Thursday, June 30, 2022

SCOTUS has been horribly busy recently

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is on a roll, and things are getting scary.

Hot on the heels of last week's rancorous and attention-grabbing repeal of 50-year old Roe v Wade right-to-abortion law, the Republican-packed SCOTUS has been extremely busy repealing any number of other laws that have held sway for decades, in an apparent attempt to render the federal government powerless to improve the lot of ordinary Americans:

ALL of these cases were decided on a strict Republican vs Democrat basis, thus proving, if it were ever in any doubt, that the US's top court is now hopelessly lost in party political strife, and any legal and ethical arguments take a firm back-seat.

And, as the scariest-of-the-scary right-wing SCOTUS judges, Clarence Thomas, warns, they are just getting started. You can probably expect attacks on personal privacy, due process, same-sex relationships and marriages, access to contraception, and any number of rights and other matters that everyone thought were settled for good and all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Toronto performs well in Sustainable Cities Index

In Corporate Knights' latest Sustainable Cities Index, my city of Toronto comes out surprisingly well, at No. 9 out of 50, with an overall grade of B. It does particularly well in the categories of Air Quality, Sustainable Policies, and Climate Change Resilience.

Of course, it is not in the same league as Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Lahti (Finland), London, Helsinki, Tokyo and Vancouver, which make up positions 1 through 8 on the Index, and earn a resounding A grade. But it's nice to think that we are not doing too badly.

Direct air carbon capture not a silver bullet for climate change

If anyone was banking on direct air carbon capture technology to save us from runaway climate change, here's a rather large slap in the face. Yes, direct air capture (DAC) works, but it is suspiciously similar to titling at windmills.

The world largest direct air carbon capture faculty, which is currently under construction by Swiss company Climeworks AG in Iceland, and nicknamed "Mammoth", will be capable of extracting 36,000 tons of carbon dioxide direct from the air each year, and deposit it safely underground (or mix it into cement, or use it to produce jet fuel or yoga mats or even fizzy drinks, as some other projects promise). 

That might sound like a lot, and it is nine times more than Climeworks' "Orca" plant, which is currently operational. But it actually represents just 0.0001% of the 36 billion tons of CO2 we as a planet spew into the atmosphere each year. Climeworks sells carbon credits to companies like Microsoft, Audi, Shopify and Boston Consulting Group, but, at €1,000 a ton, they are some of the world most expensive carbon credits (although they do look good on press releases and annual reports). I have not been able to ascertain the actual cost of the plant, other than news of a $627 million partial "funding round", but you have to know it is hugely expensive

At the scale of this (huge and extremely expensive) plant, we would need a million such plants to get us even close to net zero carbon, and that's before we start to reduce our currently unsustainable atmospheric carbon load of 420 parts per million down to a slightly more sustainable 350 ppm. A step in the right direction maybe, but such a small step as to be almost unnoticeable. Climeworks is nothing if not ambitious, and says it plans to build bigger and bigger plants, and to extract a million tons of CO2 from the air annually by 2030, and a billion by 2050.

DAC is currently having quite a cultural moment, exemplified by US President Joe Biden's recent announcement of $3.5 billion for several DAC hubs in the USA, and plans for the first truly large-scale American plant southwestern USA. The most recent Canadian federal budget announced a 60% tax credit for DAC projects. But challenges and problems still abound, including the fact that DAC plants themselves are notoriously power hungry, and not all new projects will be able to utilize Iceland's enviably prodigious geothermal resources, the way Mammoth and Orca do. 

Now, I don't like to dump all over positive news, and I understand that this would be just one plank of many in a climate change mitigation plan (no-one, other than detractors, is claiming that DAC is intended to single-handedly cure all our evils). But we do need to be practical about this, and question whether throwing this kind of money into direct air carbon capture is actually the right thing to do. It seems to me that, dollar for dollar, euro for euro, the money might be better spent on other greenhouse gas mitigation projects. 

I also worry that "negative emissions technologies" of this kind just give high-emitting companies an excuse to keep on polluting, especially given that the technology, while promising, is not guaranteed to become commercially successful. As even DAC companies admit, cutting emissions should always be our first, and overriding, priority.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The difference between Great Britain, the United Kindom and the British Isles

Speaking of Britain, I know it's something I should know as a British citizen, but I can never keep it straight in my head, so let's see if writing it down helps: the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

Great Britain, often shortened to GB or just Britain, is a legal and political designation that includes England, Wales and Scotland. The United Kingdom (UK) includes England, Wales and Scotland, but also Northern Ireland (in fact, the official name of the sovereign nation, what it says on my passport, is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"). The British Isles, on the other hand, is a purely geographical term with no legal or political standing, comprising England, Wales Scotland, the whole of Ireland, as well as the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey and the Isle of Man (these latter islands being Crown Dependencies).

In practice, "Britain", "Great Britain" and "the UK" are used interchangeably, even in government documents, which is why things get confusing. In most cases, it doesn't really matter that much, unless of course you are taking to an Irish person (and, increasingly, a Scot or a Welsh person, many of whom don't want to anything to do with England, Britain or the United Kingdom).

Monday, June 27, 2022

Why is Britain still bound by the European Court of Human Rights?

Britain shocked and exasperated the world (again) recently, when it announced a hare-brained plan to ship its unwanted asylum seekers to human rights-challenged Rwanda. Nothing daunted, Her Majesty's Government persisted with the plan, and would have sent its first flight of refugees to the central African country were it not for a last minute reprieve granted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which grounded the flight indefinitely. Still apparently undaunted, and despite the acute embarrassment of most of its citizens, Britain plans to appeal the ruling.

