Thursday, August 31, 2023

Ukraine takes on Russia ... on the tennis court

There was a tense Ukraine v Russia face-off at the US Open today, as Elina Svitolina of Ukraine was drawn to play Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia.

It was always going to be an awkward fixture, given the political situation, especially as Svitolina has been quite outspoken about Russians playing in the big Grand Slam competitions. As it happens, Pavlyuchenkova is also from a strongly pro-Putin family.

On paper, Svitolina should have been able to beat Pavlyuchenkova relatively easily. But nothing is a given in these competitions, and it all looked to be going terribly wrong for Svitolina when she lost the first set. Luckily, she rallied and ended up winning the game in three sets.

Just as well. A Russian win over Ukraine would have been hard to stomach, for Svitolina, and for everyone else.

Canada's LGBTQ travel advisory is not politicized

The Canadian government has taken the unusual step of issuing a travel advisory for Canadians travelling to certain states of the USA. The advisory states that, "Some states have enacted laws and policies that may affect 2SLGBTQI+ persons. Check relevant state and local laws."

The reason is that 19 Republican states (so far), which are not singled out and named in the advisory, have been passing anti-LGBTQ legislation recently that limits things like public drag shows, medical transitions for children looking to change their gender, etc. Perhaps not the usual basis for a travel advisory, especially not concerning our closest neighbour. But some of the new laws in states like Tennessee and Florida are very restrictive and very threatening to many gay, and particularly trans, individuals, and have emboldened many anti-LGBTQ activists in these states, which could make life quite uncomfortable for LGBTQ people used to much more relaxed attitudes in Canada.

Of course, some Conservatives are painting this as the Liberal government being excessively "woke" (as they would probably describe it) and politicizing the issue - here's an example of such. But Deputy Prime Minster Chrystia Freeland is at pains to point out that the advisory was initiated by the public service in the usual way, not mandated by the government, and is all about protecting particular groups of Canadians from particular dangers.

Quite right, too. Dog-whistle divisive op-eds like that one in the National Post, which describes the advisory as "the most ridiculous travel advisory in Canadian history", and of course blames it directly on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - would we expect anything different from the National Post? - have no place in this debate. Indeed, it should not even be a debate.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Spanish kiss takes a turn towards the bizzarre

Well, this is a bizarre development that probably no-one saw coming. The saga of the unwanted kiss on the lips by Spanish football president Luis Rubiales after the Spanish women's team World Cup win has taken a turn towards the bizarre, as Rubiales' mother has gone on indefinite hunger strike over it.

I kid you not. I guess they are just a very passionate family or something, but this still seems like a rather extreme step. Maybe she is a bit concerned about the family's comfortable income? Maybe she has a peculiarly Spanish quixotic penchant for tilting at windmills? But a hunger strike?

The whole affair has taken a rather bizarre trajectory. First, the kiss itself, in the proverbial heat of the moment, of which Jenni Hermoso laconically said she "did not enjoy", and which caused an international furor and calls for Rubiales' resignation. Then came Rubiales' lacklustre "sorry for those who were offended" (sorry not sorry). Then, FIFA announced it was opening disciplinary proceedings, which prompted Rubiales to double down, insisting that he would definitely not resign, and calling the kiss "consensual". The Spanish government gets involved, threatening legal proceedings, as does the Royal Spanish Football Federation, even the King himself weighs in. Ms. Hermoso publicly confirms that "at no time ... was his kiss ever consensual". Feminist groups demonstrated in the streets chanting, "It's not a kiss, it's aggression". Finally, FIFA provisionally suspends Rubiales from his position, the entire Spanish coaching staff resigns en masse, and 81 Spanish internationals refuse to play for Spain until Rubiales is permanently removed. He's really not a popular guy, and this is to mention nothing of his crotch-grabbing tendencies...

But his mother loves him. Out of the blue, she locks herself in the Divina Pastora church in their hometown of Motril, and announces that she is going on a hunger strike, "indefinite, day and night", to protest the "inhuman and bloody hunt" of her son. 

Well, kudos to her Mama Bear moment, I guess. But that's a tough one, when most of the civilized world is against you. 


Finally, three weeks later, Rubiales got the message and resigned. His mother must be distraught.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Wagner Group - what is a call-sign anyway?

I keep reading that the Wagner Group, Russia's brutal semi-private paramilitary operation led by the assumed-assassinated Yevgeny Prigozhin, was named so after the call-sign of the unit's founder Dmitry Utkin (also thought to have been killed in the same plane crash).

It seems to be assumed that everyone just knows what a call-sign is, but I certainly didn't. It turns out that a military call-sign is in fact a kind of nickname assigned to individuals (or companies or stations) for military communications purposes. Sometimes these are tactical (i.e. they change from time to time), others can be fixed and unchanging. They are used for quick identification of individuals or groups, and to help confuse enemies who may be monitoring communications.

Dmitry Utkin happened to be using the call-sign Wagner, named after the eponymous German composer, when the group had its origins during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Utkin was a big Nazi sympathizer (as was Richard Wagner), and had Nazi SS symbols tattooed on his neck, although little more is known about this shadowy figure. Over time, the group as a whole began to be known by that name.

So, there you have it. Wagner. Call-signs.

Toronto area developers are cancelling, not expediting, building projects

Ooh, Doug Ford will be cross! Home-builders, in the Toronto area in particular, say that a perfect storm of factors means that they are pausing, or even cancelling, new construction projects. This comes at the very same time as the Ford administration is trying to ramp up house-building in the province. He's gonna be pissed.

Developers say that increased costs of pretty much everything, from lumber, concrete and steel to labour, and a depressed housing market due to higher interest rates, an affordability crisis, and general uncertainty, mean that it has become almost impossible for them to make money. Therefore, many developers, who are already sitting on prime land ready for building, are putting plans on hold, and even sitting back on projects already started, in the hopes that things will turn around for them. 

Now, I can't see interest rates going back down any time soon, and the inflation genie is not going back in the bottle (do they expect prices to actually go down?) So, we can probably expect that ugly undeveloped land to just sit there, and many of those blocks under construction could go very quiet for an unspecified period of time, cluttering up sidewalks and streets, and making the city look like some slum in a developing country.

Ooh, Doug! Of course, he could intervene and give developers a bunch of money. Oh, wait, he already tried that, didn't he?

Expansion of BRICS needs a new name

The BRICS group of countries has just agreed in principle to expand, with the addition of another six countries.

The BRIC bloc was originally formed informally from what you might call newly-developed countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - as a loose alliance of fast-growing states opposed to American hegemony in world economics and trade. With the addition of South Africa in 2010 - hence the current acronym BRICS - the grouping became a more formal and cohesive geopolitical bloc, setting itself up as a kind of rival to the G7 block of leading advanced economies, and expressing ambitions towards a joint currency and payment system, bank, contingency reserve system, etc. 

It insists it is not an anti-Western organization, but it absolutely is, and it is certainly openly hostile to Western-led sanctions, such as those currently being levied against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. It is essentially a motley group of largely authoritarian countries, most with close ties to Russia and/or China.

Now, though, BRICS has allowed in a bunch of other maverick, authoritarian countries of suspect morals, motivations and ambitions: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Argentina, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Which means that they might have to change the name of the bloc (unless they want to actively maintain a distinction between the top-level founding members and other, inferior, Johnny-come-latelies). Further expansions may follow in the future, it is hinted, as at least 20 have applied for membership, and as many as 40 have expressed some level of interest.

Incorporating I, S, E, A, U and E into BRICS might be a challenge (too many vowels, for one thing). So, they may have to resort to a completely new descriptive name. The new members do not become official until January 2024, so they have a while to think about it. Can I throw one or two ideas into the ring? Maybe Mavericks Anonymous? The Pariahs? The Undesirable Nations? The Basket of Deplorables?

Science validates the metaphysical idea of yin-yang?

I thought this was rather cool. Using a technique called "biphoton digital holography", Canadian and Italian scientists have captured an image of the pattern of light interference between two entangled quantum particles in real time. And it looks for all the world like ... not a swastika, not the Virgin Mary, but the yin-yang symbol.

