Friday, May 19, 2023

Ford has his reasons dissolving Region of Peel

The Ford government has committed to dissolving the Region of Peel, the area just to the west of Toronto that comprises the two large cities of Mississauga and Brampton and the scattered and largely rural township of Caledon. Under the plan, all three would become "single-tier municipalities" by 1st January 2025, whether they like it or not.

Mississauga (Ontario's third-largest city after Toronto and Ottawa) has been agitating for years to be independent of the Region, arguing that it feels unduly constrained and that it contributes disproportionately to Peel's coffers. Neither fast-growing Brampton (Ontario's fourth city) nor sleepy little Caledon have ever had any delusions of grandeur of this kind, as far as I am aware. In fact, Caledon's mayor is strongly opposed to the idea, saying that she feels like the child in the angry divorce of Mississauga and Brampton. So, this seems to be a provincial gift to 'Sauga, more than anything else. Maybe Ford sees it as a vote-winning policy, which knows?

Ontario's stated justification for the move is to give the municipalities "the tools and autonomy they need to deliver on local priorities, including meeting the ambitious housing pledges they have agreed to". It's not at all clear to me how cutting them loose from Peel is going to help them in that respect, although Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has been up-front in admitting that the upgraded municipalities would be candidates for the controversial and anti-democratic "strong mayor" powers that this Conservative government espouses. He has also said that other regions in southern Ontario may follows including York, Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo and Simcoe.

The logistical challenges are formidable, though. The municipalities within Peel share many services, including some roads, transit, housing, public health, garbage collectio, social services, policing and water. Each municipality would have to create its own infrastructure to offer these services to its residents, likely a long and costly process (no-one really knows how costly). Mississauga and Brampton are already arguing about who owes whom for past developments within each other's borders (although why that ever even happened is beyond me). And what will happen to the 5,000-odd full-time employees of the Region of Peel is anyone's guess.

The legal, administrative and physical difficulties involved will be prodigious, and I just don't see the business case for such a split. But the Ford government does very little that does not support their ideological and self-preservation agenda, so you have to know that, behind any move the government instigates, there us a self-serving rationale.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Ontario power companies working against Toronto's (and the country's) climate mandate

Just a few days after Toronto City Council passed a motion specifically  opposing any new or expanded gas power generation in the city, Ontario's supposedly Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has awarded a contract to Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to increase the capacity of the Portlands gas plant on Toronto's waterfront by 50 megawatts

This is in spite of IESO's admission that its new plan to expand gas-fired power capacity in Toronto, Brampton, Thorold, Windsor and St. Clair will increase Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions by over 450% by 2034 (this according to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance). Also, Ontario's energy minister Todd Smith recently promised that any new gas plant capacity would specifically require municipal approval.

So, something has to give, no? The IESO and OPG appears to be working diametrically opposite to the wishes of Toronto City Council, and diametrically opposed to the climate change goals of the province and the country. Does anyone have control over these organizations? Or maybe, Toronto and the other municipalities just have to say "er, no" and it will all just go away (I wish!) 

Green bonanza spurring corporate greed

Call it the tyranny of the green revolution. The recent stand-off over the Stellantis-LG electric vehicle battery plant planned for Windsor, Ontario, is just one front in a trade war that looks set to continue and spread.

Long before Joe Biden introduced his Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated billions of dollars to expanding the US's green energy- and climate change-related industries, Amsterdam-based Stellantis and South Korea's LG formed a partnership and negotiated a project to build a $5 billion EV battery plant in Ontario, Canada, with $1 billion in federal and provincial support.

It seemed like a good deal for all concerned. But then came the IRA, and suddenly the clean-tech industry's horizons opened up, both in the US and in every other country that found itself competing against the Yankee dollar. It was in this heady atmosphere that Volkswagen negotiated a huge (and controversial) $13 billion sweetener from the Canadian government to locate an EV battery factory here rather than in the US. 

Then, rather belatedly, Stellantis realized that it too could benefit from this green bonanza, and suddenly reopened the Windsor plant deal, claiming that the federal government was not living up to its commitments ("not delivering on what was agreed to"). It immediately downed tools and stopped construction until it receives a VW-sized incentive payment from Ottawa. In effect, it is trying to blackmail the government, because it thinks it can.

In fact, it was a done deal months ago, and it is actually Stellantis that is not living up to its commitments, as it looks to cynically capitalize on the starkly changed landscape. I don't know how they can do that legally, but Stellantis clearly sees itself in such a strong position that it is going to browbeat the Canadian government into handing them yet more corporate welfare billions.

And if you don't believe that this is just Stellantis trying it on, it has also just threatened to pull out of a proposed battery plant in Britain (and re-locate it to North America, where they apparently offer all sorts of good government subsidies) if it won't re-negotiate the deal. Like Canada, Britain needs the batteries, and is stuck between a rock and hard place. And Stellantis, firmly in the driving seat, knows this very well.

The USA's IRA was a groundbreaking piece of legislation, and evidence that Biden at least is very serious about improving America's green credentials. But it is also having all sorts of unintended consequences far from America, and spurring on corporate greed to hitherto unknown levels.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

How much does it cost to shoot down Russian missiles?

I was reading about Ukraine shooting down Russian hypersonic missiles, and I got to wondering what was the cost/benefit of all these missiles and anti-missiles. 

As I understand it, each Patriot interceptor missiles costs about US$4 million (the US recently donated 252 missiles at a cost of US$1,037 million), and the Patriot launcher itself costs around US$10 million. The Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, on the other hand, supposedly cost US$10 million each.

Ukraine claims it shot down six Kinzhal missiles headed towards Kiev yesterday. Russia denies they were intercepted, but who would you believe, given a choice? Furthermore, Russia claims that one of their missiles destroyed a Patriot launcher (Western observers think it more likely that the launcher was just damaged, as Ukraine claims, and should be salvageable). 

So, Russia's six Kinzhals cost $60 million, and Ukraine lost 20 Patriot missiles (the best estimate of the number of missiles fired at the Kinzhals, according to local Ukrainian media) and a launcher (total $90 million), that's a pretty clear financial victory for Russia. But, of course, the value of the lives saved is incalculable.

It just goes to illustrate, though, how ridiculously expensive these modern weapons are. How can one missile cost $10 million? 

It also shows that, notwithstanding Vladimir Putin's claims, Russia's hypersonic cruise missiles, the most sophisticated weapons in its inventory and billed by the Kremlin as too fast for any missiles in the world to intercept, can in fact be stopped by Ukraine's new American-provided air-defence systems. 

It's not clear how many Kinzhal missiles Russia has at its disposal, but the Ukrainian Defence Ministry claims its stocks are critically low, and that it is not able to make more due to the restrictions of sanctions.

What if the United States were to increase its taxes...?

I recently looked at the United States' ridiculous debt cliff snafu, which rears its ugly and embarrassing head each year, and puts the world's richest country in limbo, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, while political machinations play out.

It happens because the US spends more than it raises in taxes each and every year, so the national debt keeps in rising inexorably. This currently stands at a mind-boggling $31.46 trillion, which is about 122% of GDP, higher than any other developed country except Italy (145%), Greece (177%) and Japan (261%), Which suggests that there is a systemic problem: it does not raise enough in taxes to pay for its profligate lifestyle. The idea of raising taxes, though, is anathema in the States, and political suicide. The Republicans would lower them still further given half a chance, making the chronic debt problem even worse.

But are American taxes actually that low? A look at total tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) shows the USA as somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a tax-to-GDP ratio of 27.1%, putting it at no. 56 in the rankings, just below Australia (27.8%) and just above South Korea (26.9%). But a look at just which countries lie above and below it gives a more illuminating picture.

The highest tax-to-GDP counties are almost all European, which may come as no surprise, headed up by France (46.2%), Denmark (46.0%), Belgium (44.6), Sweden (44.0) and Finland (43.3%). In fact, the top 30 countries are all European, with only Cuba (40.6%) preventing a clean European sweep. These are, in the main, high-functioning developed countries, with strong social safety nets.

Most of the countries with lower tax-to-GDP ratios, on the other hand, are poorer countries from Asia, South America and Africa, with poorly-developed state social programs, as well as wealthy Middle Eastern countries with more oil than sense. The only developed country with a significantly lower ratio than the USA is Ireland (22.6%), which makes a rather controversial virtue of its low taxes in an attempt to attract multinational headquarters.

Just for reference, Canada's taxes-to-GDP ratio comes in at no. 33 with a ratio of 32.2%, alongside Brazil and New Zealand. Canada's national debt sits at 106% of GDP, better than the USA, France and Spain, but still significantly higher than Australia, New Zealand and most other European countries with whom we might wish to compare ourselves.

