Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Canada's soccer team gets their talisman (and their mojo) back

Well, that's weird. Canada's men's soccer team, under relatively new coach John Herdman, carries a ceremonial sword to all its games.

This seems to have been kept a close secret until very recently (and you can see why!) But the secret came out when the sword was impounded at customs entering Costa Rica for the World Cup qualifying game against that country last Thursday, under "regulations that govern the type of weapons that can enter our country". And, guess what, that was the only game that Canada has lost in its last 18 appearances, and its first loss in its World Cup qualifying campaign. So, clearly the sword works!

A picture of the sword in its red velvet-lined case was released by Costa Rica's Finance Ministry, looking for all the world like a prop from a historical movie. It is engraved with the Latin motto "Nihil timendum est" ("Fear Nothing") Herdman takes it to every game that the Canadian team plays, and says it represents "New Canada" and their intention to own the game.

Hmm. If it wasn't working, I would now be very derisive. Problem is, it works. With the sword back in place on Sunday, Canada beat Jamaica 4-0 and completed its campaign to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. All for one, and one for all!

Monday, March 28, 2022

Ford finally accepts federal childcare deal

Up to a year after most other provinces, Ontario has finally agreed to accept the $10.2 billion offered by the federal government for a subsidized childcare system.

Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly said that the money offered was not enough to bring Ontario's childcare down to the magic number $10 per day, Ontario having by far the most expensive childcare costs in the country. (Median monthly fees in Ontario run at $1,578, compared to $1,165 in Vancouver and $853 in Halifax.) The Conservative Ontario government did not want to be left stumping up money for the balance because, well, spending money is not what Conservatives do best.

But, months of "hard bargaining" later, Ford has jus accepted the original, unchanged federal offer of $10.2 billion over 5 years (with the addition of $3 billion for the 6th year which, as Trudeau pointed out, is not part of the core agreement, and which would have happened anyway). No doubt Ford will try and spin it as a famous victory for the provincial government - especially given that a provincial election is edging ever closer - but in reality, all that has happened is that Ontario is now several months behind the rest of Canada in its implementation of the 5-year childcare deal.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Why all the gerunds in movie titles?

Inventing Anna has been a blockbuster title for Netflix, but, being a nerd, couldn't help thinking about the similarity of many movie and series titles over the last few decades. Being John Malkovich, Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan, Driving Miss Daisy, Being Julia, Leaving Las VegasBecoming Mozart, Saving Flynn, come to mind, but I'm sure there are many more. This is a whole series of titles separate from those incorporating "the" and "of", e.g. The Taking of Pelham 123, The Haunting of Hill House, etc, or just a single naked gerund, e.g. The Shining, The Howling, etc.

These are all examples of what might be called the "Gerund + Proper Noun" (or perhaps the "Gerund Phrase") school of movie titling, of which Inventing Anna is just the latest example. A gerund is a part of speech in which a form of a verb (usually ending in -ing) functions in a sentence as a noun, e.g. "Reading is my passion", "Travelling expands the mind", etc. A gerund phrase is a gerund and an object noun (plus any modifiers), e.g. "Singing songs in the shower is liberating", "Buying that car on impulse was the best thing I ever did", etc.

So, why has it become so popular in movie titles? If you were hoping for a compelling explanation, I am going to disappointed you. I find that other people have commented on this, but I have still not discovered a good reason for it, other than derivativeness, if that is even a word (apparently it is), or what filmmakers might prefer to call "homage".

Friday, March 25, 2022

The ridiculous superyachts of Russian oligarchs

With all the recent talk about the superyachts of various Russian oligarchs, the values and dollar amounts of these behemoths are starting to become meaningless. Case in point, Alexei Mordashov's Nord, valued at $500 million.

OK, so the "yacht" is 464 feet long, has 6 decks and features 20 luxurious cabins for 36 guests. It has a large swimming pool, a jacuzzi, spa, diving centre, barbecue, helipad and "beach". But still, half a billion dollars? I might, in my naivety, have guessed at a couple of million, or even a few. But how can anything cost $500 million? It's inconceivable. 

That is more than the GDP of all but the top 27 countries in the world, more than Austria, Israel or Norway. It is more than all but the three or four most expensive HOUSES in the world, including more than twice the value of Kensington Palace in central London, more than three times the value of Donald Trump's Mar a Lago property, and over five times the value of Jay Z and Beyoncé's modest pad in Bel Air. It is about the net worth of megastar sports people like LeBron Jane's and Cristiano Ronaldo, and substantially more than Roger Federer and Greg Norman. It is more than the world's most valuable artworks, including Leonard da Vinci's, Cezanne's and Picasso's most valuable paintings.

So, ridiculous? You bet!

(Mind you, it's not even close to the most expensive yacht in the world. The History Supreme, owned by Malaysia's richest man, Robert Knok, cost an estimated $4.8 billion. It is only 100 feet long, but is made from 10,000 kilograms of solid gold and platinum! Yikes!)

The tragedy of histrionics on the soccer pitch

Canada lost to Costa Rica last night in a World Cup qualifying game. The lads played well, hitting the post and the bar, and dominating most of the game, but one goal was enough to seal it for Costa Rica. Official qualification for Canada will have to wait until Sunday and the game against Jamaica.

But Canada played most of the game with just ten men, the soccer equivalent of playing with one hand tied behind their backs, as a result of an off-the-ball incident in the 34th minute. Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, already on a yellow card from earlier in the game, and incensed at the lack of a call for an earlier foul on him, did that childish thing we've seen so many times in professional soccer: he walked past Johan Venegas and "accidentally" caught the Costa Rican's shoulder, a glancing blow, hardly anything, as any number of video replay angles show. 

Venegas, of course, crumpled dramatically to the ground and writhed around in apparent agony, because, well, that's what you do in professional soccer. You ham it up and hope for a call. Well, Venegas got his call, and Kaye was sent off. The rest is history.

Maybe the Honduran referee had no choice in the circumstances, I don't know what the refereeing protocol is in these cases, but a sending off for such slight contact, however puerile, seems draconian. Is there not a case for penalizing Venegas as well for play-acting? Is this not the equivalent of a dive? Given that a sending off, particularly quite early in the game, completely changes the complexion of a game, is this the kind of thing that should trigger one? Well, you know my (biased) opinion, but I'm not sure that I wouldn't be arguing the same thing were the situation reversed. Certainly, many others are in agreement.

