Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Farmed salmon still in the news

An opinion piece in today's Globe and Mail is full of righteous outrage and huff-and-puff about farmed salmon (aquaculture), specifically about how the British Columbia and Canada governments are conspiring to wilfully wreck an industry that produces what it calls the most sustainable source of protein in the world (by which I assume it means animal protein). 

The authors, mainly from the aquaculture industry, predictably enough, are complaining about the recent decision by the government of Canada to phase out all open-net salmon farms off the BC coast, which is under dispute by the industry. Most environmentalists and First Nations in the area are fully in favour of the phase-out.

The debate over farmed salmon has been going on for decades, with strong opinions on both sides. Due to polluted waterways, habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change, wild salmon are an endangered species, and so farmed salmon, on balance, is probably a better option (whatever the foodies might tell you). It is certainly among the most sustainable animal protein available, but is it really as environmentally blameless as claimed?

If you read an article like this one from Sea West News and many others from salmon advocacy and lobby gtoups (of which there are many - this is BIG business, around $20 billion a year big), you might get the impression that all is hunky-dory in the world of aquaculture. If, however, you read a critical article (this one from Time is a good introduction), you realize that there is much we are not being told.

Farmed salmon are bred to grow fast in cages, packed so tightly that they are rife with parasites and disease. An estimated 15-20% of farmed salmon die each years as a result, a mortality rate three to four times the rate of factory chickens, and five to six times that of feedlot cattle. Like industrially-raised chickens, which is probably the closest land analogy, they are doused regularly with pesticides and antibiotics (including some banned neurotoxins). But, even so, sea lice and viruses leak out from the farmed cages to infect wild salmon passing by. Untreated waste from excess feed, decomposing dead fish, excrement and chemical residue falls to the ocean floor, coating it with a toxic slime that presents a health risk for marine life for some distance around.

Farmed salmon typically contains seven times the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable carcinogen, as wild salmon, as well as elevated levels of drug-resistent antibiotics, all of which concentrate in the bodies of consumers. The risks, of course, are much greater for infants, children and pregnant mothers, but there is a good reason that nutritionists recommned wild salmon over farmed salmon (after which it becomes a matter of conscience).

Farmed salmon is probably not even that sustainable in other respects, despite the accolades. A quarter of all the fish harvested in the world's oceans goes to aquaculture and pet food. Huge industrial trawlers off the coasts of West Africa and Peru in particular are responsible for this catch, robbing local subsistence fishers of their livelihoods and leading to substantial food insecurity in those regions. 

Recent court cases have challenged fish farming's advertising claims of sustainability. The world's largest salmon farmer, Mowi ASA of Norway, which routinely prevails in the protein sustainability indices, recently settled one such case out of court, paying $1.3 million and agreeing not to advertise its products as "sustainably sourced" or "naturally raised" in North America.

So, as you see, not as black and white as some would have you think. The Globe article paints a picture of Canadian salmon being replaced by Norwegian or Chilean farmed salmon, which clearly would be a retrograde step in environmental and sustainability terms. But that is not necessarily the only stark choice available. 

The salmon farming industry could clean up its act, for one thing. Another alternative is what are called "recirculation aquaculture systems", where fish are farmed in closed-containment facilities on land, using filtered, recirculated water, so that the farmed salmon do not interact with ocean fish at all, and the use of chemicals and the damage to the ocean environment is minimized or all but eliminated. Or, of course, there is always - shock horror! - non-animal plant-based protein. Oh and, just in case you were wondering, salmon hatcheries are not a great solution, either.

Sure, the Globe article is just an opinion piece. But many people will have read it as gospel truth, and there's the rub. 

Sunday, February 05, 2023

"Corvid Cleaning" takes off in Sweden

Here's a smart idea from - where else? - Sweden. Crows are being trained to pick up litter in the form of cigarette butts (which apparently represents an amazing 62% of total litter), and deposit them in an automated container in exchange for food pellets. This reduces the cost of picking up cigarette butts from 12c per butt (using human labour) to 3c (using crows).

It's not a new idea, though. The Puy de Fou theme park in western France started training rooks to pick up litter back in 2018.

Crows are smart enough to learn the skill (and even teach it to upcoming generations of crows). Although, as one person commented, if crows are smart enough to learn to pick up butts, but humans are apparently not smart enough not to drop them in the first place, what does that say about us?

Why would you use a balloon for surveillance?

That was my first question and it seems I am far from alone. In an era of sophisticated satellite and drone technology, why on earth would you choose to send up a glorified weather balloons?

Well. It seems that there are actually some valid reasons for using high-altitude spy balloons. For one, they are significantly cheaper than satellites. For another, because they operate within the bounds of the earth's atmosphere, it is possible to obtain better quality images. However, they still operate above the range of most planes and, because they move relatively slowly, they can often avoid being spotted by radar (other technology and special paints can also help to conceal them). They are more manoeuverable than satellites (although less than drones), and can make less predictable moves if required. They can even spend a long time hovering over one particular area (weather permitting). History shows that they can also be surprisingly difficult to shoot down, although this one was taken out relatively straightforwardly.

