Sunday, May 22, 2022

The rise and fall of Lake Mead and Las Vegas

Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border in southwestern USA is, or at least was, the largest man-made reservoir in the USA, and one of the largest in the world. It is, or at least was, 640 km2 (247 m2), and contains, or - you know - 35 million megalitres (28 million acre-feet) of water. By damming the Colorado River (as in: the Grand Canyon), Lake Mead provides essential water for the desert states of Nevada, Arizona and California, and even parts of Mexico, making life livable for about 25 million people, and irrigating many, many square kilometers of farmland, not to mention providing essential power from the huge Hoover Dam hydro-electricity plant.

Perhaps most importantly, it is just 40 km (24 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada's fabulous oasis of commercial excess, the self-styled Entertainment Capital of the World, which quite literally would not be there were it not for Lake Mead. The city of Las Vegas was technically founded in 1905, but it would never have thrived, or even survived, without the construction of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead in the 1930s. Las Vegas' 2 million-plus inhabitants rely completely on Lake Mead for their water. All those fountains, reflecting ponds and water features on The Strip, all those flashing lights, animatronics and air-conditioned hotels? Yup, Lake Mead. 

But Lake Mead is not what it was. The whole of the American Southwest has been experiencing unprecedented droughts for years now, the most severe megadrought in 1,200 years according to Smithsonian Magazine. The drought began in 2000, and is not expected to abate until at least 2030, if then. The lake is currently at barely above 30% of historic levels, at least 53 m (175 feet) lower than normal. 

As the water level falls, some rather embarrassing secrets are surfacing for the first time since the 1970s, including the reservoir's original intake valve, sunken boats, and multiple dead bodies (probably from Las Vegas' thriving mob scene). Think about that next time you are drinking Sin City's water!

Engineers are already releasing less water into the reservoir because of the drought. At last count, lake levels had fallen to 1,050 feet, with no end in sight. If they fall below 290 m (950 feet), the dam's turbines will cease to function, so they are walking a fine line. Electricity production is already down by about a third

If there are still any climate deniers in the southwestern USA - and I'm just sure there are, there of all places - they might just be re-thinking their principles right about now. Not that they would admit it, of course.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Maud Lewis - but is it art?

painting by beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis just sold for a record breaking $350,000. Does that make it no longer "folk art"?

The story goes - and there is always a story attached to these kinds of painting and these kinds of artists - that she originally sold the painting for a grilled cheese sandwich (although the actual story is more complicated than that). Ms. Lewis is a source of many such cute stories, and they have become part of her persona, part of her mystique. She has risen in recent decades from nothing to be considered a national treasure and icon (or certainly a provincial one) and one of Canada's great artists.

It's kind of hard to figure out quite why. Her paintings are bright and simplistic and bucolic, the kind of thing usually described as "something a child could do" (hence the label "folk art", I guess, whatever that label might mean). Some people are loathe to ennoble her art because she sold her paintings for a living, which is just elitist claptrap. She herself famously proclaimed, "I ain't no real artist. I just like to paint". 

And it's true: her paintings are not particularly interesting, original or challenging in any way. They are just fun and joyful, and that seems to be why people like her work. Is that why people pay $350,000 for them, though? I'm pretty sure not. Like Andy Warhol, Banksy and many another unorthodox artist, she has become a product of the art world. Their works are more famous for their signature and their back-story than for any actual artistic merit.

So, is it art? Well, sure. Art can be any number of things, and I for one am not going to wade into the quagmire of trying to define it and justify it. Is it great art? Well, I wouldn't say so, but whoever plunked down $350,000 for Black Truck clearly thinks so. Unless it was just someone's idea of a shrewd financial investment.

How Norway became the EV centre of the world

Norway is widely regarded as the world leader in electric vehicle (EV) adoption. In 2021, almost 65% of cars sold in Norway were electric, and an additional 22% were plug-in hybrids. That's nearly 9 new cars out of ten that have a plug. It took only ten years to move from 1% adoption to 65%. No other country comes close, although Sweden, New Zealand, Germany and even the UK are making a good go at catching up.

Many articles have been written about how Norway has achieved this. Essentially, it has been through tax breaks and other incentives. Buying or leasing a new or pre-owned EV is exempt from puchase tax and VAT (sales tax); there is no road traffic insurance tax on EVs; company car taxes are also discounted for EVs; road tolls are at least 50% off for EVs; bus and taxi lanes in cities are also accessible for EVs; parking fees are reduced for EVs, and often complete waived in many major cities; the government has established fast chargers at least every 50km on major roads, reducing range anxiety, and many of them are also subsidized; housing association can get substantial grants to install charging stations; the list goes on.

All of this amounts to a pretty substantial package, and has the effect of making EVs cheaper to buy and run than gas and diesel vehicles in Norway. This is not the case in Canada, and most other countries for that matter, where EVs are sold at a pretty hefty premuim. Yes, Norway is a rich country, and generally used to high taxation. But Canada is hardly a global pauper, and the difference is mainly due to political will and a compliant population.