But, wait, hasn't Britain irrevocably exited the European Union? How can there ECHR still hold sway over the country?

Well, it turns out that the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution at all. It was established by the Council of Europe in 1950, long before tyhe EU was even a thing. As a  current member of the Council of Europe, Britain is therefore subject to the provisions and decisions of the ECHR.

The Council of Europe is a completely separate entity from the European Union, although it is often confused with it (maybe partly because the EU adopted the Council of Europe's flag for its own, and even its anthem). Britain was a founding member, along with Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Over the years, many more countries joined, and today it boasts 46 members, compared to the EU's 27, including several EU holdouts like Switzerland and Norway (even Russia was a member for a few years until it was expelled in 2022 over its invasion of Ukraine).

So, there you have it, Council of Europe. Different from European Union. Score: Europe 1, Britain 0.

The Canadian carbon offsets scheme explained

The Canadian government is introducing new legislation on carbon offsets, as part of its ongoing fight against carbon emissions and climate change, and it's complicated. The most recent episode of CBC'S What On Earth attempts to simplify, explain (and critique) it . The relevant section begins at minute 18:15 of the podcast audio, and ends at 26:30.

Industry has been given carbon intensity targets, but not all companies will be able to achieve these targets by changing their processes and actually emitting less carbon. So, as a workaround, companies can pay the federal government a fee, essentially a carbon tax, which it is hoped companies will be so averse to doing that they will renew their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. So far, so straightforward. Not a perfect system, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Canadian companies can also now buy carbon offsets to "make up" for their continued carbon emissions. The changes are being introduced piecemeal, over a period of time, industry by industry. This month's new rules, for example, specifically target garbage landfills, which emit quantities of harmful methane. Some landfills already capture their methane emissions, but many don't. If these emitters can prove to the government that they are capturing or destroying greenhouse gases, then under the new rules they can earn an offset credit, which they can then sell to other companies that are not meeting their emissions targets. Other carbon reduction areas include planting trees, sequestering carbon in soil, direct air capture, etc.

The problem is that, while emissions can be measured, measuring and proving a REDUCTION in emissions is really hard. It can only be measured by comparing actually emissions with some hypothetical emissions that might have applied if the activity were not in force. 

The scheme also requires what is known as "additionality" - credit can only be earned for something that would not have been  done anyway, in the normal course of business. This is also hard to prove.

Also required is "permanence" - the offset can not be something that is capable of being reversed later, and, of course, it is really hard to guarantee how long a carbon reduction is going to remain in force. This is particularly an issue in the forestry sector, e.g. planted trees may later burn down, or be harvested, or be infected by an insect and die.

All of this is very much a carrot, rather than a stick, approach. It is intended, in the government's words, to provide "a market-based incentive to undertake innovative projects to reduce greenhouse gases". Arguably, direct regulation may be more effective, but the government is clearly trying to tread softly around industry and give them the chance (and the appropriate conditions, encouragement and regulatory environment) to do the right thing. Whether we have the time to take this approach is debatable. 

And, of course, the whole idea of carbon offsets is a tricky one anyway. Non-conforming wealthy companies can effectively just pay their way out of trouble, and can even increase their carbon emissions if they so choose. Arguably, offsets don't reduce emissions at all, they just balance them out between different companies and sectors. Can we afford the time to play around with this complicated stuff for so little benefit?

How do we decide what is an invasive species?

Here's an interesting discussion on just how we should define and categorize invasive species, a topic that has always been a little fraught, but is coming under increasing scrutiny as climate change affects the nature around us. As with so many other discussions, there are purists and pragmatists, and it is hard to definitively agree or disagree with either side.

The context of the article is little Small's Creek ravine, a cute but diminutive natural ravine and wetland, right here in our own neighbourhood, that has come under development pressure from a new rail line that (it is argued) Toronto desperately needs. In order to make way for a new retaining wall for the expanded GO Transit Lakeshore East line, Metrolinx has recently cut down hundreds of mature trees, an act that many local people and environmentalists have loudly criticized.

As part of their justification, Metrolinx claims that, "268 trees were identified for removal, and of those, 206 were invasive species", mainly Norway maples and Manitoba maples. Most people applaud efforts to get rid of invasive plants like garlic mustard, dog-strangling vine, European phragmites, giant hogweed, etc, that are rapidly taking over our parks and even our wilder areas, even though these efforts seem doomed to failure in the long term. But when it comes to trees, the issue seems less clear-cut (sic!)

No-one denies that non-native species represent a threat to local native species, whicb may not be able to compete. But such is life: survival of the fittest, and all that. If we applied the same kind of purity test to human migration, we would be accused of xenophobia and racism, even eugenics. Is it justifiable to apply the same lens to our natural environment?

And just because Manitoba maples are native to Manitoba not Ontario, does that make them totally unwelcome here? As global warming (heating) takes hold and our climate changes, some species that are historically native are finding it increasingly hard to survive in their ancestral homelands. Other species, which may be more resilient or more used to warmer/wetter/drier conditions, may be better adapted to thrive in a particular area. Is it so wrong to allow them to? Many species - from deer to lobsters to armadillos to maple trees - are on the move ("range-shifting" or "climate-tracking") as climate change accelerates and habitats change. Do we have to protect EVERY last native species, even when the climate writing is quite clearly on the wall? 

