Thursday, August 25, 2022

Is "winningest" a real word?

I still cringe when I hear news presenters use the word "winningest". Maybe I shouldn't; maybe it's just the Englishman in me (it's not a word that would be considered acceptable outside of North America).

It's pretty much only used in a sports context, but it still sounds kind of uneducated to me, even if it is widely used on major TV and radio networks. At the very least it sounds very informal, and probably not appropriate for the 7 o'clock news, in my humble opinion.

That said, it's also a pretty useful word, and a neater solution than "player with the most wins", for example. Just don't try using "winninger" - not a word.

And don't get me started on "funner"...

Ontario healthcare - crisis, what crisis?

Pretty much everyone agrees that Ontario's healthcare system is officially "in crisis:". The phrase is used by everyone from nurses to healthcare officials to opposition politicians to the press. The only people who don't use that word are government spokespeople, and most specifically Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones, the very people who most need to admit it.

Sylvia Jones in particular has been very forthright about her view that Ontario's healthcare situation is not in crisis: "There is not a crumbling system in Ontario"; "We have a very strong healthcare system"; and, most badly, "To suggest it is in crisis is completely inappropriate". Inappropriate, or inconvenient? Everyone else is calling it a crisis. What would it take for Ms. Jones to consider it a crisis, I wonder? For her, the current situation is not even "unprecedented" ("No, I'm sorry, it is not").

Well, you might say, this is all semantics. But until you admit there is a problem, solutions are not going to follow. The government has implicitly suggested that private care might be the way forward - "All options are on the table" - which has set the cat among the pigeons in a province and a country that prides itself on our publicly-funded universal healthcare (although arguably we already have at least an element of private healthcare in our system).

The one thing the Conservative government does not seem willing to do is to put serious amounts of new money into healthcare, despite the fact that Ontario has consistently been the lowest healthcare spender in the country for years. In fact, they are going out of their way to avoid increasing real spending (consider the iniquitous Bill 124, which caps nurses' pay increases at 1% a year, which, given the level of inflation we are now experiencing, is not exactly going to help our non-crisis).

And the government wonders why Ontario's nurses are leaving the profession in droves, and why well over a million citizens in the province cannot find a family doctor?

Crisis, what crisis?

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Trump-backed GOP candidate loses primary, but insists she "won"

See what Donald Trump hath wrought. 

The Trump-backed far-right candidate for a Florida GOP primary lost to the more moderate incumbent. But, in true Trump form, Laura Loomer (who sounds like a WWF wrestler to me) is refusing point blank to accept the results.

"I'm not conceding because I'm a winner!", she blathers. "The reality is, this Republican Party is broken to the core ... we have further exposed a corruption within our own feckless, cowardly Republican party." "We are losing our country to big-tech election interference." Sound familiar? And, she wonders why it's broken?

Ms. Loomer is situated somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan on the political spectrum. She is an avowed and unrepentant white nationalist and Islamophobe, who appears to believe that the Buffalo supermarket shooting was a set-up by Democratic elements. She has been banned from Twitter for anti-Islamic hate speech (also familiar).

And she is, in her own words "a winner". Except that she lost. 

The heatwave / drought in China may be the worst EVER anywhere

Recently, we have become used to news reports and pictures of extreme weather, drought conditions and record-breaking heatwaves in Europe, the Horn of Africa, the American Southwest, and even Canada. But apparently, none of this remotely compares to what is happening in China at the moment.

Extreme weather historians like Maximiliano Herrera judge that the current heatwave and drought in China is the worst EVER, anywhere. Rivers and reservoirs have dried up, huge areas of crops have been damaged, areas reliant on hydroelectricity are suffering power outages, causing industry to completely grind to a halt in some areas, etc, etc. 

As Herrera explains it, "This combines the most extreme intensity with the most extreme length with an incredibly huge area all at the same time. There is nothing in world climatic history which is even minimally comparable to what is happening in China."

Wow. Quite a claim. The problem is that China has become such a pariah on the world stage that no-one really cares what is happening there.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Longtermism, a bizarre philosophy with some very influential adherents

You may or many not have come across a philosophical belief called "longtermism", a quasi-religious belief promulgated by the likes of William MacAskill, Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman, and supported by powerful and influential figures like Elon Musk and Jason Matheny.

