Thursday, June 22, 2023

Ford's attempt to interfere in another Toronto election comes up short

I am currently in England (a family health emergency that turned out not to be not that much of an emergency after all), and I won't be able to vote in Toronto's upcoming mayoral by-election. I did look into proxy voting, but it seemed so complicated, and I just didn't gave time to arrange it before leaving. Still, I'm not too worried, because it looks like left-leaning candidate Olivia Chow is streets ahead of the other candidates in advance polls.

Even from this distance, though, Doug Ford's attempts at election-meddling looks egregious. Provincial premiers are not supposed to use their influence to affect mayoral votes, which are not party political vehicles here in Ontario, and Ford has publicly said that he will be "staying out if the race".

But in almost the next breath, he used a completely unrelated press briefing in Burlington to attempt to influence the mayoral vote in a very obvious way, saying that a vote for Olivia Chow would an "unmitigated disaster" for Toronto, and that "she makes [ex-Toronto mayor] David Miller look like a fiscal conservative, and companies will start fleeing". He has also publicly endorsed conservative candidate Mark Saunders, saying that he'd be the best mayor, all the time protesting that he is not going to involve himself in the election.

Of course, there's no evidence at all of companies considering a mass exodus in a Chow-led Toronto. But if that does not constitute influence-peddling and a very overt attempt at directing the course of the election, I don't know what is. Luckily, his election interference does not seem to be at all effective and Saunders is still languishing well back from Chow in voter opinion polls. 

This is just more of Ford's trademark excess and bluster. Ex-Toronto councillor Ford has made many such attempts to influence the politics of the city since becoming provincial leader, and he still seems to consider it part of his personal fiefdom. Luckily, his influence is waning, and he is going to have to deal with a powerful and oppositional city mayor for the rest of his term, not a tame lap-dog like John Tory or Mark Saunders.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Ford extends strong mayor powers to 26 more municipalilties

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is continuing his concerted exercise in circumventing local democracy by extending strong mayor powers to 26 more municipalities, mainly in the Golden Horseshoe and Greater Toronto area.

As with the original scheme offered to the cities of Toronto and Ottawa last August, the new power allow mayors to, inter alia, effectively veto any matter considered a "provincial priority" (read, housing), and to force through motions with just one-third of council members, not a full majority.

The full list of municipalities being offered these strong mayor powers includes: Ajax, Barrie, Brampton, Brantford, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Clarington, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston,Kitchener, London, Markham, Milton, Mississauga, Niagara Falls, Oakville, Oshawa, Pickering, Richmond Hill, St. Catharines, Vaughan, Waterloo, Whitby and Windsor. This is a roll-call of most cities of any size in southern Ontario. Notable exceptions are Chatham-Kent, Newmarket, and northern Ontario cities like Sudbury and Thunder Bay.

It's not clear yet which mayors intend to avail themselves of the new powers, but conservative mayors like Bonnie Crombie of Mississauga and Patrick Brown of Brampton have found it impossible to hide their glee at the increased powers, while more progressive mayors like Andrea Horwath of Hamilton have expressed their opposition (although we'll see what happens in practice). Outgoing Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson made it clear he did not intend to make use of these anti-democratic provisions, as has his successor, Mark Sutcliffe. While Toronto ex-Mayor John Tory (a conservative) was very keen on the idea, his likely successor Olivia Chow (a progressive) has said that she has no intention of using them.

One thing is certain: the job of mayor in Ontario just got a lot harder, and the temptation to use these undemocratic powers is palpable. Doug Ford, however, does not care about these moral quondaries in the slightest, and will do anything he can to forward his own agenda.

Canada's population reaches 40 million

Statistics Canada has officially announced that Canada's population has reached 40 million.

It doesn't seem that long ago that its population was 30 million (indeed, it was 1997, about when we first arrived here). But, as the StatsCan article and infographic shows, Canada's population has been growing at a rapid clip since the 1950s.

2022 was the first year ever that the country added over a million new members in a single year, a rate of increase of 2.7%, faster than at any time the baby boom and immigration influx of 1957. At this rate of increase, the population will double again in the next 26 years.

An associated StatsCan backgrounder points out that, unlike in 1957, 96% of this increase came in the form of immigration. As in most developed countries, fertility rates started declining in the mid-1960s, and are now well below replacement value (except that of the Indigenous population, which is almost double the non-Indigenous rate).