And what constitutes "native" anyway? Our natural environment has always been in a state of flux, and species come and go with alarming regularity over longer time periods. Should "native" mean species that were around in the 1800s? At the time of European settlement? A thousand years ago? Ten thousand? Should we only protect those species that are at risk specifically from human development? What about those that are only locally at risk, but are thriving elsewhere in Canada (or in the world)? Is the ecosystem that results from invasive species necessarily inferior to the old one, or just different? Who are we to say? These are knotty problems, with no single, definitive answer.

As the article (and other similar articles, like this one in Vox) points out, many biologists and Indigenous land stewards are starting to question the conventional wisdom on native and invasive species. Many scientists see habitat shift as a good and necessary thing, and not all non-native species become problematic (some may even be beneficial). There is also a recognition among some that Norway maples and Manitoba maples and invasive plants like buckthorn still provide shade, clean air and soil protection, and help out cities deal with climate change and carbon concentrations. And if they grow better than historically local plants, then maybe that is how it is meant to be. And we do, after all, need railway lines (and even new housing).

The idea of "invasion" and "invasiveness" has been a defining paradigm in environmental management and policy for decades now, and is ingrained in the consciousness of the general public, as well as many scientists. But that, like the climate, may be changing.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Your target body temperature may be wrong

If, like me, you have always taken 37°C (98.6°F) to be the human body's average, and therefore target, temperature, you may have been labouring under a misapprehension.

The widely-used 37°C metric actually dates back to 1850, when a German physician took a survey of the armpit temperatures of 10,000 people. However, back in the 19th century, people typically had poor hygiene, low life expectancy, and chronic diseases like TB and autoimmune conditions were rife, all of which resulted in a slightly higher body temperature. As we have become generally healthier over the last 170 years, our average body temperature has also fallen.

A new study of 100,000 individuals by a Dutch doctor suggests that a better guide to average body temperatures would be 36.4°C (97.5°F), and even this is falling by about 0.03°C (0.05°F) each decade that passes. This also has implications for the clinical definition of fever, which is usually taken to be 38.4°C (101°F).

It should also be noted that body temperatures naturally change throughout the day, with night and morning temperatures lower than evening temperatures. Also, menstruating women tend to have higher temperatures, older people tend to have lower temperatures, etc, so this is not a very exact science. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Nepotism creeps into Ontario politics - shock horror!

Doug Ford has appointed his nephew to the Ontario Cabinet, despite the fact that the younger Ford is a first-time newly-elected MPP with zero experience of provincial politics.

Dougie must have thought that Michael Ford was the best person for the role of Minister of Citizenship and multicuturalism, what with his nearly ten years experience as a school trustee and Toronto Councillor. I guess he couldn't find anyone who was not white and from a privileged upper-middle class background.

Unless, it was ... nepotism? No, surely not.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Life on the Rocks: all may not be lost for our coral reefs

Reading Julie Berwald's Life on the Rocks, it's a little easier to get some perspective on the plight of our coral reefs. It's well-known that coral reefs throughout the world are in trouble, and that our warming oceans are bleaching and killing them, although it's not easy to get a handle on just how bad things are. Added to that is: the threat to the reefs from agricultural run-off, oil spills and other chemical pollutants; direct destruction from shipping accidents, over-enthusiastic fishermen and clumsy tourists; increasingly frequently and intense hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones; suffocation by a plume of floating sunscreen and plastic; and a whole litany of diseases and viruses that have hit the reefs in recent decades. It's a tough life being a coral.

I'm not going to regurgitate the depressing statistics here - suffice to say, about half of the world's 28 million hectares of coral reefs are damaged or dead, most of that over the last 30 or 40 years - and, interestingly, that is not the point of Ms. Berwald's book (it has been well enough documented elsewhere). Life on the Rocks has a more upbeat message: all is not lost.

For example, Ms. Berwald looks at various schemes to protect or shade corals. She introduces us to a whole sub-culture of coral farmers, collectors and artisanal aquarium traders. She describes, too, the relatively well-known project initiated by the Mars chocolate company to improve the reefs around their cacao plantations in Sulawesi, Indonesia, using networks of steel rebar with coral fragments tied on with zip ties. The Mars initiative in particular has been extremely successful, becoming one of the largest reef restoration projects in the world, and has generated several copy-cat projects in other parts of the world.

But, more interesting to me, she explains how it has become apparent (thanks to extensive experimental work by coral scientists like Dave Vaughan in Florida) that it is actually much easier than was once thought to rebuild coral reefs, through an increasingly effective toolbox of techniques like fragmentation, micro-fragmentation, fusion and reskinning, and how coral has surprised scientists with the speed with which it can regenerate under certain conditions and with certain kinds of help.

Also, it turns out that, when a reef bleaches, or even dies off completely, a few individual corals DON'T die. It's not entirely clear how or why, but the survivors do have certain gene expressions in common. And it also turns out that corals in general, and those with certain genes in particular, are much more adaptable to rising temperatures, acidification and pollution than was once thought, and much more resilient in general. Warm-water corals bred with other warm-water corals are much more resistant to rising temperatures than cool-water temperatures. Some algae symbionts allow corals to become more heat tolerant than others. There are a lot of factors to play with, and the good news is that scientists are finally getting to grips with which factors (characteristics/genes/symbionts/etc) matter most.

It seems we have come a long way since those old Jacques Cousteau videos, important though they were in their own way. Life on the Rocks is a welcome antidote to the doom-and-gloom environmental reporting we so often see. It celebrates little victories in a fight against almost impossible odds, and lauds the brave amd indefatigable scientists who chose not to accept defeat.