I just hate the histrionics that professional soccer now takes for granted, the rolling around in agony, faces set in a rictus of spurious pain, something that I blame the Brazilian, Portuguese and Italian teams of the 1970s for introducing. And I hate that whenever a ball goes out of touch, both teams automatically claim the throw, ALWAYS, however obvious the actual possession is. Basically, I hate the win-at-any-cost mentality.

Soccer games used to be closely-contested, but fair and honourable. That kind of mentality seems like it belongs to a different century today (well, technically it does!)

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Fact-checking European MPs criticisms of Justin Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the European Parliament yesterday and although his reception was generally polite, two or three MEPs indulged in some pretty vitriolic criticisms, mainly around his responses to the so-called "Freedom Convoy" protests.

Mislav Kolakušić, an independent MEP from Croatia who has previously been penalized by the European Parliament for his anti--vaccine stance, tweeted, "in recent months, under your quasi-liberal boot, Canada has become a symbol of civil rights violations. The methods we have witnessed may be liberal to you, but to many citizens around the world it seemed like a dictatorship of the worst kind". Kolakušić elaborated, "We watched how you trample women with horses, how you block bank accounts of single parents so they can't even pay their children's education and medicine".

Not to be outdone, far-right German MEP Christine Anderson (who was also on that list of MEPs chastised for anti-vaxx activities) joined in, "A Prime Minister who openly admires the Chinese basic dictatorship, who tramples on fundamental rights by persecuting and criminalizing his own citizens as terrorists just because they dared to stand up to his perverted concept of democracy should not be allowed to speak in this house at all".

Fellow Alternative for Germany MEP Bernhart Zimniok made his own contribution to European democratic debate and rhetoric, claiming that Trudeau has been, "cracking down on people who protested against disproportionate corona measures, people who were supporting a non-sanctioned movement coming under criticism", and "clearly the values of democracy are being despised by this individual. Let us not give someone like this any speaking time in this house of democracy".

Romanian right-winger and ex-priest Christian Teresa (yes, also on that list) refused to even attend the meeting at which Trudeau was due to speak, so outraged was he, spitting at Trudeau, "you trample with horses' hooves your own citizens who are demanding that their fundamental rights be respected".

Well, where to start? This is a fascinating if rather depressing, glimpse into right-wing European politics, and it seems the tone is no more elevated there than here in North America. I think the MEPs may have been getting their news reports from Fox News or the Toronto Sun, or some other less-than-reputable outfit. 

For one thing, Trudeau was not integrally involved in the policing of the scabious protesters; it was essentially an Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police operation, with some help from the RCMP. I did not see Trudeau out there on horseback and in riot gear at any point.

Be that as it may, branding Trudeau as a "dictator" at a time when the European Parliament was debating Vladimir Putin is a little rich. The whole thing about Trudeau personally trampling poor defenceless women comes as a bit of a shock, it not having hardly been reported here. I assume they are referring to Fox News reports of police officers on horseback injuring or possibly killing a female protester at the occupation, reports that have been roundly dismissed as inaccurate. Video footage of an injured woman did surface, but she certainly did not die (she herself said that she was "hurting but OK"), and it is far from clear that she her injury arose due to the police horses (still less Trudeau!) The Fox News tweet continued to reproduce around the world regardless, and in spite of subsequent retractions by the originator.

Blocking bank accounts of poor single mothers? They are presumably referring to the case of one Briane, a single mother (odd detail, that) who donated $50 to the Freedom Convoy campaign. This was a case publicized by BC MP Mark Strahl, and appears to have been spurious (or at least the part about her bank account being blocked). Only the occupation's leaders and truckers actively illegally blocking the streets of Ottawa were targeted by this Emergencies Act legislation, not individual donors. Makes a good story, though (until it doesn't).

Hmm. What else? Oh, yes, Justin Trudeau admiring the Chinese dictatorship. Where did that come from? "There is no question that there have been tremendous human rights abuses reported coming out Xinjiang, and we are extremely concerned with that". No, not that one. "We have real concerns about China's behaviour in regards to human rights". No, not that one either. How about: "We will remain absolutely committed to working with our allies to ensure that China's approach of coercive diplomacy, its arbitrary detention of two Canadian citizens, alongside other citizens of other countries around the world, is not viewed as a successful tactic by them." No, probably not.

No, they are referring to a single 2013 interview in which a pre-Prime Ministerial Trudeau expressed admiration for the way in which China could pivot so quickly to take up issues like green investment. The comment was flippant and ill-advised, and was pounced upon by opposition politicians, even if it was taken slightly out of context (and the second part of his answer was overlooked completely). The bottom line, though: Trudeau is not a big supporter of Xi Jinping.

So, European right-wing demagoguery: pretty similar to North American right-wing demagoguery. Heavy on ad hominen smears, light on facts. I think what they were trying for, in a rather inept way, was to criticize Trudeau's use of the Emergencies Act to help bring an end to weeks of illicit (and, as is increasingly apparent, downright criminal) occupation of Canada's capital by self-styled Canadian freedom fighters without causing unnecessary bloodshed. Many right-wing commentators have panned the move as anti-democratic and heavy-handed, even though it was actually hardly used in the end. The measure, which, incidentally, was passed by a majority vote in Parliament and not on a whim of the Prime Minister, attracted a court challenge by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (oh, and by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney because, well, why not?), although nothing has come of the challenges so far.

Ash Barty retires at the top of her game

The sports world reacted with surprise and respect yesterday as Australian tennis player Ash Barty announced her retirement from the sport at the tender age of 25.

Going out as world number one, with a French Open, Wimbledon and, most recently, Australian Open win under her belt, she has decided that the stress and the constant abuse of her body that top-flight tennis requires is just not worth it to her. Not for her the constant battle against injury and the constant striving for this record and that record shown by many other top tennis players like Serena Williams  and Rafael Nadal. She leaves at the top of her game, having won 25 of her last 26 games. Yes, she could probably have won more, but elite women's tennis pays pretty well, so I'm sure she won't starve.