Friday, June 16, 2023

Why do conservatives always support the oil and gas industries?

I've wanted for some time to explore why the right-wing of politics is so wedded to the oil and gas industry. This is just me expatiating at random, an unstructured and untutored analysis, but bear with me, maybe I can get close to the truth.

Whether we are talking about America's Republicans or Alberta's United Conservatives, it seems to have become an unquestioned article of faith that a Conservative political party is going to be pro-oil. But, surely, it didn't have to be that way. 

Often these parties talk about protecting all the valuable high-paying jobs in the oil and gas sector. But if employment is the be-all-and-end-all of their concern, surely they should be just as happy about new jobs in the wind, solar and electric car battery businesses (no-one who is concerned with a "just transition" to a more environmentally sustainable economy is looking to lay off oil and gas workers and to destroy their livelihoods, merely to retrain them in work that is less damaging). But that does not seem to be the case: conservatives are specifically pro-oil, not pro-employment. 

The transition from oil and gas to renewable is already underway; even the oil companies admit that that is where the future lies. The jury is still out on whether renewables will generate as many, or as well-paid, jobs, but more and more oil workers are certainly migrating to the renewables sector (where many of their skills are in big demand). There is some evidence that investing in clean energy can create more jobs than spending on fossil fuel. The bottom line seems to be that oil jobs are big risk and big pay, while renewables offer stability and passion.

Maybe it is as simple as opposition to change. Conservatism, after all, as its name suggests, looks to conserve the past, particularly those traditional values and occupations that worked so well for their forefathers (an argument that has been made by many others before me). But such a philosophy can be pursued to a fault - should we go back to slave-owning days; back to the days where a woman's place was in the kitchen and bedroom, not the boardroom; back to the days where immigrants were not welcome, and a white population was a valid goal to be vigorously pursued? 

I'm sure some conservatives would readily agree with such policies (if asked in a secret ballot, that is: such views are not socially acceptable in most circles these days). But is that where their devotion to oil and gas comes from? A hankering for a more macho time where oil was power, and power was to be strived for any way possible?

The oil industry is indeed still powerful, even if not as powerful as it once was, and one way it exercises that power is by supporting politicians and parties that support it back, in a dogged act of self-preservation against all the odds of long-term predictions. The industry, quite rightly, sees that support on the right of the political divide, and so that is where it puts its money: political donations from the oil and gas industry to the Republicans, for example, had always been disproportionately higher than to the Democrats, and increasingly so in recent years.

Is that it, then? Is the right's love of oil and gas just a reflection of the donations it receives towards its own re-election prospects? Just a case of knowing on which side its bread is buttered? A kind of bargain with the devil, from which it feels powerless to extricate itself? That seems cynical, but it may well be as simple as that. 

New World Bank report on fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies

A new report from the World Bank entitled "Detox Development: Repurposing Environmentally Harmful Subsidies" lays out in grim relief the extent to which our most harmful industries are willingly subsidized by our governments

Governments around the world collectively spend $7.25 trillion each year, roughly 8% of global GDP, to support the socially and environmentally damaging activities of the oil and gas industry and often destructive forms of agriculture and fishing. As an accompanying statement from Axel von Trotsenburg, senior managing director of the World Bank, explains: "If we could repurpose the trillions of dollars being spent on wasteful subsidies and put these to better, greener uses, we could together address many of the planet's most pressing challenges". Vast sums of money, he says, are "hiding in plain sight".

About $1.25 trillion of the total sum is in the firm of explicit, direct subsidues and payments by governments to the fossil fuel industry, farming and fisheries. About half this goes to artificially lowering the price of carbon-intensive coal, oil and gas. This serves to incentivize the over-use of fossil fuels and to perpetuate its inefficient polluting technologies.

The other half of the direct subsidies goes to agriculture, mainly in the form of "coupled support", which "distorts producers' decisions and leads to harmful environmental and economic impacts". A smaller amount (but still a whopping $35 billion) goes to direct subsidies of the fishing industry, much of which leads to overcapacity and overfishing.

By far the largest part of the subsidies, though ($6 trillion of the $7.25 trillion, although some estimates put it as high as $10.8 trillion), is the implicit or indirect subsidies these industries receive, which occur because of the decision to make explicit subsidies.

