Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Beam Global's EV ARC charging system could be a game-changer

Well, here's a cool thing: Beam Global has developed a standalone off-grid EV charging station with its own solar-powered canopy

The EV ARC System generates and stores its own electricity, and can power up to 6 EV chargers. It requires no construction, electrical work or utility connection (although it can be linked to the grid for backup if needed), and it can be shipped intact in a standard 20-foot shipping container, or on a flatbed truck or railcar, or in its own proprietary transportation system. It uses a 4.4 kW array with a sun-tracking system for added efficiency.

Patents have been issued in USA, Europe, India and China thus far. It is thought that delivery fleets may well be the mainstay of ARC's potential market. It's approach is to ensure continual charging for a full daily range replenishment (DRR) for multiple cars, which particularly suits fleet businesses. Parking lots at theme parks and sports stadiums are also a target market, but supermarkets and restaurants are also showing an interest. It is designed to fit within a standard-sized parking spot (or at least an American one).

Although the units may seem pricey at about $70,000 fully installed, when you consider that the traditional construction (trenching, cable runs, etc) and electrical work for grid-tied chargers can run to as much as $300,000, you can see how it might establish a healthy niche for itself, particularly in sunny locales. Installation is also much quicker. Beam Global is already seeing a 500% year-on-year increase in orders.

Nice to see some good news about renewables for a change, as the world seems intent on retrenching just when we need expansion the most.

Suggestion that black people can't do math ruled out by appeal court

I don't often agree with the current Ontario government - on anything, really - but I do agree with a new Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that sides with the Conservative government's education policy in this one particular case.

A lower divisional court had found earlier that the Ontario government-imposed math proficiency test (MPT) for teachers discriminated against racialized teachers because, for whatever reason, they had more problems passing the test. No-one was ever disqualified as a teacher on these grounds, because they could just re-take the test until they passed it. But some, including the lower court, felt that this still discriminated against them.

The Appeal Court, however, ruled that racialized teachers were actually passing the test at a generally similar rate to white teachers - 93% compared to 95% - as you would probably expect, and there were multiple opportunities to pass the test anyway, so no discrimination was happening.

I'm not totally sold on the need for the test in the first place. But, given that such a test exists, to assume that racialized teachers are somehow more poorly equipped to pass it seems ridiculous to me. If indeed they do pass the test at a lower level than white teachers (which is now debatable), then that's just an indication that they need to buck up their math skills, not that they are somehow being discriminated against. Indeed, the very suggestion seems inherently racist to me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Who are the Palestinian prisoners to be released in Israeli hostage deal?

Under the Hamas-Israel deal brokered by the USA and Qatar, 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in return for 50 Israeli hostages. It's a deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier rejected but has now seen fit to accept, under political pressure. The hostages (women and children) will be released in batches during a four-day cease-fire, and further batches may be added, extending the cease-fire as needed.

This is an important and promising development, but it raises the question of who exactly are these political prisoners that are to be released from Israel's jails

The list of names published (300 of them, on the grounds that more hostages than the initial 50 hostages may ultimately be released) includes 123 minors under the age of 18, including five as young as 14-years old. They are mainly women and children arrested for various crimes including rock-throwing, hurling firebombs, and possession of firearms, as well as lesser crimes like hindering police work and unlawful assembly. None of them are convicted of murder, although a few are convicted of attempted murder. Many have been arrested but never tried.

Israeli jails are bulging with Palestinian "terrorists". This deal may result in a few hundred fewer.


As the prisoners swap continues, and has even been extended a little, it is becoming increasingly clear that Israel is deliberately detaining more and more Palestinians from the occupied West Bank so as to have more bodies to swap for more Israelis. 

Israel holds some 7,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, many of them held under "administrative detention" (i.e. not formally tried). While there may be a "humanitarian pause" in Gaza, no such pause holds in the occupied West Bank. Far more Palestinians have been detained since the war started on October 7th than have been released to great fanfare in the last week, and the rate of detentions seems to have accelerated in recent weeks. Coincidence? I think not.

It turns out the Hamas "terror-tunnels" were mainlt built by Israel

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have been providing copious but entirely unconvincing evidence that they have found the secret headquarters of Hamas in tunnels underneath al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Their PR machine is slick and sophisticated, but most observers find their so-called evidence a bit thin. A few guns and some body armour (which may or may not have been found in the tunnels) does not constitute a thriving nest of terrorist cells, feverishly plotting the destruction of the Jewish overlords. BBC analysis of the IDF video of the findings shows that it had been edited, despite IDF assurances that it was filmed in one continuous take.

Now, it turns out that the "terror-tunnels", as the IDF spokespeople insist on calling them, including the ones under al-Shifa Hospital, were mainly build by Israel decades ago. A CNN interview with Ehud Barak, the ex-Israeli Prime Minister blithely admits that, "we helped them to build these bunkers in order to enable more space for the operation of the hospital". This was confirmation of a previous admission by the Times of Israel.

