Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Danielle Smith ventures into sovereigntist fantasy land

If you thought that Jason Kenney was a monster and a loose cannon, get used to Alberta's new Premier, Danielle Smith. She got herself elected (barely) as United Conservative Party leader on promises of defending Alberta's interests against what she perceives as a meddling and coercive federal government in Ottawa. And now she is following through with some coersion of her own.

Smith has introduced the fancifully-named and oxymoronic Alberta Sovereignty Within A United  Canada Act, presumably with a straight face. Bill 1 is not really about sovereignty at all, but the act purports to allow the province to disregard any federal laws or policies that the Alberta government deems to be unconstitutional or "harmful" to the province ("harmful" being left undefined). It would also allow the provincial government to direct provincial entities like municipal and regional police forces not to enforce specific federal laws or policies. It would give the provincial cabinet powers similar to those in emergency situations, such as the ability to amend legislation by order in council rather than going through the assembly, but without the emergency.

Mr. Kenney and all the other leadership candidates all panned this idea as unworkable and a gross overreach (although they seem less opposed now they several of them have been granted cabinet positions). The NDP opposition are calling it "dictatorial, unconstitutional and undemocratic, and are voting against it to a person. Indigenous leaders have unanimously expressed their oppostion to the act. The federal government has chosen not to comment, probably content to watch Ms. Smith slowly destroy herself (there will be a provincial election next April).

The bill seems unlikely to stand up to legal scrutiny, and parts of it certainly seem to be unconstitutional. Although the act feels the need to explain that "Nothing in this Act is to be construed as ... authorizing any order that would be contrary to the Constitution of Canada", the rest of the text goes on to do exactly that; indeed, that is the whole point of it. Smith insists that "we need the power to reset the relationship with Ottawa", which in her opinion requires setting provincial authority above federal authority. She also says, "I hope we never have to use this bill". Yeah, right.

At the time the bill was announced, Jason Kenney also announced that he was standing down and leaving politics for good. You can kind of see why.

You can now get a government job as ... falconer

Well, who knew. It seems our esteemed federal government has spent almost $10 million over the last seven years on ... falconry.

This is not Justin Trudeau entering into his Genghis Khan phase. This is federal departments and even the Canadian military utilizing the ancient craft of falconry to control bird pests around sensitive government facilities. Whether it is airfields, helipads, research stations, and coast guard bases, it is apparently not an unusual sight to see trained falconers patrolling with Harris' hawks, American buzzards or peregrine falcons, which they use to scare off pigeons, gulls and other nuisance birds, and stop them from nesting on federal buildings or around sensitive military airfields.

Apparently, they never actually catch the birds, just scare them off. And they are NEVER set on endangered species.

An impossible number of ticket requests for Taylor Swift

Associate Press is reporting today that there were 3.5 BILLION ticket requests when tickets became available for Taylor Swift's Eras tour of the USA.

Well, I thought, that can't be right. There are only about 330 million people living in the whole of the United States!

Turns out that, if you check with TicketMaster, there were in fact 3.5 MILLION pre-registrations on its Verified Fan system. Which is still a ridiculous number - 10% of the entire population? - but not an impossible number. And an unspecified number of those were from bots, which has even prompted the US Congress to get involved. 

I guess fame has its drawbacks.

Floatovoltaics, an efficient use of an under-utilized resource

Here's interesting proposition: why not cover the world's irrigation and other canals with solar panels (and maybe also reservoirs, aqueducts, waste water treatment ponds, and other bodies of water with little or no particular tourist, environmental or cultural value, while we are about it)?

Solar panels can be installed on rooftops, on farmland, even on roadways, but non-controversial space for siting panels is (and will become even more so) an issue. Canals are an under-utilized alternative, and there are some compelling reasons why it would make a lot of sense. Welcome to the world of floating solar panels, or "floatovoltaics".

Apparently (and I certainly didn't know this), the current design of solar panels works most efficiently at temperatures under 25°C. That's fine in Canada (most of the time), but not so much in India, the Middle East and California, and as the world continues to heat up, this will become increasingly problematic. Locating solar panels over water can help cool them, and lead to increases in efficiency of 15% plus.

There are a lot of other advantages too. In addition to utilizing otherwise unused surface area (thereby saving valuable land that can be used for other purposes), water bodies like canals and reservoirs are generally calm, relatively easy to access, and unlikely to host much in the way of sensitive wildlife or plant life. Solar farms on existing water infrastructure can be installed quickly and more cheaply, with less red tape than on land. 

Covering canals and reservoirs with solar panels also significantly reduces water loss through evaporation (up to 82%), which, in our warming and water-scarce world, is an increasingly acute problem, particularly in hot regions. The quality of the water can also be improved, as the panels block sunlight and reduce weed growth, algae blooms and harmful microorganisms, reducing maintenance costs substantially.

The benefits in potential power production are not to be sneezed at. By some estimates, covering just 10% of the world's hydro dams with solar panels could generate 4,000 gigawatts, equivalent to the electricity generation of all the fossil fuel plants in the world! Countries like Brazil and Canada need only cover 5% of their reservoirs to meet their electricity needs.

Yes, there are some challenges. Wind speed, water current, and the direction of the sun all have to be taken into account, especially on winding, meandering canals. Canals also need to be of the right width, not too wide to make installation difficult, nor too narrow to make the installation economically worthwhile. Maintenance access needs to be ensured, both for periodic cleaning of the panels, and for monitoring potential silt build-up in the water below. Canal-top solar panels can be 10-15% more expensive to install than their land-based counterparts, due to the need for things like rust-proofed galvanized supports, anchors and mooring set-ups, etc.

Taking all that into account, though, water-based systems still tend to have a higher net presence value than land-based systems, of the order of 20-50% more. Payback times are a pretty reasonable 8 years.

