Friday, December 30, 2022

Geoengineering launch closer to eco-terrorism than responsible activism

MIT Technology Review reports that an American geoengineering startup called Make Sunsets has launched weather balloons and released sulphur particles into the atmosphere in an an unprecedented act of solar geoengineering activism.

Thing is, the idea of spraying particles into the upper atmosphere, in order to reflect more sunlight into space and thereby ease global warming, is nothing new. But it has never been done before on a substantial scale, largely because there are still an awful lot of unknowns, and most people have held off until more experimental data on the potential real-world effects of such an intervention has been collected. For example, there could be dangerous side-effects, some regions could be impacted more than others leading to geopolitical conflicts, etc.

But, for Make Sunsets co-founder and CEO Luke Iseman, that is the whole point. He says that the problem of climate change is so all-encompassing, so critical, and so immediate, that someone needs to push the envelope, and soon. And who better than an outfit like Make Sunsets, which Iseman describes, only half jokingly, as being "partly a company and partly a cult".

But their launch from a site in Mexico - actually a pretty small-scale affair - earlier this year, took place with little nor no public engagement or scientific scrutiny, so it's hard to know how this is going to push the science forward. It is more of an attention grab to stoke up controversy and interest in the field. For Iseman, it is clearly also part of a commercial venture, and the company is already selling "cooling credits" (of dubious real environmental value) on the strength of this latest launch.

Iseman is supremely confident that he is doing the right thing. "It is morally wrong, in my opinion, for us NOT to be doing this", he says, adding that it is extremely important "to do this as quickly and safely as we can". Janos Pasztor of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, on the other hand, calls it wildly premature and highly irresponsible, and barely stops short of labelling it eco-terrorism. Others point out that this kind of unscientific science could even set the field back, reducing funding, and dampening government support for trusted research.

So, eco-terrorism or responsible and urgently-needed activism? You choose.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

2022 has seen more COVID deaths than 2021 or 2020

I know we're all trying to pretend that the COVID-19 pandemic is over (except in China, which may be experiencing a ridiculous 37 million cases a day, and crematoriums are struggling to cope with the number of dead bodies). But it may surprise some people to discover that there were more deaths and hospitalizations (and many more cases) in Canada in 2022 than in either 2021 or 2020.

Of the 48,948 COVID deaths in Canada since the pandemic began, 17,997 have occurred in 2022 (which is not even over yet!), compared to 16,489 in 2021, and 14,462 in 2020. Surprising, eh?

More recent variants have tended to be less virulent but, even so, there are still nearly 3 times as many Canadians in hospital with COVID compared to this time last year, which you may remember was the early stages of the Omicron variant. While fewer of those people have ended up in intensive care (or dead), proportionately speaking, the sheer numbers are still staggering. On 19 December 2021, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 1,489 COVID patients in Canadian hospitals; on 19 December this year, that number was 5,548. This is, of course, to say nothing of large numbers of RSV and influenza hospitalizations, which may also be indirectly blamed on COVID.

No-one has any idea any more of how many actual cases are occurring, but estimates suggest that they may be double or even triple last year's tally. Meanwhile, most people are walking around in crowded public places maskless, and vaccination boosters have all but ground to a halt. How things have changed (and not necessarily for the better).

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

George Santos, a man of morality (by Republican standards)

If you had an inkling that US Republicans were maybe not always completely honest, meet George Santos, the new Republican Representative for New York's 3rd Congressional District. 

Santos, who narrowly won the election for the Queens/Long Island district on November 8th (54%-46%), has got himself into hot water when he admitted subsequently that he had perhaps been economical with the truth when laying out his education and employment resumé. "My sins here are embellishing my resumé", he quipped, guilty only of "a poor choice of words" (otherwise known as lying). Oh, and, "I'm human. I'm flawed. I'm not perfect." So, to be clear, he never actually graduated from any institution of higher education, not did he ever work "directly" for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup.

Now, it turns out that he wasn't being entirely truthful when he claimed to be Jewish either. He now maintains that he "never claimed to be Jewish", merely that he was "Jew-ish" due to the possible Jewish background of his maternal family. This was enough to rile up the Republican Jewish Coalition, however, which has disowned him, saying, "he deceived us and misrepresented his heritage". 

For good measure, there are also allegations flying around that Santos is a criminal wanted for elder fraud and cheque forgery in Brazil. Also, that he may not even be gay as claimed, (although his marriage and recent divorce are not necessarily proof against that).What are we to think?

Robert Zimmerman, the defeated Democrat candidate for the New York district, who IS Jewish (wait, it's not THE Robert Zimmerman is it, as in Bob Dylan?) has called on Santos to resign and face him again in a special election, now that more of the truth about him is public. Like that's going to happen. Like a man like Santos is suddenly going to decide to do the right thing. But there is a good chance he could face legal action.

Of course, another salient question might be: why did all this stuff only come out AFTER the election?

Israel prepares for a bumpy (and litigious) ride

We know what we are going to get on Thursday, when incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is installed in his position. We know what we are going to get because because the cast of unsavoury ultra-right-wing characters with whom Netayahu has thrown in his lot in order to get himself elected have already stated their demands in no uncertain terms.

Netanyahu knows he cannot form a government without the support of several smaller (and much more radical) right-wing and ultra-nationalist parties. He just didn't garner enough votes. And, such is the man's lust for power, he had no compunction about allying himself with whichever party is willing to play with him, no matter how unappetising their own politics. Netanyahu himself is still facing allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but he is somehow still able to continue as leader of his party. Some of his other allies, though, are even more suspect, and some of the legislation they are insisting on is radical indeed

Among the new laws needed for Netanyahu to tie up coalition deals with his radical new partners, are: 

  • A special law to allow former interior minster Aryeh Deri to take a position in government, despite being convicted of accepting bribes, and having resigned from the Knesset as part of a plea deal for another charge of defrauding the state of taxes.
  • A law that allows ultra-nationalist theocrat Bezalel Smotrich, a "proud homophobe" who wants to impose "Torah law" on Israel, to take personal control of the occupied West Bank, previously under the control of the Israeli army.
  • Another sop to Smotrich is support for a "discrimination law" that allows inequity in the public sphere such as hotels and businesses, and allows doctors to not treat patients who defy the physician's personal values (e.g. sexuality).
  • A separate coalition deal grants Jewish religious courts the power to rule on civil and economic matters.
  • Yet another special law gives Itamar Ben Gvir, the only Israeli lawmaker ever to be convicted of terrorist associations, the new position of Minister of National Security, and also gives him power over the West Bank previously held by the army, as well as to allow the death penalty for terrorists.