Yes, Hamas may have extended the tunnels since for their own purposes (e.g. evading capture by Israel), but for the IDF to make a big song and dance about "discovering" these "secret" tunnels is disingenuous at best.

There are tunnels all over Gaza, many of them dating back to the 1980s, long before Hamas, particularly near the Egyptian border, and Palestinians have long used them for the smuggling of black market goods, including, it must be said, weapons. But in a blockaded state effectively under martial law, where Palestinians live under constant threat of extra-judicial killing or imprisonment by Israeli forces, you can kind of understand that.

If Israel can't show some more convincing evidence of a Hamas military control centre under al-Shifa Hospital, their justification of all the killings at and around the hospital falls down, and their whole narrative starts to look very shaky to thus-far supportive Western nations. The existence of some Israeli-built tunnels certainly does not cut it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Jeff Bezos' emissions-spewing superyacht

Centibillionaire (look it up!) Jeff Bezos has a $500 million superyacht that emits an estimate 7,150 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 1,521 average people (or 450 Americans!)

Despite being the largest sailboat in the world, it rarely makes use of its wind power, preferring the power of its two MTU engines instead. And, because it doesn't boast a helipad (design fault, no?) it is trailed around everywhere it goes by a shadow vessel which DOES have a helipad ('cos you gotta have a helipad, bro).

So, next time you listen to Bezos' partner Lauren Sanchez tell us that "Jeff and I really are focussing on the long-term commitment to climate", you'll know to take it with a pinch of salt.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Aluminum-free deoderant - should I be worried about aluminum?

I've always been a little confused about the presence or absence of aluminum (see, I spelled it the North American way - I'm practically a local now!) in deoderant and antiperspirant. 

Pretty much all deoderants these days boldly advertise "aluminum-free" or "0% aluminum". So, I naively assumed, probably like most other people, that aluminum on the skin is bad for you. After all, too much aluminum in the brain can cause dementia, can't it? Gruesome animal experiments have proved that.

However, I recently read an article referring to the aluminum-free trend as a "marketing scam", so I looked into it. Well, it seems that aluminum blocks the pores and so prevents sweating from the area of skin it covers (known since the late 1800s), which is why it is an essential ingredient in antiperspirants. Antiperspirants are designed to stop underarm sweating because it is unladylike and antisocial to smell of sweat (and, let's face it, these things are mainly marketed to women).

So, antiperspirants, by definition, contain aluminum. Deoderants, on the other hand, which seek only to mask underarm sweat smells and not to stop sweating completely, by definition, do not contain aluminum. So, advertising "0% aluminum" on a deoderant is technically correct but unnecessary and redundant, similar to advertising fat-free popsicles or gluten-free vegetables. In that respect at least, it is a marketing scam.

But there is still a lot of confusion out there about the aluminum in antiperspirants. Antiperspirants (containing aluminum) are still sold, they're just a bit misunderstood and face a lot of public disapproval. This is largely due to one of those well-meaning but ill-informed viral scare campaigns that do the rounds of the internet from time to time, claiming that antiperspirant is the leading cause of breast cancer, and that it occurs because antiperspirants block sweating, the body's natural means of purging toxins, and that they somehow cause DNA damage leading to cancer. (It doesn't, take the American Cancer Society's word for it.)

The Slate article humorously enjoins us to maybe not inject aluminum directly into our brains, just in case, but that's about the size of it.

Friday, November 17, 2023

"Panda diplomacy" is back

At Joe Biden and Xi Jinping's love-in summit in San Francisco this week many weighty subjects were discussed and some concrete agreements were made, like a resumption of military-to-military communications between the two countries and a vow to curb Chinese fentanyl production (although don't hold your breath on that one, Xi has little or no control over it).

And then, out of the blue, Xi announced he was throwing in a couple of pandas, as  a "goodwill gesture", to "deepen friendly ties" and to "meet the wishes of the Californians". Up until recently, there have been several Chinese giant pandas in American zoos (and elsewhere) on a loan basis, but most of them have now been returned (two were returned from Washington DC just this last week).

I just find it a bit bizarre that China uses its giant pandas as bargaining chips in this way, almost as a kind of currency. Did anyone ask the pandas? Does Xi think that the offer of some cute pandas will distract the West from all the other important things that it is asking China to fix?

Panda diplomacy has been a Chinese tactic since the 1940s, but it really came into its own after Nixon's visit to China in 1972 (the US reciprocated by sending two musk oxen to China, which is even more bizarre). In the 1980s, Chinese policy changed to leasing pandas, often for big bucks, to Western zoos, which rather defeats the philanthropic impact, I would have thought. As US-China relations soured in the 2010s, many of the pandas were returned, and the last few loaned pandas are due to go back to China next year.