The vast majority of these ($5.4 trillion) are down to the fossil fuel industry, such as impacts from local air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, road congestion, and foregone tax revenues. The indirect costs of agricultural subsidies are smaller, relatively speaking, but still substantial at $548 billion (up to $5.3 trillion by some estimates!), and these come in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution and anti-microbial resistance.

These indirect costs are notoriously difficult to quantify, but I think if more of the general public were aware of how much of their hard-earned taxes went to directly supporting the bottom lines of oil and gas companies and Big Agriculture, they would not be so complacent in their voting. Maybe this report might be the thing to bring that egregious situation to a more public light. Or maybe it will just get buried, along with a plethora of similar reports in the past.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Record-setting ocean temperatures presage bad climate news

I know we don't really need any more bad climate news, but the current record-setting ocean temperatures can't be ignored. The effects are so large that they are almost literally off the charts ("completely unprecedented in the satellite record" according to one scientist):

It seems that there are a whole host of reasons for the hugely increased temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans this year, a perfect storm, so to speak. 

Perhaps the main one is the change from the La Niña conditions that have held for an unusually long time over the last few years to El Niño this year. With this change, sub-surface heat has begun propagating eastward across the Pacific, and reached the surface, and a warm phase of unknown duration is in prospect. This bodes poorly for drought and heat dome conditions in North America, the beginnings of which we are already experiencing, and the prospect of a record-setting hurricane season to come.

But other factors play into it as well, including: weaker than usual trade winds, resulting in less cooling of ocean waters; the cleaner air due to America's Clean Air Act (in particular, the huge reductions in sulphur dioxide emissions from cargo ships), allowing more solar radiation to reach the earth; fewer Saharan dust storms having a similar effect on the eastern side of the Atlantic; even the eruption of the huge underwater Hunga Tonga volcano in the South Pacific Ocean back in January 2022 may factor into the increased ocean temperatures.

And, of course, underlying it all, is climate change and global heating. After all, the oceans have been absorbing most of the heat from human-generated greenhouse gases for decades now. Conservative news outlets that don't like to admit that humans are heating up the planet and causing global devastation, for whatever reasons of their own, will almost certainly try to argue that all these myriad other factors are the real culprits and that oil and gas remain blameless, just as they have done with the Canadian wildfires. And it's true that teasing out how much of the blame can be directly attributed to climate change is a mug's game. But its direct and indirect effects are clearly huge.

Before this year, the warmest ocean temperatures on record were from 2022, followed by 2021, then 2020. You see the trend? 2023, though, looks set to blow all of those successive ecosystems out of the water (so to speak). 2024 is predicted to be even worse, as El Niño intensifies. Along with the general temperature increases and the consequences for aquatic life, this kind of heating creates inceasingly intense and frequent "hot spots" in the oceans, hot spots that attract equally intense weather activity above them - storms, cyclones and hurricanes.

Exactly how this massive temperature anomaly will translate into extreme weather events later this year, we will have to wait and see. But it doesn't look good. Have we just blithely sashayed past a global tipping point?

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

A treaty to control plastics use is under way

Unbeknownst to me, moves are afoot to ban plastic. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration maybe, but the United Nations (more specifically, the United Nations Environment Programme) is pursuing a new treaty to control the production and use of plastics, and, this month in Paris, the world's governments agreed, at least in principle, to work towards a draft that could cut plastics production by a massive 80% by 2040.

This is a big deal and really necessary. Plastics production is currently at 430 million tons a year, and is expected to nealy double again by 2050. The environmental and health problems of unabated plastic use are well-known, from the accumulation of plastics in the oceans and landfills, to its huge greenhouse gas emissions profile (which is easy to forget), to the discovery of microplastics in major human organs, to the many potentially harmful chemicals that plastic contains.

Three more UNEP "plastic summits" are scheduled before the end of next year, so the urgency of the matter is clear. A treaty on plastics could put it on a par with the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances as a landmark success in environmental diplomacy.

There are several factors which make such a treaty a distinct possibility, from the huge public concern and political pressure, to the fact that no new technology is required: proven practices like eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic implements and packaging, mandating reuse, and replacing plastic with more sustainable biodegradable materials, could achieve 80% of the needed reductions according to UNEP. Government taxation and the removal of industry subsidies could achieve most of the rest. There is political will from many influential industrial countries (the so-called High Ambition Coalition), and even strong business support (the 100-strong Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty includes the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola). In a word, it is doable.