Now, I know there is a lot of gobbledy-gook in that sentence, and I don't propose going into any explanation of quantum theory, much less of how biphoton digital holography works, because it is well above my pay-grade. It kind of looks like a bad April Fool's prank, but I think it is all above-board - it was published in the obscure but respected journal Nature Photonics (part of the Nature family of journals). I'm just wondering what repercussions this will have for theology, even geopolitics. 

The idea of yin-yang comes from ancient Chinese philosophy (Taoism and Confucianism), and represents the underlying duality of all things - light and dark, good and bad, fire and water, liberal and conservative (joke, that one) - and the ultimate oneness that these apparently contradictory forces can hide, in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.

Yeah, I know, essentially gobbledy-gook, but then so appears much of quantum theory or quantum mechanics. Wave-particle duality, quantum tunnelling, quantum entanglement, coherence, superposition, the uncertainty principle, Schrodinger's cat, "spooky action at a distance"? It's pretty out-there stuff, and really hard to understand or explain. Wasn't it the great American physicist Richard Feynman who said that, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you probably don't understand it, or words to that effect? And yet, over the last hundred or so years, it has become the bedrock of our understanding of physics and the universe around us.

I can just imagine the New Age movement latching onto this new discovery, as it has latched on to so many other things that serve its purpose (whatever THAT might be!) over the years. And I can even imagine Xi Jinping trying to use it to his advantage, as proof of Chinese moral and intellectual superiority. 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

India - yes, THAT India - becomes a spacefaring nation

As space travel becomes cool once again, some unlikely candidates are rising to the fore. India has just landed a spacecraft near the lunar south pole, to the cheers of millions of proud Indians. "India is now on the Moon. India has reached the south pole of the Moon - no other country has achieved that. We are witnessing history", gloats Prime Minister Modi.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission is ostensibly a scientific mission, to make thermal, seismic and mineralogical measurements. But, as much as anything, this is India in search of bragging rights, looking to establish itself among the first rank of countries (and maybe to establish leadership of the BRICS group of semi-developed countries).

Although many millions of Indians may be cheering the achievement, you have to think that many more millions - India has millions to burn - probably aren't. India (official India, that is) is proud of the way they are approaching their space program, slow but sure (setting aside the odd expensive disaster, like the failed Chandrayaan-2 moon-shot) and "on a shoestring", as one member of the moon mission team proudly asserts. Certainly, it is a much more fuel efficient approach than the Russian and American missions, which will save some money. But this is still a very expensive "shoestring". 

So, my first thought was: Should a poor country like India really be throwing billions of dollars at what is arguably little more than a vanity project for Prime Minister Modi?

Well, that partly depends on whether you consider India a poor country. Certainly, in terms of overall GDP it is far from poor: India now has the fifth highest GDP in the world, after only USA, China, Japan and Germany. But it has a huge population, right? Yes, in GDP per capita, it comes in at a lowly 139th, well below other G20 countries, including even the equally populous China, and even below some African countries.

The popular image of India is of grinding, in-your-face poverty, and there is still plenty of that to see; the inequalities in the country are stark. But poverty is notoriously hard to define and measure, and India has made some surprising strides in addressing its underdevelopment. As it gradually enriches itself, India has allowed a surprising number to escape the direst levels of poverty (some 415 million people over the last 15 years, according to the UN's Multidimensional Poverty Index). But an estimated 374 million Indians still lack proper nutrition, sanitation, housing and cooking fuel, and 445 million lack both electricity and drinking water. These are unimaginably large numbers, and arguably India remains overall a very poor country.

On a measure of poverty defined as the percentage of the population living on less than certain minimum incomes, India comes out middle-of-the-pack, along with countries like Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. When poverty is defined as the percentage living below a country's own self-defined poverty line (a very subjective and variable measurement), India actually does little worse than many a European country.

Either way, India is probably no longer down among the poorest of the poor. So, who are we to say that they should not harbour pretensions to space travel? If it were Burundi or Somalia sending up rockets, we in the developed world might have a justifiable cause to be peeved. But India? Hate Prime Minister Narendra Modi as you might (and I do!), at this rate it may not be many more years before India is in a position to look down on many of the more developed states of the world. If they want to spend billions on moon-shots, we are not in any position to complain.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Renaming Dundas Street maybe not the best, or most important, gesture

Three ex-mayors of Toronto are calling on current mayor, Olivia Chow, to rethink and reverse the motion passed by council a couple of years ago to re-name Dundas Street in Toronto, on the grounds that Henry Dundas was a bad man and responsible for extending the slave trade.

Unfortunately, like so many of these things, it's not as simple as that. Dundas was actually a fervent abolitionist, and a strong supporter of William Wilberforce, who sought to abolish the slave trade in late 18th century Britain. In 1778, Dundas took up the case of a runaway slave, Joseph Knight, winning an appeal to the Law Lords of Scotland which resulted in the freeing of not only Knight but all enslaved persons in Scotland.

Where his record becomes possibly mixed - and certainly murky - is when he moved an amendment to Wilberforce's original 1791 abolition bill in Britain's parliament, which called for "immediate" abolition of slavery, to one calling for "gradual" abolition. Anti-Dundas-ers argue that this resulted in many thousands more slaves in the succeeding fifteen years than might otherwise have been the case.

What this view misses, though, is that Wilberforce's original bill had already been roundly defeated in parliament (by a margin of 163-88 - an encyclopedia check confirms this). So, this was an attempt by the wily politician Dundas to get the bill passed, and it might have been his amendment that would ultimately allow the slave trade to be abolished in Britain at all, albeit slower than either he or Wilberforce would have liked. As it happens, even that amended motion was defeated in the House of Lords anyway and did not go forward (so, arguably, NO additional slaves were captured as a result of Dundas' amendment anyway).

So, it seems that Henry Dundas could be described as one of a small number of world leaders on abolition in the late 18th century (as, incidentally, was John Graves Simcoe, another 18th century British politicians with links to Toronto). Instead, he is being excoriated by well-meaning but, I believe, misguided anti-racism campaigners.

Taking Dundas' name off the street - and a whole litany of other buildings, signs, statues, companies, parks, subways, even towns - might make a lot of sense to many people (including, apparently, Mayor Chow), although interestingly Mississauga, just next door, voted NOT to change the road's name (the same road!)

It would be an extremely expensive exercise in political correctness, although sometimes that does need to be done, expensive or not. But in this case, it seems it may not even be justified in theoretical or historical terms. Certainly, there are much more important, concrete and cost-effective things that can be done to help today's Black population. And the estimated $8.6 million bill (plus the added cost to businesses, householders, etc) at a time when the city is finding it particularly hard to make ends meet, seems like bad timing to say the least.

The three well-respected ex-mayors - Art Eggleton, David Crombie and John Sewell - are questioning the practicality of the move, and also the research behind it. And frankly, I think they may be right.

Online News Act is a double-edged sword

That Mr. Trudeau has been waxing lyrical about the iniquities of Google and, particularly, Meta (Facebook), in the aftermath of the government's recently-passed Online News Act, and the response of the social media giant to block Canadian news content, particularly during a national emergency like the current wildfire scare. "Facebook is putting corporate profits ahead of people's safety", he says, which is perhaps a bit of a stretch.

The Act attempts to force the likes of Google and Facebook to pay Canadian news outlets for the privilege of sharing the news content with their many millions for subscribers. In response, Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram have already started pulling Canadian news content from their platform - which is what Trudeau has been railing against - and Google seems likely to follow. Audiences can, of course, still access Canadian news directly by going directly to news sites themselves, but the lazy types that like Facebook to do the leg-work for them will be disappointed.

It kind of sounds reasonable at first blush: maybe Canadian newspapers, TV stations, etc, and their journalists, should be compensated for the content they produce. And many news outlets are in strong agreement: why should Meta et al profit from their (the news outlets') hard work? They claim that the new law will help level the playing field in the fierce competition for advertising dollars against the tech giants (80% of digital ad revenue goes to Google and Facebook between them). And they do have a point.

