Monday, January 29, 2024

UNWRA funding cuts hasty and reckless

The speed with which a bunch of Western countries, including Canada, have frozen funding for UNWRA - after allegations by Israel that some of its workers are indicated in the October 7th 2023 Hamas attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 Israelis and the taking of 240 hostages - has been mind-boggling.

UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is the UN agency doing the vast majority of the relief work in Palestine, and has been since 1948. Cutting off its funding - "pending an inquiry" - is to cut off the vast majority of the humanitarian assistance that is the only thing stopping Israel from completely wiping out the Palestinian people. Over 2 million suffering people in the besieged enclave have suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them, while Israel continues to wage its war on them.

According to Israel - and there's a big caveat, right there - 12 members of the UNWRA team on the ground are alleged to have had a hand, in some unspecified way, in the Hamas attacks. 9 of these named individuals have been summarily dismissed from the service, one has died in the conflict, and two others are awaiting more identification details.

So, 12 individuals out of the estimated 13,000 UNWRA staff (less than one tenth of a percent) are alleged - and notice the word "alleged"; I'm not sure what hard evidence, if any, has been presented -  to have done bad things. The 13,000 employees are almost all Palestinians, so the most surprising thing may be how FEW  of them are hardline Hamas supporters. And this is enough for ten major UN donors to completely cut their funding, overnight. The agency can survive for literally weeks without regular infections of funding.

To name names, the thirteen countries who have cut teir funding so far are: USA, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, UK, Italy, Australia, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Austria, and Romania, almost all of whom are in the top 20 or so donors to the agency. France and the EU are reviewing their options. Notably, Ireland, Spain, Luxembourgband Norway have said they will NOT cut funding due to the crucial work the agency does to help displaced Palestinians.

The UN and WHO have, obviously enough, strongly criticized the funding cuts, but so have many other experts in international relations and humanitarian aid, including several retired Canadian foreign service diplomats. As one pointed out, "This is pretty much the definition of collective punishment", the very thing that Israel is accused of with its continuing military overreach. It has also been pointed out that UNWRA shares its staff list with Israel every year, and has never heard any concerns about specific staff members, until now...

For a government that can take years to grind to a decision on some things, this precipitate and poorly-considered move is a shockingly fast response. Review Israel's claims by all means - and review it carefully, because I'm not sure I would trust such a convenient claim very far - but don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Holding humanitarian aid to ransom is not cool.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

How to save the northern white rhino

I knew that the white rhinoceros was an endangered species, teetering on the edge of extinction. What I hadn't realized was that there were two subspecies - northern and southern - and that the northern white rhino was substantially more endangered than the southern.

In fact, there are only two northern white rhinos left alive anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, both of them are female: a 35-year old mother, Najin, and her 24-year old daughter, Fatu. The last male of the subspecies, Sudan, died back in 2018. Najin and Fatu are living the good life in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, cared for around the clock and protected by armed guards. But the last two animals being females sounds like the end of the road, right?

Well, maybe not. The southern white rhino population is not exactly healthy, but they do at least number around 20,000 now, thanks to strong protection measures, captive breeding programs and, most recently, a surprisingly successful IVF (in vitro fertilization) program.

Unfortunately, for medical reasons, neither Najin nor Fatu are able to actually give birth. But the thought is that southern white rhinos are probably sufficiently similar to their northern cousins for a southern surrogate mother to bear a northern baby. An outfit called BioRescue has been creating northern white rhino embryos from Fatu's eggs and frozen sperm collected from other males before they were eradicated. The plan is to use southern surrogate mothers to host these northern embryos.

Northern white rhinos typically live to about 40 years of age, so there is a small window of opportunity to allow the two remaining animals to raise a few babies and teach them the social behaviour of their kind, but time is now of the essence. 

It's an audacious and slightly desperate plan, but these are desperate times for the northern white rhino.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Alberta's oil sands polluting much more than reported

A joint study by Environment Canada and Yale University, recently published in the journal Science, suggests that Alberta's oilsands are much more polluting than the industry is reporting.

Using data from 30 airplane overflights, the study found that, while the industry was reporting about 68 million tonnes carbon dioxide emissions a year (about 10% of all Canadian emissions), the actual figure was closer to 100 million tonnes. Which just goes to show the folly of putting the fox in change of the hen-coop.

Even more worrying, though, is the massive release of "volatile organic compounds" from the oil sands operations. These highly-reactive and potentially hazardous carbon-based chemicals are being released into the atmosphere at 20 to 63 times higher rates than the official modelled estimates. These emissions are about equal to the entire output of such chemicals in the whole of the rest of Canada. Very little is known about what happens when these chemicals mix and react, or how they accumulate in the environment.

The study really demonstrates just how much we don't know about Alberta's oil sands operations. But what we DO know about it is enough to call for a shut-down.

Tucker Carlson goes to Canada

So, Tucker Carlson was invited to Canada to impart some of the ultra-right wing conspiracy theorists' deep wisdom. Well, that was never going to go well, was it?

The man that even Fox News couldn't stomach was invited to speak by - you might have guessed - Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, ostensibly for Carlson to "interview her" (i.e endorse her). I guess she thought it might burnish her severely-tarnished reputation a little. And maybe it did among her die-hard supporters, those who don't really care whether her reputation is somewhat tarnished according to those liberal elites in Toronto and Montreal.

For every one else, those she would categorize as liberal elites (whatever that actually means), the visit mainly elicited yawns and eye-rolls. Smith did preface her "interview" with a disclaimer that she doesn't necessarily agree with everything Carlson says, but after that it pretty much went as you might expect - support for Alberta's oil exports to the US, and criticism of the solar power that Alberta increasingly relies on; support for 2022's trucker convoy, and amnesty for Albertans arrested during it; opposition to medical assistance in dying; opposition to our "facist" prime minister, etc, etc.