So, you can probably judge the state of international relations by the number of pandas in each country. Canada's two pandas were returned to China in 2020, supposedly because of the difficulty of finding good bamboo, but it did also coincide with a precipitous downturn in Canada-China relations, with the whole Meng Wanzhou/Two Michaels saga. Coincidence?

Like I say, bizarre.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Is battery life an issue for electric cars?

When thinking about electric vehicles (EVs), people worry about their range, their cost, charging infrastructure, and battery life. Wait ... battery life? Is that a problem too?

Well, apparently not. A new study shows that only 1.5% of EVs have had to have their batteries replaced (outside of a very few recalls), and most EVs driven up to 100,000 miles still have 90% of their original battery range. Battery replacement is most common (obviously enough) in older cars, and in cheaper vehicles like the Chevy Bolt. But in most cases the batteries will last at least as long as the cars themselves. 

So, yes it's expensive to replace a battery in an EV, but you're unlikely to need to, and it is really not a major stumbling block. Maybe, as I have seen suggested, it would be better for car companies to offer a lifetime warranty, to put people's unfounded fears at rest.

Oh, and by the way, just to mention a few of the other criticisms often levelled against zero-emission vehicles: EV range is not an issue these days, and they will start to save you money after just a couple of years. While reliability is still a problem with public charging ports, the number of charging stations is increasing rapidly, and anyway most EV owners do most of their charging (80%) at home. And no, they don't spontaneously burst into flames with great regularity (much less frequently than gas cars actually). And no, EVs are not actually an environmental disaster covered up by the radical eco-warrior caste. Dead EV batteries are not going to be a major problem on a par with nuclear waste, as some will tell you, lithium-ion batteries are at least 90% recyclable (this according to JD Power). And, finally, yes, EV range goes down in cold weather, but so does the range of regular gas vehicles and they may fail even more than EVs according to Norwegian data.

Bottom line: there's a lot of anti-EV propaganda being disseminated on the interwebs, most of it false or at least misleading.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Pro-Palestine chant should not be considered hate speech

A chant often taken up at the many pro-Palestine rallies currently taking place around the world is getting increasing attention. 

You will often hear lusty renditions of "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!" at any rally in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights. The river in question is the Jordan, and the sea is the Mediterranean. It has been used at least since the 1960s, and is seen by Palestinians and their supporters as an expression of their demand for equal rights for Palestinians within the borders of Israel and the occupied territories, a plea for self-determination. There is no consensus on whether this should be within a single secular Palestinian state, or as part of a two-state solution, but it is pretty clearly a call for freedom, not domination.

The way I see it, a quick perusal of the border maps of Israel and Palestine (see below) is enough to show that Palestine wants to revert to the UN-promised borders of 1947, which did pretty much stretch from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, but still left Israel with a substantial homeland to populate. Instead, after various local wars, Palestine ended up today with the much smaller territory that can be seen in the second map below. They would like to get back to what was promised.

However, Israel and the Jewish diaspora worldwide seem to automatically interpret the chant - for reasons that I confess I don't entirely understand - as a call to completely destroy Israel and its people, and characterize it as hate speech with genocidal intent. As the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs puts it, the chant calls for "death to all Jewish people in Israel, Canada and everywhere", which surely takes reading between the lines to a whole new level.

This is partly, to be fair, because Hamas (a terrorist organization that DOES seek to destroy Israel) has recently incorporated it into its own charter. Adding to the confusion, though, Jews themselves have often employed the phrase "from the river to the sea" in their own propaganda and at public rallies, and Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party uses the phrase in its founding charter, as a way of saying that it does not actually recognize Gaza or the West Bank.

Either way, the phrase has certainly become a contentious and loaded one during the current Israel-Hamas conflict. This came to a head in Canada a couple of days ago when Wesam Cooley (aka Wesam Khaled) was arrested by Calgary police after a pro-Palestinian rally there for using "an antisemitic phrase", despite earlier assurances by the police that his words would not result in his arrest, that day at least.

The police did not explicitly confirm that the antisemitic phrase in question was the "from the river to the sea" one, but they did say that it was used repeatedly, and that the crowd was encouraged to follow along, so it seems very likely. 

Interestingly, Cooley was initially charged with a standard crime (causing a public disturbance) and then a hate motivation was appended to it, presumably because only a handful of charges of advocating genocide or willfully promoting hatred have ever been brought before the courts on Canada, and police need their provincial attorney-general to sign off on such charges.

Be that as it may, it will be interesting to see how this charge progresses, or even whether it is retracted as an error as many legal experts believe. Several lawyers professors have confirmed that Cooley's words and actions do not meet the threshold for hate speech, or even for causing a disturbance. So, it will be interesting to see whether the charges turn out to have been trumped up and politically-motivated, especially given that the Calgary protesters were told that by police that the Alberta government is considering classifying the chant as a form of hate speech.

