Monday, February 27, 2023

A negotiated settlement in Ukraine is still an option

There have been a lot of articles coinciding with the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine discussing how the war might end. The vast majority conclude that the war will only end when Ukraine "wins" (although just how that is defined varies), and that a military victory is the only way that will happen, on the grounds that Putin has burnt all his boats and will never negotiate a face-saving exit from the war. That seems like the obvious and the "right" solution, however hard it might actually be to achieve. This is largely because Russia is so clearly completely in the wrong, and we are all so outraged at their behaviour, and we are all so sympathetic to the plight of the long-suffering Ukrainian people, that any other solution would seem insufficient.

There was a double-page spread of such opinions in the weekend edition of the Globe and Mail. However, one brave article - entitled A negotiated settlement is the only path to peace in Ukraine - stood out as the only one to argue that a military solution is neither possible nor even desirable. The article was by Cesar Jaramillo, leading light of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace research institute which focusses on disarmament efforts and international security.

The article recognizes that calling for a peaceful solution has become a fringe position, but it argues, pretty cogently and compellingly, that a negotiated settlement is actually the most realistic endgame, and that doggedly pursuing an ill-defined win for Ukraine (or for Russia) will only prolong the war, and thereby increase human suffering, while also heightening the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.

The war has been characterized by Putin as an existential struggle with the West, and is seen by most observers as a make-or-break element of Putin's perceived legacy. A humiliating and crushing defeat for Russia, well-deserved as it may be, will be perceived as a "fatal blemish" on that legacy, and is just not an option that Putin will countenance. If pushed to that eventuality, the man is mentally unbalanced enough to resort to the ultimate remedy, a nuclear attack, either on Ukraine or on NATO as a whole. We should not minimize that risk, and we should stop and think whether this is a gamble we are willing to take.

It does seem quite likely that further militarization could undermine the prospects for a negotiated settlement, continuing the cycle of violence with no end in sight. Tens of thousands more may perish as a result of the blind pursuit of a military victory. Can we justify this (can Ukraine justify this?) merely in order to protect the integrity of the borders of a nation-state? There are still some points of negotiation, whether you like them or not - the status of Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine, Ukraine's prospective membership of NATO, NATO's military presence on Russia's borders, Russia's breaches of international law and war crimes - and some unpleasant compromises may be required. 

Although talk of a negotiated settlement with a bully like Russian might rub us the wrong way, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Kudos to Mr. Jaramillo for being brave enough to remind us.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Mining on the moon is probably coming - are we ready?

So, here's a perfectly serious article about how lucrative mining the moon would be, and how such a development is jot only essential but imminent and inevitable. Lunar water ice, Helium-3, carbon, nitrogen, precious minerals - they are all up for grabs according to some, and Canada needs to stake its claim.

The article - partially written, it must be said, by a representative from the Canadian Space Mining Corp, who might be assumed to have a somewhat partisan opinion - makes such sweeping statements as: "A $100 billion lunar economy beckons"; "So, space mining will be necessary, and we have about a decade to figure out how to do it"; "Canada has a competitive edge, because we know how to mine in isolated locations"; and "The federal government recognizes the opportunity".

It also mentions, almost in passing that, in addition to NASA'S plans to establish a base camp on the moon, "China and Russia announced jointly in 2021 that they are planning the same". Japanese companies are planning on getting in on the act too, as also might India, Israel and South Korea. Don't forget that the USA (under both Obama and Trump) has already unilaterally declared the moon to be fair game for economic development, free of government oversight.

So, are just going to let humanity's rapacious tendencies have free run? We are going to mess up another planet (OK, moon) like we messed this one up? We are going to establish a new front of the burgeoning Cold War up in space?

Hold on! Surely, mining the moon is by no means inevitable, not is it even desirable. There must be a robust movement to prevent such an eventuality, no? Say, some part of the United Nations? Does the moon have no rights?