The Chinese balloon was tracked for several days by Canadian authorities, as it moved over the Northwest Territories, northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, before being made public as it entered US airspace over Montana. It was then allowed to travel all the way to the east coast, where it was shot down just off the South Carolina coast, supposedly once it was past the point where debris might hit people or property (a less than convincing explanation in my view). It is hoped that some debris will be recovered from relatively shallow water. 

China, of course, insists that it was just a ("mainly meteorological") weather research balloon that blew off course, but then, who believes anything the Chinese government says, any more? It is blustering about the "serious violation of international practice", and "the US's use of force to attack civilian unmanned airships", and rumbles darkly that it "reserves the right to respond further" (which is probably what it wanted all along).

So, anyway, yes, there are reasons why a balloon might be used for spy surveillance purposes. Other spy balloons have been spotted over the United States over the last several years (although Trump denies this), and the US itself (as well as the UK) has been investigating the technology for its own purposes. Personally, I'm not sure why the US decided to shoot it down, rather than capture and investigate it, but maybe that's harder to do than I think.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Misinformation can kill you

A recent study by the Council of Canadian Academies - a body I admit I have never heard of, but it certainly sounds legitimate - has somehow put a figure on the actual consequences of the disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that was rife in the early stages of the pandemic (it is still rife, but the consequences are arguably less drastic now that the virus has mutated over time).

The World Health Organization has, in the past, taken a stab in the dark and estimated that vaccination has averted two to three million deaths a year, but this is an overall ball-park figure. The Council of Canadian Academies has tried to specify the numbers of excess cases and deaths that can be attributed to those who declined to be vaccinated against COVID, either through their own ornery stubbornness or as a result of deliberate disinformation campaigns, well-meaning or otherwise.

They concluded that, as a direct result of Canadians not getting vaccinated when they became eligible, a figure they estimate at 2.3 million, some 198,000 additional COVID cases occurred, resulting in 13,000 additional hospitalizations and, ultimately, 2,800 additional deaths, between March and November 2021 alone.

These are alarming figures, and the overall count over the full course of the pandemic would be substantially higher. I don't know what methodology they employed to arrive at these figures, but even if they are wrong by a factor of several - and, of course , they could also be understated by a factor of several - they give a graphic and disturbing indication of the kinds of numbers we are looking at. 

The bottom line is that hundreds or thousands of people - wives, husbands, kids and grandparents, real people with real lives - have died because some people have ill-advised and erroneous views about vaccinations or half-baked political views, and other people are either excessively credulous or too lazy to do some basic due dilligence. And that's a scary thought.

Quebec's squabble over Islamophobia appointment speaks volumes

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and Quebec Premier François Legault have both appeared in public absolutely apoplectic over the Liberals' appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada's special representative on combatting Islamophobia.

Whether or not you feel that the country needs such a "special representative", it's hard to object too strongly to Ms. Elghawaby herself. She seems eminently qualified for the job. The objections of the Quebec politicians seems to revolve around a perception that Ms. Elghawaby once said something that was not entirely complimentary about the province of Quebec (in actual fact, the comment in question is being taken out of context - she was actually quoting the findings of a Léger opinion poll, and not stating her own opinions).

But even if she were to have voiced an opinion that Quebeckers were being swayed by anti-Muslim prejudice in their support for the province's controversial secularism law known as Bill 21 (which is what most Canadians believe, according to the Léger poll), I am at a loss to understand how that would bar her from a position as an Islamophobia specialist. As a Muslim, of course she would object to a law that clearly discriminates against certain religions. How could she be expected to be otherwise?

But, given that it turns out that she was not even expressing her own opinions, you would think that the Quebec politicians would apologise and walk back their excessive initial reactions. But no, they actually doubled down on them, despite the outpouring of support for Ms. Elgawaby from many influential voices.

The issue for the Quebec political leaders is not so much about freedom of religion or la laïcité. It is a knee-jerk reaction to any opinions that they see as critical of the province of Quebec and its sacrosanct right to special treatment (how ironic is that for people who purport to be standing up for secularism?) Much like the state of Israel, Quebec revels in its status as perpetual victim, and it regularly uses claims of unfairness and discrimination as an excuse to close down awkward discussions.

Surely, as seasoned politicians, they must have grown a thicker-than-average skin. Surely, they can accept criticism, and use their words to argue their side of the debate. They should not be closing down the discussion by trying to censor protestations and rebukes. It wouldn't be because they know they are in the wrong, would it?

Has vertical farming's time come?

Vertical farming is very much du jour. Ag-tech is being touted by many as the best way to save the world, at least as regards feeding its population, particularly the environmentally-challenged world we currently live in.