In a nutshell, longtermism is the idea that, in long-term future (think millions or billions of years), there will be so may digital people (think 1058 according to one estimate) living in vast computer simulations that we have a moral obligation to ensure that as many of these people come into existence as possible. Part of that belief includes the need to colonize space as soon as possible, and to convert other planets into computer simulations for these unfathomable number of future digital beings. It sees the earth, nature and all the planets, stars, asteroids, etc, as our "cosmic endowment" to be exploited to the limit in the pursuit of this futuristic vision. Some, like Bostrom, take it even further and recommend genetic engineering for super-high IQ beings with "desirable traits".

I confess it all makes no sense to me. If you think that the future is going to be a transhuman dystopia of this magnitude, why would you feel obliged to precipitate it and bring it to reality as soon as possible? But then, who ever expected anything like logic from the likes of Elon Musk?

California is paying big money for people to dig up their lawns

In a typically forward-thinking move, California is paying people to rip up their lawns. And they are paying quite big money for it, from a base $2 a square foot to as much as $6 with local county and municipal subsidies included. Some residents with large lawns are raking in tens of thousands of dollars.

California, and much of the rest of southwestern USA, is in the throes of an unprecedented (there's that word again) climate change-induced "megadrought", and reservoirs are at an all-time low (as I have discussed previously). It turns out that lawn-watering uses up to 75% of households' water consumption in areas like California. In fact, across America turf lawns are effectively the largest single irrigated "crop", surpassing both corn and wheat, a jaw-dropping little factoid courtesy of NASA and the NOAA.

So, California is taking the bull by the horns and paying people to dig up their lawns, and replace them with drought-resistant plants like manzanita, sage and California lilac, drought-resistant grasses like deer grass, dwarf fountain grass and lemon grass, and even with just plain old mulch, cacti and rocks, with a view to saving millions of gallons of water the state can ill-afford these days.

There's undeniably a lot wrong with the state of California, but every now and then they come up with a revolutionary new policy, years or decades before everyone else, that just makes you go, " Yay, good for you!"

Saturday, August 20, 2022

New Supreme Court of Canada nominee is young. But how young?

Yesterday, Michelle O'Bonsawin became the first Indigenous judge to be nominated for the Supreme Court of Canada. This is a big deal Indigenous people everywhere.

My first thought as I watched the television news coverage of the event was, "Wow, she looks young for a Supreme Court judge", and my second thought was to look up her age on the internet. Because that kind of thing is available on the internet, right? That's what the internet is FOR!

But try as I might, I was not able to find out. My first port of call was Wikipedia, which does indeed have an entry for Justice O'Bonsawin. But, while it tells me that she was born in the French Ontarian town of Hanmer, near Sudbury, Ontario, and is a member of the Odanak First Nation, nowhere does it tell me WHEN she was born. 

I found that strange, and investigated further. But it seems that the internet, with all its deep resources, does not actually know when Justice O'Bonsawin was born, nor how old she is. Which is kind of strange, no? Is she particularly sensitive about her age? Is it a state secret? Is it just that the internet and the media have not caught up on that particular snippet of information yet? Weird.

Anyway, suffice to say, she is clearly young, as Supreme Court judges go. How young? We may never know. But, just in passing, the third thought I had  regarding this nomination was: what a sweet, civilized process Canada has for new Supreme Court judges compared to the fractious, partisan American one!

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Inflation Reduction Act is a mixed blessing for the environment

The USA's long-awaited Inflation Reduction Act finally got passed, after worries that it would flounder on the floor of the finely-balanced Senate, like so many bills before it. 

Most progressives and environmentalists seem to like the mis-named bill (it's more about dealing with climate change and health care than inflation per se), even if it doesn't go far enough for many. It is hoped that the bill will kick-start America's clean energy and renewables sector, and that it will contribute significantly to the US's climate change goals. It has been called the "biggest climate investment in US history", and a "game changer". And it is true that there are many good things within the large and complex legislation, including tax breaks and subsidies for renewable energy production of all types.