Well, there is the Declaration of the Rights of the Moon - and yes, it does begin, "We the people of earth..." - established a couple of years ago by a group in of mainly Australian academics, with the intention of starting a conversation about the ethics of exploiting the moon for profit. They hope to get members of the global public to discuss and sign it, but it certainly doesn't have the force of a UN charter, even if sufficient interest could be drummed up.

In theory, there is also the UN's 1967 Outer Space Treaty (technically, the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies"), which states explicitly that the moon "is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty", and that "exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of and shall be the province of all mankind". This suggests that mining on the moon could be legal under certain restrictive conditions, but good luck trying to interpret THAT in court.

There's also (again in theory) the UNs 1979 Moon Agreement (technically, the "Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies"), which specifically declares that lunar resources are the "common heritage of mankind", and calls for the establishment of an international regime of oversight. But it remains one of the UN's least popular multilateral treaties, with only 18 signatories (even the USA refused to sign it).

NASA itself has recently established the Artemis Accords, a "shared vision for principles ... to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy". Twenty other nations have already signed on to this accord, but you have to know that the likes of China and Russia are not likely to join in with anything they consider to be "US-centric".

Maybe it's premature to be even discussing these matters. After all, humans haven't actually walked on the moon since 1972. But, make no mistake, it's coming, and probably sooner than we might think, what with the USA's Artemis program, and some pretty firm plans by China, Russia and Japan (plus, you can bet that the Middle Eastern oil States will involve themselves soon enough). We need to have out act together BEFORE these people start tearing up the lunar surface.

Is repatriation of Indigenous cultural items always the best solution

The momentum is building behind the drive to return Indigenous museum pieces to their rightful owners. The latest such move on this front is the return of a pipe and saddle by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to the family of 19th Century Plains Cree Chief Poundmaker. The "repatriation" of the cultural items was highly celebrated, and took place amid lavish Indigenous ceremonies. 

I understand the impetus behind this movement, and I am cognizant that many such items were basically stolen, or obtained under duress, and in general terms it makes sense that they should be returned if requested. 

What I am less sure about is whether this should be a blanket [sic] operation. It seems to be me that in some cases, it may be the best option - for the country, for the Indigenous community, even for the family of the original owners - for high profile national museums like the ROM to continue displaying such items (which appropriate accreditation, of course).

Chief Poundmaker was one of the great Indigenous leaders of the the 19th century, and was instrumental in negotiating Treaty 6, which covers portions of present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta. As such he should be applauded and acclaimed, and what better way than having history front and centre in a well-known national museum?

I just think that, if my grandfather had done something special and noteworthy, I would probably be more than happy to have his deeds broadcast to the world through a museum than to hide it away at home. Is it possible that Indigenous communities are cutting off their noses to spite their faces by their dogged insistence on repatriation all cultural items? Or is the ability to "stick it to the man" on this issue more important than any such practical considerations? If so, I can probably appreciate that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The problem of Russia - what's an IOC to do?

I don't have a whole lot of time or patience for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but I have to admit that it finds itself stuck between a rock and a very hard place as regards the loud demands to ban Russia and its side-kick Belarus from the next Olympic Games.

Led, of course, by Ukraine and neighbouring countries, but vocally supported by at least 30 countries including the USA, Britain and France, many are calling for a full ban on Russia from all international sports competitions, including the Paris Olympic Games, as a punishment for its invasion of Ukraine. The IOC is stoically sticking to its tired position that to do so would violate its own Charter, and that "sport is above politics". 

The IOC says it's stance is "non-negotiable", but it risks a full boycott of the next Olympics if it were to stick with it. Financially, that would be disastrous, although the IOC is ridiculously profitable and has built up a staggering $5.6 billion in reserves. The moral slap-in-the-face might take some living down, though, and you have to feel sorry for the athletes who have been building up to their day in the sun for years (and who may personally be adamantly against Russia's invasion, or who may not), only to be suddenly not allowed to compete.

Having Russia and Belarus compete as "neutrals" is clearly not a good compromise, but it's about the only one the IOC has. Nobody thinks that calling Russia "ROC" or "OAR" is a satisfactory solution, but what's a self-respecting Olympic Committee to do? Yes, sport should be above politics but, in the real world, it's not. So, what to do?

