Saturday, April 30, 2022

Single-event sport gambling is going to lead to all sorts of problems

With very little fanfare, Canada recently legalized single-event sport gambling (betting on the final score the game, the first team to score, the number of fouls, that kind of thing). The theory behind it is that legalization will reduce the incidence of illegal sport gambling, which it is argued, is the real problem. It will supposedly bring in new tax revenues, create new jobs, and provide fun for all the family.

However, everything we can learn from other jurisdictions in America, Britain and Europe that have gone down the same route suggests that that will not actually happen, and that actually encouraging gambling in this way will usher in a whole host of other problems.

Gambling has always been linked to organized crime and "the mob" - it is thought that the mob makes more money out of gambling than it does from drugs - and establishing a legal avenue for gambling is not going to change that. Take a look at what happened when cannabis was legalized for many of the same reasons: illegal pot dealers are still doing very nicely, thank you. For one thing, illegal gambling is more profitable than legal gambling, and it can also be more attractive to the punters (lower commissions, no taxes, and lots of easy credit). 

Much gambling is now done online rather than in physical premises (known in the trade as "frictionless gambling"), which makes it even easier and more convenient for potential gamblers, especially teens and young people, to get involved (and hooked, because, let's not forget, gambling is an addictive activity). You've probably seen endless advertising for online gambling sites during any sports event you may have watched recently, and the level of advertising is ramping up. Many sports teams and leagues are actually sponsored directly and openly by gambling companies. 

It is relatively easy to combine the legal and the illegal. Many apparently legal online gambling sites have a back door (or "trap door") which takes users to illegal sections of the websites, which operate under different rules. The average teenager is walking around with effectively a whole casino is their pocket, disguised as a cellphone, and young people are particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted.

In Britain, which legalized single-event sport gambling in 2007, it is estimated that there are now some 1.4 million problem gamblers (the gambling industry, of course, claims it is much fewer, but they would, wouldn't they?), including tens of thousands of teenagers. The number of people receiving therapy for gambling issues is clearly a fraction of the real number of addicts. More than one person kills themselves each day in Britain over gambling (mainly over accumulated debts).

With sport gambling comes match fixing, which is already rife (yes, even in Canada), and more sport gambling will necessarily lead to more match fixing, like night follows day. We may end up with the unedifying spectacle of two teams trying to outdo themselves in scoring home goals (yes, it has happened!). Match fixing has even found its way into non-traditional sports like online gaming and e-sports, which is becoming increasingly popular.

Most of these problems existed before sport gambling was legalized, of course, but they are likely to become worse as it becomes more acceptable (and they are certainly not going to suddenly get better). If the government is going to encourage this kind of behaviour, then it also needs to institute some enhanced regulation of the industry. Experts say that: jail sentences for mob-connected bookies need to be beefed up; match-fixing needs to be made specifically illegal under the Criminal Code; gambling ads should be prohibited where children can see them (as they are in Britain now); official partnerships between bookmakers and sports teams, players, leagues and media companies should be decoupled; and education and health professionals should be educated more about the dangers of gambling addiction.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

When partisan politics gets in the way of common sense

Extreme partisan party politics just confuses the hell out of me sometimes. It wears me out. The federal Conservative Party has been shouting for many months now that they want access to documents about why two prominent Chinese researchers were summarily dismissed from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg back in January of 2021, and apparently fled back to China. Public access to 250 pages of documentation has been denied by the Liberals on national security grounds thus far.

Now the Liberals, with the support of the NDP, have announced that an ad hoc parliamentary committee will be set up for just that purpose, with a panel of three retired judges to oversee things. The committee of MPs will have full access to the redacted documents, although, understandably, they will only make public those aspects that do not have national security implications, and they "will have the opportunity to appeal to an independent body of jurists if they disagree with any redactions".

Except it turns out the Conservatives, inexplicably, do not want to participate in this committee. They prefer their own plan, which would see the documents reviewed by a parliamentary law clerk, and which as far I can see accomplishes the same thing. You would think they would be keen to get to the bottom if it all, but instead they are calling it a cover-up and whitewashing. Head scratching.

Which planet rotates the "wrong" way?

I read an interesting article today explaining that, while, the Earth, the Sun, the other planets, and the Solar System as a whole, all rotate in the same counter-clockwise direction, Venus alone rotates clockwise

This extraordinary fact is likely due to an ancient collision with another (unknown) celestial body, which struck the planet Venus a glancing blow at such an angle and with such speed and force as to stop its old counter-clockwise rotation (which was established from the rotation of the original protoplanetary cloud of dust and gas) and actually set it rotating the opposite way. The extremely slow speed of Venus' rotation - it takes 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation on its own axis - lends this hypothesis credence.

Fair enough. But, part way through reading the article, I had the sudden realization that, hold on, what does it actually mean to say that the Earth and the other planets rotate anti-clockwise? Sure, if you view the Earth from "above", i.e. from above the North Pole, it seems to rotate anti-clockwise, which is why the Sun seems to rise in the east and set in the west. But, just as surely, if you view it from "below" the South Pole, it would seem to be rotating in a clockwise direction. Try it yourself with a ball, or visualize it using the spinning globe below.