Huge indoor soilless hydroponic systems using LED lights and smart monitoring technology appear in many sci-fi movies, and increasingly in the real world. The industry is projected to be worth more than US$20 billion by the end of the decade. It can produce large volumes of plant-based food using much less land and water (around 5-10% of open-field farming), in a fraction of the time needed outdoors or even in a greenhouse. And it can do it predictably, 365 days a year, regardless of climate or geography. Proponents also argue that the technology can be used for urban renewal too, utilizing vacant warehouses in neglected neighbourhoods, as well as reducing transportation costs snd environmental impacts.

So, what's not to like? Well, its energy usage for one thing. Vertical farms, despite their high-tech solutions, use an estimated nine times the energy of a typical greenhouse farm per kilogram kg food produced, which, in a warming world should be a red flag. Hell, we may as well just import food from Chile or Vietnam, right? They are also very expensive to build initially, requiring lots of pricey and specialized equipment.

A detailed WWF analysis has shown that, while hydroponic vertical farming in California is better environmentally than vertical farming in Ohio, it is still not as sustainable overall as greenhouse farming (although substantially better than traditional outdoor farming).

So, is it an idea whose time has come? Even newer technology is helping to overcome the energy costs caveat, at least to some extent, and vetical greenhouses, that also make use of sunlight, are an option. If all the electricity used for hydroponic/vertical farming is fully renewable sources, then most analyses suggest that the technologiy then becomes more sustainable than conventional greenhouse farming, but that is not easily achieved yet. Wider adoption and economies of scale may also help bring down initial capital costs.

So, we are probably not there yet. An idea whose time is coming soon, perhaps.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Why is the NDP voting against gun control?

Can anyone explain to me why the NDP (and the Bloc Quebecois, for that matter) are joining the Conservatives in blocking the Liberals' gun control amendment

Pierre Poilieve is, predictably, taking all the "credit" for derailing the Liberals' attempt to ban hand guns and some long guns, but the other minority parties are complicit in it; the Conservatives could not block it on their own.

The NDP, like the Liberals, are supposed to be in favour of banning hand guns and "assault-style weapons", as is the Bloc. Why, then, are they now giving in to a small but vocal gun and hunting lobby, who apparently need laser-guided repeating guns to shoot a deer. Ridiculous people! But, hey, they seem to be able to get what they want somehow.

Yes, the amendment was mismanaged, at least to some extent. But, surely, some movement on gum control is better than none at all?

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The inside story of Musk's Twitter takeover (and take-down)

I have written the occasional entry about Twitter in the age of Elon Musk's ownership (I don't like Twitter and I don't like Musk, so you can imagine the tenor of most of these entries). But the Guardian has just shared an article entitled "Tears Blunders and Chaos: Inside Elon Musk's Twitter", detailing the early days of "Twitter 2.0" in all its Technicolor horror. 

I'm not going to repeat it all here but, suffice to say, it makes for compelling reading. From the mass sackings to Musk's own off-hand and off-colour tweets to panicked employee reactions to the third-party corporate backlash, it's all here in gory detail. 

Just one short quote from the article, maybe: "How smart could he really be, the guy who purchased a company for far more than it was worth, then drove what remained of it into the ground?" Maybe one more: "His imperiousness in the middle of a session he appeared to be botching was something to behold." You get the idea. Now,  read the article (and cancel your Twitter account).

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Coffee pods, environmentally-friendly? Maybe not

You may have seen a bunch of articles crowing about a study that shows that the carbon footprint of single-use coffee pods is lower than other methods of brewing coffee, including filter coffee, French press, etc. Social media posts like "Vindication!" have proliferated.

The University of Quebec at Chicoutimi study concludes that instant coffee is the most environmentally friendly (but who wants to drink THAT!), followed by coffee pods or capsules, like those from Keurig and Nespresso, which are made from plastic or aluminum. French press coffee is the next best option, although it uses a lot more coffee to produce a single cup. And worst of all is good old filter coffee, due to the amount of coffee needed and the energy required to heat the water and keep the coffee warm.

So, vindication, after years of being pilloried as environmentally inferior? Maybe not. For one thing, the UoQ study is not yet peer-reviewed just a pre-print that the media has latched onto. For another, a peer-reviewed 2021 study concluded the exact opposite, claiming that the greenhouse gases from the pods' packaging and dealing with the waste actually make them a poorer environmental choice. 

Plastic pods like those from Keurig are difficult to recycle and are, after all, a petroleum product. Aluminum pods like Nespresso's are technically recyclable, but Nespresso itself puts the recycled proportion at around 36%. So, fine in theory...