It's one thing to ban Russia for their ongoing doping scandals; that's a sports matter and an Olympics rules matter. It's less justifiable to ban athletes because their president is a jerk, or because we don't agree with their politics. The athletes don't have to get on with each other (although that would be nice), but the Olympics is supposed to be open to everyone everywhere. It is supposed to show that, if only for a couple of weeks every two years, people from all walks of life can get together and compete without killing one another. Spare a thought for IOC president Thomas Bach who has to explain this over and over again, to politicians, journalists and even competitors.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The "absurd censorship" (or sensitive edits) of Roald Dahl

You may have heard that Puffin, the British publisher of Roald Dahl's books, is rewriting parts of the books for more modern sensibilities, taking out some of the language they was considered perfectly acceptable in Dahl's day, but considered offensive by some today.

So, Augustus Gloop is no longer "enormously fat", but just "enormous"; Mrs. Twitter is jo longer "ugly and beastly", just "beastly"; Matilda reads the slightly more politically correct Jane Austen, rather than Rudyard Kipling, and the Oompa-Loompas (which, in Dahl's original version, were "pygmies" from "the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle" before they became small orange people in a previous edit) are now gender neutral, for some reason.

Puffin maintains these are "small and carefully-considered" edits, designed to ensure that the books can "continue to be enjoyed by all today", even if some of them may seem somewhat random or pointless. Predictably, though, some critics, including some very well known names in the literary firmament, are accusing Puffin of "absurd censorship", "cultural vandalism" and "botched surgery", most of which seems rather over-the-top, but authors and critics get very hot under the collar over this kind of thing. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weighed in with, "We shouldn't gobblefunk around" with Dahl's words (to use a Dahl neologism).

It should be pointed out that these kinds "sensitive text revisions" are nothing new. A bunch of revisions were made recently to Enid Blyton's beloved but irredeemably racist and sexist Famous Five books, and even the books of the "blatant and admitted anti-Semite" Dahl have been edited previously, as noted above.

Some critics suggest that a better solution would be, rather than carrying out wholesale edits to classic children's books which, over repeated iterations, could change the books substantially, leave the original text as is, and provide an introduction and explanation for parents and teachers, almost like a government health warning. 

Would that really be a better solution. Maybe. Or maybe some older books just deserve to fall out of general circulation, and be consigned to the dusty shelves of academia. It's not like there aren't many modern alternatives available, just as good if not better, and much more politically correct to boot.


And now Ian Flemings James Bond books are to receive the same politically correct treatment. Well, now they're really playing with fire! (Ian Fleming Publications claims that Fleming himself was on board with making changes to some of the more egregious racial epithets prior to his death in 1964.)

Monday, February 20, 2023

Not just another EV-bashing diatribe

I came across another article about electric vehicles, and I confess I feared another EV-bashing diatribe. The very title - "In northern Norway's bitter cold, the durability of electric vehicles is put to the test" - gave that impression. But I read it anyway. You have to look at all sides, right?

It didn't look good from the start. The first section recounted the results from a testing facility in northern Finland, where five new electric vehicle models were kept in a special cold chamber and subjected to temperatures of -40°C overnight. In the morning, three of the five cars being tested would not start. This may well be the case, but then neither would most ICE vehicles in those circumstances, the problem being not the main drive battery, but the small 12v battery that most electric cars use for peripherals like lights and, oh yes, starting, just like ICE cars do. 

Plus, quite frankly, it's not that often that even northern Norway or Canada dips down to -40°C (-25°C / -30°C, maybe), so I'm not sure how practical a test it was. I guess if you live in such a place, you make sure you buy one of the two cars that DID start in -40°C.

After a few more negative anecdotal quotes from northern Norwegians complaining about how electric vehicles are not up to the task of an Arctic Norwegian winter ("The effectiveness of the battery is not so good in this cold" - well, duh!), the tone of the article changed somewhat. For the minority of people who persisted with the article to this point, though (and I have seen at least one version of this same article on an anti-EV website that deliberately deletes the second half!), a rather different impression would have been gained. 

