Sunday, December 31, 2023

Russia has some gall calling out Ukrainian attack

Russia has incredible chutzpah for calling an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council after Ukraine had the audacity to actually strike back at Russia after many months of illegal Russian attacks.

Ukrainian airstrikes on the Russian city of Belgorad, just over the border, resulted in the deaths of 20 people and injuries to more than 100. Russia is claiming that Ukraine carried out a "deliberate indiscriminate attack against a civilian target" and a "terrorist attack", although Ukrainian spokespeople insist that only military infrastructure was targeted, Belgorod being a major supply centre for the Russian army. 

Ukraine does have to be careful not to fall into the mold of Russia and Israel by indiscriminately bombing Russian towns (or even deliberately targeting civilians) - they need to maintain the moral high ground if they are to keep the support of the West. But how Russia can complain about Ukraine's illegal actions, when they have spent most of the last two years doing just that, I just don't know. I mean, who started this totally illegal war, anyway? An extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black.

As the UN discussion pointed out, if Russia has not invaded Ukraine in the first place, there would be no reason for Ukraine to attack Russian targets. The Ukraine action followed Russia's worst aerial bombardment since the start of the war in February 2022. Russia then went on to use the Ukrainian attack as their excuse for a subsequent attack on Kharkiv, which is just unbelievable. They have not seen the need to explain any of their other attacks, which have rained down on Ukraine daily over the last 22 months, most of them targeting (or at least hitting) civilian targets. The UN estimates there have been at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths since the war started.

To reduce stress levels, read a book

There was an interesting snippet in today's Mental Floss bathroom calendar, suggesting that reading is one of the most stress-busting activities you can do.

According to a University of Sussex study, reading a book reduces stress levels by a whopping 68% on average. The only other thing that comes close is listening to music (61%), followed by drinking a cup of tea or coffee (54%). Going for a walk, surprisingly, only reduces stress by 42%.

According to Garmin watch, my stress levels are always very low. Now I know why.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Should we worry about the new COVID variant?

I seem to have asked this same question many times over the last few years. But yes, yet another COVID variant is starting to take centre stage.

It is technically known as JN.1 or BA.2.86 - the WHO appears to have run out of Greek letters - but it has also been given the nickname "Pirola" by some scientists groups (actually named after an asteroid, but with the unfortunate parallel connotation of "dick" or "cock" in some languages). The new "variant of concern" is an offshoot of the Omicron variant and the various variants that it yielded, like BA.4, BA.5, XBB.1.5, etc. However, it is as different from the first Omicron variants as Omicron was from the original virus, boasting over 30 additional mutations. COVID has come a long way.

As has been the trend over the last few years, this variant is probably even more contagious than previous ones, and we can expect some pressure on hospitals as a result. (Arguably, this has already begun, particularly given the crossover with the flu and RSV season.) Although it is getting hard to distinguish them, this is probably the 9th major wave of COVID.

However, all reports suggest that this new variant is probably not going to be that nasty, certainly not compared to the early days of the initial virus, the Delta variant, etc. So, we might not get that hospital pressure after all - experts are not clear on that.

Symptom-wise, JN.1 is not that different to other recent variants: runny nose (31%), cough (23%), weakness and fatigue (20%), muscle ache (16%), sore throat (13%). There are a couple of new ones, though: trouble sleeping (11%) and anxiety (10%). The loss of sense of smell and/or taste, common in early variants, is no longer an issue, it seems.

Recent vaccines, particularly the most recent one targeting BA.4/BA.5, should work reasonably well against JN.1, certainly in terms of reducing the severity of symptoms, although the old rapid tests we have been using for some years now will probably be even less reliable with this variant. But the sheer numbers of people who are getting infected will make it really hard to avoid this winter, vaccine or no vaccine. 

The usual advice applies: avoid crowds, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces where you can't avoid them, wash your hands regularly, and hope. Remember, although the symptoms are not dissimilar to those of the common cold, and who wants a cold? And, unlike the common cold, there is also a small but not negligible chance that you may end up with long COVID, which will make your life miserable for months, even years, so you really don't want to go there.

All that being said, there are many scientists who believe that JN.1 may be something of a game-changer, and that it should be given a new Greek letter in order to broadcast more clearly to the people and governments of the world that this is new, and that it is potentially quite dangerous. It certainly marks a major step in the evolution of the virus.


More recent data - remember, this is still a new variant - suggests that BA.2.86/JN.1 might actually infect certain lung epithelial cells more than any variant since the Delta variant (remember THAT!)

So, more contagious and potentially more severe as well? Crap.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Why is Canada paying compensation to the Two Michaels

Canada is in the very strange situation of planning to pay the "Two Michaels" a substantial sum of money - several million dollars, by all accounts - as compensation for the almost three years they spent languishing in a Chinese prison.

You will remember that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig spent over 1,000 days in jail in China in a tit-for-tat retaliatory response to Canada's arrest of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition warrant. They were arrested on what are widely considered to be trumped up charges of spying, and were only released when Ms. Wangzhou was released. They were held in poor conditions, some of it in solitary confinement, and denied outside communications for months at a time. They were both subjected to lengthy interrogation sessions.

No-one is suggesting that they had a pleasant time of it, but the idea that Canada (and not China, for example) should pay them damages for their experience is a rather strange and problematic one. It's not at all clear to me how the Canadian government - and Canadian taxpayers - are on the hook for the actions of another country. 

Unless, that is, there is more to all this than we know, or is publicly admitted. Is this a tacit admission of the espionage allegations, despite all the outraged denials the government kept up for the three years of their detention? (That's certainly how China is now portraying it.) Are they trying to avoid a public lawsuit by Mr. Spavor which might bring unwelcome attention to the government security reporting program? Who knows?

This also comes after recent revelations that both men WERE actually involved in some level of undercover intelligence work. It also comes after the two Canadians engaged in a rather public mutual blame game. I think that I, and probably many other people, was somewhat taken aback by this news. I'm not saying that China was necessarily justified in their imprisonment, but it does muddy the water a little.

The government has apparently offered the two men $3 million each, but Mr. Spavor at least is seeking over $10 million, alleging gross negligence on how Ottawa handled Canada's Global Security Reporting Program in China. Negotiations are ongoing.

Trump to blame for election protests across the world

It now seems to be expected all over the world that any election loss is to be contested, often by extreme and/or violent means. Whenever an election result is announced - whether it be a close-run race or a walkover, whether it be a victory for the incumbent or a surprise breakthrough for the opposition - you have to expect a protest or, more often, a full-scale riot, accompanied by strident claims of electoral irregularities, fraud and intimidation. Like Gollum and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, leaders seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to relinqish power.

The latest such example is happening right now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although, there at least, it is quite likely that there have indeed been irregularities, fraud and intimidation.

But the same thing is also happening in Serbia, the same thing happened in Paraguay and in Mozambique and in Nigeria and in Turkey and in Ecuador and in Thailand and in Guatemala earlier this year; in Brazil and in Angola in 2022, in the Philippines in 2022, in Georgia and in Russia in 2021, in Belarus in 2020, etc, etc. The list goes on. And the common denominator? Populist politicians unwilling to admit defeat.

Oh yes, and one more, a few years back now: the USA in 2020/2021. And there's the rub. No longer can we say that election protests and claims of electoral fraud, whether baseless or not, are a feature of benighted African and Asian countries, a "Third World" problem, in places where they don't know how to do democracy right. The 2020/2021 US protests by the Trump-loving hard right of American Republicans has opened the floodgates. 