Either way, the coffee we drink is not a major contributor to climate change in the scheme of things, and we have much bigger culprits to deal with (eating meat, anyone?) We can get bogged down in this kind of granular detail, and it can be a dangerous distraction from the bigger picture.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Hakeem Jeffries resurrects political oratory

In a speech that has gone viral, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries showed the world that American oratory did not die with Barack Obama (not that Obama is dead, but you knownwhat I mean). Using an alphabetic concept, Jefferies earned a standing ovation for his his farewell speech on handing over the Speakership to less-than-stellar Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Here is the main section:

"House Democrats will always put:

  • American values over autocracy,
  • Benevolence over bigotry,
  • Constitution over cults,
  • Democracy over demagogues,
  • Economic opportunity over extremism,
  • Freedom over fascism,
  • Governing over gaslighting,
  • Hopefulness over hatred,
  • Inclusion over isolation,
  • Justice over judicial overreach,
  • Knowledge over kangaroo courts,
  • Liberty over limitation,
  • Maturity over Mar-a-Lago,
  • Normalcy over negativity,
  • Opportunity over obstruction,
  • People over politics,
  • Quality-of-life issues over QAnon,
  • Reason over racism,
  • Substance over slander,
  • Triumph over tyranny,
  • Understanding over ugliness,
  • Voting rights over voter suppression,
  • Working families over the well-connected,
  • Xenia over xenophobia,
  • "Yes we can" over "You can't do it",
  • Zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation."

Perhaps Q, X and Z are (understandably) a little awkward, and M a little trite (although it did elicit the loudest cheers and boos), but I think that's pretty good. Incidentally, "xenial" means hospitable to strangers and foreigners, i.e. the opposite of "xenophobic".

Over to you, Kevin. Do your worst.

Quebec court rules on moral quandary

In one of those almost-impossible moral quandaries that occur from time to time, Quebec's Court of Appeal has ruled that, contrary to the wishes of his parents, a Montreal hospital can permanently remove a breathing tube from a child who has been in a coma since falling into a swimming pool some seven months ago.

The boy has been in intensive care since he was submerged in a pool for 15-20 minutes last June. Somehow he lived, but has suffered serious and irreversible brain damage. Doctors say that he is technically breathing on his own, and that the tube is actually doing more harm than good, particularly given that removing the tube would allow the child to return home and receive much-needed physiotherapy.

The boy's parents insist that the tube should only be removed if the hospital is willing to restore it if things "go wrong". The Court of Appeal ruled that "the principle of preserving life at all costs is not absolute when the conditions for maintaining life are unacceptable". It ruled that the parents' objections were not in the boy's best interests, and were based on the hope that God would miraculously return the boy to the way he was before the accident.

The family is considering whether to accept the decision or to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Canada's Catch-22 situation in sending tanks to Ukraine

Canada, like Poland and Finland, wants to send some of their German-built Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine to aid in its existential fight against Russia. But we are in the bizarre situation of having to wait for German "permission" to do so.

This is not just a diplomatic courtesy; when Western countries sell weapons, including main battle tanks, to other countries, they normally include an "end-use declaration", which verifies that the buyer is in fact the final user of the weapon, and that it does not intend to transfer them to a third country or use them for another purpose. This is an understandable and even laudable safety clause, and ensures that the weapons are not ultimately used by regimes with poor human rights records, or for causes that the selling country disapproves of.

It seems strange that Canada needs Germany's permission to dispose of its own military equipment, but that's how it is. It should be noted, however, that Poland is considering sending Ukraine its Leopard 2 tanks even without German permission, arguing that Ukraine cannot wait, and that the humanitarian imperative should overrule the niceties of contract law.

Now, the waters have muddied further as a cautious Germany is now saying that it will not allow any of its tanks to be sent to Ukraine unless the USA also agrees to send its M1 Abrams tanks there too, a kind of I-will-if-you-will arrangement presumably designed to ensure that Germany is not seen by Russia as an outspoken aggressor. The problem, say the Americans, is that Abrams tanks in particular are very complex and expensive pieces of equipment requiring substantial training, and American security advisors are loath to promise them to Ukraine. Which means that Germany is unlikely to release its own tanks, or to allow other countries to send their own German-built tanks. Catch-22.

Thus far, Britain is the only Western benefactor that has definitively promised Ukraine tanks (as opposed to armoured trucks and personnel carriers). It has just announced it is sending 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks and ammunition, delivery date unknown.


A major meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, at which several countries tried to persuade Germany to give its permission to send the Leopend 2 tanks to Ukraine, ended in stalemate, as Germany continues to block the more aggressive tendencies of other Euroean allies (and, strangely, the usually modest and circumspect Canadians), a stalemate that Ukraine's foreign minister calls a "huge disappointment for all Ukrainians".

The only thing they managed to agree on at the meeting was to declare the Russian Wagner Group an international terrorist organization (technically a "Transnational Criminal Organization", which would immediately allow for sanctions to be levied against it), something that should have been enacted months, if not years, ago. Negotiations continue on the much-needed tanks, but Germany seems very reluctant to commit itself, or to allow other countries to commit themselves if it might be perceived by Russia as a German initiative (and, of course, Russia would immediately interpret it as such, it being in their propaganda interests).

Visualizing China's dominance in battery production

You probably already know that China has a dominant position in global battery technology. But you might not realize quite to what extent until you see this graphic visualization of global lithium-ion battery production in 2022 and projected in 2027.

