Sunday, September 24, 2023

Will the real Naomi please stand up?

I have read many of Naomi Klein's books over the years, from No Logo to The Shock Doctrine to This Changes Everything. She is a Canadian left-wing icon, with impeccable feminist, environmental and anti-capitalist credentials. 

I have also read many of Naomi Wolf's books - The Beauty Myth, Fire With Fire, Promiscuities - although much longer ago. As a respected and outspoken American third-wave feminist icon, her credentials too seemed impeccable.

But then Naomi Klein recently published Doppelganger (which, full disclosure, I have NOT yet read), and I find that Naomi Klein is apparently not the Naomi we once thought, but a rabid conspiracy theorist, a persona non grata for whom Ms. Klein is embarrassed to be mistaken, and a favoured guest on Steve Bannon's podcasts. She has been kicked off several social media sites, including Twitter, for her espousal of conspiracy theories about vaccines, geoengineering and other topics, and had a book "unpublished" due to grave errors.

How does such a trajectory occur? Was the old Naomi Wolf actually as right-on and reliable as we once thought? Interestingly, one ex-Wolf proponent has recently re-read The Beauty Myth and found it sorely wanting by today's feminist standards. Even in her prime, Wolf was a product of Reagan-era neoliberalism, and a new reading of even her older books shows that they have not aged well, it is argued. Academic papers on the book have found that as much as two-thirds of the statistics Wolf makes use of are spurious or poorly-interpreted. 

I'm sure I will get around to reading Doppelganger eventually. Surely, Naomi Klein is still safe to read?

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The battle of the cognitively-impaired

Priceless. In a speech at a Washington DC "Pray Vote Summit" (I kid you not!), gaffe-prone 77-year old Donald Trump called out not-quite-as-gaffe-prone 80-year old Joe Biden by calling him "cognitively-impaired" and saying that "we would be in World War II very quickly if we're going to be relying on this man".

Oops. Well, one of those wars anyway.

How AI becomes more human

There's a fascinating article in today's Globe and Mail Report On Business about the whole industry that has grown up around teaching artificial intelligence (AI) how to be more human.

I knew that it happened, of course. Generative AI learns independently from the internet to some extent, but humans wrote the internet (for the most part), and AI applications and "large language models" (LLMs) like OpenAI's ChatGPI and Google's DeepMind pride themselves on appearing as human as humanly possible. So, some direct teaching by real people is essential (although that is also where much of the concern about AI learning bad habits, racist attitudes, etc, comes from).

But I had never thought about how that process of teaching and fine-tuning actually worked. It turns out that there are numerous AI companies around the world (with names like Surge AI, Scale AI, Remotasks, Cohere and Data Annotation Tech) who employ many thousands of people on a piecemeal basis to check on AI output and to provide human inputs that AI can learn from. 

Known as "reinforcement learning from human feedback" or RLHF, this work is painstaking, ongoing and essential to AI development. It is particularly important in the battle to reduce bias in AI responses, as well as to improve accuracy, although the people who provide AI with feedback can of course bring their own biases, particularly on matters of opinion or where there is no single definitive answer. In that case, the "majority wins", potentially disadvantaging under-represented groups.

Left to its own devices, AI can come to some alarming and apparently illogical conclusions. One example quoted concerns an AI algorithm that was developed in 2017 to identify skin lesions and cancers from photographs, which found it easier to identify lesions when there was a ruler in the photo to scale it, but then inadvertently concluded that all rulers were dangerous and malignant. As we have all read, chatbots like ChatGPT, sophisticated as they are, can still give harmful information and make appalling factual errors. Which is why there is an ongoing need for human checkers.

These "raters", as they are often called, are given tasks like comparing two paragraphs of AI-generated text for the most human-sounding one, labelling pictures or video clips with the names of body parts, choosing the best definition of a word from a selection, or drawing boxes around discrete parts of a picture, etc. Some of these tasks may take hours or even days to perform, some may take literally seconds, and raters may be flagged for poor performance if they take too long over a particular task (or too little time), and they may have their pay docked or even have their contracts terminated if they do not "perform" (i.e. follow the more-or-less arbitrary rules) adequately.