But what gets lost, or at least glossed over, is the fact that there are provisions in the bill, as it was finally passed, that actively work against climate change mitigation, and for the iniquitous oil and gas industry. Specifically, it guarantees new offshore drilling opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, something the Biden administration had strenuously tried to avoid, both from a climate change pointed view and from a general environmental point of view, as well as to ease some current federal rules that, it is argued, limit fossil fuel production. Also included are substantial tax credits for carbon capture and direct air capture technologies that some see as giving the fossil fuel industry license to continue and even expand their operations. These pro-oil provisions could "prolong the usage of fossil fuels", and particularly boost the US's fossil fuel export market.

And the reason for this apparently irreconcilable position? Well, a still-strong oil and gas lobby for sure, but mainly two words: Joe Manchin. The supposedly Democratic Senator for West Virginia (whom I have written about before, at length) insisted on this sop to the fossil fuel industry that he loves so much, and which pays him so well. Without it, he would not have voted for the bill, and it would indeed have failed. One man held the entire United States for ransom.

Why was Lisa LaFlamme sacked? Was it the hair?

Is it possible that popular CTV news anchor Lisa LaFlamme was sacked from her prime position because of her hair? After 35 years with the network, CTV took what they are calling a "business decision" to summarily dismiss the award-winning and popular Ms. LaFlamme, who confessed to being "blindsided" and "shocked" by the decision, as were many of her fans.

Michael Melling, vice president of news at CTV (Canada's top-rated and largest privately-owned television network, being a division of Bell Media) is on record on multiple occasions as having apparent problems with 58-year old Ms. LaFlamme's decision to stop dying her hair during the pandemic and to let her natural grey out, a move lauded by many women across the country.

Melling publicly questioned who had approved the decision to "let Lisa's hair go grey", and expressed concern that it was starting to take on a purple hue under the studio lights. He seemed to be much less concerned about the greyness of previous male news anchors of a certain age, like Lloyd Robertson.

That said, Melling and LaFlamme also had some professional differences over the years, and clashed several times over stories, network priorities and the use of company resources. It actually seems more likely that these tensions were the source of the dismissal than the hair issue. But the whole thing was certainly very badly handled by CTV and Bell Media, and it has even led to boycotts of the network by disgruntled viewers.

Can a Prime Minister not party in their own time these days?

Sanna Marin, who became Prime Minister of Finland in 2019, and who is still only 36 years old, has been pilloried for having the audacity (and the youthfulness) to party hard in her spare time.

The young, comely politician was videoed partying, dancing and singing "boisterously" and "wildly" in a private house, and has had the embarrassment of having the videos publicly shared. Opposition politicians and others are unabashedly making hay from it. Here is one example: "Finland is suffering from record high electricity prices, lack of health care and elderly care professionals, and this is how our leader is spending her time!"

She is understandably incensed that videos of her private personal time are being publicly disseminated by those wishing to discredit her politically. She says that no illicit drugs were involved (as opposition politicians are claiming), just alcohol.

It seems ridiculous that she is being censured in this way by some buttoned-down puritans looking for a political angle. What a Prime Minister, or any other citizen, does in his or her own time in a private place should not become political fodder. Just because she is young and likes to dance and enjoys the odd drink to relieve the stress of her position does not mean she cannot do her job properly. 

If these activities start to interfere with her ability to perform her job, that is a different matter entirely. But in the meantime, power to her, I say.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Wyoming Republican primary shows us what is important to American conservatives

As a proverbial finger in the air to check how the wind feels, you could do worse than to look at the Republican primary in Wyoming.

The incumbent is Liz Cheney, a three-term congresswoman in the state, with a reputation as an arch-conservative, championing guns, opposing abortion, and supporting the oil industry. Sounds ideal for the ultra-red deeply-conservative Wyoming populace, right?

Problem is, Ms. Cheney is not a fan of Donald Trump, whom she sees as largely responsible for the Republicans' slide towards authoritarianism and demagoguery. Worse, she is the vice-chair of the legislative committee investigating Trump's role in the January 6th 2021 Capitol riots, and she has been extremely disparaging of Trump and his methods during the investigation, as well as one of the most outspoken critics of the whole "stolen election" narrative. Because Ms. Cheney, although an arch-conservative, is also a woman of morals and common sense, and no pushover.