This shows the USA and Europe belatedly playing catch-up over the next few years, but only reducing China's dominant ahare of the industry from 77% to 69%. 

Not good.

Jacinda Ardern leaves politics on her own terms

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has decided to call it a day even before her current term ends. Having steered her country through the pandemic, the Christchurch shootings, the White Island volcanic eruption and childbirth, and having presided over her share of controversy, she has decided that she no longer has "enough in the tank" to continue, and that to do so would be "doing a disservice to New Zealand".

Her party is not faring well in the polls, and it seems more than likely that it will lose in the next election, but her exit has certainly left the party in a bit of pickle. That said, it's refreshing to see a political leader not looking to cling onto power ad nauseam. Compare her exit with that of Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu or Boris Johnson...

You'd think that six years in high-level politics would be enough for anyone, but that's not the way it seems to work, at least not in the macho world of man-politics. Direct, down-to-earth, but always classy (apart from when club-dancing), Ms. Ardern will be remembered as a youthful politician with a bit of spark, an international feminist icon to many, and a fierce defender of her own little country on the world stage.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

El Niño is coming, expect some record temperatures

Last year was the fifth hottest on record worldwide (sixth warmest, according to some temperature rankings). Only fifth, you say? You might be tempted to think that global warming is starting to slacken off. Not so. The eight hottest years ever have all happened since 2014.

There are also other factors involved. The last three years have all been La Niña years, in which ocean temperatures - an important driver of land temperatures, although far from the only one - are cooler than usual, temporarily dampening the underlying effects of climate change. So, 2022 was the fifth hottest year, EVEN THOUGH it was a La Niña year, and it was certainly the hottest La Niña Year on record.

This year, 2023, will be an El Niño year, leading to even higher temperatures, and probably officially taking us over the dreaded 1.5°C threshold. The El Niño effect actually tends to occur during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, so we probably won't feel its full effects until 2024. But, make no mistake, hot crazy weather is coming. Climatologists are predicting the temperatures in 2024 will be "off the charts".

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Why immunity debt doesn't exist, and why masks still matter

It is the conventional received wisdom that the ballooning of contagious diseases this winter, particularly among children, is an unavoidable corollary and result of COVID lockdowns and a whole cohort of young kids who haven't been exposed to the normal epidemiological rites of passage. 

This is often described as "immunity debt" or "deferred immunity", the idea that our immune systems have somehow become weak after 2-3 years of hiding behind masks and observing self-isolation and quarantine protocols. It is a very common belief and has been put forward by many individuals, from internet influencers to medical professionals to our own prime minister. The problem with this narrative is that it's almost certainly wrong, and this is not the way our immune systems work. It is not a "use it or lose it" situation.

The so-called "tridemic" of influenza, RSV and COVID has indeed been a trial for kids and parents alike this year, although it is starting to tail off now. (RSV in particular is usually at its worst in late fall and early winter.) The severity of this year's viral attacks is largely due to the impressive ability of viruses to mutate and adapt. That's just what viruses do, whether we are talking about COVID, influenza or the common cold.

However, what is becoming increasingly understood is that, much like measles and many other infectious diseases, COVID not only makes us sick, it also attacks our immune systems themselves, making them less able to protect us against other diseases as well as COVID itself. It seems likely that COVID is actually suppressing our immune systems and contributing to "T-cell exhaustion" (T-cells are the guardian cells that spot infections and help defend the immune system). Instead of "immunity debt", maybe we should be taking about "immunity theft".

It's hard to know, because we haven't been keeping track of COVID infections for many months now, but many epidemiologists believe that the more severe cases of the flu and RSV we are seeing are probably occurring among people who have already contracted COVID (whether they knew it or not), and who have had their immune systems compromised by it. Anecdotal evidence supports this, and an increasing number of studies are starting to back up this evidence.

The other aspect to this new information is that, contrary to the views of many politicians and even many healthcare professionals these days, masks and basic  public health measures are not part of the problem but an essential part of the solution. We should still be trying our best NOT to get infected with COVID, rather than pretending it doesn't exist and letting it all hang out.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Wyoming to ban the sale of electric vehicles (not a joke)

Much as I hate the place and all that it stands for, you kind of have to hand it to the state of Wyoming for having a sense of humour. Wyoming's state legislature is responding to moves by progresssive states like California and New York to ban the sale of gasoline vehicles by 2035 with its own resolution to ban the sale of electric vehicles by 2035.

Their "justification" is essentially that the oil and gas industry provides employment and income for the state and so needs to be supported.

Wyoming is a tiny maverick state of half a million people, and its action is almost entirely symbolic. But it is indicative of just how divided and fractured the country is, not least in the area of energy and climate change.

I'm not sure that the move is actually tongue-in-cheek - I think they are deadly serious - but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and applaud their sense of humour. Otherwise, it would just be too depressing. In reality, it's about as amusing as Ohio's move to rebrand natural gas as a "green" energy source.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Ukrainian soldier has an unexploded grenade removed from his chest

OK, so how does this work? An injured Ukrainian soldier apparently had an unexploded grenade removed from his chest in a very high-risk surgery. What!?