These are unprecedented legal moves, even in the context of Israel's non-standard judiciary and politics. They will transform Israel's judiciary from an independent branch of government into a vestigial limb, and turn the country into a partial authoritarian democracy similar to Hungary or Poland. I'm not sure it is quite what voters had in mind when they voted for Netanyahu (although frankly they could have predicted something similar).

Many commentators on lsraeli politics, both within the country and internationally, are sounding alarm bells at what might be coming, and some members of the Israeli Supreme Court are ready to rule against some of the planned reforms. However, one of the other pieces of proposed legislation (an "override clause") is designed to specifically avoid that very eventuality, by allowing a simple majority of Knesset members to override Supreme Court rulings. So, even that possible brake on the new right-wing government's ambitions may no longer be an option.

Prepare for a bumpy ride as Netanyahu throws caution to the wind in pursuit of his sixth term as Prime Minister. But, like a certain American ex-president, Netanyahu seems to thrive on litigation and controversy.

Removing land from the Greenbelt could open the floodgates (literally)

I have already complained at length about Doug Ford's latest plan to undo one of the few good things that have been done for the environment in recent years by building lots of houses on designated protected Greenbelt land. (More broadly, his passion is to undo anything that was done by a previous Liberal government, on the grounds that he probably objects to it in some way; specifics are not necessary.) This, despite reports from the government's own Housing Affordability Task Force, which concluded that there is actually quite enough land available outside of greenbelts, within existing built-up areas, on which to build, and specifically warned against the temptation to build on agricultural lands.

Now, more information is coming to light on the particular areas that Ford's plan is looking to compromise

The Conservatives' line is that, yes, they are taking out 7,400 acres of protected land and handing it over to a bunch of developers and Tory donors (well, they don't quite phrase it that way), but, lookit, they are adding 9,400 acres of new land somewhere else to the Greenbelt, so what's not to like? Further, the line is that the Ford government is protecting land that truly warrants it, and that the original Greenbelt boundaries were arbitrary, "based more on political science than actual science", as Environment Minister David Piccini explains it.

Well, not so. The areas in question were incorporated into the Greenbelt for good reasons. The Greenbelt was established in 2005 to protect in perpetuity (so much for that!) wetlands, prime agricultural lands, floodplains and other natural features along the edges of the Toronto area conurbation (i.e. those most at risk from development). 

The parcels of land the government plans to lay open to development are mainly prime farmland, part of a contiguous area designated due to its soil quality, soil depth, and mineral and organic content. At least two of the parcels were protected to the highest level, designated for specialty "tender fruit" crops (peaches, cherries, grapes, pears, etc) requiring special soils, climates and farming skills, areas that are "scarce and unique; if lost, they cannot be recreated". Their removal increases the fragmentation of connected farmland, already a problem in southern Ontario: continuous areas of farmland are considered essential for things like moving large slow-moving equipment along public roads, kicking up dust, and producing bad smells (all of which tend to annoy non-agricultural landowners), as well as the ability to share agricultural assets like grain dryers, food processors and distribution centres. Ontario has already lost one-fifth of its farmland in the last 35 years; our government should not be compounding the problem.

Three of the other parcels to be developed include wetlands deemed provincially significant, and several other areas also incorporate wetland areas. Portions of several of the properties are within regulated floodplains, on which it is inadvisable to build residential homes anyway. Ontario is losing wetlands at an ever-increasing rate (three times faster between 2011 and 2015 as between 2000 and 2011, for example). Wetlands, as well as essential for species conservation and water quality improvement, act like sponges after storms, substantially reducing flood damage risks (wetlands can retain water runoff from an area 70 times their size). Many more potential wetland areas remain still unevaluated, as efforts to officially assess areas have been gutted in recent years.

Almost all of the parcels to be removed from the Greenbelt are located in areas designated by the province as natural heritage systems (NHS), interconnected strands of land such as wetlands or habitat for endangered animals and rare plants, that are at least 500m wide (the connectedness is key here).

And finally, consider the area that Mr. Ford is calling compensation (and more) for the 19 smaller parcels to be developed. It is a single plot, immediately west of the Greenbelt's western border, near the town of Erin, on the northeastern fringe of the Paris-Galt moraine. It too is designated as prime agricultural land, and also features wetlands, floodplains and other important natural features. While additions to the protected area are always to be welcomed, even the Greenbelt West Coalition (an organization that exists solely to advocate for the westward expansion of the Greenbelt) describes it as a "random little parcel" and "certainly not the most threatened area" and "certainly not the area of greatest ecological value".

So, a fair swap? Probably not, if only in terms of the increased fragmentation of existing protected lands. But, perhaps a bigger reason is the precedent it sets. If Greenbelt protection can be set aside so easily in this case, it could lead to the opening of the floodgates, in an all-too-literal sense.

UPDATE

If you were in any doubt at all about the Ontario government's attitude towards urban sprawl, consider that the Ford/Clark tag team has vowed to FORCE Hamilton council to build on thousands of acres of rural farmland that the municipality has set aside for its own greenbelt equivalent. Environmental group Ecojustice has launched a court challenge to try to stop this latest example of anti-environmental government overreach from Ford and his henchmen.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Japan's idea of an animé "prank"

Well, this is seriously messed up. Apparently, Japanese animé characters regularly can be seen to perform what is usually described as a "prank" (he he he) known as kancho.