But not everyone is in favour of it, and even some smaller news concerns, the very ones expected to suffer most from the predations of Big Social Media, are strongly against. It's interesting to listen to their arguments.

One such critic of the new law is the CEO of Village Media, Jeff Elgie. Village Media runs 25 Community News websites, with titles like Soo Today, Elliot Lake Today and Northern Ontario Business. So, you might call Elgie a big little guy. And he has been against the law from the start.

Elgie argues that the law is predicated on the flawed notion that the social media giants "steal" content from Canadian news outlets. He says he has always been more than happy to get his content on Facebook and Google, which provides links back to his sites, and that he gets about 50% of his traffic that way. Losing access to those platforms will make it very difficult for concerns like his to survive, and certainly to expand into new communities. He argues that media sites actually benefit from the free traffic that the social media platforms generate.

Another small publisher, Paul MacNeill of Island Press Ltd, which publishes several community newspapers in Prince Edward Island, both in print and online, says that his company's website traffic is down by about a quarter since the start of the Meta block, and that it is now very difficult to amplify his publications' work beyond their rural PEI base. That said, though, MacNeill does believe that something like the Online News Act is indeed needed, and that letting the likes of Facebook bully their way forward is not a good solution.

So, it's a tricky and nuanced issue. As the government says, "The world is watching Canada", which is very true. Australia went through all this before Canada, including a brief block of Australian news content. But there, Google and Meta decided to suck it up, strike a deal, and pay out enough money to resolve the impasse. They are clearly not willing to go down that route with Canada (and every other country that follows). Canada needs to make sure it does not become a cautionary tale rather than a role model.

Which arm will you get your next COVID booster in?

Well, here's something I never thought about. Turns out, there may be a bigger immune response if you get your next COVID booster shot in the same arm as the last one.

lt sounds improbable, but apparently there is science behind the idea. A (reasonably small) study done at Saarland University Hospital in Germany suggests that T-cell immunity is significantly better (67%) in those who used the same arm than in those who changed arms (43%). This may be because the lymph nodes where the immune response is found are re-stimulated, causing a greater immunological response.

Also, it did not actually find a significantly larger number of antibodies, but those antibodies that were present were better at binding to the viral spike proteins, which are responsible for the coronavirus entering the host's cells.

Now, all of this may or may not lead to an improved immune response in practice. But hey, it's worth a try, right?

Monday, August 21, 2023

Schadenfreude at Russia's lunar failure

It's hard not to harbour a certain amount to schadenfreude at the failure of Russia's space ambitions. Their attempt to return to the Moon with the Luna 25 robotic spacecraft ended in ignominious failure, as the Russian space agency Roscosmos lost contact with the craft on Saturday afternoon and it crashed into the lunar surface, strewing yet more human garbage on an extraterrestrial body (India's Chandrayaan-2 mission crash-landed on the Moon in 2019).

The laconic and understated statement from Roscosmos - "The apparatus moved into an unpredictable orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the Moon" - hides the enormity of the failure of Russia's first Moon mission in 47 years. It seems a long way from its Soviet glory days of the 1950s and 1960s, and the crash represents a catastrophic set-back for Russia's space ambitions. By some (Russian) estimates, the mission cost Russia about 6 billion rubles, and was 18 years in the making.

Maybe another country's failure might elicit at least some remorse, but Russia's current status as persona non grata and general global pariah means that most people probably welcomed the news with a wry smile (especially given that no human lives were lost).

Add to that the fact that the current race to the Moon (the USA, China and India all have missions underway, and even some private companies are looking to get in on the act) is not just the pure science/technology project - with a backdrop of Cold War geopolitical bragging rights - the 1960s space race was. 

This new rivalry is more of a gold rush than a space race: these countries are looking to harvest water from the lunar poles (for potential rocket fuel or even lunar manufacturing efforts in the future), and they are looking for valuable minerals for potential mining projects (even though we still haven't sorted out issues concerning lunar mining and drilling rights).

This makes it hard to get behind and cheer along like we did in the 1960s. It also makes failures less galling, and even maybe something to celebrate.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

COVID is still killing people

Most people seem to be of the opinion that the pandemic is just, well, over. There's some vague talk about a new variant becoming more prevalent, and a new vaccine that will be available in the fall.

Well, it turns out COVID-19 is far from done. Canada (and most other countries, to be fair) has completely dropped the ball on testing and tracking the progression of the virus, other than some general waste-water testing. But, whether it is on people's radars or not, there are still nearly 30 COVID deaths a week in Canada -  more than I thought - and that number is probably substantially understated.

Interestingly, the number of "excess deaths" (the number of deaths in excess of the statistically expected number, taking into account things like population growth, ageing of the population, etc, and exclusing deaths from specific causes like drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, etc) in 2023 is 15-20% higher than it was at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 (2022 was abnormally high, even by pandemic standards). The number of excess deaths since the start of the pandemic stands at 90,300, compared to confirmed COVID deaths of 53,216.

Now some of these excess deaths could be indirectly attributable to tge virus, such as due to COVID-induced mental health problems or other illnesses, or due to delays in treatment or surgery due to pandemic restrictions (the UK and France, which keep good records, say that their excess deaths are almost all due to COVID). 

Another report also confirms that hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased in 2023 compared to 2022 by about 19%. The average total length of stay in hospital also increased from 13 days in 2022 to 20 days in 2023, and the median age of patients increased from 63 to 75, although emergency department and intensive care visits for COVID have actually decreased.

Whatever the case, it seems that COVID is not going away any time soon, and a new wave is just around the corner (it has already begun in the UK). Sorry.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Will EVs and electrification "break the grid"?

You read from time to time that the mass uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) and the general electrification of the entire economy (in order to phase out the use of carbon-intensive oil and gas) will "break the grid", and that the electricity industry is not going to be able to gear up enough to accommodate the increased demand for clean power. Actually, you read that quite a lot in certain right-wing circles. But how true is it?

The CBC addressed this very question just recently. The upshot seems to be: not very true or at least, somewhat exaggerated. (Interestingly, if you search for "EVs will break the grid", 90% of the results are actually about why EVs won't break the grid - or is that just my personal Google algorithm? - either way, there are many articles to choose from on this subject.)

The Canadian government has set a very ambitious target of net-zero by 2035 in its recently released Clean Electricity Regulations. But it is quite aware that this will require a whole lot more green electricity than we are currently capable of producing, and it estimates that the replacement of ageing facilities, expanded generating and grid capacity, and battery storage measures will probably cost in the region of $400 billion. Which is a lot of money. 

But the International Energy Agency and the Canadian Climate Institute still think that this is achievable (even if Danielle Smith does not, which is a whole other problem). The thing is, we are not going from very few EVs and heat pumps to 100% EVs and heat pumps overnight. The change to EVs and heat pumps will be a gradual process, which has only just begun, and the change to more efficient and more sustainable electricity production will also be a gradual process, which arguably has barely started, at least here in Canada. 

Even an ambitious-sounding goal of doubling electricity production in 25 years only requires an increase of 3% a year, so long as it's done consistently year in and year out. Now, this is still substantially faster than the growth in recent years, but it is eminently doable. That said, there is no room for delay (looking at you Danielle Smith, Rob Ford, etc), and we need to be on this now (yesterday).

There are other cosiderations. For example, some provinces like Quebec and Newfoundland are very reliant on inefficient electric baseboard heaters, and a switch to much more efficient heat pumps would actually save electricity. (The increase in electricity generation would have to be accompanied by improvement in efficiency, energy conservation, insulation, etc, anyway.) 

Yes, it may well lead to higher electricity prices, but a switch from expensive natural gas would lead to large savings there (we will be using fewer fossil fuels and so spending less on them). The Canadian Climate Institute suggests that energy costs for Canadians will actually decline by 12% by 2050 due to lower, less volatile and better managed pricing of renewable resources.

EV alone charging is expected to represent some 22% of the current total electricity usage by 2050 (note: current usage). But electricity systems planners do not seem to see this as a source of worry, but as a business opportunity. EV charging can be flexible, and can be timed outside of peak hours. And the amount of electricity needed to charge all those EVs may not be as much as many people think: according to Scientific American, charging the 1 million EVs currently in California accounts for just 1% of the grid's total load during peak hours, and the 5 million EVs expected by 2030 will use just 5% of peak load.