If "Third World" countries see America acting badly, they feel they have carte blanche to do the same, or worse. And, while such protests have always happened to some extent, vociferous, often violent, protests  are now the norm, the default reaction, after any election anywhere. Democracy, and trust in democracy, worldwide has been weakened. (This also applies to more "First World" developed countries and I have grave concerns about what might happen here in Canada if Pierre Poilievre doesn't win.)

And that retrograde step can be laid squarely at the door of one Donald Trump. With over half of the world's population going to the polls in 2024 - India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, USA, and possibly UK and even Canada - one can't help but worry how this "high-water mark for democracy" is going to pan out.

The last few years has seen many instance of "electoral backsliding", with "electoral autocracies" and "non-liberal democracies" showing a marked increase. 2024 will probably see more of that - world democracy has never seemed more fragile.

A giant fish causes human conflict

Today, I discovered the arapaima fish.

Arapaima gigas one of the world's largest freshwater fish, normally gowing to about 2 metres (6 feet) in length, although occasionally as long as 4½ metres (15 feet), and weighing in at up to 200 kg (440 lbs). It is native to the Amazon Basin, mainly in Brazil and Peru.

It has flexible armour-plated scales to protect it from other predatory fish like piranhas, and it eats fish, birds, mammals, molluscs, fruits and seeds (basically, anything not can get its mouth around).

It has recently been moving into the Amazon Basin in Bolivia, where it is considered an invasive species by scientists, because it is very territorial and scares off (and oleats) other local fish. 

But it has been welcomed by local fishermen, because of its size and ease of capture. Because, although it spends much of its time grazing the bottom of rivers, it is an obligate air-breather, and has to surface noisily every 10-15 minutes to gulp in oxygen to supplement what it gets through its gills. This makes it an easy catch for modern commercial fishermen, and the fish is now regularly found in Bolivian markets and supermarkets. 

Known locally as paiche, it is now hunted assiduously by Bolivian fishermen, often into traditional Indigenous regions, where they are not technically allowed to follow, putting them into conflict with Indigenous communities. Today's Indigenous people, though, are not the same as the old native people; they are much more assertive, even aggressive, in pursuing their rights, and they are not willing to roll over and be taken advantage of, like in the old days.

So, a whole new source of conflict arises, as the natural world continues to change, and humans - as always - try to play catch-up.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

More medieval mob punishment in India

Another depressingly familiar report comes out of supposedly civilized India: a 42-year old woman was stripped and paraded naked through the streets of a village in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Her crime? Well, nothing, really. Her 24-year old son had eloped with his 18-year old girlfriend, and the village elders, well, didn't like that, and decided to take the law into their own hands.

So, the poor woman, who apparently knew nothing about her son's relationship or his plans, became the scapegoat for the outraged family of the girlfriend. Not content with parading her naked through the streets, she was then tied to an electricity pole and beaten mercilessly for hours. She is now suffering from severe trauma.

Eventually, more than a dozen people were arrested for the action, and a local police officer has been arrested for dereliction of duty (i.e. looking the opposite way). But this is far from an isolated incident in Hindu-fundamentalist rural India, where people think they know better than the laws of the land. Just this July, two women in Manipur state were dragged into the street and one of them was gang-raped. In August, a 20-year old pregnant woman was paraded naked by her husband and in-laws in Rajasthan after she left the husband for another man. A 23-year old woman was stripped and paraded in the streets in Gujarat when she eloped with another man. A few years earlier, five Dalit women were paraded naked and publicly caned after one of them eloped with a Dalit boy in Uttar Pradesh. A 45-year old woman was paraded naked on a donkey in Rajasthan after being accused (but not convicted) of killing her nephew. You get the idea.

This is all happening in Narendra Modi's modern India, where moon-shots and cutting-edge computer developments occur side-by-side with medieval punishments and witchcraft. You have to assume that the Hindu zealots are being encouraged by Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

29 brave Russians have filed to challenge Putin

An "election" is due to happen in Russia in Spring 2024. That guy Vladimir Putin is rumoured to be interested in standing. But, unbelievably, 29 other individuals have also filed to run for the presidency. They won't be allowed to, of course; Putin won't allow any chance that he might not be re-elected.

But who are these brave - foolhardy? - people? Well, one is former TV journalist and now independent politician Yekaterina Duntsova. She is perhaps the most high-profile candidate, and that rare thing: a publicly outspoken opponent of Russia's war in Ukraine. So, she of course has been barred from standing by a unanimous decision by the "independent" electoral commission (due to "mistakes" on her application form, apparently). Duntsova says she will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court level, but Putin controls that too.

The last time someone tried to challenge Putin and call out the "sham" election, blogger Igor Gurkin ended up in jail, and is now awaiting a trial for extremism (he will probably wait a long time). How 29 people have the guts to continue to stand up to Putin in this way, then, I have no idea. It just goes to show that we should not write off the whole of the Russian people - just those who willingly support and enable Putin's naked imperial ambitions.

Friday, December 22, 2023

More X disinformation

Oh, OK, just one more.

X, everyone's favourite misinformation machine, has recently been sharing this photo of cars stranded in a snowstorm.

Captions in various langages - this particular one is in Italian - claim that this scene is in Germany in early December 2023 and it shows all the electric cars that have shut down due to the cold and been abandoned on the autobahn. Because, everyone knows, electric cars just stop working when it's cold. Don't they? 

This, I guess, is someone's idea of peak schadenfreude. Now, even I know that there aren't THAT many electric cars in Germany, but the picture has nevertheless been shared many, many times by doomsayers opposed, for whatever reason, to the rise of electric vehicles. 

A reverse image search using TinEye, however, shows that the photo was actually taken way back in February 2011 by an Associated Press photojournalist, and it depicts the aftermath of a snowstorm in Chicago, USA, not Germany. 12 years ago, there would have been hardly any electric cars in Chicago, Germany or anywhere else. 

It turns out the picture has actually been used for misinformation purposes many times for many different purposes in the intervening years. Some claim the image was captured in Texas, some even that it occurred in Pakistan!

It just goes to show what I've always said: don't believe anything you read on the Internet. Oh, wait....


Here's another similar one. There are multiple examples, both on Twitter and in various tabloid newspapers claiming that the whole (or sometimes most of) Olso's electric bus fleet failed during a recent cold snap there.

In fact, about 50-100 bus journeys out of 4,000 daily departures were cancelled for two or three days, until the city bus company, Ruter, figured things out. Embarrassing perhaps, but hardly disastrous. The issues have since been fixed by adjusting shifts and making changes to the charging infrastructure, according to Ruter.

But a lot of people clearly want to see this technology fail, and are willing to lie in order to achieve that goal.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Just one example of the kind of disinformation to be found on X

Just to give a little flavour of the enormity of the lies floating around on Elon Musk's disinformation vehicle X, there is a post doing the rounds, now with tens of millions of views, claiming that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zekinskyy has bought a $20 million mansion in Florida and has applied for US citizenship for when Ukraine inevitably falls.

To most thinking people this seems, even at first glance, so highly improbable that you'd at least check it. But that's not how Twitter and Facebook users work.

Anyway, suffice to say, the claim is not true, on many different levels. The mansion shown is in a completely different part of Florida than claimed, and is happily owned by some other regular (if rich) folk, although it is now for sale if you have $11 million to spare. The citizenship application shown is actually a customizable template available on Reddit. The photo of Zelenskyy used is the official one from the Ukraine government website.