Kancho is actually an old slang term for an enema, and it involves forming the hands into a two-handed pistol shape with index fingers extended. The fingers are then inserted into the anus of another person as a "prank". I kid you not. It could be another child, it could be an adult, a family member, a teacher. This is considered a cool and highly humorous practical joke.

This has been featured in animé comics at least since the 1970s, and it is hypothesized that the idea came from a vaguely similar Shaolin Temple Boxing martial arts move which involves incapacitating a foe by attacking their perineum (I kid you not about that either).

Funny people the Japanese. I'm not sure if this happens in real life too, but remind me not to go to Japan. Just in case. Oh, and remind me not to to take up Shaolin Temple Boxing either.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Weather terminology is getting more extreme

I know the weather is getting more extreme everywhere as a result of climate change, but it does seem like our weather forecasts are getting more and more dramatic each year. And that's not all due to the actual weather.

These days, weather forecasts are littered with terminology like "bomb cyclone", "polar vortex", "atmospheric river", "heat dome", "thundersnow", and more. I'm sure we didn't use to have these things, but I think that's more to do with a recent trend for fancy terms than with a change in the climate (although that is happening too). It is the meteorology profession trying to make itself sound a little more sexy (or perhaps trying to distance itself from its latest failed prediction), ably abetted by the popular press.

In the same way, we always used have full moons, every month in fact. But now we have a "blue harvest super moon", a "blood moon", etc. The moon hasn't changed, but our press reporting of it has.

What actually is biochar?

I have read many times about biochar and how environmentally beneficial it is, particularly as regards greenhouse gases and climate change. But I've never really understood what biochar actually IS, and how it is so environmentally beneficial.

So, what is biochar?

Biochar is a black carbon-rich charcoal-like substance, produced from burning organic materals like wood, manure, argicultural and forestry waste at ultra-high temperatures, through a process known as pyrolysis. 

The resulting material is lightweight, porous and fine-grained, with a large surface area and a very high absorption capacity, which can capture contaminants and volatile compounds, which are attracted to the surface of the biochar and become attached to it. Contaminants chemically bind with the biochar and are thereby stopped from entering the environment.

It has been known for centuries that biochar helps crops grow by improving soil fertility, soil structure, water retention and drainage, while also adding nutrients to the soil, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It is also a very useful substance for decontaminating water and wastewater.

But it is biochar's potential for carbon removal that is attracting attention in recent years. As biomass turns into biochar, carbon gets locked inside as a stable solid and so is not released into the atmosphere. Biochar sequesters more carbon than it produces, resulting in a "carbon negative" system, which is a very valuable property in today's climate crisis. Energy crops like switchgrass and miscanthus, or corn or other agricultural and forestry residues, which would otherwise be just waste or (worse) a source of planet-warming methane, can be converted into biochar in an energy-efficient process. 

Win-win: a sustainable solution that also improves our soil in the process.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Harry and Meghan docu-series not an earth-shattering event

Well, I managed to plough through all six hours of Netflix's Harry and Meghan. It wasn't the best six hours I have spent recently, but it also, I have to admit, wasn't the worst. 

Yes, it was self-serving and one-sided. That was a good part of the point of it: an attempt to show "their side of the story", to turn the narrative from the clearly one-sided and subjective negative version put out by the British tabloids over a period of years, to justify their actions, and rehabilitate their tarnished image.

In fact, probably the most effective achievement of the mini-series was to underscore just how over-the-top and out-of-control the popular press is in Britain, particularly the Daily Mail, and how in need of radical overhaul is the system under which it operates with such impunity.

The Duke and Duchess do come over as nice enough people in the series, committed to making the world a better place. However, they are clearly not quite as free from tradition, privilege and a habituation to their impossibly affluent lifestyle as they try to portray. They desperately want to appear "normal" in the eyes of the world, but they should know that is never going to happen. 

Yes, the Sussexes have been treated shabbily by the British press, and by the Royal Family and their hangers-on, but when you see their lifestyle and the resources they have at their command, it's kind of hard to feel too sympathetic, rightly or wrongly. I mean, they spent six hours - way too long for the essential content, I should say - with carte blanche and complete control over the image they are portraying. I don't mean to dismiss their mental health struggles (particularly Meghan's) out of hand, just to try and put them in some perspective. 

The racism angle was really presented front and centre (Meghan is biracial, although you maybe wouldn't know that to look at her), and yes, some of the UK press treatment was clearly racist in intention and in effect. I'm just not sure that it was quite as fundamental as the documentary suggests. (If you try hard enough, you can find a race angle to angle to almost everything, but it may not be where the main attention should be focussed in this case.)

It also seems to me that a lot of the content they show in the series was, to some extent, staged. At the same time as complaining that they need to get out of the media spotlight and back to a simple unassuming life, they clearly also arranged for a video cameraperson to trail around them, inside their own private home, over a period of months or even years, recording some quite intimate and sensitive moments and situations, documenting their real-time reaction to developments in real life, filming live phone calls, personal discussions, etc. They seem to have had this documentary in mind for some years, suggesting that, in some respects at least, they are actually willing participants in the media circus that surrounds them. The very act of producing a high-profile documentary like this necessarily thrusts them right into the glare of the public eye, as they must surely have anticipated.

Anyway, I'm not sure the docu-series has changed my opinions about the Royals, nor will it have changed many other people's. If you liked them before, you will like them still. If you hated them before, you will find plenty of evidence to back up your opinions. If you were pretty much indifferent before, like me, you will find little to change your mind. I would happily see the monarchy disbanded, although I don't care about it enough to raise my voice about it. But that unaccountable popular press? That has to change, for sure.

UPDATE

Hard on the heels of the Netflix series came the HRH's ghostwritten book, Spare, and a bunch of high-profile promotional television interviews. The guy is trying really hard to make the world love him (and feel sorry for him, which is not a good look at the best of times).