Plus, increasingly, new EV models are going to feature bidirectional charging and vehicle-to-building (V2B) or vehicle-to-grid (V2G) power (this is already starting). This will potentially act as a flexible power storage facility, which utilities see as a "game-changing resource". Thus, electricity users will become "prosumers", both producing, storing and consuming power. In effect, EVs can help improve grid stability, rather than threaten it.

Dynamic pricing and peak load management will be administered by AIs, and the simple expedient of delayed charging using an app can eliminate peaks in electricity demand, according to a recent MIT study. All of this is already within our power (sic).

Currently, Canada is way behind many other countries (and even some US states) on this stuff, but at least the Liberals are, belatedly, making a start. God forbid we end up with a Conservative government any time soon, though, or all bets will be off.

Salt does not make food taste better, just saltier

I haven't used salt in cooking for the last 30-odd years - since my dad had his first high blood pressure warnings, prior to his heart attacks - and I haven't missed it at all. I like to add all sorts of spices to my cooking, but I choose not to use salt, and I am more than happy with the results. My wife usually adds salt from a shaker, mainly because she has low blood pressure.

I also have never watched TV cooking shows on a regular basis, only by accident in dental waiting rooms, electronics stores, etc. But, based on the odd ones I have seen, I have been struck by the ridiculous amounts if salt they add to their dishes.

Now, everybody will tell you that salt brings out the flavours of the dish (just Google "do cooking shows use too much salt" for example - lots of people are asking that question). The other phrase I see used ad nauseam is "salt makes food taste more like itself". 

At this point, I call BS. Adding salt just makes food taste saltier, not "more like itself". To have food taste like itself, you would need to not add anything to it, QED. Now, you might not like that, and you might prefer the taste of it with salt, but don't give me this crap about food tasting "more like itself". It's a meaningless and disingenuous claim that chefs and foodies have latched onto en masse.

The world's tastes, and North American tastes in particular, have been coloured by decades, nay centuries, of excess salt, and any food not seasoned with salt will taste bland and unappealing to them. It's not just cooking shows that over-salt, incidentally, it's restaurants and private individuals in their own kitchens. And don't get me started on pre-prepared foods in supermarkets... But cooking shows are the apotheosis, the ne plus ultra, of over-salting. I sometimes wonder how many heart attacks they are responsible for.

The bottom line, though, is: salt does not make food better, just different (I would say "saltier"). I realize this is me against the world, but I know I am right on this.

People are buying mining claims to protect their own property from development

There's an interesting phenonenon going on in Quebec right now. Amid a flurry of mining claims in the province, largely due to the increased demand for minerals for electric car batteries and other elements of a low-carbon economy, many people are buying mining claims with no intention of exercising them.

It is a bizarre quirk of Quebec law that anyone can make a mining claim online for as little as $75, whether or not they actually own the property, and with no explicit requirement that they even notify the landowner. Such a claim is good for an initial three years, with possible renewals therafter, and gives the claimant the exclusive right to mine that land.

Now, the claimant can't actually proceed with mineral exploration work without the landowners' consent, although they can do other potentially upsetting and disruptive tasks like aerial surveying by helicopter. Another problem is that some property owners, unaware of their legal rights, do not even know that they can say no to developers, who might apply high pressure tactics in pursuit of profits. Buying a mining claim on your own land is a way of pre-empting this disruption, and safeguarding it against mining development. Kind of ridiculous, right?

In towns like Saint-Élie-de-Caxton, Saint-Mathieu-du-Park, Saint Boniface and Shawinigan, some 165 claims of this type have been registered in the last few months alone, and an additional 61 gave been registered by concerned non-profit organizations. Many more have been bought up in other regions of the province.

It's a cute solution to what many people see as a return to the Wild West. But it is crazy that people have to resort to these measures to protect their own property.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Elections in Zimbabwe won't be fair (again)

Zimbabwe has always been a bit of a political basket case, and probably always will be. Now is no exception, as the country goes through the motions of an election.

A fair election? Not so much. Although many people breathed a secret sigh of relief at the 2017 coup d'état that delivered the country from the predations and corruption of long-time dictator Robert Mugabe, it turns out that his successor, Emerson Mnangagwa, is even worse, and does not intend to risk handing over power smany time soon (and will certainly not let a paltry election get in his way).

The elections are being held on August 23rd, but Managagwa's ZANU-PF party is using every intimidation tactic in the book to ensure that the status quo us maintained. The opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party has suffered violence and harrassment since the election campaigns began. One of its supporters was stoned to death on his way  to a rally for God's sake! Candidates have been attacked or arrested, and a new "law" allows for any critics of the government to be prosecuted for "undermining the country".

Voters do not even want the CCC to hold rallies in their towns and villages lest they be victimized by government supporters or by the pro-government army/police force. Bribery is also going on. People have sharp, unpleasant memories of the last election in 2018, when assaults, rapes, torture and abduction by government supporters were rife. Things are no better now, and Amnesty International says that, "Over the past five years, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have been relentlessly suppressed".

Polls suggest that the CCC would win an election handily were it free and fair. But it will take a brave voter to defy the government intimidation on August 23rd. 

ESG is not dead, it's just in hiding

I read a lot about the "ESG backlash" these days, and that ESG is dead" but is that actually a real thing?

For some years now, companies have been under pressure to be better corporate citizens, and to report back to shareholders on their progress through Envirinmental, Social snd Governance (ESG) and Coroorate Socisl Responsibility (CSR) reporting. 

It's a rather woolly, ill-defined and fraught concept, open to wide interpretations and misinterpretations. The more environmentally-minded often complain that ESG initiatives don't go far enough, or that they amount to little more than window-dressing or greenwashing. 

On the other hand, some sneeringly refer to it as "woke capitalism" and maintain that companies have no business trying to "do good" in the first place. Some may take it a step further, actually disinvesting in companies and funds that they see as overly ESG-conscious. High-profile Republicans like Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence have been very outspoken in their opposition to ESG.

The sum of all this is what is ofren referred to as the "ESG backlash". By some estimates, half of all companies have experienced some kind of backlash relating to their ESG strategies, although it has generally been mild in intensity.

Obviousy, no-one is going to please all the people all the time, but it must be a royal pain for companies trying to thread that needle and walk that tightrope. But how much of a movement is this ESG backlash really? Is it just over-reported? Forbes' 10th annual Business and Politics Study entitled the Shifting Sands of Doing Good in America looked into this issue and it received a mixed but largely pro-ESG reaction.

At a broad level, 79% of Americans believe that companies should act to address important societal issues like climate change and racism. That's a pretty resounding vote in favour of ESG, and it has remained broadly consistent over the last few years. 78% of Americans say that they prefer to buy products that are both environmentally and ethically sustainable, and people have voted with their feet, such that ESG-friendly products have grown in sales by 28%, compared to 20% for products from companies that make no ESG claims. Only a tiny percentage actually wants Congress to investigate or penalize for their ESG practices.

All of the above suggests that the so-calked ESG backlash is actually more of a radical fringe reaction in our increasingly politically polarized society. Corporate executives have been reticent to speak out on the subject for fear of the wrath of angry anti-ESG Republican lawmakers - this has been documented - and some of those lawmakers have actively tried to interfere in or restrict the ESG ambitions of companies. For example, deep red states like Texas, Florida, North Dakota, Montana and Kentucky have tried to block certain companies from doing business in the states because of their ESG stances. 

But it seems those Republican lawmakers may be out of touch with the people they purport to represent, on this issue at least. One study found that 70% of Republicans actually approved of ESG investment and opposed government interference in them, a higher percentage than Democrats.

Be that as it may, companies, particularly the big ones, have gone very quiet on ESG. Just 56 of the companies on the S&P 500 Index now specifically comment on ESG initiatives, down 64% from its peak in the 4th quarter of 2021. But only some of them are actually distancing themselves from their early inititatives.