That said, it is not going to be easy. A powerful plastic-producing lobby including China, India and the USA, is opposed to the idea, and the still-powerful fossil fuel companies want to INCREASE their production of plastic to offset what they are losing due to the swing towards clean energy sources. Among the points of contention: binding, rather than voluntary, rules; a limit or ban on plastic production, rather than just the focus on recycling that many manufacturers want; whether a treaty should be triggered by a vote or by consensus (which many opposed countries want, on the grounds that complete consensus is unlikely); and, of course, who is to pay for the necessary changes, and how.

So, the hurdles are prodigious, but so are they at the start of all such initiatives. What's important is that a start has been made.

Monday, June 12, 2023

COVID is not done with us

It's been a while since I've thought too hard about COVID-19. It's not that long since I finally succumbed to it (early April, courtesy of an unavoidable 90th birthday bash), after successfully evading it for three years. Since then, I've joined the masses in not even wearing a mask, apart from in a few very high risk situations and in medical establishments. I'm not even up-to-date on booster shots (although I will get my sixth before the cold weather return). COVID is very much out of mind, for me and for most other folk, and feels rather like a relic from a previous era.

An article in the Globe and Mail this weekend, therefore, brought me up short and will hopefully serve as a bit of a wake-up call. Even if it is no longer a "global health emergency" as defined by the World Health Organization, it seems like COVID is very much still with us.

The article points out that, as confirmed by the Government of Canada Health Infobase website, 57 people died of COVID last week in Canada, and 2,261 hospital beds were occupied by COVID patients, including 95 in ICU. Worldwide, 4,000 people are dying every week from it, equivalent to over 200,000 a year. This may not compare to the situation at the height of the pandemic, when the weekly death toll was closer to 100,000, but it's still more than I thought, particularly as we should be in an early summer lull right now.

The other thing that the Globe article highlights is the continuing toll being taken by "long COVID" or"post COVID-19 syndrome" as it is more properly known these days, which exhibits a bewildering variety of symptoms and which can last for many months or even years.

The incidence of long COVID is higher than you might think, as much as 43% by some global estimates, although varying anywhere from 9% to 81% depending on sex, region and study population. This rate increases still further for those who were hospitalized by the virus to around 54%, and for those who were unvaccinated, the rate can rise to as much as 90%! Furthermore, the virus can exacerbate many pre-existing conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, lung disease, even brain injuries, and it can trigger entirely new chronic problems, multi-organ effects or autoimmune conditions. (The article goes into much more detail on how all that works, much better than I can.) There seems to be no end to the damage it can wreak.

Anyway, the upshot is that COVID has not gone away, and that it is still a serious concern and not to be trifled with. So, live your life, but get your vaccines and boosters, wear a mask  when needed, watch for news about new waves, new developments. Don't just pretend it's not there. It's at least as big a problem as the flu. Yes, we're all done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us.

Is climate change to blame for Canadian wildfires?

I was reading a New York Post article today about how the current Canadian wildfires are evidence of just how wrong environmentalists have climate change, and how "climate warriors" are unjustifiably rushing in to blame climate change for the smoke and toxic air afflicting much of eastern Canada and the USA. (Yes, I do read such articles, if only to assess just how much I disagree with them.) So, of course, I wondered just how much truth there was in their claims. Conclusion? Not much.

The annual Canadian wildfire season so far has been nothing short of unprecedented (that word again). Around 2,300 wildfires in 9 of Canada's 13 provinces and territories have burned nearly 43,000 square kilometres already, and we are only in early June. This is about 15 times the 10-year average for this time of year. 

Quebec and eastern Canada in particular has been hard hit this year, in addition to the usual conflagration in Western Canada, and much of the smoke from these eastern fires has been blown into the heavily-populated northeast of America, which is unaccustomed to this particular kind of air pollution. New York City, for example, seems to have been harder hit by the smoke than most Canadian cities, including here in Toronto, where the effects have been quite minimal, despite the media hang-wringing. This has clearly been quite an eye-opener for millions of Americans, who have never seen this kind of concrete evidence of our changing climate before.

Understandably, all of this has ignited strong passions on both sides of the divide (yes, there is a divide - everything is divided these days). Environmentalists and most educated people see this as a salient and much-needed wake-up call that we are not doing enough to tackle climate change, and that this is perhaps an early vision of a grim future. 