In between these descriptions of some of the successes in coral restoration, Ms. Berwald also explains about the fascinating life-cycle of coral, and intersperses factoids like: 

  • many corals are sequential hermaphrodites, changing from male to female or vice versa, and some release both egg and sperm packets, but separately so that they don't fertilize themselves; 
  • individual corals of the same species spontaneously spawn at the same time each year, despite being separated by many kilometers; 
  • some corals are 200 times as venomous as a rattlesnake, and 6,000 times as venomous as a black widow spider; 
  • coral polyps have a mutualistic relationship with different species of algae that live actually within their cells, with the algae getting a protected place to live, and the coral getting the food and oxygen it needs to live (as well as those dazzling colours); 
  • corals were around at the time of the dinosaurs, and remain almost unchanged; 
  • a single polyp is not in itself an animal, even though it looks separate - the animal is the coral as a whole, which is made up of thousands of little polyps;
  • corals can produce their own chemical "sunscreen" in day-glo fluorescent colours, with which they try to protect themselves against warming waters and sun-bleaching.

All in all, a book well worth reading, and not half as depressing as you might have thought.

Friday, June 17, 2022

What the Toronto Police race-based data really means

There has been no end of chest-thumping and recriminations over the recent issue of race-based data by the Toronto Police Service (TPS), and over the associated apology by Toronto Police Chief James Ramer (duly refused by many black justic activists, of course - I know an apology is not ALL that needs to happen, but what is the point of flat-out refusing the apology?)

The data show that unarmed black people are 2.3 times more likely than white people to have a gun pointed at them in an altercation with police, while white people are 2.7 times more likely than black people to experience the lowest level of physical force. Black residents experienced 39.4% of police use of force even though they only represent 10.2 % of the population, nearly 4 times the rate expected. Indigenous Torontonians, who only make up 0.9% of the population, were the victims of 2.1% of  police use of force, over twice the expected value. For reference, white people with 45.8% of the population, saw 36.1% of police use of force, so just slightly less than might be expected.

This is part and parcel of other data that suggests that black people are up to 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by Toronto Police than white residents. So, yes, this needs some attention, which is what Chief Ramer was trying to address with his apology (and the associated concrete measures he says the TPS is, and has been, instituting).

What jumped out at me, though, is the huge discrepancy between the experience of black people (and even white people) compared to those of South Asian and East Asian backgrounds. Both of those populations attracted much less police attention, and much, much less police violence, than either black or white residents. 

For example, the East/Southeast Asian population only saw 8.5% of police use of force even though they represent 20.7% of the population. Similarly, the South Asian population only attracted 4% of police violence despite representing 14.7% of the population. So, these populations are arguably being grossly UNDER-policed, or the police force do not feel as threatened by them, presumably based on past experience, anecdotal even if not statistical. Or, of course, it may just be that the Asian population is just more law-abiding, and do not put themselves in the way of the police force.

So, what are we to conclude from this? That maybe the TPS is not actually inherently rabidly racist? That maybe black and indigenous people are disproportionately putting themselves in suspicious places at suspicious times (e.g. grouped on street corners at 2am)? That police officers have seen weapons brandished by certain ethnicities more than others in the past?

Now, I'm not saying that some or all of these interpretations are in fact true. I don't have the data to prove that. But I think "the data" we do now have, which seems to be being interpreted in one very specific way - systemic racism! defund the police! egregious police violence against black people! - may be open to other other, alternative readings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Russia slashes car safety regulations due to lack of imported parts

Russia's popular Lada Granta cars are now being manufactured without many of the safety features that have been standard for decades.

Avtovaz halted production of Lada cars back in March, when it was unable to obtain many of the imported parts needed due to international sanctions over its war in Ukraine. Nothing daunted, the Russian government has found what it probably thinks is a really neat workaround: produce cars without airbags, ABS brakes, electronic stability control, or emergency retraction locks seat belts. The new cars also fail to fulfill modern emissions standards.

Russia is apparently also considering bringing back production of the Soviet-era Moskvich passengers cars, last manufactured some 20 years ago (also lacking many modern safety features). So, if nobody will sell you the parts, just slash safety regulations. Problem solved! 

Russia already has a huge problem with road fatalities, with some 15,000 deaths per year according to advocacy group Road Safety on Russian Roads. This latest move will almost certainly add to that toll. 

Russia is currently vice-chair of the United Nations' World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations. 

El Salvador's gamble on Bitcoin is looking bad (surprise!)

Maybe you had a bit of a flutter on Bitcoin, and maybe you didn't. El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele certainly did, and he used taxpayers money to do it. Now, President Bukele, and therefore El Salvador, is sitting on a huge paper loss as Bitcoin continues to tank, a loss the struggling country can ill afford.

Bukele raised a few eyebrows when he invested (i.e. gambled, in the case of Bitcoin) about $25 million of the country's shaky finances last October (and more since then), and announced that El Salvador would be the first country to accept Bitcoin as legal tender

You may not like some of the decisions your country's Ministry of Finance or Central Bank make, but, hey, it could always be worse.

Monday, June 13, 2022

"How to kill your husband" essayist kills ... her husband

In a case of real life mirroring fiction a little too closely, romance and mystery novelist Nancy Crampton Brophy has been convicted of the murder of her husband, several years after publishing an essay entitled "How to kill your husband ".