In fact, more and more companies are signing on to emissions reductions targets and incorporating them into the investment process and corporate strategy; they are just not labelling them as such in order to avoid unwanted attention from anti-woke conservative politicians and organizations, and also from securities regulators (which have now had time to catch up on the ESG boom and adapt international reporting standards to accommodate it), a phemomenon now known as "greenhushing". 

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, who helped bring ESG investing to the masses, comments, "I don't use the word ESG any more because it's been entirely weaponized". But BlackRock is not changing its position on climate change, and it continues to put pressure on its investments to embrace decarbonization. The financial industry is increasing investment in ESG, but it is doing it more quietly.

In Canada, ESG is much less of a hot-button issue. Money continues to pour into Canadian sustainable funds and indexes, and sustainability is still considered an important aspect of a diversified portfolio.

So, the good news is that an awful lot of corporate executives have incorporated ESG thinking into their mindsets, and it has become, to a large extent, part of the new paradigm of doing business, whatever some disaffected GOP politicians may feel about it. Companies can now incorporate ESG into their business practices even if they don't publicize it. Even if they remain silent, through fear of conservative reprisals, their actions can speak louder than words. Like it or not, ESG practices make good business sense, and companies are "doing the right thing" despite the threats of the disaffected right.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

South Africa's cynicism knows no bounds

South African President Cyril Zamaphosa supposedly has no love for disgraced ex-Presiden Jacob Zuma. But he nevertheless seems to have closed ranks with his African National Congress ex-colleague. He has arranged, in a barely disguised manner, to spring Zuma from prison ... again. And in doing so, he has sprung thousands of other criminals as well.

The former president, now 81, was given a 15 month sentence in 2021 for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into systematic corruption of state institutions during his rule. A few months later he was released on suspicious "medical grounds", but then re-incarcerated after a court ruling. 

Now, Ramaphosa has granted a special remission pardon for 10,000 non-violent prisoners, ostensibly due to overcrowding and health risks, one of whom just happens to be ... Jacob Zuma. The unusual circumstances in which this was done makes it particularly suspicious and opposition parties are incensed, calling it a cynical and manipulative move to set Jacob Zuma free".

The world has gradually lost patience with South Africa, which has gradually squandered all the goodwill it was offered after Nelson Mandela's release. Years of corruption, grift, and its recent support of Putin's ambitions in Ukraine, have meant that South Africa is once more a pariah - just a black-run pariah rather than a white-run one.

How a fundamental change in rice-growing can help the world

Here's an interesting snippet. Everyone knows that rice, one of the most commonly-gown food staples in the world, is grown in water, right? We have all seen photos of rice paddies, even if we haven't seen them in real life.

But that could change, if some food researchers have their way. What if we could substantially decrease greenhouse gas emissions AND increase yields by NOT flooding rice fields? Research in Bali, Indonesia is showing us how.

Rice production, which occurs mainly on about 200 million farms in Asia, is responsible for about 11% of global methane emissions. Flooded fields create ideal growing conditions for methane-emitting bacteria, and each rice stalk acts like a chimney and shoots methane from the soil into the air. 

The researchers, taking note of the old traditional rice-growing techniques used by some farms in Bali, realized that by only watering rice field when fully dried out, methane emissions could be reduced by 70% (and, of course, much less water is used). What surprised the researchers, though, was that yields also improved, and in some case almost doubled. Also, the worry that the new (old) technique would increase emissions of nitrous oxide (another greenhouse gas) turned out to be unfounded, and nitrous oxide levels even reduced a little. Win-win-win?

Changing the ingrained habits of 200 million farms in largely rural and undeveloped countries seems like a big ask. But if the farmers can be persuaded of the benefits, maybe it could happen (like the switch to hybrid rice, even if the whole Green Revolution thing was not quite as paradigm-changing as billed). 

This seems like a big news item to me, but I only came across it on the website, a rather specialized environmental non-profit specializing in developing world issues. But now, I have spread it - to both of my regular readers!

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Requiring naloxone kits at worksites makes sense, but barely

Ontario is requiring employers in many different sectors of the economy to have naloxone kits at their workplaces. Naloxone can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose (e.g. from an unexpected fentanyl hit), and is a crucial lifesaver in many overdose cases. British Columbia has a similar test program underway, and is considering extending it to more workplaces, like in Ontario.

Ontario is requiring naloxone in retail, healthcare, accommodation, food services, and arts and entertainment, all sectors where opioid use has been shown to be a problem. 

But the number one at-risk sector is apparently construction, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. Fully 30% of workers who died from opioid-related causes worked in construction. It is thought that job injuries, mental health problems, and a macho "work hard play hard" culture are among the reasons why construction workers in particular are prone to opioid addiction.

So, the mandate to require employers to keep naloxone kits at worksites makes sense. Except ... how often do the overdoses among workers in these sectors occur during work hours and at worksites? That seems to be a crucial piece of missing data.

Friday, August 11, 2023

New cars are so expensive in Canada these days

There's a report in the paper saying that the average price of a new car in Canada is now $66,000 in Quarter 2 of 2023. AVERAGE! This is according to AutoTrader's price index report. Even higher in provinces like Alberta and British Columbia.

This was a shock, because I have an electric Hyundai Kona, which I thought was well above the average price, and I paid $55,000. So, what are all these (even more) expensive cars out there? I know there are Porsches and Maseratis, but these are not mainstream popular vehicles 

I searched for "cost of most popular cars in Canada" and found Ratehub's list. There I see Toyota Rav4 ($55,921), Toyota Corolla ($33,096), Honda CR-V ($32,086), Honda Civic ($29,722), Hyundai Kona ($24,579), etc. This is hardly going to average out to $66,000, so what gives?

Next, I searched for "cost of most popular vehicles in Canada", because I remember that pickup trucks are ridiculously popular in Canada, and I found's list. There I see Ford F-series trucks ($39,115), RAM pickups ($48,945), Toyota Corolla ($19,450), Honda CR-V ($31,470) Chevrolet Silverado ($32,648), etc. But this is not going to add up to $66,000 either!

Then it occurred to me that it may be as simple as the fact that these other lists are just not as up-to-date as AutoTrader's. Checking back to Quarter 2 of 2022, AutoTrader suggests that the average cost if a new car was $55,000, not $66,000. So, the last year has seen a 20% increase! Quarter 2 of 2021 shows $46,700, so there has been a more than 40% increase over the last two years! I know inflation has been high, but this is crazy stuff. Inflation has never been 20%.

And why? Well, according to the Financial Post the usual culprits are to blame: the COVID pandemic, supply chain issues (particularly, the acute shortage of semiconductor chips), the war in Ukraine and the resulting increase in energy and other prices, yada yada. Although they may not seem directly connected to car prices, and may even seem like old news, taken together they have had a huge and ongoing inpact. 

Add to this the fact that vehicles are becoming more and more complex and electronic, requiring more expensive parts and more skilled labour, that low inventories of vehicles allow dealerships to charge a premium, and the disruption and extra costs associated with the  transition to the manufacture of electric vehicles, and we have all the ingredients for a perfect storm.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Building on Toronto's Greenbelt. - corruption in action

You might remember that most thinking people were incensed last November when the Ford government announced, seemingly out of the blue, that it was summarily reversing protections on part of the Greenbelt north of Toronto. The reason? So that some of Ford's developer buddies could build lots of houses (and make lots of money in the process). Because there's a housing crisis, don't you know?

There was a big outcry at the time, but Ford insisted on ramming the necessary legislation through, insisting that there was nothing underhand or corrupt going on. 

Fast forward nine months, and the Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has issued a damning report, categorically blaming the government for giving preferential access to previously protected Greenbelt land to a small group of government-supporting developers (who are expected to make $8.3 million on the properties, as re-zoning increases land values by over 3,400%), as well as unnecessarily breaking up the protection of the Greenbelt when there were quite sufficient housing opportunities elsewhere to realize Ford's obsessive drive to build houses (as even Ford's own housing department admits, along with all three of the municipalities where Greenbelt land is being compromised). Ms. Lysyk found the whole process to be "not transparent, fair, objective, or fully informed".