Norway is a cold, mountainous land, with some long distances between population centres (sound familiar?) It's also a major, though fading, oil producer. Nevertheless, it is has quite deliberately established itself as a global leader in electrified transportation. Arguably, if Norway can do it, any country can.

The only thing I have not been able to glean - and the reason I started looking into it in the first place - is how Norway deals with the problem of home charging for cars that are parked on the street. Not everyone has a garage, driveway or parking pad that lends itself to a home charging station like I have - Britain is a good exampe of a country where a huge proportion of people do not have their own garage, and park on the street instead - and I have always wondered how these people are supposed to charge their electric cars. (I do more than 90% of my charging home, and so I'm imagine do most EV owners, at least here in Canada.)

My suspicion is that a good percentage of Norwegians live in tower blocks with undergroud parking, where charging stations could be practically installed (I have no evidence of this, it is just conjecture). Or maybe the public charging network is just so good that people don't need to charge at home? I'd be intrigued to know.

A new technology to clean up shipping traffic

Here's an idea whose time has come (or, arguably, is well overdue). British company Seabound has developed a very simple carbon capture technology that connects to the smokestacks of container ships and cleans up the exhaust.

Container ships are a huge carbon problem, using some of the dirtiest fuel there is, and spewing more greenhouse gases into the air than airplane traffic does. Seabound's solution uses a system of calcium oxide pebbles, which binds with the carbon dioxide from the ships' exhaust to produce stable, storable calcium carbonate (basically limestone) which can then be used on land, or at least sequestered. It cuts carbon emissions by as much as 95%.

Other systems have been developed for shopping exhaust, by Dutch and Japanese companies among others, mainly using a solvent-based technology, but the British solution apparently requires much less space. Electrified ships with container-sized batteries are also being marketed now, but uptake has been slow (they are expensive), and we also need a technology that can deal with existing shipping. Seabound might just be it.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Why so many people still believe the 2020 election was stolen

It's difficult to fathom, but the "stolen election" narrative still holds huge sway in the United States of America. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that two thirds of Republicans apparently still maintain, well over over a year later, that "voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election", and that the election was effectively stolen from Donald Trump.

Now, given that the objective reality is that  Biden won by 7 million popular votes and 74 electoral college votes, that claims of fraud have been dismissed by both state and federal courts in over 70 lawsuits, and that Trump's own Justice Department says it has found no evidence of widespread fraud, why would anyone, let alone a substantial plurality of Republican voters, still believe that the election was stolen from Trump?

Yes, a few states were close, so you can see why some people might be upset, thinking about what might have been. But given the evidence, and the generally robust (even if a little quirky) nature of the American voting system, normal people would just put that behind them, move on, and, if sufficiently political, get on with the job of planning for the next election. Continuing to call black white is not an option for most people of sound mind.

So, are two thirds of Republicans (and therefore about a third of the whole voting population) not of sound mind? Well, in this respect at least, apparently not. They may not be certifiably deranged, but they are clearly willing to believe something that is demonstrably not true, kind of like believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden or, perhaps better examples, that the Apollo moon landing was faked, or that Hillary Clinton conducted satanic rituals and ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza parlour for years. 

Because the whole "stolen election" thing is very much in the mold of a conspiracy theory, which Republicans in particular seem rather prone to, for some reason. Trump made it his whole raison d-être after the election and is still touting it even now. This is what the word gaslighting was coined for. And because of his Svengali-like hold over the right-wing press and large sections of social media, which also like a good conspiracy theory to espouse, the narrative has taken on a life of its own, and has shown a remarkable longevity. 

No doubt, psychology students will be using this as a fascinating case study for decades to come. After all, how one man managed to hoodwink nearly half a nation is indeed a fascinating story, if a little depressing. Because, let's not mince words, the fact that so many people beleive that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election is less a testament to Donald Trump's prowess nd eloquence, and more about the fecklessness and feeblemindedness of those who are willing to believe it. Deranged? Probably not. Deluded? Absolutely.

Why would Twitter agree to sell to a man like Musk?

Love it or hate it - and I have made no bones about the fact that I hate it - Twitter is an important and influential institution in the world of media. It fills an outsized role in global politics and social trends. Which is precisely why so many people are worried about it being sold to an unpredictable reckless and unstable maverick like Elon Musk.

It's also why it is all the more commendable that - love it or hate it, and contrary to Facebook or (the horror!) Truth Social - Twitter has at least attempted to put in some controls over hate speech and misinformation. For example, it had the cojones to ban Trump for his lies and deceptions, and, just this week, it has started putting warning labels on misleading content regarding the Russian war in Ukraine. 

