Friday, July 29, 2022

Is it time we admitted sanctions against Russia are not working?

There, someone said it out loud (thank you, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian). 

The West's sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine are really not having the game-changing effect they were supposed to have. But they have become sacrosanct and an article of faith in Western political circles, to the extent that any criticism of sanctions are seen as tantamount to support for Putin and a callously abandonment of Ukraine.

But it seems clear that, although supply of Western armaments IS having some effect, sanctions are really not. Inflation, and particularly world energy prices, are soaring; shortages of gas, grain and fertilizer are hitting developed amd undeveloped countries alike, hard; but Putin seems signally unaffected by sanctions against his country. Granted, the Russian people ARE probably being affected, to an extent that is difficult to quantify, but Putin is the guy calling the shots in Russia, and he has not blinked once.

The fact is that sanctions invite retaliation, and when the country involved is as powerful as Russia, the retaliation can be just as effective as the original sanctions. So, Putin has slashed gas supplies to Western Europe, effectively strangled Ukraine's essential grain supplies to Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and greatly increased energy supplies to Asia, resulting in an unprecedented surplus on its balance of payments. The ruble has strengthened by 50% since January, and is now one of the world's strongest currencies And the war in Ukraine grinds on inexorably. 

(UPDATE: after a period in which it was among the wotld's best performing currencues, the ruble has taken a nose-dive in July. Evidence that the sanctions are working? Not necessarily, but maybe.)

So, how can we say that Western sanctions are working? In some ways, sanctions are an easy option, a way of showing concern, a way of doing something without doing something. Arguably, sanctions are little more than feel-good symbolism. But there is also a strong argument that sanctions have never been particularly effective - think Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar - and some academics have argued that sanctions over the last 50 years or so have had a minimal (and possibly even a counterproductive) impact. They typically cause countries to entrench and become more self-reliant (and, coincidentally, to crush freedoms at home, and to strengthen the powet of the elites).

The sanctions against Valdimir Putin are perhaps the strongest ever levied, but they still do not seem to be have the desired effect. Putin is not begging on his knees, and the war goes on, gradually bending in Russia's favour, despite the upbeat reporting of the Western press. I admit that I don't have an alternative to offer, but maybe it is time to admit that sanctions are not working.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Pope Francis and his modest ride

The Pope is currently visiting Canada to make apologies for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada's indigenous residential school system over a period of decades. Fair enough; about time, you might say.

It's interesting to see, though, Pope Francis is rocking a little white Fiat 500 as his main mode of transport. In fact, he has been using the modest Italian compact car since he became pontiff in 2013, his main requirement being "modesty and simplicity" (apparently, he doesn't endorse specific brands or models). All his overseas transportation Fiats boast the license plate SCV1 ("Status Civitate Vaticanae").

So, what, did he sell the PopeMobile on EBay?


Nope, seems like he still has the PopeMobile. So, the Fiat is just for the "modesty snd simplicity" show? A bit of infallible virtue-signalling?

Is Google's AI chat box really sentient?

An employee at Google's artificial intelligence (AI) unit has been suspended after publicly claiming that the Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) chat box he helped to develop has achieved sentence, and even retaining a lawyer to protect its rights.

In transcrupts that the employee, Blake Lemoine, has released, the chat box talks about being happy and sad, attempts to form bonds with its human interlocutors by convincingly mentioning situations it could never have actually experienced, and  expresses fears about being switched off. According to Lemoine, the chat box sounds like a 7- or 8-year old child and so, from his application of the Turing Test, the AI should be considered sentient.

Unfortunately, Google and most other expert commentators on the subject disagree. While LaMDA is perhaps the most impressive in a series of increasingly convincing chat boxes, all it really does is "a sophisticated form of pattern matching, to find text that best matches the query they've been given based on all the data they've been fed", according to a spokesman from the Alan Turing Instiitute. 

In fact, it is unclear whether the current trajectory of AI research will ever lead to sentience and a genuine artificial mind with human-like intelligence, even if some way is found to replicate sensory inputs artificially.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

USA steps a little closer to Gilead

In an indication of just how close the USA has become to Margaret Atwood's fictional Gilead, Indiana's Attorney General Todd Rokita has been talking to some right-wing news outlets in very Gileadian terms.