Some large-scale canal-top solar farms are already under way in Gujurat, India and in California, USA, and the results look very promising so far. A major University of California project (Project Nexus) is keeping more detailed stats on everything from water usage, power production, environmental factors, etc. 

So, saving water, utilizing under-used space, producing clean energy? What's not to like?

Monday, November 28, 2022

Russia's latest tactic in conscripting Crimean Tatars is yet another war crime

A lot of bad things have been happening in Ukraine, many of them illegal and some qualifying as crimes against humanity, even genocide.

Spare a thought, though, for the native Tatars of Crimea. These are not the 500,000 to 800,000 Russians that moved (or were moved) to the Crimean Peninsula since Putin's annexation in 2014 in order to solidify Russia's claim of ownership of the peninsula. This is the ethnic Turkic Muslim minority that has lived in Crimea since time immemorial, a persecuted minority in their own land.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Tatars of Crimea are being disproportionately targeted for mobilization and conscription into the Russian army. So, although these people are, and have always been, opposed to Russian rule in Crimea andď in Ukraine generally, they are being told to fight for Russia in an illegal and unfounded war against their Ukrainian compatriots. And you have to know that they will be utilized in dangerous frontline positions as what used to be (and apparently still is) called "cannon fodder". 

This is Russia taking revenge on the unruly Tatars, who have been a thorn in his side since 2014 (and before). Those that can are choosing to flee their homeland to the relative (and I stress " relative") safety of Kyiv or Lviv. Many others, though, have no such opportunity and will indeed become cannon fodder. 

This kind of targeted conscription with a view to the scattering and extermination of an ethnic minority can be seen as genocide. Certainly, it is an international war crime and  against the Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits an occupying state from compelling an occupied population to serve in its ranks.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Boycotting the Qatar World Cup would be pointless now

Well, I've been watching the World Cup. There, I said it, out in the open. Should I have been watching the World Cup? That's an open question, and one that has already engendered much discussion and dispute. It is already being called the "most controversial World Cup in history".

This is the first time that Canada has qualified for the World Cup since 1986, when it exited rather ignominiously with no wins and not even a goal to show for its efforts. This time, Canada has a pretty good team, and has recently beaten the likes of USA, Mexico and Japan en route to the last 32 in what is the biggest sporting event in the world. So, yes, I really wanted to watch them.

Unfortunately, the World Cup 2022 is being hosted by Qatar, a tiny speck in the Arabian Desert that just happens to possess large quantities of oil and gas, making it one of the richest countries in the world. It is the first Muslim country to host the Cup, which is fine in principle. But, in practice, it is a hardline Muslim regime with an abysmal human rights record, which suppresses women's rights, denies freedom of expression and assembly, and considers homosexuality a mental aberration attracting fines, imprisonment and even execution in same cases.

Furthermore, its medieval labour practices are close to modern slavery and indenture (despite some last-minute changes due to vociferous international disapproval), and an estimated 6,500 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are reported to have died in the ten years of construction of the infrastructure and stadiums needed for the event..

And, finally, Qatar is not even a great footballing nation. The only way it was able to swing the vote to host the World Cup was by throwing vast amounts of money at its bid, Qatar has reportedly spent an astonishing $229 billion on stadiums, hotels, transportation and other infrastructure for the World. By comparison, the most expensive bid before this was about $15 billion in Brazil in 2014, and $12 billion in Russia in 2018. Some estimates of Qatar's spending puts it closer to $300 billion or even $400 billion (the Qatari system is not exactly transparent), which would make it more expensive than ALL the other World Cups added together, plus all of the Summer and Winter Olympics too! It is a truly humungous sum of money.

Because of Qatar's inhospitable climate, the competition has been moved from its usual midsummer to the slightly cooler winter, and even then the stadiums need to be air-conditioned to make them bearable.  Despite extravagant claims by Qatar and FIFA, the Qatar World Cup is like to be an environmental catastrophe.

Whether large amounts of money changed hands in order for Qatar to secure the vote back in 2010 is unclear, but it is widely believed that FIFA, which has been reeling from a succession of corruption allegations for some time now, may well have preferred Qatar over Australia, Japan, South Korea and the USA for all the wrong reasons, and there is a reasonable amount of solid evidence pointing to "financial irregularities", shall we say.

All of this is to say that, no, Qatar should not ever have hosted the World Cup, and that, yes, FIFA needs a complete overhaul. But is stoically staring at a blank TV screen going to fix any of that? Unfortunately not. Most people watching on TV or live in those air-conditioned stadiums will not even have given these considerations a thought, so caught up are they in the spectacle and the pageantry. Which is sad, perhaps. But is it right to take it out on soccer players who have worked most of their lives towards this moment? Some players and some fans have engaged in some limited and rather ineffectual demonstrations, but nothing happening now is going to make any concrete changes to Qatar or to FIFA.

Much as I hate to agree with Piers Morgan on anything, the time for protests was 12 years ago when Qatar was given the go-ahead after a highly suspect FIFA vote, not now. If it makes you feel any better Qatar has spent $229 billion in an attempt to be take seriously on the world stage; all it has achieved is to go from a complete unknown to an international pariah. And who was it who claimed that any publicity is good publicity?

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Why does Canada have a doctor shortage?

In the ongoing healthcare crisis in Ontario and most of the rest of Canada, part of the problem is the acute lack of primary care family doctors. Doctor shortages have long been a problem in more rural areas and smaller communities, but now they are spreading to larger cities. And people who cannot get to see a local doctor see no option but to take up valuable time in our already over-stressed hospital emergency departments.