Tasks tend to come in piecemeal, and at sporadic and unpredictable times, and raters may spend hours or even days just waiting for tasks to come in (and then be swamped for a while). It is the ultimate in work-from-home gig economy employment, and pay rates may be well below minimum wage equivalents, with of course no employment benefits, pensions, etc. Raters in developing countries may see absolutely pitiful payments. For small, quick tasks, pay may be allotted in literally fractions of a penny per task. Some tasks may be less well-defined than others, and support and problem resolution for raters may be spotty at best. On-the-job training may be non-existent.

There are some openings for more specialized expert raters, e.g. experts in law, biology, technology, etc, and they can expect better pay but just as  hand-to-mouth random working times and conditions. There are also opportunites for native speakers of certain languages, whether it be Polish, Bulgarian, Bangla, etc. Curiously, there seems to be little vetting or follow-up on how proficient a language speaker is or whether a purported expert is actually qualified in any way.

The article provided an eye-opening and perhaps chastening glimpse into a whole AI ecosystem I knew nothing about. Whether it will make AI more accurate, more equitable, more compassionate, more HUMAN? Well, that remains to be seen.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Florida's orange crop going the way of the dinosaurs (and bananas)

I had no idea, but apparently Florida's orange crop has been decimated in recent years. The culprit? A bacteria with the unlikely name of huanglongbing (HLB), more commonly known as "citrus greening". 

As the name maybe suggests, the bacterial disease has been known in China for nearly a hundred years, but it has only arrived in Florida since 2005. It has also been seen in Texas and California, as well as in some other citrus-producing countries like Brazil, although not quite as disastrously as in Florida. Florida's orange crop is expected to total about 16 million 90-lb boxes this year, compared to 240 million in 2004, a drop of about 93% by my calculations.

The disease is spread by a tiny bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, and there seems to be little that can be done about it (pesticides seem to kill more good bacteria than bad). The bacteria from the bug's saliva chokes the flow of sugar and minerals in citrus trees, causing their fruit to not ripen properly, and ultimately killing the trees in 5-20 years (usually 8-10 years), depending on the maturity of the trees, which would normally live for around 50 years.

This, together with increasingly frequent and destructive hurricanes, a higher likelihood of damaging frosts, and high land prices in Florida, have led many citrus farmers to abandon their citrus farms and sell up. The inventory of citrus groves in the state is less than half what it was 25 years ago, and the value of the orange crop just a third of its value a decade ago. It is the major industry and top employer in large swaths of central Florida.

So, enjoy your cheap orange juice while you can. It may not be around for much longer (along with bananas!)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Are we still seeing anti-vax diatribes? (oh yes, X!)

I can't believe we're still doing this after all these years: dispelling and rebutting myths about vaccines by the right wing. 

As an updated, more targeted vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, Anthony Fauci, the ex-White House chief medical advisor and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, came out of retirement for an interview, and has been willfully misinterpreted and/or misunderstood all over again, presumably by the same bunch of ill-informed and combative yahoos who used to do it while he was gainfully employed.

Carefully cherry-picking and editing their quotes, some people picked up on Fauci saying, "There's a very, very, very low risk, particularly in young men, of getting a myocarditis". (Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by some infections. It is usually mild and self-resolves, but in a few isolated cases it can be fatal.)

Cue outrage and mass hysteria in some social media circles, particularly on Elon Musk-owned X (Twitter), which has recently become the default hang-out of the hard right. "Fauci now admits the vaccine causes myocarditis" (he has been telling that to anyone who would listen for over 2 years). "Prison now!!!" (yes, 3 exclamation points!!!) "This guy should be on trial for crimes against humanity" (I can't even think of a suitable response to that).

Did these people not even bother to listen to, or read, the very next line in Fauci's interview? "But if you look at the risk of myocarditis from COVID itself, it is greater than the risk of the vaccine". Because, as Fauci and others also pointed out in 2021, when this issue first raised its head: 1) the risk of contracting myocarditis from a vaccine (or any other source) is very, very small; 2) it is usually a very mild condition, and most people recover with no lasting damage; and 3) the risk of contracting myocarditis is much greater from a COVID infection than it is from a vaccine shot (so COVID vaccines are actually reducing the incidence of myocarditis in the general population).

I imagine, Fauci will probably creep back into the privacy of his well-earned retirement after this.

Some of the social media posters we are talking about here felt it incumbent on themselves to point out that their posts would have been banned on the old Twitter, while the new, permissive X allows such misleading and dangerous garbage to see the light of day. Quite. QED.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

How is Sweden the poster child for COVID policy?