The VOG, a type of grenade usually fired from a grenade launcher, appears in this x-ray to be lodged within, yes, the guy's chest. Why did it not explode? How is he even still alive? Would a Russian soldier have survived this? So many questions.

Public vs. private - two perspectives

Two separate articles in today's paper have me wondering about the hoary old public-private dichotomy.

First, the god-forsaken eastern Ukrainain town of Soledar is being pounded into oblivion, not by the Russian army, but by Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group, a private army of mercenaries. Despite taking heavy losses in the campaign for this small town, which boasts little more than a network of salt mines (and a reasonaly strategic position, to be fair), the mercenaries have dug in and are coming close to taking what's left of the town.

But I had to stop and wonder what was the difference between the Wagner Group fighting and the Russian army fighting? The mercenary organization has a reputation for extreme violence and a readiness to commit illegal atrocities, but hell, so does the Russian army. Yes, they are paid for their efforts, but so is the army of Russian conscripts (although presumably much less). They are loyal to their employer (at least while they are still being paid), and not to Mother Russia, but very few Russian conscripts have warm fuzzy feelings for Vladimir Putin by now.

Which leads me to wonder: has anyone tried to buy off the Wagner Group? Maybe Prigozhin himself can't be bought (although maybe he can?), but the individual fighters? Might it be a cheaper option for the Ukraine-supporting West to bribe the Wagner Group force with some big money than the huge amounts of cash being pumped into military equipment and ammunition? Could the Wagner Group even be persuaded to work AGAINST Russia? Idle musings, nothing more, but food for thought nonetheless.

The very next article in the paper is also about a very different public-private argument. The Conservative Ontario government has made no secret of its love for private healthcare. As the healthcare system creaks and groans in what feels like its final death rattle, the government is in the process of bringing in a law allowing what it calls "independent health facilities" (basically for-profit private health clinics) to take up some of the slack. Doug Ford has made it very clear that Ontario residents will not have to break out their credit cards in order to receive healthcare, and that, whatever changes are made, they will all be covered by the current OHIP system.

So, private doctors will be paid by the government to treat patients for free. But isn't that effectively what already happens? Doctors and specialists in the public system are essentially self-employed business people underwritten by the public health insurance system. How is the idea of publicly-paid private clinics any different, if patients are still receiving their treatments for free (which after all is the basic tenet of socialized medicine)? 

There has been the predictable outcry and claims that we are heading pell-mell towards the despicable American system. But it does raise the question of what actually constitutes public healthcare. Is the important part that residents do not have to pay direct for the care they receive? Or is the salient point that the organizations providing the care not make a profit? Equal and universal access to care, funded by progressive taxes paid to governments, is the usual definition of medicare, and that may not actually change under the proposed changes.

Presumably, though, the private sector will charge even higher rates than the doctors currently in the public system, and so tax-payers will ultimately be on the hook for higher taxes to cover it (which the government does not seem to be talking about), but the underlying principal is surely the same. So, why not just pay current public sector doctors and nurses more money to retain their services, and to encourage new entrants into the field, and to discourage new graduating doctors from heading straight down the higher-paying specialist route, especially given the acute need for regular family doctors, particularly in rural and northern areas? Wouldn't this achieve the same end, more cheaply, and with a lot less controversy?

Public solutions do exist. For example, one other proposed solution within the current public system might be "community surgery centres" (also known as "ambulatory surgery centres"), which are designed to handle large volumes of low-complexity surgeries. These community surgeries can apparently deal with about 30%  more operations than a hospital on any given day at a similar cost. What's not to like?

Either way, it seems clear that the status quo is failing Ontarians, and some drastic re-think is needed. Mr. Ford is determined to bring his dream of more private medicine to fruition, following in the footsteps of other provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, starting with procedures like cataract surgeries, MRI and CT scans, and hip and knee surgeries. So, it will be interesting to see how it all transpires, and how much push-back there will be from the strongly-unionized public sector (and whether there is a mass exodus of doctors and nurses from the public system to the better-paid private sector - potential poaching of public hospital staff by private clinics is probably the top concern of hospitals when considering Ford's plans). 

And finally, here is one other relevant consideration: although Mr. Ford credits BC as a big inspiration of his own plans, it turns out that BC is actually heading in the opposite direction currently, as it is in the process of bringing private clinics back into the public system, and clamping down on private operators accused of underusing operating rooms. Hmm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Where is Mustafa, Mr. Poilievre?

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason has set off something of a firestorm by asking a very simple question: where is Mustafa?

But first, who is Mustafa? Mustafa appears in Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's latest designed-for-social-media campaign video. Poilievre has a penchant for hard-hitting anti-Trudeau videos. His supporters love them (mainly because they hate Trudeau too); most other people just roll their eyes. Mustafa is a guy in the video who arranged a resort wedding in Cuba despite not having a passport. Poilievre apparently encountered Mustafa in Ottawa airport by sheer coincidence, the day AFTER his wedding was supposed to take place. His wife-to-be and 20 guests were living it up in Cuba while he was languishing in Ottawa still trying to obtain a passport.