According to official statistics (2021), some 4.7 million Canadians over 11 years of age do not have a family doctor, about 14.5% of the population. Thisnis actually slightly lower than the 15.3% of ten years ago, but still a hair-raising figure. Canada has 2.8 physicians for every 1,000 residents, putting it at 27th out of the 32 member nations of the OECD, and little more than half of the levels of the top OECD countries like Austria, Norway and Spain.

It seems there are several factors at play here: many older doctors (and a fair few from the younger generation) are burnt out, particularly since COVID, and many are retiring or at least re-directing their careers (an astonishing 57% of doctors claim to be burnt out); an ageing population means that demands on primary care doctors are generally greater than they used to be; younger doctors tend to want a better work-life balance than the older generation of workaholics, and (reasonably enough) may prioritize family life over work; the pay for specialists and work in hospitals, care homes, sports medicine clinics, etc, is much better than for primary care, particularly with the current fee-for-service model, which does not compensate them for the longer time needed to deal with older sicker patients, and which does not account for behind-the-scenes time spent writing referrals, reviewing lab test results, etc.

What is interesting, though, is that, on paper at least, Canada does in fact have enough community doctors, and in fact has more than it has ever had. It had 47,337 family doctors as of 2021, 24% more than a decade earlier, and the numbers of doctors have been increasing at about twice the rate of the general population since at least the 1970s (see graph below). So, why is it so hard to get a family doctor in Canada?


One big reason is that many of the primary care doctors listed in these statistics do not work full-time as family doctors. Rather, they split their time with practising in hospitals, care homes and sports medicine clinics, which pays substantially more than community medicine under the current system. The extent of this problem is not clear as there are no widely-available statistics, but a study in Quebec showed that only 33-39% of general practitioners devoted 90% or more of their time to primary care in the community.

Some provinces are taking early meaure to address this issue. Quebec, which has the worst shortage of doctors in the country, has recently changed a 1990 ruling that basically forces family doctors to spend at least some of their time in public institutions like hospitals or care homes, and it now requires doctors to spend part of their time signing up new primary care patients. BC is in the process of changing its fee-for-service model to one that compensates doctors based on time spent with patients, the number of patients in a practice, and the medical complexity of those patients. 

Don't expect Ontario to be so forward-thinking (although, in some cases, individual health authorities like Cambridge are taking their own steps); it is still trying to deny there is a problem in the first place.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Caution: self-driving Teslas in downtown Toronto

Speaking of Elon Musk, or at least Tesla, Toronto Tesla drivers have noticed recently that full self driving (FSD) mode is finally available after the company quietly removed a "geofence" disallowing its use in downtown Toronto and updated the car's software. The reason for the digital block apparently was that, as Musk himself puts it, "streetcars are not yet handled well by FSD". And, of course, there are streetcars all over downtown Toronto (and further afield, for that matter).

So now, suddenly, Tesla's FSD handles streetcars well? In my experience, many human drivers don't handle streetcars well, and streetcar users often take their lives in their hands when stepping onto the street, especially during rush hour. Would you trust a slightly smart camera to deal with this complex situation? Would you even trust it to navigate the jungle of construction work, cyclists, panhandlers, boy racers and potholes that is driving in downtown Toronto these days?

Personally, I'm not sure what the big attraction of autonomous cars is. Apparently, it's not really full self driving anyway. Drivers are required to keep a hand on the wheel in order to take control instantaneously if needed. The car beeps at you every 45 seconds if it doesn't detect a hand on the wheel, and will disengage FSD completely after multiple failures to do so. Drivers need to have a "driving score" (whatever that might be) of at least 80 in order to be allowed to use it.

The Ontario Safety League is certainly not convinced that the cars are safe in autonomous mode. I, for one, will be extra wary of Teslas in downtown Toronto henceforth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Should we cut Elon Musk some slack because he is autistic?

I regularly write about Elon Musk in these pages, usually (well, always) in a disparaging manner. He is still the richest man in the world despite the slide in Tesla stock prices and an ill-advised foray into social media companies. But he is a lousy manager ("a case study in what not to do") and an all-round odd-ball. 

How do I feel, then, to find out - belatedly, to be sure - that Mr. Musk is in fact autistic, or at least somewhere on the autism scale (which can mean more or less anything these days)?

Well, not much different, to be honest. One could try to  use autism excuse his strange sense of humour and his almost complete lack of empathy for other humans (e.g. employees). But I'm pretty sure that Musk would be the last person to claim accommodations for his "neurodivergencies". 

He is clearly what used to be called "high-functioning autistic" (it is almost certainly not called that any more - I am not up on my politically-correct autism terminology). Musk himself claims to have Aspergers Syndrome, (claimed it very publicly on Saturday Night Live, no less), although that apparently is no longer an official label and has been superseded by a diagnosis of Autism spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1 (meaning "requires some support", but not "more support" or '"substantial support").

Now, some on the autism spectrum may see Musk's announcement as validation and proof that autistic people can indeed succeed. Others, such as those who require much more support to live a reasonable life, may find him unbearably smug and doing the rest of the autism community a grave disservice.

I don't really see any reason to treat him differently than any one else, though. What worries me is that, now this is out in the open, Musk may use it to excuse some of his less excusable behaviours. In that Saturday Night Live segment, for example, he quipped, "Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that's just how my brain works". Hmm. Further: "To anyone who's been offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I'm sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. Did you also think I was going to be a chill, normal dude?". Hmmmmmmm.

Anyone with that kind of a chip on their shoulder, and that kind of self-confidence, surely deserves anything that's coming to them.

Monday, November 21, 2022

"Well, this is awkward"

I'm not really a big fan of Budweiser, but after Qatar's very last minute decision to ban the sale of alcohol at the World Cup, despite Budweiser's multi-million dollar exclusive contract to sell beer before and after games at all eight of the World Cup stadiums, I AM a fan of Budweiser's terse and pithy Twitter response: "Well, this is awkward".