As summer winds down and COVID-19 ramps up again, it's interesting that Sweden is being held up by the anti-lockdown crowd here in Canada as the poster child for how NOT to lock down. 

Maybe you remember, back in the na├»ve days of 2020, everyone else was locking down hard (or not so hard, depending on the country). But Sweden - sensible, judicious, progressive Sweden - was doggedly bucking the trend, and doing its best to pretend that nothing was happening (I wrote about it here). 

Actually, to say that Sweden had no lockdown is a big exaggeration. It had social distancing measures, limits on gatherings, visits to nursing homes were banned, working from home was strongly encouraged, etc. But most measures were suggested rather than imposed, reliant on Sweden's much-vaunted public spirit and common sense, and many businesses did voluntarily close down, although that aspect was under-reported at the time.

Anyway, as the months dragged on, it turned out to be a poor decision, as Sweden registered a much higher death rate than neighbouring countries, and one of the highest per capita COVID death rates in the world. Even Sweden's top doctor, once the most ardent advocate of the laissez faire policy, admitted that the policy had probably led to many more COVID than necessary, and was overall a mistake. Certainly, even today, the country admits that it failed to protect its elderly.

Fast-forward to September 2023, after the dust has well and truly settled, and the right-wing in Canada is arguing that there should be no lockdowns (actually none has been suggested), and Exhibit One for their argument is that Sweden's no lockdown policy - exaggerated, as I have explained - led to the lowest rate of excess mortality in Europe (4.4% excess deaths, compared to Europe's 11.1% and Canada's 7.6%, says this article), and far fewer deaths "no matter how you measure it".

Say, what? How does that gel with previous reports that Sweden fared much worse than other countries. Well, partly it is due to the use of excess deaths statistics rather than deaths directly from COVID. Excess deaths are a measure of how many more people die each month (or year) from all causes compared to the "normal". 

It attempts to cast blame on events like COVID-19 for deaths of all kinds, even long after the main waves are long passed. It is supposed to take into account the impact of the pandemic on things like delayed medical care, the effects of isolation, etc. Is this a "better" measure of the impact of a disease, and of a country's performance in many dealing with it? Maybe, maybe not.

At any rate, as the National Post article mentioned above crows, this measure often puts Sweden in a very good light, better even than the likes of Australia and New Zealand, which had strong lockdowns and very, very few COVID deaths.

But measuring excess deaths is by no means easy (there is no internationally-agreed methodology, and it involves all sorts of assumptions). A detailed report in the Spectator, which the National Post article largely relies on, makes this point very well. OECD statistics, for example, do show Sweden lower than most other developed countries cumulatively (i.e. after 3 years), but much higher than many others back in 2020. Also, excess deaths per 100,000 population shows Sweden best in class using some methodologies, but much worse than New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and even Canada when using Data from Germany's Max Planck Institute. So, "no matter how you measure it"? Not quite. 

I understand the desire to look at cumulative deaths as (maybe) giving a better long-term impression of how a country did. But, using the well-regarded Our World In Data stats for cumulative deaths from COVID, reasonably considered the gold standard for statistics of this sort, Sweden appears middle-of-the-pack, better than the UK and US, but significantly worse than Finland, Denmark, Norway, Australia and Canada

Our World In Data's cumulative excess deaths stats show a pretty similar picture. There is Sweden, better than the UK and US, worse than Denmark, and pretty much exactly the same as Australia, Norway, France, Germany, Finland and Canada. Go figure.

So, "no matter how you measure it"? Not quite. 

And anyway, to assume that Canadians, without government mandates, would be as sensible and public-spirited as Swedes is a huge stretch. Sweden is a very special place in that respect. Voluntary measures might fly in Sweden, maybe even in some parts of Canada. But large swathes of Western and Central Canada, for example, would have no intentions of doing the right thing, not if it interfered with their God-given right to do whatever the hell they want.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Enbridge out of step with the world

Enbridge is a good example of much that ails this country. When I see the smug smile of new CEO Greg Ebel, as in a recent article in the Globe and Mail, and read his words, I get a slightly-sick, slightly-angry, slightly-depressed feeling in my stomach. (Can stomachs be angry or depressed? I think mine is.)

