Thursday, April 27, 2023

Another ill-advised Cleopatra movie

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

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

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs could break their first round curse tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

South Africa has no interest in improving its carbon footprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 24, 2023

Renewable natural gas? That's a thing?

Well, kind of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Abbott suspended for proffering her opinion on race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Forest Green Rovers, a new model for English soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Spacex redefines the meaning of "success"

Spacex is redefining the meaning of "success".

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

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

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


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


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


Canadian cities do surprisingly well in Sustainable Cities Index

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Poilievre's latest anti-CBC gambit smacks of desperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Industry insiders welcome regulation of artificial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Monday, April 17, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The much-maligned spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 08, 2023

To ChatGPT or not to ChatGPT? That is the question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 07, 2023

Danish hygge and not-so-hygge

Spending a few days in Copenhagen, you realize that the Danes actually do know a thing or two about hygge.

For example, we arrived here with COVID-19 -  yes, after over three years of avoiding it, we finally succumbed, courtesy of a 90th birthday party in England - and no-one seemed unduly perturbed, just got on with it, ensuring some level of precautionary measures which we were totally on-board with, in a very down-to-earth Danish manner.

But we would not have been able to maintain the precautions we wanted to take in many another city. In Denmark, it is perfectly normal to sit outside a cafĂ© or restaurant, even in inclement weather (it oscillated between 0°C and about 7°C during our stay. Many cafes and restaurants have heaters outside, perhaps not so environmentally friendly in a very environmentally-conscious country (have a look at the amazing Amager Bakke power-from-waste facility, right here in Copenhagen), but a life-saver for us. And guess what, they even provide blankets. What's more hygge than that?

Then there is the single-quilt-on-a-double-bed thing, which I think is a pan-Scandinavian phenomenon, but this was the first time I had encountered it. It's just so sensible! None of that pulling the covers back every time one person turns over. And you can still cuddle up if you so desire. It is in fact more comfortable. Phenomenon indeed! We will be investigating when we get back to Toronto. I'm not sure about the pristine white quilts we were given in Copenhagen, but what a concept!

Just to bring things down to earth a bit, though, one thing that Denmark does not seem to have cracked is toilets. None of the toilets we tried seemed capable of flushing down our robust North American offerings. Water savings is one thing, but a toilet does need to perform the job for which it was designed (or we need to eat more fibre). That part did not seem so hygge.

Tennessee Republicans think a megaphone is worse than a gun

Two Democratic members of Tennessee's House of Representatives have been expelled (i.e. completely removed, basically sacked) by the Republican supermajority in that state, in response to a protest by the two black members against the state's lack of gun control.

This follows yet another school shooting, this one taking six lives in a Nashville Christian school on 27 March. Tennessee has some of America's most lax gun regulations, with residents over the age of 21 allowed to carry firearms (concealed or unconcealed) without a permit. There are no universal background checks and no "red flag" laws. The perpetrator of this latest atrocity had purchased guns on seven separate occasions, and three of those guns were used in the recent school shootings.

Expulsion is a very rare remedy. The only times it has been used before in Tennessee have been for one case of bribery and one of sexual misconduct. A third (white) Democratic member who joined in the protest (but who didn't use a megaphone) was not expelled, but only by the barest of margins.

Some of the language used by the Republican caucus is extremely telling. House Speaker Cameron Sexton compared it (two guys with megaphones) to the January 6th insurrection: "What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the state Capitol". Another Republican legislator said that the three Democrats had "effectively conducted a mutiny", whatever that might mean.

The only silver lining is that expulsion does not preclude the expelled Democrats from running again, so they could be back in the General Assembly within months after a by-election. Also, a county governing body in Tennessee has the power to appoint an interim representative in the case of a vacancy, so it might not even be that long.