He also offered some Toronto-bashing, which went down very well with the Alberta audience. "There's one in particular that, I'm sorry to say, I think is an atrocity ... why is Toronto the face of Canada? ... why are you clustered in the crappiest places?" I'm not sure I remember Toronto being called an atrocity before. I feel suitably chastened about my home town.

Maybe Carlson needed endorsement from Smith, who right-wing Americans are increasingly familiar with? Maybe it was other way round. Maybe neither. The studio audience of rabid Albertan righties lapped it up, offering standing ovations. But did it help Ms. Smith? Probably not. Those who like her, still like her a lot. But not all Albertans do, and most of the rest of the country is distinctly suspicious of her. None of that has changed, although maybe it is a smidgeon more pronounced. A divided people a little more divided. Good job, Danielle.

Data on methane pollution now at our fingertips

I can't believe this has never been done before, but satellite surveillance by environmental intelligence company Kayrros is now identifying specifics culprits in methane pollution worldwide.

Kayrros' open-access climate data has identified the 1,300 largest methane polluters, in countries like Turkmenistan (which I have commented on before), India, Russia, Australia, and the United States, right down to the level of individual gas wells, pipelines, coal mines and waste sites.

This is essential information, and makes possible targeted reductions. The USA has recently implemented national methane monitoring and repair policies, but Kayrros's data can help keep everyone honest.

Why is Ontario rushing to the aid of a fossil fuel monopoly?

It probably comes as no surprise, but the province of Ontario has sided with the gas monopoly Enbridge as it fights back against the Ontario Energy Board's directive to force Enbridge to charge developers, not homeowners, for new natural gas hookups.

I don't really see that it makes much difference in terms of cost. Either homeowners pay for their gas hookups, or the developers pay for it and then charge the homeowners. Because you don't really think that the developers will just suck up extra costs without passing them on, do you?

In terms of policy and optics, though, the Ontario Energy Board is probably on the right side of history, given the risks of gas becoming obsolete in the coming years as communities look to reduce their carbon footprint. Forcing developers to pay for gas hookups, which is, after all, undeniably part of the process of building housing, might make them think twice and maybe opt for cleaner, more sustainable, all-electric heating, with heat pumps as the primary heating and cooling medium. 

In fact, this could save homeowners a significant amount of money, given that they would not have to pay up-front for a gas hookup, and then again later to change to a more sustainable system. (The current system, administered by Enbridge, is that new gas connections are amortized over 40 years, and recovered in the gas rates paid by all customers.) Installing a heat pump from scratch is much cheaper than a subsequent retrofit. You'd think that the province, which professes to be all about reducing housing costs, would be all over this.

You can see why Enbridge might be up in arms about this - they are the ones staring down obsolescence - but why does the province of Ontario care so much? The speed and vehemence of Energy Minister Todd Smith's reaction to the Board's ruling was breathtaking and curious in equal measure. 

Certainly, it would be all but unprecedented for a provincial government to legislate against the findings of an independent regulatory in the way that Minister Smith is threatening. Introducing bare-faced politics into what should be a purely economic and financial decision is never going to be a good idea.

It's not like Ontario has a huge gas industry to protect. Do we really need to be protecting Alberta and BC's gas industries? Shouldn't we be boosting our home-grown green electricity industry instead?

I've never really understood it, but it seems that Conservative governments the world over automatically back the oil and gas industry, even when it just makes no sense. What exactly are they trying to conserve? The environment of the planet? Natch. The status quo? Apparently. 

Conservatives, almost by definition, do not like change. But change is exactly what we need at this juncture. So, they really need to get over themselves, and wise up to the writing on the wall.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

To those who want to see EVs fail

I'm copying this partially from an earlier post that went off at a tangent, because I do believe that it's important.

There is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and just plain lazy information out there regarding electric vehicles (EVs). There are an awful lot of people who just want to see EVs fail (all over again) for various reasons, and they are doing their best to diss and miss them wherever possible. Most of it, though, is spurious, and it behooves us to rectify the misinformation wherever possible.

So, here are just a few of the spurious claims being levelled against zero-emission vehicles, with links to some "alternative facts", or to some of my previous posts that consider the issues in more detail:

And finally, no-one has ever said that electric vehicles are going to single-handedly save the world, but they are  a not insignificant part of the solution to climate change, and to pretend otherwise is tilting at windmills (so to speak).

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Pink fairy armadillo - new Pokemon or real animal?

The pink fairy armadillo sounds like an invented animal, or a character from a kids' cartoon of or video game. But it's actually a real animal, living in the arid highlands of central Argentina.

Chlamyforus truncatus is a cute little critter, just 15cm (6 inches) long and weighing in at 100g (3.5 ounces). It probably eats mainly ants and other insects, and it lives in a burrow excavated by it disproportionately large claws, spending most of its time underground (unusual for an armadillo). 

But, other than that, its way of life in its natural habitat is poorly understood, and captive specimens tend not to live very long. In fact, so little is known about it that it is hard to assess whether it is threatened or not. However, anecdotally, fewer and fewer are being seen, and they are suffering predation from domestic dogs and cats and habitat loss from farming activities.

Setting aside its whimsical name, the animal even looks kind of unreal and made-up mainly because of its two-toned skin. In fact, it has a double layer of skin, unique among mammals, with an underneath layer of thick yellowish-white fur covered on the animal's top half by cornified scales (dead tissue forming a thickened protective layer) and osteoderms (bony plates embedded in the skin) more characteristic of other armadillo. 

So, not a new Pokemon, a pink fairy armadillo. 