Enbridge has never been a great climate change champion - its core business is pumping oil through pipelines! - but Ebel is taking the company further to the dark side. One of his early moves was to buy up three (large) US natural gas utilities for US$9.4 billion. Yes, they have that much in petty cash.

Ebel is a big proponent of natural gas. He calls it "sustainable and affordable energy", and says it will play a crucial role in the world's low-carbon future. He wants to make Enbridge into a "three -legged stool" (a weird metaphor) selling oil, natural gas and renewables, but very much in that order.

He thinks that Canada's Liberal government is off base with its opposition (as he sees it) to natural gas. "The Germans, Japanese and South Koreans came to Canada looking for more energy, and we've turned them away. What message does that send to our allies, trading partners and the developing world?" Well, actually, it sends the message that oil and gas is 20th century technology and we need to be looking to electricity and renewables to deal with the climate crisis. But that's not a message Ebel wants to hear.

Ebel talks a good game (in his own way), but he is also out of step with most of the business and investment community. His announcement of the purchase of the US gas utilities met with a solid silence, and Enbridge share price sank to a 2½-year low. Over the last 5 years, Enbridge shares have only risen a paltry 1.6%. Now, most of that was from before Ebel's tenure as CEO (although he was still Chair), but it seems like he is unwilling to read the writing on the wall. Just another dinosaur in Western Canada.

Vehicle obesity is now a thing (and it's a problem)

A recent(ish) article in The Atlantic and another in the Globe and Mail just this weekend look at an aspect of modern vehicle production that has proceeded under the radar for years, but which requires some discussion (and some action).

SUVs and trucks - and even to a lesser extent regular cars - have been getting bigger and fatter in North America, and the switch to electric-powered vehicles is set to make this trend even more marked. As with people, this kind of obesity carries with it a plethora of problems, from road and pedestrian safety to infrastructure degradation to excessive tire wear.

Light trucks in general are about a third heavier than they were 30 years ago. EV versions of these trucks are about a third again heavier than their gasoline equivalents. For example, the EV version of the GMC Hummer - always a special case, to be fair, and a caricature of the macho road warrior truck - weighs in at over 4 tonnes (4,100 kg), and the battery alone weighs more than a Honda Civic! But the more commonly-seen F-150 Lightning is almost 3 tonnes, a third more than the gasoline equivalent, and its battery weighs over 800 kg, the weight of ten big men. My own Kona Electric, a small SUV I guess, weighs in at 1,690 kg, apparently.

Unlike in Europe, SUVs and trucks make up the majority of new vehicles sold on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, there are still too many cars on the narrow streets on Europe's towns and cities, but they are at least smaller and lighter. And, while there are a lot of new EVs on those streets, there is also a bigger proportion of 2-, 3- and 4-wheeled e-bikes and scooters.

Also, many European countries are realizing the additional costs associated with bigger and heavier vehicles. Norway (of course) is considering a weight-based tax to steer buyers away from the heaviest EVs and other vehicles. France already has one. Where France and Norway goes, North America usually follows - decades later, and kicking and screaming. 

A 4-tonne EV makes no sense, environmentally or in any other respect, so a tax on heavyweight vehicles to subsidize small urban EVs and electric bikes would be a good step in the right direction.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Is bamboo really environmentally sustainable?

I was gifted a bamboo t-shirt recently. It's very soft and light and really quite comfortable once I took the scratchy label off.

Bamboo is having a bit of a moment, popping up in clothing, toilet paper, food, cutlery, packaging, furniture, construction, and crucially as a more environmental alternative to plastic. It purports to be a sustainable resource, and a step towards saving the world. But is it really that sustainable? I consulted several resources, one of the best of which was this one. As with most of these things, the answer is complicated.

Bamboo has a lot going for it. It is a fast-growing, naturally-renewable tree-like grass. It is naturally very strong, yet lightweight, although it can also be adapted to many other products where tensile strength is not the most important factor. There are many different varieties of bamboo, and it is highly adaptable, growing mainly in sub-tropical latitudes, but also in more temperate zones further north.

It grows insanely fast (up to 90cm a day!), reaching full maturity in just 1-5 years, much faster than the fastest-growing trees. Once harvested, it regrows from its own root system, thus maintaining soil structure and health and aiding water absorption. It doesn't require much in the way of added fertilizer (although that's not to say that fertilizer is never used). It is also very effective at carbon sequestration, absorbing more carbon dioxide than an equivalent mass of trees and pumping out 35% more oxygen.

