Friday, September 30, 2022

To say mask-wearing is "not justified by science" is just plain wrong

Air Canada, for some reason, believes that the federal governments highly suspect decision to do away with the requirement for masks on planes and trains is "acknowledging that air travel is safe and that the measures were not justified by science". 

Cobblers, I say. The government has made a purely political and economic decision and kowtowed to the anti-masking, anti-vaccine lobby. "Science" doesn't come into it. The "science" is that masks are one of the few measures available to us (and the easiest one at that) that can be effective in reducing the transmission of COVID-19, which is still rampant in Canada and in the rest of the world. 

Just because they think it benefits their own commercial interests (a dubious contention in itself - many people are now less likely to fly, not more) does not mean that it is the right thing to do.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Ontario court's mysterious ruling on teachers of colour

Way back in 2019, the province of Ontario, in its wisdom, mandated a math test for all new teachers, regardless of what subjects they are to teach.

Now, whatever you might think to that particular idea conceptually (and I know what I think), an Ontario Divisional Court has ruled that the math test should be discontinued, not because it's a daft idea, but because they say it has "a disproportionate effect on racialized teachers".

I don't know whether the court gave a little more insight into this decision, but I truly don't know what it means. Can people of colour not do math as well as white folks? Is this what they are saying? It's a bit of a mystery to me.

The government is taking its new math test for teachers to the Ontario appeals court.

US ratifies major international climate treaty - wait, what?

Hardly anybody noticed and very few news outlets bothered to report it, but the US Senate ratified a major international climate treaty this week.

The Senate finally joined 137 other countries (including Canada) in ratifying the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (what? and what?). Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer dates back to 1987, and was the international agreement to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that had been found to be destroying the ozone layer. It was one of the stand-out international environmental agreements of the 20th century. The Kigali Amendment dates from 2016, and calls for the phasing out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs have been widely used as replacements for the banned CFCs and HCFCs and, while they have next to no impact on ozone, they are potent greenhouse gases, hence the Kigali Amendment.

The US Senate voted to ratify it with bipartisan support (48 Democrats and 21 Republicans). Probably the main reason such a major ratification attracted such little media attention is the fact that the US has actually been effectively complying with the treaty since December 2020, even without having ratified it, when the US Congress passed stringent targets for eliminating HFCs as part of an otherwise lame COVID stimulus bill. 

By some calculations, this is expected to eliminate the equivalent of 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (for context, this is more emissions than Germany produces in a year) by 3036, so yes, this is a big deal climate-wise, not so much the ratification, but the 2020 legislation that hardly anyone remembers. The ratification, however, is important too, as it keeps the legal regime underpinning the agreement strong for the future. Now, the three largest producers and consumers of HFCs - USA, China and India - have all ratified the Amendment.

Between this and the climate change elements of the poorly-named Inflation Reduction Act (which I have commented on elsewhere), the Biden administration could be said to be presiding over a mini golden age of climate change policy-making. Long may it last.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Extraordinary footage of post-tropical storm Fiona aftermath

Here is some fascinating footage of coastal dunes in Prince Edward Island before and after post-tropical storm Fiona passed through the other day, courtesy of University of Windsor Research.

The dunes, delicate ecosystems at the best of times, have been completely scraped up and scattered to the winds. It looks for all the world as though an almighty backhoe has been through and excavated the whole beach. Extraordinary.

In among all the economic damage, it's easy to forget the environmental damage of all these storms and hurricanes, particularly when they affect us so rarely here in Canada.

Fallout from Ukraine war takes on an environmental aspect

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already had many deleterious effects on the world, from runaway inflation to uncertain energy supply to famine in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. But now another major implication is raising its head.

The apparent sabotage of both of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the North Sea is leaking massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Most commentators are laying the blame on Russian actors, official or otherwise, despite the fact that it is also a shot in their own foot. The predictable Russian response, that it is sabotage by the USA or Germany (or anyone but Russia, really), is much less convincing.

It is hard to measure the amount of gas escaping from the pipelines, but it is likely to be the largest ever methane leak, and words like "disastrous" and "unprecedented are being bandied around by climate scientists. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and has a climate impact of over 80 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The Environmental Defense Fund has estimated that more than 115,000 tons of methane has escaped, equivalent to about 9.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, or emissions from 2 million cars for a year.

This is just one more disastrous effect of Putin's ill-advised exercise in empire-building. Europe, and the world in general, will be recovering from this for many years to come.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The fascinating (and unexplained) phenomenon of chain fountains

I seem to have missed it until my daughter pointed it out to me, but apparently chain fountains are "all over the Internet".