Friday, January 19, 2024

China's solar panel dominance must be tackled

The solar energy industry has gone from strength to strength over the last few years, one of the few bright spots in a difficult period for renewables, which is facing something of a backlash in many places. Solar accounted for three fifths of the new renewable energy capacity worldwide.

But, when I say the "solar energy industry", I really just mean the energy production side of things. The solar panel industry is dominated by just one country, China. Just a decade ago, China supplied 40% of the world's solar panels; today that share is over 80%. Hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese investment over the last twenty years or so is paying handsome dividends now. Integrated supply chains, innovative techniques, and consistent government support have effectively left everyone else in the dust. 

China itself has four times the installed solar capacity of the next largest player, the USA. But it is its solar exports that are the most significant, increasing 34% year-on-year in 2023. More than half of Chinese solar power exports go to Europe. 

But it gets worse. At least a third to a half of the world's solar-grade polysilicon is produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Many countries have rules against using Xinjiang-sourced products because of the repression and forced labour policies used there. But even solar panels imported from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia (which is where most US solar panels come from these days) use Chinese components, and the majority of the global production of solar modules can be traced back to the Uyghur region.

Furthermore, the majority of China's electricity is still coal-based, and specifically up to 77% of the electricity used in the Uyghur region is from coal, so that Chinese solar panel production creates about 30% more greenhouse gases than the equivalent panels produced in the USA, for example.

Chinese solar panels are about 20% cheaper than American-produced panels. This is significant, but perhaps not a deal-breaker, and it probably does not represent the difference between success and failure of the US solar industry. China has a huge head-start in the industry, but that does not have to continue, and policy decisions can make a big difference (the US Inflation Reduction Act, for example, is a great start in that direction, assuming it is not hamstrung by a Donald Trump election).

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Isn't there already a two-state solution in Palestine/Israel?

You have probably heard many times that the only way that peace is going to come to Israel and Palestine is through a "two-state solution", i.e. the creation of an independent state of Israel and a separate independent state of Palestine. This is the solution favoured by most of the world. 

But you have probably also heard Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu state categorically that Israel will never accept such an outcome. As for why Netanyahu is rejecting a two-state solution so vehemently, many observers suggest that the main reason is his desire to retain power by appeasimg the far-right members of his coalition government.

The main alternative to the two-state solution is the "one-state solution", whereby Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are merged into one big country. What happens then, though, depends on who you ask. Either the merged country is run as a single democratic state, in which case the Palestinian Arabs, who would outnumber Israeli Jews, would have.effective control over the whole area. Or, in the version favoured by the Israeli right, Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza by force and either forces the Palestinians out or merely denies them the right to vote.

So, you can see why the two-state solution is widely preferred, even if such a solution is not popular in Israel and, recently, not even in Palestine. But, hold on, isn't there already a two-state solution? Isn't that the status quo? There is Israel, and then there is Palestine, which consists of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (a much smaller land than that granted to Palestine in 1948 to be sure, and even some of that has been illegally settled by the ever-greedy Israelis, but there is still a Palestinian state, of sorts).

It has its own government (sort of) in the Palestinian Authority, although that government is ruled by the Fatah party in the West Bank and by Hamas in Gaza (which broke away after the elections of 2006). It has a civil police force and a judicial system and many of the other trappings of statehood. But is it actually a state?

Well, that kind of depends on your definition of s state. Deutsche Welle does a good job of breaking down the considerations. There are two theories of statehood. 

First is the declarative theory, which says that any territory with a permanent population, defined boundaries, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states, can declare themselves a state whether or not recognized as such by other countries (this is based on the 1933 Montevideo Convention). 

And secondly there is the constitutive theory, which says that a territory can only be considered a state if the rest of the world recognize it as such. It considers modern statehood to be a matter of both international law and diplomacy.

As to whether Palestine is a state by either of these measures, there are differing opinions. Some say that it is a declared state, although some maintain that it still does not fulfill all the requirements of the Montevideo Convention. Many others maintain that international recognition is more important, and that recognition is far from unanimous.

Palestine's history, even just its modern history, is complicated. (The UN has produced quite a good potted history, complete with a cool animated video) Palestine officially declared itself a state in 1988, despite having existed unofficially for millennia, but not everyone accepts that. Of the 193 UN member states, 139 recognize the Palestinian territories as a state. It is not a full member of the United Nations, but it has "observer status", meaning it can attend and participate in UN meetings but not vote, and it also a member of the International Criminal Court.since 2012. 

To become a full member of the UN, it would need the approval of at least 9 of the 15 UN Security Council members, and currently three of the permanent members of the Security Council (USA, UK and France) do not recognize Palestine as a state, and will not do so until its conflict with Israel is peacefully resolved. 

So, like so much else in the Middle East, it's complicated.

Irregular 13-sided shape tiles perfectly

A University of Waterloo scientist has discovered an "einstein", a topological shape that perfectly interlocks, without any gaps or overlaps, but which never repeats.

Also, known as an "aperiodic monotile", such a shape was once thought to be impossible. Chinese-American mathematician Hao Wang certainly hypothesized as much back in the 1960s. But Craig Kaplan, an associate professor in computer science at UW, has come up with an irregular 13-sided shape that fits the bill. It is sometimes referred to as "the hat", as it sort of looks like a mis-shapen fedora. Or you might see a wonky t-shirt, maybe? A bird?

It remains to be seen what practical applications the shape might have, but so far it has been used in a soccer ball construction (instead of the more usual hexagon), and as a deisgn on an Irish beercan.

EVs work just fine in cold weather

More electric vehicle myths to dispel. There are several others here, and there will almost certainly be more.