Sounds great, eh? Now the bad news. Because bamboo has become such a in-demand product, it is usually grown as a monoculture, negatively impacting ecosystems, and whole forests may be razed to make way for it. Most bamboo production is still in China, from where it is shipped around the world, which has its own environmental and ethical challenges. 

Producing cloth (and toilet paper, packaging materials, etc) from bamboo requires an extensive chemical-heavy and energy-intensive industrial process, much like cotton and paper does, and it is notable that the Global Organic Textile Standards organization does not certify bamboo products, even if they are grown organically. There is as yet no fairtrade or certified sustainable designation for bamboo like there is for cotton.

The bottom line is that bamboo may be more environmentally sustainable than plastic and even many wood products, and it may be at least as sustainable as other natural fibres. But it has it's environmental challenges too (not least the fact that Chinese production is so poorly monitored). On balance, though, I think I can safely say that I can wear my t-shirt without any undue environmental angst.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

What has Doug Ford to teach the Bank of Canada?

The Bank of Canada is full of highly-qualified, super-smart financial whizzes, and part of their job is to monitor the Canadian economy and keep inflation down as close as possible to 2%, on the grounds that history shows that that is the best thing for the economy as a whole. That's why they have been gradually increasing interest rates in recent months, because, once again, history shows that this is one of the few things that a central bank can do to help control inflation downwards.

The BoC actually didn't raise interest rates this month (against the advice of some economists, it must be said, although it says it reserves the right to recommence its rate hikes in subsequent months), because they try to be as cautious as possible, in the full knowledge that the current high interest rates are hurting Canadians (although, crucially, not as much as persistently high inflation would). The Bank of Canada is not a perfect institution, but it has a pretty good handle on the situation and a wealth of timely financial data, and it will do whatever is needed to keep the economy as healthy as possible.

However, Doug Ford - folksy, avuncular Dougie, an engaging populist, but not the sharpest knife in the draw, and certainly not an economist - thinks he knows better, and has sent a friendly letter to the Bank of Canada, advising them and reminding them that high interest rates are "hurting people" and are a burden on individuals and businesses alike. Well, thanks, Dougie, but I think the BoC is perfectly well aware of that. "You want to destroy people's lives, you want to watch people go bankrupt and lose their homes?", Ford asks (rhetorically?) It's OK, Dougie, I think they know what they're doing.

And Ford's solution to reducing inflation? For the federal government to send him more money to build houses, houses, houses, and a bunch of unnecessary roads. And that will deal with inflation ... how? Boosting investment in infrastructure is guaranteed to increase demand and spending, which is only going to make inflation worse.

Ford is also (like BC Premier David Eby) pushing the false idea that high interest rates are the main cause of the inflation we are experiencing. In fact, mortgage payments are just a small element of the basket of good and services that the inflation rate is based on. In fact, in a press conference concerning the letter, Ford came right out and said of the BoC, "You personally are responsible for creating inflation". He really doesn't get it. 

Federal NP leader Jagmeet Singh also tried to get in on the act, suggesting that Justin Trudeau should tell the BoC not to raise rates (the BoC is completely independent of the government of the day, which is as it should be). There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance on this matter (willful or otherwise).

The Bank of Canada has the unenviable task of controlling the ogre of inflation, and it is using a whole variety of different indicators and variables in order to achieve that, rather than resorting to the simplistic, self-serving jingoism that is the level on which Doug Ford is working.

Sending an open letter in this way is, of course, merely grandstanding by Ford, an attempt to sound like he has his finger on the pulse, and to spread the blame for anything "bad" onto someone (anyone) else. Essentially, the premiers are at pains to make it clear that THEY are not to blame for interest rates hikes, someone else is. Former BoC Governor David Dodge did not beat about the bush: "It's a bit of ... political grandstanding on the part of the premier". Some economists, though, think that the attempts by the premiers to influence and pressure the BoC is much more sinister than that, calling it "ridiculous" and "reckless".

I think both Ford and Eby had a pretty good idea that the BoC was not going to raise rates again this month, and thought it would look good if they got in first, so that it looks like they have an influence on the central bank (they really don't). Playing politics, basically.

Burning Man has outlived its usefulness and coolth

Burning Man has never been particularly useful. It's never really been that cool, and it certainly isn't now.