Anyway, my point in going into all this is that the USA could stop constantly adding its national debt by increasing its taxes to a level consistent with most other developed countries. Not that that is ever going to happen, but just putting it out there.

Monday, May 15, 2023

100 million Canadians by 2100? Well, why not?

There's good commonsense article by Andew Coyne in this weekend's Globe and Mail about Canada's (and Quebec's) immigration policy.

The Liberal government's immigration targets are ambitious: 465,000 this year, 485,000 in 2024, and a cool half million in 2025. All these people have to be absorbed, fed, housed and employed. Immigration-averse Quebec, however, wants to keep its annual immigration numbers at just 50,000, which would mean many more Anglos moving into the rest of Canada, and Quebec losing some of its population share (and its influence). 

You could argue that Quebec's influence within Canada has always been outsized compared to its population anyway, but Le Journal de Montréal published a series of articles last week on the subject, arguing that this is all a dastardly plot by Anglophone Canada to deliberately sideline Quebec and to kill off the French language in Canada. This is clearly not the case, but that is how many Quebeckers are apparently seeing it.

One thing Le Journal de Montréal accuses the federal government of is that they have signed on to the policies of the Century Initiative (an admittedly Liberal-adjacent activist group), which is calling for a Canadian population of 100 million by the end of the century. The federal Liberals have never expoused that particular target, and they have no links to the Century Initiative.

Except... in reality, 100 million by 2100 is not actually a particularly radical or ambitious goal. Through the magic of compounding, to get from our current almost 40 million to 100 million in 77 years implies a growth rate of just 1.2% a year. This, as it turns out, is exactly the same as Canada's historic population growth rate since 1970. So, the Century Initiative is actually just a continuation of the status quo. And we have 77 years to adapt and figure out how to feed and clothe all the newcomers.

Quebec's immigration plan, on the other hand, will lead to a progressively smaller Quebec, from 22% of the country's population to just 15% by the end of the century, with a concomitant decrease in the number of French speakers. Quebec used to have an even larger share of the national population, but 50 years of language wars, secession threats and economic uncertainty put paid to that, immigration policy notwithstanding. The language may not be exactly thriving, but don't blame federal immigration policy for it. 

And anyway, even with Quebec's self-imposed low immigration targets and its low internal fertility rates, the province's population would still almost double by century end. So, lots of new Francophones to keep the language going. 

Certainly, we should not allow Quebec to dictate the country's immigration policy, nor give in to demands that Quebec be guaranteed its current share of the seats in the House of Common in perpetuity (as has been suggested). Quebec thinks it is special, and it has been treated as special ever since Confederation for one reason or another. It's about time they came down to a level playing field with the other provinces.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sustainable chocolate is unsustainable

Up to half of all chocolate these days claims to be from sustainably-sourced cocoa (cacao). It's a marketing sine qua non for chocolate companies, and one that has been very good to the $140 billion a year chocolate industry. The confectionary divisions of the Big 4 - Hershey, Lindt, Mondelez and Nestlé - have made nearly US$15 billion in profits over the last three years, an average annual increase of 16% since 2020.

The reality is, though, that "sustainability" is a vaguely-defined and slippery concept, and most certified farmers in West Africa and elsewhere still earn much less than a living income. It is a scam and a scandal that has flown for years below most people's radar.

Most of the cocoa that goes to make our cheap chocolate bars comes from West Africa: Ivory Coast (39%), Ghana (15%), Cameroon (5%) and Nigeria (5%). The other large producer is Indonesia (15%). South American countries like Brazil (5%) and Ecuador (5%) are surprisingly small players (who knew?). All are tropical countries, of course, and almost all are poor developing countries. 

Most cocoa-producing farmers exist at or below the poverty line. For example, more than half of cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast earn less than the official national poverty line of US$3 a day (by Fairtrade International calculations, 88% earn less than a "living wage"). Many poor cocoa farmers have never been able to try chocolate, and do not even know what the final product tastes like. Most farmers only use fertilizers when they feel they can afford it (maybe every three years), and yields are inexorably falling as soil conditions degrade.

Given the pressure to produce more to try and escape the low wage trap, child labour is endemic in the industry. An estimated 1.5 million children are working in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast and Ghana alone. 

Producing countries are also competing against each other to some extent, deliberately keeping their prices low to attract investment. Internal political considerations also play into the equation: for example, the price Ivory Coast farmers were offered for their cocoa mysteriously increased just before a recent election, only to mysteriously fall again right after the election. The farmers themselves are just expendable pawns in this game, and most have no idea how prices and payments are calculated. 

Climate change, droughts and hurricanes, as well as pandemic-related inflation and general market chaos resulting from the war in Ukraine, have all taken their toll on cocoa farms in recent years. Just to make things worse, bandits armed with Kalashnikovs have been hijacking cocoa truck in some areas.

Fair trade organizations like Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance were established to advocate for farmers and to negotiate with producing countries and manufacturers to help ensure farmers receive a "living income". 

The fair trade system is supposed to wnsure that cocoa farmers are paid more, and that their farms adhere to labour and environmental standards. And they have had some limited success in that respect, and their system of third-party verification and certification has been a model for the industry. 

The establishment of local selling cooperatives has also given farmers some limited power over the prices they can charge, although they are still very much at the mercy of industry forces, and only a small percentage of producers are represented by coops anyway.

However, many large chocolate producing companies have established their own corporate in-house sustainability programs. This maybe sounds like a good thing, but they tend to be much less transparent than the likes of Fairtrade International, and commercial pressures and their divided loyalties typically do not encourage improvements in the lots of local farmers, rather setting off a "race to the bottom", while at the same time allowing the companies to claim sustainability on their marketing labels.

The raw materials provided by cocoa farmers only represents around 7% of the cost of a bar of chocolate. So, chocolate producers - making those huge, and increasing, profits, remember - could easily afford to, say, double what they pay to the farmers.(although, by some estimates, their incomes need to be tripled or even quadrupled to bring them up to a living wage).

The word "fairtradewashing" has not made it into general usage - in fact, I just made it up as far as I know - but I'm sure you know exactly what it means. The whole industry needs a lot more regulation, a dirty word in globalized corporate circles. But without it, those struggling farmers will continue to struggle, and they never get to try a bar of chocolate. Think of that!

And check those labels: make sure it is certified by Fairtrade International or another non-profit organization, not by the producing company itself.

Friday, May 12, 2023

CNN's Trump interview may have back-fired badly

After CNN's recent foray into high-risk television, people are speaking out about its decision to interview Donald Trump. With views ranging from "outright disaster" to "major inflection point" to "worthy exercise in democracy", it has certainly generated debate.

Given that CNN has been Trump's main media punching bag for years, and his most vocal and outspoken critic, it was a brave and certainly a strange move on CNN 's part to hold a prime-time "town hall" style interview with Trump, held in New Hampshire with a deliberately partisan audience of Republican voters who cheered his every word and laughed at all his jokes. It went pretty much how you might have expected it to, with Trunp doubling down on his various lies, interrupting and bad-mouthing the interviewer, and steamrolling over any attempt at fact-checking (as CNN should have known, Trump's lies and errors come thicker and faster than any fact-checker can respond).

CNN's journalists have been at pains since the event to justify it. Event interviewer Kaitlyn Collins called it "a major inflection point in the Republican Party's search for its nominee and potentially the starting line for Anerica's next presidential race" (an inflection point implies a change of direction - I see no such change). Anderson Cooper argued, "Do you think staying on your silo and only listeningcto people you agree with is going to meet that person go away?" (But does Trump really need CNN to help him get his message out, I think most people on the right and the left know where he is coming from). CNN Worldwide's CEO Chris Licht defended it by claiming that "people woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn't the day before" (ditto: most CNN watchers were quite aware of Trump and the existential threat he poses).

Many disagree. Former CNN correspondent Keith Olbermann called it "the Hindenberg of TV news", noting that "CNN gave its credibility to Trump's madness", and called for resignations. MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan opines, "I would argue that 'making news' is not our job; holding power to account is. And on that measure, the town hall last night was a complete and utter failure". Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez points out that "CNN allowing sexual assault to be treated like a joke to an applauding audience is egregious".

Frankly, I think the nays have it. Trump does not need more free publicity from his opponents.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Where does all that excavated dirt end up?

There was an illuminating article in the Globe and Mail today about the disposal of excavated dirt from construction sites.

In a city the size of Toronto, and with as much development going on as there is here, an awful lot of soil, dirt and rubble is being moved every day. There is a constant stream of those triple-axle dump trucks moving through and out of downtown (I know because I regularly get stuck behind them). 