It may be the first explicit move in Canada to crack down on the political free speech of pro-Palestinian protesters, echoing similar restrictions in some European cities and countries. 


Unsurprisingly, the charges against Mr. Cooley have been stayed by the Alberta Crown prosecutors before a trial could even be held, on the grounds that it could not be legally supported. 

I, and many others, could have told Calgary Police Services that before they went to the trouble of arresting the guy. Toronto Police Services, for example, have already had their lawyers review the same situation and provincial legal experts are unanimous in their view that such a chant does not meet the threshold of constituting hate speech. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Biden's pro-Israel stance could cost him the 2024 election

It's perhaps an unintentional and even unexpected development in American politics - like it needs more problems! - but the Israel-Hamas war is having a distinct dampening effect on Joe Biden's already-waning popularity, and potentially on his re-election chances.

Never the most engaging or dynamic politician, Biden was welcomed in 2020 as the antidote to Donald Trump, and the most likely person to beat Trump. His political opinions hardly even mattered. Unfortunately, he is still considered the most likely candidate to beat Trump in 2024, despite his age and the fact that most people don't particularly like him.

But Biden's outspoken, unqualified and unquestioning support for Israel since October 7 has further alienated him from a good segment of Democrat voters, particularly young people. His commitment to protecting and supporting Israel, come what may, has sent the Democratic Party into convulsions, and introduced splits it can ill afford. 

He has certainly alienated Arab Americans, although they only make up about 1% of the population. But he has also alienated many on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who see Israel's reaction to the Hamas strike as disproportionate, their tactics as indefensible, and their policies as illegal, bordering on genocidal.

Some have vowed not to vote for Biden in 2024, even if there is no good alternative. Some would even vote for Trump in preference, although why they would think that Trump would have acted any differently is beyond me. 

It's hard to tell how big the groundswell is, but Biden's unquestioning pro-Israel stance could hand Trump the 2024 election, which is bad news for America, the Middle East, and the world in general. Disillusionment with Biden could lead many traditional Democrat voters to stay home. And, given that the election will probably hang on a small number of swing states, that may be all that Trump needs to tip the balance his way. A scary thought indeed.

War crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent ... genocide?

The G-word is increasingly starting to be mentioned with regard to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Allegations of genocide, "the crime of all crimes", should, of course, be made sparingly, otherwise we risk cheapening the memory of genocides past, as the anti-Defamation League points out

Palestine's envoy to the UN has accused Israel of genocide, as has Iran and Iraq (perhaps predictably). But so has Colombia, Honduras and South Africa. Three Palestinian human rights groups have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for possible genocide. (Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and does not recognize its jurisdiction, which is a whole other problem.) 

Not to be outdone, Israel also accuses Hamas of being genocidal, and indeed Hamas's founding charter explicitly commits it to obliterating Israel.

As Israel's actions tip from a legal right to respond to armed provocation into a punitive expedition intended to rid itself of the whole Palestinian Arab problem, lines are starting to be crossed. Hamas' initial attack, killing 1,200 innocent civilians (the updated lower victim count) was, of course, entirely unjustifiable and a war crime in and of itself, even given the decades of Israeli provocations. But Israel's indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza has now taken over 11,000 lives and counting, of which a small but unknown number may be Hamas militants (genuine targets), the rest being civilians just as innocent as the original Israeli victims. In addition, Israel is accused of using starvation and the cutting off of humanitarian supplies as a weapon, not to mention the levelling of residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and refugee camps, and the enforcement of mass migration.

So, war crimes for sure, but genocide? A New York Times opinion piece by a respected scholar of genocide suggests that the line has not been crossed yet, but it could easily happen without more intervention from Western nations and from influential Jewish organizations.

Many of the pronouncements made by various Israeli leaders and generals have definitely indicated genocidal intent, but that is not the same as actual genocide, says the worthy professor. It may have even slipped into an ethnic cleansing operation, one that could easily morph into genocide, but it has not done so yet. 

Ethnic cleansing, incidentally, has not yet been recognized as a crime in its own right under international law, but it differs from genocide in that it aims to remove a population from a territory, often violently, whereas genocide aims to completely destroy that population, wherever it is. You might think that we are entering into semantics and niceties here, but words matter, espe

cially when we are considering international law. 

You'd also think that Jews of all people would be wary of straying too far towards genocide, or even to pronouncements of genocidal intent, but that does not seem to be the case.


South Africa has somewhat upset the apple cart - and the equanimity of many Western nations - by taking Israel to the International Court of Justice, arguing that its bombing campaign and seige in Palestine is "genocidal in character" and violates the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Now, the ICJ is not a particularly effective legal remedy, and its rulings are regularly ignored by nations that object to their findings. But it will, nevertheless, be an interesting intellectual exercise if nothing else, and South Africa is probably saying out loud what a lot of other countries really think, but don't have the chutzpah to admit publicly.