Since its early days in the 1980s, when a human effigy was burned on a beach in San Francisco (oooh!), the Burning Man Festival relocated to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, about 140 miles (225 km) from the casinos of Reno, and started marketing itself as "the world's largest counter-cultural event". Upwards of 70,000 attend each year now.

The event now has a CEO and charges $575 for an entrance ticket, which doesn't sound particularly counter-cultural. Estimates of the overall cost of attending are in the $1,500 range, so attendees tend to be self-described influencers, drug-dealers, Silicon Valley tech bros (Elon Musk has been a regular attendee for years - go figure!), and second-rank Hollywood/music industry types (Diplo and Chris Rick spring to mind). I guess a few bona fide artists also attend, hoping to leverage the captive well-to-do audience, but presumably these are not starving garrett-dwellers.

The organization claims it wants the event to be carbon-neutral by 2030, but it has not given any indication of how it intends to achieve that. In practice, tens of thousands of gas-guzzling vehicles trail out, Mad Max-style, hundreds of kilometres into the Nevada desert each year (expect six to nine hours, the website says!), where the passengers whoop and make merry and be all counter-cultural for a week or so, and where lots of things get burned. There's even a small temporary airport for the private planes of VIPs. All the facilities and amenities are also trucked in each year, and there are many propane cooking setups and diesel generators at work. Garbage blows around the desert for weeks afterwards, despite a "leave-no-trace" policy. Hardly an environmentally-conscious affair. Climate and anti-capitalist activists have even started blocking the roads out to the festival in protest in recent years, where they are often met with violence.

And now, in addition to the usual extreme 40°C+ heat, dust storms, and the cringe-worthy sunburns, climate change is throwing in floods and mud-slides to the mix. Are we having fun yet? The festival got completely closed down this year due to freak floods, and many thousands were stranded for several days, until the desert dried out a bit and travel was possible again.

Nevada's national guard was put on emergency alert. Food and water were brought in, wifi and charging stations set up, and evacuation shuttles organized (the desert roads were impassable for regular vehicles for several days). So much for the festival's much-vaunted "radical self-reliance". The festival's CEO quipped, "We're very pleased and surprised that there has been such a fuss over us". Also: " We are all well-prepared for a weather event like this". Hmm. Only one person died at the festival this year, and reportedly not due to the weather event, but it could have been so much worse had the rain not eventually let up.

Burning Man in the 2020s has been described as "the wealthy cosplaying Survivor in an inhospitable environment", "a see-and-be-seen desert drug party", and "the worst of libertarian tech-bro culture". It has become a caricature and a travesty of whatever it might once have been. Time to call it a day?

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

The life and death of a divine preacher in Roman times

Before he was born, his mother was told that he would be divine, and his birth was accompanied by strange portents in the heavens. When he grew up, he left home to be an itinerant preacher, gathering followers around him who were convinced that he was the Son of God. He healed the sick, cast out demons, even raised the dead. He made enemies of the Roman rulers, and was tried and ultimately sentenced to death, although he subsequently appeared to at least one of his doubting followers. A cult grew up around him after his death, temples were built, and some of his followers wrote books about him.

Sound familiar? Correct, this is a brief biography of Appolonius of Tyana, a Greek philosopher from the Roman province of Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey), who lived during the reign of the Roman Emperors Nero and Domitian in the first century CE. 

He fearlessly travelled the Roman Empire, inciting revolts against the Roman overlords, and establishing egalitarian communities among his followers, the Essenes. He even went to Rome to preach his beliefs, when he was indeed tried and sentenced to death, but somehow managed to talk his way out of it (although some maintain that he disappeared from his cell and was taken up into heaven). 

In ancient times, he had at least 16 temples devoted to his honour throughout the Mediterranean world. His beliefs were not particularly Christian, though, or at least not traditionally so. For example, he taught that the only way to converse with God was through the intellect, and that prayers and sacrifices were useless. 

Most of what we know about Appolonius of Tyana comes from the writings of the Athenian sophist Philostratus, but these were written around 220-230CE, many years after Appolonius' death, probably just based on oral tradition. Some believe that Philostratus' account may have been written on the instructions of Empress Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, in order to counteract the rising popularity of Christianity in the Roman world, to provide a kind of pagan alternative to Jesus Christ. 