I have often wondered what happens to it all. I had some vague notion that most of it still ends up on the Leslie Street Spit, where it provides the base for Tommy Thompson Park and the  nature reserve there. I should probably have known that the truth would not be quite so benign.

The province of Ontario as a whole generates over 25 million cubic metres of excess silt, clay, gravel and other soils each year from construction projects, and most of it is transported by hired haulage companies and subcontractors, often self-employed individuals, which operate under little or no regulation. The cost of managing this excess soil represents as much as 14% of the total costs of construction projects, so it's actually a big deal.

It may surprise you to discover, then - or maybe not! - that those many thousands of truckloads are moved around with little to no documentation or supervision. There are virtually no rules governing where and how this dirt is disposed of. In fact, there used to be literally no rules, but recently Ontario has introduced a public registry detailing the volumes of soil to be excavated, what type and what chemicals it contains, where it us being taken to, and by whom.

To be fair, some of the more responsible contractors have been doing this very thing for years. But many more have not, and, even with the new rules, there is little in the way of supervision and enforcement to ensure compliance. Usually, the process would be as basic as an antiquated system of tear-off paper tickets. 

Furthermore, there are few checks on the content and contamination levels of excavated dirt. Although there have been a few high-profile court cases over the years over misidentified contaminated soil, it is anybody's guess how much other bad stuff has slipped through the net.

Much of the excavated dirt ends up in landfills, where it incurs tipping fees and takes up valuable landfill space. Soils containing known contaminants are supposed to go to licensed treatment facilities for remediation, but not everything goes where it is supposed to (some project managers actually hire students to follow disposal subcontractors to see where they go). Some of it is used on airfields, where is provides a base for runway extensions, and to help fill in gravel pits and quarries. 

But some of it - and we have no idea how much - is just dumped in rural areas, wasteland, flood plains, even environmenally-sensitive wetlands. Very little soil is recycled or reused - although the separation technology exists, it costs money and developers typically don't want to spend money unnecessarily. "Fill brokers", middlemen who match soil generators with users, do exist, but they too cost money and are under-utilized.

The new Ontario laws will certainly help. They set out criteria for reusing excess soil, excavation, soil testing, data tracking and other aspects of soil handling, all managed by a new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority. The rules are being introduced in phases, e.g. dumping reusable soil in a landfill will not be permitted come 2025. All of this will cost developers more, so they are not happy, although they have already had so many kickbacks from the Ford government that they probably don't feel able to complain too much. 

And still there are questions about enforcement of the new rules. The new regulatory authority still has not issued any penalties, preferring to address issues of non-compliance with "education and outreach". It seems likely that the old "dig-and-dump" policy, utilized officially or otherwise by contractors, may well continue for some time, mainly motivated by economic considerations.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Trump supporters not likely to be deterred by latest court case

A New York jury found Donald Trump guilty of sexual abuse and defamation, and fined him $5 million in one of the many court cases he us facing. The charge of rape was thrown out, mainly due to the rather narrow legal definition of rape. He didn't bother turning up for the court case (or, more likely, was discouraged by his lawyer), and says he will appeal the verdict. Although he is unlikely to win the appeal, it will kick the can down the road until after the next election.

There are no surprises in any of this. Me, I am waiting to see the next voter intention polls. My hunch is that his popularity among his supporters will not be affected at all, and may even increase. Which will tell us everything we need to know about the people who vote for him.

Turkmenistan, an environmental disaster and not likely to change

Here's some alarming news, as if we needed more. Greenhouse gases from the oil and gas fields of Turkmenistan (where? you say) are huge and growing, equivalent to the entire annual CO2 output of a developed country like the UK.

The emissions, which are described as "mind-boggling" are mainly in the form of vented methane, which is harder to monitor than carbon dioxide but some 80 times more potent (over 20 years). There is some evidence that Turkmenistan deliberately changed from flaring (burning) its methane (which effectively converts it into CO2) to venting it unburned specifically because it is harder to detect and  monitor. 

Turkmenistan is the world's worst for super-emitting methane leaks, far outstripping even the USA and Russia.

And this does not even include Turkmenistan's offshore oil and gas installations in the Caspian Sea, which are even harder to monitor.

Turkmenistan, which is China's second-largest gas provider after Australia, uses ageing Soviet-era equipment and practices in its oil and gas fields. Although upgrading to more modern technology and processes would vastly improve its GHG profile, that is probably not going to happen any time soon. Turkmenistan has steadfastly refused to join the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions, and does not seem very interested in other global climate change initiatives.(although technically it did sign onto the Paris Agreement on Climate Change). 

It doesn't help that Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive states in the world, vying with North Korea for the title of least-visited country. Although huge, the country is mainly desert and extremely inhospitable to life. Outside of the capital, its inhabitants are largely nomads. It has a one-party government, and is ruled with a rod of iron by a secretive and unpredictable dictator-president. 

So, all things considered, Turkmenistan is not a club-joiner or a conference-attender, and is probably not very amenable to bend to international moral pressure from the West (or any other part of the world for that matter).

The USA's debt ceiling has outlived its usefulness

Here we go again: the USA, the world's richest country, is about to go bankrupt again. Every year, we go through this nail-biting drama as the United States reaches it debt ceiling. Recently, though, things have become even more fraught as the Republicans use it as a cynical political tool to force through some issues on which they are not making much headway through other, more legitimate, means.

You see, the US spends more than it makes, constantly, every year. So, each year Congress has to vote to increase the country's debt limit, so that it can borrow more to cover its spending plans. President Biden needs to increase the debt ceiling, without which the country would officially run out of money and go into default position by June 1st. If the country can't pay its workers, its bills or the interest on its debts, this would lead to mass panic in the financial markets, a loss of investor confidence, and the possible loss of thousands of jobs.

But congressional Republicans are saying they need to see billions of dollars in spending cuts before they will sign on to the increase (because, you know, Republicans don't like to spend money, even if it's on affordable housing or social security). So, it comes down to a game of chicken - who will blink first?

But it really doesn't have to be like this. In fact, it didn't use to be like this. Prior to 1917, Congress had to approve very little issuance of debt separately, which was admittedly not very convenient, particularly with all the First World War spending. So, a debt ceiling was enacted which only needed to be approved once a year. The system was fine-tuned in 1939, but essentially it has been working fine for the last hundred years or so, with some debate but very little crisis. 

Until it was realized that the debt ceiling renewal could be politicized, a moment that can maybe traced back to the machinations of the right-wing Tea Party in 2011. In recent years, the annual debt increase has become increasingly fraught as opposition parties look to hold the economy hostage for political gain in a very high-stakes game of brinksmanship. It's kind of embarrassing for the country, but what to do?

Some politicians are, understandably, pretty fed up with this, as is the American business community, and there are moves afoot in some quarters (on the both the right and the left, although mainly the left) to just scrap the whole thing. Senator Elizabeth Warren lays it out: "We should get rid of the debt ceiling. There's no other function than to let hostage-takers ply their trade". Senator Sheldon Whitehouse talks of "the need to get rid of this arbitrary mechanism that offers no benefits yet carries with it the power to deliver serious damage". Many agree that it increasingly puts the credibility of the US government at risk, for little or no benefit. Joe Biden is apparently not convinced.

However, it's hard to know what to replace it with. Suggestions have included the use of the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which would allow a president to raise the limit unilaterally on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional for the country not to pay its debt obligations. Another scheme suggests the issuance of a trillion dollar coin by the US Mint, with which the Treasury could then pay its debts (I kid you not).

Most other countries seem to be able to get by without an official debt ceiling; the USA is an outlier in that respect. If they could pass legislation to create it, surely they could pass more legislation to do away with it. But inertia is a powerful force, and there does snot seem to be a critical mass of opposition to it just yet.

Our post-truth world makes a mockery of politics

There is not much to be done about politicians (and whole national governments) that indulge in - there's no nice way to say this - constant bare-faced lying. Some say we are living in a post-truth world.

Take China, for example, which recently berated Canada for the "false accusation of Chinese interference in Canada's internal affairs" (not false), and blistered that Canada must "stop its provocations at once" ("provocations"? Who started this?)

Or take Vladimir Putin, who blathers at his Victory Day parade, "A real war has been unleashed against our motherland again", when he is clearly the one unleashing wars against other people's motherlands.

Or Donald Trump: "I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO THIS WOMAN IS" (sorry about the all-caps, that's just how Trump writes). Or Boris Johnson: " If anybody thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are completely wrong".

All of this has been underscored recently by the Russia-Ukraine war. Here, as in most wars, to be fair, truth rarely makes a dent in the barrage of propaganda that, maybe inevitably, accompanies war. One side says X town has been re-taken; the other side says "Rubbish!", the town is ours. And so it goes on. Our tendency is to believe Ukraine, because they are the good guys in this, but in reality both sides are probably lying, at least to some extent, and everybody knows and apparently accepts that.