So, someone has gone to quite some trouble to concoct this fantasy, complete with documentary "evidence", in order to discredit Zelenskyy, presumably in support of Republican attempts to stop the flow of American money to Ukraine. 

It apparently originated on the DC Weekly website, a nest of iniquity and disinformation that often posts pro-Russian content. The author of the original article, one Jessica Devlin, claims to be an "acclaimed journalist" but actually has nothing else published online, and her profile picture is actually a picture of another woman entirely, a New York-based writer called Judy Batalion.

So, levels within levels of disinformation. The X post, nevertheless, has been shared millions of times, including by a prominent failed Republican Senate candidate, and has already achieved its intended goal. Why any reputable individuals still associate themselves with this platform is a mystery to me.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

COP28 - a qualified success?

For better or worse, depending on who you speak to, the COP28 climate summit has ground, belatedly, to a halt. It hasn't been the unqualified success some wanted - realistically, it was never going to be that, notwithstanding the fact that one person's success is another person's failure - but neither has it been a complete write-off. There have been some positive developments, even if the big stuff didn't really get done. So many competing interests, and we are definitely not all rowing in the same direction, or with the same enthusiasm. 

So, what went right? 

  • Over 150 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, to significantly cut methane levels by 2030.
  • A commitment was made to triple global renewable energy production, and to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements, by 2030.
  • More money has been promised for the loss and damage fund for poorer countries directly feeling the effects of climate change.

Well, OK, all well and good, although none of this is actually enforceable.

So, what went wrong, then?

  • There was no commitment to cut methane from the largest single source: agriculture, particularly cattle-raising.
  • Despite early enthusiasm for a complete "phase out" of fossil fuels (over 100 countries were willing to sign up for that), the final declaration got watered down to "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner", and "phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible". But there were still no specific timelines, benchmarks or investment goals, and the agreement is entirely non-binding, although, arguably, at least fossil fuels were mentioned this time.
  • The goal to limit warming to 1.5°C looks to be gone, and the window of opportunity almost completely closed.

Groupings like the Alliance of Small Island States are furious and most environmental groups feel like they've been sold out. But oil producing nations feel like they've given away more than enough, and they will probably see this conference as a win insofar as it is not more restrictive. 

So, should we take COP28 as a win, overall? Maybe "qualified success' is about where we are.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Conservative lies (yes, I said it) about the carbon tax

Since the Liberals had the poor judgement to give a "break" to home heating oil users in Atlantic Canada, there has been a growing backlash against their signature climate change initiative. Without this ill-considered "carve-out", it would probably not have occurred to most people that avoiding a price on carbon was even an option. It was probably the worst single decision the Liberals have made in the whole eight years of their administration.

Now, however, a recent poll shows that 42% want the carbon "tax" to be scrapped completely, and a further 17% want at least a temporary cut. Only 15% believe that the tax should continue as scheduled with further rate increases each year. (The whole point of putting a price on carbon is to make carbon-intensive activities increasingly undesirable and difficult. Because, you know, the planet is burning and all that.)

Predictably, the Conservatives have made hay from this chink of sunshine. Disingenuous populists like Pierre Poilievre and Danielle Smith have jumped on this opportunity to beat the Liberals, and "Axe the tax!" (could they not do better than that?) has become a rallying cry for the right wing once again. Because, well, taxes are bad, aren't they?

Well, no, taxes are not, in and of themselves, bad. They are a way of raising money to provide other government services for people that need them. But, more to the point the "carbon tax" is not really a tax at all. It is a revenue-neutral device, and all the money collected is refunded to taxpayers. In fact, an estimated 80% of taxpayers - including most lower- and middle-income Canadians - are better off as a result of the carbon tax, as they receive more back in the form of a Climate Action Incentive Payment than they pay out as a result of the increasing carbon tax. Only a small minority of (wealthier) Canadians are actually out of pocket, due to their particularly carbon-intensive lifestyle. Don't just take the government's word for that, though: a 2021 university study confirms it, as does a 2022 Parliamentary Budget Office report.

The Liberals, though, have done a terrible job of explaining this to the Canadian public, and nearly 40% of Canadians seem to have no idea that they have been receiving these rebates. (It doesn't help that banks have been slow to transparently label the direct deposits in people's bank accounts, which might make it clearer what the deposits are for.) Even since the Conservatives' iniquitous "Axe the Tax" campaign started, the Liberals still don't seem to have gone out their way to explain it, or to explain why the Conservatives are lying to us about it (one has to assume that Conservative politicians actually DO understand it).

But, anyway, the Conservatives say, the carbon tax is adding to our inflationary woes, isn't it? Well, kind of. Tiff Macklem, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, estimates that the effect of the carbon tax on the recent increase in inflation is about ... 0.15%. So, inflationary pressure is just another Conservative red herring. And even that small element is not inflation that leaves us worse off (in the majority of cases, at any rate), because we get it back in the form of a rebate.

I know that. Maybe you know that. But most people apparently don't. Why don't they? Because the Liberals are inept. And the Conservatives will be running a whole election campaign on the basis of that government ineptitude and willful public ignorance. And they are clearly willing to lie and mislead in the process.  

Incidentally, I have tried to find a good explanation of why Poilievre and his followers object so strenuously to the carbon tax, but I have failed to do so. (Plenty of articles about why Conservatives should be in favour of it, but nothing substantive to the contrary.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Israel has lost the world's goodwill and the moral high ground

For about a week, or maybe more, in October, Israel had the goodwill and sympathy of the world. 

Since then, as Israel doubles down on its impossible goal of eliminating every last man-jack the Hamas organization, and proceeds to obliterate legitimate Palestinian communities and indiscriminately bomb civilians, hospitals and refugee camps, people are starting to remember that, oh yes, these are those guys who have been illegally settling Palestinian lands, carrying out extra-judicial killings and imprisonments, and maintaining an almost-complete blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Most major Western governments are still carefully sticking to the agreed formula that Israel has a right to defend itself, but Israel is doing very little defending and a whole lot of brazen attacking right now. And the people those governments represent are long past sympathizing with Israel, horrified by its disproportionate response to what was admittedly an inexcusable act by Hamas. Even the supportive governments are starting to show their frustration at the way things are going.

After seven days of "humanitarian pause" and a promising swap of hostages and prisoners, Israel has ramped up its rhetoric and its attacks still further, and it is all starting to sound increasingly hollow to Western ears. The moral high ground has been well and truly lost, and global goodwill has been squandered.

No-one pretends that Israel has ever had an easy time of it, plonked down in 1947 in a place they had not lived in for almost two thousand years. But, after decades of poor decisions and wars, a bigoted and arrogant political class, and a population with a sizeable chip on its shoulder, they have done themselves no favours. 

I will probably be branded as antisemitic for such sentiments. That's the usual come-back whenever the state of Israel is criticized, because it tends to shut down the conversation instantly because no-one can conscience being labelled as antisemitic. But you might notice that at no point (until now!) have I used the word "Jew" or "Jewish". This is not about religion, it's not even about culture. It's about a particular nation-state and its political boundaries and ambitions. Semitism or antisemitism doesn't (or shouldn't) come into it.