Yes, we quite understand that EV range goes down dramatically in cold weather (as much as 30-40% in really cold weather). My own experience here in Toronto is a range reduction of probably 25-30% compared to summer. Batteries are less efficient in cold weather, that's not in dispute and not a surprise, although a new generation of batteries might reduce that somewhat

They also take longer to charge. That's just the way it is, although some of the recent reports about disgruntled Tesla owners in a frigid Chicago have been somewhat sensationalized and overblown (and occasionally downtight suspect).

But what gets lost in the debate is that the fuel efficiency and range of comventional ICE vehicles also goes down 15-33% in cold weather

Also, Norway's experience shows that there are ways of dealing with EVs in the extreme cold (like preconditioning, built-in heat pumps, using heated seats and heated steering wheels, etc), so that they can still function quite adequately. 

And finally, more Norwegian data suggests that electric vehicles actually fail at lower rates than gas cars in extreme cold. (This is according to a Norwegian road assistance service.) And Norway and Sweden both have electric snowploughs doing the heavy work in low temperatures up in their semi-Arctic regions, quite successfully.

I'm not trying to give the impression that EVs are perfect and without issues. Just that the bad press they get is exaggerated and often just plain wrong. A lot of people really want to see zero-emissions vehicles, for whatever political reasons of their own. 

It's a relatively new (and constantly improving) technology but, even now, it's really not as bad as some people would like you to believe.

Many Democrats would prefer to see another Biden-Trump match-up

It's interesting to note that hypothetical polls of head-to-head match-ups between Joe Biden and the three Republican nominee candidates shown that both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis have a better chance of beating Biden in a national election than Donald Trump does

I know we shouldn't put too much faith in polls, which have proved remarkably unreliable in recent years. But a CBS/YouGov survey puts Haley at a 53%-45% advantage over Biden, DeSantis at a 51%-48% advantage, and Trump at just 50%-48%. To be sure, all the polls show Biden as losing were an election to be called tomorrow, but at least he stands slightly more chance against Trump than against either of Trump's main rivals.

It's a bit of a moot point given that Trump is much more likely to win the Republican nomination. But, as President Biden said after Trump's easy win in the Iowa, "Here's the thing: this election was always going to be you and me versus extreme MAGA Republicans", and he has a point. Neither Haley nor DeSantis differ strongly from Trump in policy terms, and neither of them really seem willing to oppose him in any substantive way, other than by providing alternative personalities (although even those don't differ THAT much - all are strident, in-your-face, hard right demagogues, even if not quite as off-the-wall as Trump).

The Biden campaign seems to see a Biden-Trump re-match as an easier sell to his own supporters and to what moderate conservatives still remain in America, and as a Devil-you-know kind of situation. He would still be in verybtough against Trump, despite Trump's 2 impeachments and 91 criminal charges. But he can at least portray himself as the candidate looking to save America from a complete breakdown in democracy and law and order, which is a good, simplistic, good-and-evil type image that might just work in his favour. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Nauru's severed ties with Taiwan means absolutely nothing

Do you think we should be worried? The Pacific island nation of Nauru has just caved to Chinese pressure and severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. What if they come after Canada next?

Nauru, if you didn't know, is an invisible speck on a map of the world. Most people have probably never heard of it. It has a population of less than 11,000, making it the third smallest nation on earth, after Vatican City and Tuvalu (which you've also probably never heard of). It has an area of about 21 square kilometres (8 square miles), which is a bit less than the size of the city of Coburg, Ontario, also making it the third smallest in the world, after Vatican City and Monaco. Its closest neighbour that you might have heard of is Australia, about 4,000 km away. It is best known as a tax haven and money laundering centre, and as a controversial offshore immigration detention centre for Australia. It's kind of ikky and groaty.

So, it's extraordinary that its recent statement on Taiwan, the result of years of diplomatic and financial pressure from China, is being so widely reported. But it's no coincidence that its timing coincides with Taiwan's re-election of the anti-unification party of Lai Ching-te (an unprecedented third term for the anti-China Democratic Progressive Party). China has severely chastised those nations (including the USA and Canada) that had the audacity to congratulate the new Taiwanese President-Elect. It's clear that it will be upping its "diplomatic" (and possibly military) efforts to bring Taiwan back into the Chinese fold.

After Nauru's volte face, only ten nations now have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Belize, Eswatini, Guatemala, Haiti, Vatican City, Marshall Islands, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, and Tuvalu), and 59 other nations have "unofficial relations". So, friends (that is, friends willing to cross China) are hard to come by for Taiwan.

The main thing to bear in mind here is that the little island nation has vaccillated over the years between recognition of Taiwan and kowtowing to the People's Republic, in order to gain financial support from one or the other, often in the form of undisguised cash transfers. This is just Nauru's latest gambit in its lucrative little United Nations game, and it is probably salivating over the thought of how much Taiwan might be willing to pay to gets its allegiance back. 

Don't think of this as some philosophical response by Nauru after deep thought and reflection. It's merely a financial transaction for a tiny nonentity that is willing to do or say anything for a few dollars.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Renewables get Alberta out of energy crisis

Alberta got itself into an energy pickle this week as several of its natural gas plants were not fully operating due to planned maintenance and frigid temperatures which put some gas power stations partially or completely offline. Alberta's ageing grid also let it down somewhat, and imported power from BC was not available to help out.

And to the rescue: solar and wind generation, which eased the strain on the provinces system. And don't let's forget, good old-fashioned energy conservation - alerts were sent out asking consumers to reduce their energy load, and that works just fine (people really responded to the call to cut power usage). Between them, rolling blackouts were avoided.

Of course, Premier Danielle Smith, a great opponent of renewable energy for reasons that no-one really understands, had her own take on the situation. She blamed renewables for creating the problem, claiming that it is their unreliability during cold snaps of this kind that led to the energy crunch. Er, no, sorry, that's not how it happened.