Anything more would have been absolutely de trop

Where do those credit card fees actually go?

An interesting article in todays's paper explains how credit card fees and rewards points work, and it's more complicated than you might have thought.

The credit card fees that a business has to pay for the privilege of being able to offer credit card transactions - and, particularly since the pandemic, more and more people want to do that, and fewer and fewer people are using cash - varies depending on the business. Small businesses tend to pay a little less, but, with slim margins, it can still make the difference between a viable and a non-viable business. Rates vary between different industries according to some less-than-transparent secret formula, and online credit card transactions attract higher rates than in-person ones, due to the higher incidence of fraudulent transactions.

Typically, though, a merchant might get to keep about 98% of the sale price of an item paid for on a credit card. About 1.4% (1.74% before changes made in 2014) goes to the bank issuing the credit card (RBC, BMO, CIBC or whatever). This is known as the "interchange fee", and is supposedly to recompense the banks for the hassle of having to extract monthly payments from credit card subscribers (and of course they make a bunch more money from interest on unpaid credit card balances, card fees, etc). Next, 0.51% goes to the processing company or "acquirer" (e.g. Moneris, Chase, etc). And finally, only about 0.09% goes to the credit card company itself (e.g. VISA or Mastercard), which might not sound like much but think about how many transactions there are each day (don't feel too sorry for VISA!)

Rewards points are a whole separate system, and represent another cut from the merchant's take because the banks tend to claw it back in interchange fees. Rewards points may be 1% (more normal) or 3% or even 5% for some types of products, and merchants like them as they do definitely attract some customers. But someone has to pay for them, and this is ultimately the merchant, although bear in mind that some merchants may well increase their prices to compensate for what they offer in points, and the customer would never know.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Twitter 2.0 is looking extremely rocky

I wonder how Elon Musk is feeling about his $44 billion investment in Twitter right now. He may still be the richest man in the world, but $44 billion is $44 billion, as they say.

Because it's by no means certain that Twitter will even survive Musk's first few weeks in control. Having fired almost half of its staffers, Musk gave a lesson in corporate governance when he offered remaining staff a grim ultimatum: accept "Twitter 2.0", which "will mean working long hours at high intensity", where "only exceptional performance will contribute a passing grade", or take a 3-month severance package.

Well, attractive though that offer sounds (not!), it seems like hundreds of Twitter staffers have choose to take the package. The company is deemed to be "in disarray", and has announced that office buildings will be shut down and employee access badges disabled at least until Monday.  Employees have been asked to "refrain from" talking about what is happening at the company (this from a "free speech absolutist"!), although it seems clear that very few of them actually know. Many advertisers have understandably put their accounts with Twitter on hold until they can see where the company is going under Musk.

The hashtag #RIPTwitter has been trending. Even Musk himself posted a doctored photo of Twitter's funeral, with his usual bizarre and highly suspect sense of humour. Not the most suspicious of starts. Permit me a little smug schadenfreude.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Tory government donors stand to win big-time from Ford's backrracking on the Greenbelt

Not content with attempting to circumvent the democratic process by establishing (and now extending) "strong mayor" rules for some of Ontario's largest cities, and attempting to break the province's unions with legislation and the controversial use of the Constitution's "notwithstanding clause", Ontario Premier Doug Ford is now looking to use his inexplicable electoral majority to do away with some of the environmental protections of the Greenbelt that surrounds Toronto, Hamilton and much of the rest of the Golden Horseshoe.

Ever since he was elected in 2018, Ford has insisted that he understands that the Greenbelt is sacrosanct and not to be sacrificed on the altar of commerce and development. Ford in 2018: "The people have spoken - we won't touch rhe Greenbelt". Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, also in 2018: "We remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the Greenbelt for future generations". Ford again in 2021: "We weren't going to touch the Greenbelt for developers", and "we've kept that promise". Then, finally, after re-election this year: "We are going to make sure we keep every single promise". I guess he's just a politician after all, if anyone was in denial about that.

The Greenbelt was established in 2005 by Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government, and comprises about 800,000 acres of environmentally-sensitive and agricultural to land in southern Ontario near the province's most densely populated centres. It was designed to protect these areas from further development and urban sprawl by prohibiting new developments.

Some wealthy developers, nevertheless, bought up large parcels of land in this prime but supposedly undevelopable area, presumably in the expectation of the Greenbelt rules being relaxed at some point. In particular, some prominent Conservative donors have been spending many millions of dollars on technically undevelopable Greenbelt land, largely through numbered companies, and particularly so since Doug Ford's election four years ago. Which is pretty suspicious, wouldn't you say? These is no direct evidence of backroom deals being struck, but it certainly smells that way.

Now, after years of insisting that he would never touch the Greenbelt, the Ford government has published a list of 15 parcels that they intend to remove from the Greenbelt, enough to build over 50,000 houses on land that was previously protected for its environmental value. The Tories' "justification" is two-fold: there is a housing crisis and more house need to be built fast any way possible, and some additional (less valuable, and in some cases already protected) land will be added to the Greenbelt elsewhere to compensate.

Can they even do that? Well, apparently, at least from a legal standpoint. But it creates a horrible precedent, and could lead to a flood of other requests to open up the Greenbelt for development. It's also far from clear that the move is even necessary to "solve" the housing crisis: a shortage of land is not the problem, and there is plenty of land available for development, both within already built-up areas and in undeveloped areas outside the Greenbelt. 

So, it doesn't have to be this way. Which brings us right back to the fact that more than half of the land to be removed from the Greenbelt as part of this change was land purchased by Conservative donors since the start of Doug Ford's premiership.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Lithium mining - environmental disaster, or just a bit iffy?