The point of the video is supposed to be that Justin Trudeau was personally responsible for Mustafa's pain, and the pain of thousands like him. In fact, according to Poilievre, everything that goes wrong in Canada is, almost by definition, Trudeau's fault. (In actual fact, the passport log-jam of a few months ago has largely been remedied, and most people are now able to obtain passports within a reasonable period.)

But several things about Mustafa's story ring false, and Mr. Mason set about trying to contact this Mustafa. And failed. Social media campaigns sprang up on Twitter, Instagram and Reddit (I don't use any of them, but take your pick), frantically searching for Mustafa.

So, is Mr. Poilievre playing fast and loose with the truth? Is Mustafa a plant, a straw man? Was he paid? Does he even exist? Are those clever Poilievre videos all a big con? Do you care?

China's "Project Path" not convincing democracy protesters

Since China passed a draconian national security law back in mid-2020, hundreds of Hong Kong residents have been arrested for the crime of supporting democratic governance and independence for Hong Kong, including some high-profile individuals like Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai. In November 2021, China, in tried-and-tested totalitarian style, also instituted a program called "Project Path", designed to put these lost souls "back on the right track".

Project Path, administered by Hong Kong's Correctional Services Department, is a "deradicalization" program to "enhance their sense of national identity". Hong Kong's tame pro-China secretary for security, Chris Tang, has hailed it as a great success, having treated hundreds of arrested anti-government protesters over the last year and a bit.

Some have described the program as an exercise in brainwashing, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Project Path is really just an unsophisticated, simplistic propaganda program, attempting to force intensely pro-China materials on offenders in the vain hope that they will be convinced of the wisdom of the Chinese way. 

One participant has explained, under conditions of anonymity, that if inmates didn't agree with the propaganda, they were forced to continue with the program. If, however, they just pretended to go along with it, they were released with a reduced sentence. The inmates quickly realized this, and this graduate of the program estimates that maybe one in ten participants were actually being convinced.

The heavy-handed Chinese security clampdown in Hong Kong has effectively stifled public dissent, and mass rallies are a thing of the past. However, it seems clear that widespread unrest and dissent continues to simmer below the calm surface. And Clockwork Orange-style re-education programs like Project Path are unlikely to change that. 

Monday, January 09, 2023

Donald Trump - the president of precedents, all of them bad

Supporters of defeated Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro have had their very own January 6th moment as they smash up the Brazilian Congress, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace, in a large-scale and violent riot that is described as having "striking similarities" to the January 6th 2021 insurrection in Washington DC (even down to the "Make Brazil Great Again" hats and t-shirts, which Bolsonaro himself also like to wear).

Put this down as yet another thing that would never have happened without the precedent of Donald Trump.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

The Kraken is coming (yawn)

The XBB.1.5 sub-variant of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is being called (or at least "referred to by some", according to this article) the "Kraken" sub-variant, and I have no idea why.

Despite first being detected as recently as October, XBB.1.5 (and I have no idea where the "XBB" came from either - weren't we on "BA"?) is cutting a swath through the USA, accounting for 40% of new cases there, and up to 75% in some areas like the Northeast. It is just starting to make an appearance in Canada, with just a handful of cases registered in British Columbia, but it is ridiculously contagious and it seems only a matter of time until it becomes the dominant variant.

So, yes, it is kind of a big deal, if you can raise enough interest in a virus that has been with us for 3 years now. But whose idea was it to call it the Kraken sub-variant? Other variants haven't merited this kind of mythological status. Is it supposed to shock and scare us into protective action (good luck with that!)? Is it supposed to put some kind of an anthropomorphized face on a faceless virus? Is this sub-variant supposed to represent some kind of apotheosis? (Surely, more and more variants are going to continue to rear their heads - see, there I go too! - in the future.)

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Killed police officer was a great guy, but maybe not a hero

Constable Greg Pierzchala was shot in an apparently random and senseless gun crime near Hagersville, Ontario, last week. He was shot while attending a pretty routine road incident by a young hoodlum who had been granted bail despite a number of assault and weapons charges (that's a whole other issue).

Pierzchala had only been a police officer for just over a year, and had barely finished his 10-month probation period. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, although of course everyone likes to think well of the dead. At his funeral in Barrie, Ontario, yesterday, friends, colleagues and family members all spoke very highly of him. He was a nature lover, enjoyed martial arts and appreciated art, quite the Renaissance Man it seems. He enjoyed his job and had a "big heart", to employ a rather overused phrase. Her was certainly a brave man, as are all police officers who routinely put themselves in the line of fire day in and day out. He was even an "inspiration", at least to his younger sister.