However, when faced with a choice between an experienced congresswoman with impeccable conservative credentials (including some scarily right-wing views on many topics), and a relatively unknown lawyer who supports Trump to the hilt and has his official support in return, guess who triumphed? Harriet Hagerman (who also stood in the primaries in 2018 and was summarily trounced, coming in third place) walked away with more than a 30-point lead over Cheney.

So, this is where we are at in 2022, at least in ridiculously conservative Wyoming. Policies and ethics are not required; unquestioning abasement at the sacred altar of Trumpism is all. During her campaign, Hagerman asserted, "Liz Cheney betrayed us because of her personal war with President Trump", and the people of Wyoming swallowed every word.

Commissioner Lucki takes the fall ... again

Canadian political scandals are not like American ones - they lack a flair for the dramatic. Currently, what passes for a scandal is the rather turgid public safety committee investigation into whether there was political interference in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting investigation by the RCMP

In fact, it seems pretty clear from the testimony that there was no actual political interference. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the then Public Safety Minister Bill Blair expressed an interest in an early release of details about the guns used in the shooting, particularly as the government was on a push to pass important gun control legislation. Commissioner Lucki clearly thought this was a good idea as "this was about legislation that was going to make officers and the public safer", and directed her staff to comply. 

This was the sum total of her sins. It may have been a reasonable call - and I can easily see the argument that it was - or it may have been a wrong call. Do we need a full public inquiry to establish this? If Commissioner Lucki were Donald Trump, she would be howling about "witch hunts" right now. And of course the political opposition are using it to take pot-shots at the Liberal government, as they do at any opportunity, however justifiable or otherwise.

RCMP officers at the inquiry have panned Lucki's response, calling it "detrimental" to a police investigation, and even that it inspired "disgust" within the force. But I have still not read any explanation of WHY making public the guns used in the massacre was so very "detrimental" and "disgusting". What was the value of this secrecy? And if it could help pass a law banning those guns, isn't that in everyone's interest? 

Maybe I am being naive, but if I didn't know better, I might be tempted to call out "witch hunt". I know Commissioner Lucki is not a popular figure within the RCMP, but it looks like she will be forced to take the fall for this - as she nearly did for the whole systemic racism "scandal" - and I am still not convinced that this is wholly justified.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Canada should follow the US not the UK on new COVID vaccines

Modernas new bivalent COVID-19, vaccine, which targets the Omicron variant as well as the original virus, has just been cleared for use in the UK. Which sounds positive and hopeful. Except that it probably still won't work that well against the strains of the virus that are currently spreading. 

The Moderma vaccine works well against the original strain, which is almost non-existent now (why are they targeting the original virus at all?), and against last year's Omicron BA.1 strain, which is also no longer commonly found in the wild. It is much less effective against the BA.5 strain, which now makes up nearly 90% of all cases in North America and 70% worldwide. So forgive me for not getting too excited.

The USA's Federal Drugs Agency has said that any new vaccine to be used in the US needs to be specifically targeted to the BA.4 and BA.5 strains, which makes more sense to me. This means that the current new Moderna vaccine just approved by the UK won't be coming to the US. A new vaccine will not therefore be available before the fall (and maybe late fall), but when ot it does arrive it should be more effective. 

I'm hoping that's what Canada does too, although the Canadian health authorities are remaining typically close-lipped thus far.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The idea of a "strong mayor" in Ontario is scary

Doug Ford and his intrepid Conservatives, apparently with the blessing of the province's voting public (although do YOU know anyone who voted for them? I certainly don't), are intent on rolling back democracy in the province still further  by introducing the concept of American-style strong mayors in some of our larger cities, like Toronto and Ottawa (and possibly other large cities).