This is not to say that Twitter is a haven of polite and reasonable discourse; far from it. But you do get the impression that somebody in the organization, whether that be founder Jack Dorsey or the board of directors, actually cares about how Twitter affects the world. Why, then, would a relatively responsible company like Twitter agree to sell to a man like Musk, who has been outspoken in his aims to roll back most of the social and political controls it has spent years instituting. In a word, money

When Musk offered $44 billion for the company, neither Dorsey nor the company's shareholders hesitated for long. Twitter has always underperformed in its mission to actually make money, and $44 billion is way more than it is actually worth, despite Musk's promises to turn it around financially. So, it was an offer the company felt it couldn't refuse (as Musk well knew). 

This is an example of the "shareholder primacy" doctrine, the idea that corporate boards should focus on a single goal: maximizing returms to shareholders. This might seem like an outdated idea in this age of responsible investing and ESG reporting, but don't be naive: it is still the controlling force in most of the financial world. Twitter's chairman stated baldly that the board looked at "value, certainty and financing" when coming to a decision, and maybe we shouldn't have expected anything more. Money speaks.

The concerns of other stakeholders - users, employees, advertisers - did not get a look in. Neither did the potential effect of the sale on Twitter's influence in the world, its legacy, and its responsibility to fair reporting. If Twitter turns really nasty again under Musk, and you just known that it will, at least the shareholders will know that they made out like bandits. And that's what's important to them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Could Turkey derail Sweden and Finland's NATO ambitions?

As a direct result of Russia's invasion of non-aligned Ukraine, Sweden and Finland have now both formally and officially applied for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fearful of an unhinged Russia next door, the Nordic countries, which have long espoused a position of neutrality and military non-alignment, have decided that it is in their best interests to throw in their lot with NATO, rather than potentially risk facing an belligerent Russia alone.

This is the exact opposite of what Valdimir Putin was hoping to achieve with his invasion of Ukraine - well, he didn't think that through very hard, did he? - and he has long threatened "repercussions" if Sweden and Finland were to join NATO (although more recently he has softened his threats to a vow to take action only if NATO moves military infrastructure into their territories).

NATO in general is welcoming the two countries with open arms. Sweden in particular (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Finland), is a military powerhouse, and will be a valuable addition to NATO forces. However, all 30 current NATO members must agree to the expansion - a process that could take months -  and one, Turkey, is threatening to withhold its vote. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen maintains that both Sweden and Finland have given support to Kurdish military groups, and have imposed arms export embargos on Turkey over its military operations in Syria.

Turkey could therefore single-handedly derail the largest expansion of NATO in decades, even if this is not an objection on security grounds, but a case of political posturing and tit-for-tat pettiness. Some commentators believe that Erdogen is unlikely to actually veto the applications, but is merely playing politics and looking for concessions for domestic political advantage in the run-up to next year's Turkish elections. 

As one Atlantic Council spokesman notes, the Finns in particular are very are negotiators, and both countries have probably already secured back-channel assurances of Turkey's vote before even starting the public process, and Turkish policy advisors are making it clear that the door to a "yes" vote is by no means closed, despite Mr. Erdogan's bluster.

That would certainly fit with Erdogan's character. But it would not surprise me if he would, if he felt it necessary, take it so far as to make the veto a reality. I wouldn't trust Erdogan to put European stability and world peace above his own political ambitions.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Why is the price of gas still going up, when oil is going down?

I drive an electric car, so I don't really care about gas prices that much, but I know a lot of people do (get an electric car, I say, and eat cake!)

I have watched from the sidelines as the price of gasoline at the pump has risen inexorably over the last few months, flirting with C$2 a litre here in Ontario, and then spilling over gloriously to find itself at well over C$2 a litre today. I know that there is a whole litany of factors at play in this record-breaking development. But, curiously, one of those factors is NOT the price of crude oil.

Usually, the price of a barrel of oil is the single major deteminant of the pump process of gas, and the two tend to change in lockstep.  This double-axis chart of the price of oil and the price of gas from the Globe and Mail shows just just that, even through the major price increases since the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

But then, suddenly, around 19th Apr 2022, the two indices stopped moving in lockstep. The price of oil has fallen, or at least remained more or less stable in the slighly longer term, apparently weighed down by mounting fears of a recession, pandemic lockdowns in China, and  the release of oil from strategic reserves by several countries in response to Russian sanctions. The price of gas on the highways of Canada, though, has continued to rise. The two prices seem to have competely unlinked and untethered, and the question is: why?

The difference between the price of refined fuels and crude oil, known for some reason as the "crack spread", has been increasing in recent weeks due to: surging demand for jet fuel and diesel as people start to travel more again; surging demand for truck fuel as the delivery industry tries to rectify supply chain woes; increased output of fuels by many oil-producing countries to take up the slack left by Russia; and the general inability of refineries to cope with this increased demand, especially after refinery capacity was pared back during the pandemic. 

Due to all these factors and others, the oil refining industry has been able to charge much higher prices to distributors. So, this time around, it is not so much the oil extraction companies themselves that are reaping the spoils, but the oil refineries that are making out like bandiits, with no end crtrently in sight.