Crampton Brophy, 71, was found guilty of second degree murder for the 2018 shooting of her husband in Oregon for the life insurance payout. Apparently, the essay was not allowed as evidence in the case.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Great Salt Lake is not so great these days

A lot of attention has been paid to the drying up of Lake Mead in California. But it is far from the only lake in southwestern USA that is going through some hard times due to climate change.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah has already lost two-thirds of its volume since the late 1980s, and some serious environmental problems await the state if it continues to shrink. Raging population growth, reduced rain and snowfall, and more evaporation of lake water and snow cover due to increased temperatures, are all conspiring to create a potential environmental catastrophe in the region. Even local Republican lawmakers are sounding the alarm bells.

The lake's flies and brine shrimp are already starting to die off and, if this continues, then the huge numbers of bird-life that rely on it will also start to fail. Ski conditions in the resorts above Salt Lake City, a major money-spinner for the state, will deteriorate (the snow in the mountains is largely generated by water from the lake). The lucrative extraction of magnesium and other minerals from the lake will stop, or at least be forced to change drastically. Windstorms will start to carry arsenic, antimony, zirconium and other poisonous minerals from the dried-out lake-bed, threatening the air of Salt Lake City and other nearby population centres (where three-quarters of the state's residents live), and potentially making them unlivable for periods of time. 

Last but by no means least, saving the Great Salt Lake would require letting more snow-melt from the mountains flow down to the lake, rather than siphoning it off for residents and farmers, meaning less usable water, and potentially putting a brake on population growth and the high-value agriculture the region has developed. 

The Salt Lake City region is one of the fastest growing urban areas in America (it is expected to grow by almost 50% by 2060). The ongoing drought is putting that in peril, and local politicians will have some hard decisions to make. The delicate hydrologic balance in the area is starting to break, and damage limitation is increasingly the name of the game.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

It's (semi-)official: older people don't deal well with heat

Everyone knows that older people struggle more than younger folk in heat-waves. You only have to look at figures from the deadly "heat dome" in British Columbia this time last year to see that over 91% of the deaths were in over-60's. And, of course, older people have more co-morbidities (other existing health problems): the same document shows that about 80% of those who died had at least 3 recorded chronic diseases (some had over 10! Imagine that!)

But I found it interesting that new (still unpublished, and non-peer reviewed as yet) research from the University of Ottawa, shows that older people just don't deal well with extended heat. The core temperature of a 20-year old after 9 hours of 40°C temperatures levels out at about 37.6°C (not that much higher than the normal core temperature of 37°C). A 74-year old, though, sees their core temperature reach 38.8°C, which meets the clinical definition of a fever. One 77-year old in the study had to stop the heat exposure after hour 6 as their temperature reached 39.2°C and just kept climbing, and they started to feel seriously unwell.

So, next time there is a heat-wave near you - and you know there will be - spare a thought for the older folks. It's not their fault they have difficulty coping.

Canada and Denmark agree to share Hans Island

Hans Island is described by Wikipedia as a "barren uninhabited island with an area of 1.3 km2 (0.5 sq mi)". It is located slap-bang in the middle of the Kennedy Strait, which separates Canada's Ellesmere Island and Denmark's (semi-autonomous) Greenland, at a latitude of just 10° from the North Pole. Sounds nice, eh?

Well, while it probably won't be attracting too many tourists any time soon, it has been a bone of contention between Canada and Denmark for decades, largely because - who knows? - it might just possess some valuable mineral resources (it probably doesn't), and just, well, just because.  Both countries claim ownership of the rock, which is literally right on the theoretical line down the the middle of the strait between the two countries.

In the main, it has been a relatively genteel and polite dispute, although it has had its moments. Back in the 1980s in particular, tempers flared a little when Canada issued a land-use permit to allow a Canadian company to study how sea ice might affect oil drilling rigs. The then Danish Minister for Greenland responded by helicoptering in and planting a Danish flag on the rock. 

Many successive flag-plantings by Canadian and Danish representatives followed over the ensuing decades, and the two countries' military visitors took to leaving bottles of Canadian whiskey and Danish schnapps for their counterparts. At one point, a Danish minister claimed that Greenlandic Inuit hunters traditionally used the island for assessing the lay of the ice, whereas Canadian Inuit didn't, even though the Inuit of Canada and Greenland are essentially the same people with the same traditions, and certainly didn't respect any European ot North American borders or boundaries.

Anyway, all that is now in the past (which is kind of a shame, in a way). Canada and Denmark have signed an official negotiated settlement over Hans Island, dividing it in two equal halves. I imagine they might even draw a real line on the rock given time, although there are unlikely to be any border officials camped out there. 

In these times of territorial strife in Ukraine and elsewhere, it's comforting to see this kind of geopolitical controversy can be settled diplomatically and peaceably. Hell, if two countries like Canada and Denmark can't figure it out, then what chance does the rest of the world stand. Granted, the stakes are nothing like as high as in Ukraine - in fact, the stakes are basically non-existent -  but still. 

Up on Hans island, deep in the Arctic, I don't think anything much is going to change. Life, such as it is, will continue there much as it always has. An agreement on fishing rights was struck back in the 1970s (the island is well within the legal territorial waters of both countries), so not even that will be affected. I just hope that neither country decides to develop their half of the barren rock in some way, just because they can.

How to describe the smell of the durian fruit

I will probably never try durian. Its reputation precedes it, and, although I am usually up to try something new, I am just not that desperate. But I did want to get some idea of what it actually smells like.

It seems to be one of those really hard-to-describe aromas. And, to be fair, it is really hard to characterize ANY kind of smell in words, other than to compare it to the smell of something else that people might be able to relate to.