A chain fountain is a strange scientific phenomenon similar to the way in which certain polymers and even plastic beads will self-siphon out of a beaker, once given a start. But Steve Mould realized that, when metal beads are used instead of plastic, the chain actually rises above the pot before falling back down, in a kind of counter-intuitive anti-gravitational event.

In this longer video, as well as trying to break the world record for the highest recorded chain fountain, Mould (whose YouTube channel specializes in all sorts of of weird and inexplicable physical effects) attempts to give a layman's explanation of it without getting too bogged down in the physics and the math (roughly gravitational potential energy being converted into kinetic energy), but it seems clear that there are still some unknown forces acting on the chain, which has become known as the "Mould effect", so even the brightest minds have been unable to fully explain it.

The twisty logic of carbon credits

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has agreed to sell clean energy credits to Microsoft, which has made promises to clean up its energy profile and make its operations carbon neutral by 2030.

This all sounds very laudable, but as far as I can tell, the OPG credits should not be considered carbon credits at all. Microsoft is paying OPG money to make its annual report look better, but OPG is not doing anything new to justify the credits. Yes, Ontario's energy production is reasonably green (if you count a significant proportion of nuclear energy, which may be carbon neutral, but is far from environmentally sound in other respects). But the money Microsoft is paying for the credits does not require OPG to do anything new, just to carry on doing what it was doing before. This is not my understanding of how carbon credits are supposed to work.

Another part of this same Globe article adds a new twist. The City of Ottawa, which buys its electricity from OPG like everyone else in Ontario, is officially objecting to OPG selling its clean energy credits outside the province to coal-burning jurisdictions seeking to improve their energy profile.

Once again, you might think this was a good thing: these other states and provinces obtain electricity with less carbon output, substituting some of their own dirty electricity with clean Ontario energy. However, Ottawa is arguing that "this is removing the environmental attributes from the electricity our community consumes". As an Environmental Defence lawyer puts it, "It's as if Ontario is back to burning coal, by giving other people an excuse to do so".

Now, hold on, does that make any logical sense? If a coal-burning state or province buys in some of Ontario's cleaner power, they have to generate less of their own dirty power. It works as an environmentally beneficial substitution, surely. It neither reflects badly on Ontario, nor on anyone else who buys Ontario's power. Nevertheless, Environmental Defence, which in other respects I would trust, are calling on Ontario Energy Board (OEB) to investigate OPG's practice of selling to coal-burning outsiders. This makes no sense to me.

This is just another aspect of the twisty pretzel logic that seems to operate wherever carbon credits are involved.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Gross irresponsibility in the face of Mother Nature

The Maritime provinces of Canada has been hit by a huge storm, post-tropical storm Fiona, not quite a hurricane, but close. Television coverage has been blanket, among the reports being the usual interviews with harassed regular folks on the ground.

However, I couldn't help but take issue with one such interview, a middle-aged woman with small kids, who was on the verge of tears and seemed absolutely outraged that the storm should have interfered with their vacation at a cottage, somewhere in Nova Scotia.

Er, sorry, but did she not know that a huge storm was coming, one of those once-in-a-century events that tend to occur every year or two these days? The media has been saturated with it for the best part of a week. I knew about it; why did she not? Or, if she did, why was she (and her family) still there? 

It's one thing for residents to consider relocating for the duration of the storm, but there is no reason at all for a tourist to still be there, relying on the hard-pressed emergency services to pull them out if need be. This is the height of irresponsibility and should be called out in no uncertain terms by the television reporters in question.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Huge disparities in the cost of cellphone data

A little snippet on the average cost of 1GB of cellphone data in different countries in the Globe and Mail Report on Business (behind a paywall, so no point in posting a link) was enough to make me search for more information, which I found in a report on mobile data pricing in 233 countries.

And there it is in black and white: 1GB of data in Canada costs an average of US$5.94, slightly more than the USA's US$5.62. Seems like a lot, right? It's not the most expensive - that honour goes to St. Helena at US$41.06, but then St. Helena is a tiny speck in the middle of the Atlantic, many miles from anywhere. The Falkland Islands and São Tomé & Principe are not far behind, for similar reasons. Canada is not even the most expensive developed country: in South Korea 1GB of data costs US$12.55; in Switzerland, it's US$7.67; in New Zealand, it's US$6.72. But it's certainly up there.

For comparison, at the other end of the scale, 1GB of data in the UK costs US$0.79; in Australia, it's US$0.57; in China, it's US$0.41; France, US$0.23; India, US$0.17; Italy, US$0.12; and in Israel, US$0.04. That's right, 4c per gigabyte, about 150 times cheaper than in Canada.

So, how does all that work? Shouldn't Canada be more or less on a par with the UK, for example, or at least Australia? And what's with South Korea, a country that you think of as being very tech savvy and wired? Why is Italian data 64 times cheaper than (next door) Swiss data? And how can Israel do it for 4c, and how can Fiji, out in the middle of the Pacific, do it for 15c? 