It will be hard for Canada, the US and others, who have been doggedly supporting Israel even as its actions become less and less defensible, to continue to support it in the international court, particularly given their previous stances on situations like Myanmar, Syria, Iran and Russia.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Stephen Wolfram - misunderstood genius or pretentious egotist?

I watched an interesting documentary series called Suppressed Science on Curiosity Stream recently. Actually, it's not so much about actual suppression, but about controversial science - bio-hacking, gene editing, alternative energy, AI, that kind of thing. The last episode was about Theories of Everything, the attempts by physicists to find a single all-encompassing theory that explains all aspects if the universe.

Personally, I've never really understood why physicists would expect or believe that such a thing would ever be possible. We currently have two very good theories - general relativity and quantum mechanics - that do a very good job of explaining how the universe works on very large and very small scales. Why should there be one overarching theory that incorporates the two? Why is one even needed?

Anyway, many physicists have spent their whole lives searching for such a Holy Grail. One such person is Stephen Wolfram, widely considered a maverick and iconoclast in physics circles. He is clearly a genius of rare talent, but his work on a Theory of Everything is just so different from anyone else's that other physicists just don't know how to treat it

I will make no attempt to encapsulate his theory - his classic self-published book on the subject, the 1,200-page A New Kind of Science, became a best seller when it was released in 2002, but it is not easy going - and Wolfram's own attempts on the documentary to couch it in simple layperson's language left both me and the young interviewer glazing over with a wistful and uncomprehending smile. The general idea, though, is that nature runs on ultra-simple computational formulae, where the rules that govern the universe resemble lines of computer code.

Wolfram is a brilliant self-publicist and blessedly free from humility. But just because he has an unshakeable belief in his own legitimacy, does not mean that he is right. After several years out of the academic limelight, running his own successful software company, Wolfram came back a couple of years ago, announcing that his work showed "a path to the fundamental theory of physics". But physicists, other than a few close collaborators, have remained skeptical.

The main problem is that the theory is very theoretical(!) and it can't make any definite new predictions that can be experimentally tested. So, believing in Wolfram's theory is really no more scientific than believing in God. It has not so far been able to reproduce even the most basic quantitative predictions of conventional physics, critics say. Of course, Wolfram disagrees, claiming that, "We're able to reproduce special relativity, general relativity, and the core results of quantum mechanics". It seems like physicists will have to agree to disagree...

Some claim that Wolfram's base theory - that simple computational rules can lead to complex phenomena - is not even that novel, and that it does not take us much further than the work of Alan Turing, John von Neumann and John Conway before him (Conway came up with the cellular automaton known as the Game of Life). Wolfram, of course, disagrees.

Wolfram has that romantic aura of the heroic outsider single-handedly changing all of science, the lone genius labouring in obscurity and rejected by the establishment. But, as the Scientific American article notes, that's just not how scientific discoveries actually work. Even Albert Einstein collaborated and was in contact with other researchers of his day, as did the likes of Heisenberg, Bohr and Hawking. Even Andrew Wiles did not prove Fermat's Last Theorem in a vacuum, but by following the path laid by other mathematicians before him.

Certainly, a scientific field does not get revolutionized without the critical appraisal and validation of many peers, although Wolfram claims not to hold with all that: "I don't really believe in anonymous peer review". When faced with some of the responses to his work from other physicists, his response was, "I'm disappointed by the naivete of the questions that you're communicating. I deserve better." I think that says it all.

Lego - responsible company or greenwashing parasite?

An interesting little snippet in the latest Corporate Knights tells of how the Danish company Lego tried to do the right thing and failed.

Conscious of the environmental and carbon footprint of its operations, and determined to do its part in reducing carbon emissions, Lego announced a prototype plastic brick made from recycled water bottles rather than from "virgin" plastic. Lego's production requires a hundred thousand tons of plastic each year, so it was thought that the emissions savings would be huge.

Not so. It turns out that plastic made from recycled PET bottles is softer and actually needs more energy to process it. Furthermore, switching to the recycled plastic would require changing almost the whole factory set-up, a significant carbon hit in itself. It seems that changing Lego's production to recycled plastic is a non-starter.

It has been pointed out, though, that switching to recycled plastic would also be a good way to reuse plastic that would otherwise moulder away for centuries in landfills, particularly as the recycling market for plastics has all but collapsed. (It is estimated that just 9% of Canada's plastic is recycled, for example.) So, the calculus is not just about carbon dioxide emissions, and Lego's decision may be more about short-term profitability for its shareholders than anything else.

It has also been pointed out that reusing is better than recycling, ceteris paribus, and that maybe a better model for Lego would be to rent them out rather than selling them, although it's hard to see traditional customers (or shareholders) swallowing that. Lego does already have a Replay program that donates used bricks to children's charities.