But returning to the populists and autocrats, these people must know that what they are saying is patently untrue, but feel secure enough in their position, or in their own little psychological bubble, that no-one will take them to task over their untruths. I refuse to believe that they are stupid enough to actually believe what they are saying. I'm not even sure that it can be put down to some mental health aberration. It appears to be a conscious decision to lie in order to justify their actions because they think they can get away with it (and, depressingly, on the face of it, they are probably right).

But it makes a mockery of normal political debate. Imagine having to respond to that level of deceitfulness and mendacity, day after day. What would even be the point in engaging with it? No-one believes a word that these countries and individuals say, so how can we carry on any effective political discourse?

I think this kind of insincerity has probably been a political challenge for many decades, maybe forever (think Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, the Trojan horse). But am I wrong in thinking that it has become significantly worse in this current age of populist demagoguery? Most of the perpetrators are either mad autocrats or cynical populists, although I am starting to worry about some of the other politicians who are being corrupted by these role models. Will we reach the stage where lying becomes the default mode, and the art of politics as we know it is all but dead?

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Alberta all in favour of federalism when it's in its own interest

It's salutary to note that Danielle Smith is not above putting her hand out to the federal government for financial aid to deal with Alberta's current rash of forest fires.

I would have thought that would be in direct contravention of her own striving for provincial sovereignty. Alberta's recently passed Sovereignty Act purports to ensure that Alberta can flout federal laws and rules with impunity. But she seems quite keen on federalism when it suits her own purposes. So much for Albertan autonomy.

Trudeau shows some maturity in response to Poilievre's taunts

So, Canada finally got around to expelling Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei for his part in the harassment and intimidation of Conservative MP Michael Chong a couple years ago. It's a tit-for-tat move, and you might be tempted to see it as childish and immature, but the point needed to be made in a clear and unambiguous way: China might be a bully, but it can't just interfere in the politics of sovereign countries with impunity. 

For its part, China released a statement claiming that "China never interferes in other countries' internal affairs" (yeah, right!), and that Canada can expect "resolute and strong reactions" if it continues down this path, a relatively muted response by Chinese standards.

Whether or not you buy Justin Trudeau's claims that he didn't know about China's threats to Chong until the Globe and Mail newspaper blew this all up recently, as least he and his team have not acted precipitately and without a full scrutiny of the all complex geopolitical considerations that might be involved. 

Imagine if Pierre Poilievre had been in charge. Outrage is Poilievre default mode and, although he mainly does it to complain about anything that Trudeau does and says - or doesn't do and say - in order to score cheap political points while in opposition, he appears to value action (any action) over thought (any thought). But shooting from the hip is not necessarily a very desirable quality in a politician (cf. Donald Trump).

Make no mistake, calling a senior Chinese diplomat "persona non grata" is a huge slap in the face for China, and it will not go unpunished. Canada can expect some serious (and probably entirely disproportionate) blowback from China in the next few days or weeks, however well-deserved the slap may have been. 

For better or worse, China is Canada's No. 2 trade partner, with $100 billion or so hanging on the bilateral trade relationship every year. But Canada is only China's 18th largest trading partner, so they have much less skin in the game. Poking the dragon is a dangerous game, despite Poilievre's bluster.

That is the difference between being in opposition and being in power. Poilievre's can say all sorts of principled and impressive-sounding things as opposition leader. But, once in power, politicians have to take responsibility for their actions, and to take into account their potential repercussions on the average citizens they represent. Realpolitik is a real thing.

In my opinion, a short delay for sober thought does not show Trudeau as an indecisive ditherer. Rather it shows a sense of responsibility and maturity, in sharp relief against Poilievre's bombast and bluster.


As it turns out, China's response to the Canada's expulsion of its diplomat was swift but unexpectedly mild, at least thus far: a Canadian diplomat of a similar level of seniority was expelled from Shanghai.

But the point is, no-one (including Pierre Poilievre) had any idea what their response would be. It could have been a major trade war, or the arbitrary incarceration of a Canadian citizen(s). You just don't know with China. Hence, it's always the right thing to do to tread softly and carefully, and not go flying in with guns blazing. Their guns are bigger than ours, should they choose to use them.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Britain's medieval fantasy

And in between all this, we had a Coronation. Well, Britain had a Coronation. The rest of the the world looked on in tolerant bemusement. The rest of the world doesn't really care if Britain has a king or not. (Actually, Canada does, because it costs us money.)

A writer in The Guardian gave a good, amusing overview of the shenanigans that went down. Funnily enough, I had exactly the same thought about bladders (because yes, dear readers, I did watch some of it - my wife switched the TV on, in my defence). And about it dragging on interminably, despite it being apparently pared down and "modernized". And it only cost taxpayers a paltry £100 million (C$150 million). Like I said, pared down.

Perhaps the best snippet from the article: "A modern 21st-century democracy reliving a medieval fantasy". Says it all in eight words, really.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Constitutional monarchies tend to be good, stable, prosperous countries: coincidence?

I'd never really thought about it before, but it's true: most of the most prosperous, open, stable and progressive countries in the world are in fact constitutional monarchies. Think of Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium, Japan: yup, they all have kings and queens (or emperor in the case of Japan, but same idea).

Coincidence? Maybe. Correlation is not causation, as they say. And monarchs typically have next to influence on the political system of the country, with the kings and queens (and emperors) playing almost no practical part of the actual running of these countries: their roles are almost entirely symbolic. But it still seems like quite a coincidence, no?

Actually, if you look at the Good Country Index, 5 of the top 10, and 11 of the top 20, countries are constitutional monarchies. So, only about half. But consider: there are only 43 constitutional monarchies worldwide out of 206 sovereign states, i.e. about 20%. So then the "half" mentioned above becomes a lot more significant.

Anyway, I won't belabour the point. But food for thought.

In Alberta, the choice is either left or right, no centre (or is it?)

Alberta is not like other Canadian provinces. Not in the respect that many Albertan Conservative would like hard  you to think, not in a Quebec-style "distinct society" way. But it is the only province where the political choice us either hard left or hard right, with nothing in between.

The United Conservative Party (UCP) is further to the right than any other provincial party (with the possible exception of the Saskatchewan Party), and domintes most of the province politically. The two main cities, Calgary and Edmonton, are less Conservative, and between them provide enough population to balance out the rural/small town conservative base.

Edmonton is firmly left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) territory. Calgary is where Alberta elections are won and lost, because the population there tends to be fiscally Conservative with a distinct socially progressive streak. Ridings there can go either way, depending on whether people focus on their economic or their social feelings.

There are 26 ridings in Calgary, 20 in Edmonton, and 41 in smaller urban and rural communities. In the last provincial election, the NDP won 19 of 20 Edmonton ridings, 3 of 26 in Calgary, and just 2 of 41 elsewhere. Many of the Calgary results were relatively close, though, so you can see why so much effort is being focussed there in the run-up to this year's provincial election, especially given that UCP leader Danielle Smith is even more disliked and distrusted than her predecessor, Jason Kenney.

Nowhere until this analysis, though, is the middle-of-the-road Liberal Party, which you would think might satisfy someone of those on-the-edge voters. In most of Canada, the Liberal Party is the party that provides the main opposition to a not-quite-so-extreme Conservative wing, they have the ability to morph to fit any number of different political profiles, either further to the left or even centre right, as needed. It is a woolly, malleable beast, and much of its historical success results from exactly that.

But not in Alberta. There, the choice is either a distinct left or a distinct right.

NDP leader Rachel Notley is a wily campaigner (and ex-Premier), more than capable of persuading fence-sitters over to her side. Danielle Smith is a bit of a loose cannon, apparently a little too cozy with the more radical "Take Back Alberta" right, and thereby distinctly vulnerable. And interestingly, the Alberta NDP maybe taking a leaf out of the Liberal playbook and moving more centre-wards in order to improve their electability. So, it's going to be a pretty interesting election later this month.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Coronation quiche is not a quiche at all

I suppose the French had to get involved in British monarch Charles III's coronation somehow. But who knew it would be over sometimes as central and fundamental as the "Coronation Quiche".

Devised by Royal Chef Mark Flanagan ("flan again"?), the Coronation Quiche is, yes, a quiche featuring spinach, broad beans, cheese and tarragon (it actually sounds pretty good to me), and it is being pushed as a "good sharing dish" for those participating in Coronation Big Lunch celebration. The recipe has been shared many times over on social media.