So, yes the planet Venus is unusual in that it's rotation is opposite to everything else in the Solar System. But let's be a bit more careful about the language we use. Granted, the article was a "popular science" one, and not aimed at a scientific audience, but still...

Incidentally, the Earth's rotation has been showing slightly, as a result of the tidal influence of the moon, and an Earth day has been lengthening by around 2 milliseconds. Except that, more recently (i.e. in the last half century or so), it has started spinning slightly (infinitesimally) slower. This is particularly the case over the last decade or so, and our ultra-accurate atomic clocks have not needed to add a "leap second" for some time now. The Earth's slowing down has slowed down, and we're not really sure why (cue dramatic music).

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

More people have had COVID than you might think

Here's a sobering factoid: according to new research out of BC, nearly 40% of Canadians have had the COVID-19 virus, up from 10% as little as five months earlier. So, that's how much the Omicron variant has affected us.

Hidden within that stat, nearly 60% of  younger people (10-40 year olds) have contracted it at some point, around 50% of 40-60 year olds, and a lower percentage of older, more cautious people.

This is in line with American data from the CDC, which suggests that 60% of all Americans have COVID-19 antibodies, and as many as 75% of children 11 and under have had the virus, 

My comment on Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter

I don't use Twitter - nay, I'll go further: I HATE Twitter! - but I would be remiss not to at least comment on the news that maverick and general weirdo Elon Musk has spent $44 billion of his hard earned money on buying up Twitter, lock, stock and barrel.

My comment? Bad news.

My fervent hope is that most Twitter users will not want to be part of an absolutist free choice outlet and leave it in droves, advertisers will follow, and Musk will lose all his money. There seems to be a good chance that will happen.

P.S. Musk tweeted (well, yes, of course he did) that Twitter is "where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated". Really? Has he looked at Twitter recently? Has he read his own posts?

Indonesia's ban of palm oil exports is a big deal

Indonesia, a country you don't often read about in the news, has inserted itself into the international news cycle by banning exports of all palm oil, almost overnight.

That might not seem like the most pressing of news items, but it represents just one more nail in the coffin of the beleaguered supply chain and the globalist multinational world order in general. Indonesian palm oil is a big deal in global terms: it makes up some 60% of worldwide vegetable oil shipments, and it is ubiquitous in food preparation and other spheres of daily life, from baked good to fried food to cosmetics to cleaning products. Indonesia supplies 56% of the world's palm oil (Malaysia is in second place with just 31%). Africa and Asia in particular are heavily reliant on Indonesian palm oil; Pakistan and Bangladesh import about 80% of their palm oil from Indonesia, and India over half.

And this comes at a particularly bad time. Food oils of all kinds are under pressure worldwide for a variety of different reasons: soya oil due to droughts in South America, canola (rapeseed) oil due to bad weather and disastrous harvests in Canada, sunflower oil due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Malaysian palm oil due to labour shortages in Malaysia. Vegetable oil prices have already increased by more than 50% over the last six months, and this move by Indonesia is only going to make that much worse.

And the reason? Well, all we are being told is that it is "a move to tackle rising domestic prices". I'm not entirely sure how increasing prices for everyone else is going to materially help Indonesia's own inflation problem, coming as it is from all sorts of different areas, not least oil and gas.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Imagine having to compile Russia's sanctions lists

In one of Russia's most hard-hitting moves to date, Vladimir Putin and his lackeys have sanctioned 61 "prominent Canadians" and denied them access onto Russian soil, as retribution for Canada's sanctioning of Russian functionaries and politicians over the invasion of Ukraine. 

I confess to having not heard of half of them, although I have no doubt that that are indeed prominent. I imagine they are scrambling right now, and frantically re-scheduling their impending visits to Russia.

The full list is as follows:

  1. Cameron Ahmad, director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office.
  2. Steve Boivin, Commander of the Special Operations Forces Command.
  3. Jeremy Broadhurst, senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office.
  4. Shelly Bruce, chief of Communications Security Establishment.
  5. Craig Baines, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
  6. Halyna Vynnyk, president of the League of Ukrainian Canadian Women.
  7. David Vigneault, director of Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
  8. Terry Glavin, columnist.
  9. Balkan Devlen, senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
  10. Roméo Dallaire, former senator.
  11. Ryan Deming, Commander of 8 Wing at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.
  12. Luc-Frédéric Gilbert, Commander of Canada’s Operation Unifier training mission in Ukraine.
  13. John Ivison, National Post columnist.
  14. Martine Irman, chair of the board of directors at Export Development Canada.
  15. Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta.
  16. Brian Clow, deputy chief of staff to the Prime Minister.
  17. Dan Costello, foreign and defense policy adviser to the Prime Minister.
  18. Frederick Côté, former commander of Operation Unifier.
  19. Melanie Lake, former commander of Operation Unifier.
  20. Shuvaloy Majumdar, senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
  21. Sabrina Maddeaux, National Post columnist.
  22. Mark MacKinnon, senior international correspondent with The Globe and Mail.
  23. Tiff Macklem, Governor of the Bank of Canada.
  24. Roman Medyk, chair of the BCU Foundation.
  25. Michael Melling, head of CTV News.
  26. Borys Mikhaylets, president of the Ukrainian League of Canada.
  27. Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan.
  28. David Morrison, deputy minister of international trade at the Department of Global Affairs.
  29. Al Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
  30. Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
  31. Sandra Aubé, chief of staff at Global Affairs.
  32. Robert Auchterlonie, Commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command at Canadian Armed Forces.
  33. Mike Power, chief of staff to Defence Minister Anita Anand.
  34. Alain Pelletier, deputy commander of NORAD.
  35. Bob Rae, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations in New York.
  36. Michael Sabia, deputy minister at Department of Finance.
  37. Brian Santarpia, Commander of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic.
  38. Jill Sinclair, Canadian representative to the Ukrainian Defence Reform Advisory Board.
  39. Heather Stefanson, Premier of Manitoba.
  40. Ryan Stimpson, former commander of Operation Unifier.
  41. Michel-Henri St-Louis, acting commander of the Canadian Army.
  42. John Tory, mayor of Toronto.
  43. Patrick Travers, senior foreign policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office.
  44. Jeffrey Toope, former commander of Operation Unifier.
  45. Catherine Tait, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Broadcasting Corp./Radio Canada
  46. Katie Telford, chief of staff to the Prime Minister.
  47. David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail.
  48. Jim Watson, mayor of Ottawa.
  49. Graham Flack, secretary of the Treasury Board.
  50. Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario.
  51. David Fraser, retired major-general of the Canadian Armed Forces.
  52. Michael Harris, columnist.
  53. Tasha Kheiriddin, columnist.
  54. Sarah Heer, former commander of Operation Unifier.
  55. John Horgan, Premier of British Columbia.
  56. Leslie Church, chief of staff to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
  57. Janice Charette, interim clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the Cabinet.
  58. Richard Shimooka, senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
  59. Chris Ecklund, founder of FightForUkraine.ca.
  60. Lloyd Axworthy, chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council.
  61. Oz Jungic, senior policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office.
I can't help but think of the Kremlin functionary who spent sleepless nights compiling this list, who to include, who not to include. It's a unenviable task reminiscent of compiling a wedding invitation list. Frankly, I'm outraged not to be on the list myself. Does no-one read this blog?

Most EV charging stations do not live up to their promises

I've had an electric car for over a year now, and I can confidently say that my Kona Electric is the best car I've ever had. Given the pandemic and our relatively simple retired lifestyle at the best of times, we haven't done many long trips in it, but we have done some (430km to Killarney, for example). And we've had no problem with charging up to now.

The vast majority of our charging is done at home, using our own Level 2 charger. And when we have had to charge using commercial chargers, we have used fast Level 3 charging stations (many of them free, for a variety of different reasons). On one occasion, both of the chargers I was expecting to be able to use were either in use or out of commission, and I had to pivot rapidly and find another one within range, but that worked out OK. It has got to the stage where I am downright blasé about charging, which is probably not a good thing.

It was interesting then, to read an article in The Globe about how poorly many public fast chargers perform. I have never really been in that much of a rush, so the issue of charging speeds has never surfaced for me, but I can see that, if electric vehicles are to blossom, as we all hope, the issue needs to be addressed.

As the article points out, electric cars tend to come with ballpark promises like "4.5 minutes to get 100 kilometres of driving range" or "go from 10 to 80 per cent charge in less than 18 minutes" or "up to 100 kilometres in approximately 10 minutes". The particular claims depend on the battery size and maximum charging speeds of various vehicles. But the article points out that, in practice, cars do not charge at anything like their maximum charging speeds, and anyway different charging stations have different charging speeds too (and most of those do not meet their specifications and promises in practice).

To give a couple of examples from the article, one PetroCanada charging station, rated at up to 350kW, with a car technically capable of charging at 250kW, only actually charged at 62kW. Another, technically capable of charging at 150kW, actually only charged at 69kW. The upshot of this is that charging, in practice, takes substantially longer than it should. And, given that all charging stations charge per minute not per kW (apparently because of electricity supply regulatory factors), it also costs more than it should.

Range anxiety and public charging issues are top of mind for many people considering buying electric cars, and these kinds of quirks are just the type of thing that need to be addressed before they will be considered an option for the masses. EV batteries are ever improving, both in their capacity and their charging speeds, but if the infrastructure problems are not fixed, there will be a ceiling beyond which it will be very difficult to pass.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Is Pierre Poilievre actually popular or just a populist?

Pierre Poilievre is having a day, or at least a few weeks. The aggressive populist Conservative MP for Carleton is not a cuddly, avuncular type; he is spiky and combative, and has earned a reputation as a Conservative attack dog for less able Tory leaders like Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole. If you've ever watched him in action, you'll know why; if you haven't, you could do worse than to watch Polievre's aggressive questioning of the Prime Minister over the WE Charity controversy a couple of years ago to get a flavour of the man.

But now, Poilievre is standing to become Conservative leader in his own right, and is widely considered to be the front-runner among a rather lacklustre group of candidates. Can such an unpleasant dude really become Tory leader? And, perhaps more to the point, could he ever become Prime Minister?  Well, "yes" to the first question, and a much more qualified "maybe" to the second. But he's certainly not a guy to write off or underestimate.