China and India qualify as developing countries for climate change purposes, and that's just wrong

The COP28 climate summit has already announced a few promising developments, one of which is a "loss and damage" fund, whereby rich developed countries subsidize poorer developing countries for the additional costs they have incurred from disasters and damage caused by climate change.

That all sounds very sensible. But the problem arises in defining which countries should contribute to the fund and which countries should benefit from it. There is a concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in UN jargon, which basically means that all countries have a responsibility to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but their share of responsibility depends on their development needs. But the UN's definitions of "developed" and "developing" are based on its 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is now over 30 years old, and much has changed in the intervening decades.

So, technically, India and China qualify as developing nations, and therefore stand to claim from the fund, which seems kind of ridiculous. China is the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, having overtaken the USA some years ago, and India is now Number 3. China and India both argue that their high levels of emissions are a recent development, while other western countries have been polluting the world for centuries. This is, of course, mere sophistry and disingenuous in the extreme.

China is now the second richest country in the world in terms of GDP, and India  has the fifth biggest economy. Yes, they both have huge populations to support, but to subsidize their current emissions habits seems just plain wrong. Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the summit, is also technically a developing country, but it has pledged $100 million to the loss and damage fund, so a precedent has been set. 

At the very least, the outdated development grouping of countries being used by the UN is in dire need of revision.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The US doesn't want EVs (or its car dealerships don't)

There's an interesting conundrum occurring in the American electric vehicle (EV) market. I have pointed out in a previous post that the USA is reporting a glut of unsold EVs, while Canada is facing the opposite problem: not enough cars available to fill demand.

So, now we have thousands of US car dealerships banding together to protest to Joe Biden that the American public is just not ready for the EV revolution and that demand has dried up (after the initial flurry of early adopters), and there is no way that they can possibly comply with the new regulations and targets in the Inflation Reduction Act, which effectively mandates that two-thirds of all new passenger cars be electric by 2032.

Despite a wide variety of good battery EV options available on the market, the dealerships claim that "electric vehicle demand today is not keeping up with the large influx of BEVs arriving at our dealerships prompted by the current regulations. BEVs are stacking up on our lots... Consumers don't want them; they're not buying them."

As a response, the dealerships and the manufacturers want the government to roll back its progressive targets. They have little or no interest in what is the right thing to do for the country or the planet; they are solely concerned with their bottom line and their shareholders' returns.

They seem to have no interest in getting creative either. For example, when was the last time you saw a television advertisement for an electric car? If you watch a sporting event, for example, most of the adverts are macho pitches for more-or-less interchangeable trucks and SUVs, with a heavy emphasis on speed, off-roading capability and towing capacity. Is it any surprise, then, that people think they want to buy macho trucks?

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration has the courage of its own convictions, or whether it caves under pressure like the Trudeau government did over home heating oil.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Do we really need nuclear power?

So, there was John Kerry at the COP28 summit in Dubai sharing his deeply-held belief that there is no path to net-zero carbon by 2050 that does not involve nuclear power: "We know, because the science and the reality of facts and evidence tell us, that you can't get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear". 

And when he says "some nuclear", he means a lot - the US (and several other developed countries, including Japan, France, UK, South Korea, UAE) is calling for a tripling of nuclear capacity. Yes, they are also calling for a tripling of renewable energy capacity too, but clearly the once-discredited nuclear industry is having a bit of a moment, notwithstanding its record of huge cost overruns, long construction times, expensive electricity, poor planning for long-term radioactive waste storage, and the potential for catastrophic accidents.

But is Kerry's claim true. A quick Google search suggests that it absolutely is:

It's certainly the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom is not always the wisest wisdom. And, if you look carefully, sandwiched between all these paeans of praise to the nuclear industry (many of which are contributed by the nuclear industry itself, incidentally), there are some contrary voices:

These are not wild voices from the political wilderness; they are reasoned analyses by respected scientists. Yes, there are fewer of them, and they MUCH worse funded. But these voices should not be just ignored.

So, does "the science and the reality of facts and evidence tell us" that nuclear power is a sine qua non for net zero carbon by 2050? Well, some of it does, but some of it doesn't. As with most of these things, it all depends on what assumptions you make (and when predicting the future, particularly a technological future, it is impossible to avoid making some assumptions).

One article called nuclear power the "most religious form of energy", and that "those who believe in it, believe in it 100%". That's not far wrong. It's one of the most polarizing technologies we have, with strong opinions on both sides. But the fact that we're still arguing about it attests to the fact that the jury is still out. It is pretty incontrovertible that nuclear power is not a cheap option (as the same article - and many others - explains), and it does have many other drawbacks too. But can we actually do without it?

Just to add spice into the mix, it's not even totally clear that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source, let alone carbon neutral, the single most important factor in its popularity these days:

*Sigh* It seems that nothing is ever simple. And John Kerry seemed so convincing...

Friday, December 01, 2023

What can we expect from COP28 in the current climate?

I don't often admit to it, but I'm feeling particularly pessimistic as we go into yet another round of the UN Conference of the Parties. The COP28 climate summit is taking place at a time when it has never been more important to push through a strong multinational program to deal with climate change, but at a time when there seems to be push-back all over the world against those very measures.

It starts with the optics of a climate change summit hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one the world's largest producers of fossil fuels. Conflict of interest? Er, just a bit. Leaked documents suggest that the summit's hosting president, Sultan al-Jaber, who is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (which is already in the process of massively ramping up its oil production), as well as UAE's Minister for Industry and advanced Technology, has plans to use the event to hold back-room discussions to promote the country's oil and gas business, rather than to showcase its renewable energy projects. 

Canada will of course be there at the summit. But so will representatives from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and you know that they are not there to discuss wind and solar power. Alberta is currently using its controversial sovereignty law to push back at Ottawa's proposed clean electricity regulations, and summarily halted development of its booming renewable power industry. Just next door, Saskatchewan has vowed to stop collecting and remitting the federal carbon tax because it feels that other provinces are getting preferential treatment after the federal Liberals' ill-advised decision to give home heating oil users in Atlantic a carbon tax break. Now, Canada's First Nations are jumping on the bandwagon, calling for a judicial review of a carbon tax they see as discriminatory. As a result of all this, Canada's climate change policy is in complete disarray, and the country's emissions reduction plan is falling well short of its ambitious targets.

High inflation and struggling economies around the world, and the short sharp shock of the Russian war in Ukraine, have many countries rethinking their climate change commitments. The UK, which was doing better than most countries in reducing its carbon emissions, has announced a major overhaul (and watering down) of its green policies. The USA has been doing better environmentally under Joe Biden than it has for many a year, but the threat to its climate change achievements of a second Trump term in 2024 has everyone second-guessing where it might be going. (Trump would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, roll back a bunch of executive orders on the environment, and obstruct as many progressive initiatives as possible.) Germany is backtracking on its home heating rules; France has seen protests against high fuel prices; etc, etc. Hell, even Sweden has cut taxes on fossil fuels recently.

It's not all doom and gloom. China has been investing massively in solar and wind power; the US's Inflation Reduction Act has completely turned around its environmental outlook; Brazil has got rid of its rainforest-slashing populist president; Australia has a new Prime Minister who is not quite so in-the-pocket of the coal and oil industries. Nearly a quarter of emissions worldwide are now subject to some sort of carbon tax. Renewable energy is booming.