But many Brits, and even royalists, are unsure about the Coronation Quiche idea, which was intended to resonate with the British public like the Coronation Chicken did some 70 years ago. Some are complaining about the cost of ingredients and the difficult of finding eggs in supermarkets of late. Some say it's just too French an idea to be truly British.

Speaking of the French, according to Évelyne Muller-Dervaux, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Quiche Lorraine - and yes, she is a she, despite the testosterone-laden title - it is not a "quiche" at all, merely a "savoury tart". Another Brotherhood member added, "I think it would anyway have better reflected the British spirit if they had called it a tart" (whatever THAT might insinuate). 

A quiche, the Brotherhood insists, is a Quiche Lorraine, made with eggs, ham and lardons (NO cheese). The two terms are indistinguishable; there is no quiche but Quiche Lorraine. Of course, that's news to most Brits, and even most French people, not to mention others around the world, for whom "quiche" is a general term, and comes in many different favours (broccoli, chicken, cheese, yes even broad beans). Incidentally, Quiche Lorraine is not even French, technically: it was developed in the Lorraine region when it was still part of Germany.

Anyway, all of this sounds like typical French exceptionalism and overreach, like insisting that Champagne can only come from Champagne, but much broader. And why do they even care? Despite what Ms. Muller-Dervaux thinks, the rest of the world will happily go on making quiche with broccoli, spinach, even - sacre bleu! - cheese. And quite rightly too. 

The Académie Française may feel it has a stranglehold over the French language (and how is THAT going?), but it can't dictate what we eat, or what we call what we eat.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Kremlin drone shoot-downs look like amateurish disinformation

Russia is claiming that Ukrainian drones have attacked the Kremlin in Moscow in recent days, providing some unauthenticated video to show brave Russian aerial defenders shooting down the dastardly attempt on the life of Our Glorious Leader Vladimir Putin. Russia is describing it as "a planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt on the President" that it was lucky enough to foil at the very last second. Just for good measure, Russia is also claiming that the United States was almost certainly behind it.

Putin wasn't there anyway at the time (it was the middle of the night), and even if he was on one of his rare visits to the Kremlin, he would almost certainly have been in the strongly protected bunker below the main building, in no danger from an aerial drone attack.

President Zelenskyy has, reasonably enough, pointed put that Ukraine does not have spare long-distance drones to send on such low-probability attacks; they are much too busy trying to defend their own territory and people from Russia's constant barrage of illegal attacks on their civilian population and infrastructure. It suggests that this was a "false flag operation", possibly to provide a pretext for even larger "retaliatory" attacks on Ukraine in the coming days, i.e. a justification for Russia's own attacks on civilian targets, and maybe even an escalation thereof. 

The official American response reiterates that "the United States was not involved in any way", and warns that Russian claims should be always taken with a "very large shaker of salt". Most other Western commentators agree that it is more likely to be a Russian fabrication. Certainly, it seems strange that Ukrainian drones were allowed to travel so far, and only to be shot down right above the Kremlin, just in time to be caught on an amateur video that just happened to be filming the building in the middle of the night.

It kind of makes you wonder, though, why Russia thought it necessary to go through this kind of exculpatory justification exercise when they have been carrying out illegal strikes in Ukraine for the last 15 months. They are unlikely to suddenly get world public opinion on their side now, and they have never seemed concerned about this in the past. It just looks like a rather desperate and amateurish attempt at self-justification.

Monday, May 01, 2023

The closest planet to the Earth - really?

Well, who knew? When asked which planet is the nearest to the Earth, as contestants on an episode of British quiz show QI were recently, I would probably have gone for Venus. Others may have guessed Mars (and did). One contestant guessed the Moon, which is a real non-starter. But only one contestant guessed correctly: Mercury!

The problem is the way the planets are normally shown in models of the Solar System, which have Mercury closest to the Sun, followed by Venus, then Earth and then Mars. But planetary orbits are not as well behaved as that model suggests.

The minimum distance from Earth to Venus is 24 million miles, to Mars 34 million miles, and to Mercury 48 million miles. But planetary orbits, particularly Mercury's, are more or less eccentric, and Venus, for example, spends much if its time on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. Anyway, computer modelling reveals that Mercury is closest to the Earth 46% of the time, Venus is closest 36% of the time, and Mars just 18% of the time, making Mercury the closest on average.

Of course, the answer to the question depends on your definition of "closest" - I would still argue that Venus is closest, because it comes closest! - but it's interesting how our preconceptions can be upset.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Another ill-advised Cleopatra movie

After the controversy stoked up by the casting of Gal Gadot as Queen Cleopatra, now we have another controversy as a new movie casts Adele James as Cleopatra. Netflix's Queen Cleopatra bills itself as a documentary rather than a fictionalized movie, and producer Jada Pinkett-Smith could probably have predicted some blow-back.

You see, Ms. James is Afro-American Black and, as mentioned previously, Cleopatra was most definitely Greek/Macedonian, i.e. on the Mediterranean side of Caucasian.

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Supreme Council of Archaeology have both weighed on about historical revisionism and cultural insensitivity. 

It will be interesting to see, though, whether Netflix's interest in increasing its profile among Black viewers outweighs the flak it will surely receive about historical inaccuracy.

Toronto Maple Leafs could break their first round curse tonight

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in danger of finally overcoming their first round playoff curse. Tonight they play the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 3-1 cushion. Tonight they could (and I emphasize the "could") win their first playoff round since 2004, 19 years ago. 

We are not taking about winning the Stanley Cup, or even semis or quarters; just getting through the first round has proved hard enough. They have qualified for the playoffs often enough in recent years, but have a nasty habit of whiffing at the first hurdle, usually at the hands of the Lightning or the Boston Bruins.

Even a 3-1 series lead, which would make most teams quite confident of their chances, is not enough to ensure victory. In 2022, they were 2-1 up against Tampa, and 3-2 up in the fourth game, before the slide came, and they lost in 7. In 2021, they were 3-1 up against the Montreal Canadiens, and still managed to lose the next three games and the series. You can see why fans are nervous.

Many people are saying that this year feels different. This team is even better than those previous good teams, and they have the bit between their teeth. Down 4-1 in the fourth game, they were able to rally and eke out a 5-4 overtime win (which is impressive, but arguably, what were they doing 4-1 down in the first place?)

Anyway, tonight's game is a big one for Toronto, bigger than for most other teams in the playoffs. It's almost their own personal Stanley Cup final, and the press is reporting it in terms of a "massive moment", even of "changing history", even though this is just the first round. Sad, but true. 

If they can get through this jinx, the rest of the journey to the Stanley Cup should be a piece of cake (except, oh yes ... 56 years and counting, the longest drought if any team that has previously won the trophy).


Here we go. Strike 1. Toronto lost to the Lightning 4-2 in Game 5. All is  not lost, of course - they have two more chances to come though - but many fans are already starting to lose faith. After all, that was the 11th time in a row that the Leafs were in a position to advance to the next round ("series-clinching matches") and failed to eliminate an opponent. 11th.


Unbelievable! It's done! Toronto beat Tampa Bay, away from home, in overtime again, 2-1, to go through to the second round of the Stanley Cup. They didn't even need a game 7 (thank God!). The jinx is overcome, the curse is broken, the demons are exorcised, the dragon is slain.

There is no reason now why they shouldn't go on to win it all. Well, there's Boston, I suppose, Colorado, Edmonton, maybe. But details, details! Allow us to bask for a while in the glow of our first playoff series win since 2004.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

South Africa has no interest in improving its carbon footprint

It's enough to make you despair. South Africa is calling for a reversal of Western-financed plans to replace a large coal-fired power plant with a huge renewable energy program.

The US$8.5 billion project, partly financed by a US$47.5 million loan from Canada, was to establish a major solar and wind facility at Komati, a long-established coal plant. It has been described as one of the world's biggest energy repurposing projects, and would go a long way towards improving South Africa's execrable carbon footprint.

Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, however, is having none of it, calling it "totally illogical" and "unjust". His justification? "Extending the lives of coal power stations is necessary. Recommissioning Komati is quite urgent, because it is a good power station and it was giving us a good level of energy availability."

Did he not get the memo? Well, I'm sure he did, but Mantashe is a former coal miner and mineworker union leader, and has been described as a "coal fundamentalist". He is at the forefront of resistance to renewable energy, and likes to maintain that smaller countries like his are being bullied by more developed countries into a green revolution they have no interest in. Oh and, purely incidentally, he and his ANC party has extensive coal interests, and the country's powerful coal lobby has the government in its pocket.

Komati coal station is now 62 years old, and had been shut down and revived several times throughout its long life. It is increasingly expensive to own and operate. Mantashe has vastly exaggerated both its potential power output and its jobs potential, while under-reporting the proposed renewable energy site's potential.