The upshot of the article is, as one seasoned vehicle tester summarizes, that electric cars "are quite able to cope with winter if you know what you are doing", and indeed that they are "perfect for this area". Yes, winter battery range is only around 70% of the summer range, and charging times tend to be longer. But, with newer longer-range vehicles, better batteries, and many more public charging stations, there is no reason that EVs should not do well in even the most challenging environment. Which is just as well because Norway has committed to phasing out ICE vehicles by 2025, well ahead of Canada's target of 2035.

The moral of the story? Read the full article. And keep the faith.

Insatiable Chinese demand for donkeys is a major problem for Africa

What is it with the Chinese and their wacky "traditional" medicines and beauty treatments? Not content with decimating a whole raft of endangered species in the interests of unproven health remedies and skin treatments, it seems they are also intent on slaughtering vast numbers of the world's donkeys for an obscure collagen treatment made out of donkey skin.

Why donkey skin in particular? Don't ask me. And does it actually work? Also don't ask me (although I have my suspicions). But the Chinese seem convinced that donkey skin can slow ageing, enhance beauty, boost the libido, and cure a whole host of ailments from anemia to insomnia to pregnancy issues.

Ejiao (a collagen extracted from donkey hides) now sells for $780 per kilogram, and is sold in China in the form of cakes, tablets, bars and liquids. It is no longer a remedy reserved for Chinese royalty; it is a must-have for its huge upwardly-mobile middle class. Demand for donkey skin from China is insatiable. It is a $7.8 billion market, and has doubled in just the last few years, largely due to intensive advertising campaigns by Chinese companies. China consumes about 5 million donkey skins annually, and depletes about 10% of the entire world population of donkeys each year.

Anyway, you say, it's only donkeys, right? No-one really cares about donkeys, and it sure as hell isn't an endangered species, right? Well, donkeys are certainly not endangered, but it's not true that no-one cares about them. And I don't just mean because they're cute, and because you may have contributed to a donkey sanctuary while on a sunshine holiday at some point in your life.

The thing is, China has blown through its own supply of donkeys, once the largest in the world, and it now sources its donkey hides abroad, largely from Africa. Donkeys are the workhorse of much of Africa, and the continent is now home to nearly two-thirds of the world's donkeys. They are used to carry, water, food and farm goods. They boost household productivity, and free up their children to go to school.  

The global trade in donkeys is completely unregulated, and an estimated 25-35% of China's imported donkeys are now stolen or trafficked illegally. The sharp recent increase in the price of donkey hides has attracted transnational criminal networks, and traffickers are easily evading the bans that some countries have instituted. Donkeys are slow to reproduce, and are hard to breed in large numbers; some African countries like Botswana have lost half of their donkey population since 2016. 

Many African villages are suffering greatly as a result of the Chinese trade and, as usual, women and girls are suffering most, especially as they are often drafted in to do the work that donkeys used to do. The donkeys themselves are also suffering, often walked for days to market without adequate food or water, and often killed cruelly, with a hammer or dagger. The slaughtering process is unhygienic and creates a risk of the transmission of infectious diseases across the globe.

There is really little or nothing to recommend the trade in donkeys for Chinese consumption. The demand is the instigator of all these problems, and mass-market advertising on Chinese television is at the root of it. It's hard to know who to dislike most: the rapacious advertisers, the blasé authorities, or the vain and gullible consumers.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Are we really "living in the end times"?

39% of Americans believe that "we are living in the end times". The Pew Research poll that came to this conclusion recently did not specify what "living in the end times" actually means, but clearly many people believe that things are worse now than usual, maybe worse than ever before. Book publishers have seen a large uptick in interest in the end times, with a whole slew of new books on the subject.