A simular situation played out in Texas. Three years ago, Texas suffered a catastrophic power outage in freak cold weather in which over 200 people died. Republican Governor Greg Abbott of course blamed those unreliable renewables, but in fact it was because natural gas power plants stopped functioning and pipelines froze up.

Three years on, and Texas has a lot more wind and solar power and battery storage available, despite Abbott's best efforts. So, when temperatures plummeted again in Texas just recently, renewables and batteries were instrumental in keeping the power on. Despite those unreliable has plants...

The Enhanced Games are coming - are we ready?

Well, here's a bizarre idea. A new international sporting event called the Enhanced Games is due to make its debut next December in Australia. It is being billed as the Olympics without the drugs testing.

So, all those athletes that have been banned from the Olympics over the years for testing positive for banned substances are positively (sic) encouraged to attend, along with a bunch of others who would never have qualified for the Olympics because of their predilection for performance-enhancing drugs. Like I say, bizarre. One has to assume that Russia will win, but who knows.

The organizers, however, are convinced that this will be a commercial success, and that lots of people will be willing to pay to see a pumped-up athlete blow away Usain Bolt's 100m sprint record. And who knows, they may be right. They are billing it as "science set free". Others, though, are calling it "a ridiculous PR stunt".

Enhanced Games creator Aron D'Souza, an engaging Oxford-trained lawyer turned entrepreneur, calls the Olympics a horribly-run business that robs athletes of profits, and that is rife with illicit drug use anyway, despite testing. And he does have a point (if you think that athletes should be making profits from their sport). It's certainly true that International Olympics Committee executives are taking home seven- and eight-figure salaries while many athletes are having trouble earning a living (Olympic athletes are generally speaking not paid for attending or winning medals, with some notable exceptions). Mr. D'Souza's solution is a venture capital-funded profit-sharing competition, and there are rumours of million dollar prizes for breaking world records.

Of course, you can see some major problems with this pro-doping ideology, not least the potential health risks associated with unchecked substance use. Apparently, the games do plan on medical exams for athletes to ensure that they have no underlying conditions that might prove life-threatening, and certain particularly dangerous or illegal substances will still be considered beyond the pale and banned anyway. But it's hard to know where that line in the sand should be drawn, and who knows what side effects the drugs might have decades later. 

The Enhanced Games Ethical Advisory Commission boasts a top Harvard professor and geneticist, a NASA systems engineer, a naturopathic doctor, and a top CEO, so some respected people are obviously taking this quite seriously, even if they may also be risking their reputations - I guess it pays well! - and some respected athletes are clearly on board. Pro wrestling, mixed martial arts and some bodybuilding competitions already embrace drug culture (or at least monitor it very loosely). Who's to say that athletics should not join them?

Well, me for one. The modern Olympics may be broken and a much less edifying spectacle than it once was, but giving free reign to performance-enhancing drugs is not the way forward.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Should we support South Africa's case against Israel?

South Africa's genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice has proved incredibly polarizing and divisive. It has set family members against each other, and split political parties down the middle. Few countries have come out in unambiguous support of South Africa, and few have sided explicitly and unequivocally with Israel.

Predictably, the USA has sided with Israel (I have looked previously into the USA's unquestioning support of Israel). The UK has also publicly refused to back South Africa, thereby implicitly backing Israel. And Germany has announced it will intervene in the case in support of Israel, much to the disgust of ex-German colony Namibia, which suffered genocide under the German occupation of the country in the mid-20th century.

Canada's government seemed to be stonewalling for as long as possible, but it finally came out yesterday in support of Israel - sort of. The wording of Trudeau's announcement was reasonably careful - "Our wholehearted support of the ICJ and its processes does not mean that we support the premise of the case brought forward by South Africa". Even Foreign Affairs Minster Melanie Jolie's later "clarification" was pretty non-committal, along the lines of "Canada is following the proceedings very closely". But even that was enough to elicit howls of disapproval from various quarters, and it is clear that the government can't claim to speak for the whole country, or even the whole of the government.

South Africa's case has been welcomed and supported by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Countries, as well as Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Bolivia, the Maldives, Namibia, Pakistan, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela. Perhaps not a particularly prepossessing list of characters, but significant enough.

A few other countries have come close to committing themselves in support of South Africa's case, including Belgium, Spain. On the other hand, Austria and Czechia (both staunch allies of Israel historically) have unofficially made their views known. But most European countries and the European Union itself have been conspicuous in their lack of commitment to either side, which is probably wise politically, but disappointing in other respects. The EU's official statement reads, "The European Union is not part of this lawsuit. This is not for us to comment at all", which makes their non-aligned position abundantly clear.

Both the UK and Canada, along with several other countries, explicitly backed the ICJ's genocide case against Myanmar few years ago. As critics are pointing out, it is hard to see how they could denounce Myanmar but not Israel, given the circumstances. Put it down to realpolitik.

It does look like South Africa has a solid case, and many legal experts are saying that they may well win this initial case calling for "provisional measures" against Israel, requiring it to mitigate the enormous civilian harm being wreaked on the Palestinian people. South Africa need only shown that is is "probable" that genocide is under way in order to secure the provisional measures it is asking for. Just wait for the howls of "antisemitism!" when that happens.

Israel's response to the allegations thus far mainly centred around the fact that it is actually Hamas that has genocidal aspirations, and its own right to self-defence, although neither of these effectively negate South Africa's claims of Israel's genocidal aspirations. The ICJ does not have jurisdiction over non-state actors anyway, so it would not be able to try Hamas even if it wanted to. 

Of course, the ICJ has no capacity to enforce any ruling it makes, as we have seen in the past, and the USA can, and probably will, veto any substantive action at the UN Security Council level. The full follow-up case on whether Israel is guilty of genocide could take years, and will require a much higher level of proof. But the South African case has certainly given the world food for thought.