What does this actually mean in practice? Well, a "strong mayor" would: take sole responsibility for preparing and tabling the council's budget (something a budget committee currently does); have a power of veto over pretty much any council decision if they consider it a matter of "provincial priority", and  a two thirds majory of council members would be required to oppose this veto, thus effectively removing the long-standing democratoc principle of rule by simple majority; personally appoint the council's chief administrative officer (CAO), the second most powerful position in council; have the power to hire and fire many department heads without involving the rest of council; ditto for the chairs of committees and local boards; and be able to directly add what they consider items of "provincial priority" to council agenda.

The theory is, according to Doug Ford, that a strong mayor would be able to push through house-building projects without all the deliberation amd red tape that is currently involved (house building would presumably be a "provincial priority"), and make decision-making in general more "efficient". 

Toronto Mayor John Tory is apparently in favour of the idea. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (who is not running for re-election) disagrees and says that the new powers are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. The opposition parties say this is just another attack on local democracy just before a major municipal election by Doug Ford, just as he did before the 2018 election.

My response is just two words: Rob Ford. While such a system might work undr a sensible, moderate mayor, what happens with a loose cannon like Doug Ford's late brother, the worst mayor Toronto has ever had. Imagine if he had had these kinds of power at his disposal. What havoc could he have wreaked then?

While increased house-building might be a laudable goal, Council is quite capable of getting ot done without this kind of provincial interference (with some more ginancial backing from the province). And we don't need just any old housing development at any cost, we need considered, appropriate, targeted, environmentally-friendly housing. Which, funnily enough, is what a council is for. They may work more slowly but, given adequate funding, they will get the job done better and more democratically than any "strong mayor". 

This is just a poorly-disguised attempt by Doug Ford to further weaken city councils and, especially, Toronto City Council, which he has never forgiven for crossing him when he tried to run for mayor some years ago. It is his attempt to put Ontario's major cities in his own pocket, and to allow him to dictate their policies. Those voters who were swayed by Ford's "folksiness" have done us all a huge disservice.

Pleading the Fifth Amendment makes more sense than you migjt think

With Trump back in the news big-time recently, some of the weirdness of the American political and legal system are coming up. One such weirdness is the whole idea of "pleading the Fifth Amendment", which has no precise equivalent here in Canada (or anywhere else for that matter).

This has nothing to do with the ongoing shenanigans around the FBI raid on Trump's Florida home, nor the ongoing legal case over his refusal to make his tax returns public, nor any of the myriad other legal snafus he finds himself in. Incidentally, what a way to live a life, constantly fighting legal battles, At one point, Trump whined, in apparently genuine confusion,"Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before". Well, duh, I wonder why not?

This relates to the New York investigation of the Trump Organization's misstatement of the value of assets like golf courses and buildings in order to mislead lenders and tax authorities. Rather than incriminate himself, Trump.chose to "take the Fifth" and just refuse to answer any questions under oath (not that that I would trust him to tell the truth, even under oath). 

Now, to us non-Americans this just seems ridiculous. How can it be possible for someone to just refuse to answer questions in a court of law? Doesn't that make a mockery of the whole process? Isn't it just tantamount to admitting guilt, but saying, "Tough, you can't do anything about it". Well, apparently it's not quite that simple.

Sometimes know as the "right to remain silent" or the "right agsinst self-incrimination", the Fifth Amendment is an integral part of the US Constitution, and it says that a person can not "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself". You could use this right of you are guilty and don't to make things any worse, or you could use it if you are innocent and don't want to give the prosecution and the jury any ammunition that might convince them of your guilt. You're not supposed to use it just because you don't want to testify, for whatever reason, nefarious ot otherwise (but would you trust Trump to consider such ethical niceties in a court case?)

So, taking the Fifth Amendment is not an implicit admission of guilt. In a criminal case,  jury is specifically not allowed to use a defendant's refusal to testify against them, and is instructed to draw no adverse conclusions from it (in a civil case, however, this does not seem to apply). In practice, there is still a risk that a jury may be subconsciously swayed by such a refusal to tstify, and it does mean that the defendant is not able to put forward their own side of the story, so it should be considered a double-edged sword.