Well, what Book publishers have seen a large uptick in interest in the end times, with a whole slew of new books on the subject. war, the pandemic, rampant inflation, energy shortages, and the climate crisis, you can kind of see why so many people might have such a negative view of humanity's prospects. But "end times"? That's rather a bridge too far, isn't it? Well, put in perspective, 58% of Americans believe that we are NOT living in the end times, which is a relief, I guess.

A breakdown of the demographics behind the poll gives a better idea of where people are getting these views from. For example, 63% of Evangelical Christians believe it, compared to 29% of Catholics (and just 9% of atheists). 68% of Black people (and 76% of Black Protestants) believe it, compared to just 34% of Whites; 45% of Republicans, compared to 33% of Democrats; 49% of those with just a high school education or less, compared to 27% of college graduates. Fascinating stuff.

Religious people of a certain ilk (and you can see the overlap with the Black population, Republican sympathizers and the poorly educated here) are always looking for Signs. They are actively looking forward to the end of the world as we know it, because they believe that it presages the establishment of a better world, the kingdom of God on earth (oh, and that they will be the lucky ones saved to benefit from this new world, while the unbelieving masses will get their well-deserved comeuppance).

To use another rather overused phrase, a whole lot of people think that the world is "falling apart", and we are on a slippery and inevitable slope to disaster. Or that "everything feels broken", which is Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre's favourite taunt, usually accompanied by the improbable claim that it's all Justin Trudeau's personal fault. 

"Polycrisis" is another word that is often bandied around, perhaps to excess. Again some people think this is a perfectly reasonable label to apply to our current circumstances, while others (like high-profile historian Niall Ferguson, for example) believe that such a conclusion is just an "illusion", or that the term is essentially meaningless, merely an indication that "there's lots of bad stuff happening simultaneously, and one thing can affect another", as Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman puts it.

So, should we expect the return of Jesus in a blame of glory sometime soon? Is The Rapture (or Armageddon) just over the horizon? Probably not. Is the world in a bit of a hot sticky mess? Probably. But we've been there before, and we will probably be there again in the future.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

John Tory plunges Toronto back into confusion

I don't want to get into the rights and wrongs of Toronto Mayor John Tory's "lapse of judgement" - I couldn't care less what politicians get up to in their spare time, so long as it doesn't actually affect their capability and effectiveness. What I do take exception to is Tory's feckless follow-up to the announcement of his resignation.

Clearly, his Council buddies on the right have persuaded him to hang around, at least until after the budget debate today. Some are even suggesting that he just continue for the rest of his term, regardless of his resignation announcement, and that is still a possibility at this point, although I can't really see that happening. Doug Ford, is also, predictably, sticking his oar in where it's not wanted (the make-up of Toronto City Council is, or should be, nothing to do with the Premier of Ontario), saying it would be a "disaster" if Tory was replaced by a "lefty" mayor, and that Toronto would be "toast" were that to happen. The right wing, of course, wants to make sure that Tory's budget (including some controversial items like increased funding for the police service, service cuts and higher prices for city transit, and no additional money for homeless people) is passed without any annoying changes from the left wing of Council. 

Given that Tory has openly said that he is quite comfortable taking advantage of the ridiculous "strong mayor powers" brought in recently by Doug Ford, the easiest way to ensure the budget passes as is would be for Tory himself to guide it through. (Any interim mayor who replaces Tory would specifically not be able to use the strong mayor powers.) Tory has still not officially handed in his resignation, so legally, even if not ethically, he can do that.

So, here we have a guy who has said he will resign after being caught out having it away with a staffer, who is still turning up to work as though nothing has happened. Many Torontonians are willing to cut Tory a fair bit of slack out of gratitude for rescuing us from the iniquities of Rob Ford's time in power. But that was a long time ago, and that gratitude has worn off. The city is gradually going to the dogs under Tory's administration, and he should not have been given a third term (he should not even have STOOD for a third term, knowing that he was already breaking the ethics rules).

By clinging to power after resigning under a cloud, he has lost all credibility and moral leadership. We are in danger of returning to the bad old days, when no-one had any idea what was going to happen in Council from one day to the next. Canada's largest city cannot afford that kind of incertitude.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Is the "wood-wide web" real or exaggerated?