But there is always an opposite reaction in politics, even if not an equal one, and there are many on the right who refuse to believe this is in any way related to climate change (which, after all, does not exist, right?) Just as an example of this point of view, Republican Representative Marc Molinario opined on Fox News that: "There is little question that Canada obviously needs to focus on forest management, but this isn't the moment to start lecturing people about the science of climate change". Predictably, Fox News also got in on the act, blaming forest management and increasing population, and asserting that wildfires are not really getting worse anyway.

The New York Post editorial I mentioned at the beginning baldly states, without going into any particulars or, you know, evidence, that "there's zero evidence climate change sparked any of the more than 400 fires ranging across Canada's forest". Well. So, what does the NYP believe caused this unprecedented fire season? Merely "forest mismanagement in the name of environmentalism". It then goes off on a tangential, broad-level rant against environmentalism and wokeness in all its forms.

So, does the NYP have a point? Well, to get an alternative viewpoint, I consulted an article on the subject by CarbonBrief, a scientific outlet whose opinion I trust more strongly than a New York Post editor, and their take is of course diametrically opposite to the above-mentioned conclusions, and also comes with details and attributions. 

Specific attribution studies on this fire season are not yet available. "Attribution" is the scientific method of analyzing real world data and climate models in order to establish whether a particular extreme weather event could have happened in a world without the current global warming. Events such as the Siberian heatwave of 2020, the Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021, the Northern Hemisphere drought of 2022, the Horn of Africa drought of 2020-23, the Mediterranean heatwave of 2023, and the extreme heat in Southeast Asia of 2023, have all been attributed to climate change in this way. 

But above average, and often record, late spring/early summer temperatures across much of the country, and the driest April on record in eastern Canada, have clearly resulted in ideal conditions for lightning-sparked forest fires to run out of control. Arguably, fire suppression policies in many provinces may have added to the severity of fires, but can not be blamed for the main cause. 

Anyway, in a huge country where forests cover almost a third of the land area, forest management can only scratch at the surface of the problem. And it's not like forest management practices have suddenly changed, making wildfires more likely. What HAS changed - and this is undeniable - is the climate and the weather. The federal and provincial governments keep pumping more and more money into forest management, prescribed burns, etc, but these efforts are a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to deal with the increased risks generated by climate change.

Incidentally, there is apparently a whole subset of posts doing the rounds of social media claiming that it is the Canadian government, or possibly "green terrorists", that is deliberately setting these wildfires! These posts come with a video showing planes pouring fire, not water, onto vast stretches if virgin forest. It turns out, though, that the videos are old videos of fire-seeding operations for prescribed burns, or "planned ignitions" as a firefighting tool, and do not relate to the current crop of new wildfires at all.

The other elephant in the room is the claim by many on the left that forest fires are increasing drastically, and that this is all due to climate change. Those on the right claim that the official record shows that wildfires in Canada actually peaked in the 1980s and has been going down ever since. 

There is some truth on either side here. The number of wildfires has indeed been going down since the 1990s - although this year's figures may buck that trend - largely due to better firefighting, strict campfire bans and improved public education. But the severity of the fires has worsened, with greater areas burned and more people displaced by them. So, there are indeed more "disastrous wildfires" than there were, in spite of the improved firefighting and education. But it's true that politicians need to watch their language a little, and be wary of making unjustifiable claims.

Be all that as it may, there is already a wide body of evidence linking climate change with extreme weather events and forest fires in many parts of the world, including studies by the UN, the IPCC, and many universities. The CarbonBrief article goes into much more detail on these, and many others can be found online.

So, all in all, it seems to me that this is EXACTLY the moment to start lecturing people about the science of climate change.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

What's in a name? On a ballot sheet, quite a lot

Tontonto votes for a new mayor soon - advanced polling had already begun - after the ignominious exit of the last one.

There are an extraordinary 102 candidates standing for election for the one post (see a full list here). Imagine that many people having the self-confidence, the chutzpah, to stand up in front of millions of people and elucidate their vision for the city! I find it extraordinary.

This will, however, make navigating the ballot sheet something of a trial. Add to that the fact that, in 102 names there are a bunch of duplicate, or near-duplucate, names to further confuse the issue. For example, there are two Singh's, Knia and Partap Dua; there are two Atkinson's, Darren and Jamie;  there is an Alam and an Allan; a Frank D'Amico and a Frank D'Angelo. Even within the top seven front-runners there is some possible confusion, with a Chow and a Choy, and a Saunders and a Sanders. So, people are going to have to be quite careful in the polling station.