It's hard, though, to get a good read on just how popular Polievre actually is. If the Canadian Conservatives have really abandoned the political centre and all pretence at being a so-called Big Tent party, and are willing to embrace a move to the populist right, then maybe Poilievre IS the man of the moment. What with COVID, climate change, and several other issues, many people are getting fed up with being told what to do, however necessary that might be. Poilievre could well be the man to tell people that you don't have to do anything you don't want to do, and you don't have to pay for things you don't want to pay for (remember his support for the tracker's convoy). That always plays well to a certain irresponsible segment of the population, and some people will love to hear that they don't need to pay the carbon tax or wear a mask or get vaccinated.

He has certainly been attracting large crowds, although that is a very inaccurate metric to follow. Some people are just interested to see the new guy in action. He certainly has the knack of "exciting the excitable", as Andrew Coyne puts it, even if those excitable types are just a small but relatively noisy sub-section of society.

You can see why the Tories might be a bit desperate for a plausible winner after the last two false starts. But remember that Erin O'Toole won the leadership contest by campaigning as a "True Blue" Conservative, before rapidly back-pedalling towards the centre during the actual election, on the grounds that too right-wing a candidate would not be able to hold the right-of-centre vote together. Poilievre would almost certainly have no such qualms, and would plough ahead in his own furrow regardless of polls, research and common sense. He is not a man to listen to advice, nor is he "nice" enough to look for consensus. He is unapologetic and brash; he is the proverbial "angry young man", and he uses inflammatory buzzwords like "gatekeepers", "elites" and "woke" (in its now standard pejorative context) in every other sentence.

So, if the Canadian right feels it is ready for a full-blown populist in the mould of Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, et al, he could be their man. God forbid he should ever actually come to power, though. He could do an awful lot more damage than provincial populists like Doug Ford and Jason Kenney.

Not voting in France's crucial second round is irresponsible

I can't for the life of me understand why French voters - or any voters for that matter, but especially French voters given the format of their elections - would abstain or vote "Neither" or otherwise spoil their ballots.

In the last French presidential election, back in the naive and innocent days of 2017, some 4 million voters voted blank or otherwise spoiled their vote, and another 12 million abstained completely (about 25% of the total). Those 16 million voters together represented substantially more than the number that voted for second-place Marie Le Pen (10.6 million), and would have technically been more than enough to have swung the election in her favour (although the majority of those abstentions are actually unlikely to have been right-leaning voters, and are more likely to have been leftists whose candidate was eliminated in the first ballot).

This year, centrist Emmanuel Macron is facing off against far-right Marine Le Pen once again, but Macron is unlikely to have as easy a run of it as in 2017. In the first round of voting, Macron garnered about 28% compared to 23% for Le Pen, with the far-left candidate Jen-Luc Mélenchon a close third with 22%. So, Macron is only slightly ahead of Le Pen going into today's  second round of voting, and how the non-Macron/Le Pen supporters vote is crucial.

You might think it a slam-dunk for Macron as all those who voted for Mélenchon in the first round would surely prefer Macron to Le Pen. But apparently a large proportion (around two-thirds, from polls) of them are planning on either not voting, or voting "Neither" in "protest" (in some ill-defined way). This seems to me a petulant, childish reaction. If, by not voting, they allow Marine Le Pen to sneak in, they are not going to be happy, and they will have doomed France to 5 years of unpredictable and extreme right-wing politics.

Surely, Macron is the better of the two evils, however much leftists may dislike him. So, wouldn't it be better to hold one's nose and vote for the lesser evil, rather than allow the greater evil to prevail? What kind of protest would that end up being? Not voting seems to me just irresponsible, particularly in this situation.

UPDATE

Well, Macron won, reasonably convincingly - sighs of relief all round - although not as convincingly as five years ago (58%-42%, as compared to 66%-34% in 2017). And yes, abstentions were high, at 28%, but enough Mélenchon supporters obviously saw reason and transferred their votes to Macron, rather than allow Le Pen to have her way.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Wimbledon ban of Russian players is not a slam dunk

Sports leagues and competitions have been falling over themselves to ban Russia from competitive international sports since Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine in February. It seems to have galvanized professional sports like no other issue since the Second World War.

It seems, on the surface at least, to be an unambiguous, even uncontroversial, action, a clear message to President Putin that his war is completely unacceptable in polite society (even if Putin doesn't actually care what anybody else thinks).

The latest such announcement comes from the world of tennis: Wimbledon has outright banned any Russian or Belarusian athletes from attending the high-profile tennis completion in June. Gone at the stroke of a pen are men's No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev, and women's No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 16 Victoria Azarenka, among several others.

While I understand and appreciate the gesture, it's still not completely clear to me that it's the right thing to do. Should Russian individuals be punished for the sins of their government or, even more starkly, for the sins of one individual over whom they have no control? What if they are strongly against the war themselves? Should a player be proscribed because they were born on the wrong side of a national border? Does this kind of feel-good action actually have any concrete effect anyway, or is it just meaningless virtue-signalling?

The Women's Tennis Association and the Association of Tennis Professionals have both slammed the Wimbledon decision, and Russian and Belarusian players are expected to be able to play at the French and US Opens. You can almost see Putin rubbing his hands at the dissent and disagreement in the West.

