as we now have to call it - the panel has ruled that Canada's current dairy supply-management system contravenes the rules of the Agreement, and that it has just 45 days to do something about it.

More specifically, it ruled that Canada can no longer reserve preferential access exclusively for Canadian processors (milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream makers), otherwise known as "tariff-rate quotas", or TRQ if you want yet another acronym. This will have the effect of lowering duties on many dairy imports and opening up the Canadian market more to American competition.

American trade negotiators, of course, are hailing this as a major victory for the US. Their Trade Representative's statement reads, "This historic win will help eliminate unjustified trade restrictions on American dairy products, and will ensure that the U.S. dairy industry and its workers get the full benefit of the USMCA to market and sell U.S. products to Canadian consumers". And it certainly seems that way at first glance.

The Canadian Trade Minister, though, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, choose to see it in quite a different light, magically seizing victory from the jaws of defeat. The Canadian version is that this was at least a partial victory for Canada, because the USMCA panel did not dispute the supply-management system itself, and it declined to rule on some additional complaints that the US brought: "We are pleased with the dispute settlement panel's report, which ruled overwhelmingly in favour of Canada and its dairy industry. In particular, it's important to note that the panel expressly recognizes the legitimacy of Canada's supply-management system."

It's difficult to believe that two such widely disparate interpretations could be placed on the same ruling. All it really comes down to is politics, of course, in its guise as "the art of the possible". Canada is basically breathing a sigh of relief that the ruling did not go any worse than it did, but couching it in as positive a way as possible; the USA, as is its wont, is beating its own drum, and claiming a complete victory out of a partial one. Neither is being completely ingenuous or completely honest. But, hey, that's politics.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Timberline Solar Energy Shingle coupd be a game-changer

The Timberline Solar Energy Shingle, developed and sold by GAF, the largest roofing and waterproofing company in North America, is the first commercially-available nailable solar shingle.

It can be installed just like any other roofing shingle, and has a comparable weatherproofing performance to GAF's other roofing shingles. The shingles are already certified under UL 7103 as both a roofing product and as a solar energy product. The solar technology is integrated into the roofing material (on the front side of the shingle to make it more accessible for servicing), resulting in a fully-fledged solar roof.

There does not appear to be much available in the way of specifications, efficiency or even cost yet, but if these are good, then this could be a real game-changer in solar energy. (The indications are that GAF's solar shingles maybe 50% cheaper than Tesla's.)

How vaccines protect against hospitalization from the Omicron variant

The UK Health Security Agency publishes a bunch of stuff about COVID, some of it more digestible than others. Their latest Technical Briefing, dated 31 December 2021, though, does have a rather useful guide to how effective various levels of vaccination are against the Omicron variant in particular. It's hidden away in Table 6, towards the end of the document, so I'll copy it here:

The important part, in my mind anyway, is the final column, which shows that one dose of a vaccine (taken as an average of the different vaccines available in the UK) only confers 52% protection against hospitalization as a result of Omicron. Two doses increases this to 72%, but that figure drops off to 52% again after six months. A third dose, though, boosts it up to 88%, which is pretty good, I would say.

That said, the sheer number of new Omicron cases, among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, mean that hospitalization numbers are going up rapidly anyway, both in the UK, in the USA, and here in Canada, where the rise in hospitalizations has been described as "explosive". And, for the first time, children are being particularly hard hit and being hospitalized in record numbers (that must hit some nerve, no?) However "mild" this variant is, it is causing record hospitalizations at a time when record number of healthcare staff are off ... with the virus! And yes, people are still dying (and will continue to die) from this variant, despite what you might read on Facebook.

And, bear in mind, these figures are for hospitalizations, not protection against actually contracting the virus. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot we can do about that, other than avoid people and wear a good mask.

How not to name a sequel

Well, how daft is that? The 2021 "standalone sequel" to the 2016 film "Suicide Squad" - a DC Universe movie starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, you might remember - is called ... wait for it ... "The Suicide Squad". 

Whose idea was that? I did actually notice it on the list of movies available on our recent Air Canada trip, but didn't watch it because I thought I had already seen it... I'm probably not the only one to do that.

USA wins! - 1 million new cases in a day

It was only a matter of time. The USA has officially broken the world record with over 1 million new cases of COVID-19 in one day.

The United States recorded 1,082,549 new coronavirus cases yesterday, January 3rd 2022. This figure may include some delayed cases reported over the holiday weekend but, of course, it is also hugely understated because (like here in Canada) many people are not able to find PCR tests, and are relying on rapid antigen tests (which are not included in the official figures), or no tests at all.

Either way, cases are at record levels, hospitalizations are increasing rapidly, and the death rate, although largely stable, is stable at an unconscionable 1,300 a day.

Meanwhile, a new COVID variant is spreading in France which is likely significantly more contagious (and provably vaccine-resistant) than the Omicron variant. The variant B.1.640.2, also dubbed "IHU" after the IHU Mediterraneé Hospital in Marseille, appears to have originated in Cameroon, and is limited so far to just 12 cases in the south of France, officially, at any rate. If it becomes a WHO variant of concern, it will probably be given the rather memorable Greek letter, pi.

But, make no mistake, this thing is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.


Djokovic medical exemption does not pass the smell test

Notoriously anti-vaccine tennis star Novak Djokovic has been issued a medical exemption from receiving the COVID-19 vaccinations, which should allow him to attend the Australian Open later this month. This comes just days after he was apparently denied a medical exemption.

Djokovic has always refused to confirm his vaccination status (read, "not vaccinated"), and has not been shy about his anti-vaccination stance. To now receive a medical exemption unequivacably confirms his vaccination status as "unvaccinated", but the question remains on what grounds.