I have already had to tackle the rumour that electric vehicles (EVs) are not actually environmentally superior to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. What is now doing the rounds of Facebook (or so an earnest, but slightly gullible, neighbour tells me) is the rumour that rare earth metal mining, especially lithium for EV batteries, is totally unsustainable and more environmentally destructive than oil drilling.

Snopes (among others) has thoroughly debunked one particular misleading image that has been doing the rounds of Facebook: 


Supposed to show that maybe oil sands developing is not as environmentally destructive as lithium mining, the images unfortunaty are not quite what they purport to be, actually not even close. Oops.

Most developed countries, and some less developed ones, have latched onto the idea that EVs are the way to go as regards transportation in a warming climate crisis world. Many countries have pledged to go 100% electric by 2035, or 50% by 2030, or whatever. EV take-up in North America has already reached the 5% threshold that many experts say is the point after which mass adoption will automatically take over, a point that many European countries and China reached some time ago, and EV demand is expected to at least triple in the next few years. So, demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and some other more obscure elements is also expected to spike. How can we fulfill this demand responsibly and sustainably?

This detailed account on GRID News gives a good objective primer on the lithium and other EV mineral situation. 98% of the lithium mined in the world today comes from Australia, Chile and China (the Big Three), as well as Argentina and a few other smaller Latin American nations (Chile and Australia have by far the largest known reserves). Lithium, however, is not actually particularly rare; it is a matter of finding sources that are practical and economical to extract. As I have outlined in a previous post, new more environmentally-resposible extraction techniques are being developed all the time, and many new mines are trying to build in environmental safeguards, renewable power sources, etc. But it can take 7-10 years to develop a new lithium extraction facility and we really need it now, which creates a lot of pressure to take short-cuts.

Most of the world's cobalt comes from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Chinese developments are being bravely resisted as unfair (althouh DRC itself has a bad problem with child labour). Many other minerals used in EV batteries are located in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Philippines, Indonesia, etc, all of which have their human rights challenges. Developments in these countries will be under the microscope as they are announced. Mining the seabed of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico has huge potential for the production of nickel, copper, manganese, cobalt, etc, but it too will need to be handled in a sensitive and suatainable way, if indeed it proves to be possible.

And then there is China. China only produces about 10% of the world's lithium locally, but it has a disproportionate hand in lithium mining elsewhere, including huge concerns in Australia and Chile, as it does with nickel production in Indonesia, and cobalt in Democratic Republic of the Congo. And concern is definitely the right word, given that much of the west is looking to distance itself from totalitarian regimes like China and Russia, and "friend-shoring" becomes the watchword. 

Perhaps even more worrying is the refining of these essential minerals: more than 60% of lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite refining takes place in China, giving the Chinese an effective stranglehold over strategic EV minerals and EV battery production. In an era where China is establishing itself as a maverick state, global EV battery manufacture is looking very precarious, and the US and other counties are deperately playing catch-up (the US's recent Inflation Reduction Act took some concrete steps in that direction, and Europe has been pursuing battery independence policies for some time).

None of this, however, addresses the issue of whether lithium mining is environmentally disastrous or just a bit iffy. Web pages like this one from the Institute of Energy Research have documented the environmental challenges of the iniquitous lithium industry. No-one is denying that, but it is still hard to put it into some perspective.

For example, to look at just one aspect, part of the problem of such a Chinese dominance in the EV battery industry is that about 60% of China's electricity still comes from dirty coal, so the CO2 profile of EV batteries produced in China is higher than it should be, another good reason to develop home-grown industries. Some European countries with cleaner electricity production are starting to try and develop their own processing industries, but it is a long, slow process.

This web page from ChangeIt concludes that, despite all of the foregoing, there is no reason to suspect that expanded intensive lithium mining will have a worse environmental impact than the drilling, refining and transporting (and, potentially, spilling!) of petroleum products. Plus, novel mining techniques and increased recycling and re-use of lithium and other rare earth minerals will tip the balance even further in the direction of battery-powered EVs. 

Even academic studies like this one from NHSJS conclude that it is very difficult to compare the environmental impact of mineral extraction and battery manufacture with oil drilling and fracking operations, partly because it is almost impossible to compare like with like. Any comparisons it tries to make are inconclusive, although it does note once again that improving the recycling of battery components and ingredients would significantly change the analysis.

A Green Matters analysis concludes that fracking is a much more destructive and dangerous process than lithium mining, although obviously not all petroleum is produced by fracking. There are also a whole host of entries on StackExchange looking at the problem, but few of them are conclusive or comprehensive. Ditto the many opinions voiced on Quora.

Clearly, EVs and batteries have some significant environmental costs and some high hurdles still to overcome. But it is nevertheless hard to see the solution as worse than the problem they are designed to solve. There will always be naysayers to any new technology, and the reach and influence of the fossil fuel industry is long and strong after its decades of ascendancy. But let's try amd maintain some sense of perspective and not dismiss potentially ground-breaking and life-saving ideas out of hand.

Friday, November 11, 2022

What is RSV, and why is it everywhere right now?

RSV is probably the commonest childhood illness you bave never heard of. 

Respiratory Syncytial Virus - pronounce it "sin-SISH-ul" - is a recurring seasonal virus like influenza. It is highly contagious, and spreads through sneezing, coughing, kissing, and touching contaminated surfaces and transferring to the face (sound familiar?). It usually remains contagious for three to eight days, although this can be longer in the immunocompromised. Just for information, "syncytia" is a medical term for the large cells that form when infected cells fuse together.