Unfortunately for "H", as I believe we are supposed to refer to him, it seems to have backfired somewhat. A YouGov poll, conducted after the book was released, shows an all-time low 24% popularity, with 68% of British adults holding a negative view of the spare heir, despite brisk sales of the book in British bookstores.

Top 20 wealthiest Canadian musicians

I came across this interesting analysis of richest Canadian musicians of all time by estimated net worth. I don't know how reliable this list is, but it shows:

  1. Celine Dion: $800 million
  2. Shania Twain: $400 million
  3. The Weeknd: $300 million
  4. Justin Bieber: $285 million
  5. Dan Akyroyd: $250 million
  6. Drake: $250 million
  7. Neil Young: $ 200 million
  8. David Foster: $150 million
  9. Joni Mitchell: $100 million
  10. William Shatner: $100 million
  11. Paul Anka: $80 million
  12. Michael Bublé: $80 million
  13. Chad Kroeger (Nickelback) $100 million
  14. Brian Adams: $75 million
  15. Ryan Peake (Nickelback): $65 million
  16. Avril Lavigne: $60 million
  17. Alanis Morissette: $60 million
  18. Mylène Farmer: $50 million
  19. Sarah McLachlan: $50 million
  20. Anne Murray: $50 million

Most of these are to be expected, although I might have expected Drake to be higher. A few you might think "what are they doing in there?" (William Shatner? He is, of course, mainly an actor, and that's how he made most of his money, but he has appeared on songs with several bands. Dan Aykroyd? Ditto, but was also active for years in the Blues Brothers Band.) A few you might say, "Who the hell are they?" (David Foster was a writer and producer, particularly in the 1970s, apparently quite a lucrative gig. Mylène Farmer is from Quebec, but made her name in France.)

Just goes to show, though, you can still make serious money if you make it big in pop music.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

South African politics is not pretty

South African politics has always been a mess - perhaps excepting a period while Nelson Mandela was in power, although even then there were moments - and the latest African National Congress elections is a good exposition of that underlying fact.

Cyril Ramaphosa won another term as leader, beating out former health minister Zweli Mkhize, although with an unconvincing 57% of the vote.

Ramaphosa is still under scrutiny after a corruption scandal in which a mysterious US$580,000 was discovered under his sofa. Mkhize was forced to resign from cabinet last year after allegations that his associates profited from contracts under his ministry. The man Ramaphosa replaced, Jacob Zuma, is facing continuing corruption challenges of his own, despite the fact that he is also pursuing his own private prosecution of Ramaphosa for not doing enough to extricate him from those same corruption charges.

Like I said, a mess. Corruption and grift are endemic in South Africa, and nowhere more so in the upper echelons of the African National Congress. And we think our politics is sleazy!

Monday, December 19, 2022

Why was Messi wearing a négligée?

If, like me, you were a bit confused as to why Lionel Messi was wearing a black slinky négligée while celebrating Argentina's World Cup final win, fear not, the Interwebs are there for you (and me).

Apparently, it's not a négligée at all (sorry!), but a bisht, a Kuwaiti honour bestowed on Messi by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thami, while awarding Messi the Golden Ball award and the Jules Rimet Trophy itself. It is a special ceremonial apparel reserved for the most honoured guests and high-ranking members of society only, so I guess Messi felt he should probably continue wearing it (or perhaps risk imprisonment, or worse).

So, not a négligée, a bisht. OK? And I take suggestions by the likes of Al Jazeera that not knowing about the whole bisht thing is evidence of inexcusable racism with a sizeable pinch of salt. If we are expected to know and understand the most obscure Arabic customs in order to escape being labelled racist and irretrievably Islamophobic, then there is little hope for any of us. After all, was the Emir not culturally sensitive enough to know that Argentinians do not like to wear mesh cloaks when they are celebrating?

It's comforting to note, though, that Messi did not succumb to the crying plague that seems to assail so many other top soccer players, whether tears of joy (Ángel di María) or tears of despair/petulance (Cristiano Ronaldo). For an apparently hyper-macho sport, crying jags are an astoundingly common sight at the top levels of world football, with di María and Ronaldo being just two of the most prolific, veritable artisans of lacrimation.

Messi? Nary a drop. Just the trademark goofy grin. G.O.A.T.? Probably.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Does Mars have nipples?

Is it just my overactive imagination, or does anyone else think that this picture of Mars looks like the planet has nipples?

Maybe it's just the age I've reached...

And does anyone else see a birthday cake in this photo of a Mars crater?

Mars may be stranger than we think.

UPDATE

And now there's a bear face too?

What is going on?

Friday, December 16, 2022

One good reason not to allow Puerto Rico statehood

If Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state of the USA - a potential spectre that a recent bill in the House of Representatives has raised - where will they put the extra star on the flag? Has anybody thought about this? I have visions of a star kind of randomly tacked on to the others, like a little inset box.

Congress should be very wary of approving the move, if only for that reason.

Free speech absolutism, Elon Musk-style

Elon Musk's "free speech absolutist" Twitter policy seems to be going well. 

A whole slew of journalists who have criticized the man and reported on an incident involving his son, including correspondents from CNN, New York Times and Washington Post, have all had their Twitter accounts summarily terminated, without notice. Others who have commented on these suspensions have also been disappeared from the site. Competitor microblogging site Mastodon, also had its Twitter account mysteriously cut off.

All of this also follows the suspension of a Twitter account that automatically tracks the movements of Musk's private jet, using publicly available information.

Well, they probably won't miss it too much: Twitter is not what it was. But the irony is poignant.

UPDATE

Musk did in fact reinstate the accounts of most of the journalists he suspended, after a poll he ran did not give the results he wanted, with most people calling for immediate reinstatement.

But then, a couple of days later, he suspended the Twitter account of another Washington Post journalist, after she had the temerity to tweet Musk for comment on another article (and he didn't respond to an emailed request for comment). This seeks to have offended him in some way, leading to her summary suspension.

This conjures an image of the richest man in the world manically monitoring every single tweet issued in search of posts that offend his own fragile ego, 24/7, in some luxury bunker in California. I have visions of a big cartoon-style switch, with a green light and a red light. Luckily, I don't have a Twitter account to suspend.