Australia's medical exemption rules describe in great detail what would be required to allow a vaccination exemption on medical grounds, and the most likely scenario is that either he has suffered inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months (not very likely), or that he has contracted COVID-19 within the last six months. It's known that he caught the virus way back in the summer of 2020, but my reading of these rules is that he would need to have had it in the last six months to qualify for the exemption (certainly, the virus from a year and a half ago was a very different beast to what we are facing now, so that makes sense).

Given Djokovic's attitudes in the past, to not come clean and explain the basis for his exemption is just going to stoke controversy and suspicion. He is already the tennis star that people love to hate, but maybe he is OK with that. Many Australians and healthcare experts are deeply suspicious and cynical about the "exemption", and even the Australian Prime Minister has waded into the fray

Did the Australian Open organization blink, and cave to commercial pressure? Is this more of a "VIP exemption" than a "medical exemption"? I certainly hope that the media hold Djokovic's proverbial feet to the fire, and don't give him or the Australian Open organization an easy pass on this, because this decision definitely does not pass the smell test.

UPDATE

Oh, I'm loving this. Australian immigration officials at Melbourne airport have ruled that Djokovic's travel visa does not allow for exemptions for unvaccinated applicants, and that he "failed to provide the appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements for Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled". He was questioned for several hours, has now been detained, and will not be allowed to remain in the country. He may even face the prospect of a three ban from the country.

I guess it was a "VIP exemption" after all. The Australian Open organization will probably have a lot of explaining to do. Way to go, Australia!

UPDATE

After a brief court reprieve earlier this week, Djokovic has had his Australian visa cancelled for a second time. Australian Health Minister Alex Hawke on grounds of "health and good order" and "in the public interest", meaning that Djokovic could still be deported before the Australian Open competition even starts, and indeed could be banned from the country for three years.

After a week of protests in Australia and Serbia, and increasingly catty comments from some fellow tennis players, Djokovic again faces the prospect of detention and more court cases, and his legal team is again gearing up for action (I wonder if any other tennis professional has a legal team?) While Djokovic himself has been careful not to come out as a confirmed anti-vaxxer, other anti-vax campaigners are jumping on his bandwagon, and the Twitter hashtag #StandWithDjokovic has been very active on social media.

UPDATE UPDATE

It took a while, but justice is finally served! Djokovic is denied entry to Ausralia, the Serbian president is apoplectic, and most regular people (not to mention Rafael Nadal!) are happy.

Monday, January 03, 2022

"The Pull of rhe Stars" shows how far we have come (or not) since the 1918 Spanish flu

I have just finished Emma Donoghue's 2020 book The Pull of the Stars, which paints a vivid (and rather graphic) picture of life in a Dublin maternity ward at the end of the First World War and during the height of the Spanish Flu outbreak.

Many of the flu pandemic measures are eerily reminiscent of today's. (Incidentally, Donoghue wrote the book before the COVID pandemic, so she can't he accused of cashing in.) A quick online look at some of the public health posters of the day, though, show just how different those times were.





I was particularly taken by the "Spitting spreads Spanish Influenza. Don't spit" and "Go home and go to bed until you are well" messages, and the advice that "A gauze mask is 99% proof against influenza".
It's salient to note that there were also anti-mask protests at that time:

In some ways we haven't come that far in the last hundred years.


Sunday, January 02, 2022

Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced me to "aquamation"

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died recently, was interred in Cape Town Cathedral after undergoing "aquamation".

Aquamation (aka "alkaline hydrolysis" or "flameless cremation") is apparently an environmental alternative to regular cremation, using 90% less energy and not emitting any harmful greenhouse gases.

 Under this process, the body is placed in an airtight alkaline hydrolysis machine filled with water and alkaline chemicals, which is then heated to liquefy the body's tissues, leaving just the bones behind. The bones are then dried and pulverized, resulting in just a little more volume than cremation ashes.

It sounds like a pretty involved, almost industrial, process, and is almost certainly horribly expensive. But, if it uses 90% less energy, I'd be up for it.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Enclaves within enclaves within enclaves on the India-Bangladeshi border

I watched a short video blog the other night that touched on the subject of enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border. I found it fascinating, and so I investigated further.

When India was partitioned by the British in 1947, they had to deal with a series of confusing territorial problems particularly along the border with East Pakistan (later to be known as Bangladesh), some of which dated back centuries as local rajas and maharajas fought each other and parcelled out their territories. A border of sorts was established by the terms of the British partition, but everyone knew that it was full of holes and disputed regions. 

The result was that East Pakistan/Bangladesh included some 102 enclaves of Indian territory, and in turn India included 71 Bangladeshi enclaves. Most of these enclaves were completely cut off from the rest of their respective countries. But it was not even as simple as that: within the 102 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh were 21 Bangladeshi enclaves (or "counter enclaves"), and within the 71 Bangladeshi enclaves in India were 3 Indian counter-enclaves. 

And you might not believe it, but there was even a third-level counter-counter-enclave, a piece of Indian land within a Bagladeshi counter-enclave in an Indian enclave in Bangladesh. This territory, known as Dahala Khagrabari, was only about 7,000 square metres (1.7 acres) in size and basically consisted of a jute field, but it was the only known third-level enclave in the world. What a bizarre state of affairs!

It seems almost a shame that, in 1974, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh agreed to exchange enclaves and simplify their joint border. The Land Boundary Agreement took until 2015 to fully implement, but almost all of the Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves were exchanged and rationalised. This left only one Bangladeshi enclave in India, Dahagram-Angarpota, which remains the last of the hundreds of enclaves that once existed along the border. It is connected to the rest of Bangladesh by a very narrow corridor that is open almost all day.