The main symptoms of RSV are similar to those of the common cold or a mild flu: a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, low-grade fever and headache. A barking or wheezing cough may signal that the infection is getting worse and spreading to the lower respiratory tract, where it can cause more serious infections like bronchiolitis (an infection of the small airways of the lungs) or pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Usually, it is merely an inconvenience, but it can be dangerous, even  life-threatening, for babies under twelve months and the immunocompromised, for whom an infection in the lungs and breathing passages can result in seriosu illness, hospitalization, even death.

Like COVID and influenza, both of which are also rife among children right now (the so-called "/tripledemic"), RSV is a viral infection, so the current shortage of antibiotics like amoxicillin is not a major problem (or at leaat not for RSV). Unlike COVID and the flu, though, there is no readily-available vaccine for RSV, so the shortage of children's formulations of ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol/Tempra) IS a problem, because they are the main first-line treatments available. Pharmacologically, pretty much all you can do, much like with other viruses, is try aad keep down the fever. Take plenty of fluids, rest, you know the drill. Sy.ptoms should go away on their own within a week or two.

And, yes, adults can get RSV too, although this is less common just because most adults have already had RSV as kids, usually by age two and often more than once, whether they knew it or not, so they tend to have a level of protective antibodies against the virus.

During the height of COVID-19, in 2020 and 2021, health authorities saw a sharp drop in RSV cases compared to previous years, due to COVID measures like masking, social distancing, hand-washing and staying home when sick, which remain the best protections against it. This year, though there has been a knee-jerk reaction against commonsense measures like masking (not me!), which has led to a wave of respiratory infections and an unusually early flu season (get your vaccination!) 

Babies and children who have been sheltered from many common bugs by COVID precautions and lockdowns are only now catching RSV and other infections, so we are seeing two or three years' worth of respiratory infections almost at once, making it seem like a tsunami of illnesses. This does not mean that the masking and social distancing was wrong, just that it has had some unintended and unforeseen consequences.

Oh, and by the way, RSV is not being caused by COVID or the COVID vaccine, whatever Facebook might want you to believe.


Thursday, November 10, 2022

Beware of Russians bearing what seem to be gifts

Now, I'm no military strategist, but it just seems extremely unlikely to me that Russia - in the person of hawkish Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, of all people - would make a public announcement that it is pulling its troops out of the strategic Ukrainian city of Kherson, unless it had some deep ulterior motive.

Are losing armies (particularly Russian ones answerable to the likes of a petulant dictator like Putin) really in the habit of making media announcements on national television of their most embarrassing manoeuvres? Ukrainians are understandably suspicious, however much Western media are playing it up.

Russian troops do indeed seem to be moving out, according to US observers. Maybe they are just re-establishing defensive lines south of the Dnipro River, and Russian artillery can still fire mortars from the other side of the river with relative impunity, and without having to engage fierce Ukrainian ground trooops. They can already be seen establishing fortification and trenches on the other side of the river. Either way, I can't imagine Vladimir Putin ordering his troops to retreat (and a turnaround of this magnitude most certainly came from the top). So, what's going on?

Well, there are anecdotal reports of some Russian troops (specifically Chechens) in plain clothes lingering in Kherson, so there are worries that Russia is setting up a trap of some sort. Ukrainian military planners and the long-suffering residents of Kherson alike are all expecting something of the sort - mines, booby-traps, roadside bombs, who knows? - and hopefully being very cautious as they move into spaces vacated by Russian troops. Suspicious? You bet. Ukrainian troops will certainly be very wary of pushing forward too fast as the Russians appear to retreat.

Monday, November 07, 2022

Why are so many kids still unvaccinated?

I'm at a loss to explain the poor uptake of COVID vaccine among young children.

When vaccines first became available, in what now feels like another life, Canada was slow to start due to supply problems. But it very quickly made up for lost time and soon became one of the most highly-vaccinated populations in the world. At least its adult population.

When vaccinations became available for younger people under the age of 18, the take-up was much lower and slower, and vaccinations among under-5s were even fewer when a vaccine became available for them. Vaccinations for under-5-year olds is currently languishing at around 6%, even fewer have second doses and boosters. Among those under 2-years old, the rate is even lower, as low as just 1%.

Now, obviously, it's not the kids who are making the decision not be vaccinated. It is the parents of those kids, the same adults who chose to get the vaccine for themselves. So, what is the logic? Why would they get the vaccine for themselves but deny it to their kids, the same kids who are mingling unprotected at schools and kindergartens and preschools with other unvaccinated kids (and contracting COVID in droves in the process, from anecdotal accounts, although testing is almost non-existent now and there are few to no reliable statistics any more)? 

The vaccines are proven efficacious for kids, and have little to no side-effects. Those same kids have many other vaccines (and indeed are required to in order to attend school). So, what's the deal?

How did the US elections come to this?

It's the night before the US Mid-Term Elections, and all through the land, and beyond, all the press coverage has set up a really divisive and downright nasty election.

To a heretofore unprecedented extent, this election is a clash of absolutely irreconcilable opposites. On one side is a set of candidates who have certain policy beliefs, but still believe in the election process and the democratic system. On the other side, over half of the candidates still believe that Donald Trump won the last election in 2020, despite all the evidence and innumerable court cases to the contrary. Furthermore, many of them are openly saying that, if they lose tomorrow night, they will not accept the results, and will still insist that they have really won and that the system is corrupt and the system is fixed (although not if they win). Some candidates for state governor and secretary of state from that party say that they will not necessarily carry out the will of the electorate if they don't like the looks of it. Further furthermore, that side even has armed vigilantes patrolling polling stations, supposedly looking to spot irregularities and voter fraud, but in reality as an attempt to intimidate and deter voters from the other side.

Now, you might think that one of those sides would be much more mainstream and popular, that the other side would be way too extreme and immoderate for most people. But it turns out that the two sides are neck and neck, and that the anti-democratic side is even, if anything, expected to prevail.