Hard work and some innate talent have earned her many accolades, and now that phase of her life is past for her. Now she can kick back and relax with her family, secure in the knowledge that she still counts as one of the greats, however short her career was. Now she can spend more time with her family - yes, I know that's what everyone says when they retire, but in Barty's case it is probably even true. She plans to marry golf professional Garry Kissick, and to "chase other dreams". As she said in an interview yesterday, "I think it's important I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person, not Ash Barty the athlete". Good luck to her, I say.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Conservative outrage at Liberal/NDP agreement rings hollow

The Liberal government has today cemented an informal agreement with the National Democratic Party (NDP), such that the NDP will support the Liberals in confidence votes until the natural end of the current Parliament in 2025, in exchange for government action on some NDP priorities. It is not an official coalition (there will be no NDP member in cabinet, for example), merely a "confidence and supply agreement" to support each other, but with the understanding that there will still be some disagreements, and that the two parties may not move in lockstep. 

It is essentially just an extension of what has been the status quo thus far in the current Liberal minority government. It's an agreement - and not even a binding agreement, at that - for both parties to do pretty much what they would have done anyway. All the MPs we voted for last year are still there, representing their various parties; nothing much has really changed. Jagmeet Singh promises to keep up the tough NDP opposition questioning on a variety of issues, but will not actively seek to bring the government down. 

Most people were not that surprised or shocked. The opposition Conservatives, though, are outraged. Outraged, I tell you! Interim leader Candice Bergen fumes, "This is nothing more than a Justin Trudeau power grab. He is desperately clinging to power".  She blusters about "a Jagmeet Singh-led government in charge", and is horrified by the prospect of the "socialist" NDP having more power than her own party ("socialist" being the worst swear-word she can think of). "The NDP and the Liberals were meeting in secret and they cooked up a backroom deal", she says, asking as many trigger words as possible. But did she really expected to be invested to the negotiations?

Leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre added his own expression of pique: "They have agreed to a radical and extreme agenda to expand the power of government by taking away the freedoms of the people". "Radical" - check. "Extreme" - check. "Power" - check. "Freedoms" - check. Poilievre's Twitter feed calls it a "Socialist coalition power pact" which is rather awkward grammatically, but also manages to squeeze the maximum number of Tory buzzwords and trigger words into the smallest possible space. He also called Trudeau "an NDP prime minister". Really, these people talk in clichés; they are like cartoon MPs.

I mean, of course the Conservatives would have to make their disapproval known, but such disingenuousness beggars belief. Like they would not have done something very similar themselves given half a chance. The Liberals and NDP are not a million miles apart policy-wise these days, and an agreement of this kind (or even a full-blown merger, if you ask me) is not a big stretch for either party. The Tories probably have more variability of views WITHIN THEIR OWN PARTY than these two centre-left parties.

As for the Conservative claims that the accord is merely a case of two leaders seeking to extend their personal brand for as long as possible, that may indeed be true, but that is not a crime. More importantly, though, they are seeking to extend the time that their respective parties have to push through their policies, and that is merely common sense. Mr. Trudeau has effectively achieved the majority government he sought through entirely legal, non-violent, and not even particularly underhand, means

This agreement is party politics in action, no more and no less than usual. Like it or like it not, the Conservatives have been out-played and out-manoeuvred at their own game, and it smarts. You can, if you like, look at it as a sneaky measure to keep the Tories completely out of the picture for an extended period of time (for which we should all be very grateful, in my humble opinion). But that is the very worst that can be said about it, and essentially it is just parliamentary business as usual, not a case of the sky falling (again). Try as I might, I fail to see how "democracy is being eroded" by this move. The loud Conservatives' complaints ring hollow, and just sound like whining and sour grapes to me. 

If the Equinox is the start of Spring, why is the Solstice the middle of Summer?

We just passed the Spring Equinox, so everyone and their dog is whittering about Spring being finally here. And indeed, the weather is starting to cheer up a bit, although the nights are still around or below freezing here in Toronto (and you know there will be the odd snowfall well into April).

So, if the Spring Equinox is widely considered the start of the Spring season, why is the Summer Solstice not considered the start of Summer? After all, the Summer Solstice is also known as Midsummer (and the Winter Solstice as Midwinter). So, what gives?

Well, it all depends on your definition of Summer, really. If you consider Summer to be the season of long days and short nights, then the Solstice (the longest day of the year, astronomically speaking) is indeed Midsummer. But if you consider Summer to be the season of peak growth and warm weather, then things get a bit murky. 

Weatherwise, Summer here in Southern Canada could be considered to start in mid-May and continue to about mid-September. In the UK - and that's where the word originated, of course - things generally start a little earlier, maybe early May to the end of August (by September things are starting to wind down, and you might consider that month to be part of Autumn). So, on that basis, the latter part of June, when the Summer Solstice falls, could conceivably - at a stretch - be thought of as the middle of Summer (although it's even more of a stretch to think of Spring starting February, even in Britain).

Anyway, the point is, Spring, Summer and the other seasons are not scientifically defined. They are variable, they differ from one country to another, they differ over the centuries, and they are not necessarily a neat three months each in length. So, the words are just convenient labels and should not be taken too literally. Think of them more as a poetical concepts than as products of hard science.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Both Arctic and Antarctic much warmer than usual

Both the Arctic and the Antarctic recently experience record high temperatures ON THE SAME DAY!

Parts of Antarctica were 40°C (70°F) above averages for the time of year, while the Arctic recorded temperatures about 30°C (50°) warmer than average.

Climate change? What climate change?

Why right-wingers support Putin

I still find it a bit strange that right-wingers (by which I mean ultra-right-wingers, not well-meaning social conservatives) are so supportive of Vladimir Putin and his soviet crusade in Ukraine. Whether it's Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and many other elements of the right-wing Fox News-viewing side of the US Republican Party, or the nationalist/populist edge of European politics, or the ultra- nationalist faction in China, the extreme right worldwide clearly has a soft spot for Mr. Putin and his ambitions.

It's a less common view here in Canada, but even here some right-wingers have been tempted to try and draw parallels between Trudeau and Putin, for example, branding the moderate Canadian Prime Minster as a dictator in the mould of Putin. A recent poll in Canada suggests that vaccine refusers (who are almost all on the far reaches of the right, for whatever reason) are 12 times more likely to be sympathetic to Russia compared to fully vaccinated Canadians.