But was he "a hero"? Again, his sister thinks so. But that's a high bar to reach. Soldiers in wartime are often referred to as "heros"; people who rescue others in dangerous situations; people who turn around the fortunes of countries or oppressed minority groups. These are heros. Does Constable Pierzchala belong in this august company? Maybe he might have done one day, but just a year into his police service, he had not had the opportunity yet. He was killed in an apparently random attack; he was in the wrong place and the wrong time. However nice a guy he was, we should probably not disrespect centuries of genuine heros by bandying the word around willy-nilly.

Republican "Freedom Caucus" now more Trumpian than Trump

Pretty much everyone but the 20 far-right Republicans who are part of the MAGA-style pro-Trump "Freedom Caucus", who are holding the whole American country hostage by refusing to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the small Republican majority House of Representatives, find this whole situation pretty embarrassing.

The Republicans have tried 6 times over two days to land a vote that will allow McCarthy to take up the position he has coveted for so long. They say they will keep holding votes for as long as it takes until they get what they want. The "Freedom Caucus" has vowed to keep up its opposition as long as it takes until McCarthy gives up and allows a more right-wing candidate to be voted in to the position, one who supports their demands for, inter alia, rule changes allowing more influence to individual representatives at the expense of party elders, a pledge to balance budgets, a vote on term limits, and a border plan that includes more deportations and the completion of Trump's border wall. This, of course, would lead to even more opposition from a larger number of more moderate Republicans, so the impasse looks insurmountable.

Thing is, even Trump opposes these "pro-Trump" zealots. He has openly called on the Freedom Caucus to "VOTE FOR KEVIN" (in capitals, of course). He's not just being nice -  Trump doesn't do nice - he wants someone he knows he can dominate if/when he gets elected back into power. 

But the likes of Lauren Broebert, Chip Roy, Matt Gaetz, etc (here is a list - most of the names I don't even recognize), are now more Trumpian than Trump. As one commentators put it, Trump has "set in motion forces he can't control any more", and "he can't put the genie back in the lamp".

Interestingly, parallel to these federal shenanigans, the state of Pennsylvania, after a weird, tight, see-saw election, has recently voted a Democrat in as Speaker, despite the Republicans having a very slight majority. More than a dozen Republicans voted across the aisle for the consensus candidate, and the winner promptly vowed to govern as an independent. Kumbaya! Don't expect anything remotely like that to happen at the federal level.


After 14 rounds of unsuccessful votes, McCarthy finally got himself elected Speaker on the 15th vote, having sacrificed any credibility he might ever have had, and after making a bunch of unspecified concessions to the hard-right Freedom Caucus, concessions that moderates say may make it harder for the GOP to effectively govern (including the reinstatement of a rule that would allow any single member to call a vote to oust the Speaker at any time). 

It was not an edifying sight. Apparently, it almost came to fisticuffs in the GOPs ranks at one point, as Mike Rogers and Matt Gaetz had to be pulled apart.

Of course, Trump was behind the scenes, pulling strings, holding meetings, and he will almost certainly take "credit" for it. But all this has really not been a good look for the Republicans, especially given their razor-thin majority in the House. Democrats are vowing to take advantage of this Republican disarray, and to go on the offensive. We'll see what that means in practice.

Competition Tribunal and Competition Bureau are in competition

In Canadian business regulation circles, the Competition Tribunal is supposed to be the legal arm of the Competition Bureau, ruling on competition cases brought to it by the Bureau. In the case of the ongoing Rogers Communications takeover of Shaw Communications, however, the two competition bodies seem to be directly competing with each other.

In a rushed announcement late on the Thursday before the end-of-year long weekend, the Tribunal ruled this last week that the merger of the two big telecoms was "not likely" to lead to higher prices for Canadian customers and so should be allowed to proceed, even though it appears at first blush to result in less competition in the field (the infamous "efficiencies defence"). 

This week, though, the Bureau has called on the Federal Court of Appeals to overturn that decision, arguing that the Tribunal erred in how it assessed the deal, particularly in how it assessed Shaw's plan to hive off its Freedom Mobile cellphone business and sell it to Quebecor's Videotron, and also that it made fundamental errors of law. Ouch!

How can the two bodies be so out of sync? The Competition Commissioner Matthew Boswell, who heads up the Bureau, seems to be taking a brave and principled stand against a system that largely favours businesses over consumers. The Tribunal appears to be taking a lot of things on trust (e.g. that Quebecor, which currently only operates within Québec, will start to compete outside of its home turf), and completely dismisses out of hand the Bureau's legitimate concern that the merger will "likely result in consumers paying significantly higher wireless prices".

Many people have panned the Tribunal's hasty decision from a whole slew of different standpoints, despite the enthusiasm for the deal from Rogers, Shaw and even the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission). No less than two cross-party parliamentary committees have concluded that the merger would leave consumers worse off, notwithstanding the Freedom Mobile hive-off, and notwithstanding  the Competition Tribunal's inexplicable ruling. 

Which leaves us with the question: what is the use of a competition regulator if it doesn't regulate on behalf of the lowly consumer?