But I still can't shake that feeling of impending doom. It hurts to admit it, but a global backlash against climate policies is undeniably underway. People are feeling the pinch and perceive themselves as overstretched in their daily lives. Climate change is no longer top of mind for many. Most people are at least aware of the immensity of the problem, but are unwilling to pay for a solution. As the low-hanging fruit has all been picked and further progress involves harder decisions and uncomfortable belt-tightening, there is a perception that green policies impose unacceptable costs. Populist right-wing politicians see this and willfully exploit it and make it worse. 

Developing countries understandably, don't want their development hampered by constraints created by first-world mistakes. New green technologies often require substantial upfront investment at a time when money is short and interest rates are high. Meanwhile, the planet is on track for an estimated 2.9% warming over pre-industrial levels, a far cry from the recommended 1.5% limit enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, enough to ensure an unrelenting litany of droughts, fires, extreme heat events and general climate mayhem.

What chance, then, does COP28 stand against these forces? I am always amazed at how resilient environmentalists are, how positive they stay after setback after setback. Over 70,000 delegates are meeting in Dubai this week, most of them - notwithstanding the Albertas, Saskatchewans and UAEs of the world - intent on improving the environment and "saving the world". Who am I to doubt them?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Beam Global's EV ARC charging system could be a game-changer

Well, here's a cool thing: Beam Global has developed a standalone off-grid EV charging station with its own solar-powered canopy

The EV ARC System generates and stores its own electricity, and can power up to 6 EV chargers. It requires no construction, electrical work or utility connection (although it can be linked to the grid for backup if needed), and it can be shipped intact in a standard 20-foot shipping container, or on a flatbed truck or railcar, or in its own proprietary transportation system. It uses a 4.4 kW array with a sun-tracking system for added efficiency.

Patents have been issued in USA, Europe, India and China thus far. It is thought that delivery fleets may well be the mainstay of ARC's potential market. It's approach is to ensure continual charging for a full daily range replenishment (DRR) for multiple cars, which particularly suits fleet businesses. Parking lots at theme parks and sports stadiums are also a target market, but supermarkets and restaurants are also showing an interest. It is designed to fit within a standard-sized parking spot (or at least an American one).

Although the units may seem pricey at about $70,000 fully installed, when you consider that the traditional construction (trenching, cable runs, etc) and electrical work for grid-tied chargers can run to as much as $300,000, you can see how it might establish a healthy niche for itself, particularly in sunny locales. Installation is also much quicker. Beam Global is already seeing a 500% year-on-year increase in orders.

Nice to see some good news about renewables for a change, as the world seems intent on retrenching just when we need expansion the most.

Suggestion that black people can't do math ruled out by appeal court

I don't often agree with the current Ontario government - on anything, really - but I do agree with a new Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that sides with the Conservative government's education policy in this one particular case.

A lower divisional court had found earlier that the Ontario government-imposed math proficiency test (MPT) for teachers discriminated against racialized teachers because, for whatever reason, they had more problems passing the test. No-one was ever disqualified as a teacher on these grounds, because they could just re-take the test until they passed it. But some, including the lower court, felt that this still discriminated against them.

The Appeal Court, however, ruled that racialized teachers were actually passing the test at a generally similar rate to white teachers - 93% compared to 95% - as you would probably expect, and there were multiple opportunities to pass the test anyway, so no discrimination was happening.

I'm not totally sold on the need for the test in the first place. But, given that such a test exists, to assume that racialized teachers are somehow more poorly equipped to pass it seems ridiculous to me. If indeed they do pass the test at a lower level than white teachers (which is now debatable), then that's just an indication that they need to buck up their math skills, not that they are somehow being discriminated against. Indeed, the very suggestion seems inherently racist to me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Who are the Palestinian prisoners to be released in Israeli hostage deal?

Under the Hamas-Israel deal brokered by the USA and Qatar, 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in return for 50 Israeli hostages. It's a deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier rejected but has now seen fit to accept, under political pressure. The hostages (women and children) will be released in batches during a four-day cease-fire, and further batches may be added, extending the cease-fire as needed.

This is an important and promising development, but it raises the question of who exactly are these political prisoners that are to be released from Israel's jails

The list of names published (300 of them, on the grounds that more hostages than the initial 50 hostages may ultimately be released) includes 123 minors under the age of 18, including five as young as 14-years old. They are mainly women and children arrested for various crimes including rock-throwing, hurling firebombs, and possession of firearms, as well as lesser crimes like hindering police work and unlawful assembly. None of them are convicted of murder, although a few are convicted of attempted murder. Many have been arrested but never tried.

Israeli jails are bulging with Palestinian "terrorists". This deal may result in a few hundred fewer.


As the prisoners swap continues, and has even been extended a little, it is becoming increasingly clear that Israel is deliberately detaining more and more Palestinians from the occupied West Bank so as to have more bodies to swap for more Israelis. 

Israel holds some 7,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, many of them held under "administrative detention" (i.e. not formally tried). While there may be a "humanitarian pause" in Gaza, no such pause holds in the occupied West Bank. Far more Palestinians have been detained since the war started on October 7th than have been released to great fanfare in the last week, and the rate of detentions seems to have accelerated in recent weeks. Coincidence? I think not.

It turns out the Hamas "terror-tunnels" were mainlt built by Israel

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have been providing copious but entirely unconvincing evidence that they have found the secret headquarters of Hamas in tunnels underneath al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Their PR machine is slick and sophisticated, but most observers find their so-called evidence a bit thin. A few guns and some body armour (which may or may not have been found in the tunnels) does not constitute a thriving nest of terrorist cells, feverishly plotting the destruction of the Jewish overlords. BBC analysis of the IDF video of the findings shows that it had been edited, despite IDF assurances that it was filmed in one continuous take.

Now, it turns out that the "terror-tunnels", as the IDF spokespeople insist on calling them, including the ones under al-Shifa Hospital, were mainly build by Israel decades ago. A CNN interview with Ehud Barak, the ex-Israeli Prime Minister blithely admits that, "we helped them to build these bunkers in order to enable more space for the operation of the hospital". This was confirmation of a previous admission by the Times of Israel.

Yes, Hamas may have extended the tunnels since for their own purposes (e.g. evading capture by Israel), but for the IDF to make a big song and dance about "discovering" these "secret" tunnels is disingenuous at best.

There are tunnels all over Gaza, many of them dating back to the 1980s, long before Hamas, particularly near the Egyptian border, and Palestinians have long used them for the smuggling of black market goods, including, it must be said, weapons. But in a blockaded state effectively under martial law, where Palestinians live under constant threat of extra-judicial killing or imprisonment by Israeli forces, you can kind of understand that.

If Israel can't show some more convincing evidence of a Hamas military control centre under al-Shifa Hospital, their justification of all the killings at and around the hospital falls down, and their whole narrative starts to look very shaky to thus-far supportive Western nations. The existence of some Israeli-built tunnels certainly does not cut it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Jeff Bezos' emissions-spewing superyacht

Centibillionaire (look it up!) Jeff Bezos has a $500 million superyacht that emits an estimate 7,150 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 1,521 average people (or 450 Americans!)

Despite being the largest sailboat in the world, it rarely makes use of its wind power, preferring the power of its two MTU engines instead. And, because it doesn't boast a helipad (design fault, no?) it is trailed around everywhere it goes by a shadow vessel which DOES have a helipad ('cos you gotta have a helipad, bro).

So, next time you listen to Bezos' partner Lauren Sanchez tell us that "Jeff and I really are focussing on the long-term commitment to climate", you'll know to take it with a pinch of salt.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Aluminum-free deoderant - should I be worried about aluminum?