Donald Trump excels himself (again)

Well, it's been a good while since I talked about Donald Trump. It's been nice. But I have to say he has excelled himself this time.

"Digital trading cards". Yup. What a concept! Digital trading cards featuring the mugshot of DJT in a variety of guises, from rugged cowboy to superhero to dapper businessman. And only $99 a pop (yes, that's dollars, not cents).

Featuring some rather poorly Photoshopped images of clothing and images apparently found online, they are being marketed as non-fungible tokens (NFT), and as limited-release digital art. The enterprise seems to be headquartered in a strip mall somewhere in deepest Utah, courtesy of an outfit called NFT INT LLC, which stresses that it is "not owned, managed or controlled by Donald J. Trump", and that it produces the images under paid license.

Trump himself, though, seems to love the concept and, after a "MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT" teaser on Truth Social, and a promotional video in which he also claims to be "better than Lincoln, better than Washington", he explains that "each card comes with an automatic chance to win amazing prizes like dinner with me". Well.

I guess you could give him some props for having a sense of humour about himself. But it's by no means clear how serious (or otherwise) he is being. It's one thing acting like a cartoon character, and entirely another thing doing so accidentally. The scheme has even moved Steve Bannon to mutter, "I can't do this!" I rest my case.

But here's the really depressing part: all 45,000 cards sold out in just 24 hours, raising $4.45 million for ... something.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

How important is hunting in Canada?

Canada is back, yet again, in gun control negotiations. The Liberal government is attempting to ban a host of assault-style guns, some of which are commonly used by hunters, and, of course, they are hitting the expected brick wall.

Hunting seems to be a sacred cow in Canada, our equivalent to the 2nd Amendment in the USA. Technically, guns used in hunting should be licensed, although in practice most aren't, partly because the hunting-fishing crowd tend not to be huge fans of government regulation. For most, it's just a hobby, something they like to do, for whatever reason, kind of like stamp collecting or kick-boxing. For a small few - the relatively few Indigenous hunters who kill animals to live on, and farmers in some remote areas where farming is a potentially dangerous activity - guns may be something approaching a necessity. But mainly guns are just some people's idea of fun.

Personally, like most Canadians, I've never understood the attraction of guns or hunting. It is that far outside my field of experience and interest that it may as well not exist. Most Canadians would like to see guns banned, ALL guns, at least in cities. And every year, hundreds of people die from gunshots, mainly in cities. So, you can see the conundrum - what's a responsible government to do?

In an attempt to understand better just how popular guns and hunting are (i.e. how big the problem is, from a different perspective), I came across Canada Gun Facts and Stats, the most-accessed page on TheGunBlog.ca website, and it makes for some interesting reading. Apparently:

  • An estimated 4 million Canadians probably have a gun or some sort, although only 2.2 million of them have a valid license, a number that is gradually increasing each year.
  • That 2.2 million represents about 7% of the adult population, or 13% of the adult male population. Because, yes, it's very much a guy thing - only about 13% of gun license owners are female.
  • Most of those gun owners have at least one gun, because there are an estimated 20 million guns in the country, which suggests an AVERAGE of 5 gun per owner! Weird.
  • These gun owners spend an estimated $1 million every day on their guns, ammunition and accoutrements, and rattle off a million bullets every day.
  • About 90,000 professionals (police officers, military personnel and armoured car guards) have permission to carry guns for personal and public safety, and ONE INDIVIDUAL has official permission to carry a loaded handgun for personal safety (and the RCMP are not saying who).
  • There are as many shooting ranges in Canada as McDonalds restaurants, a stat that not many people know (and why would they?).
  • They claim that gun use as a pastime is more popular than golf, soccer, hockey or basketball, and that hunting and shooting contributes billions to to the Canadian economy every year.
  • More than three-quarters of gun licenses are concentrated in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia (although so is most of the population, so no big surprise there).
  • In percentage terms, Yukon has by far the largest number of gun owners (23% of adults), followed by Newfoundland and Labrador and Northwest Territories (17%) and then Nunavut (15%). Alberta is at less than 10%, while Ontario is down at 5%.

Most of the rest of the webpage also makes interesting reading. This is clearly not the strident American NRA crowd. They are at pains to stress that they are reasonable, responsible people who want nothing to do with criminals and law-breakers. They claim that guns are "at the heart of Canadian culture, heritage and tradition, and the economy". They describe the main laws, rules and checks on gun ownership in factual, but very slightly disparaging, terms, as though to say, "Gee, I wonder why all these rules are necessary?"

So, yes, gun ownership is quite a popular pastime, and some people are REALLY into it. The problem is that the eminently reasonable and pleasant folks who run TheGunBlog.ca are probably not the problem.

Winnipeg landfill search can never be more than a token gesture

The issue of the search for remains of Indigenous murder victims in a Winnipeg landfill site is a difficult one.

On one side, Manitoba Indigenous leaders are saying that there is no debate, that it is just "unacceptable" (one of this year's most overused words) that the bodies' remains continue to languish in a municipal dump. It has become a cause célèbre among Indigenous activists in the region. And, at face value, it is hard to argue against this.

Winnipeg Police Services (WPS), though, do have a point, despite the poor communications they could be accused of thus far. It actually IS infeasible to search for and identify remain in a public landfill after six months has passed. Ten thousand loads of garbage has have been dumped since then. The landfill site is not huge, compared to some, but after six months of degradation, decay, mixing, compacting and "turnover", every little bit of organic matter would need to be analysed for DNA in the search for human material.

And, at the end of it all, if remains are identified (and that is a big "if"), there will not be a body as such to bury. How is this process going to bring closure to anyone? All we will have proved is that the victims are dead, which we already know. 

One relative of one of the victims opined on televsion, "It's the city. They're white. We're native. They don't give a shit about us." But really, I don't think this is anything to do with race relations, disrepect, or anything else of that sort; it's just a matter of practicalities. I don't mean to be callous, but some things just aren't feasible, whether it concerns white, black or indigenous people.