So, I understand the concept, and actually there is a similar clause in Section 13 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, most other countries have some form of the right to remain silentmost other countries have some form of the right to remain silent, although rarely as explicit as the US's Fifth Amendment.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Raid on Mar-a-Lago will not hurt Trump

Everyone seems transfixed by the political theatre around the FBI raid on Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in search of incriminating evidence and purloined official papers. And rightly so, because it could have a material effect on the next US election. 

Some seem to think that it could represent the straw that broke the camel's back, and a bridge too far for many borderline Trump supporters; others think that the sympathy vote and the bolster to Trump's eternal victim narrative and martyr complex will be more important. 

Personally, I think that the latter will be the stronger effect, and that Trump may well benefit politically from the raids, even if he is indicted with anything (which is by no means certain). Predictably, many Republican politicians have rallied to Trump's defence and are trying to lay the blame on the Democrat government for unconscionable political machinations, and are even looking at it as a major fundraising opportunity. The right-wing Trump-fixated social media is (just as predictably), much more extreme, threatening violence and civil war and fire and brimstone. 

But it seems that Biden knew nothing about the plans for the raid (and remember, FBI head Christopher Wray was a Trump appointee in 2017). If it was an overtly political decision on the part of and the Justice Department and Attorney-General Merrick Garland - and I doubt that - then it was a very poor one, as the Democrats stand to lose more politcal momentum from it than any potential gains that might accrue.

Even if important incrimating documents are found - and I can't believe that the FBI would risk such a politically sensitive raid without some pretty convincing evidence - and even if Trump is convicted of some civil or even criminal offence - as I say, by no means certain - it will probably not stop Trump from standing as the Republican presidential candidate. However much you might think there should be, there is apparently nothing in the Constitution that bars a criminal from standing for President. Most recently, George W. Bush was elected President despite a DUI conviction.

No, this seems to be a genuinely legal, as opposed to political, action, mis-timed and ill-advised as it may be. It's always possible that something politically damaging comes out of it, something bad enough to vitiate Trump's election chances. But the odds are that his electoral prospects will not be harmed by it, and may even receive a boost.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Are we having fun yet? Chinese Edition

I think this is a real thing, although it's kind of hard to credit. Yahoo News Australia is sharing video and stills, originally posted on Chinese social media outlet Weibo, of Chinese people supposedly having fun at Daqing Heiyu Lake Water Park in Heilongjiang Province (in northeastern China), and it has to be seen to be believed.

My daughter thought it was a bowl of Froot Loops until she looked closer. Yes, they are in fact swimmers with inflatable rings floating around in a wave pool. Who would be a lifeguard in China?

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Is streaming really so bad for the environment?

There has been a plethora of articles recently about how bad streaming and subscription services are for the environment. Just one example is this one in The Guardian late last year, which makes the alarming claim that the carbon footprint of watching Netflix's top ten popular programmes is equivalent to driving a car out somewhere past Saturn.

Setting aside the fact that this calculation is, of course, for ALL of the mamy millions (billions?) of Netflix viewers, and so is an unnecessarily sensationalist claim (Guardian! Honestly!), it seems that these allegations, and those in many another similar article (for example, the claim repeated by several quite reputable sources that constant streaming of the 2017 hit Despacito on YouTube generated more carbon dioxide than the carbon footprints of 5 African nations added together, may not be as transparent and realistic as they seem. 

The whole process of streaming - from storage in huge datacentres, to transmission over WiFi or broadband, to watching or listening on various devices - uses electricitity, like pretty much everything else we do, and so it is perhaps no surprise that it generates a substantial amount of greenhouse gases.

Netflix itself releases estimates of its carbon footprint (as does YouTube, and a few other major streaming services), which appear relatively modest, not that I would necessarily trust Netflix's word over The Guardian's. But Europe's Carbon Trust has estimated that an hour of watching Netflix generates about 55g of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of about 300 metres of car driving. Given that people spent 6 billion hours watching the top 10 shows on Netflix (Netflix's own figures), that is where the figure of 1.8 billion kilometers in a car (roughly the distance to Saturn) came from.

But, hold on, 55g of CO2 is not actually THAT much, when you contsider that eating an 8oz steak generates over 2,000g of CO2, as does drying a single load of laundry, and an hour running on a treadmill can generate about 900g of CO2 (these figures are taken more or less at random from LiveScience).