The Ford government admits it did wrong, but insists that the ends justify the means, and that there is nothing to be done about it now. There's a housing crisis, don't you know? They are rejecting all calls for resignations and accountability, not even Ryan Amato, Minister Clark's Chief of Staff, who was integrally involved in the whole sordid episode, or Housing Minister Steve Clark, his boss. 

In fact, in subsequent interviews, he has doubled down on the policy, claiming to be "unlocking" land for housing, blaming federal immigration policies, and making comments threatening the whole Greenbelt comcept.

Ford's response from the get-go has been obfuscation, denial and misdirection, in a word: gaslighting. The ultimate in "sorry/not sorry" responses. He says he readily accepts 14 of the 15 recommendations of the report; the only one he does not accept - "re-evaluate the 2022 decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries" - is arguably the only one that really matters.

In short, the Conservatives plan on brazening it out; they think they have already got away with it. But they may be unpleasantly surprised: this is a big deal for many politicians and voters. This is the kind of scandal that should bring down a government.

They do promise to be more careful in the future, though. Ha, right! They may be more careful not to get caught, but this is not an ethical government, as they have demonstrated time and again. 


It looks like Ryan Amato has been persuaded to take the fall for all this (he "resigns"), and Ford and Clark must be desperately hoping that it will be enough. 

But I don't think so. People - even conservatives - REALLY don't like sleaziness and corruption, and this will probably still come home to roost.

Canada has too few EVs and the US has too many

There was an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail recently, which seems to based on an article from (a Britain-based operation, despite the .eu website, and one I am not familiar with, nor their political bias).

The gist of the article is that, while there is a shortage of electric vehicles (EVs) and long wait times (up to 2 years or more) in Canada, there is a surplus of unsold EVs just south of the border, in the USA. 

The shortage of car stocks and long wait times in Canada is well-documented, although usually attributed to a shortage of semi-conductors or lithium for batteries, attributions that don't always ring true to me. It seems to me just as likely that there has been unexpectedly strong demand in Canada for which auto producers were just not prepared. Another suggestion in the article is that the profit margins on EVs are not as large as those on ICE vehicles, and so there is little incentive for automakers to boost output to meet consumer demand in Canada (although I have no evidence of this).

What mainly flummoxed me, though, was the claim that there is a glut of unsold inventory in the US. As the author puts it, "news about unsold EVs piling up in U.S. car dealerships has raised questions about whether the market for EVs has stalled". Where is this news? I have not seen it. He attributes the slow sales to concerns about battery range, charging infrastructure, or borrowing costs, but who knows? Is it even real?

Well, when I investigated more closely, it seems that indeed there is a problem with sales and inventory of EVs in America. GM, Hyundai and Toyota all have over 90 days worth of EV inventory sitting in their dealerships, and Volkswagen as much as 131 days' worth. US dealers in general have more than three times the stocks of EVs they had just a year ago.

Another article points out that foreign brands like Audi, Kia, Hyundai and Nissan are not eligible for tax credits in the US, and neither are some more expensive luxury models like the GMC Hummer, and this may be hurting their sales.

So, it seems to be a real phenomenon: Canada has too few EVs available and the US has too many. Oh, wait, there's a really easy solution there ...

Articles on tax progressivity may be misleading

An article in the Globe's Report On Business - "High income earners are already paying their fair share of tax" - made me look twice. I don't usually set too much store by this particular reporter's political views, but Inm noticed that the same point was also being made by the (more typically right-wing) National Post. No surprise that they were both commenting on a report by the always right-leaning Fraser Institute, so my suspicions were raised straight away.

The Fraser Institute's report Measuring Progressivity in Canada's Tax System 2023 is designed to demonstrate that, contrary to the narrative put forward by most progressive political parties, higher income earners do actually pay their fair share of tax, and more. It seeks to rectify what the Fraser Institute calls the "common misperception in Canada that top income earners do not pay their share of taxes".

The analysis shows that the top 20% of Canadian earners make 45.7 of total income, but pay 61.9% of total income taxes paid. This compares to other lower income percentiles where the taxes paid are a smaller proportion than their share of income earned. This is portrayed in the report as evidence that, rather than paying less than their fair share, these top earners actually pay more than their fair share.

So, is the Liberal/NDP narrative wrong? Wekl, that depends on how you define "fair". The status quo is only unfair if you believe that taxes should not be progressive. Those high earners still take home hugely higher after-tax paychecks, so they can afford to contribute more to the coffers of the country so as to benefit those less blessed. That's the way things are supposed to work in a progressive democracy. But that's not what conservatives like to see.

Also, there is still a very real problem at the very top of the pile, a demographic that the Fraser Institute's choice of the top 20% conveniently disguises. A Globe and Mail article from 2022, for example, documents the tax habits of the super-rich. It concludes that over a quarter of Canadians earning more than $400,000 actually pay less than 15% in federal income taxes (plus some provincial taxes). Through a variety of aggressive tax-planning strategies (e.g. setting off business or farm losses, allowable business investment losses, charitable donations, RRSP deductions, etc) can mean that top earners actually do sometimes pay less than their "fair share".

So, a rather cynical and disingenuous publication and some equally disingenuous reporting from the right-wing of the media? Perhaps. These things are never as straightforward as they might sometimes seem.

Alberta's moratorium on renewable projects a political quagmire

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has announced a 7-month moratorium in new renewable energy projects in her province. Ostensibly, this is so that the Alberta Utilities Commission can hold an inquiry on land use and reclamation, and to assess how best to fit renewables into Alberta's energy mix. A committe is supposed to report at the end of February 2024, although it remains to be seen whether there is still a viable renewable energy sector in Alberta at that time.

She has paused power plant project approvals for wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric projects during this period, but notably, not natural gas generation. This is described by a minister as "a little bit of inconvenience", although it has thrown the whole energy industry into turmoil. In a triumph of irony - ah, if only it were really irony! - the press release accompanying the news of the freeze was entitled "Creating certainty for renewable projects".

As an enthusiastic and evangelistic free marketer, this is a strange move for Smith. Renewables have been a singular success story in Alberta, with billions of dollars in investment in recent years, and many more in prospect in the near future (although now on hold). 

In fact, an estimated $25 billion in investment is now on hold, and potentially tens of thousands of jobs. To close the industry down in this way, and risk a big hit to Alberta's business and investment image, seems particularly short-sighted. Wind and solar in particular are now among the cheapest methods of power generation in Alberta, so a political moratorium of this kind is also likely to increase energy costs for the province's population.

Because, make no mistake, this is a political move, not an economic one. Alberta, and Ms. Smith and her entire party, is in the pocket of its powerful oil and gas lobby, free market be damned. You have to know that they are involved in this surprise decision, somewhere behind closed doors. In fact, Alberta's energy market is supposed, by law, to operate on free and open competition, so there may be a legal case to be made against it.

Ms. Smith also holds herself up as the anti-Trudeau, so it is no surprise that she would directly oppose anything espoused by the federal Liberals (like combatting climate change, for instance). And indeed, she has specifically tried to blame the decision on Trudeau, claiming (falsely and disingenuously) that federal regulations won't allow her province to build necessary back-up natural gas generation to accompany any further development of renewables. There is no such federal requirement and no real need for back-up, and this is just her belated attempt to pass on the blame and cover up the reality of the situation.

Ms. Smith seems particularly concerned about end-of-life clean-up and disposal costs of wind and solar generation, which, in a province that has repeatedly dropped the ball on orphan oil wells, seems a bit rich.

It's hard to know where this will go. The UPC has a healthy majority in Alberta's parliament, but this move has raised quite a stink both within and without Alberta. And Smith is not above the odd political flip-flop.


Some international renewables companies are already pulling out of Alberta, spooked by the province's surprise move and business uncertainty it has created. Good job, Danielle!


A more recent analysis suggests that 118 renewables projects in Alberta have been caught out by this surprise announcement, with a combined worth of $33 billion and impacting 24,000 jobs. This is a far cry from the government's stated claim that no more than 15 projects are impacted by the moratorium.