Since the discovery of mycelial networks in the roots of trees back in the 1990s, there have been an awful lot of scientific citations and mainstream media mentions of it. This has given rise to all sorts of exaggerated claims that trees share food and water across these underground networks, and even communicate with each other and warn each other of danger, etc. This is partly, I think, because it's such a nice idea - often described by the cute moniker the "wood-wide web" for its similarity to the Internet in many people's minds - that people really WANT it to be true.

And it is kind of true, but maybe not in the way that many people think, or at least not to the extent that people believe, as more recent meta studies are starting to make clear. Yes, trees in a forest are linked together underground by a network of thread-like strands of fungi called hyphae, which grow out from tree roots, and are often (but not always) manifested as mushrooms above ground. The trees receive essential nutrients from the soil through these networks, and in turn the fungi receive sugars and fats from the trees through their roots.

These fungal networks, or mycorrhizas, do also, to some extent, connect and interact with each other, and can transmit some resources from one tree system another. For example, it has been shown that carbon can be transferred from the mycelial system of one tree to that of another, but it turns out that the amounts transferred are tiny, and remain almost exclusively within the mycorrhizal networks, and so are not really transferred from one tree to another. Also, such transfers are almost certainly initiated and driven by the appetites of the fungi themselves and not by the trees. This is not plant-based altruism as such; it is more the fungi just doing what they need to do to survive and thrive.

Some of the evidence being quoted is not as clear-cut as we might like. There is some evidence of the transmission of defensive information in bean plants, and some evidence of carbon and water being transferred between Japanese red pine and Scots pine tree saplings, but only in lab conditions. There are also possible alternative explanations to many of the findings, so it is hard to be definitive about causal relationships. Positive citation bias and increasing exaggeration over time, as well as the problem of using simplistic anthropomorphic language to explain these complex scientific phenomena in layman's terms, all add to the confusion.

All in all, the science is pretty woolly and inconclusive in the area, and the function of common mycorrhizal networks, however cool, may well be significantly overstated. There is certainly an awful lot to learn about soil ecology and what happens under the earth. Just don't expect the trees to be talking to each other.

More evidence of Doug Ford's sleaziness

Doug Ford says he knows "the difference of what we should and shouldn't do", and that the media attention generated by his daughter's "stag-and-doe" party is just "ridiculous". The party was actually back in August 2022, and was held at the Ford family mansion, which he often uses for political events and rallies. It was essentially a fundraiser to help pay for the wedding, which is a bizarre idea to me, but maybe that happens in certain echelons of society (mainly ones that can afford lavish weddings anyway), who knows?

Many Conservative fundraisers and political acquaintances received invitations to the party, and some of them were quite uncomfortable at being asked to make donations "to the couple" of up to $1,000. "It felt dirty", said one invitee. Others, clearly, has no such scruples. There were also "tickets" available at $150 each, which were associated with a number of door prizes, including a Vespa scooter.

If Mr. Ford does indeed know what he shouldn't do, then we need to be even more worried about his professional ethics. Because he definitely should not be inviting his developer "friends" to a pre-wedding party for his daughter. Does she even know these people? And should all these rich people, "friends" of Mr. Ford, be making payments in order to attend? Is this an entry fee?

Ford says he has "hundreds" of friends who just happens to be property developers, which maybe provides a little insight into what Ford thinks a "friend" is. Moreover, several of the invitees are those very developers who stand to gain from Ford's contentious decision to pave over large tracts of the Toronto Greenbelt (which I have already commented on in some detail).  

Ford, in his trademark dismissive manner, says everything is clearly above board and innocent because it was "cleared with the integrity commissioner". "He cleared it 1,000 per cent", Ford claims with his usual bluster and penchant for hyperbole. In fact, Ford only went to the integrity commissioner in January, months after the party in question, and only when media outlets like The Star started questioning the integrity of Mr. Ford's decision. The commissioner, incidentally, notes that the informal opinion "is not a finding or the result of an investigation into a matter", and that it was assessed only "using the information made available by the member". Well, thank goodness for that; otherwise, we would have to seriously question the integrity of the integrity commissioner as well!