South Africa does have an ongoing energy crisis, with regular rotating blackouts most days, which has severely damaged the economy and made everyday life for regular folks increasingly hard. Analysts, though, say that this is a result of corruption and dysfunction at the state electricity supplier, Eskom, which has repeatedly deferred necessary maintenance on its power stations.

It's hard when Western countries are not even able to help developing countries to clean up their act, due to ignorance, corruption and personal interests.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Renewable natural gas? That's a thing?

Well, kind of.

Natural gas is 90% methane, a potent greenhouse gas, many times, more potential than carbon dioxide. That's why claims by the oil and gas industry that natural gas should used as a "transition fuel" should be take with a very large pinch of salt.

What, then, are we to make of the concept of "renewable natural gas" (RNG)? Also known as "biomethane" in Europe, RNG means methane produced from biological, as opposed to fossil, sources, e.g. landfills, sewage, food waste, agricultural waste, or forest waste. Because once refined, it is chemically practically identical to regular natural gas, it can be transported, processed, stored, mixed and used in exactly the same way.

The industry claims that it can it can displace natural gas and other fossil fuels. RNG made from plants that captured carbon during their lifetimes is arguably carbon neutral when it is burned. Methane captured from landfills and agricultural and food waste reduces the amount of methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, and when burned it is converted into water and carbon dioxide, a less dangerous greenhouse gas. So, companies like FortisBV and REN Energy International are pushing their RNG products as a solution to Canada's climate change woes.

However, in practice, RNG's carbon intensity depends on how it was produced, and much of it is not as carbon neutral as claimed. Also, biogas and RNG production leaks an estimated 15% of its methane into the atmosphere, a substantial amount of a very potential greenhouse gas. Critics, then, see the whole concept of RNG as just another example of greenwashing. Particularly galling is the promotion of RNG for household stoves, a process that emits a whole host of unpleasant gases including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide. Methane is methane, they say.

RNG could, though, still make a contribution to decarbonizing some sectors that are difficult to electrify, such as industrial high-temperature heating, heavy duty transport, aviation and maritime shipping, although estimates suggest that it will probably only displace at best 5-10% of current natural gas usage. Also, it is expected to be between 2 and 10 times as expensive as regular natural gas, depending on the comparison being considered.

Is RNG, then, simply a distraction from other better solutions like heat pumps, solar power, etc, as its detractors claim?

Diana Abbott suspended for proffering her opinion on race

Long-time British MP and Labour Party Chief Whip Diane Abbott (a black woman, for what it's worth) has been suspended from her party over a letter she published claiming that prejudice,  such as that experienced by Jewish, Irish or Traveller people, is not the same as racism.

In her letter (which was a response to an article by Tomiwa Owolade, entitled "Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It's far more complicated", which is well worth a read), Ms Abbott claimed that, while Irish, Jewish and Traveller people "undoubtedly experience prejudice", that is only "similar to racism", and other white people (e.g. blondes, redheads) can also experience this kind of prejudice, "but they are not all their lives subject to racism".

The Labour Party, which has faced allegations of anti-semitism in the past and is hyper-sensitive to any similar charges, reacted quickly, calling Ms. Abbott's comments "deeply offensive and wrong". Jewish MPs called the letter "deeply offensive and deeply distressing". Abbott herself promptly apologized "for any anguish caused", and completely withdrew her comments. In an exercise in toeing the party line, she publicly revised her views: "Racism takes many forms and it us completely undeniable that Jewish people gave suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others".

But, hold on, she is a successful black woman (Britain's first black woman MP, in fact) commenting on the nature of racism. Shouldn't her views be taken seriously? Does the (mainly white) Labour Party really know better than she what racism is or isn't?

In fact, many commentators on race would agree that prejudice is not the same as racism. More specifically, racism is a type of prejudice, where unequal power on the basis of race results in detrimental outcomes. Put more succinctly by Calgary Anti-Racism Education: Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power. In another formulation: "Prejudice can apply to lots of things, not only race. But racism is based on the assumption that race is an indicator of basic traits of character".

I must confess I always have a bit of a problem with the assertion that Irish people, for example, suffer from racism in Britain. I don't think I am being too literal when I counter-claim that, given that Irish people are the same race as the majority of Brits, what they are experiencing might be prejudice or discrimination, but it is, by definition, not racism.

Despite her retraction, Ms. Abbott is now no longer a member of the Labour caucus, and is representing her London riding as an independent MP. What a perilous area of debate is race. In fact, you might say, there is no debate allowed any more. See what happens when someone goes against the prevailing dogma.

Fox News probably won't pay all of the $787.5 Dominion settlement

Dominion Voting Systems' $787.5 million court victory over Fox News was huge. And other cases against Fox News over their claims of rigged voting machines in the 2020 election may still follow.

But Fox are unlikely to actually pay the whole amount in practice. That's because, incredible as it may seem, they can legally set the payment against their tax bill for the year. In this way, they could save up to a quarter of the defamation charges through tax savings, leaving the net charge at an estimated $590 million, still a large sum, but not quite as eye-popping as the initial award.

However unfair it may seem, Fox can deduct the Dominion settlement from its income taxes as a "necessary expense", essentially just a cost of doing business. Big companies, including major banks and oil companies, do this all the time.

Furthermore, it's also more than likely that Fox will have media liability insurance - yes, that's a thing! - which could defray at least $100 million of the legal cost. Suddenly, the huge settlement is not looking quite so impressive.

Fox had an estimated $4 billion in cash reserves on hand at the end of 2022, so the net effect is probably not going to hurt them too much. In a public statement, Fox has said that it doesn't expect the settlement to affect its operations. And don't expect it to change its politics or its modus operandi either.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Forest Green Rovers, a new model for English soccer

Here's a fascinating vision of a possible future. English football, that bastion of tradition and dogged reaction, has a new role model.

Forrest Green Rovers is a team you might not have heard of. It is based in the tiny, pretty town of Nailsworth, in rural Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds, kind of between Oxford and Bristol. But it is doing remarkably well, having recently been promoted from League 2 to League 1 (which, confusingly, is actually the third division of English soccer, after the Premier League and Championship League).

But Forest Green Rovers has turned the traditional approach to running a football club on its head. It has been recognized by the United Nations and FIFA as the greenest and most sustainable club on the planet. The club is carbon neutral, and pretty much every aspect of it is geared towards sustainability and the environment.

No hot dogs and Coca Cola here: its concessions menu is all vegan, featuring plant-based nuggets, Quorn and leek pies made with soy milk. There is oat milk for coffee and tea, and even vegan beer. The pitch is organic, fertilized with seaweed, and mowed with a solar powered robotic lawnmower. The team's jerseys are made from coffee grounds, recycled plastic and bamboo. The players use an electric bus to get to away games. There is organic hand soap in the bathrooms. Electricity is supplied by renewable energy company Ecotricity.

The club is the brainchild of 60-year old owner Dale Vince, one time peace campaigner and vagabond who made it big with his green energy company Ecotricity, which he started in the early 90s, long before carbon neutrality was even a thing. He took over Forest Green Rovers in 2010, at a time when the club was mired in debt, and struggling in the lower ranks of the English soccer system. 

Vince's vision was slow to be accepted but, as global warming and other environmental issues became more mainstream, attitudes gradually changed. Now, the new concession menu is very popular, selling 8 to 10 times as much as ten-year ago, and other club owners regularly seek him out to discuss issues of sustainability.

One or two policies have been somewhat contentious, like flying the Palestinian flag and his open support of the controversial Just Stop Oil campaign. But most locals are very supportive of Mr. Vince's innovations, giving him credit for transforming the club, both on and off the pitch. 

Forest Green Rovers' time in League 1 did not go so well this year, and they are relegated back to League 2 for next year. But the experiment continues, and, for the most part, players and supporters are right behind it.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Spacex redefines the meaning of "success"

Spacex is redefining the meaning of "success".

The latest launch of Elon Musk's Spacex company's Super Heavy rocket launcher, billed as the biggest rocket ever, and Spacex's big hope for a rocket to send a manned mission to the Moon and Mars, took place in Boca Chica, Texas, earlier today. Unfortunately, the (unmanned) rocket exploded a few short minutes after liftoff, due to an issue with the separation mechanism.

A Spacex commentator deadpanned that "this does not appear to be a nominal situation", something of an understatement. They are, however, still calling it a success, because it would provide new information and help them get future flights right (hopefully before it contains human passengers). Well, no, you learn from failures, not successes. And this was, quite clearly, a failure.