Putin may have come up through the Stalinist/KGB axis of the Soviet Union, but that doesn't mean that he is Communist, or even towards the left of the political spectrum. The Soviet Union left all that behind many years before Putin came of age, thanks to Stalin. Make no mistake, Putin is firmly on the right, quite a long way out on that wing. His philosophy, if you can call it that, favours nationalism, racism, homophobia and misogyny, and opposes progressive trends of any sort. He is also, at least nominally, "Christian", although of a rather warped Christianity that might be easily recognizable by the evangelical wing of American Republicans.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that there is a sneaking respect for Putin among the political hard right of the West and elsewhere, and many of them have an unhealthy appreciation for aggressive foreign policy and authoritarianism of any stripe. Of course, any support for Putin is all in the context of their own local interests and aspirations - they don't actually care about Russia or, still less, the Russian people - that is just the way these people think.

And remember, Russia has done its best to support Western extreme right groups and movements, through the proscribed Russian Imperial Movement and other conduits, so many of them will see it as only fair to show support back.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Canadian-developed vaccine to be rejected by WHO

A home-grown COVID-19 vaccination developed by Quebec-based Medicago will almost definitely not be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), due to its links with cigarette producer Philip Morris International. 

Medicago's "plant-based" Covifenz vaccine has been approved by Health Canada, and the Canadian government has ploughed some $173 million into its development, and is contracted to buy at least 20 million doses, with an option for 56 million more. But Medicago is about one-third owned by Philip Morris (maker of Marlborough cigarettes, among others), and WHO and UN have long had very strict and clear rules on engagement with the tobacco and arms industries, which the company and the Canadian government must have been aware of. It therefore becomes the first Western-manufactured COVID shot to be rejected by the WHO.

So, it looks like we are stuck with all this vaccine, which is expected to become available to the public this May, a year and a half after most other vaccines. We are already almost all fully-vaccinated at this point, with about 50% of the population triple-vaccinated, and vaccinations have slowed to a trickle (other than among 5-12 year olds, which were only recently approved for vaccinations). We really don't need another new vaccination, and who will voluntarily take an internationally-unauthorized vaccine with a 70% efficacy rate in preference to an internationally-recognized one with a 95% efficacy. Can anyone say "white elephant"?

An unexpected casualty Russia's war in Ukraine - neon

There has been a been a lot of fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine - commercial economic, political, although thankfully not nuclear, so far at least. One unexpected one is a potential scarcity of neon gas.

Before you say, well, we can suck it up and do without a few more neon signs, you should know that that the colourless odourless gas is an essential element of semiconductor chip production, and those we can't do without (think cars, computers, phones, airplanes, and pretty much all electronics of any kind). Neon is what is called a "buffer gas", used to control the exact wavelength of laser light when carving silicon wafers into the tiny complex chips used in electronics.

Neon is all around us, in the air we breathe, but in tiny quantities (about 18 parts per million, or less than a fifth of one percent). It must be captured directly from the air using specialized air separation technology, and then purified by an equally specialized chemical process. It turns out that about half of the 667 million litres of semiconductor-grade neon produced each year comes from just two companies in Ukraine. 

Prior to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine produced almost 70% of the world's neon. The price of neon suddenly shot up about 600% overnight after that event, and this provided a much-needed (if somewhat belated) wake-up call. Since then, other countries have been setting up production facilities, particularly China (which brings its own set of problems), but also the EU and USA. However, the world is still embarrassingly reliant on two companies, one in Mariupol (currently under intense bombardment and siege by Russia), and one in Odesa (which will be Russia's next target, if Mariupol falls).

There is already an ongoing semiconductor chip shortage, due to a confluence of various different factors, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Chip-makers say that have anywhere from one to six months of neon supplies stockpiled. But you can expect substantial price rises in anything that incorporates electronics, which is, well, pretty much everything. And don't even think about Russia's dominance in production of palladium and C4F6 gas (both also used in semiconductors) and of nickel (an essential component in battery technology). Globalization has its advantages, but it also has its drawbacks.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

EVs come of age

I'm not really one to keep track of car competitions - from what little I notice of auto advertising, pretty much all cars and trucks claim to be the best in some category or other. 

But I was a bit chuffed to read that the three finalists for this year's World Car of the Year were all fully electric crossover vehicles: the Ford Mustang Mach-E (read "mach-o"), the Hyundai Ioniq 5, and the Kia EV6.

Call it EV's coming of age.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Conservatives call for a no-fly zone is cynical and dangerous

All 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are in agreement that establishing and policing a no-fly zone over Ukraine - as desirable as that might be in theory, and as often as Ukrainian President Zelinskyy makes his heartfelt pleas for it - would be a grave mistake, and potentially open the door to a Third World War involving nuclear powers, which would be in no-one's interest.

The Conservative Party of Canada, however, feel that they know better than all these esteemed and knowledgeable Western democracies. Yesterday, interim leader Candice Bergen - she of the Freedom Convoy inclinations - outlined the Conservatives' plan to impose a no-fly zone over humanitarian corridors throughout Ukraine. It's not clear how that differs from any other kind of no-fly zone or how Ms. Bergen and the Tories plan on working this plan without giving Putin the gift of a NATO escalation of the war, but presumably they have thought about it. Haven't they? 

This is not something that Ms. Bergen came up with all on her ownsome, incidentally - it is essentially what a bunch of American "foreign policy experts" and ex-military types proposed a few days ago. Setting aside the fact that the majority of Russia's bombardments are actually ground-based not airborne, this plan also involves a lot of magical thinking, and a surprising lack of realpolitik commonsense and good judgement on the part of these august personages, and has been robustly argued against.

Of course, the Conservatives are not in power in Canada (thankfully), so they can safely make all kinds of wacky, impractical suggestions in any number of policy areas that they feel might appeal to their voting block, without any danger of them actually having to be implemented. They like to be seen to be doing something (or saying they are doing something) that the government is not. They think it makes Justin Trudeau look weak (except that doing the right thing is often the harder course). The Republicans are doing much the same in America

But they must know that a "limited" no-fly zone of this kind is not a practical possibility, or at least extremely inadvisable. And, anyway, this is not something that Canada (or the USA or any other individual country) can bring about on its own; it would have to be a whole-of-NATO decision, and it potentially affects the whole world.