Whether WPS should have done something six months ago is, of course, another matter (they probably should have, even though there was already enough evidence to convict the accused - then, it would have been feasible). Meanwhile, WPS are currently going through the motions, offering to carry out a search of the landfill site, or at least discussing how such a search may be carried out, which is absolutely what they need to do, politically and morally. But surely, both sides know that it can only be a token gesture.

Canada's Afghan helpers still languishing in limbo over a year later

I seem to have read so many articles like this one about Afghan interpreters, drivers and general helpers who worked with Canadian forces while they were in the country

Everyone seems to be in agreement that their Canadian extradition cases need to be expedited because they are at dire risk of retaliation from the Taliban. There is even an official humanitarian resettlement program specifically for Afghans who worked for Canada, a program that has been operational for over a year now, since the Taliban takeover some 16 months ago. Over 26,000 Afghans have been resettled to Canada, most of them under the humanitarian program, but the promise was to bring 40,000 over.

Many of these Afghans and their families are currently languishing in limbo in Pakistan (these are the "lucky" ones, the ones that managed to get out of Afghanistan), often with visas that are expired or expiring, so that they hardly dare leave their basic one-room accommodation for fear of being picked up by security forces and sent back to Afghanistan. In many cases, they have completed all of the necessary paperwork, health checks, etc, needed for resettlement in Canada, but they are still desperately waiting for "the email". It's a grim situation.

So, why are they still waiting? Despite all the articles, I have still not found a good answer to that question. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says that there are many possible reasons for the delays, from problems finding space on charter flights, issues processing complex applications, and establishing settlement services in Canada to help with the newcomers. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says, "For Afghans whose cases are complex, processing will take longer as we work to receive information and work through their application". 

I'm not really sure what "complex" means in this context, but none of the problems sound insurmountable, nothing that a little more investment and manpower couldn't fix. More people in this position are still gradually trickling into Canada - the process has not ground to a halt completely - but it is painfully slow. Surely, something could be done to rescue the remainder, with a little more urgency.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Be cynical about fusion claims

nuclear fusion "breakthrough" this week seems to have attracted an awful lot of media attention.

But actually it wasn't that much of a breakthrough (unless you are a nuclear fusion scientist). This is a big deal for scientists because is a kind of proof of concept: for a brief moment in time, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California succeeded in generating a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more power than it used - 3.15 megajoules out for 2.05 megajoules in - at least if you don't take into account the 300 megajoules required to produce the lasers that produced the reaction in the first place. 

So yes, after several decades of experimentation and untold billions of dollars of investment, a fusion experiment finally managed to produce a net power gain, sort of. The 1.1 megajoules net gain is about enough to boil a tea kettle a couple of times.

Forgive me for being less than "super excited", but the fusion power program has been holding press conferences for decades now to celebrate even the tiniest of advances. And it is still a long way from anything of any practical use, as even the Laboratory directors admit. "This is a science achievement, not a practical one", said one. "There are many, many steps that would have to be made in order to get to an inertial fusion as an energy source", said another. Some argue that we will never get to the stage where basically "unlimited fusion" power is commercially available, nor should we even be trying, for a variety of different reasons.

Bear in mind, this is not actually a renewable energy technology, (see here for a quick primer on how nuclear fusion works) although it is more or less carbon neutral (depending on the electricity source employed). And, in the meantime, solar, wind and hydro power move from strength to strength, and are already highly cost effective, and other renewable sources like geothermal, tidal and wave power, as well as battery technology, are also making good progress. Plus, fusion involves temperatures many times those in the core of the sun, and pressures billions of times that normally experienced on earth; so, while it is a physicists wet dream, it is not something to be entered into lightly.

So, expect a whole load more dramatic press releases from the public relations whizzes in the fusion industry. And expect many more billions of dollars to be spent, and many more years to pass, before we get anything close to a practical source of power. And expect a lot more cynicism from me.

Some World Cup annoyances and pet peeves

It's not been a bad World Cup, as World Cups go, despite the fact that it is happening in Qatar in December, which is ALL WRONG. Some good games, some surprises, some underdog action.

But there have also been a bunch of annoying/boring aspects, many of them recurring themes for decades, not least among them:

  • Constant fouls, comme toujours.
  • Almost as constant dives by people who really should know better.
  • Those haircuts...
  • The constant whistling by Moroccan fans when their side does not have the ball (they assure us it is not disrespectful, that it is perfectly normal in Morocco, but disrespectful and annoying is exactly what it is designed to be).
  • Those tattoos...
  • And, finally, the knee-jerk claims for throw-ins by both sides, even when it is crystal clear whose ball it should be.
Yes, I would maybe have liked to have seen a Morocco v Croatia final, but that was not to be (hell, I would have liked to have seen a Canada v Wales final, but that was definitely not to be). But, given the predictable Argentina v France final we have ended up with, can they at least fix some of those annoyances for me? Fat chance. At least, there won't be any annoying Moroccan whistles in the final...

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Canada's doctor deficit is a product of its own provincial residency system

The Globe and Mail has posted another interesting article about Canada's ailing medical system, and this one is a real eye-opener. A shortage of doctors is a worldwide problem at the moment, and Canada seems to be having a particularly bad go of it, and yet the solution is tantalizingly simple and straightforward.

It seems like huge numbers of Canadian students are choosing to study medicine abroad because it is so hard to get into Canadian medical schools. And, while the vast majority of them say they intend to return to Canada to practise, an increasing number of them are actually ending up elsewhere because the Canadian residency system is stacked against them.

Canada has 17 medical schools, which take in 2,800 new students every year. That might sound like a lot, but those schools reject about 9 out of every 10 applicants, despite impeccable grades and qualifications, because there are just not enough study places available. So, many Canadians end up studying in Ireland, Britain, Australia, Israel, the USA, even in the Caribbean. At one major school in Ireland, about 40% of the students are Canadian, more than any other nationality.