Interestingly, even the view from Ukraine is not 100% unanimous. The Wimbledon ban came largely as a result of a concerted campaign by Ukrainian tennis player Marta Kostyuk (ranked world No. 55), who was elated by the ban: "This was a very important decision to make by Wimbledon, and I really respected and appreciated it". However, fellow Ukrainian Elina Svitolina has come out strongly against the ban: "We don't want them banned completely ... If players don't speak out against the Russian government, then it is the right ring to ban them ... If they didn't choose, they didn't vote for this government, then it's fair they should be allowed to play and compete ... We just want them to speak up."

I have to say, that seems like a reasonable line to take, although I surprise myself my saying so. Give the individuals the benefit of the doubt. Let them make public denunciations of the war, if they dare. Don't just tar all Russians with the same brush.

The kids in masks are alright, politicians not so much

In a couple of days time, Ontario's mask mandate comes to an end after the best part of two years. Although at least half of the population say they will probably still wear masks in public places regardless, it will still be a time of celebration for some (probably a minority) and a source of stress and anxiety for others.

Doug Ford says it is time for the mask mandate to end: "we have to move forward from this".  Because ... well, he doesn't really explain why exactly. Because it is time. Because many of his more conservative supporters don't like masks for some reason ("freedom"?), and there is a provincial election coming up soon. Because some other provinces are also easing their mask mandates, and he doesn't want to be seen to be left behind. Because our schoolkids are suffering untold mental anguish and psychological trauma. 

Wait. Just a moment. Is that true? 

It has been an article of faith among many of the more vocal child advocates and political commentators for months now (years, in fact) that our children are being irreparably damaged by the wearing of masks. But research (in the USA, in Canada, and elsewhere) actually concludes that masks have caused no appreciable damage to kids, no adverse physical, psychological or developmental consequences. There is "no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children" (US CDC). "Right now, there are no data to suggest that there are any short-term or long-term harms when it comes to masks and kids, and that includes both psychological harms and physical harms" (Mass General Hospital for Children). They didn't even adversely impact children's ability to read their friends' emotions (Queen's University).

Mr. Ford, and his sidekick/lackey Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, are suggesting, nay insisting, that the mask mandates, in schools and elsewhere be lifted on March 21st, the day after all those kids finish March Break, despite many of them having spent the last week on foreign beaches and ski hills, and hanging out together in malls and movie theatres, many of them still unvaccinated. Prudence suggests at least a two-week delay, but Ford is having nothing of that prudence thing.

This is not on the advice of the Ontario Science Table (the body that is supposed to advise Messrs. Ford and Moore), nor on the advice of hospital and other medical authorities, nor on the advice of school boards (many of which have been lobbying to extend the mask mandate, and which have been told, in no uncertain terms, that they can't). This is not "following the science". This is, like so much else that Doug Ford does, a purely political calculation. 

And, as for the argument that the kids are suffering, well, that won't wash either, as we have seen. Masks are what have been allowing kids to attend school in person for all these months, and that DOES have serious implications for their mental health. In short, the kids are alright; it's some of the adults I worry about.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Do we need a fourth vaccine dose, and if so, which?

I have been trying to decide whether to get a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Yes, a FOURTH dose - the very essence of a first world problem!

I am technically eligible, here in Ontario, five months after my third dose. However, while the third dose was a no-brainer - all the evidence showed two doses rapidly declining in efficacy, and a third dose boosting it back up into the 90% range - the jury seems to be still out on the case for a fourth dose. Most studies do show that the third dose starts to lose efficacy very rapidly day after about 3 months, and is all but gone by 6 months.  It does seem reasonably clear, though, that just repeating doses of the original formulation will have increasingly marginal efficacy, and may even impair our immune response.

On the assumption that the current Omicron wave (the 6th, is it?) will peter out as the warmer weather gathers steam, as in past years, the likelihood is that a new wave will arrive with the cooler fall weather. However, it's anyone's guess what variant that will involve - Omicron? Omicron+? A completely new variant (Sigma? Tau?) We can't predict it, and vaccines aimed at specific variants take too long to develop and test to wait and see.

It seems likely to me that the next wave will be either Omicron (BA.1 or BA.2 or BA.n) or a new variant that is at least much more similar to Omicron than to the original "wild-type" virus, or early variants like Alpha, Beta and Delta. Pfizer and Moderna are apparently already testing vaccines against Omicron (although some early results are disappointing, and early estimates of a March release date have obviously not panned out). It's not clear when these will be available, but I'm tempted to wait for them, rather than take yet another dose of the original one. 

When third doses became available, experts were advising not to wait for an Omicron-specific vaccine, but the case for a fourth dose is quite different, it seem to me. The virus is now so different from the original version that a more targeted vaccine -  or at least a "bi-valent", or mixed, vaccine like Moderna is supposedly well advanced in developing  - makes more sense to me. And I can certainly wait a few more months... And now, the US's CDC has changed their advice, and is recommending that people wait until the fall for a second booster (possibly a variant-targeted one), unless they are at high risk.

In the meantime, can we give all the millions of vaccine doses we have sitting around to countries that can use them? They may not be the most current vaccines, but they are certainly better than nothing.