Doug Ford had always had that slightly sleazy used-car salesman vibe, but voters have always seemed able to willfully ignore this somehow. This latest episode will not help his trust credentials, or his claim to be working for the "little man" and the working classes. I hope that these people will remember it when they come to vote again. I am predicting that Ford will not survive for a full term this time. I can see other sleaziness oozing out of the cupboards and into the light of day over the next few months.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Madonna pushes the behaviour of boundaries a little too far

Madonna (remember her?) put in an appearance at the Grammys this year and, entirely in character, stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy.

It was not anything she said or did, but merely her look that has garnered so much press and social media attention (the air she breathes). She has now had so much plastic surgery (think Michael Jackson) that she no longer looks like herself, and arguably barely looks human.

Sporting a look somewhere between a sexy schoolgirl caricature and a ceramic doll, the 64-year old has-been was probably just trying to stave off the ravages of age, but she has set off a whole tsunami of comments, very few of them complimentary. In response, Madonna dismissed the comments as "ageism and misogyny", and says she looks forward to "many more years of subversive behaviour-pushing boundaries [sic]". Sigh.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

This doesn't seem like the right path towards reconciliation

A couple of articles in today's Globe and Mail (adjacent articles, coincidentally) concern the unenviable predicament of Indigenous people in Canada, and our rather confused settler response to it.

Firstly, the Toronto District School Board has voted to replace the mandatory Grade 11 English course with a new course called First Voices, a course about contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit literature. It's a bold move to establish a whole course on Indigenous writing, which has become much more mainstream and widely-recognized in recent years.

Thing is, though, this new course is not just an interesting elective available to those who are curious. It REPLACES the traditional core English literature course, long considered a linchpin of a Canadian high school education, and it is MANDATORY. Now, you might say, "about time, too", the system is long overdue for a shake up. And what better way than to combine it with reconciliation education? But let's think about it a little more deeply.

Sure, I have no problem with reconciliation education; it is clearly much needed. But wouldn't it be more appropriate as a module of a Civics course? Neither do I have a problem with Indigenous literature being incorporated into an English literature course. But what message are we sending by replacing the whole course with Indigenous literature? That there IS no white man/woman literature? That Indigenous writers are BETTER than the rest? That decades, nay CENTURIES, of excellent books by white authors - Canadian, British, Australian, you name it - are suddenly worthless? That black writers are no good, women writers of all colours not worth the trouble of checking out?

It seems like a prime example of overkill and overreach. Or, at best, well-meaning virtue-signalling. If this is an attempt at positive discrimination, it seems doomed to failure, and a whole cohort of kids already suffering from a COVID-disrupted education are being short-changed AGAIN.

On the same page of the newspaper is the revelation that the young man out on bail who shot and killed Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala at the end of December was out on bail specifically because he was Indigenous. Despite a bunch of red flags suggesting that young Randall McKenzie should be refused bail (previous bail violations, violation of a weapons prohibition after an armed robbery charge, and strong evidence against him), red flags that the Ontario Superior Court Justice fully acknowledged, he was allowed bail anyway because of his First Nations status. This is part of the recent injunction for judges to treat Indigenous offenders more leniently in an attempt to reduce the large overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in Canadian prisons.

Well, how is that going? Surely, there are some absolutes that apply even when a person's background is to be disproportionately taken into account. If an accused person is judged to be likely to re-offend, common sense dictates that they are not released to potentially assault, even kill, members of the public or security forces. Caution still applies; prudence still applies.

I feel a bit like a curmudgeonly old white guy flailing against the march of progress. I am indeed a curmudgeonly old white guy, but my bone of contention is with what exactly constitutes "progress". Neither of these developments, in my view, represents true progress. They may tick some boxes and signal some virtue, but neither seems like a valid move towards Indigenous reconciliation, and both have the potential for real adverse outcomes in other respects.