The difference between a lunar eclipse and a new moon

Trust NASA to explain things happening in the night sky. I've been reading about a total lunar eclipse we're supposed to be able to see in our neighbourhood. (Actually, I just checked and, guess what, it's cloudy - so much for that!) Apparently this is the first of two this year, the next being on 7th November, but the next such event after that is not scheduled until March 2025 (typically, they occur every two or three years).

But, hold on, I thought, how can there be an eclipse of the moon? Isn't that just what happens every 28 days? The earth gets in the way of the reflection of the sun's light from the moon every month, what we normally just call a "new moon". So, what's the big deal? Well, ScienceAlert (with the help of a NASA video) explains what I have been missing, although it's still not that easy to understand, even if it's not (quite) rocket science. 

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth's shadow. But the moon's orbit around the earth is slightly tilted relative the earth's orbit around the sun by about 5°, so that the earth and the moon's shadow casts rarely shade each other completely. This relative tilt, though, changes slightly as time goes on, and every now and then this puts the moon in just the right position to pass through the earth's shadow, causing a lunar eclipse for a period of an hour or so. The moon does not completely disappear from us during the eclipse, though, due to sunlight scatttered and refracted through the earth's atmosphere, and it appears a deep dramatic red or copper colour. Before and after, the moon would appear as a normal full moon. The NASA video makes it clearer than my words do.

So, the difference between a lunar eclipse md a new moon is that a lunar eclipse is when the earth comes between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun from illuminating the moon from earth's perspective, while a new moon is when the moon comes between the sun and the earth. A lunar eclipse only occurs on a full moon night, but not EVERY full moon because of the relative tilt of the moon's orbit around the earth (a partial lunar eclipse occurs about twice a year, but a full lunar eclipse is a rarer event). Here is another explanation of the difference between the two (also with a short video), if you are not fully satisfied.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

A better solution to improving Canadian election debates

Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne devoted a whole article to ways in which Canada's can improve the quality of its election debate.

These days, we have an entire government department, the Leaders' Debates Comission, whose sole job it is to organize these events that only occur every few years. You'd think, then, that they could do a better job. But, instead, the quality of leaders' debates has been steadily tanking for years now, devolving into a nasty and embarrassing shout-fest as candidates constantly talk over each other, interrupt, aim for sound bites rather than policy explanations, try to score cheap points, and resort to ad hominem attacks. 

Given just a short time to make their points, and an adversarial format run by primetime network television companies which seems to positively encourage such contentious fare, it's perhaps not surprising. But as a means of persuading the general voting public of their suitability for power, and of explaining the candidates' party platforms, it is less than useless.

Of course, it's not all the fault of the Leaders' Debates Commission. Most of the blame lies with the politicians themselves. You could blame it all on Donald Trump - who can forget some of his aggressive perfomances and temper tantrums in American presidential debates - but I think it was probably going this way regardless.

So, maybe we need more, longer debates, with less need to make an immediate impact and a coup de grâce. Or maybe we need to take the debates out of the hands of the television networks and have the Leaders' Debates Commission run the whole thing themselves, as Mr. Coyne suggests.

But maybe there is a much simpler solution: treat the politicians as the children they clearly are, and just manage their microphone time. Literally cut off everyone else's mics while one person is speaking, and literally cut off their own mics when their two minutes or whatever is up. I think that would focus the mind wonderfully. And if someone tries to interrupt a competitor and disrupt the process, sanction them, reduce their own available time accordingly. Maybe it's a little sad to have to resort to this, but if the result is a more comprehensible, informative and politer debate, then let's do it anyway.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Will any of Trump legal troubles actually rule him out of rhe 2024 election?

Well, I've not written the word "Trump" in this blog for quite some time now, so there you go, now I've done it.

More specifically, though, I was idly wondering whether all the various law suits Trump is facing - a more or less normal situation for him, and one he even seems to thrive on - are actually likely to have any concrete effect on his nomination as Republican presidential candidate in 2024, and his ultimate chances of becoming President again.

Trump is under investigation for any number of possible illegal activites, including: tax fraud and tax avoidance schemes in the Trump real estate organization; another fraud claim by his errant nice Mary Trump; an actual rape accusation by journalist E. Jean Carroll, and another sexual assault accusation by "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos; a criminal incitement case for Trump's activities in relation to the Capitol storming of January 6th 2021, in an attempt to overthrow the 2020 election results, which is still ongoing; his possible destruction of classified documents when he left office; possible criminal interference in the 2020 election through his actions and incitement in Fulton County, Georgia; and probably others. This "litigation tracker" lists at least 22 current cases, for what it's worth.

While all that would probably be more than enough to sink the presidential ambitions of most people, Trump supporters and Trump himself seem to see it almost as a badge of honour, an example of Trump's ability to "stick it to the man", however illogical and perverse that might me (if anyone IS "the man", it's Donald Trump). And, while the threat of criminal prosecution "certainly makes it more difficult" for Trump to claim the Republican mantle again, as Great America PAC chairman Ed Rollins says, it probably does not rule him out completely, especially given the glacial pace at which these legal cases proceed. 