Unfortunately, neither the article nor the website offers answers to any of these questions. But the raw data is certainly interesting and eye-opening.

Ontario surplus not even close to projected deficit

The province of Ontario has just announced an unexpected $2.1 billion surplus for the year 2021-2. This might sound like good news, but the point is that, just a month ago, Doug Ford's government was projecting a deficit of $13.5 billion for the same period, and at the start of the year, in the budget of March 2021, the projection for the year was a deficit of $33.1 billion. And the Conservatives are continuing to scrimp and save and slash and burn as though there has indeed been a deficit of $33.1 billion.

Yes, much has happened in the last year, but how could they be so wrong so recently? Yes, revenues have been higher than expected thanks to a galloping economy, but the tight-fisted Tories have also underspent against budget in several areas, particularly education. It also comes on the heels of Bill 124, which caps all public sector wage hikes at 1%, despite ravening inflation and a clear need for increases in pay for nurses and other healthcare workers.

Even now that the persistent government low-balling has been made public, the $2.1 is being directed to paying down government debt, despite the obvious need for urgent investment in so many parts of life in Ontario. But, hey, we voted the idiots in (well, not me personally) ...

Iranian protests cast spotlight on "morality police"

Astonishing scenes from Iran are hitting the airwaves, despite an almost complete clamp-down on the Internet there. Anti-government demonstrators have been clashing with security forces since the September 16th death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the country's official "morality police", for her alleged "improper" wearing of a hijab (meaning it was worn too loosely, and was therefore considered "immodest"). 

The state has shown blurry footage of a woman collapsing at a "re-education centre" from what they are calling a heart attack, but there is no proof that this is Ms. Amino, and relatives deny that the young 22-year old had any pre-existing heart condition. 

In recent years, here have been occasional flare-ups of opposition to the autocratic theocratic regime in Iran, but nothing like on this scale. Stage-managed pro-government rallies can not disguise the extent of the hatred of Ebrahim Raisi increasingly hardline Islamic laws, including a recent clamp-down on the mandatory use of the hijab in the country (Afghanistan is the only other country that requires women to wear hijabs in public). 

Women are leading the peaceful protests, but many men are also making their voices heard. Women are waving and burning their hijabs, with some cutting their hair in public. A line has clearly been crossed. The security forces have responded with mass arrests, water cannons and even live gun-fire. The state-controlled media say that 26 protesters have died over the last week, but the real figure is almost certainly much higher.

The events have thrown attention on the existence in Iran of the so-called "morality police", which sounds like a fictional entity out of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood.  Technically called the Gasht-e-Ershad, or "Guidance Patrols", these are mixed teams of men and black-robed women who roam the country, tasked with detaining women who are improperly or immodestly dressed under the draconian rules of the Islamic Republic. These rules, in force in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, prescribe that women's hair should be fully covered by a hijab or headscarf, and that clothing should be long and loose-fitting to disguise their figures. 

The rules, though, are notoriously vague, and subject to interpretation, and there have been many accusations of arbitrary detentions by the morality enforcers. At any rate, any contraventions result in women being physically forced into vehicles and trucked off to police stations and re-education centres, where what happens is largely unknown.

Iran is not the only Islamic country that boasts a morality police system to enforce religious and public morality - Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Sudan have similar agencies, and India has a system of vigilante groups that purport to protect Indian culture and enforce a code of morality in India - but it is probably the best developed and arguably the most oppressive.

So, if you are put in mind of The Handmaid's Tale, then you are not far wrong. How it is possible for such things to occur in the 21st century beggars belief. Despite (or maybe because of) the ultra-conservative Raisi's stiffening of the rules around clothing and an increased presence of the morality police in cities, there have been more and more criticisms of the laws, and even some religious women and some members of the Iranian Parliament have spoken out against them. The protests look set to continue, despite the heavy-handed government response, and many young women are now openly defying the laws, risking the attentions of the Gasht-e-Ershad.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Bad blood in the chess world

The usually serene world of chess has been roiled by the recent allegations of cheating against the young American upstart, Hans Niemann

Recently, Niemann beat the Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, who is generally considered unbeatable at the moment. Then, the two faced off just a few days later in another competition, this one online, and Carlsen took the unprecedented step of resigning after just one move, later cryptically tweeting a José Mourinho quote, "If I speak, I am in big trouble" (a reference to cheating allegations in soccer).

For his part, Niemann, who has admitted to cheating in the past, is NOT admitting to cheating in these cases, but the chess world is unsurprisingly suspicious. Cheating in chess has reared its head from time to time, from simplistic schemes like consulting a phone in the toilet, to more sophisticated strategies like pre-arranged signals from aides (aides with access to computer programs, that is). Vibrating anal beads have even been suggested in some cases.