Canadian healthcare funding inadeqate? Well, that depends

Depending on whom you believe, the federal offer of increased funding for healthcare is either all stagecraft and sleight of hand by a cynical Justin Trudeau, or a substantial shot in the arm for a semi-moribund system by a beleagured federal government, or an expensive unmonitored stop-gap to prop up a system that everyone knows is broken. Which version of the truth you choose seems to depend entirely on which side of the party political spectrum you happen to espouse. Or, more starkly, whether you identify as a Liberal or not.

It shouldn't be quite as partisan an issue as that suggests, but it really is. The provincial leaders, who are non-Liberals in the main, are kvetching and moaning, as you would expect (when were the provinces ever happy with the funds the federal government hands them down?), but no-one is refusing the injection of cash into their poorly-managed systems. Some are almost gleefully accepting it, and moving on. The federal opposition leaders are complaining that it is too little too late, and that everything is Justin Trudeau's personal fault, but, for better or worse, that's just what opposition leaders do, and what they are expected to do.

$46.2 billion over ten years in completely new money, over and above the previously committed funding hikes, which together total to some $196.1 billion over ten years, is actually a lot of money, even if it is less than the provinces were demanding (that's just the way negotiations work). Will it "fix" the health care crisis? Well, no. 

The reason is that healthcare is administered provincially. It will help ameliorate the problems and buy the provinces some time, but some fundamental systemic changes need to happen. The provinces are already falling short in their own healthcare efforts, and using what funds they do have increasingly inefficiently. Justin Trudeau has absolutely no control nor responsibility over how the provinces administer their healthcare systems, whatever Pierre Poilievre might claim in his dog-whistle screeds. 

This is one case where the those provinces who are crying poor need to get their own houses in order before laying blame at the door of the federal government.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Zimbabwe to re-join Commonwealth? Absolutely not, old boy

If you maybe had a suspicion that the jolly old British Commonwealth has had its jolly old day, here is yet more evidence.

Hard on the heels of accepting into its fold the likes of Rwanda, Gabon and Togo (among the more repressive authoritarian regimes in Africa), the Commonwealth is apparently considering the merits of re-accepting Zimbabwe as a member.

You may remember that Zimbabwe's Commonwealth membership was suspended back in 2002 for its farmland seizures, tainted elections and other human rights abuses. When the suspension was later extended, then-president and autocrat Robert Mugabe decided enough was enough and pulled his country out of the Commonwealth

Twenty-odd years later, Mugabe's successor Emmerson Mnangagwa (remember when we thought his accession after a military coup might actually be all for the best?) is re-applying to join. So, has Mnangagwa cleaned up Zimbabwe's act and established a vibrant democratic regime in a country where such luxuries are all but unknown? Well, no. In fact, Mnangagwa may be even more repressive than Mugabe, crushing opposition meetings and imprisoning activists.

So, why is the Commonwealth (including Canada) even stopping to think about it? Beats me. Proponents argue that allowing Zimbabwe back in might allow other Commonwealth members to nudge the country in a more democratic direction. Ha! Do they really believe that? Others, more pragmatic and less idealistic, argue that the Commonwealth's reputation (such as it is) could suffer "severe damage" if it re-admits such a country. Well, that's putting it rather mildly, old boy.

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 willfully 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 groups (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-resistant antibiotics, all of which concentrate in the bodies of human consumers. The risks, of course, are much greater for infants, children and pregnant mothers, but there is a good reason that nutritionists recommend 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?

Chinese high-altitude 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.

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

Well, it seems that there actually are 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 typically 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.

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 of course 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 diligence. 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 do otherwise?

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

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 in 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 and 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 it is substantially better than traditional outdoor farming).

So, is it an idea whose time has come? Newer technology is helping to overcome the energy costs caveat, at least to some extent, and vertical greenhouses that also make use of sunlight, are an option. If all the electricity used for hydroponic/vertical farming is sourced from fully renewable sources, then most analyses suggest that the technology 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 Poilievre 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 gun control is better than none at all?