Trump certainly seems to have an enviable ability to shrug off legal cases (or at least continue regardless), and he has an army of top lawyers constantly working to keep him afloat. Some commentators have certainly concluded that the chances of any of Trump's legal troubles actually succeeding are slim to none. None of the cases are easy ones to definitively prove (as this article explains), despite the apparent mounds of evidence of criminal activity stacked up against him, and a highly politicized jury pool will not help.

Plus, it's not even clear that a criminal indictment would disallow him from standing for President. Convicted felons have run for President in the past. There is nothing specifically in the Constitution that would preclude it (and the existing rule against felons standing for state offices does not apply federally), short of proof that he "engaged in insurrection of rebellion" which, although true, is a very long shot, legally speaking.

So, don't expect any of this to actually rule Trump out of the 2024 election. And what doesn't kill him may even make him - and his perverse supporters - stronger.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Does the USA have the highest COVID death toll? Well, that depends...

As the USA passes the landmark statistic of 1 million deaths from COVID-19, it's important to remember that these are just the "official" deaths. By this metric, the USA has the highest death toll in the world.

But if we look at how many extra deaths are recorded in each country compared to the number that would be expected to die in an average year, what the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to as "excess deaths" resulting from the COVID pandemic, the USA's situation does not look quite so bad. Bad, sure, but not quite as bad as some other countries. 

According to WHO, excess deaths that can be attributed directly and indirectly to COVID-19 are probably in the region of $14.9 million to the end of 2021, compared to the officially reported total 5.4 million. Of this number, India has contributed the biggest proportion, with 4.7 million excess deaths, followed by Russia (1.1 million), Indonesia (1 million) and the USA (930,000). So, yeah, bad, but not the worst. 

Another way of looking at it is in terms of excess deaths per 100,000 population. On a per capita basis, the USA looks even better (still really bad, but better, relatively speaking). The worst performers per capita are Peru (437 per 100,000), Russia (367), South Africa (200), India (171), Brazil (160), Turkey (156), and USA (140). For reference, the global average was 96 excess deaths per 100,000.

Ah, statistics, statistics... Bear in mind that such statistics are based on all sorts of assumptions, and are notoriously difficult to compile and to make comparable between different countries with different health systems and record-keeping reliability.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

What is causing the spike in severe hepatitis in kids? Not COVID vaccines

An apparent spike in cases of severe acute hepatitis in children is receiving a lot of media attention, perhaps more than would normally be the case, probably as a result of our current virus paranoia.

The WHO is reporting around 350 cases worldwide, and cases have been reported in some 20 different countries, although only 6 countries have reported more than 5 cases, including the USA, India, Indonesia and Canada, which is currently reporting 7. Six children have undergone liver transplants as a result of the infection, and 8 deaths have beem reported, 5 in the USA and 3 in India.

So, it's a nasty outbreak, even if it pales into insignificance against many other diseases. What's particularly alarming about it, though, is that researchers are not sure what is causing it. The usual hepatitis viruses A through E are apparently not the main cause, and it is not yet clear whether COVID-19 is implicated in some way. The most likely culprit is an adenovirus "F type 41", possibly in combination with COVID,  but even that does not seem to account for all the cases.

Of course, as you might expect, the internet has latched onto the idea that COVID vaccines are causing the hepatitis cases. Unfortunately for the anti-vaxx crew, though, most of the children who have contracted acute hepatitis have not had the COVID vaccine -  the affected children are mostly under the age of 5 and are not even eligible for the vaccine - which leaves rather a large hole in the argument. WHO states unequivocably, "hypotheses relating to side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are currently not supported as most affected children did not receive the COVID-19 vaccination". Oops.

Two widely-disseminated so-called studies that purport to link hepatitis to COVID vaccines have been broadly dismissed by researchers as either not relevant or not convincing. One is a single case report of a 52 year old man (not a study as such); the other was a general lab-based study of how COVID affects the liver and not related to any real-life cases (and was anyway released long before the current spike in children).

Of course, these kinds of nit-picky details won't hold back those who want to present ammunition against COVID vaccines on their favourite social media outlet. But they should.

Amazon selling sexually explicit clothing for children

Apparently, Amazon is selling a whole range of children's clothing emblazoned with the phrase "I love cock"

You can buy little girl's dresses that have the words plastered all over over it, "girl's sporty swimwear" (modelled by a young lady of about 8 years) with the motif front and centre, and hoodies apparemtly aimed at young boys with "I love cock" proudly printed on the chest. Another t-shirt, available in adult and child sizes, is described as having "referred to a sexual act involving 'daddy' and 'cock' ".

So, the question is: who is selling this stuff and, more importantly, who is buying it? And what was Amazon thinking when it featured these items on its website?

After complaints, Amazon has taken down at least some of the offending items, as they clearly contravene the company's own guidelines, but others were apparently still available for sale.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Is Canada actually run by the World Economic Forum?