So, responsible corporate citizen or greenwashing parasite? You decide. Lego has said that it is "looking at a circular business model", and is "fully committed to making Lego bricks from sustainable materials by 2032". But that's 9 years away, and right now it's totally reliant on unsustainable fossil fuels for its plastic gizmos.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

A timely audit of the Ontario Place re-vamp

I have managed not to discuss Doug Ford's plans to "revitalize" Ontario Place thus far. But an article in the Globe and Mail today has served to remind me of how irritated I am about it (yeah, I know, I'm always irritated, when I'm not outraged), and in just how many different ways it is wrong. 

As Alex Bozikovic points out, there are no actual allegations of corruption - yet! - but two investigations are now being run by the province's acting Auditor-General into the propriety and appropriateness of the plans, and the huge costs that are about to be incurred.

The first question to be asked is why we are handing over six acres of the beloved site - the whole of the West Island - to Austrian spa operator Therme. The entirety of the parkland on the island is to be razed, along with some 800 trees, to make way for an up-market glass monstrosity. No environmental review is planned - this project has been "exempted" - nor any provincial heritage review, such as would usually apply to such a site.

Therme is to get a 95-year lease, but details of what they are paying remain hidden, as is the cost of the government-financed rebuild and infrastructure (which will, of course, be borne by taxpayers like you and me). These will almost certainly outweigh Therme's contribution, so the government line that the spa company is somehow subsidizing a public park is disingenuous at best.

Then there is the 1,000 underground parking facility which is now planned, covering a million square feet, and expected to cost (us) about half a million dollars. This, despite the 2019 "call for development" which made it clear that NO new parking was to be planned for the site, especially given that there will soon be a new subway station right there. The parking is clearly just another sop to Therme, although the paperwork for that too remains secret.

And last but not least, there is the matter of the provincially-owned Ontario Science Centre that Ford has belatedly announced is to move from its iconic Moriyama-designed in its spacious ravine location near Eglinton to ... Ontario Place! That decision came as a surprise to the Science Centre's board chair John Carmichael, who was clearly not consulted.

Sure, the Science Centre is looking a bit tired and dated, but that's because it has been starved of investment for decades, although it too us getting is new. But moving it to a site half the size in Ontario Place is not the solution. And who made this decision, and why? One theory is that it provides an excuse for that huge parking lot, as the two are to be built in one combined project.

The whole thing will probably cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion which, for the notoriously stingy Ford, is a huge amount of money. And much of this has been hatched behind closed doors. It seems likely that the Auditor-General's investigations will turn up some nasty little under-the-counter dealing. 

They are already erecting fences and preparing to cut down trees with unconscionable haste, even though the City of Toronto has not given its consent to any of the work. So, the investigation could not be better timed. The first thing it should do is to impose a stop work order.

Canada and other petrostates not meeting their climate change targets

A new report from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and a bunch of other leading climate groups, concludes that Canada and other oil and gas-producing countries are failing dismally to meet important climate change targets. Current performance would not be consistent with keeping warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or even 2°C, as agreed at the Paris conference, not even close.

Canada is doing slightly better than Brazil, USA and Saudi Arabia, but worse than many others. Among petrostates, only Norway and the UK are even projected to decrease oil and gas production by 2030. While most countries are technically striving for a net-zero target, none of them have pledged to reduce their fossil fuel production by anything like enough to meet such a target, let alone be on track to achieve it. In fact, coal, oil and gas production is still increasing.

The report also makes a point of downplaying carbon capture and storage technologies, which it says have largely failed to perform, and should not be relied upon as a major plank of any country's climate change efforts, and certainly should not be treated as a "free pass to continue business as usual".

The UN report supports another recent report by Canada's federal Environment Commissioner which found that Canada was well short of its 2030 targets, and so it should not come as any surprise. Canada and the other fossil fuel producers are going to have to justify themselves at the upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai, which is throwing a particular spotlight on oil and gas producers. Well, that should be interesting.

More heat pump madness

Just to show that the province of Ontario can make just as sdaft a decision on climate change as the federal government did recently with its pause on carbon tax for home fuel oil users in Atlantic Canada. Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) is now offering free heat pumps for eligible low-income households.

Sounds good, right? Well, partly. Thing is, though, the other eligibility requirement is that the household needs to be already using electric baseboard heating. 

Don't get me wrong, switching from electric baseboard heating to a heat pump, would yield good savings, both in cost to the household and in electricity used. But it would be even better if all those poor people using natural gas, propane or fuel oil for heating were able to take advantage of this offer too. They are the ones we really need to wean off fossil fuels.

Thanks to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance for pointing out this howler.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Quebec Is a weird mix of progressive and reactionary

Quebec is a strange animal. In some respects it is the most progressive of Canadian provinces, and in others it seems embarrassingly right-wing and reactionary.

A recent report by the Canadian Renewable Energy Association highlights Quebec's plans to triple its wind energy generation and substantially increase its solar and energy storage capacity. It already produces 99.6% of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly hydroelectricity, and is the largest exporter of electricity in Canada.