More Michaels than women in corporate Canada's C-suites

Here's a fascinating factoid courtesy of the ever-insightful Corporate Knights.

Apparently, there are more corporate CEOs named Michael in Canada than female CEOs (8 vs 5). And actually more Marks than women too (6 vs 5).

That little nugget originally came from Equileap's depressing new global report on gender progress in 23 countries (including Canada).

Flair Airlines may or may not be a Canadian budget airline

People like cheap flights, and they have been hard to come by in North America (at least compared to Europe). So, when Flair Airlines opened up in Canada back in the mid-2000s (with subsequent reinventions and rebrandings in 2017 and 2019), there were some muted celebrations. It's a no-frills airline for sure, with additional fees for pretty much everything, but there is a market for that. It is based in Edmonton, and most people think of it (if they think of it at all) as a Canadian budget airline.

But that seem to be in doubt now. In order to fly internal flights within Canada (a "domestic airline"), an airline needs to be Canadian owned. There are rules about these things, and there always has been. Foreign investment in the airline cannot exceed 49%, and a single foreign entity cannot own more than 25%. Additionally, foreigners cannot exert control ("control in fact") over the airline. 

In Flair's case, it is 25% owned by Miami-based 777 Partners (a stake it bought in 2019), which appears to satisfy the rules. But other Canadian airlines have pointed out that 777 Partners also holds a "dominant influence" over the company, by virtue of being a large lender and also a  provider of leased aircraft. Three of Flair's five directors are also connected to 777 Partners.

Now, Transport Canada, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), the National Airlines Council (NAC) and the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) are all getting involved - so many regulatory organizations! - in order to sort it all out. The CTA ruled in its preliminary decision back in March 2022 that there are "strong indicators that Flair is controlled in fact by 777". 

Flair, for its part, has called for an 18-month exemption from the Canadian ownership rules while these issues can be addressed, although some airlines and industry groups like NAC and ATAC are questioning whether even that should be allowed. The company has fired back that the other Canadian airlines are just trying to take it down any way they can, and Close down any legitimate competition. It's all getting quite nasty.

As things stand, in the absence of a temporary exemption, Flair has until May 3rd (i.e. not long) to either make some substantial changes or face the possible loss of its operating license. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. 

The stock market is ridiculous Part 2

I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: the stock market is a ridiculous thing. The latest exhibit: Netflix's falling share price.

By most measures, Netflix is a hugely successful company. In the last calendar quarter alone, it made profits of US$1.6 billion on sales revenue of US$7.8 billion. Revenue was up 10% over the same period a year ago. If there ever was a strong, safe, profitable company, Netflix is it. 

However, the company's shares just took a 26% nose-dive, and the reason?: it lost about 200,000 subscribers during the quarter. For context, its subscriber base went down from 221.84 million to 221.64 million; that's a reduction of about 0.1%, by my calculation. For added context, it lost 700,000 subscribers when it deliberately closed down it operations in Russia over the war in Ukraine, so arguably it actually gained about 500,000 subscribers over the quarter.

But "analysts" - that amorphous, ill-defined group of geeks and wonks - were expecting an INCREASE in subscribers of 2.5 million and, when that didn't pan out, investors clearly felt morally obliged to panic sell, resulting in a 26% rout of the company's stock price in after-hours trading. 

Now, these people may wake up this morning and realize that they grossly overreacted. But that is just what the stock exchange does, isn't it? It overreacts. Constantly. You would think that, with the huge amounts of money on the line, investors would be a little more circumspect in their reactions to events. Instead, however, they crash about like a bull (or a bear) in a china shop, and market indices slew around crazily as a result. It all just seems so unnecessary.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Promising alternatives for Ontario pwer generation covered up by IESO

Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) published a damning and alarming report last fall that purports to prove that it would be absolutely disastrous if the province were to try to shut down its gas power stations as several major municipalities were demanding. The report said that electricity prices would spike by up to 60%, and that "frequent and sustained blackouts" could be expected. It left little or no prospect that such a move could ever be practically achieved.

Now, though, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance has obtained more details of IESO's research under the province's Freedom of Information legislation, and it turns out that what was published was just one scenario out of several that were considered by IESO. 

Among other scenarios, for example, was one where the current increasing federal carbon tax pushed down demand, and the province obtained more clean electricity from neighbouring Quebec, resulting in a stable and reliable supply and power costs increasing by by just 3% a year. Another scenario looked at Ontario meeting its energy needs by a combination of increased energy storage, energy efficiency measures and wind power, which the report concluded would work well and result in a DECREASE in energy costs of up 8%.

However, these scenarios were not reported in the final publication, just the gas-friendly one that coincided with the Conservatives' own anti-renewables messaging. Coincidence? I think not. All of which, puts the "Independent" part of IESO's name somewhat in doubt.

Doug Ford's great vote-buying escapade

Ontario Premier Doug Ford sent me a $600 cheque recently. I should be happy - at least, that's what Doug Ford thinks - but I'm really not. In fact, I'm incensed! And I'm not the only one.

The cheque is a couple of years' back-dated refund for the license plate fees I have paid. I didn't pay them in error; it was the law of the province at the time. But Doug Ford, just a few weeks before an Ontario election in which he is standing for re-election, decided that should be changed. The way he tells it, the fees are a gross and unfair imposition, and it's only fair that we drivers and voters should get that hard earned money back.