It all seems highly improbable to an outside observer. It's hard to know how things in America have come to this pass. Well, the simple answer is Donald Trump, but that doesn't really explain anything. That half of the voting population of the United States - many millions of people - would support candidates who openly question the traditional proven democratic process when it suits them just boggles the mind. It's a sad and disturbing prospect.

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Israel is in for an ugly few years

There is an excellent article in this weekend's Globe and Mail by Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It gives a good, and I think reasonably objective (insofar as that is even possible in the fractured politics of modern Israel) glimpse into the state of Israel in the wake of Benjamin Yetanyahu's recent re-election.

In the fifth general election in 4 years, Israel was once again voting on the leadership of Netanyahu, despite the ongoing court cases against him. This time, after some pretty nasty and at times violent campaigning, he succeeded, albeit with the support of some pretty unsavoury ultra-right wing extremist parties like the Religious Zionism party, which openly seeks to erode democratic institutions and foment discord between Jews and Arabs. With the help of these ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu hopes to pass a law prohibiting the prosecution of a sitting Prime Minister, his best chance at avoiding criminal prosecution on charges of corruption.

In this election, Yetanyahu managed to beat back the outgoing coalition of the Yesh Atid party and the National Unity party, parties that Netayahu tried to portray as extreme left-wing parties, although the truth is that they are closer to centre and centre-right respectively (Israel's politics is notoriously right-wing in general, and almost all parties are deeply nationalistic). That coalition also included the tiny Islamist Ra'am party, the first time in Israel's history that an Arab party has been represented in government. So, the tantalizing glimpse of what Israel might look like as a more democratic and inclusive state has been cruelly cut short.

Under Netanyahu and his extreme-right buddies, then, Israel returns to a state where Arabs and Jews are mortal enemies, Israeli settlements spread ever further into the West Bank, and the Palestinian conflict spreads once more into Israel's streets. However, Yetanyahu, for all his failings, is no fool, and he will probably try to reign in his more extremist allies, mindful of his international reputation (such as it is). 

But it's probably going to be an ugly few years, certainly for Palestine, and also for anyone looking in from the outside.

What is behind the soaring Indigenous incarceration rates?

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) - after many years of calls from many different sources including the National inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, various parliamentary committees on the status of women and public safety, and CSC's own Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, on more than one occasion - is to fill a new position called "Deputy Commissioner, Indigenous Corrections", which is to address the soaring rates of Indigenous incarceration in Canada, particularly among women.

I must confess, I am at a loss to explain the prevalence of Indigenous incarcerations. It's something of an epidemic, and it doesn't show any signs of getting any better. 

The conventional wisdom is that anti-Indigenous racism is the main cause. But this takes away all agency from the Indigenous people themselves. Brown and Asian people in Canada suffer from institutionalized racism too, and often live in relative poverty, but their incarceration rates are much LOWER than the average

Which suggests to me that internal cultural norms may be a much more important factor than imposed racism. That's probably a very contentious assertion, I understand. 

It's no secret that violence is rife in Indigenous communities, especially domestic partner violence, as is alcoholism and drug abuse, which are often contributing factors. This is usually blamed on colonialization and forced assimilation and the ongoing fallout from the residential school system. These are almost certainly factors, but how individuals deal with this legacy seems to vary immensely. Some see it as a challenge to be overcome, and many Indigenous people seemed to be able to live rich, fulfilling, even exemplary, lives. Others fall into the trap of victimhood, and check out completely from any positive trajectory of life. I can see how this would happen, and can well imagine being there myself in different circumstances.

But it's hard to know to what extent the culture (both ancient and more modern) of Indigenous communities is, by its very nature, a violent one, at least compared to, say, an Indian or Philippino community. North American Indigenous cultures like to portray themselves as peace-loving, matriarchal custodians of the earth. And there may indeed be an element of that in Indigenous culture, but there is also a historical element of cruel, macho and violent warmongering, and who knows how these different traditions play out in day-to-day life.

I guess I am just naturally suspicious of a narrative that tries to explain everything in a pat, single-variable manner. Surely, not all of the disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous people can be explained by racism, institutional or otherwise. Maybe the daily lives of Indigenous people, particularly in the more remote, under-serviced regions where they traditionally live, predispose them to a more violent and chaotic lifestyle.

I say good luck to the soon-to-be-announced "Deputy Commissioner, Indigenous Correction". Maybe he or she will be able to weed out some root causes of the current malaise. How such causes may be addressed, though, may be far outside of the job description.

What is synchronous and asynchronous learning?

During the current education workers' strike by CUPE in Ontario (after the Conservative government ill-advisedly legislated them back to work, doubling down on the sledgehammer by invoking the "notwithstanding clause" to avoid any legal remedies), you may have seen the news that some school boards are mandating synchronous online lessons, while others are setting up asynchronous online lessons. And you may have wondered what the hell "synchronous" and "asynchronous" actually mean in this context.

In general terms, "synchronous" just means "at the same time" (and "asynchronous", therefore, means "not at the same time"). In education terms, synchronous learning refers to instructors and students gathering together at the same time, whether in-person or online, and interacting in real time. This is, then, the normal way kids are taught (whether in-person or online). Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, refers to students accessing materials on their own, proceeding at their own pace, and only interacting with instructors or other students over a longer time frame.

Makes perfect sense when explained, but it would have been nice to have seen an explanation in some of these news reports.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Why TikTok is not your friend

Anyone who has read any of these posts will know that I don't do TikTok (or Facebook or Twitter, and rarely YouTube). Indeed, I have a very healthy skepticism about any of these social media platforms, sometimes based on known facts, and sometimes based on a gut feeling that they are either evil or at least a potential gateway to evil.