Spacex called what everybody else calls a catastrophic explosion a "rapid unscheduled disassembly". Before the launch, Musk had lowered expectations, claiming that he would consider it a success if it didn't actually blow up on the launchpad. So, how would be define a "failure". That's one way of succeeding, I guess.


It turns out that the rocket was deliberately scuttled, but only because it was faulty and at risk of a much more dangerous crash landing. Still not what you would call a "success".


The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has grounded the Starship program until it has completed its "mishap investigation", after its launch tore through the concrete launchpad, creating a huge crater, and debris and particulate matter went flying several miles beyond the expected debris field. It seems that Spacex will have a lot of work to do before they are allowed to send up another rocket.


Canadian cities do surprisingly well in Sustainable Cities Index

Toronto doesn't FEEL like a very sustainable city, at least to me, but in the scheme of things, apparently we aren't doing too badly.

Corporate Knights magazine has published its Sustainable Cities Index for 2023, and, while Europe (and particularly Scandinavia) is predictably hands-down head-and-shoulders above the rest, Canadian cities score above average on the sustainability scale that incorporates Consumption GHGs, Air Pollution, Transportation, Policies and Resilience.

Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the index are all Scandinavian (Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Lahti, Finland). Interestingly, London is No 5, ahead of Aukland and Sydney, followed by Berlin. The Top 10 is filled out by the first two Canadian cities, Winnipeg and Vancouver. A bunch of other Canadian cities make the Top 20, though, including Halifax (11), Montreal (14), Toronto (15), Calgary (17), Ottawa (19), and Edmonton (20).

Not too shabby. All the major Canadian cities appear above any American cities, as well as above any cities in China, Central and South America or Africa. Only Tokyo (12) and Seoul (18) come close among Asian cities.

Still plenty more to do, particularly in terms of Transportation and Consumption GHGs. Plus, Toronto's ranking fell from 11 last year to 15 this year, while Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal and Calgary all improved. But we can at least feel a little bit good.

Yes, public sector workers really do "have it easy"

As Canadian public service workers in the PSAC union vote to strike, it is being widely reported that public support and sentiment - "hearts and minds", as the phrase goes - is at best weak, and at worst positively hostile. This seems much more the case than during other strikes, where the rank and file are, generally speaking, quite supportive.

So, why would this be? Well, mainly because of the general perception that government workers "have it easy" compared to private sector workers. But how justified is that perception?

Luckily, we have a pretty recent study that looks at precisely that assertion. And yes, it does in fact conclude that public sector workers in Ontario, whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level, enjoy wages that are an average of 34% higher than in the private sector. Even factoring in gender, age, education level, type of employment, establishment size, industry and occupation, public sector workers still out-earn private sector workers in very similar jobs by about 11%.

In addition, public sector workers enjoy much better benefits from their jobs. For example, 84% of government workers are covered by a registered pension plan, compared to just 25% in the private sector, and of those, 94% have defined benefit plans compared to just 37% in private employment. Government workers retire an average of 2½ years earlier than their private sector equivalents. Government sector workers take an an average of 14 sick days, compared to less than 9 in the private sector. Also, job security is much stronger, with only 1.3% of government workers experiencing job loss in 2021, compared to 5.5% of private sector workers.

There's also good evidence that public sector workers had an easier time of things during the pandemic than private sector workers.

So, all things considered you can really understand why there is a public perception that public sector workers "have it easy". It's because they do.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Poilievre's latest anti-CBC gambit smacks of desperation

Here's another storm in a teacup (or "storm in a tea-kettle" as North Americans would have it, which makes no sense at all to me), brewed up by the great minds at Pierre Poilievre's Conservative policy headquarters.

Poilievre called on his buddy Elon Musk to have Twitter flag the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as "government-funded media". Well, you might think, that's not a big deal. The CBC IS funded by the government, to the tune of over $1 billion a year (or nearly 70% of its revenue). The government funds all sorts of worthy causes and arts endeavours; it's what governments do, and what governments of all political stripes have done since its inception.

Poilievre's intention, though, is to brand the CBC - which he hates with a passion, and which he has vowed to defund if Canada is ever so unwise as to make him Prime Minister - as a mouthpiece of Liberal, and even more specifically Trudeau, views. He has been very up-front about these opinions, publicly calling the CBC "a biased propaganda arm of the Liberal Party". This is largely because the CBC, along with other independent media outlets, has had the temerity to call out some of his, Poilievre's, more off-the-wall statements and beliefs. He does not deal well with criticism.

Poilievre thinks that his sneaky piece of populist activism has already had an impact. "Now people know that it is Trudeau propaganda, not news", he sneers, as though a label on an increasingly inconsequential social media makes all the difference. The CBC has proved just how inconsequential Twitter is by voluntarily suspending its Twitter account (as has PBS and NPR in the USA, and some other august media platforms).

"Government-funded media", according to Twitter, is defined as "outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet's funding, and may have varying degrees of government over editorial content". It tries to give a similar impression as its "state-affiliated media" label. The CBC may well be funded by the government of the day, but it is operated at arm's length from the government, and its editorial independence is enshrined in law in the Broadcasting Act.

Now, whatever you might think about the effrontery of a billionaire-owned social media company making these kinds of value judgements, in an attempt to colour the perceptions of its users and undermine the credibility of critical news outlets, this particular ruling seems transparently political and ill-advised. 

Twitter recently tried to do the same with the esteemed BBC, before backtracking and changing its label to "publicly-funded media", and NPR was branded as state-affiliated media" before being toned down to "government-funded media" (and before NPR suspended its Twitter account). These are childish political games by Musk maybe, but with real world implications. Certainly, childish political games by Poilievre, also with important real world implications.

If Twitter (and Elon Musk) continue making poor decisions, one can only hope that it will paint itself into a corner and become increasingly irrelevant, other than as an echo chamber for those on the far right. Arguably, this process has already started. I extend this hope to Pierre Poilievre.


A few days later, in the kind of random flip-flop we have come to expect from Elon Musk, the "government-funded media" labels on the accounts of CBC, BBC and NPR,  were quietly removed by Twitter. I guess Musk thinks that their anti-liberal effect has been achieved, and they are no longer needed? I do believe this is all a big game for Musk.

At the same time, a bunch of other labels were deleted from Iranian, Chinese and Russian outlets that actually ARE government-funded and government-influenced, like Russia Today, China's CCTV and Xinhua News. *Sigh*

Media requests to Twitter for explanations on these developments met with its new automated poop emoji, just another indication of how serious Mr. Musk is.

Industry insiders welcome regulation of artificial intelligence

In an interesting development, a group of about 75 Canadian artificial intelligence (AI) experts, researchers and industry startup CEOs have come together to call on the Canadian government to significantly expedite their planned regulation of AI development.

A government bill is in progress, known as the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), although it is part and parcel of the bigger Bill C-27, and it is currently expected to take upto two years for consultations and drafting.

The industry group, which includes some influential figures and pioneers in the field of deep-learning, argues that "generative" AI is developing at such a pace that some kind of regulation is needed NOW, not in two years time, and it is recommending that the AIDA provisions be separated from the broader Bill C-27, and pushed through as soon as possible, preferably before the government breaks for summer.

The draft law has already been criticized as being too vague. It is not even clear which instances of AI will be affected by the proposed law, other than the specification of "high impact" AI systems. The government's intent was to write more specific regulations AFTER the act passes into law.

The group of researchers argues that the bill, vague or not, really cannot wait another six months, and that it is essential to have at least a baseline set of legal guidelines which can then be tweaked as needed. They cite a number of possible harms from AI, including the perpetuation of biases and discrimination, misinformation and the dissemination of errors, labour market turmoil, and effects on human mental health, many of which may increase in importance (and others which my arise) as development continues at the current breakneck pace.

Canada is not the only country dealing with AI issues. Germany is currently calling for tougher rules on ChatGPT over copyright concerns, and Italy has completely banned ChatGPT until further regulation on it can be established. There are concerns over the ability of AI to produce deep-fake porn. Ultimately, all countries will need to establish some level of regulation.

It's interesting to see this level of regulatory warning from industry insiders. A more typical profile would be for the industry to want to push ahead with no holds barred, and more socially-conscious politicians and protest groups looking to put on the brakes. That, if nothing else, should give us a heads up.


To be clear, the Canadian AI warnings referred to above are far from the only voices of concern.

A high-profile open letter calling for a pause on AI, with 27,000 (and counting) signatories including the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Wosniak, was released in late March by the Future Of Life Institute (you can see the complete open letter here). The letter advocates a six-month moratorium to give AI companies and regulators time to formulate safeguards to protect society from the technology's potential risks.