Part of the issue here is that chess has become a surprisingly lucrative sport in recent years, and so the stakes are pretty high. The Sinquefield Cup in which Niemann and Carlsen met, for example, has prize money of $500,000 on the line, as does the Global Championship, which is not to be sniffed at. Top players like Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, have accumulated earnings of nearly $10 million, and some older players like Garry Kasparov and Anatomy Karpov have made even more when adjusted for inflation.

And don't ever make the mistake of thinking that chess is a placid gentleman's game, and not super-competitive. Re-watch Queen's Gambit on Netflix, if need be.

Is Toronto really the worst airport in the world?

Toronto Pearson International Airport has had a pretty bad rap recently, with some ageing ex-sports personalities bashing it as the worst airport in the world. And, of course, ignorant opposition politicians have tried to blame Justin Trudeau personally for it.

Admittedly, back in mid-summer, a FlightAware/Conde Nast survey put Toronto as the worst in the world (for delays specifically, with no consideration of overall customer satisfaction), and it has only recently started to claw it way back up that list. The most recent J D Power North America Airport Satisfaction Study has Toronto as 16th out of 20 among the "mega" airport category - not good, but not as bad as Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. 

Worldwide? Who knows? But probably not the worst.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Republican presidential candidates vie to outdo each other in inanity

Here's a little preview of what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis might be like as President. The original idea wasn't his, but he is happily owning the political stunt of flying 50 desperate Venezuelan illegal immigrants from Florida to the wealthy tourist island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has the dubious honour of originating this particular species of Republican political theatre, shipping poor, undernourished and desperate illegal immigrants from southern states up to the self-described "sanctuary" cities and states in the Democratic north of the country, like New York, Chicago and Washington, promising them housing and jobs (the Venezuelan migrants were even given a phony brochure detailing what they were entitled to in Massachussetts, which may now become the subject of a legal case). Doug Ducey of Arizona was quick to jump on the bandwagon, and, not to be outdone, DeSantis also wanted in on this wizard wheeze. He was probably highly amused by his choice of Martha's Vineyard as a destination, but the small island is now having to scramble to accommodate the influx of refugees, most of whom have no idea where they are or how they will survive there.

This, then, is a man who intends standing for US President in 2024, as a supposedly sane alternative to Donald Trump. Trump himself must be kicking himself not to have thought of the idea first, playing as it does with the lives and mental health of poor, confused individuals.

So, there you have, in a nutshell, a measure of the calibre of the Republican candidates for presidential election in 2024. Spoiled for choice?

Monday, September 12, 2022

Time for Canada to unlink from the Royal Family

Queen Elizabeth II, the only queen most of us have ever known, has died (in case you managed to miss that little news item). Millions of regular folks are apparently in paroxysms of grief, for whatever personal reasons of their own. Me, I don't really understand it, but then I've never been particularly sentimental, nor particularly royalist. It has, though, raised renewed discussion of whether independent Canada really needs to recognize another country's Queen as their own

Even before the emotive event of a royal death and the accession of a less-than-beloved new monarch, support for the monarchy in Canada was approaching crisis levels. After Barbados took the bold step of de-linking from the British monarchy last year, polls found that over half of Canadians would happily ditch the royals, and only a quarter see sufficient worth to retain them. Another poll earlier last year concluded that two-thirds of Canadians believe that the royal family are "simply celebrities and nothing more", and should not actually play any role in Canadian society. And these beliefs are gradually increasing over time.

The institution of the British monarchy costs Canada an estimated $60 million a year (Governor Generals and Lieutenant Governors, etc), not to mention millions more in security and other costs every time a member of the Royal Family comes to visit. Maybe this is not so much in the scheme of things, but it is $60 million that could be much better spent elsewhere.

My wife thinks that I am churlish to even consider ditching the royals. She even maintains that they are "good value". But, while I can see that they may offer some value to the UK itself, in tourism if nothing else, I don't see any value at all for Canada. Sentimentality should not play a role in politics and macroeconomics, and a simple cost-benefit analysis can only yield one conclusion.

We missed an opportunity to move on from colonial rule back in 1982, when the Canadian constitution was repatriated. With Liz's death, we are now at another logical unlinking point. Other ex-colonies like Australia and Antigua and Barbuda are also going through similar heart-searching right now.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Any change to the role of the Queen or her representatives in Canadian law would require the unanimous consent of the House of Commons, the Senate and each and every provincial legislature. The chances of such disparate bodies achieving that kind of unanimity on anything is slim to none, particularly on something that it is hard to consider a priority (at least compared to other issues like inflation, housing, climate change, reconciliation, etc)