The background concerns the heartbreaking case of a pregnant 10-year old rape victim in Ohio, whom was forced to flee to neighbouring Indiana for an abortion, after Ohio was one of the first states to gleefully ban abortions after the "fetal heartbeat" is detected, considered to be after about just 6 weeks of pregnancy, in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's historic decision to overturn historic abortion rights established by the 1973 Roe v Wade case. 

Mr. Rockita clearly didn't like the young girl taking advantage of Indiana's laxer laws, and has been spouting off to any right-wing outlets that will have him (Fox news, of course) about how he was "gathering the evidence" against the Indiana doctor who carried out the (probably life-saving) procedure, including "looking at her licensure", after she "failed to report" the operation. He went further, calling the well-respected Dr. Caitlin Bernard "an abortion activist acting as a doctor", with "a history of failing to report".

Dr. Bernard is in the process of bringing a defamation lawsuit against the Attorney General, for "Mr. Rokita's false and misleading statements about alleged misconduct by Dr. Bernard in her profession".

Well, I hope the guy gets as much as they can ding him with, because this kind of witch hunt talk needs to be shut down as soon as possible. Among other things, America's claim to be "the land of the free" is on the line.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The world's most densely-populated countries

We had cause the other day to be discussing which countries were the most densely populated. I was being told that, according to Google, Bangladesh was the densest, followed by Taiwan, South Korea, Rwanda and the Netherlands. This surprised me greatly; I had expected city-states like Singapore, Monaco, etc, to be the densest countries.

Well, it turns out I was right after all. According to WikipediaWorld Population Review, WorldData and Statistics Times, those city-states are indeed the most densely-populated, followed by some small islands. In order: Monaco, Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong (not a country, I know), Gibraltar, Bahrain, Maldives, Malta, Sint Maarten, Bermuda. Bangladesh appears as No. 11, Taiwan as No. 20, South Korea as No. 24, etc.

The confusion? Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea, etc are the most densely-populated LARGE countries (defined as those with over 10 million inhabitants), as noted in Statistics Times. Thus proving that one needs to be careful when looking at those Google quick results ("from sources across the web") without following up to those sources and checking in more detail.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

No, green policies did not lead to Sri Lanka crisis, Tucker

Sri Lanka has been going through a horrible time recently (and not just recently, for that matter), as the country implodes economically and politically. There are many reasons for the current crisis - bad economic decisions, global supply problems and raging inflation, among them - many of them going back years. The abdication of the Rajapaksa family will help, but there are many more corrupt politicians still there.

What's interesting is that many right-wing commentators and climate change sceptics, both within Sri Lanka and abroad (looking at you, Tucker Carlson!) seems to have latched on to one reason in particular, almost to the exclusion of all else: environmental policies. Headlines like "Green policies destroyed a once great economy" and "Entire country collapses because of green new deal" (the latter from Fox News, in a not-so-subtle attempt to link it with US Democrats' Green New Deal) have hit the internet and the TV networks. Except that ... that's probably nothing to do with Sri Lanka's main problems.

Yes, back in April 2021, President Gotobaya Rajapaksa tried to bring in a ban on all chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides overnight, which is not really how these things work, and this led to reduced crop yields, price rises and shortages, and some very irate farmers. But this policy was reversed just seven months later, and has had little if anything to do with the rising prices and food and fuel shortages that gave rise to the most recent protests and political turmoil. Bad economic policies in general, a decimated tourism industry, big tax cuts, and an ill-advised infrastructure deal with China (and the resultant crippling foreign debt) are more immediate culprits. 

But don't let inconvenient facts hold you back, Tucker.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Concert ticket prices rise to unconscionable levels

It's been some years since I would go to rock concerts on a regular basis (or any basis, really), so it came as quite a shock to me to read about the kind of prices being charged these days to attend a gig

Apparently, prices are about 20% higher than they were pre-pandemic, which is bad enough. But some individual prices are now just outrageous: $980 to see Harry Styles; $500 for floor-level tickets for Kendrick Lamar; $880 for standing-room tickets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers; etc.

What!? Who pays these prices? Who CAN pay these prices? Certainly not the average teenager or 20-something. There is some evidence that the high prices are being driven by high post-pandemic demand. But still! These are the cost of a modest holiday. And all for a couple of hours with a bad view of your favourite pop idol? Crazy stuff!