In fact, the fees should be used to help repair our crumbling infrastructure and improve our criminally underfunded public transit. But Ford, in his wisdom, is deliberately turning away $1 billion in reliable income. This kind of thing apparently plays well in the 905 area of suburban Toronto and in rural areas where the car rules, which is where Ford's major voting block lives. The urban core, which is largely anti-Conservative, will be solidly against subsidizing car-drivers in this way. But then Ford is unlikely to win any votes in these areas anyway, particularly not using this kind of bare-faced bribery, and he is more interested in holding onto the rural/suburban votes that brought him to power four years ago.

As an exercise in cynical vote-buying, it does not get much more crass than this. The shame of it is that it will probably work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

15% of Canadian homeowners own multiple properties

Some perhaps rather surprising statistics have just come out of the Canadian Housing Statistics Program. Apparently, 15% of Canadian homeowners own multiple properties, representing about 30% of Canada's housing stock.

For example, 15.5% of individual homeowners owned 31.1% of all residential properties in Ontario in 2019 (not sure why 2019 would be the latest statistics available). In BC, these figures are 15% and 29.1%; in New Brunswick, they are 19.6% and 38.7%; in Nova Scotia, 21.6% and 40.9%. In each case, these people owned an average of 2 houses.

Now, we consider ourselves reasonably well off, but WE don't own two houses. So, who are these people? It is not clear how many of them are international speculative investors, how many are locals with a holiday cottage, etc. But it is quite a striking statistic, I thought.

North American earthworms may be a mixed blessing

Well, you learn something new every day. Apparently, all types of earthworms in North America were wiped out during the last ice age, some twelve thousand years ago. The fact that we now have earthworms at all is due to invasive species brought over by invasive European settlers.

From the 1600s onwards, waves of settlers arrived here from Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands, bringing with them familiar plants and trees to plant. They also brought worms in the soil and roots of these plants, and even in the ballast of their ships, worms that gleefully prospered in the worm-less soils of the the New World, at least in the northern parts of the USA and Canada. Many different species of earthworms, including the common and familiar red earthworm, Lumbricus Rubellus, flourished, and almost all of the worms we see in the northern parts of North America (and increasingly even in more southern parts) are invasive species.

Now, earthworms are usually considered a "good thing" by gardeners and agriculturalists, for stirring up and aerating he soil and making nutrients more available to plants. But that may not be case, or at least not the whole story. After the Ice Age, North American forests evolved other ways to get nutrients from the ground, and the invasive European earthworms  may actually encourage more invasive plants to take hold.

More recently, a German study looking at earthworms in Canada(!) has shown that these invasive European earthworms are increasingly outcompeting local organisms like protists, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, and arthropods, all of which play there own roles in the ecosystem. For example, areas higher in earthworms are impoverished in other detritivores, particularly arthropods (although, for reasons not fully understood, the numbers of carnivorous arthropods were actually higher). The knock-on effect of all this further up the food chain in not well understood either, but an effect there must be.

So, next time you are gardening, you might look at those worms in a slightly different way. At best, they seem to be a mixed blessing.

Of course, this all raises another question that no-one seems to have addressed: why were North American earthworms wiped out by the Ice Age and not European ones?

Monday, April 11, 2022

What is "gaslighting" really?

The word "gaslighting" tends to get thrown around quite a lot in modern millennial-speak, and particularly in the popular press. But it's one of several words that have been so overused and misused that they have lost much of their original meaning and impact (think "woke", for example).

The word "gaslighting" began to be used after a 1938 British play called Gas Light, and the 1944 American movie of the same play. In this story, a man pursues a concerted campaign of playing tricks on his wife, hoping to send her mad and institutionalized, and thereby get his hands on her money. However, the woman eventually realizes that her husband is not really leaving the house when he says he is, due to the flickering of the gaslight on the wall, and so she uncovers his subterfuge.

The word began to be quite widely used to describe a process of psychological manipulation over the ensuing years, but it fell into disuse after the 1960s (maybe when the play and movie also fell out of currency). However, it experienced a strong renaissance in the 2010s and 2020s, particularly in relation to the #MeToo campaign and in relation to the machinations of Donald Trump. As happens so often, the more it was used, the more loosely and inaccurately it was used.

One sociolinguist has defined gaslighting as "A form of conscious or subconscious psychological manipulation mediated through language or the actions of a speaker with a perceived higher status that has the effect of invalidating or denying the interlocutor's reality or lived experience in an interaction or interactions, with the impact of discrediting them within a micro or macro context". It's a good comprehensive definition, but a bit wordy for most purposes. The essence of the term is captured by "the methodical manipulation of someone with less power into questioning their own perception of reality" (note that the differential in power or influence is an important element of the definition).

So, now you can see how that might apply in the case of sexual abuse, or the daily tweets of Donald Trump. And now we have no excuse to misuse such a useful word.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

If COVID becomes endemic, is that a good thing?

If you are anxiously waiting for this COVID-19 virus to evolve from epidemic to endemic, you might want to be careful what you wish for.