The very fact of there being such a long list means that scrolling down and finding your particular desired candidate, and remembering who that was, could present problems. Studies suggest that a candidate's position on the ballot sheet has a significant influence on their likelihood of being elected. To quantify this, the difference between the likelihood of winning between the last name and the first is as much as 10%. The advantage of being the first-named of two candidates with the same second name is even greater, at 20%. 

It reminds me of the old days of thumbing through the Yellow Pages, and encountering AAA Body Shop, AAAA Legal Services, etc. There really is an advantage to being at the top of the list, and some people will just not bother scrolling through the list, and will just hit on the first name they like the look of, or maybe remember from advertising campaigns. 

So, Olivia Chow has a distinct advantage over Mark Saunders (thankfully!). But unfortunately, Ana Bailao and Brad Bradford have the jump on Olivia Chow. Presumably, Bahia Abdulsalam, whoever he or she is, has an advantage over all of these, whatever policies he or she may espouse. Not how democracy is supposed to work, but welcome to the real world.

Friday, June 09, 2023

People are mainly buying EVs because they are cool

Research shows that lots of people want to jump onto the electric vehicle (EV) bandwagon, but not, it seems, due to any principled stance on climate change.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the inexorable increase in market share and demand for EVs in the USA is largely due to their technology and features rather than some deep-seated belief in doing the right thing for the planet. Essentially, because they are cool. 

Which is kind of depressing but, hey, I'll take it.

Professional sport is strangely resistant to competition

While professional sport supposedly thrives in intense competitiveness, it is oddly resistant to competition in the business sense.

When the Saudi-financed LIV Golf Tour set up recently in competition with the long-standing monopoly of the Professional Golf Association (PGA), all kinds of controversy and hang-wringing ensued. Some nasty words were bandied around, particularly aimed at those golfers who were lured away from the fold by the big money LIV was offering, and the two sides seemed completely irreconcilable.

So, it was quite a shock when it was announced this week that the PGA and LIV were going to merge. Implacable enemies suddenly became best buddies again, and some of the loudest voices raised against the establishment of the LIV Tour suddenly became hushed and tractable. Just about the worst that was said in public was that it wasn't good but that's the way the cookies crumbles, and c'est la vie, and all that. After all, all that Saudi money was going to stay in golf, so what's not to like?

So, overnight, rivalry and competition between the two organizations was set aside, and professional golf reverted to its default status of monopoly. But it really shouldn't surprise us: monopoly is the default status of pretty much all professional sports, and historically any attempts to break these monopolies have been summarily squashed.

Consider: The American Football League was created in 1960 to challenge the monopoly of the National Football League, only to merge with it ten years later; the World Hockey Association attempted to challenge the dominance of the National Hockey Association in 1972, but the NHL ended up absorbing the WHA in 1979; the American Basketball Association was founded in 1967 in opposition to the National Basketball Association, but was swallowed by the NBA, just three year later; and, way back in 1901, the upstart American League tried to go up against the dominant National League in baseball and, while it does still exist as a separate league, the two leagues quickly decided to stop cutting into each other's profits, and instead established the (poorly-named) encompassing World Series.

It has been a long time since any of sport's monopolies have been seriously challenged, until LIV made its move this year. But, within months, the monopoly has been restored, and competition safely sidelined. Because, remember, sport is not really about sport, it's about money.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Silence before a tennis serve is just plain polite

The French Open is underway once more and, in addition to the expected high-quality tennis and the odd controversy, there is the usual bugbear of the yahoos that insist on calling out encouragement just as players are winding up to serve.

Tennis is one of the very few professional sports where silence is the norm during regular play. Interestingly, there is no actual requirement for silence in the official rules. But there is very much a tradition and an expectation that fans will quieten down well before a serve, and, in general, during play. Of course, there will always be occasions where crowds let out an involuntary gasp or even a shriek of surprise during a particularly intense point, if they just can't help themselves. 

But, in the main, it is seen as a matter of respect that the crowd will maintain some composure and decorum while the players are in action. The umpire's long suffering "S'il vous plaît" or "The players are ready" attests to that. And no-one blinks twice if a player occasionally has a hissy fit at a thoughtless audience member taking too long over finding their seat, or heckling unnecessarily.