So, it's anyone's guess whether Appolonius of Tyana actually lived, and if so, how much of what we know is actually true. But then, you could say the same of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Police in schools - where are we now?

While I am on the subject of education (see my previous post on cellphones in schools), another perennial debating point is whether police belong in schools. 

My gut reaction may be "no, of course not", but this issue is not as simple as it seems either. Police officers, or school resource officers (SRO) as they are officially referred to, reduce crime, keep students safe, and improve police-community relations, argue proponents. But they are expensive, disproportionately disadvantage Black, Indigenous and other marginalized students, and contribute to a "school-to-prison pipeline", counter detractors. And, who knows, maybe both arguments are correct, and then it becomes a judgement of whether the pros outweighs the cons. All of this is also in the context of a marked increase in incidents of violence in Canadian schools.

What is interesting, though, is new research, admittedly limited to schools in Edmonton, Alberta, but there is no reason to suspect that the conclusions are not equally valid in other cities in the country. This found that - regardless of race, sexual orientation and self-reported disability status - some 45% of students and parents reported positive experiences with their SROs, citing feelings of safety, assistance with victimization and personal problems, conflict resolution, mentorship, legal education, and innovative strategies for discipline and reform. This compares with just 7% who reported negative experiences. 

Further to this, few students apparently felt targeted or intimidated by their SRO (again regardless of their background), and few felt that Black, Indigenous or other racialized students were treated worse than their White counterparts, or that they were biased against sexual minorities or students with disabilities. Some 80% of respondents (students, parents and teachers) wanted to retain or reinstate the SRO program at their schools, compared to 8% who wanted to see it suspended permanently.

This seems to be a resounding accolade for the police in schools program, although the research has been largely dismissed by many anti-racism campaigners as it does not play into their narrative. It also flies in the face of many reactions to policing in schools south of the border, which tend to be much more negative, and particularly play up the line that racialized students are receiving excessive and disproportionate attention from police officers. There isn't that much hard research to back this up, but that certainly seems to be the anecdotal response.

And here's where my reaction gets a bit contentious. It's about the use of the word "disproportionate". Maybe proportionately more Black and racialized students are receiving attention from in-school police officers than their white counterparts, and in that respect the attention is disproportionate. But is the attention unwarranted? I have not seen any data on this. 

What I mean is, if a diaproportionate number of racialized students are in fact committing crimes, then an apparently disproportionate police response will probably follow, but that does not make the attention unwarranted (and therefore probably not racially motivated). I have no idea whether this is in fact the case, and I am certainly not jumping to that conclusion; I just feel we need to know in order to properly assess the program. 

For example, are there any statistics on the relative number of convictions of racialized students as a percentage of those arrested, compared to White students? That at least would give an indication of whether school police are unduly targeting Black and Indigenous students, on spurious or unwarranted grounds. That WOULD be prima facie evidence of racism at work. But let's not just assume.

I know this will be anathema to many an anti-racism campaigner. But I don't think it is unreasonable to ask the question (especially as I am not assuming an answer). 

Cellphones in schools - where are we now?

The issue of cellphones in school has been discussed and debated for some twenty years now, and we don't seem to be any closer to a consensus or a solution.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is unequivocal: its research has led it to recommend a universal ban on cellphones in schools, due to the demonstrable negative effects on student academic performance and emotional stability. UNESCO points out that most of the research cited in defence of technology in education has been provided by the private companies that are selling it. 

Well, I believe UNESCO; why don't countries and school authorities throughout the world?

The thing is, most countries do believe that UNESCO is quite right, but banning cellphones is a harder proposition than it sounds. In practice, about a quarter of the world's countries have instituted some kind of cellphone restrictions in schools, but most of these are severely curtailed in some aspects, and their application and enforcement are far from ideal. 

In Canada, Ontario (of all provinces!) is the only jurisdiction to have a cellphone ban in force, although its policy is all but toothless in practice. It theoretically restricts cellphone use to educational purposes, while permitting their general use during lunch and recess. Quebec is said to be thinking about a ban, and previous attempts by British Columbia and Nova Scotia have failed miserably. Other provinces are firmly on the fence.

One of the main arguments against banning cellphones is that they have a genuine educational role to play, "To enhance student learning and support curriculum delivery", as the Toronto District School Board phrased it a few years ago. But the constant lure of distractions has always proved too strong to balance out any good cellphones might be able to claim. 