I've always been a little confused about the presence or absence of aluminum (see, I spelled it the North American way - I'm practically a local now!) in deoderant and antiperspirant. 

Pretty much all deoderants these days boldly advertise "aluminum-free" or "0% aluminum". So, I naively assumed, probably like most other people, that aluminum on the skin is bad for you. After all, too much aluminum in the brain can cause dementia, can't it? Gruesome animal experiments have proved that.

However, I recently read an article referring to the aluminum-free trend as a "marketing scam", so I looked into it. Well, it seems that aluminum blocks the pores and so prevents sweating from the area of skin it covers (known since the late 1800s), which is why it is an essential ingredient in antiperspirants. Antiperspirants are designed to stop underarm sweating because it is unladylike and antisocial to smell of sweat (and, let's face it, these things are mainly marketed to women).

So, antiperspirants, by definition, contain aluminum. Deoderants, on the other hand, which seek only to mask underarm sweat smells and not to stop sweating completely, by definition, do not contain aluminum. So, advertising "0% aluminum" on a deoderant is technically correct but unnecessary and redundant, similar to advertising fat-free popsicles or gluten-free vegetables. In that respect at least, it is a marketing scam.

But there is still a lot of confusion out there about the aluminum in antiperspirants. Antiperspirants (containing aluminum) are still sold, they're just a bit misunderstood and face a lot of public disapproval. This is largely due to one of those well-meaning but ill-informed viral scare campaigns that do the rounds of the internet from time to time, claiming that antiperspirant is the leading cause of breast cancer, and that it occurs because antiperspirants block sweating, the body's natural means of purging toxins, and that they somehow cause DNA damage leading to cancer. (It doesn't, take the American Cancer Society's word for it.)

The Slate article humorously enjoins us to maybe not inject aluminum directly into our brains, just in case, but that's about the size of it.

Friday, November 17, 2023

"Panda diplomacy" is back

At Joe Biden and Xi Jinping's love-in summit in San Francisco this week many weighty subjects were discussed and some concrete agreements were made, like a resumption of military-to-military communications between the two countries and a vow to curb Chinese fentanyl production (although don't hold your breath on that one, Xi has little or no control over it).

And then, out of the blue, Xi announced he was throwing in a couple of pandas, as  a "goodwill gesture", to "deepen friendly ties" and to "meet the wishes of the Californians". Up until recently, there have been several Chinese giant pandas in American zoos (and elsewhere) on a loan basis, but most of them have now been returned (two were returned from Washington DC just this last week).

I just find it a bit bizarre that China uses its giant pandas as bargaining chips in this way, almost as a kind of currency. Did anyone ask the pandas? Does Xi think that the offer of some cute pandas will distract the West from all the other important things that it is asking China to fix?

Panda diplomacy has been a Chinese tactic since the 1940s, but it really came into its own after Nixon's visit to China in 1972 (the US reciprocated by sending two musk oxen to China, which is even more bizarre). In the 1980s, Chinese policy changed to leasing pandas, often for big bucks, to Western zoos, which rather defeats the philanthropic impact, I would have thought. As US-China relations soured in the 2010s, many of the pandas were returned, and the last few loaned pandas are due to go back to China next year.

So, you can probably judge the state of international relations by the number of pandas in each country. Canada's two pandas were returned to China in 2020, supposedly because of the difficulty of finding good bamboo, but it did also coincide with a precipitous downturn in Canada-China relations, with the whole Meng Wanzhou/Two Michaels saga. Coincidence?

Like I say, bizarre.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Is battery life an issue for electric cars?

When thinking about electric vehicles (EVs), people worry about their range, their cost, charging infrastructure, and battery life. Wait ... battery life? Is that a problem too?

Well, apparently not. A new study shows that only 1.5% of EVs have had to have their batteries replaced (outside of a very few recalls), and most EVs driven up to 100,000 miles still have 90% of their original battery range. Battery replacement is most common (obviously enough) in older cars, and in cheaper vehicles like the Chevy Bolt. But in most cases the batteries will last at least as long as the cars themselves. 

So, yes it's expensive to replace a battery in an EV, but you're unlikely to need to, and it is really not a major stumbling block. Maybe, as I have seen suggested, it would be better for car companies to offer a lifetime warranty, to put people's unfounded fears at rest.

Oh, and by the way, just to mention a few of the other criticisms often levelled against zero-emission vehicles: EV range is not an issue these days, and they will start to save you money after just a couple of years. While reliability is still a problem with public charging ports, the number of charging stations is increasing rapidly, and anyway most EV owners do most of their charging (80%) at home. And no, they don't spontaneously burst into flames with great regularity (much less frequently than gas cars actually). And no, EVs are not actually an environmental disaster covered up by the radical eco-warrior caste. Dead EV batteries are not going to be a major problem on a par with nuclear waste, as some will tell you, lithium-ion batteries are at least 90% recyclable (this according to JD Power). And, finally, yes, EV range goes down in cold weather, but so does the range of regular gas vehicles and they may fail even more than EVs according to Norwegian data.

Bottom line: there's a lot of anti-EV propaganda being disseminated on the interwebs, most of it false or at least misleading.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Pro-Palestine chant should not be considered hate speech

A chant often taken up at the many pro-Palestine rallies currently taking place around the world is getting increasing attention. 

You will often hear lusty renditions of "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!" at any rally in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights. The river in question is the Jordan, and the sea is the Mediterranean. It has been used at least since the 1960s, and is seen by Palestinians and their supporters as an expression of their demand for equal rights for Palestinians within the borders of Israel and the occupied territories, a plea for self-determination. There is no consensus on whether this should be within a single secular Palestinian state, or as part of a two-state solution, but it is pretty clearly a call for freedom, not domination.

The way I see it, a quick perusal of the border maps of Israel and Palestine (see below) is enough to show that Palestine wants to revert to the UN-promised borders of 1947, which did pretty much stretch from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, but still left Israel with a substantial homeland to populate. Instead, after various local wars, Palestine ended up today with the much smaller territory that can be seen in the second map below. They would like to get back to what was promised.

However, Israel and the Jewish diaspora worldwide seem to automatically interpret the chant - for reasons that I confess I don't entirely understand - as a call to completely destroy Israel and its people, and characterize it as hate speech with genocidal intent. As the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs puts it, the chant calls for "death to all Jewish people in Israel, Canada and everywhere", which surely takes reading between the lines to a whole new level.

This is partly, to be fair, because Hamas (a terrorist organization that DOES seek to destroy Israel) has recently incorporated it into its own charter. Adding to the confusion, though, Jews themselves have often employed the phrase "from the river to the sea" in their own propaganda and at public rallies, and Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party uses the phrase in its founding charter, as a way of saying that it does not actually recognize Gaza or the West Bank.

Either way, the phrase has certainly become a contentious and loaded one during the current Israel-Hamas conflict. This came to a head in Canada a couple of days ago when Wesam Cooley (aka Wesam Khaled) was arrested by Calgary police after a pro-Palestinian rally there for using "an antisemitic phrase", despite earlier assurances by the police that his words would not result in his arrest, that day at least.

The police did not explicitly confirm that the antisemitic phrase in question was the "from the river to the sea" one, but they did say that it was used repeatedly, and that the crowd was encouraged to follow along, so it seems very likely. 