An epidemic is a disease where the number of cases in the community is usually large or unexpected (think COVID in its early Chinese phase in early 2020). A pandemic is a worldwide epidemic, on a much larger scale (COVID-19 was officially recognized by the WHO as a pandemic on  11 March 2020). As immunity to an epidemic or pandemic increases - through vaccination, widespread natural infection, and behaviour changes - a virus starts to lose impetus, and its ability to transmit gradually falls. This is what is meant by the transformation of an epidemic or pandemic into an endemic disease, like the common cold, influenza and HIV/AIDS.

But don't be fooled, endemicity does not mean that the virus is suddenly rendered harmless. There will still be new waves, there will still be new variants (some of which will be milder, and some of which may well be substantially more contagious and potentially more virulent), and there is an increasing likelihood of multiple re-infections. People will still be hospitalized, some of them will die, and some unknown proportion will develop "long COVID". There is also an argument that a the burden of an epidemic disease falls disproportionately on women, Blacks, the poor and other minorities

Over longer periods of time, the virus may evolve to become intrinsically less severe, it is hoped. But in the meantime, we will have to just "live with it", something that many people seem to see as a positive development, although I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Po-tay-to/po-tah-to, limón/lima

Vacationing in Nicaragua at the moment, we had cause, as you do, to order a slice of lemon. Now, "lemon" in English is a moderately sour, pointed-oval, yellow fruit. "Lime" on the other hand is a smaller, sourer, more rounded fruit, which is demonstrably green in colour. The two are closely-related citrus fruits, originally hybridized in Asia from the same plant, but there is no controversy as to which is which.

Here in Nicaragua, though, the smaller, green fruit is referred to as limón, and the larger, yellow (and much less common) fruit is a lima. That gave me pause, because that's not how I remember it being. A bit of research shows that the lima/limón dichotomy is split almost randomly, depending on the country you find yourself in. 

For example, in Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and, apparently, Nicaragua, a limon is green and a lima is yellow. However, in Argentina and Puerto Rico, a limón is a lemon and a lima is a lime, which makes more logical sense to me. In Spain, apparently, a lemon is limón and a lime is limón verde (although that's not how I remember it); in the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, limón is a lime and limón amarillo is a lemon. In Venezuela, they just don't seem to know, and call them both limón (which doesn't surprise me at all), as they also do in Cuba (although there the fruit they have available is a kind of hybrid between a lemon and a lime). In Chile, supposedly, there are no limes, only lemons (which surprises me), and so this is a non-issue.

Anyway, unless you are a real foody, do you really care whether you get a lemon or a lime in your drink, or to squeeze on your food?

Friday, April 01, 2022

What are the chances of getting "long COVID"?

Wr are currently vacationing in an eco-resort in an obscure part of Nicaragua. Which is lovely, but to get here we needed to fly to Libéria, Costa Rica and then take two cars across the Nicaragua border, so we were a bit concerned about contracting COVID, of course, even though many another seem to have really lowered their guard. Once here, we can control out contacts pretty easily, but on the flight (and particularly at the airports) one is largely at the mercy of fate, however careful on is.

Now, maybe we shouldn't be quite so paranoid about it - after all, recent variants are not as virulent as earlier ones, even if they are easier to catch, and it would also give us some level of  immunity for the future - bu tthe more I read about "long COVID", or "post COVID-19 condition" as the WHO insists of calling it, the more paranoid I get. Months, possibly years, with extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, "brain fog", joint pain, loss of taste and smell, it all spends pretty unpleasant, and I would really like to avoid it if possible. So, if we are the only ones on the beach shuttle wearing a mask, then so be it, I'm OK with that.

But, much as I have read about it, I am still not sure what the likelihood is of getting long COVID. Is it common? Is the chance vanishingly small? Different research seems to yield wildly differing conclusions, partly because defining long COVID is not easy, partly because the symptoms are so variable, partly because the studies that have been done use different methods and parameter, partly because such studies are very difficult to control, and partly because thus thing is still going on in real time. Estimates vary from less than 5% to nearly 60%!

So, what gives? As one expert put it, "what has been grouped together as 'long COVID' is actually two or three different groups of disorders", which makes any kind of analysis pretty hard. Some have different symptoms, some affect populations differently, and some linger for different periods of time. 

What is reasonably clear, though, is that a more severe case of COVID, including hospitalization, intensive care or ventilator use, where organs may be damaged and the immune system may be compromised, is more likely to lead to long COVID. By extension, the incidence of long COVID is much lower in vaccinated people, mainly because their vaccination protects them from more serious symptoms. By some estimates, vaccination reduces the chances of long COVID by 80-90%. Even the virus' morph to the less virulent Omicron variance does not necessarily mean less incidence of long COVID. There seems to be little to suggest that the prevalence of the Omicron variant is any less likely to lead to long COVID cases, milder symptoms or not.

For people who have been hospitalized with COVID, lingering symptoms for 6 months or more may have a likelihood of over 50% according to some studies. Other studies have concluded that even mild cases can result in up to 60% likelihood of lingering symptoms! A UK study, on the other hand, concluded that the incidence of long COVID was closer to 5%. Mind you, given the numbers of cases - now approaching half a BILLION - 5% is still a awful lot of people with a nasty chronic condition. I don't plan to join them.