It has been shown repeatedly that teens who are heavy phone users tend to suffer sleep deprivation, poorer academic performance, and lower self worth than others. Cellphone use among youth shows all the hallmarks of a full-blown addiction, complete with withdrawal symptoms. Levels of teen depression, anxiety and suicidality have sky-rocketed. In-school violence has peaked, often as the culmination of a social media bullying campaign. (These violent incidents are often filmed - on cellphones - and run viral on local social media networks). Kids themselves are worried about their own phone use, and imposed bans are often very popular among most of the impacted students. As one educator puts it, "cellphones destroy our kids' brains and ruin their social skills". Ouch.

In a major consultation on education in Ontario in 2018, 97% of students, parents and educators said they want to see limitations on the use of cellphones in schools. So, why are we not seeing it?

In practice, it is largely left up to individual schools, and even individual teachers, to decide how to treat cellphones. A few, considered radicals, have successfully achieved an in-class ban (and concomitant academic improvements), but most prefer to take the easy way out. And you can understand it: what do you do when a teenage girl stuffs her phone into her bra and says "come and get it" (yes, it happens!)? Or when parents complain that young Johnny becomes anxious and depressed when he doesn't have access to his cellphone (or that the parents do)? Or when parents claim their child was discriminated against?

Some of the few brave souls that have managed to institute a cellphone ban (and make it stick) have seen some dramatic improvements in academic performance. A 2015 study (yes, I know that's 8 years ago, but the principle persists) showed that high school students where cellphones were banned in class did 6.4% better in standardized tests. And, crucially, the weakest students did 14% better, while the effect on high-performing students was almost negligible. If we are serious about trying to level the academic playing field for students, this is surely a key finding. (Other studies in the USA and Europe back it up.) 

So, not an easy problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. But the research is there, and where there's a will there's a way.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

What do Parkinson's patents actually die of?

My wife has had Parkinson's Disease (PD) for about 12 years now. Parkinson's is the second most common neurological disease (after Alzheimer's), and the most common movement disorder. Pretty much everyone knows someone who has, or had, PD. It's a "nasty little disease", as my wife says, but not actually fatal. You don't die of Parkinson's, you die with it, as the saying goes.

That said, Parkinson's does lead to a higher incidence of premature death, not so much in the first 5 years or so, but certainly later (an increased relative risk of 3.5 after 10 years). It is often associated with other co-morbidities, which may or may not be directly related, but also a significant proportion of patients with PD die suddenly, known in the trade as "sudden unexpected death in Parkinson's" or SUDPAR, from such causes as aspiration pneumonia, heart attacks, etc. There does not seem to have been too much conclusive research into this area of the disease.

According to the Parkinson's Foundation, the most likely causes of death for someone with PD are aspiration pneumonia (due to food and liquid going down the windpipe and causing an infection in the lungs) and falls (due to increased postural instability and other symptoms of the disease).

Other than these more directly-related causes of death, most people with Parkinson's actually die from the same causes as everyone else - heart conditions, cancer, stroke, etc.

Friday, September 01, 2023

Canadians work longer hours but less efficiently than Europeans

There seems to be a never-ending series of studies and polls showing that, in almost every field, Western Europeans, and particularly the Scandinavians, are doing it right. Or at least better than everyone else. Certainly, better than us here in Canada.

The latest such is a comparative analysis of productivity and working hours by the New York-based Conference Board. What it shows is that Scandinavians work fewer hours but produce significantly more goods and services than Americans and Canadians per hour of labour.

For example, workers in Germany and Denmark work 20% and 18% respectively fewer hours than Canadians. The Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden and Finland are close behind them. The only countries in the study that worked longer hours than Canadians were the Italians and Americans. 

Even more dramatic though, are the differences in productivity. Norwegians pruduce 19% more GDP per hour than Americans, Danes 13% more, Swiss 8% more, Swedes 4% more, etc. Oh, and Canadians? We produce 21% LESS than the Americans, even worse than Italy, Britain and Australia. That puts us at about 66% of the productivity of Norway, by my calculations.

Why the stark differences? The main reason seems to be that Canadian businesses invest less in research and development, new equipment and new technologies than the Europeans, and even than the Americans - all things that boost output per worker. Canada has narrowed the productivity gap in recent years, but we are still languishing well behind Western Europe, and we try to make up for it by working longer hours.