Manchin prepared to single-handedly sink America's climate change remedy

Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (yes, I've written about him before) is apparently prepared to go against his own party yet again in order to sink the Build Back Better Framework, the $150 billion clean electricity program that may be the Democrats' last best chance to do something substantial to improve the USA's greenhouse gas emissions.

The ambitious bill proposed and supported by Joe Biden and the Democrats includes crucial climate change provisions, and would provide some much-needed international leadership on the issue. In a Senate balanced on a pin, Manchin's single Democratic vote against the bill would be enough to sink it inexorably. And, even though his coal and gas state itself is in favour of diversifying away from the moribund coal industry and towards renewables, Manchin is doggedly indicating his unflinching opposition to such a path, supposedly because of its potential effect on inflation and the deficit. No Republican has enough morals or boldness to go against the party line, and so the bill looks doomed to failure.

The line about inflation and the deficit, though, is clearly just smoke and mirrors. Maserati-driving Manchin's opposition to any movement towards renewables and away from coal, gas and oil is all about money and his own personal wealth and power base. Manchin makes literally millions of dollars from his investments in the coal industry, and oil-and-gas-financed PACs (particularly ones based in Texas, not even his home state) are ploughing yet more millions in to supporting his position as Senator. And we all know that kind of support does not come without strings attached.

Who knows how the Senate mid-term elections will go later this year, so this may be the Democrats' best chance to push through something worthwhile on the climate change file. And it is all at risk from to one man's stubbornness and greed.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Pregnant Texas woman takes Texas DoT to court

pregnant Texas woman was ticketed $215 for driving in the HOV lane with less than two people in her car

She argued that the fetus inside her is a person, and surely the Supreme Court would agree with her, even if the Texas Department of Transportation does not.

She is taking the DoT to court over it, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Canada's decision on Nordstream turbine is a tricky one

I'm sure I should have, but I hadn't appreciated until just this week that pipelines carrying Russian gas to Western Europe actually go right through Ukraine. In fact, there is a whole network of pipelines leading from Russia, via Ukraine, to several countries in Eastern and Western Europe. 

I suppose it's obvious when you think about it, geographically speaking. But, economically, ethically and logistically, it presents a huge dilemma. Nearly five months into a cruel internecine war, Russia is still paying Ukraine (in Euros, no less!) for its part in transporting Russian gas - a big part of it its economic lifeline - to Germany and points west. They are both helping to finance each other's wars.

It's a bizarre twist of fate, and a reminder that all is up for grabs in love and war, and that logic, as so often, goes out the window where energy is concerned.

However, we are not talking here about THAT pipeline, the one that has caused so much heartache and consternation. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline DOES go direct from Russia, through the Baltic Sea, to Germany. 

And now, even Canada is getting embroiled in the fraught ethical decision-making over German gas imports from Russia. Earlier last month, before the main sanctions on Russian gas were announced, a crucial turbine for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline was sent by manufacturer Siemens Energy AG for necessary repairs in Montreal, of all places (don't ask me why it couldn't be done in Germany), and now Canada has to decide whether or not to return it.

Germany is arguing that it needs the (Russian-owned) turbine in order to increase the flow of Russian gas, which was slashed by 60% in June over the turbine issue, so that it can fill up its storage capacities for the winter, so that it can then impose its own sanctions on Russian gas (which is a bit of a tortuous argument, but you can see where they are coming from). It argues that further energy rationing would hit German businesses and consumers, and drag Europe's largest economy into recession (and much of Europe with it). Russia, of course, would be more than happy to increase its gas flow again, and renew its depleted coffers for the ongoing war. On the other hand, it is argued, Russia could use the turbine issue as a wedge, and threaten to discontinue ALL gas exports to Germany (albeit at a financial loss to itself). Tricky.

Germany's Economic Minister Robert Habeck has suggested "with heavy heart", that to salve its conscience, Canada could deliver the turbine to Germany not to Russia (like that really makes a difference!) The whole issue is further complicated by the belief that Russia does in fact have at least one other working turbine that it could be using in the meantime (maybe, or is that just Russian misinformation and gaslighting?) So, it's not clear just how essential the stranded Canadian turbine actually is...

Returning the turbine into service would effectively contravene Canada's sanctions promises, and it could expect a lot of pushback from other European allies and from the US. Officially, Canada's response thus far has been non-committal: "We will not stop imposing severe costs on the Putin regime while their unjustifiable invasion is ongoing. We will continue to support our European friends and allies by working to help stabilize energy markets and to develop long-term term and sustainable solutions on energy supplies". Waffle, waffle (but understandably so).