The smell of a durian has been described as:

  • "Pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock"
  • "Civet cat, sewage, stale vonit, onions and cheese"
  • "A bunch of dead cats"
  • "Vomit-flavoured custard"
  • "The smell of rotten eggs"
  • "Pungent, runny French cheese"
  • "The flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction"
  • "Completely rotten mushy onions"
  • "A heap of rotten onion"
  • "Carrion in custard"

The diversity of these descriptions is notable, attesting to the difficulty of pinning it down, although onions and dead bodies appear with some frequency. Either way, though, it has confirmed me in my conviction never to try it.

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Professional golf may never be the same (yawn)

I really don't care much about golf as a sport, but it is nevertheless interesting to see it devolve from a cosmopolitan gentleperson's game to cut-throat blood sport. And the reason? You guessed it: money.

The PGA Tour, the exclusive and traditional professional golfing tournament since the year dot, has been completely up-ended by the new upstart LIV Golf International Series, which is being handsomely financed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund is ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into sign-on fees and prize money for the tournament, in an attempt to distance itself from the country's reputation as a human rights quagmire. Donald Trump had, unsurprisingly, offered his golf courses for the divisive cause.

And that has proven to be enough to attract some top names. Big-name PGA players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have decamped to LIV for sums of money reportedly in the hundreds, not tens, of millions of dollars, more than most of them have made in their entire careers to date. Many of the others are reasonably big names but past their best, people like Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, and of course LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, himself a former No. 1 golfer. Several other equally big names, though, including Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, are decrying the new tournament and sticking with the PGA, calling the Saudi move problematic, exploitative and divisive. 

But, more recently, two pretty big names who are very much in mid-career, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, have also signed up with the LIV Tour for future competitions. And that has really set the cat among the pigeons.

The PGA Tour has responded, perhaps a little precipitately, by suspending all 17 PGA members who have signed up to  compete in the first LIV International Golf Series. Some of them see this as a reasonable response (or at least are unwilling to put up any public resistance). Others, like Ian Poulter for example, are vowing to take the PGA to court over it, arguing that they play in many different tournaments each year, the LIV being just one such, so why should they be disallowed by one tournament claiming to hold sway over others (and I must admit he has a point there).

Be that as it may, the whole thing is getting quite nasty, at least by golfing standards, and the battle lines are drawn up. Professional golf will probably never be the same (yawn).

Alberta's offer to help Ukraine not all philanthropic

I have to call out Alberta's Energy Minister (and secret WWF wrestler, I'm convinced) Sonya Savage for her comments in response to calls from Ukraine's Naftogaz for international partners in developing Ukraine's natural gas reserves.

Ms. Savage says that Alberta and Canada have a "moral imperative to help" Ukraine in this respect. And yet somehow I don't think she was really thinking of poor beleaguered Ukraine at all. I think she was thinking about the lucrative contracts Alberta's (also beleaguered, but in a different way) oil and gas industry could score.

I could be wrong, of course. But it just seems like a much too rehearsed and fortuitous a response to be convincing.

Elon Musk withdraws offer to buy a Big Mac

Couldn't resist plugging this New Yorker spoof about Elon Musk's tentative offer for a MacDonald's Big Mac. This, in the wake of his rather desperate attempts to withdraw his firm offer to buy Twitter recently.

He may be the richest man in the world, but it is kind of hard to take him seriously.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Shrinkflation? It's a real thing

You thought inflation was bad? Worried about the rather awkwardly-named stagflation? Well, prepare yourselves for the smoke-and-mirrors of "shrinkflation".

Shrinkflation is when products and packages shrink in size, but the price remains the same. It's inflation through the back door. It's duplicitous and disingenuous, and it's downright sneaky. Rather than putting prices up and calling attention to their actions during this period of unaccustomed inflation, many stores and manufacturers are choosing to quietly reduce the size of what they sell, hoping that no-one will notice. But the effect is the same: shoppers get less for the same price, or the same amount for more. Same difference.

Some manufacturers are openly admitting that they have been forced to do it; most are hoping no-one notices. Yet others are really grasping the bull by the horns and reducing the size of their products AND increasing the price. Ouch!

Here are just a few examples from recent weeks and months:

  • Cottonelle Ultra Clean Care toilet paper now has 312 sheets per roll instead of 340. Same price.
  • Kleenex Ultra Soft tissues now has 60 tissues in a pack, whereas it used to be 65 tissues. Same price.
  • Folgers coffee now sells in 43.5 oz cans instead of 51 oz. Same price.
  • A large bottle of Gatorade used to mean 32 fl ozs but now it seems to mean 28 fl ozs. The price remains the same.
  • Pantene Pro-V Curl Protection conditioner now comes in a 10.4 fl oz bottle, although it used to be 12 fl ozs. The price has not changed. 
  • A pack of Earth's Best Sunny Day Snack Bars used to contain 8 bars but now contains only 7. Yup, same price.
  • Domino's Pizza's 10-piece chicken wings are now only 8 pieces, for the same price.
  • Fritos Party Size Scoops used to contain 18 ozs, and is now 15.5 ozs. The price went UP.
  • Japanese snack maker Calbee announced a 10% decrease in the weight of its packets of chips and crispy snacks AND a 10% percent increase in price (but at least they were up-front about it).

We get it, manufacturers are feeling the pain from more expensive ingredients due to global inflation and supply chain problems. Costs are up, but customers are not willing (or able) to pay more for their food and supplies. They need to do something if they want to keep up the obscene profits many of them make for their shareholders. But don't try to hide it. Don't cheat the already beleaguered consumers.