UPDATE

The ICJ did rule (overwhelmingly) that a case against Israeli genocide is justified, backing South Africa's allegations, but stopped short of mandating a ceasefire, merely requiring Israel to take steps to prevent genocide, and to allow in humanitarian aid. Which is kind of circular reasoning: yes, you're probably committing genocide, make sure you don't commit genocide.

And, of course, Israel still maintains that it is not engaged in genocide at all, merely protecting itself. So, it will not be changing anything - as Netanyahu vows, Israel will continue to "protect itself" i.e. continue its indiscriminate bombing (genocide?) as usual. Israel has never set much store by the United Nations. Israel's hawkish Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose default setting seems to be outrage and apoplexy, and who has a habit of calling people he doesn't like Nazis, blathered on about the "antisemitic court" which is constantly pursuing "the persecution of the Jewish people".

The ICJ's decisions are considered legally binding on signatory countries, including Israel, but the Court itself has no enforcement mechanism of its own, and instead relies on the UN Security Council to enforce its orders. Algeria, currently one of the rotating members of the Security Council, has announced it is bringing the Court ruling to the Security Council for debate this week. But, given that the Council has permanent members like the USA, it is very unlikely to act, and Israel can ignore the ICJ's ruling with impunity. 

The actual genocide court case against Israel will probably not happen until some years hence. Years too late. This decision of the ICJ only serves to rule that there is a plausible case to be heard. But it does put pressure on Israel's allies, notably the United States, to cease funding and facilitating Israel's actions, which must now be considered "plausibly genocidal".

A gemstone with just one known specimen

Not the usual thing I comment on, but I find it really interesting that there is a naturally-occurring mineral out there with just a single known specimen in the entire world.

The awkwardly-named kyawthuite (actually named after Dr. Kyaw Thu, a former Myanmar geologist) was discovered near Mogok, Myanmar, in 2015, picked up by sapphire hunters from a remote streambed. This specimen of the pretty reddish-orange gemstone is tiny, just 1.61 carats (about 0.3 grams), but it has never been found anywhere else, which makes it pretty special (and valuable).

Kyawthuite is mainly composed of the minerals bismuth and antimony, with traces of tantalum, and has a chemical formula Bi3+Sb5+O4. None of these constituent elements are particularly rare in themselves, but the mixture was subjected to immense pressures and heat when India crashed into the rest of Asia (the geological event that pushed up the Himalayas). The resulting mineral is therefore extremely dense, eight times that of water. It was recognized by the International Mineralogical Association in 2015, and its scientific description was published in 2017.

Interestingly, another very rare mineral, intriguingly called painstone, was also discovered in Myanmar, and it too is only represented by a handful of known specimens. There may well be many more, but Myanmar is a notably difficult place to explore, what with ongoing wars and international sanctions.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Chrystia Freeland's turn for an embarrassing gaffe

The Liberal Party of Canada are prodigiously good at shooting themselves in the foot. Justin Trudeau is the shooter-in-chief, but he is ably abetted by several cabinet ministers. Even when things are going reasonably well (which is rare of late) they seem to be able to conjure a faux pas or a gaffe or an indiscretion, seemingly out of nowhere, handing the political opposition some timely ammunition.

The latest such debacle comes courtesy of Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was once thought of as a natural successor to Trudeau, should he ever actually deign to stand down. She usually comes across as a thoughtful, methodical politician (albeit with a particularly annoying diction that makes you feel like an errant five-year old), and has managed to keep her bloopers and scandals to a minimum.

You may have already seen it - the video has been quite viral for a few days now - but the incident occurred when Rebel News personality (let's not call him a journalist) David Menzies accosted Freeland in the street, asking why Iran's IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) is not officially designated a terrorist group. 

Ms. Freeland seemed to be accompanied only by her aide but, after meeting with a stony-faced silence, Menzies was manoeuvred into a group of plainclothes RCMP officers, one of whom bumped him on the shoulder and then arrested him for "assault of a police officer", slamming him into a walll and handcuffing him. 

Overkill? Slightly. It was maybe not the face of Justin Trudeau's repressive police state, as opposition leader Pierre Poilievre would have it, but it was certainly the most unconvincing, bare-faced and poorly-executed set-up, and quite clearly fabricated to remove the (admittedly annoying) Menzies from Freeland's ambit. The wheedling, protesting Menzies, video recording throughout, was released about twenty minutes later, on the grounds that "no credible security threat existed". Duh.

It's hard to know how directly complicit Ms. Freeland was in all this, or whether it was purely the work of an over-zealous RCMP protection detail (she regularly travels with a security detail after several previous run-ins with the likes of Menzies and his hard-right buddies). But Jeez, talk about badly-handled! 

Menzies has been arrested many times for his political "work", and the guy is an unpleasant thorn in the side of many politicians, both Liberal and Conservative. But dealing with questions from idiots is part of a politician's remit and goes with the territory. Freeland could, at the very least, have said "no comment". Being annoying is not illegal, however much you might like it to be. Arresting the guy in the street on trumped-up charges is the kind of thing that happens in Russia, Iran or China. It should not be happening here in Canada.

The whole incident was captured on video, and now has pride of place on Rebel News' website, under the screaming banner "SHOCK FOOTAGE", and the headline "Chrystia Freeland's bodyguards assault and arrest David Menzies when he asks her a question". Would it really not have been better to have politely said "No comment"?