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

The Conservatives try to rehabilitate Pierre Poilievre

The Conservative Party of Canada is leading the Liberals handily in the polls (see my take on this), and so they see the time as right to try and rehabilitate Tory leader and angry man Pierre Poilievre, and to try and re-make him as a sensitive family man. He's already abandoned the geeky glasses as the first step in re-inventing himself; now is the time to press home the ad

With this in mind, they are throwing millions of dollars into a three-pronged advertising campaign. One features his Venezuelan wife (you know, man-of-the-people marries immigrant fleeing a repressive regime). Another shows him playing with his son, with an awkward segue from jigsaw puzzle to his "everything feels broken" meme. The third abandons the warm-and-fuzzy approach completely, and focuses on Poilievre's intention to reverse Canada's carbon tax, in the hopes of consolidating the traditional pro-oil and gas Prairie vote.

However cynical snd unconvincing you may find all this image re-vamp stuff, Poilievre has surrounded himself with a pretty savvy PR team, and you have to assume they have done their homework (and their focus groups). The next election is not exactly imminent, but Trudeau is already in a big hole, and the vote is his to lose. Probably the best thing he can do right now is to get out of the way and let someone else try and swing it. But that's not really Trudeau's style, is it?


In another campaign-style video (are we in an election here?), Poilievre waxed lyrical about "meeting with the common people" and "attending their festivals", in full class tourism mode. He made a big thing about wearing muddy boots, rather than his usual Italian loafers.

On another occasion, he went off on a flight of imagination, fantasizing about the personal circumstances of a Sault Ste. Marie waitress he had met earlier who, he thought, may have three kids (why?) and be pulling down a paltry $60,000 a year. Oops. The median income of everyone in Sault Ste. Marie is about $40,000, and waitresses average just over $20,000.

I mean, I guess the guy is trying, but it's rather painful to see. (Trudeau does it too, perhaps a little more convincingly.) The real "common people", Poilievre may find, are all too aware when they are being patronized.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Private medicine is thriving in Quebec (and elsewhere)

There was an eye-opening article in today's Globe and Mail about the worsening problem of private medicine in Quebec.

Quebec already has the worst primary healthcare indicators in the country, with 21.6% of people aged 12 and over having no access to a family doctor in 2021 (compared to 10.3% in Ontario, and 14.5% countrywide). Because of some quirks in Quebec healthcare laws, family doctors are leaving the public health system in droves, and setting up either as "opt-out" doctors (who charge patients directly but still follow the province's medicare fee schedule, so that patients can be reimbursed fully through public insurance), or, increasingly, as "non-participating" doctors (who work completely outside the medicare system, and charge market rates).

As of this spring, there were 642 non-participating Quebec physicians of which 423 were primary care family doctors (4.13% of all licensed GPs in the province). But that number is rising inexorably: in 2012, the equivalent figures were 280, 195 and 2.1%. This has created a situation unmatched anywhere else in Canada; the only other provinces with anything even similar are British Columbia (9 private clinics) and Alberta (3).

And, increasingly, doctors are turning to this alternative system earlier in their careers, some of them straight from med school. Why? Because money.

These doctors typically charge $250-$300 a visit for a basic checkup, a sum easily affordable by the wealthy, but beyond the means of the poor, and certainly beyond the means of the unhoused and most of those suffering from mental health challenges and chronic diseases. Many private clinics charge an amnual fee of several thousand dollars, and carry out batteries of tests, many of them unnecessary, even dangerous. But if there are not enough doctors in the public service to service these people - and we know there are not - what are impoverished Quebeckers to do?

Even after reading the article, I still don't really understand how such a situation is legal here in Canada, where free healthcare is supposed to be enshrined in our Constitution. Yes, healthcare is a provincial responsibility, but there is still a federal law (the Canada Health Act) saying that provinces and territories can be penalized if doctors who work under medicare engage in extra billing. I guess, though, this does not cover doctors who do NOT work under medicare. That is a gigantic loophole.

In Ontario, there is specific legislation banning doctors from charging for services that are already publicly insured. There appears to be no equivalent law in Quebec, though. And even in Ontario, there seem to be private clinics operating anyway - I have rich friends who swear by MedCan, for example, and I know there are several others like Cleveland Cl8nic, Medisys, Regal, etc - which seem to be able to stay in business notwithstanding said law. I don't really understand why.

Quebec seems to be a prime example of the hollowing out of the public healthcare system by private healthcare. This is exactly what public health proponents have been warning us about for decades. And yet it is happening anyway.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Bias and credibility in media sources

By the way, you should know that I often consult the Media Bias/Fact Check website for data on the political bias, reliability and credibility of the various sources I use for this blog. It's a great resource, and fun to play around with.

For example, it tells me that CNN is "mostly factual" and has a "left-wing" bias. Britain's The Guardian is categorized as "Left-Center", but surprisingly it's credibility is only "medium" or "mixed", mainly because of its tendency to use emotive headlines and to reference some less-than-reliable sources. Axios, on the other hand, has a "Left-Center" political bias, but a "High" credibility rating

On the other side of the aisle, Fox News is classified "Extreme Right" as expected, but has a surprisingly good "Mixed" factual reporting rating, as does the Toronto Sun. You have to sink to the level of Rush Limbaugh to find an "Extreme Right" and "Very Low" credibility combination.

The New York Times is centre-left and highly factual, while the New York Post is centre-right and only "Mixed" in the factuality of its reporting, so you have to be careful.

Among my major sources of news (other than the Guardian) are the Globe and Mail (very slightly right of centre and high credibility), CBC (centre-left and high credibility), BBC (centre-left and high credibility), The Atlantic (centre-left and high credibility), The Economist ("Least Biased" politically and high credibility), and CTV News (least biased and high credibility).

All of which makes me feel rather good.

Why burning batteries is not a big problem for EVs

My nephew is an electric vehicle (EV) engineer in the UK (mainly buses, as it happens), but he doesn't actually drive an EV himself. I asked him about this once, and he says it's too expensive to charge with electricity in England (electricity is relatively expensive there, but I don't think he's done his homework there, as Britain's RAC reports), and also he's worried about them bursting into flames overnight while charging. 

I did't take him to task there and then, but I wondered if he had a point about that. According to SlashGear, lithium-ion batteries in fact can (and do) catch fire if they become damaged and short circuit internally, or if they enter into a "thermal runaway" due to a manufacturing defect or degradation, or if they are overcharged or charged at an excessive amperage. Once on fire, they are hard to extinguish - water can actually make things worse, and special chemicals (like copper powder, carbon dioxide, graphite powder, sodium carbonate, or "extinguishing foam") are needed to properly extinguish them.

That said, this is not a very common occurrence. Statistics are hard to find, but Tesla (which makes by far the most popular EV) reports that, between 2012 and 2021, there has been one fire for every 210 million miles driven by Teslas. For context, in that time, there has been one fire for every 19 million miles driven by traditional internal combustion engines vehicles - yes, gas cars burst into flames too - making EVs about ten times safer than gas vehicles (these figurescare from the same SlashGear article).

Another analysis based on data from from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 0.025% of battery-electric vehicles are likely to ignite, compared to 1.5% for gas-powered vehicles and a whopping 3.4% for hybrids (including plug-in hybrids). This makes the chances of EVs igniting some 60 times less than gas cars, and 139 times less than hybrids), so, once again, EVs come out as the safest option. (It's not clear from this article why hybrids are at such an elevated risk of fire, and the figures for gas cars and hybrids seems way too high to me, but that's what the study says.)

And just for good measure, data from Sweden suggests that EVs are fully 20 times less likely to ignite than gas/diesel cars (0.004% compared to 0.08%). Note that all of these figures are based on relative percentages, and so are not due to the fact that there are much fewer EVs than ICE vehicles. 

What IS a potential problem for electric vehicle batteries is salt and salt water. After Hurricane Idalia, some firefighting departments in Florida have warned that EVs that were flooded with salt water in the storm surge could be prone to spontaneous fires, because the dried salt can act as a bridge between battery cells and potentially cause fires, even if the EV appears to work perfectly well. This is a very specific problem, and owners of sea-flooded vehicles should probably look to replace their batteries (and maybe relocate to somewhere less disaster-prone).