Just so you know, "greedflation (inflation due to price gouging) is also a thing, although it is considered unlikely to be contributing significantly to the current inflation push.

Shell to offer renewable power to customers in Texas

Now, there's a headline I never expected to see. 

In an illustration of just how far the Zeitgeist has changed, Shell Energy Solutions, part of oil giant Shell Plc, is getting into the residential power market in the US, specifically in the one state which is perhaps most closely identified with oil and gas industry, Texas. It will be providing 100% renewable electricity to "eligible customers" in Texas, as well as an electric vehicle charging plan, and a solar buyback plan under which customers can export excess solar power to the grid.

It brings home just how much European companies have moved towards the green economy compared to their North American counterparts. Companies like Shell, BP and Total have all embraced an expansion into renewable energy, electric vehicle charging and other fast-growing sustainable business areas, while North American companies like Exxon and Chevron continue in their well-worn oil-and-gas rut, with some grudging investment in carbon capture technology from industrial plants and biofuels.

Shell has a goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and plans to expand its retail electricity business to other parts of the United States in the coming months and years. Bear in mind, though, its investments in clean energy thus far pale into insignificance compared to its oil and gas operations. But at least it has got as far as talking the talk.

Texas apparently has the most competitive electricity market in the USA, and led the country in new renewable energy projects last year, installing 7,352 megawatts of  new wind and solar projects in 2021. However, it remains the tenth largest fossil fuel consumer in the county, and 90% of its energy is derived from fossil fuels. And Texas' toe-dipping in the renewables market is nothing to do with any revelatory epiphany or even a desire to do the right thing; they are investing in renewables because they are cheaper than the alternatives.

Which just goes to shown that perfectly truthful news headlines can give quite the wrong impression. But, even so, I'll take it!

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Newest tech billionaire is 25 years old

Asian-American 25-year old Alexander Wang is the newest, and youngest ever, self-made billionaire.

Wang is the founder and part owner of Scale AI, a company that helps other businesses with the data preparation needed to train their AI systems. Its customers include General Motors, Toyota, PayPal, SAP, Lyft and the US military, and involve activities from self-driving cars and mapping to robotics and virtual reality and military applications.

In true billionaire fashion, Wang, whose parents are both physicists for the American military, dropped out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue Scale AI full-time, after he started it with his friend (and fellow tech prodigy) Lucy Guo as a summer project. The company is now worth around US$7.3 billion, and has revenue of $100 million a year.

Does that make you feel as inadequate it does me?

Saturday, June 04, 2022

"They came. They idled. They left." - trying to understand the truckers

It's well worth your while to read Ian Brown's centre page spread in today's Globe and Mail, entitled, "They came. They idled. They left." I'm not usually a big fan of Ian Brown; I find him overly sentimental and wordy. But the guy does win a lot of journalism prizes, and he knows how to fill a page (or three).

The piece is about the Truckers' Convoy, at a distance of three months or so. He traces a handful of the attendees, and attempts to understand some of the disparate reasons they had for attending, and how it changed them (or not). He tries to understand, without judging, how apparently intelligent people become so caught up in conspiracy theories, wild beliefs, and self-delusion. It's hard to read without judging, but at least it's written that way (more or less).

The jury is, and will probably remain, out on the Convoy. Many of the attendees see it as having changed the world; the pithy title to the article is probably closer to the way most outsiders see it (a kind of chaotic and expensive summer camp for bored, thoughtless and self-indulgent truck drivers). It was certainly an interesting - if unfortunate and rather embarrassing - interlude. This article might just help you understand it a little.

China and India happy to increase imports of Russian crude, morality be damned

As most of the world buckles down and sanctions Russian oil, often at significant cost and inconvenience to themselves, in an attempt to reduce Russia's ability (and perhaps inclination) to prosecute its war in Ukraine, two countries are notable no-shows. These mavericks will happily benefit from Europe and the rest of the world's belt-tightening on Ukraine's behalf, with no trace of embarrassment or shame.

China is probably no surprise. It is a half-hearted supporter of Russia, but it tends to do whatever it likes, with no concessions to international norms or geopolitical concern or respect. China is the world's largest importer of crude oil; if it can take advantage of cheap Russian crude, then it certainly will, international disapproval be damned. China has quietly increased its imports of Russian crude from 750,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the first quarter to 1.1 million bpd in May, and it will probably continue to ramp up its Russian imports.

India, though, may have been expected to be a little more judicious in its consideration of the flow of international politics, although, under the hyper-nationalist and increasingly swaggering leadership of Narendra Modi, it too is increasingly forging its own path. 

Certainly, in the area of Russian oil imports, India has made no bones about its intention to buck the international Zeitgeist, and to avail itself of as much cheap Russian oil as it possibly can. A year ago, in May of 2021, India imported 136,774 bpd. This May, two months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at a time when most countries are deliberately trying to curtail their dealings with the Russian aggressor, it imported 840,645 bpd. That's a six-fold increase. In June, it is expected to increase its imports to 1.05 million bpd (a nearly 8-fold increase).

Clearly, India is not feeling any moral qualms or perturbation. Under Mr. Modi, it is all about them. They would happily see the war in Ukraine drag on as long as it continues to get cheap oil. 

There is a slight (if growing) chance that China and India may suffer some secondary sanctions, as third countries sanction petroleum products refined in India and China which use Russian crude imports. In the meantime, though, both countries are making hay (or oil) while the sun shines, throwing Russia a lifeline in the process and indirectly contributing to the horrific loss of life in Ukraine.