The idea that the World Economic Forum (WEF), and in particular its now-octogenarian founder Klaus Schwab, is the hidden force behind many (most?) countries' economies and political machines is a weird one, but perhaps no weirder than many another conspiracy theory espoused by far-right/QAnon types.

WEF is best known for its annual economic schmooze-fest in Davis, Switzerland, where the great and the good (and the rich - entry fees are pitched exorbitantly high) rub shoulders with economists and policy wonks. But its stated mission is "improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas".

The WEF conspiracy theory is not only to be found in deepest, darkest Alabama and Idaho, though; it's alive and well here in Canada. Some Conservatives (not Conservative MPs, to be fair, although Pierre Poilievre is not above making veiled hints about it) truly believe that old Mr. Schwab is actually the real mover and shaker in Canada, and Justin Trudeau is just a fake figurehead for the sake of respectability. There seems to be some confusion over the WEF designation of "Young Global Leaders" (several ministers in the Trudeau cabinet have been so designated, as have a few Conservative MPs) and being labelled as such is deeply suspicious in the eyes of some conspiracists.

There again, many of them also believe that Schwab, Bill Gates and George Soros between them have control over the whole world within their sights. Some believe that WEF created the pandemic, and/or is using it to control people through vaccinations, microchips, etc. They tweet about the "One World Order" and the "Great Reset" in relation to WEF with gay abandon.

I don't think this is a mainstream movement, at least not in Canada, but it's always concerning when people believe things for no apparent reason (and even more so when they start trying to persuade others of it). 

Philippines choose populist dictatorship over reform yet again

The Philippines seems intent on continuing its bizarre love affair with dictatorships. 

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is set to win the presidential election easily, with over twice as many votes as his main opponent, human rights campaigner and reformer Leni Robredo. His running mate Sara Duterte also looks set to win handily in the separate vice-presidential election. 

64-year old Marcos - familiarly known to his supporters as "BongBong", for God's sake! - is the son of dictator and "strongman" Ferdinand Marcos, who cast a bloody shadow over the country for over 20 years from 1965 to 1986, and who was hounded into exile for his crimes (along with BongBong). Duterte is the daughter of outgoing dictator and loose cannon Rodrigo Duterte, who presided over 6 years of chaos and murder, and who is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court for extra-judicial killings.

It's not like the Philippine people had no choice. Marcos Jr's main opponent was Leni Robredo, who narrowly defeated him six years ago for the office of Vice President. She is a respected politician, and a seasoned campaigner for human rights and democracy in the country. But she does not carry the popular charisma of Marcos, the weight of his family connections and money, and his control over Filipino social media.

Either way, the people of the Philippines, eyes open, have deliberately chosen another dictator, at a time when the country is beset by crushing poverty, huge inequalities, potential insurgencies by Muslim and Communist elements, and deep political and social divisions. You could argue that they deserve everything they get, but that would be a gross over-simplification, and it's hard to wish six years of Marcos/Duterte mayhem on anyone.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Who is leading the charge on wind and solar power?

An excellent infographic from Visual Capitalist's Elements website, based on data from Ember, gives a great quick overview of which countries are leading the charge on solar and wind renewable energy, and some of the results are perhaps surprising.

Denmark is top of the pile - no surprise there - generating 51.9% of their electricity from solar and wind sources. But No. 2 is Uruguay with 46.7%, which, to me anyway, IS a surprise. The rest of the top ten is made up of: Luxembourg (43.4%), Lithuania (36.9%), Spain (32.9%), Ireland (32.9%), Portugal (31.5%), Germany (28.8%), Greece (28.7%), and the UK (25.2%).

You'll notice that Canada does not feature in this list (no real surprise there). Granted, Canada has a big contribution from other renewable sources, principally hydro-electricity, but on solar and wind is is doing abysmally, with just 6.6% of its electricity produced by those two sources combined. This puts us on the same level as Peru, South Africa and Somalia (and New Zealand, as it happens, another surprise to me). Even the USA does twice as well, with 13.1% coming from solar and wind.

At the other end of the scale, it's no big surprise to find Russia (0.5%) and Belarus (1%), as well as many big oil producers like Venezuela (0.1%), Nigeria (0.1%), Iran (0.3%), Saudi Arabia (0.5%) and Malaysia (0.7%), as well as many less developed countries in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

TDSB's plan for specialty schools will not foster either excellence or equity

Toronto District School Board (TDSB), like many other school boards, has a system of specialty schools, where students can specialize in art, dance, drama, mathematics, computer science, film-making, advanced academics, and a bunch of other specialty areas. They are great resources to stretch kids who have an aptitude for a particular area of education (and perhaps very little aptitude for other areas), and to perhaps give them a leg up to high-performance levels without being held back by other less able kids.

So, as you might imagine, there are a bunch of people complaining that these schools are elitist and privileged, exclusionary and quite possibly racist. But they are not. They are open to any student who exhibits an aptitude, a dedication, and a certain level of skill in the particular area, whatever their background, culture, race or socio-economic stratum. Students need to show suitable report card results, or pass a written test or an audition, depending on the school's specialization. It is entirely merit-based, as I think it should be.