Quebec has the largest fleet of electric vehicles in Canada, and is second only to British Columbia in registration of new EVs. It also has far and away the most EV charging stations in Canada (nearly twice as many as Ontario, despite Ontario's much higher population).

Quebec has long had deeply subsidized universal childcare. It launched it $5-a-day government-funded daycare way back in 1997, and the rest of Canada has only very recently started playing catch-up with the federal Liberals' $10-a-day scheme. Similarly, its record on fighting poverty and inequality is second to none, and it has succeeded in virtually eradicating acute poverty among families.

And yet...

Some of Quebec's social policies leave much to be desired for an ostensibly progressive province. Due to its unique Francophone status, Quebec is the only province to have essentially total control over its immigration criteria and procedures. Due to the perennial Quebecois perception that its provincial identity - i.e. its language - is under threat, it is less enthusiastic than most of Canada about attracting immigrants.

Quebec's share of immigration over the years has been been disproportionately low, and that share has continued to fall throughout the last decade. It now stands at little over 10% each year (c.f. the province has about 23% of the country's population). Of course, this is largely about maintaining a dominant French language, but there are other concerning signs that Quebec just doesn't like foreigners that much, like its controversial policy of banning religious symbols in the public sphere, a policy that clearly disproportionately affects immigrant populations, and has had the manifest fallout of making non-Christian residents feel less secure (and must have a similar affect on those considering immigrating to the province).

Despite its progressive inclinations, Quebec, at least at the governmental level, seems to be obsessed with its language, and with the supposition that French is being usurped and replaced by English. Going back to Bill 101 in 1977, the province has passed a succession of measures which make it increasingly more difficult for non-French speakers to live there. Most recently, Bill 96 was passed in June this year (including a symbolic change to the Canadian Consititution, no less!), and tuition fees at English-language universities in the province were doubled just last month, with the express intention of reducing the influence of English in the province.

Bill 96 is still in the process of an extended implementation period, but its proposal to clamp down still further on English commercial signage and product labelling, including even brand names, trademarks and logos, is worrying many businesses there, and inspiring complete incomprehension among others outside the province. Many larger businesses have already chosen to invest in a name change for the Quebec market (e.g. Poulet Frit Kentucky, La Baie, Tigre Géant, Bureau en Gros, etc), but many more smaller companies will soon be expected to toe the line. 

Some "registered" English trademarks will be allowed (e.g. Starbucks, Canadian Tire, McDonalds, Best Buy), but they will have to display a "markedly predominant" generic description in French, presumably just in case some Francophones are unsure what Starbucks and Best Buy are actually selling. Canadian Tire, for example, will be required to include the phrase "Centre de Rénovation" on their store signs in even bigger letters than the trademarked name.

It's not like French speaking in Quebec is even under THAT much pressure. Historically, the percentage of Francophones in the province hovered around 80%. In 2021, that percentage was 75%, down from 78% in 2016. So, yes, down. But catastrophically down? By comparison, English was the mother tongue of just 8% of the province's population, and allophones make up 14% (the remaining 4% have more than one primary language). 

Other websites report different figures, all based nonetheless same census, an indication of how confusing the census questions are. CBC has the proportion of people who speak French at home "at least regularly" at 85.5% in 2021, down from 87.1% in 2016. An estimated 95% of Quebecers CAN speak French. Hardly cause for breast-beating and mass hysteria, I wouldn't have thought. 

Clearly, the issue is very important for Quebec - although I do wonder how much the average guy in the street actually cares - but to us outsiders, this is all petty nonsense. How can a province so forward-thinking in so many other ways engage in these kinds of retrogressive shenanigans? Obviously, I am an English-speaker in a predominantly English-speaking province, so it's hard for me to understand. 

I DO understand that they want to protect their language - but to the exclusion of all else? That's the part I don't get. After all, they are French-speakers in a predominantly French-speaking province, so what's the diff? And they have already imposed French on government activities across this largely English-speaking country. How much accommodation is too much accommodation?

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

So, what IS Poilievre's climate change policy?

Pierre Poilievre gets a lot of mileage out of his Trump-style sound-bites and slogans, like "Axe the tax!" (hardly original, but okay). The less-discerning Conservative voters lap this stuff up, and cheer wildly at his campaign-style appearances. Sound familiar?

So, is that it? Is that his climate change policy? Axe the tax (i.e. no policy at all)? The Conservatives have lost elections over a non-existent climate change policy in the past, although the climate change political climate does seem to have changed somewhat recently (probably partly propelled by Trudeau's huge gaffe on the issue just this last week, when he exempted home fuel oil in the Atlantic provinces).

Well, for one thing, Poilievre won't come out publicly and commit to upholding Canada's international obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change, neither to Trudeau's ambitious target of 40-45% emissions reductions from 2005 levels by 2030, nor even to Harper's much laxer 30% target. When asked, he merely says that he will reserve judgement for now and changes the subject, so you kind of know what that means.