The reputable organization CarbonBrief has taken it on itself to fact-check some of the more egregious claims by the popular press, particularly the widely-disseminated one that watching half an hour of Netflix is the carbon equivalent of driving 4 miles (6 km) in a car. It turns out that this figure (1.6 kg of CO2) itself came from a July 2019 report by a French think-tank called the Shift Project, which actually revised its own figures downwards 8-fold in June 2020 (having mixed up bits and bytes). I doubt The Guardian bothered to report that.

But CarbonBrief identified a bunch of other flawed assumptions in the original Shift Project calculations, including the average bitrate of streaming, the energy intensity of data centres and delivery networks, etc, concluding that Shift Project's original estimate of the carbon impact of half an hour's streaming (the source of that "driving four miles" headline, remember) was probably over-stated by around 80 times, or 90 times if we use a global average electricity production mix rather than an American one.

What we are left with, then, is the realization that streaming music and video entertainment is actually a pretty modest activity in terms of its carbon footprint, certainly compared to gaming, bicoin mining, etc. In fact, similar to boiling a lettle for tea halfway through. It's certainly not something need to be focussing our climate anxiety on.

My other conclusion? Be wary of extreme claims, even by relatively reputable sources. After all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (thanks for that, Carl Sagan).

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Should we be concerned about the New York polio "outbreak"?

First off, it's not really an outbreak, it's one case of polio in Rockland County, NY, but such is the power of collective memory that even just that one case has engendered something of a panic in the rest of the country and beyond, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 and monkeypox outbreaks.

Polio was the scourge of patents and toddlers worldwide from its first identification in the 1890s until its eradication in 1979 in the USA, and its almost-eradication in the rest of the world. Currently, just a handful of cases occur each year in countries like Nigeria and Yemen, which is why the US case has come as such a shock.

It's no surprise that it occurred in Rockland County, though. Rockland has the lowest vaccination rates in the state, and as a result has suffered some crippling COVID-19 numbers and a recent measles outbreak. Its polio vaccination rate stands at around 60%, compared to 90% or above in the rest of the country. (Herd immunity for polio is estimated at around 80%.) And the 20-year old youth infected this week, was indeed unvaccinated.

Nobody is talking about it - presumably because it is considered not politically correct - but a good part of the reason Rockland County is so under-vaccinated is due to the large population of ultra-traditional Orthodox Jews, many of whom believe that vaccination is against Jewish law in some way. (By the way, it's not, according to Jews who are also medical doctors, and even most eminent halachic scholars - in fact, Jewish law positively encourages it, if it will help to protect the body, but you try and tell that to some of the more fundamentalist rabbis.)

What is perhaps more interesting, though, is that the case is described as "vaccine-induced". While some people with an axe to grind will almost certainly blame it on COVID-19 vaccines, it is nothing to do with that. Back in 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk famously developed his highly-effective injectable inactivated vaccine. But, in 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin came up with an oral live-attenuated vaccine, which also granted 99% immunity, and it was this (cheaper and easier to administer) vaccine that became the most widely used, at least until polio was effectively eradicated in 1979. After the 1980s, the slightly less risky injected vaccine became the norm, as it still is today.

Many other (poorer) countries, though, still use the oral live-attenuated vaccine, which uses a modified weakened strain of the disease, rather than the inactivated dead viral material that the injected vaccine uses. This doesn't actually cause illness in humans, but is enough to trigger an immune response (except in severely immuno-compromised individuals). The problem is that, if a live-attenuated vaccine is used in a community with a high proportion of unvaccinated people, there is a small risk that, with enough generations of spread, it can mutate back into a new virulent strain. This seems to have been what happened in the current US case.

So, what can be done? Well, we can encourage (and subsidize?) those countries still using the riskier oral polio vaccine to switch to the safer injected version. And those hold-outs in Rockland County and elsewhere just need to suck it up and get their shots, for their own good as well as everyone else's.