Musk's arrogance on full display

Elon Musk again. Sorry. But Mr. Unpleasant is at it again.

After a couple of years of flexible work-from-home policies during the pandemic, Musk is insisting that Tesla management staff go into the office to work, on pain of dismissal. Because the pandemic is over, don't you know (I'm not sure Musk ever really believed in it). But more importantly, because he says so.

I suppose, if you are the boss, you can make random edicts of this sort, even if all the evidence suggests that employees working from home have actually been more productive and happier. But more importantly for me, it is the way Musk does these things that really rankles.

Employees were told, in a personal note from Musk entitled "Remote work is no longer acceptable", that "Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers." 

If anyone was in any  doubt as to his reasoning, he explained further, "The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence. That's why I lived in the factory so much - so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt."

God, the bombast of the man, the pomposity and braggadocio! When asked on Twitter what about those who think that working in an office is an antiquated and outdated notion, his response was even more terse and dismissive (literally): "They should pretend to work somewhere else." Arrogant, aloof and downright disrespectful. Not many warm and fuzzy feelings there. 

I hope that many of his top lieutenants take him at his word and "depart". Would you work for this man?

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Tim Hortons app violated privacy laws - wait, don't all apps do that?

Tim Hortons has just been hauled over the coals for violating privacy laws with its app, which apparently gathers location data hundred of times a day, even when the app is not in use. It was ruled that the apps permissions "misled many users", and led to "a loss of users' privacy that was not proportional to the potential benefits Tim Hortons may have hoped to gain".

But hold on, don't pretty much all apps do that? Isn't that just what apps do? A New York Times Wirecutter analysis, for example, found that 60% of the 250 apps tested had a Data Used to Track You label, and of those 96% used identifiers, 70% measure advertising data, 38% used location identifiers, and 19% used context info. The worst offenders were weather apps that use location to track devices, shopping apps, fitness apps, house- and apartment-hunting apps, news apps and dating apps.

If you are worried about this kind of thing, you can turn off your Location Services. But Tim's is really no more nefarious than hundred of other apps.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Depp and Heard exchange millions of dollars

I haven't exactly been following the Johnny Depp - Amber Heard court case with bated breath, although it's been hard to avoid it completely.

But the news that Depp has been award $15 million in damages for his libel claim, and Heard is to get $2 million for a defamation counter-claim, makes me wonder a bit. So, two rather nasty Hollywood personalities are to get a bunch more money. Big news! Call it a tie (although neither party is probably satisfied). Or you might see it as payment for a public performance. Certainly, millions of people have been captivated by their he-said-she-said allegations of (apparently mutual) domestic abuse. Maybe the whoe thing was just a show, a put-up?

Whatever you think about Johnny Depp getting $15 million he doesn't really need, the fact that Ms. Heard gets $2 million for essentially just defending herself against accusations of a hoax seems kind of ridiculous. (Apparently, Heard can't pay Depp $15 million anyway, because she is already $6 million in debt and stony broke. What? How do you get to be $6 million in debt?)

Millions here, millions there. What all these millions of dollars could do in more responsible hands!

The Battle of the (Sub-)Variants

It seems like a lifetime ago that were talking about Alpha and Beta, and even Delta, variants of COVID-19. Then, the Omicron variant arrived at the end of 2021, and everything changed. Since then, we have become used to talking knowledgeably about Omicron sub-variants: BA.1, BA.2, BA.2.12.1, and now BA.4 and BA.5.

So, where are we right now with the variants, and does it really matter any more?

Unfortunately, I have not seen a good visualization of the waves of variants and subvariants, along the likes of this one in Nature, which is now hopelessly out of date.

The current state of affairs seems to be that the BA.2.12.1 sub-variant is officially dominant in North America, taking over from BA.2, which in turn took over from BA.1.

However, even BA.2.12.1 is in the process of being pushed out by the double threat of BA.4 and BA.5 (which both seem to be part of the B.1.1.529 designation, which is the general descriptor for the Omicron variant, but who knows how all THAT works?). The BA.2.12.1 variant accounted for 59% of all variants identified this week in the USA, up from 52% last week, so it is still increasing in prevalence. The BA.4 and BA.5 strains, though, increased from 3.4% to 6.1% over that same week, so relatively speaking they are growing faster, and it seems only a matter of time before they overtake BA.2.12.1. Some states and provinces seem to be more affected by the new variants than others.  

In South Africa, where all these new Omicron variants seem to originate for some reason, the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants have already out-competed BA.2.12.1, and together account for over 90% of new cases as early as the end of April. This is also the case in some European countries like Portugal. 

(Incidentally, South Africa feels that it is being unfairly stigmatized for its early reporting of new variants, which it says is merely a reflection of its highly-developed genomic sequencing facilities, and not anything to do with its own poor management of the disease. But the fact remains that the new variants do seem to take hold there before other countries, so I am not sure their argument holds water)

But does all this matter? Well, in a way, yes. BA.2.12.1 is almost twice as resistant to vaccinations compared to previous Omicron variants, which is why it has become so dominant. BA.4 and BA.5, though, are over 4 times as resistant, and so can be expected to lead to substantially more breakthrough infections in vaccinated (and even boosted) individuals, and re-infections of people who were previously infected with Omicron. These new variants are so different from previous ones that neither vaccinations nor previous infections in either vaccinated or unvaccinated people will help much.

So, yes, there will be a new spike in cases, possibly the worst ever (although we will probably never know just how bad it is because testing is almost non-existent these days).

And we're all fixating on Monekypox!