So, should I go back to my nephew with this data? In the interests of family harmony, probably not.

Saturday, August 05, 2023

How lawns are making the planet hotter

I have already said my piece on the tyranny of lawns, but here's a rather unexpected (to me, anyway) additional nail in the coffin: lawns are contributing directly to climate change.

What's going on here is the "heat island effect", the way in which different materials absorb, release and reflect heat from the sun, so that cities, with all their concrete, asphalt and relatively sparse tree cover tend to be significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas.

So, a BBC reporter compared his wild unmown garden to his next door neighbour's pristine mown lawn. The mown lawn (what a strange phrase to say!) yielded a surface temperature of almost 9°C - about 16°F - higher than the unmown garden (34.3°C compared to 25.5°C on this particular summer day). That's a pretty dramatic difference.

For good measure, another correspondent compared an unmown lawn with his neighbour's plastic artificial turf. The results were perhaps predictable, but maybe not the scale: the astroturf was 50°F (about 28°C) hotter on a hot day, at 126.5°F compared to 76.5°F!

Maybe more regions need to go the way of California in paying people to rip up their lawns, for the sake of climate adaptation, but also just for our own comfort on this heating planet.

Friday, August 04, 2023

When your name dictates your fate

Kudos to Wildlife BC Information Officer Forrest Tower for deciding to follow a career in forestry, fire management and climate change reporting DESPITE the name he was given as a child. 

What were Mr. and Mrs. Tower thinking?

Thursday, August 03, 2023

Taylor Swift's crazy, crazy tour.

Taylor Swift's Eras tour is expected to gross over $1 billion (yes, that's billion with a B), $1.4 billion by some estimates. Granted, that is generated from a huge 106 dates, but it's still a ridiculous sum of money. 

It would blow away all previous tours by the world's biggest stars. The highest-grossing tours to date include: Elton John's Farewell tour, which spans several years, and has grossed $853 million; Ed Sheeran's Divide tour of 2017-9, which grossed $776 million; and U2's 360° tour, back in 2009-11, which grossed 736 million.

On the first day of ticket sales, over 2.4 million were sold (a single-day record, of course). Tickets are priced between $50 and $899, although they are selling on the secondary market at over $1,000. (Tickets for her six Canadian dates, all in Toronto, are being offered at anywhere from C$2,000 to a mind-boggling C$13,200, and those tickets, for concerts over a year in the future, are not even publicly available yet!) People are spending over $1,000 on new clothing to attend the concerts, not to mention airfares, hotels, etc.

It's all crazy, crazy stuff. Swift-mania is out in a class of it's own, reminiscent of The Beatles and Elvis. Even Beyoncé is second-league in comparison.

Why do governments underspend on their budgets?

It was pointed out to me recently that the City of Toronto regularly underspends on its capital budget. It defies logic that, after all the teeth-pulling and hair-tearing the City goes through to pass a budget each year, with all the recriminations and angsty calls on other levels of government to better fund Canada's biggest and most needy municipality, it then doesn't even spend it all!

Now, I know it's not quite as simple as that, and the interplay between the operating and capital budgets, and between all the various elements of the capital budget (some of which are allocated to specific areas of spending) can be quite complex. 

But the bottom line seems to be that the City, which spends much of its time complaining that it is underfunded, does not spend all the money it is allowed to spend on the upkeep and maintenance of the city's buildings and infrastructure. And not just once, but EVERY YEAR! Particularly under John Tory.

Then, I read just today that the province of Ontario does not spend all of its allocated budget. $6.4 billion in the first three quarters of this year alone. And again, not just once, but EVERY YEAR. Unspent money has been building up in reserves year on year, because ... well, I don't know because. I understand that governments can't spend MORE than their allocation, but they could at least make some attenpt to spend UPTO it, especially given that so many programs innovations many areas - health, housing, transit, etc -  are chronically underfunded.

What's with all the underspending by conservative governments

Convicted criminal could still be President of the USA

Donald Trump, or anyone else for that matter, can still stand for the US presidency if indicted, or even convicted, of criminal acts. He could even serve out the Presidency from prison. That is the law of the land, the land of the free and all that. And that is in spite of the fact that, in most states, criminals cannot even vote.

Shouldn't that be fixed?

I hadn't realized it, but even in Canada, an MP can still serve in Parliament with a criminal record, in the same way as a convicted criminal can still vote, although that right is removed if the MP is sentenced to a period of at least two years. Potentially, therefore, even a Prime Minister could serve with a criminal record, although in practice it is very unlikely such an person would be voted leader of a party, even if elected as an MP. 

In Canada, an MP (or a PM) could continue in office even if convicted of a crime, but again in practice he or she would be under intense pressure to step down under the prevailing honour system.

I'm not sure there is any honour in American politics.

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

A simple climate adaptation strategy in LA

Los Angeles is not a city I am often prone to praising, but its Cool LA Project is praiseworthy indeed.

For the past four years, LA has been painting its roads with a pale grey-coloured coating, as well as planting more trees, prioritizing neighbourhoods with a lot of concrete and asphalt and little shade. 

Lightening the colour of its roads means that they absorb less heat throughout the day, which can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 25° F (8°C). The difference is apparently palpable, and it must be especially so at the moment during yet another Southern Californian heatwave.

I have to assume that it is also ameliorating the heat island effect and reducing LA's incessant need for air conditioning, although I haven't seen any analysis to that effect (or indeed if such an analysis is even possible).

But kudos to LA. Simple solutions, concrete (sic) results.


Nashville, Tennessee, is also getting in on on the act, with a very similar project.

Facebook to remove Canadian news coverage - hurrah!

Well, Meta has thown a paddy and called the Canadian government's bluff, and will be removing news coverage for Canadian users of its Facebook and Instagram platforms. And I for one am secretly gleeful about that.

Meta balked at Canada's insistence that it pay Canadian news organizations for the news items it puts out on its platforms. Seems entirely reasonable really, although Meta is outraged - outraged, I tell you! - by the suggestion, claiming that "it is based on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from news content shared on our platforms ... news outlets volutarily share content on Facebook and Instagram".

So, Facebook and Instagram users (of which I am not one, I might point out) will just have to look for their news on news sites - shock horror! They will not "benefit" from Facebook's restrictive algorithms, which merely serve to amplify the internet echo chambers in which we all operate. 

Some, of course, will choose to do their own amplifying by subscribing to The Sun or, worse, some American pseudo-news. But at least that will be their conscious choice, rather than just sucking up the Facebook-generated pablum/coolaid.

The Liberals may fare better under new leadership

Justin Trudeau has made no bones about his intention to lead Canada's Liberal Party in the next election, which is scheduled for 2025 unless one is triggered earlier, which would not unduly surprise me. He even doubled down on this decision after the recent news of the strange separation agreement with his wife.

But... the Liberals are in a hole as regards public opinion. After 8 years in power, you could argue it just couldn't be any other way. At this point in any administration, the ruling party has pretty much always managed to piss enough people off, and become so blasé and entitled, that the long-suffering general public are always going to be ready for a change. 

At any rate, the polls are telling us that, however abhorrent Pierre Poilievre may be, the Liberals are currently trailing the Conservatives by a full 10 percentage points. So, short of a merger with the NDP, who are polling a respectable and robust third, which is (unfortunately) not on the cards, Trudeau is not going to win an election any time soon. And it is my contention that Trudeau himself is the main reason for that.

A reasonably recent poll, at the end of June, looked at how happy voters are with the political party leaders and, perhaps not unexpectedly, it seems they would prefer to see both Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, Poilievre, replaced as leaders of their parties. 

53% of respondents were in favour of Justin Trudeau being replaced as leader, while 51% were in favour of Pierre Poilievre being replaced. However, when we look at in-party support, the picture changes substantially: 58% of Liberal supporters want to see Trudeau replaced, while only 29% of Conservatives want to see Poilievre gone.

So, how would the Liberals be faring without Trudeau? Hard to say. I haven't seen any hypothetical polls on that. But, given that we know how they are faring with him, surely a change of leadership is worth a shot.