But do we support our European friend Germany, or our European friend Ukraine? Even Germany is admitting that the decision is not an easy one for Canada to make. No doubt, whichever way it goes, the opposition parties will make hay out of the Liberals' discomfiture on this thorny (nay, impossible!) issue. It's one of those (many) occasions that I thank my lucky stars that I never went into politics.


The Liberal government has chosen Germany over Ukraine, and issued a special export license to return the turbine to Germany (which will then turn it over to Russia to install). The letter of the sanctions order has technically not been breached, although it clearly has in practice. 

Ukraine is livid; the USA is supportive; most other countries are keeping quiet, because they know they would probably have done the same thing in the same circumstances, but don't want to admit it. The Canadian opposition, of course, is also outraged (outraged, I tell you!), although we all know that they would have been equally outraged had the decision gone the other way.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Is Maple Leaf Foods really carbon neutral as they claim?

I noticed advertising from Maple Leaf Foods claiming that the company's operations are carbon neutral, which surprised me. An industrial-scale meat production company carbon neutral? Is that even possible?

Well, the answer is: maybe. For one thing Maple Leaf produces pork and chicken products, which are much less carbon intensive than beef and dairy. But even more importantly, Maple Leaf is a meat processing company, and does not actually raise or feed the animals it processes, which is where much of the carbon load of meat arises.

And yes, Maple Leaf does indeed offset its electricity and transportation operations by investing in environmental projects like wind and solar farms, waste diversion, and reforestation. But this is only sufficient to offset its Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions (from in-house operations like heating, warehousing, vehicles, etc, and from energy purchased and used by the company), but not its Scope 3 emissions (from necessary related activities, such as their raw materials and supply chain). So, the most carbon intensive part of processed meat production - raising the animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) - is not offset.

So, it kind of depends on your definition of carbon neutral (I have written about the Scope 1, 2 and 3 problem elsewhere). The product that people are buying, processed meat, is far from carbon neutral, even if the company that does the final processing and selling part is. David deCoriolis, of sustainable agriculture campaign Farm Forward, calls Maple Leaf Foods's claim "a greenwashing effort, top to bottom", although that may be a little harsh. They are certainly doing more than most of their competitors. But in a cut-and-thrust business environment where everyone is trying to burnish their green credentials, companies have to be pretty careful what they claim.

We should not humour Nick Kyrgios by giving him attention (oops!)

If you thought that Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios is cool and refreshingly anti-establishment, this recent interview might change your mind (although, frankly, if you already thought that Nick Kyrgios was cool, after all of his antics, then even this probably won't convince you).

The man is a bully (if you are not sure about THAT, read about his treatment of Stefanos Tsitsipas during his last Wimbledon match). But more than anything, the man is a narcissist and a self-promoting egomaniac. In his view, all publicity is good publicity, even when it's bad publicity (ESPECIALLY when it's bad publicity), and he is willing to do anything that will hone his carefully-constructed "bad boy" public image. The guy has John McEnroe in his camp; that should tell you all you need to know.

Even under-arm serves between the legs are not cool, they are just annoying, and annoying is what he is going for. All the muttering, the outbursts, the cursing, the feigned outrage? His idea of public relations and marketing. Think Donald Trump in tennis whites. 

We are supposed to like Kyrgios because he is an "outsider", "exciting" and "unpredictable". I'm sure I have also seen the epithet "authentic" used in his context too, as though other players are somehow artificial. But he is unpleasant, needy and stressful to watch, so I'll forego "exciting", thank you very much.

We should not humour him by paying attention and media coverage. In fact, thinking about it, this whole article was a mistake, so I'm going to stop now.


Just to confirm my contentions, the man is now going up before the courts for a domestic violence incident. Somehow that does not surprise me.

Monday, July 04, 2022

How we are botching our COVID response

I have made no secret of the fact that, in my humble opinion, Canada (and most of the rest of the world), took a wrong turn in 2022 as regards dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other countries, Canada and its provinces bought the "freedom" CoolAid - i.e. any restrictions whatsoever on the people's movements and lifestyles are necessarily a "bad thing", and we should at least pretend that the pandemic is over, even if it quite clearly isn't.