TikTok is the newest of these platforms, and ridiculously popular nowadays, particularly among the influential youth and Gen Zs of the world. With over a billion users, TikTok is the fastest-growing audience of any social media platform, and was accessed more times than even Google last year. It's not all about viral dance routines and cute cat videos, though. Increasingly, people are getting their news through TikTok; people search for new apartments on TikTok (I kid you not). For a certain subset of people, it is the "everything app", and ubiquitous and pervasive in their lives.

segment on CBC's The Current (starting at 22:48 minutes into the audio, until about minute 45) has gone a long way towards validating my skepticism. A reporter for Forbes magazine has found evidence that TikTok, and its Chinese parent company ByteDance, is being used to monitor the location of certain US citizens (the reporter was not at liberty to reveal exactly who or why), not using GPS, but using the user's IP address, which is a slightly less accurate method of determining location. Like many apps, this is just one of the many elements of data that users are sharing with the owners of the app, largely unbeknown to most users, and the whole picture can be detailed enough to provide ByteDance (and thereby the Chinese government) with some pretty sensitive information ("data espionage").

This all comes as US security agencies are already looking into whether TikTok represents a security threat to the USA. TikTok is not as transparent as most other major social media platforms in that it does not make public which videos or content is trending countrywide or worldwide, and which are the most popular and most-viewed videos. There is therefore some concern that ByteDance, through TikTok, may be spreading misinformation. We really don't know what the world is watching on TikTok.

Global Witness has carried out some studies to assess TikTok's ability to weed out political misinformation, by deliberately uploading political falsehoods and misleading content and checking to what extent TikTok's algorithms was able to spot and delete them. Turns out the answer is hardly at all. 90% of the misleading advertising was accepted by TikTok, as compared to Facebook (which did much better) and YouTube (which was able to spot almost all of the spurious content). None of their process is publicly available in an "ad library" like Facebook and Google publishes.

Now, admittedly, TikTok is a much younger platform than Facebook or YouTube. But it is now so ubiquitous that it really needs to up its privacy game. And there is still a good chance that the US will actually ban TikTok - the Federal Communications Commission has already found that TikTok represents a concrete potential security threat to the USA, and negotiations are ongoing between TikTok and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) as to whether it can even continue in business in the US.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Doug Ford may not pay any political price for his use of the notwithstanding clause

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his Education Minister Stephen Lecce have passed legislation to avoid having to go through that tiresome collective bargaining process with the education workers union CUPE. If that were not sledgehammer enough, they are coupling it with an invocation of Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious "notwithstanding clause".

Having offered a paltry 2.5% pay increase to the 55,000 CUPE workers (1.5% for those earning more than $43,000 a year), at a time when inflation is running at around 7%, the Ontario government decided to go straight to the nuclear option and table legislation to "terminate any ongoing strike" by CUPE, supposedly in the interests of hard-pressed kids and parents. So desperate were they to push through this piece of legislation that they arranged a rare 5am parliamentary session to do it. The use of the notwithstanding clause is designed to ensure that the union has no legal recourse, even if the legislation can be shown to be an illegal curtailment of labour rights under the Charter. So, essentially, Ford is using the notwithstanding bludgeon because he knows that what he's doing is wrong and illegal.

Think what you may about the notwithstanding clause - and I know what I think of it! - it was not designed to be used like this. Quebec Premier François Legault has used it several times, and now Doug Ford is getting the hang of it. This is the second time Ford has used it in the last two years (and he threatened, but ultimately did not need, a third). The more often it is used, the less strong the taboo against its use becomes. It's not supposed to be a get out-of-jail-free card, to be used whenever it is considered expedient, and Mr. Ford is receiving some significant blowback over it (and quite rightly so!)

Prime Minister Trudeau just called it "wrong, in a rather lame-sounding but still unequivocal condemnation, and federal Justice Minister David Lametti commented, "Using the notwithstanding clause and using it preemptively is exceedingly problematic ... It de facto means that people's rights are being infringed and it's being justified". None of this is going to worry Doug Ford too much. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a statement saying that, "the flagrant disregard of individuals rights is wrong, and it is dangerous to our constitutional democracy". Ho hum...

The Ontario Federation of labour called it a "full frontal attack on basic labour freedoms", but presumably he won't lose any sleep over that either. One of Canada's largest construction unions, the Labourers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) - one of the unions that, surprisingly, threw its support behind Ford at the last election - has warned that the use of the notwithstanding clause in this case represents "a dangerous precedent that aims to erode respect for collective bargaining rights and unionized labour in Ontario", and is calling on Ford to revoke the unprecedented back-to-work legislation. So, some of that union support that Ford managed, inexplicably, to acquire may be on its way out.

Historically, though, there has been little or no political consequence for provincial premiers' use of the notwithstanding clause, despite the seriousness of the implications of its use. Neither did the Ontario electorate punish Ford for his 2021 use of the notwithstanding clause - he was re-elected in 2022 with an even larger majority. It seems like it can be invoked with impunity, depressing though that thought is.

Multiple legal authorities say that Ford's use of the notwithstanding clause just to avoid an unpleasant labour negotiation and strike is unprecedented, controversial and politically fraught. I have seen few or no comments in favour of the move, even among Conservatives. But it seems that Ford & Co just don't really care any more. Maybe they can't see themselves being re-elected a third time anyway, so there is no real political risk (the notwithstanding clause exempts the decision from Charter scrutiny for four years, i.e. after the next election).

CUPE maintains that it will go ahead with the one-day strike planned for this Friday, regardless of the fact that it is now an illegal, not a legal, strike, and the union will just pay the $4,000 a day fines that it will trigger (and as much as $500,000 for the union itself, which the Ford government vows to enforce). Informal talks are apparently still going on between CUPE and the government, but you can imagine there is a lot of bad blood between the two sides after a move like that.