That said, the 20-year old in Rockland is now considered no longer contagious, and a full-blown outbreak is extremely unlikely (although it has been genetically linked to spread in England and Israel, so the risk is not over). This time, at any rate.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Pelosi's visit to Taiwan - brave and necessary, or rash and poorly-timed?

It's hard to know what to think about Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan: a courageous show of solidarity with a fellow liberal democracy, or a rash and ill-timed act of personal brinkmanship? Or perhaps both?

"Both" is probably the right answer, but that doesn't help us much. If a war with China does arise out of the visit - and my gut tells me that it probably won't, although the possibility is definitely there - then this will be the modern equivalent of the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand, a single identifiable act with huge and disproportionate consequences.

Yes, China's burgeoning imperial ambitions and tub-thumping under President Xi Jinping need to be slapped down. Taiwan is clearly its own country, and few people outside of China would argue otherwise. But the ambiguity of American, Canadian and pretty much every other major country's policy toward Taiwan for decades has at least kept the peace, and allowed Taiwan to function as a more-or-less independent state in most spheres of activity.

Calling China's bluff right now, particularly with the ongoung Russia-Ukraine conflict going on in the background, may not have been the smartest move. Many policy people and lawmakers did try to dissuade Ms. Pelosi from her symbolic and "provocative" visit (provocative to China's leadership, even if not to most other reasonable people), although the official White House line has been that her visit is her own personal business and nothing to do with them (a disingenuous stance, to say the least).

I think it is one of those matters that history will look back on favourably if everything turns out well, but as an egregious misstep if it turns out badly. And right now, there is no way to tell which way it will go, depending as it does on which side of the bed Xi Jinping got out on the day in question. Either way, what has been called the least-worst option for maintaining a tenuous peace has been put at serious risk by Ms. Pelosi's principles.

Wondering whether to bother with that fourth dose of the COVID vaccine?

If anyone was in any doubt about the wisdom of getting a a fourth COVID-19 vaccination shot (i.e. a second booster, over and above the two primary doses), this one Public Health Agency of Canada graph, shared by the Globe and Mail, should put their minds at rest.

As the graph shows, a booster shot (red bars) makes a big difference over being unvaccinated or even having just the two primary doses of the vaccine, whether we are looking at the risk of catching the virus (cases), hospitalization or death. But a fourth dose (beige/brown bars) puts the risks of all three outcomes onto a whole different level (i.e. in the range of just one or two percent).

Sure, everyone knows someone who was quadruple-vaccinated and still caught the bug. It happens. But this graph puts it all into much better perspective.

If you were on the fence, unsure whether to bother with another dose, then here is your answer. The fourth dose makes a huge difference. And, of course, to get a fourth dose, you need to have had a third, and currently only about 21 million Canadians have had a third dose, compared to about 34 million first doses and 31 million second doses. Much fewer still have had a fourth, so it's hardly surprising we are going through another wave of COVID cases.

This graph should be emblazoned on every street corner.

Monday, August 01, 2022

How did "Sweet Caroline" become a sports anthem?

Some people are crediting Neil Diamond's saccarine 1969 hit Sweet Caroline with galvanizing England's women's soccer team to beat Germany to take the UEFA Women's Euro Cup recently, and thereby to bring home the only major trophy England has won since that day back in 1966.

Sweet Caroline has been the de facto anthem of England's women's team for some time now (as it was for the men's team, and for the Boston Red Sox even before that), although I'm not sure anyone could say why. Nice and easy to sing along to, no complicated lyrics or key changes? Hardly a compelling argument; the same could be said for any number of other songs. It's not like the lyrics are even particularly appropriate for a sporting endeavour -  it's a syrupy love song (in fact, the lyrics are terrible: "Where it began, I can't begin to knowing ... Was in the spring, and spring became the summer", yadda yadda).

But for some reason, the song - by an American, no less! - has been adopted by the Lionesses' fan club as their own. Maybe it can be blamed on the Wembley DJ, Tony Perry, who had a tendency to play it at the stadium for some reason, although I'd be loath to lay the blame on one benighted individual. Whatever the reason, though, it may be marginally better than alternative England anthems Three Lions and Vindaloo, although not by much. It just seems a shame to be re-living Neil Diamond's musical crimes 50-odd years later.