However, when these students look to return to Canada to work out their residency (the two year postgraduate supervised training period needed to become a licensed physician), they are treated the same as international students, and have to compete against Canadian graduating students, who are given priority. Just 13% of residency training placements are given to international students, and that number continues to fall: just 439 students this year, compared to about 500 a decade ago, and 700 in the late 1980s. 

As a result, those Canadians who studied abroad are increasingly giving up on returning to Canada and choosing to work in Australia, USA and Britain, where the barriers to entry are lower. This is a brain drain that Canada can ill afford, especially given the healthcare crisis we find ourselves in now. Amazingly enough, given all the barriers militating against it, about 25% of Canada's doctors are foreign-trained, a number that rises to 62% in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a mind-boggling 88% in some parts of rural Saskatchewan.

But, by the same token, there are many internationally-trained doctors who are just not able to find work here. Of the 5,135 foreign doctors who became permanent residents in  Canada between 2005 and 2020, only 37% are working in their chosen field. There are an estimated 1,200 immigrant physicians in Ontario alone who are not able to find work as physicians. Such a waste!

Ironically, between those two things - Canadians studying abroad and choosing not to return to Canada, and all the highly-trained immigrants already in Canada but having to work as taxi drivers and delivery guys because their medical qualifications are not recognized here and the process to re-qualify is just too onerous (or even impossible) - Canada would actually have enough doctors to rectify most of the deficit we are currently experiencing, but the various provincial health systems just do not allow it. Which is, as I'm sure you will admit, a ridiculous state of affairs.

UPDATE

Ontario is joining a few other provinces in instituting a Practice Ready Assessment program for the province, whereby foreign-trained doctors (including Canadian citizens trained overseas) can be supervised in clinical settings and fast-tracked into the workforce, rather than having to spend years in residency programs or retraining.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Indigenous = Environmental? Hold on...

There's another of those articles in this weekends Globe and Mail. You know the ones, the ones claiming that if only we were all as environmentally sensitive and responsible as the world's Indigenous peoples, we would not have an environmental crisis on our hands right now. Climate change? Biodiversity collapse? All a product of white settler greed, overreach and heedlessness.

It makes for a compelling story, but I can't help but find it somewhat disingenuous. In many ways, it smacks of the whole "noble savage" narrative - perhaps not deliberately, but maybe unconsciously or accidentally - and that's a narrative that does no-one any favours.

Yes, Indigenous people went for thousands of years without decimating the climate and the natural world. But then, so did Europeans and Asians in their time. As soon as technology reaches a certain level, it becomes that much easier (and more likely) to tip the natural balance in a negative way. Europeans did that. Asians are in the process of doing that, now that they have access to the appropriate technology.

Even Indigenous peoples are prone to it. The old conventional wisdom that white settlers wiped out the North American bison herds in a few short decades conveniently ignores the reality that, as soon as the Plains tribes obtained European weaponry, they were well on the way to doing it themselves, ably abetted by the aforementioned white settlers and some significant (natural) changes in climate.

Sure, some Indigenous leaders and grass-roots activists are genuinely concerned about the environment, as are many non-Indigenous leaders and activists. But to claim that "their way" is the right or the only way is patent nonsense. Putting a "spiritual" slant on environmentalism is no more (and arguably much less) valid than a Western scientific approach. And please don't try to convince me that all Indigenous people are spiritual anyway (many, particularly among the more urban Indigenous population, are no more "spiritual" than I am, i.e. not very).

I don't say all this to denigrate Indigenous people in some way. If anything, I am denigrating the white (and Indigenous) commentators who peddle the whole "Indigenous = good, white man = bad" account. Like most generalizations, it is deeply flawed. We need to fix our environmental woes any way we can, and in practice this is more likely to happen through an international scientific and political consensus than through some spiritual "kumbaya" approach. We need Indigenous people on board for sure, but they don't have all the solutions, nor should we expect them to.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Vancouver school name is now unpronounceable for most people

Well, let's see if this works. A Vancouver elementary school has just renamed itself wek̓ʷan̓əs tə syaqʷəm. Did that come out in your browser, or did you get a bunch of little rectangular placeholders for unsupported characters?

Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary School in East Vancouver is now to be known as an unpronounceable name in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ dialect of the Musqueam people, meaning "the sun has risen" or "the sun rising over the horizon". I'm not entirely sure how 5-year olds are going to deal with that, but clearly some people thought this was a good idea. Whether it is pronounceable or not, most people won't be able to write or type it.

I can understand that maybe they don't want to have their school named after a 19th century hanging judge. But wouldn't Sun Has Risen Elementary School have sufficed? Doesn't that sound nice? And wouldn't it serve the same purpose?

Friday, December 09, 2022

What is the global karmic balance of the Griner prisoner swap

Prisoner swaps are funny things. There have been many instances of individual prisoners swapped for multiple prisoners from "the other side", and I've always scratched my head to understand how these deals are arrived at. Does someone do a kind of balance sheet to balance off the value of the one and the many? How would such an analysis even work in practice?

So, now we have American basketball star Brittney Griner swapped for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout. Fair swap? On one side, a 32-year old, 6ft 9in, professional sportswoman who just happened to be found with some cannabis oil in her luggage, accidentally she claims, a trumped-up sham charge if ever there was one (oh, and she is black, openly gay and outspoken, which probably factors in heavily to Russia's decision-making). And on the other side, one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, known in some circles as "the Merchant of Death", serving a 25-year sentence in the USA for trafficking millions of dollars worth of lethal weaponry. 

What is the net global karma from that particular swap? Much as you feel sorry for Ms. Griner, it's hard to square up the relative "values" of the two individuals. American government figures maintain that they had no choice, that it was the only deal on the table. But still, it smarts a little.