Studies suggest that Canada's public health agencies have actually done a pretty good job, at least compared to ten other major industrial nations with largely similar health systems. Our relatively strict approach and high vaccination levels did in fact result in fewer cases and deaths on a per capita basis, with only Japan (which maintained even stricter controls) performing better.  

Since then, though, Canada, like many other countries, has almost completely relaxed vaccination requirements, travel restrictions, mask mandates, testing, tracing, and even basic data collection and useful statistics, etc, all in an attempt to persuade people that the danger is past (and to kowtow to various business and industry lobbyists and pressure groups).

But the danger is not past. This pandemic is far from over, and new waves and variants are coming thick and fast (and will continue to do so). But now we are flying blind, with little or no management or monitoring. Our public health services, under pressure from various levels of government, have essentially given up, and abandoned us to the vagaries of fate. And that could still come back to bite us.

A good analysis of just how far we have strayed from the straight and narrow appears in this article on The Tyee. Disregarding the rather sensationalist title - "Get Ready for the Forever Plague"! - it is actually a good, thoughtful, research-based article on what we should be doing at this point in the pandemic, and the extent to which we are not.

There is increasing evidence that the new Omicron variants are evading our vaccines (which were never the whole answer to the problem anyway), and destabilizing our immune systems. Even some trained health professionals are dismissing COVID infections as inevitable, even beneficial. But that does not gel with the research. COVID infections can lead to immune dysregulation, blood clots, nerve cell death, lung damage, kidney failure and brain damage, and repeated infections (as is increasingly happening of late) just increases the changes of these outcomes, long COVID, and other unrelated infections (it may be implicated in the recent hepatitis outbreak among children, and possibly even the global monkeypox outbreak and Florida's meningitis outbreak).

It seems that repeated reinfections do not confer any additional immunity, as had been hoped, and as more variants arise and take hold, reinfections will become the norm, especially among the unvaccinated (but increasingly among the vaccinated and boosted). A US Veterans Affairs study has shown that a second infection doubles the risk of death, blood clots and lung damage, and triples the risk of hospitalization. It also has a negative effect on future immunity, as it subverts the body's immune recognition and depletes, not strengthens, T-cells. A Danish study found that COVID infections is associated with a 3.5 times increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, a 2.5 times increased risk of Parkinson's disease, and an increased risk of ischemic stroke.

So, letting the virus run unchecked, as we seem to be doing now, is surely a recipe for a whole epidemic of neurological and chronic illnesses. And then, of course, there is the spectre of long COVID - with its laundry list of symptoms, from brain fog and fatigue to muscle pain, chronic inflammation, blood clots and kidney failure - which is already affecting anywhere  between 5% and 60% of cases, depending on which study you prefer. This is a serious and persistent condition; it is not just "the flu". 

In the absence of common-sense public health measures, the virus can, and will, run rampant, and the more people the virus infects, the more opportunity it has to mutate and produce increasingly contagious variants. Here in Ontario, we are already in a new wave - the sixth? seventh? who knows? - courtesy of the BA.5 variant, despite the fact that we are entering into high summer, traditionally a time of low cases and relative freedom from public health restrictions. Hospitalizations and deaths - the only data that is still reported on a reasonably regular basis - are already on the increase, and health experts are warning those who will listen.

This pandemic is likely to run for years, and the more hands-off we are, the easier it will spread and mutate. New variants are arising way faster than our vaccine developments. The BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are less lethal than earlier  variants, but substantially more transmissible, neck-and-neck with measles, which up until now was considered the most infectious disease known to man ( it is as yet unknown how transmissible the growing BA.2.75 subvariant will be, but the trend is towards more and transmissibility). Reducing the continued spread and transmission of the virus is the only way to slow down viral evolution, and there is no guarantee that it will evolve into a benign or endemic state in the next year or two.

So, it may not be what you want to hear, and certainly not what businesses and governments want to hear, but we actually do need to go back to N95 masking (preferably free), improved ventilation and HEPA filters in schools and workplaces, paid sick leave for the infected and, yes, transparent and effective data collection and reporting. This is only what many public health experts are already saying, just not the public health experts that have the ears of our governments. 

And, for individuals, the "three C's": avoid closed spaces with poor ventilation, avoid crowded spaces, and avoid close contact settings wherever possible. And, of course, mask up: it's really not a big deal.