I wouldn't care that much, and the Trudeau government deserves everything it gets after this and several other bad publicity events in recent months, were it not for the fact that I can see a certain Pierre Poilievre sitting back and laughing at it all, adding it to his stock of evidence of Liberal incompetence and overreach. The Liberals clearly do not deserve another term in office, but the thought of the smug Poilievre and his merry band replacing them is scary indeed.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Bored with COVID? Me too, but I'd still like to avoid long COVID

Canada, like everywhere else, is experiencing yet another new wave of COVID-19. Like many a wave before, pretty much everyone knows someone who has it, or has had it, recently. Most people have not had that bad a time of it, certainly not compared to the early variants, although hospitalizations (especially when we add on influenza, RSV, etc, as well) are surging to crisis levels again, even if ICU rooms are not as overwhelmed as they once were. The new JN.1 variant is not as nasty as some variants that have gone before, but it is still hospitalizing, and even killing, some older and immune-compromised individuals.

Even if you feel like you are officially over it, COVID is not to be taken lightly, and not least because of the continuing risk of long COVID. I have talked about long COVID several times over the last few years. But it's hard to get too worked up about something that will probably not affect you, isn't it?

But therein lies the rub. You see, long COVID is actually way more common than you probably think. According to the Canadian COVID-19 Antibody and Health Survey, about 3.5 million (11.7% of the total adult population, or about 1 in 9) have experienced long-term symptoms after a COVID infection and, as of June 2023, 2.1 million (6.8% of all adults) were still reporting symptoms, with half of them reporting little more no improvement over time.

Given that an estimated 64% of the Canadian adult population has had COVID-19 at some point (almost certainly a large underestimate), then by my calculations at least 18% of those who have been infected with COVID have gone on to experience long COVID symptoms (nearly 1 in 5!) And the more times you contract the virus, the greater the chance of your ending up with long COVID.

Lots of research is being carried out on long COVID, but there is still much that remains unknown. Because of the way COVID attaches to, and gains access to, the body's cells, it can affect any or almost all of the body's systems and organs (unlike the flu virus, for example, which only affects the cells of the lungs). This is why such a bewildering range of different symptoms can present themselves with a COVID infection (up to 100!), and why long COVID can manifest in so many different ways, with fatigue (65%), brain fog (39%) and shortness of breath (28%) being the most common.

Vaccinations are having less and less effectiveness against the new COVID strains (although they do still reduce the severity of the infection if you do catch it). However, it's still in everyone's interests to avoid the virus if at all possible. So, masks in enclosed spaces, avoid superspreader-type events, frequent hand-washing, improve ventilation where you can, etc, etc. I know, boring! But you might thank me one day.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Don't blame Trudeau if Canadian federalism fails

Not that many people are too fond of Justin Trudeau these days. After eight or nine years, his administration is looking pretty long in the tooth. His popularity is flagging badly, all sorts of errors and poor decisions are creeping in, and all that early promise has petered out. I have argued previously that the Liberals need to cut him loose, if they want any chance of winning another election, slim though the chances of that are anyway.

All that being said, though, Trudeau is not responsible for half the things that the current crop of populist Conservative premiers (and a populist Conservative federal opposition leader) claim. To hear them tell it, pretty much everything that is (in their slightly biased opinion) wrong in Canada is Trudeau's own personal fault. It kind of goes with the territory or the job description, sure, but some of their claims are just disingenuous, misleading and indefensible.

And, surprisingly enough, the man to put this in context is the Globe and Mail's Andrew Coyne. I don't always agree with Mr. Coyne's politics, but I do respect his acumen and integrity, and he is spot on in this case when he takes issue with John Ibbitson's ridiculously partisan article a few days earlier.

Ibbitson seems to have drunk deeply of the populist Conservative CoolAid, whether dispensed by one of the premiers or by Mr. Poilievre. His particular allegation is that Trudeau is personally responsible for destroying Canadian federalism, that he has "put the federation under greater threat of schism than at any time since the 1995 Quebec referendum in sovereignty", and has "unquestionably driven federal-Alberta relations to the brink". 

Reading Mr. Ibbitson's piece and listening to Pierre Poilievre, you'd think that everything Trudeau does and says is with the express intention of battering and belittling the provinces, not to improve the country's welfare state, or to make some attempt to keep Canada at least close to its international climate change commitments. And all that stuff about unilaterally amending the Canadian Constitution, not collecting a perfectly legal federal carbon charge, declaring that federal laws don't apply to one province, and holding the country's pension plan hostage - well, the provinces were forced into that by ... well, by Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau is a Liberal, and he has a liberal vision for the country, which he is perfectly within his rights to pursue, having won the last federal election (well, the last three, actually). Those who are doing the complaining are of course Conservatives, who obviously have a different vision. But the vicious, and often illegal, responses of these Tory premiers are what is undermining the Constitution, not Mr. Trudeau, who has actually managed to stay remarkably equanimous in the face of all the crap he is having to deal with from some of the provinces.

So, fed up that co-operative federalism doesn't seem to be working these days? Don't blame Trudeau; blame the machinations of a bunch of Machievellian provincial populists, who seem intent on destroying the good parts of Canadian federalism for their own nefarious and partisan ends.

Reducing airplane contrails can reduce GHG emissions (but not much))

I never realized it, but apparently airplanes that leave contrails contribute significantly more to greenhouse gases and climate change than those that don't. In fact, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), contrails increase aviation's share of global CO2 emissions from 2.5% to 3.5% (although how they can measure that I have no idea).

Contrails, those white vapour trails left in the sky by some planes, are formed in moist, cool atmospheric conditions, when ice and water vapour cling to the sooty emissions of aircraft, and produce a kind of long cloud that trails the aircraft. They are particularly prevalent over the North Atlantic and parts of North America and Europe, where the cool, wet air is most suitable for their formation, and particularly at night.

Not all flights produce contrails, and some routes are bigger offenders than others. Studies have estimate that between 2% and 12% of flights create 80% of all contrails (although that seems a very wide and inconclusive range to me). 