Playing divisive party politics in these kinds of circumstances and with these kinds of stakes is cynical in the extreme. Whoever gets to be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada needs to rein in this kind of behaviour. But don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The skinny on why Russia wants to "de-Nazify" Ukraine

If you've been confused by Russia's stated aim to "de-Nazify" Ukraine, especially given that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself is Jewish, you're not alone. Let's see if we can throw some lights on it.

For one thing, President Zelenskyy's Judaism is far from representative - Jews make up only 0.2% of Ukraine's population, according to Wikipedia. But a lack of Jews does not make a state Nazi or neo-Nazi. So, what else is going on?

The other confounding issue is the existence of the Azov Battalion. There is a militant ultra-nationalist movement in Ukraine called Azov, which Ukrainians are a little embarrassed by, and generally try to downplay. The movement has its own fringe political party, the National Corps, and a paramilitary force, the National Militia, which has for years "patrolled" the streets. and has been implicated in several violent attacks in minorities. Yes, they are an unashamedly neo-Nazi group, right down to the Nazi Wolfsangel logo and swastika tattoos, and yes, they are a nasty piece of work.

However, after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its incursions into the Donbas region, Ukraine's military found itself under-resourced and outgunned, and volunteer militias such as the Azov Battalion and the Right Sector made a name for themselves as fierce fighters and valiant defenders of the nation. As a result, the Azov Battalion was officially integrated into the Ukraine National Guard in late 2014, where it became known as the Azov Regiment, giving it an unprecedented legitimacy.

This has been something of a dirty secret for Ukraine, and something they are not very happy talking about. The USA has made a point of specifying that any military aid it gives to Ukraine does not reach the Azov Regiment. They are generally treated as a necessary evil, but evil nonetheless.

However, they have been a propaganda gift to the Russians, and the Russian propaganda machine has sought to smear the Ukrainian military as a whole as right-wing extremists, even though many far-right fighters, both domestic and foreign, have also volunteered in the Russian army. Armies seem to attract that kind of person.

So, yes, there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, just as there are in Russia (and in Canada and the USA, for that matter), but they are probably no more influential there than in many another country. The radical-right coalition that the National Corps political party belongs to polled just over 2% in the last election, and failed to win a single seat in Parliament. 

So, hardly a hot-bed of Nazism. And certainly not a reason to invade.

Elon Musk makes a fool of himself again, this rime over Ukraine

I keep writing about Elon Musk, saying that the guy's a jerk and I'm not going to write about him any more. I used to do same with Donald Trump. But I keep coming back for more, even though I know that's exactly what these narcissists want, and I shouldn't be encouraging and enabling them. But the guy says and does such ridiculous things; it's hard not to make some comment.

His latest ridiculous thing is to challenge Vladimir Putin to single combat, with Ukraine as the prize. He tweeted - yes, of course it was a tweet; Twitter is the perfect medium for thoughtless and puerile comments - "I hereby challenge Vladimir Putin to single combat. Stakes are Ukraine." Putin didn't dignify it with a reply (although the Director General of the Russian space agency did - sigh!)

I'm not sure what the Ukrainian leadership thought to this American hypermasculinity and macho posturing (one Ukrainian mayor, an equally macho ex-boxer, seemed to be impressed with Musk, as did Ukraine's Minister of Digital Transformation, but I'm sure that was not the general consensus). And I'm pretty sure they weren't consulted. 

Maybe it was a joke (it's hard to tell with Musk), in which case it's in pretty bad taste to use a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude for his own self-promotion. And if he was serious, then this is just further evidence that the guy is off his rocker.

Either way, no-one comes out of this looking good, least of all Elon Musk.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Meta is treading a very fine legal and moral line

American social media companies are walking a fine line in Eastern Europe at the moment. They are under pressure to join the ever-expanding commercial boycott of Russia, but pretty much everything they do has all the characteristics of a double-edged sword.

Russia is to close down Instagram service in the country, supposedly in response to what it calls "restrictions of access" to Russian media, but in reality to silence vocal opposition to Putin's war in Ukraine. Meta-owned Instagram is the medium of choice of jailed Putin opponent Alexey Navalny and many others who oppose Putin's regime and methods. Russia has already shut down Meta-owned Facebook in the country. WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, is not affected by these legal moves, as it is considered a means of communication, rather than a way to publicly post information. Other social media outlets are still functioning in Russia, including Telegram and Kontakte.

But Meta has really put the cat among the pigeons by saying that they will allow, "temporarily", social media posts on its platforms that call for "Death to the Russian invaders", for example. Not "Death to Putin" or "Death to any other individual", they explain, but "Death to the Russian invaders" would be OK. (Internal Meta emails, however, show that they had allowed "Death to Putin" and "Death to Lukashenko", at least for a while.) 

Now, this is clearly against normal Facebook and Instagram rules, but Meta argues that Ukrainians need to be able to express "their resistance and fury at the invading military forces". Russia is of course outraged at this clear example of Western double standards, and they have opened a criminal case against Meta, which they are now branding an "extremist organization". And, however much you might hate Russia and what Putin is doing right now, you can see that they probably have a point (and a case).

In the meantime, Russia is going ahead and shutting down Instagram, and many a Russian internet influencer will be out of a job. On the bright side, Facebook and Instagram are huge sources of right-wing disinformation, in Russia as everywhere else.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Do we gain or lose an hour, will it be darker or lighter, and other pithy questions

For what it's worth, we are now on Daylight Saving Time here in Ontario. I can always remember whether to put the clocks forward or backward - at least on those few timepieces that are not already automated - using the mnemonic "Spring forward, Fall back" (although it would be quite possible to spring back and fall forward, if less likely). 

What I can never remember, though, without laboriously working them out from first principles, is whether we "lose" or "gain" an hour, whether it makes it lighter or darker in the mornings or evenings, etc. These things never quite seem intuitive. I wondered if writing them down might make them easier to remember.

When we set our clocks an hour forward in Spring (like we are even close to spring here in Ontario!), we lose an hour, or more accurately we lose an hour's sleep. This is because, if we go to sleep at a "normal" time and wake up at, say, 7am on the new settings, this would normally be 6am, so it feels like we get an hour's less sleep. Of course, you could avoid this, by changing the clocks before you go to bed, but that way you lose an hour from your day instead (and I know which I would prefer). By the same token, in the Fall, we gain an hour's sleep.