But the TDSB, in its wisdom and its own over- sensitive conception of political correctness, has recommended doing away completely with this merit-based approach, arguing that it is in some way exclusionary and inequitable. They say that access to these programs should be driven by nothing more than a letter expressing interest. Those who throw their names into the hat would then go into a lottery to be chosen at random.

So, what you will end up with is valuable specialized resources being frittered away on students who have absolutely no aptitude for the specialized subject area, but who for some reason feel that they want to get into dance, or computers, or whatever it might be. At the same time, some truly gifted students may be excluded and deprived of the chance to become extraordinary performers or top academics. It's not even clear that such an approach would succeed in its own goal, as all those white middle classed over-achievers that the TDSB is so worried about are probably more likely to send in those letters of interest anyway, no?

If the TDSB is providing specialty education opportunities, which I fully approve of, then surely they should be made available to those who can most benefit from them. If, as the TDSB clearly feels, some lower-income or racialized kids from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks are currently missing out on these opportunities (which is by no means clear to me), then the Board could promote them better, particularly in needy neighbourhoods, and make sure that teachers are looking out of promising candidates.

There is nothing about the current system that assures it disadvantages the already disadvantaged. Indeed, it could well help some of those disadvantaged kids find a way out of their constraining circumstances. What the TDSB is proposing, though, whether or not it is coming from a heartfelt place, is a step backwards, and a recipe for diminishing performance and impeding excellence, all in the supposed name of equity.

Motor racers bridle at jewellery ban

The FIA (Federation International de l'Automobile) tightened its rules on Formula One racing drivers wearing jewellery and piercings this week, supposedly all in the interest of driver safety in the event of an accident or fire.

Many drivers are blasting the new ruling, though, claiming that they they are old enough to make their own decisions about their wardrobe and any potential safety issues. Some claim that the ruling is specifically aimed at seven-time Formula One champion Louis Hamilton, who tends to favour plenty of bling.

For his part, Hamilton showed up at the Miami Grand Prix wearing as much jewellery as he could fit on his body - at least four necklaces, three watches and four rings - and stated that he is willing to sit out out races over the issue. As the current motor-racing idol and crowd-puller, I have a suspicion he may get his own way on this rather ridiculous ruling.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Brontosaurus is back

If, like me, you were brought up with brontosaurus as the giant of the dinosaur world, and were wistful and disappointed when our kids learned all about apatosaurus instead, you might raise a tiny cheer to the news that brontosaurus is back

The brontosaurus/apatosaurus dichotomy dates back to the late 1870s, when rival dinosaur hunters Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope discovered two giant lizards in the rocks of Colorado's Morrison formation. Marsh named his apatosaurus ("deceptive lizard") and Cope named his brontosaurus ("thunder lizard"). In the early 1900s, as more fossil skeletons of similar animals were discovered, it was eventually ruled that they were all different species of the same genus, and as the apatosaurus was discovered two years before the brontosaurus, that was the name that was officially given to all such long-necked dinosaurs in the diplodocid family of sauropods. For some reason, though, the name brontosaurus continued regardless (maybe because "thunder lizard" sounds more impressive than "deceptive lizard"!), particularly in the less scientific kids books that I remember.

However, more recently, a new study from the Nova University in Lisbon, Portugal, spent five years analyzing nearly 500 diplodocids in an attempt to definitively draw the family tree. In April of this year, it finally released its report, which it knew would be contentious among paleontologists, concluding that apatosaurus and brontosaurus were different enough to merit their own separate genera. 

Now, many of the differences are rather obscure and subtle, and the report authors thought long and hard before making their recommendations. But there it is. Let's see if paleontologists (and dinosaur-crazy 6-year olds) take it to heart. Since my day, many other supersaurs, ultrasaurs, titanosaurs, giganotosaurs and brachiosaurs have been discovered that are much larger than either apatosaurus, brontosaurus or diplodocus. It's become a competitive sport - Argentina claims the longest, so does America, so does China. But I still fondly remember brontosaurus as being the king of the dinosaurs (well, the herbivores at least).

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Draft of Supreme Court anti-abortion ruling surfaces

The leak of a "draft" US Supreme Court ruling that would overturn the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that effectively legalized access to abortion nationwide, is a weird and worrying thing. The Supreme Court is now stacked with Conservative judges, and it was only a matter of time before they got around to depriving millions of women of their personal rights. The way in which this is happening, though, is unprecedented.

The document, labelled "Draft 1", was drawn up by Justice Samuel Alito, and includes language like, "Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. It's reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences." (What he means is, he disagrees with it on political grounds.) Justice Alito probably sees this as his destiny, the reason he was put on this earth.

Five of the nine Supreme Court judges appear to be in favour of it (it is unclear how Chief Justice John Roberts, often a voice of relative reason on the Court, will vote, but it seems that may make no difference). It is possible that some judges may change their position on it during debate and the drafting process - this is not unknown - but this is such a political (as opposed to legal) issue that it seems unlikely, particularly now that a "preliminary" draft has been made public. The genie is out of the bottle. The wording might change here and there, but the draft probably reflect the general direction of the decision.