When pressed hard, his plan, such as it is, is to leverage technology to do the work for him, citing "small modular nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, tidal wave power, and other emissions-free energy", as well as speeding up the approval of mines for minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries.

Well, that's something to work with, I guess. 

Small modular nuclear reactors are not even a thing yet, although prototypes are in the process of being built. They are expected to be horribly expensive, if and when they do come to fruition, and suffer anyway from all the drawbacks of larger nuclear projects.

Hydroelectric dams? The chances of getting a new large-scale hydro project through modern environmental assessments are slim, although Poilievre hints that he would probably do away with such environmental red tape anyway. Current projects like Muskrat Falls and Site C in BC aren't faring well, years behind schedule and grossly over-budget (as are most nuclear projects).

Tidal wave power? Well, yes, I'm on board with that, although existing proven projects are few and far between (France and South Korea do have working models). The technology is still in its infancy, and there are still many concerns about underwater land ownership and environmental impacts. But it could eventually make a substantial contribution to our grid. Just not anytime soon.

And "other emissions-free energy"? Sure, bring it on. But there, I guess we are talking about the status quo - wind and solar - and every new project in clCanada involves a battle against recalcitrant Conservative provincial premiers (for some reason, Conservative governments seem to be actively hostile to renewable energy). I'm not sure what Poilievre's solution is for that.

Maybe by the time the next federal election rolls around in 2025, we might hear more from Mr. Poilievre, when his minions have had time to come up with something. But right now? The plan is: "Axe the tax!"

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Snow penises springing up in Ykaterinburg

Couldn't resist reporting on this. A whole load of snow penises have sprung up on the streets of Ykaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, and local authorities are apoplectic over them.

Calling them an "outrage" and a "provocation" - well, yes! - the local council is promising that law enforcement could get involved if they persist, and "if they offend anyone". Municipal workers have been assiduously removing them, but they keep springing up again, presumably the work of students from Urals State University. 

A petition against them on had attracted all of 17 signatures as of Friday afternoon, which I thought was hilarious.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

NDP unlikely bed-mates with Conservatives on climate change?

However much you may disagree with the Liberals' head-scratching announcement this week that they will pause the carbon tax on home heating oil - a dirty, expensive method of heating, primarily used in Atlantic Canada - the solution is most definitely NOT to extend the pause to ALL forms of home heating, which would effectively sound the death knell for the Liberals' marquee climate change policy.

That is the solution being put forward by Pierre Poilievre's Conservative Party. Poilievre has made it abundantly clear that, if the Conservatives were elected, they would repeal the carbon tax anyway, completely. This, then, as they see it, is just a measure to tide them over until the election, which they see as being fought mainly on the carbon tax. It would be, though, the first nail in the carbon tax's coffin (or the second, if you think of Trudeau's move as the first).

Well, blow me down, but the New Democratic Party (NDP) is planning on supporting Poilievre's move, which boggles my mind. NDP spokesperson Peter Julian says that the NDP has to be "the adult in the room", and is willing to support Poilievre in his ambitions because this is "about affordability" (which is an NDP priority), and because this is "for once, not a crazy climate-denying motion". He claims that the motion will "make it equitable so that everybody can afford to heat their home this winter".

**Sigh** So, the NDP is willing to sacrifice the closest thing we have to a climate change plan in this country, in the interests of, what, a little bit of affordability? I understand that some people are finding it hard to pay for heating oil, and I don't downplay that, although this measure is not in itself going to make or break anyone. The NDP has legitimate concern for affordability issues, which is more than I can say for Poilievre, who is much more concerned with bringing down Justin Trudeau, any way he can.

But the NDP is also supposed to be responsible custodians of the environment. They are supposed to be "the adults in the room", remember. Support for a motion, albeit a non-binding motion, that could lead to the dismantling of the whole carbon tax venture, does not seem to me to be the action of a responsible adult. It smacks of muscle-flexing, playing politics, and sending the Liberals a finger-wagging message that they are not to be trifled with. 

It's not even the case that the high cost of heating oil in Atlantic Canada is due to the carbon tax. As a Globe opinion piece points out, out of the 75c a litre that home heating oil has increased since 2020, only 12c of that was due to the carbon tax, the rest was down to wars, OPEC machinations and all of that geopolitical stuff. So, pausing the carbon tax for "affordability" reasons is nonsense. (And anyway, an escalating carbon tax is SUPPOSED to make using high-carbon products expensive and uncomfortable, isn't it? That's the whole point of it.)

In one week, my confidence in both the Liberals (never that high) and the NDP (slightly higher) has taken a nose-dive. So, what am I left with? The Green Party - sensible, committed and reliable, but without a hope in hell of changing the electoral landscape of Canada (sad, but true). Oh, Trudeau, what have you done?