Because we wake up an hour earlier than we used to (in clock terms at least), mornings tend to look darker than they used to, and evenings lighter. That's because 7am is what used to be 6am, i.e. still dark. You can avoid this by always getting up at 10am! After the Fall clock change,  it works the other way around: mornings feel lighter than they used to, and evenings darker.

Amd finally, because we now change to Daylight Saving Time a couple of weeks earlier than we used to here in Canada, and a couple of weeks earlier than Europe does the same thing, the relative time zones are messed up for a couple of weeks. So, while the UK is usually 5 hours ahead of EST in Ontario, for these two weeks I have to remember when ringing family that the UK is only 4 hours ahead (because we have sprung forward and they have not), and Western Europe is 5 hours ahead not 6. In the Fall, the UK and Europe change their clocks back a week before Canada, creating a 6/7 hour time difference instead of 5/6 hours, but only for one week. It's complicated!

It's no surprise, then, that Europe has already set in motion a bill to permanently do away with Daylight Saving Time, although the debate goes on, and several countries are having difficulty deciding whether to remain on "winter" time or "summer" time. Such a change seems less likely in the UK, where people are apparently more wedded to the current system of changing clocks twice a year (or maybe they just don't want to follow what Europe is doing, on principle!) In Ontario, too, things are in motion, but the agreement to stay on Daylight Saving Time permanently, already passed in the legislature, depends on neighbouring Quebec and New York also instituting the same change (which sounds like a prohibitive requirement, except that the US Senate has just passed the "Sunshine Protection Act" which would leave the whole of the USA on permanent daylight saving time if ratified in the House, so change may be closer than we thought).

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ontario abandoning health rules despite scientific advice

Well, go figure. Ontario, in the run up to an election later this summer, is pressing ahead with dismantling all COVID restrictions including masking, despite clear advice from health authorities that such a move is premature, to say the least.

Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced yesterday that Ontario's remaining mask mandate will be lifted on March 21st and isolation rules for most people with recent exposure to the virus will be lifted, even though Ontario's independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has strongly warned against it. Premier Ford sees other provinces opening up further and faster than Ontario, and does not want his electorate to see him lagging.

Gone is any pretence of waiting a reasonable period to see how specific changes go and what effect they have on cases and hospitalizations. The current schedule changes each week, so we we will have no concept of which changes have which effects. Not that we are testing worth a damn anyway these days...

Dr. Moore is now firmly under the thumb of Ford and his Conservative caucus, and has relinquished all show of "following the science", just as Dr. David Williams did before him. Just weeks after abandoning vaccine certificates and doing away with distancing rules and capacity limits, the Science Table states clearly that we do not know the effects of these changes, and we should not be abandoning the easy and effective public health measure of masking in indoor settings (particularly in schools) until we do. Nothing daunted, Ford and Moore are pressing ahead regardless, much to the surprise of the Science Table. 

Hospitals, schools organizations and health academics are all in agreement that relaxing public health measures so quickly is ill-advised, and that re-instating such rules later will be "very difficult" (a gross understatement). Other jurisdictions have seen substantial increases in COVID cases loads and hospitalizations after removing mask mandates and, with a new sub-variant of Omicron ravaging Europe, it is only a matter of time before Ontario too will be in its grip. Now is absolutely not the time to be relaxing health measures.

Russia back to bombing hospitals

Russia is back to one of its worst habits: bombing hospitals. A Russian airstrike hit (or narrowly missed, and severely damaged) Mariupol maternity and children's hospital yesterday. Three people are dead, including one child, and 17 were injured in the attack, which occurred during what was supposed to be a cease-fire. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is calling it an atrocity and a war crime, which it probably is.

You might think, at first blush, that it was just an aberration, a mis-fire, an accident, and I am sure that Russia will try to characterize it as such. But shelling hospitals is part of Russia's MO. Any number of hospital strikes were recorded in the Russian-Syrian bombing raids in Syria over a period of several years since 2015.

I am at a loss to understand the strategic or tactical value of bombing a hospital. Russia continues to bomb civilian and residential targets, while strongly denying doing so, and it has repeatedly broken cease-fire agreements and compromised agreed evacuation corridors. If it needed more bad press and international condemnation, it is going exactly the right way about it. 

The only explanation I can find is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's claim that the hospital had been emptied of patients and was being used by fighters of the Azov battalion and other Ukrainian extremist groups. Unfortunately, at the same time, Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov was claiming that the bombing never even took place, and that the explosions were "a staged provocation to incite anti-Russian agitation in the west". Guys, if you are going to lie, at least coordinate your lying, can you?

Is it possible that Russian troops are just really badly disciplined or poorly trained, that they are just plain inept? Or is this really part of their game plan, regardless of the censure and ostracism such heinous acts will necessarily attract? Their past record and recent actions suggests that they just don't care about being considered an international pariah. Maybe they are just past the stage of worrying about such niceties.

Way to go, Russia! How to make friends and influence people!

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Why poutine is no longer politically correct in Quebec

What's in a name? Well, quite a lot, as it happens, when that name is Putin.

You might think that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", but a Quebec restaurant is taking no chances. Roy Jucep restaurant in Drummondville, an hour outside Montreal, claims to have developed the original poutine - now widely  accepted as pretty much Canada's national dish - back in 1964, a claim that I imagine is much contested. But the restaurant, which garners much of its popularity from this dish, has changed the menu item to the descriptive but rather bland name of "Cheese-Fries-Gravy".

The problem is that Poutine is also the French spelling and pronunciation for a certain Vladimir Putin, and Roy Jucep just didn't want that name on its menu (as for why the French and Quebecois feel the need to French-ify Putin's name, I have no idea). 

It is not the only food facing a name change as a result of Russia's occupation of Ukraine. UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's is changing their Chicken Kiev to the more politically correct Chicken Kyiv (the Ukrainian spelling of Kiev), as are many restaurants around the world. A pub in Tel Aviv is changing its name from Putin to, er, Pub. And many bars are changing their Moscow Mules to Kyiv Mules (or in one case, Snake Island Mules).

Call it commercial sensitivity or marketing smarts, call it bandwagon-jumping, call it just plain silly, but you can absolutely see where they're coming from.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Fake fact-checking of fake news

You know you are in the post-truth era when Russian fact-checking of Ukrainian propaganda is in fact itself fake.