I've never understood, though, the mentality of those so-called fans who insist on calling out as a player is concentrating on preparation of a serve, up to and even past the reasonable cut-off time. Maybe they are just caught up in the drama of it all and can't help themselves. But I think some of them genuinely believe that their last second yell of encouragement will help their player, rather than put them off (or piss them off), as though their personal contribution is crucially needed to turn the game around. They really seem to be vying with each other to get the last inane yell in, the last name call, the last stupid little song.

These days, you do see players actively encouraging crowds, courting and orchestrating the applause (Nick Kyrgios takes this to extremes). But I have a suspicion that their intense concentration leading up to a serve effectively blocks out any sound at all, so all those "Allez!" and "Let's go!" calls are probably wasted. Clearly, top players can't afford to allow themselves to get distracted or annoyed at that point.

Anyway, official rule or no official rule, I wish those people would just stop (or be ejected), if for no other reason that that it annoys ME.

Exactly who breached Ukraine's Nova Kakhovka dam is far from clear

The breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine is one of the most important events in the whole year-and-a-half old war, and, if it turns out to have been a deliberate action, a war crime under the rules of the Geneva Convention.

The 30-metre high Soviet-era dam is one of six along the huge Dnipro River near Kherson in southern Ukraine. It holds - or held - a huge reservoir of water of a similar size to the Great Salt Lake in the USA, and is the major source of fresh water for drinking and agriculture for much of southern Ukraine, as well as providing cooling water for the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. A large hydroelectricity plant on the dam, now destroyed, is - was - also a major provider of electricity for the whole region. 

Furthermore, the river is believed to have been contaminated with industrial lubricant and oil from the hydropower plant as a result of the breach, and the consequences of the flooding are likely to be felt for years to come. And, as if more furthermores were needed, the breach is also believed to have dislodged Russian landmines, which are now floating downstream unmonitored.

The dam was breached on 6 June, and is now considered fully destroyed and beyond repair. Flood waters have completely enveloped several nearby villages, and a mass evacuation is currently under way. Ukraine and most of the West is accusing Russia of a "terrorist attack" and that Russia bears "criminal liability" for the act. Russia, for its part, is accusing Ukraine of "sabotage". And indeed it is hard to see the benefit of such an egregious act for either side.

As with last year's unexplained explosions on the Nordstream pipeline, Russia has responded to Western outrage along the lines of "Why would we do this? This hurts us." For one thing, the flooding has forced Russia to evacuate troops and civilians away from the broad Dnipro River, which marks the rough line of control between the two sides. It also disrupts the supply of fresh water to the Russian-held Crimea peninsula, which heavily relies on the North Crimean Canal which runs south from the Nova Kakhovka reservoir. It could also be seen as benefitting Ukraine's summer offensive as it seeks to break through Russia's defensive lines south of Zaporizhzhia, and thereby isolate Crimea from Russia's Donbas holdings.

On the other hand, the whole area around Kherson and Zaporizhzhia has now become a no-go area for Ukrainian troops too, and it is hard to see how it might be seen to benefit Ukraine's military aspirations. Getting an armoured brigade across such a body of water under fire from Russian artillery, missiles and drones would be extremely hazardous. 

It also seems quite possible to me that Russia is facing the prospect of not being able to achieve its stated goals in Ukraine, and has instead reverted to a policy of complete destruction and devastation of the country, the beginning (or rather escalation) of a new scorched earth policy. That would not surprise me at all. After all, Soviet troops did something very similar on the Dnipro back in 1941, to slow the advance of Nazi forces. For what it's worth, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War opines, "The balance of evidence, reason and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam".

Add into the mix the possibility that NEITHER side deliberately destroyed the dam, and the picture becomes hazy indeed. Ukrainian President Zelinskyy claims it was destroyed by an "internal detonation", and Russia claims it was due to Ukrainian shelling. But satellite images suggest that a road across the dam was significantly damaged as early as June 2, although it is not quite clear if this damage is directly related to the ultimate catastrophic breach on June 6. Some local officials also maintain that the 67-year old structure had been suffering from poor maintenance for years, and record high water levels may have stretched it beyond its capacity. After all, Russia has been in control of the dam and the hydro station for over a year now, and so poor maintenance is almost a given (although that fact also lends credence to the theory that the breach was an inside job by the Russians).

The destruction of the dam certainly represents a major environmental, economic and humanitarian crisis in what is already a war zone. But exactly who perpetrated it, if anyone, remains far from clear.