Russian President Putin says he is open to further prisoners swaps in the future. On these terms, I imagine he probably is.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Britain claims new coal mine will be carbon neutral

Britain has just announced the go-ahead for its first new coal mine in decades. It is to produce coking coal for the steel industry, despite the fact that the two remaining British steelmakers are both moving to low carbon steel production, as are most steelmakers in Europe. Climate commentators, even those within the Conservative government itself, have panned the move, calling it "absolutely indefensible", both environmentally and economically, and many people are worried that Britain's enviable recent record of pursuing renewable energy is at risk, along with the government's stated goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and the British steel industry's goal of carbon neutrality by 2035.

What intrigued me, though, is the claim by Michael Gove, the unlucky minister chosen to make the announcement, that the mine would have "an overall neutral effect on climate change". (He also claims that the country "needs" the mine, even though at least 85% of its output is destined for export to Europe, if they can be persuaded they want it.)

How can a coal mine be carbon neutral? Coal is the most climate-damaging energy source we have - it is essentially pure carbon - and the new mine is estimated to pump about 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year to the atmosphere, the equivalent of adding about 200,00 diesel cars to British roads. In what respect, then, can the new mine be considered carbon neutral? That's a real head-scratcher. I know it's what people want to hear, but it needs to be true before you say it!

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Sen. Warnock's win takes pressure off Manchin

Rev. Raphael Warnock beat Herschel Walker to become Georgia's first Black senator (Walker would also have earned that accolade had he won, so give thanks that a political idiot like him was not the one to triumph). It was still embarrassingly close - 51.4% to 48.6% - but the Democratic urban advantage was just enough to overcome the otherwise blanket Red tinge to the state and carry the day.

What this means on the bigger stage, though, is that, with a 51-49 edge in the Senate, the Democratic Party can no longer be held hostage by a DINO (Democrat In Name Only) like Senator Joe Manchin. Even if Manchin votes with the Republicans, as he seems to like to do, the Vice Presidential tie-breaker would still be enough for the Democrats to carry the vote. Manchin and fellow "centrist" (DINO) Kyrsten Sinema could still conceivably gang up to spoil the Democrats' more progressive moves, although that eventuality is less likely (BUT ... see Update below).

Funnily enough, even Manchin himself said he was relieved that the Senate was not hung 50-50 again, because he is apparently fed up of being in the position of "kingmaker" (or rather "spoiler"), even though that is a position he makes for himself by objecting so often to entirely reasonable Democratic policies.

Anyway, I hope not to have to complain about Manchin so regularly in the future. I would happily not have to mention him at all.

UPDATE

Just when you think it's safe to exhale, another spoke in the Democrat wheel appears out of nowhere. Above-mentioned Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has suddenly decided that maybe she's not a Democrat after all, and has declared herself an Independent. Whether this means that she now intends to vote with the Republicans, or whether she just likes being ornery and contentious and newsworthy, is not clear at this point. 

Bernie Sanders and Angus King are two other Independent Senators who routinely vote with the Democrats, and are effectively considered part of the Democrat caucus. But Ms. Sinema is nothing if not unpredictable.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Germany beaten by ... parallax

If you've been following the World Cup, you might know that perennial favourites Germany crashed out in the early rounds yesterday. Although they beat Costa Rica 4-2, they had to win AND Japan had to lose for them to go through, and Japan shocked the world by beating Spain 2-1.

But what a contentious winning Japanese goal! Most people saw Japan bring the ball back into play from over the dead-ball line before stuffing it into the net. Social media lit up with outrage over the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) decision to allow the goal. But it turns out the VAR was quite right.

The reason? Parallax. A ball viewed from the side can look like it is fully out of bounds, but seen from above, it can look quite different. In this case, a view from above shows that not ALL of the ball was over the line, and soccer rules clearly dictate that 100% of the ball has to cross the line to be considered out.

That's also why Canada was denied a goal in their last World Cup game against Morocco, as the ball bounced down off the crossbar in the 71st minute, but failed to cross the line, although this one was much less contentious.


Annoying, yes, but them's the rules.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Qatar is the new poster boy for "sportwashing"

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup, and the incredible sums of money they have thrown at it (officially $229 billion, but some estimates run to $300 billion or even $400 billion) is perhaps the most extreme example of what has become known as "sportswashing", an attempt by an authoritarian pariah regime to buy international goodwill through sports. Russia and China have tried recently with their Olympic bids, and Saudi Arabia is trying it in several different sports (Formula 1 racing, golf, tennis). 

None of these countries expects to make money out of these sporting events. Qatar will never use the seven huge new soccer stadiums again, and most of the new roads and accommodation will languish unused when the foreign soccer fans go home. The only lasting benefit Qatar can hope for is reputational, an expensive advertisement for the country's desired international image as a shining example of modern oasis in the desert, a prime location for foreign investors to park their money.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this high-risk strategy is likely to fail, as it has to greater or lesser extents in the cases of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. While many people now know more or less where to find Qatar on a map of the world, and while the hosting of the events has actually gone pretty well, with relatively few hiccups, most people have not really liked what they have been introduced to.

They now know how to spell Qatar, even if not how to pronounce it properly. But they also know that the country only has about 300,000 native residents, the other nine-tenths of the population being foreign workers from South Asia brought in to do the menial jobs that are considered below the dignity of the Qatari overlords, forced to work in brutal conditions under what looks for all the world like modern-day slavery. 

They also know that Qatar is a deeply conservative country, where alcohol is strictly regulated, and free speech and the media are strenuously repressed. It is a country where women need permission from their male guardians to marry, travel abroad, study, or go into certain jobs. Qatari laws punish same sex relationships with harsh prison sentences, and soccer fans are denied entry into stadiums for wearing t-shirts or armbands with rainbows colours.

Tempted yet? 

There are those who believe that Qatar's foray into sportwashing is working just fine. After all, viewing numbers look good, and there are all those social media posts of people having a good time in Doha, despite all the restrictions. But I'm pretty sure that the movers and shakers (sheik-ers?) in the country are not just looking for some warm-and-fuzzy feelings; they are looking for hard cash. And that, at least, will probably elude them. This may be Qatar's coming out event, but suitors may prove to be hard to find.