It has almost got to the stage where you can't believe anything you see or hear.

What is that Russian white Z symbol?

You may have seen the white Z symbol emblazoned on Russian tanks and various other places during the Russian occupation of Ukraine, and wondered what the hell it means.

Well, it's complicated. Or, at least, it's unclear. The first sightings were on Russian tanks in the very early days of the invasion, and it was conjectured that it was so that the Russians could distinguish their own tanks from Ukraine's (similar, Soviet era) tanks, kind of like putting a ping pong ball on a car antenna. Other tanks, however, showed O, X, A and V, so some have suggested hat the Z stands for Zapad ("West"), or possibly Za pobedy ("victory"). But why use Roman letters, not Cyrillic?

Since then, the white Z has been showing up everywhere in Russia, as a nationalist, pro-Putin, pro-war symbol (some are calling it a "modern day swastika"). It has appeared painted on apartment blocks, as a huge neon sign in St. Petersburg, on street signs, bus shelters and cars, on funeral parlours and hospices. It has been adopted by Russian internet influencers, competitive gymnasts and pro-Putin MPs, and paraded around by t-shirted flash-mobs.

And yet, it's still not clear what it really means, and whether it has been deliberately fomented by the Putin administration or developed spontaneously. Maybe it means nothing at all, a reflection of the vacuous logic of the whole invasion.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Wordle as a competitive sport

I guess it was only a matter of time before Wordle became a competitive sport. Interestingly, of the top ten countries, only Australia (4th=) and South Africa (7th=) are native English speakers. Here is the top ten:

1 Sweden (3.72)
2 Switzerland (3.78)
3 Poland (3.79)
4 Australia, Belgium (3.80)
6 Finland (3.81l
7 Brazil, Denmark, South Africa (3.83)
10 Israel (3.84)

Of course, it should be said that this ranking was only obtained from an analysis of Twitter postings that mention Wordle scores. So, really it's a ranking of people who feel the need to advertise their Wordle scores on Twitter. You probably wouldn't bother doing that if you regularly get it in six (or more!) These are probably people who scour the internet looking for killer techniques and best starting words. Enough said!


Saturday, March 05, 2022

Zelenskyy needs to be careful what he wishes for

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (or Zelensky or Zelenskiy - the man himself apparently prefers Zelenskyy, and that's how it appears on his passport) is making a big song and dance about the fact that NATO will not impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Quoth he: "All the people who will die starting from today will also die because of you. Because of your weakness, because of your disunity." 

Well, that's not why at all. That's just cheap and irresponsible rhetoric. Zelenskyy knows perfectly well that NATO is not able or willing to do that, because that would involve shooting down Russian planes, which would bring NATO into a full-blown war with Russia, aka World War 3. President Biden and NATO could just as easily retort to Zelenskyy, "If that results in a (nuclear) world war, then all the thousands (millions?) of additional deaths are on you". Hell, you could argue that the deaths of thousands of his people are Zelenskyy's personal responsibility because he is not willing to accede to Russia's four demands for a cease-fire, but no-one in doing that.

So, what about the whole no-fly zone issue? There has been a fair bit of misinformation (disinformation?) on the Ukrainian side, as well as the much more blatant and egregious  fake news on Russia's part. For example, Ukraine has been broadcasting the (false) claim that the European Union - specifically Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia, all of whom use the same Russian MiG-29s and SU-25s that the Ukrainian air force is familiar with - plan on donating as many as 70 planes for Ukraine's use. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been very firm in his denials of any such plan, stressing that NATO can help with "materiel, anti-tank weapons, air defense systems and other types of military equipment", but is "not to be part of the conflict". So, there is clearly a qualitative difference between weapons and actual aircraft (is this laid out in statutes somewhere?), a difference that will not be crossed. For some reason, NATO countries can supply Ukraine with surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank missiles, but not airplanes, despite the search for creative solutions to get around the "rules".

Canada too has been firm in its vows to provide military equipment of all sorts, but to draw the line at sending actual planes. When challenged to say why, Trudeau explained that Canada's planes are not the same kinds of planes that Ukraine's air force is familiar with (although it seems to me that they would probably still welcome the chance to learn). 

Two other factors also play into all this. One is that Ukraine probably already has enough planes; what it is short of is trained pilots. But also, what is interesting is that, although the Russian combat air force is an estimated 15 times the size of Ukraine's, for some reason that no-one quite understands, they have not chosen to use it to its full extent (some argue that Russian tactics are poor, and their execution incompetent), and much of the shelling that is decimating Ukraine's major cities is actually ground-launched.

Anyway, my point is that President Zelenskyy needs to be a bit more careful what he says. He has taken to shaming Western nations for their inaction, and accusing them of being ineffectual and scared of confronting Russia as Ukraine is doing, but he is missing the point by a huge margin. NATO countries are doing a lot of the work behind the scenes, and bad-mouthing and alienating them seems like a really bad idea. This is not a contentious or borderline opinion that might be subject to movement - all 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are in agreement, and it is not going to change.

Zelenskyy is basking in a a rock-star's adulation at the moment, but he needs to be sure not to abuse his elevated soapbox with disingenuous requests and complaints that would lead to a major escalation in the war, and make things overall much worse, not better. It's not all about you, Mr. Zelenskyy.

Truth and lies in Putin's Russia

Truth, as they say, is always the first victim of war. But the sheer enormity of the porkies being spread in Russia boggle the mind. 

The country has already had at least eight years of highly-censored, state-directed media to drill Putin's idiosyncratic personal vision of the country and the world into the minds of the Russian public, and the propaganda has only intensified since the invasion of Ukraine. So, the Russians could be perhaps forgiven for being so gullible and credulous, brainwashed as they are. 

The Russian media is severely circumscribed in what they can report and how they can report it. Most of the main media organizations are owned by the federal government anyway, and they are specifically "obliged to only use information and data they have received from official Russian sources". Fake video footage, both sophisticated and sometimes embarrassingly unsophisticated, is commonplace on Russian TV and social media. Most Russians apparently have no idea that a full-scale war is taking place on their western flank, involving tens of thousands of soldiers and causing thousands of deaths on both sides.