Most recently, Geoffrey Hinton, one of the most influential figures in the field, sometimes referred to as the "Godfather of AI", left his position at Google specifically so that he can speak freely and continue to warn the world about the dangers of AI. Hinton is particularly concerned about its ability to overwhelm the Internet with fake photos, videos and text, impairing people's ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and the potential for AI to outsmart humans and its potential to disrupt the labour market. He has admitted to having profound regrets about some parts of his life's work, but he stresses that he is not leaving Google in order to complain about them, describing the company as having "acted very responsibly".

Mr. Hinton, now 75 and an emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, as well as the leader of a Google-acquired AI startup, pioneered some of the work on neural networks some ten years ago. If Geoffrey Hinton is worried, I am worried.


Hell, even the CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, is calling for some sort of "global licensing and regulatory framework". We should probably listen.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Interest rates are not the only anti-inflationary tool we have

The prevailing wisdom is that the only way to deal with rampant inflation is to increase interest rates. This is presumably because it worked once, back in the 1970s, eventually at least. But it's a notoriously blunt instrument, and it runs a very real risk of causing an economy-wide recession.

It was interesting, therefore, to hear economist Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, take the stance that there are in fact alternatives to strict monetary policy, in an interview on CBC's The Sunday Magazine. Mr. Stanford has been quite critical of Tiff Macklem and the Bank of Canada's interest rate hikes, even if that is also the approach being taken by most other western countries. As he says, if all your tool box contains is a big hammer (interest rates) then everything starts to look like a nail.

Recognizing that corporate pricing and profits are at least as much to blame for the current inflationary phase as labour costs, Mr. Stanford points to any number of other policies that might preferentially have been pursued over interest rate hikes, including:

  • Tightening credit in certain sectors of the economy, rather than employing the blunt instrument of overall interest rates.
  • Price caps in certain strategic sectors like energy, house rents, etc.
  • A tax on excess profits to redistribute some of the money big companies have earned recently, to help regular folks pay for their groceries.
  • Increased taxation on high earners to help ease inflationary pressures.

Any or all of these measures, in addition to some level of monetary policy does seem to make sense, particularly given that this post -pandemic inflation is not the same animal as 1970s stagflation. In particular, Mr Stanford is quite critical of policies that seem determined to put the burden on the working stiff - Tiff Macklem makes no bones of his view that employment is too high, and that measures that put more Canadians out of work are the way to go.

Food for thought.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The much-maligned spider

The Globe has published an excellent article today on disinformation about spiders, entitled, perhaps inevitably, Web of Lies.

Long before disinformation campaigns on vaccinations or stolen elections, spiders were already the subject of an apparently concerted attack and smear campaign. Starting with the regular appearance of the northern yellow sac spider (Cheiracanthium mildei, a common basement and stairwell spider here in Canada) on lists of Top 10 Most Dangerous Spiders, there are any number of false allegations about spiders out there that have helped make arachnophobia the single most popular bio-phobia (a fear of things in nature), affecting between 3% and 11% of the population, depending on definitions. The world, as the article notes, is "teeming with bad spider science".

No, spiders do not lay eggs under your eyelids (or anywhere else on your body, for that matter). Sleeping humans do not eat up to eight spiders a year, as the urban myth has it. If you find a spider in the sink or bath, it hasn't maliciously crawled up from the sewer with intent to harm; it has almost certainly fallen in and can't get out. While spiders do have an alarming number of babies, typically only a couple live to adulthood. And, no, they don't drink blood (and so have no reason to bite us, unless severely goaded and in danger of their lives).

The press has a lot to answer for, of course, with its sensationalized articles taking advantage of already exaggerated preconceptions about spiders. One study found factual errors in 47% of news articles about spiders, and 43% were sensationalized in tone or details (and, of course, the more sensationalized, the more they were copied and disseminated). A recent newspaper article in the UK, for example, described a woman - and yes, it is usually a woman! - with an oozing red bite on her wrist, who "could have died" from the false black widow spider bite, despite the completely lack of evidence for the presence of that particular species, and the fact that no-one has ever died from a false black widow bite.

And the reputation of the yellow sac spider? It appears to owe its notoriety to a 1970s paper in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine, which suggested that the spider caused necrotizing bites. That article turns out to have looked at the effect of multiple spider bits on guinea pigs, following some unspecified and inconclusive reports in the Boston area. The paper concludes that "more research is needed", but somehow nevertheless became one of the most oft-quoted spider papers ever. (In fact, if a human is bitten by a yellow sac spider, it causes a bit of an itch and a red mark the size of a dime that disappears the next day.)

Yes, there are some dangerous spiders around, although their numbers and their threat are exaggerated. Of the approximately 51,000 species of spiders worldwide, only 0.5% are "medically significant" to humans. And they are really not interested in biting us. Over the past 10 years, the American Poison Control Centre shows only three recorded fatalities from spider bites, two of them attributed to the brown recluse spider (a species, incidentally, not found in Canada). One American researcher collected 2,055 brown recluse spiders from a single house in Kansas, but the resident family of four humans had shared the space for years without incident.

Even a black widow spider bite, although serious, is rarely fatal. Typically, it results in pain around the puncture spot, some flu-like symptoms and sweating for two or three days, and complete recovery by Day 5. Not pleasant, but in the scheme of things...

One place to take spiders very seriously is Australia, where the funnel web spider, one of the deadliest species in the world, bites about 40 people a year, and the redback spider (almost as venomous) upto 2,000 a year. But, even in Australia, there have been no verified deaths from confirmed spider bites since the 1980s, i.e. since the invention of widely-available venom antidotes. Interestingly, Australians are less fearful of venomous spiders and snakes than Europeans and North Americans, despite - or maybe because of - having many more (and more dangerous) species to deal with.

The bottom line is that spiders are voracious consumers of flies, mosquitoes and bugs, without which human life would be much worse. And any spider-human encounters are unlikely to present any danger. The fangs of many spiders are too small or flimsy to pierce human skin, and their venom not sufficiently toxic to present a danger to us hulking humans. And, quite honestly, they are just not interested, and have better things to do with their time.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

To ChatGPT or not to ChatGPT? That is the question

I've managed to avoid talking about ChatGPT in this blog (apart from a brief, and quite recent, foray into the phenomenon of people falling in love with their chatboxes). This is not for any good reason; it's really just that I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

I've never actually used ChatGPT myself; maybe I'll get around to it one day, it's not high up on my list of priorities. But I understand that it is a really big deal in any number of areas, not least in the area of education, which is where most of the articles I have read tend to focus. Bear in mind that ChatGPT has only been around since November 2022, just six short months. But many educators are understandably throwing up their hands in horror, denouncing it as a free essay-writing test-taking tool that makes it laughably easy to cheat on assignments.

Several major school districts and universities have already banned the app, but what does that actually mean in practice? Even if a student can't just copy-and-paste a ChatGPT answer, it would be nigh on impossible to stop people from writing out an AI-generated answer long-hand. And because ChatGPT can answer the same question in an almost infinite number of different ways, it is not at all easy to spot a ChatGPT answer to a specific question.

Clearly, using ChatGPT to answer a question does not develop a student's problem-solving and critical thinking facilities (although, arguably, the ability to use ChatGPT is a valuable skill in itself). Is it cheating, though? Maybe, maybe not? And shouldn't kids today be learning how to make use of all available resources (including AI)? Over half of American teachers and nearly a third of students have already used ChatGPT at some stage, and the vast majority of both say it was a positive experience.

The more positive members of the education community (I'm guessing mainly those with a more academic, rather than practical, interest in the field) are already saying that maybe the arrival of ChatGPT is a blessing in disguise for education, and that AI could even make education better. For example, an assignment could be something like: use ChatGPT to generate an answer to a question, and then annotate and criticize that answer, or point out any flaws (because even ChatGPT is not foolproof). Sure that would be cool, and it might help some students get past that "blank page syndrome". But is that how assignments have to be now?

That seems a stretch, and more than a little pie-in -the-sky, to me. It's all very well for some ivory-tower education policy experts to wax lyrical about the opportunities ChatGPT is offering education. But most everyday teachers are already overstretched and underpaid, and the last thing they need is to have to develop a whole new way of teaching. Many are more concerned with stopping their students from killing each other, and maybe helping a few to achieve some useful qualifications along the way. Hell, not all kids have access to the internet, never mind ChatGPT. Some teachers will jump at the opportunity to change or expand their role, but I feel for the others (and especially the older generation of teachers). One faculty member, when asked how he would deal with the challenge of ChatGPT, merely responded, "I think I'll retire".

Either way, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle now, and we are going to have to figure out a way to live with ChatGPT and AI. Sure, cheating in education has been a problem for many years, maybe forever, but this adds a whole new dimension to the possibilities. Banning them seems futile, but what else to do?