It is unheard of for a draft ruling to be released (or even leaked) in this way. Some red states have already passed "trigger laws" to automatically outlaw abortion should a Supreme Court ruling of this sort become the law of the land, and it is thought that several others may follow suit. Indeed, it makes you wonder whether this leak was deliberately designed to allow those states time to do just that. 

Note that the Supreme Court ruling, if made official, would not actually ban abortions in the USA, but it would allow states that want to do so to ban them, leading to a patchwork of abortion rights in the country, with up to half (the Republican half) of states disallowing abortions, and forcing women in those states to travel to other, more enlightened, Democratic states, if need be and if they can afford it (although some states are already working to disallow even that right).

And so, just like that, 50 years of precedent and enlightenment could be erased overnight. (Bear in mind that a healthy majority of Americans support access to abortion, regardless of the views of a bunch of old judges.) Some Democratic states have already vowed to enshrine abortion rights within their state constitutions, even if Roe vs Wade is repealed. Rival groups of pro- and anti-abortion campaigners have already set up outside the Supreme Court. It's like we are already back in the 1970s again.

Monday, May 02, 2022

Six Nations cancellation of Archbishop a missed opportunity

Reverend Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and effective head of the Anglican Church worldwide, is currently visiting Canada, specifically to meet with indigenous leaders and representatives, and to make an official apology for the Anglican Church's part in Canada's Indigenous residential school system (which was second only to the Catholic Church's). I watched some of his speechifying, and it seemed heartfelt, and the man did seem visibly shaken by what he had seen and heard.

After his time in and around Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Archbishop was supposed to visit a Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ontario, the site of another ex-residential school and an Indigenous-run Anglican church. The Six Nations of the Grand River people (or more specifically the Mohawk-led  Survivors' Secretariat), though, have snubbed his visit, saying they don't need more fine words, but they need action (which seems to mean, in practice, money). They say that they were not given "enough lead time to respect Indigenous protocols", whatever that might mean. In fact, it turns out that they cancelled the visit way back in mid-April.

I understand that they are upset, and that they have already received apologies from other Anglican leaders. But, surely, this is a bad look for the Ontario Indigenous band. Could they not have the grace to at least listen to the man? The Archbishop was careful not to over-promise and under-deliver during his various speeches in Saskatchewan, and indeed it is not clear quite what he can practically do. But I don't see what the Six Nations group expects to gain from this rebuff. Reconciliation is a two-way process, and cutting off communications in this way cannot possibly help their cause. Not that my opinion means anything.

The Archbishop will instead be meeting with Indigenous representatives in Toronto, who seem to have been able to arrange it at short notice, while still "respecting Indigenous protocols". 

Is it really climate-friendly to be vegan/vegetarian?

I've been vegetarian for 40-odd years, since long before it was trendy and socially acceptable. But I'm also still open to learning, so when I saw a BBC article entitled "The climate benefits of veganism and vegetarianism", I was immediately interested. Climate change considerations are far from the only reason I am vegetarian, but they are certainly one reason. I expected the BBC study to confirm my preconceptions, but I was also there for the nuances, and yes, there were nuances.

Part of the point of it was to look at the whole life-cycle carbon impact of food, from land use and farm costs, to animal feed, processing, transportation retail and packaging, which is not that easy to do. The graph below gives a general idea of the relative carbon costs of some general food categories (although there are, of course, particular variations bending on specific food types, sourcing, etc).

As is pretty well known, beef is far and away the main offender, followed by lamb. But cheese, still a weakness of mine, is also surprisingly high on the list (mainly due to its farm aspect - all those cows...) and pork and chicken are surprisingly light on carbon emissions (presumably because of the factory farming set-up, a whole other issue not considered here). Another graphic from the article gives an even more stark view of the relative differences:

Anyway, the whole article is well worth reading (and the original Our World In Data website that the graphs come from). The overall conclusion is, as expected, that a vegan diet is far and away the best for the planet, and the omnivore diet the worst, with a vegetarian one somewhere in between, but much closer to the good end than the bad. The example vegan diet produced 9.9 kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per week, the vegetarian 16.9 kg, and the omnivore 48.9 kg.

As for nuances: the transportation element of food production contributes a surprisingly small proportion of the whole (so, those holier-than-thou 100-mile diets are not actually making much of a difference, and I can still eat mangoes and avocados without an ethical breakdown); wasting (i.e. not eating, but just throwing away) food adds a substantial amount of greenhouse emissions, unless the wasted food can be composted (whew!); cooking food in an oven also adds significantly to the emissions profile, and eating out in a restaurant may often be a good climate option (except not fast food).

I think 40 years as a vegetarian - and bringing up a vegan daughter who is way more carbon-conscious than even we are - has earned me some major brownie points, if anyone is counting. Unfortunately, no-one is counting, and that's part of the problem.