Since the invasion began, most of the very few independent media outlets left in Russia have been closed down or severely censored; the Internet, particularly Facebook and Twitter, has been muzzled; hot-button words like "war", "invasion" and "attack" have been banned in news reports; and, most recently, the Russian Duma has passed a law criminalizing the intentional spreading of anything that Mocow considers "fake news", under pain of a 15-year prison sentence, leading to the suspension of Russian services by the BBC, CNN, CBS, Deutsch Welle, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, among others.

Consider just some of what the Russian people are being fed:

"Orwellian" doesn't even come close. Some or all of these things may or may not be Putin's actually beliefs, despite the internal inconsistencies, and that just makes it all the scarier.

Ukrainians rightly suspicious of the Russian Orthodox Church

Devout Ukrainians are becoming increasingly concerned and suspicious of the Russian Orthodox Church that holds such sway in the country, and with good reason.

A stash of guns and military rations were found recently in a pro-Moscow Orthodox church in Kolomiya in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine. With that in mind, the people of Pochaiv (Pochayiv), just a couple of hundred kilometres to the north, are getting very worried about the huge and beautiful Lavra (monastery) that dominates the town, especially given that it has locked its gates to the local people since the Russian invasion began, rather than welcoming them in and offering the security of its extensive system of caves.

It is those caves, and the network of subterranean chapels, that worry people most. Who knows what is being stored there? The monastery is loyal to Patriarch Kirill, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who is a close associate of Vladimir Putin, and a known KGB collaborator during the Soviet era. Patriarch Kirill has already been quite outspoken since the Russian invasion began, warning against the "evil forces" that seek to split the historic unity (as he sees it) of the Ukrainian and Russian people.

There is a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, established since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, with its own Kyiv Patriarch, recognized by the Istanbul-based head of the Orthodox Church worldwide. But the Ukrainian and Russian churches were united for centuries under the Moscow Patriarchate, and religions are notoriously slow to register change.

So, yes, I'd be suspicious too. 

Friday, March 04, 2022

Be a little skeptical of why companies are getting out of Russia

There has been an unprecedented - there's that word again! - yes, unprecedented rush to sanction Russia for its ill-advised invasion of Ukraine. Governments, financial institutions, sports leagues and governing bodies, and private companies have all been sanctioning or abandoning Russia in droves. Which is all to the good - Russia, or at least Putin and his cronies, deserves everything that is coming to them.

But I can't help but be a mite suspicious of the motives of many of the companies that are falling over themselves to divest or decamp from the teetering Russian market - what you might call voluntary sanctions. We have seen divestment by energy giants like BP and Shell, suspension of Russian operations by Ford, the closing of Apple stores in the country, ditto with Microsoft and AirBnB, VISA and Mastercard, IKEA's and H&M, an even the once-bullish Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna International has closed up shop. As of March 10th, one estimate suggests that over 330 companies have withdrawn from Russia. The commercial response to Russia's politically incorrect moves has been, well, unprecedented.

But Russia hasn't just graduated to pariah status all of a sudden. It has been annexing parts of other countries, poisoning its political opponents, interfering in democratic elections, and waging cyber warfare for years. And all these companies were perfectly happy sharing in Russia's ill-gotten gains (and lending legitimacy to Putin and his regime) just a week ago.

Peer pressure and public relations are part of the equation, sure. But many of them are just making a strictly commercial decision to get out of a hot, risky place while the going is still relatively good, and while using the situation to put a positive spin on it. For example, reacting about a week after everyone else, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Starbucks are clearly just jumping on a bandwagon, and not making any deep ethical decisions. I'm sure that some companies are making a heartfelt ethical choice (little Newfoundland-based Icewater Seafoods comes to mind), but capitalism does not usually let morality get in the way of making a buck.

UPDATE

As a small example of this cynicism, Shell, which had been an early adopter of the Russia boycott, just bought 100,000 metric tonnes of crude from Russia, reported at a record discount. 

This does not technically break any sanctions (there are no sanctions on Russian oil and gas - YET). They did say that we they would be donating the profits to a humanitarian fund for Ukraine, but that is kind of pretzel logic, and possibly just desperate damage limitation after what is now being perceived as a bad idea.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

What is an oligarch anyway?

As the world reacts to Russia's invasion of Ukraine by imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russian companies and individuals, the word "oligarch" has been thrown around with gay abandon on newscast and in articles. But what actually is an oligarch?

Oligarchy just means rule by a small number of people (Greek olígos, few, arkho, to rule), a term pioneered by Aristotle to describe a tendency to rule by the rich (which we are more likely to describe today as plutocracy). An oligarch is one of those few rich people.

Such powerful and influential individuals can be found worldwide, but the term has become used almost exclusively in the context of "Russian oligarchs". Many Russian businessmen (and, yes, they are all men) became fabulously rich when they became private owners of Russian multinational businesses (particularly in the oil, gas and metals industries) in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. 

They quickly cottoned on to the fact that their wealth and influence could yield them substantial political power, especially power to preserve their own positions and wealth, and a shadowy system of quid pro quo grew up. When Vladimir Putin (himself fabulously rich, although unofficially so) came to power in  the early 2000s, he was particularly amenable to striking bargains with such people, and many of them have established direct relationships with those in positions of political power in Russia. 

Among the most prominent Russian oligarchs are Roman Abramovich (who is currently selling Chelsea Football Club), Igor Sechin (dubbed "Darth Vader" and "the scariest man on earth" by Russian media), Alexander Abramov, Oleg Deripaska ("Putin's favourite oligarch"), Mikhail Prokhorov, Alisher Usmanov, German Khan, Viktor Vekselberg, Leonid Mikhelson, Vagit Alekperov, Mikhail Fridman, Dmitry Ribolovlev, Vladimir Potanin, Pyotr Aven, and Vitaly Malkin. Many of the current crop of Russian oligarchs are actually second-generation oligarchs.

Interestingly, Ukraine has its own system of oligarchs, who also came to power after Ukrainian independence in 1991, many of them also with close links to Russia. But you don't really hear the phrase "Ukrainian oligarchs", do you?

As for the question of why rich businessmen in America, for example - think Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers - are not described as oligarchs, it is argued that the country's institutions and independent court system do not allow rich Americans access to the kind of direct political power that might sustain and even boost their own positions and private wealth (although Donald Trump did his level best to change that).