Interestingly, Cooley was initially charged with a standard crime (causing a public disturbance) and then a hate motivation was appended to it, presumably because only a handful of charges of advocating genocide or willfully promoting hatred have ever been brought before the courts on Canada, and police need their provincial attorney-general to sign off on such charges.

Be that as it may, it will be interesting to see how this charge progresses, or even whether it is retracted as an error as many legal experts believe. Several lawyers professors have confirmed that Cooley's words and actions do not meet the threshold for hate speech, or even for causing a disturbance. So, it will be interesting to see whether the charges turn out to have been trumped up and politically-motivated, especially given that the Calgary protesters were told that by police that the Alberta government is considering classifying the chant as a form of hate speech.

It may be the first explicit move in Canada to crack down on the political free speech of pro-Palestinian protesters, echoing similar restrictions in some European cities and countries. 


Unsurprisingly, the charges against Mr. Cooley have been stayed by the Alberta Crown prosecutors before a trial could even be held, on the grounds that it could not be legally supported. 

I, and many others, could have told Calgary Police Services that before they went to the trouble of arresting the guy. Toronto Police Services, for example, have already had their lawyers review the same situation and provincial legal experts are unanimous in their view that such a chant does not meet the threshold of constituting hate speech. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Biden's pro-Israel stance could cost him the 2024 election

It's perhaps an unintentional and even unexpected development in American politics - like it needs more problems! - but the Israel-Hamas war is having a distinct dampening effect on Joe Biden's already-waning popularity, and potentially on his re-election chances.

Never the most engaging or dynamic politician, Biden was welcomed in 2020 as the antidote to Donald Trump, and the most likely person to beat Trump. His political opinions hardly even mattered. Unfortunately, he is still considered the most likely candidate to beat Trump in 2024, despite his age and the fact that most people don't particularly like him.

But Biden's outspoken, unqualified and unquestioning support for Israel since October 7 has further alienated him from a good segment of Democrat voters, particularly young people. His commitment to protecting and supporting Israel, come what may, has sent the Democratic Party into convulsions, and introduced splits it can ill afford. 

He has certainly alienated Arab Americans, although they only make up about 1% of the population. But he has also alienated many on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who see Israel's reaction to the Hamas strike as disproportionate, their tactics as indefensible, and their policies as illegal, bordering on genocidal.

Some have vowed not to vote for Biden in 2024, even if there is no good alternative. Some would even vote for Trump in preference, although why they would think that Trump would have acted any differently is beyond me. 

It's hard to tell how big the groundswell is, but Biden's unquestioning pro-Israel stance could hand Trump the 2024 election, which is bad news for America, the Middle East, and the world in general. Disillusionment with Biden could lead many traditional Democrat voters to stay home. And, given that the election will probably hang on a small number of swing states, that may be all that Trump needs to tip the balance his way. A scary thought indeed.

War crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent ... genocide?

The G-word is increasingly starting to be mentioned with regard to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Allegations of genocide, "the crime of all crimes", should, of course, be made sparingly, otherwise we risk cheapening the memory of genocides past, as the anti-Defamation League points out

Palestine's envoy to the UN has accused Israel of genocide, as has Iran and Iraq (perhaps predictably). But so has Colombia, Honduras and South Africa. Three Palestinian human rights groups have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for possible genocide. (Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and does not recognize its jurisdiction, which is a whole other problem.) 

Not to be outdone, Israel also accuses Hamas of being genocidal, and indeed Hamas's founding charter explicitly commits it to obliterating Israel.

As Israel's actions tip from a legal right to respond to armed provocation into a punitive expedition intended to rid itself of the whole Palestinian Arab problem, lines are starting to be crossed. Hamas' initial attack, killing 1,200 innocent civilians (the updated lower victim count) was, of course, entirely unjustifiable and a war crime in and of itself, even given the decades of Israeli provocations. But Israel's indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza has now taken over 11,000 lives and counting, of which a small but unknown number may be Hamas militants (genuine targets), the rest being civilians just as innocent as the original Israeli victims. In addition, Israel is accused of using starvation and the cutting off of humanitarian supplies as a weapon, not to mention the levelling of residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and refugee camps, and the enforcement of mass migration.

So, war crimes for sure, but genocide? A New York Times opinion piece by a respected scholar of genocide suggests that the line has not been crossed yet, but it could easily happen without more intervention from Western nations and from influential Jewish organizations.

Many of the pronouncements made by various Israeli leaders and generals have definitely indicated genocidal intent, but that is not the same as actual genocide, says the worthy professor. It may have even slipped into an ethnic cleansing operation, one that could easily morph into genocide, but it has not done so yet. 

Ethnic cleansing, incidentally, has not yet been recognized as a crime in its own right under international law, but it differs from genocide in that it aims to remove a population from a territory, often violently, whereas genocide aims to completely destroy that population, wherever it is. You might think that we are entering into semantics and niceties here, but words matter, espe

cially when we are considering international law. 

You'd also think that Jews of all people would be wary of straying too far towards genocide, or even to pronouncements of genocidal intent, but that does not seem to be the case.


South Africa has somewhat upset the apple cart - and the equanimity of many Western nations - by taking Israel to the International Court of Justice, arguing that its bombing campaign and seige in Palestine is "genocidal in character" and violates the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Now, the ICJ is not a particularly effective legal remedy, and its rulings are regularly ignored by nations that object to their findings. But it will, nevertheless, be an interesting intellectual exercise if nothing else, and South Africa is probably saying out loud what a lot of other countries really think, but don't have the chutzpah to admit publicly.

It will be hard for Canada, the US and others, who have been doggedly supporting Israel even as its actions become less and less defensible, to continue to support it in the international court, particularly given their previous stances on situations like Myanmar, Syria, Iran and Russia.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Stephen Wolfram - misunderstood genius or pretentious egotist?

I watched an interesting documentary series called Suppressed Science on Curiosity Stream recently. Actually, it's not so much about actual suppression, but about controversial science - bio-hacking, gene editing, alternative energy, AI, that kind of thing. The last episode was about Theories of Everything, the attempts by physicists to find a single all-encompassing theory that explains all aspects if the universe.

Personally, I've never really understood why physicists would expect or believe that such a thing would ever be possible. We currently have two very good theories - general relativity and quantum mechanics - that do a very good job of explaining how the universe works on very large and very small scales. Why should there be one overarching theory that incorporates the two? Why is one even needed?

Anyway, many physicists have spent their whole lives searching for such a Holy Grail. One such person is Stephen Wolfram, widely considered a maverick and iconoclast in physics circles. He is clearly a genius of rare talent, but his work on a Theory of Everything is just so different from anyone else's that other physicists just don't know how to treat it

I will make no attempt to encapsulate his theory - his classic self-published book on the subject, the 1,200-page A New Kind of Science, became a best seller when it was released in 2002, but it is not easy going - and Wolfram's own attempts on the documentary to couch it in simple layperson's language left both me and the young interviewer glazing over with a wistful and uncomprehending smile. The general idea, though, is that nature runs on ultra-simple computational formulae, where the rules that govern the universe resemble lines of computer code.

Wolfram is a brilliant self-publicist and blessedly free from humility. But just because he has an unshakeable belief in his own legitimacy, does not mean that he is right. After several years out of the academic limelight, running his own successful software company, Wolfram came back a couple of years ago, announcing that his work showed "a path to the fundamental theory of physics". But physicists, other than a few close collaborators, have remained skeptical.

The main problem is that the theory is very theoretical(!) and it can't make any definite new predictions that can be experimentally tested. So, believing in Wolfram's theory is really no more scientific than believing in God. It has not so far been able to reproduce even the most basic quantitative predictions of conventional physics, critics say. Of course, Wolfram disagrees, claiming that, "We're able to reproduce special relativity, general relativity, and the core results of quantum mechanics". It seems like physicists will have to agree to disagree...

Some claim that Wolfram's base theory - that simple computational rules can lead to complex phenomena - is not even that novel, and that it does not take us much further than the work of Alan Turing, John von Neumann and John Conway before him (Conway came up with the cellular automaton known as the Game of Life). Wolfram, of course, disagrees.

Wolfram has that romantic aura of the heroic outsider single-handedly changing all of science, the lone genius labouring in obscurity and rejected by the establishment. But, as the Scientific American article notes, that's just not how scientific discoveries actually work. Even Albert Einstein collaborated and was in contact with other researchers of his day, as did the likes of Heisenberg, Bohr and Hawking. Even Andrew Wiles did not prove Fermat's Last Theorem in a vacuum, but by following the path laid by other mathematicians before him.

Certainly, a scientific field does not get revolutionized without the critical appraisal and validation of many peers, although Wolfram claims not to hold with all that: "I don't really believe in anonymous peer review". When faced with some of the responses to his work from other physicists, his response was, "I'm disappointed by the naivete of the questions that you're communicating. I deserve better." I think that says it all.

Lego - responsible company or greenwashing parasite?

An interesting little snippet in the latest Corporate Knights tells of how the Danish company Lego tried to do the right thing and failed.

Conscious of the environmental and carbon footprint of its operations, and determined to do its part in reducing carbon emissions, Lego announced a prototype plastic brick made from recycled water bottles rather than from "virgin" plastic. Lego's production requires a hundred thousand tons of plastic each year, so it was thought that the emissions savings would be huge.

Not so. It turns out that plastic made from recycled PET bottles is softer and actually needs more energy to process it. Furthermore, switching to the recycled plastic would require changing almost the whole factory set-up, a significant carbon hit in itself. It seems that changing Lego's production to recycled plastic is a non-starter.

It has been pointed out, though, that switching to recycled plastic would also be a good way to reuse plastic that would otherwise moulder away for centuries in landfills, particularly as the recycling market for plastics has all but collapsed. (It is estimated that just 9% of Canada's plastic is recycled, for example.) So, the calculus is not just about carbon dioxide emissions, and Lego's decision may be more about short-term profitability for its shareholders than anything else.

It has also been pointed out that reusing is better than recycling, ceteris paribus, and that maybe a better model for Lego would be to rent them out rather than selling them, although it's hard to see traditional customers (or shareholders) swallowing that. Lego does already have a Replay program that donates used bricks to children's charities.

So, responsible corporate citizen or greenwashing parasite? You decide. Lego has said that it is "looking at a circular business model", and is "fully committed to making Lego bricks from sustainable materials by 2032". But that's 9 years away, and right now it's totally reliant on unsustainable fossil fuels for its plastic gizmos.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

A timely audit of the Ontario Place re-vamp

I have managed not to discuss Doug Ford's plans to "revitalize" Ontario Place thus far. But an article in the Globe and Mail today has served to remind me of how irritated I am about it (yeah, I know, I'm always irritated, when I'm not outraged), and in just how many different ways it is wrong. 

As Alex Bozikovic points out, there are no actual allegations of corruption - yet! - but two investigations are now being run by the province's acting Auditor-General into the propriety and appropriateness of the plans, and the huge costs that are about to be incurred.

The first question to be asked is why we are handing over six acres of the beloved site - the whole of the West Island - to Austrian spa operator Therme. The entirety of the parkland on the island is to be razed, along with some 800 trees, to make way for an up-market glass monstrosity. No environmental review is planned - this project has been "exempted" - nor any provincial heritage review, such as would usually apply to such a site.

Therme is to get a 95-year lease, but details of what they are paying remain hidden, as is the cost of the government-financed rebuild and infrastructure (which will, of course, be borne by taxpayers like you and me). These will almost certainly outweigh Therme's contribution, so the government line that the spa company is somehow subsidizing a public park is disingenuous at best.

Then there is the 1,000 underground parking facility which is now planned, covering a million square feet, and expected to cost (us) about half a million dollars. This, despite the 2019 "call for development" which made it clear that NO new parking was to be planned for the site, especially given that there will soon be a new subway station right there. The parking is clearly just another sop to Therme, although the paperwork for that too remains secret.

And last but not least, there is the matter of the provincially-owned Ontario Science Centre that Ford has belatedly announced is to move from its iconic Moriyama-designed in its spacious ravine location near Eglinton to ... Ontario Place! That decision came as a surprise to the Science Centre's board chair John Carmichael, who was clearly not consulted.

Sure, the Science Centre is looking a bit tired and dated, but that's because it has been starved of investment for decades, although it too us getting is new. But moving it to a site half the size in Ontario Place is not the solution. And who made this decision, and why? One theory is that it provides an excuse for that huge parking lot, as the two are to be built in one combined project.

The whole thing will probably cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion which, for the notoriously stingy Ford, is a huge amount of money. And much of this has been hatched behind closed doors. It seems likely that the Auditor-General's investigations will turn up some nasty little under-the-counter dealing. 

They are already erecting fences and preparing to cut down trees with unconscionable haste, even though the City of Toronto has not given its consent to any of the work. So, the investigation could not be better timed. The first thing it should do is to impose a stop work order.

Canada and other petrostates not meeting their climate change targets

A new report from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and a bunch of other leading climate groups, concludes that Canada and other oil and gas-producing countries are failing dismally to meet important climate change targets. Current performance would not be consistent with keeping warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or even 2°C, as agreed at the Paris conference, not even close.

Canada is doing slightly better than Brazil, USA and Saudi Arabia, but worse than many others. Among petrostates, only Norway and the UK are even projected to decrease oil and gas production by 2030. While most countries are technically striving for a net-zero target, none of them have pledged to reduce their fossil fuel production by anything like enough to meet such a target, let alone be on track to achieve it. In fact, coal, oil and gas production is still increasing.

The report also makes a point of downplaying carbon capture and storage technologies, which it says have largely failed to perform, and should not be relied upon as a major plank of any country's climate change efforts, and certainly should not be treated as a "free pass to continue business as usual".

The UN report supports another recent report by Canada's federal Environment Commissioner which found that Canada was well short of its 2030 targets, and so it should not come as any surprise. Canada and the other fossil fuel producers are going to have to justify themselves at the upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai, which is throwing a particular spotlight on oil and gas producers. Well, that should be interesting.

More heat pump madness

Just to show that the province of Ontario can make just as sdaft a decision on climate change as the federal government did recently with its pause on carbon tax for home fuel oil users in Atlantic Canada. Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) is now offering free heat pumps for eligible low-income households.

Sounds good, right? Well, partly. Thing is, though, the other eligibility requirement is that the household needs to be already using electric baseboard heating. 

Don't get me wrong, switching from electric baseboard heating to a heat pump, would yield good savings, both in cost to the household and in electricity used. But it would be even better if all those poor people using natural gas, propane or fuel oil for heating were able to take advantage of this offer too. They are the ones we really need to wean off fossil fuels.

Thanks to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance for pointing out this howler.