It seems that, in these days of Big Data, contrail creation can be predicted with a reasonable level of accuracy, and that is something that people like Google, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and various airlines and plane manufacturers have recently involved themselves with. Airlines in particular are keen to reduce their outsized and rather embarrassing carbon footprints, and until electric planes or some other sustainable aviation fuel (green hydrogen?) become available, this is one of the few things airlines can do right now to mitigate their carbon emissions.

Real world studies are already underway, with some American Airlines flights following routes suggested by Google specifically to reduce their contrail production. This may involve flying at a higher or lower altitude than usual, or taking a different route completely, depending on local atmospheric conditions. Available results thus far from these trials suggest that the re-routing saved 54% of contrails, BUT ... fuel consumption rose by about 2% in doing so. 

American Airlines' chief sustainability officer says that a 2% added fuel-burn is probably too much, and that the trade-off of extra fuel use for fewer contrails is not working out in terms of overall carbon emissions (and certainly not in terms of added costs). Other airlines, including Canadian ones, are eagerly watching the trials, though.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

I just can't look away from American politics

I probably spend an unconscionable amount of time staring open-mouthed at the train-wreck of American politics. Most Canadians do. It's partly because, living next door to a giant, it's always good to know when it might decide to roll over. But, as much as anything, it's a complete inability to look away from a train-wreck in progress, however depressing the spectacle may be.

So it is that I note that a new poll shows US Republicans are leaning even further towards Donald Trump and ConspiracyTheoryLand, nearly three years after that other train-wreck, the January 6th Picnic in the Park. I say that because that's how a majority of Republicans seem to view that flirtation with chaos. For example, in the poll, only 18% of Republicans believe the evidence of their own eyes that the people who entered the Capitol were "mostly violent", down from 26% two years earlier. 

Yes, even fewer of them are inclined to worry about such an event now than previously. It's hard to know if these people genuinely believe this, or if they are deliberately trying to mislead the polls because they want to see Trump back in power, for whatever reasons of their own. I can't believe that all of these people are just stupid or so suggestible that they will lap up any old guff presented to them by a weird guy in a red cap. Some of them at least must have voted for George Bush at some point, fir example. Hell, some of them must have voted for Barack Obama!

Either way, it seems that 72% of the Republicans polled believe that "too much is being made" of the storming of the Capitol, and only 24% believe that it was an "attack on democracy that should never be forgotten". When asked whether they thought that Joe Biden's 2020 election victory was "legitimate", only 31% of them did (or were willing to admit to pollsters that they did), down from 39% two years ago.

Make of all that what you will. It really does seem like the right-wing of America, young and old, are content to live in some kind of fantasy world. They are willing to block out what the rest of the world is telling them so that they can get what they want (whether that be fewer Latino faces around them, a few more dollars in their pockets, an ability to ignore what is going on in the rest of the world, or a complete stop to progress, accountability and sustainability - who knows what they want or why they want it?)

It's a train-wreck alright, but I just can't look away.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Why has the war in Ukraine ground to a stalemate?

World events have overtaken the Russia-Ukraine war but, almost two years later, it's still dragging on. But why has it become so bogged down? Shouldn't Russia's supposed armed superiority have clinched it by now? Shouldn't Ukraine's counter-offensive, with some of the best weapons the West can supply, have wrested back control of their poor battered country?

Well, the much-vaunted 2023 Ukrainian counter-offensive seems to have pretty much sputtered out, without making a huge dent in the Russian occupation of its land. Rather, the war seems to have devolved into a stalemate, with tiny hard-fought gains and losses back and forth on the frontline, and the occasional major long-distance strike in either direction. 

Russia continues to batter Ukraine's cities into uninhabitable rubble with its apparently random drone attacks on residential and infrastructure targets. A long war is widely considered to favour Russia, which is surviving Western sanctions quite well because some other countries are not willing to commit themselves or are willfully ignoring calls for sanctions (looking at you, India and China).

But why has the war degenerated into a stalemate? A Deutsche Welle report explains.

Russia's tank-traps, fences and minefields (more than 8 million mines!) along the border of its occupied territories has effectively stalled Ukraine's counter-offensive, fancy Western weaponry notwithstanding, as Russian troops have reinforced their frontline positions while Ukraine waits for more weapons.

Yes, NATO countries are supplying Ukraine with weapons, but - according to Ukraine and to some other Western military experts - it only gets enough to protect the status quo, and not enough for a serious push-back.

Russia still enjoys air superiority, as Ukrainian airforce personnel are still being trained to use the belatedly donated F-16 aircraft. Ukraine is usually able to shoot down most aircraft-delivered Russian missiles and drone attacks using donated state-of-the-art defensive weaponry (although some still get through), but they are not yet able to deploy advanced aircraft for "active" air defence, i.e. actually shooting down Russian jets. And the ones that do get through continue to damage the country and its infrastructure, and depress the population still further.

Russia's military industrial complex is still able to function, and it continues to produce large numbers of drones and missiles, as well as buying more from "friendly" (read opportunistic and unethical) countries like Iran and North Korea using its copious oil revenues. 

The increased use of spy drones and electronic reconnaissance on both sides has led to what is being called a "transparent battlefield", where both sides know what is happening, i.e. stalemate. One example of this is that tank attacks by both sides are being easily countered because the other side can see them coming, and there is no element of surprise.

As some Western benefactors start to balk at continued enabling of apparently lacklustre Ukrainian progress, and particularly with American Republicans doing everything they can to delay or remove American support, Ukraine's prospects do not look good. With the potential wild card of a Trump electoral victory in late 2024 in the offing, in which case all bets are off, you can see why military commentators are much less sanguine than they were a year ago.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Saskatchewan thumbs its nose at Canada's carbon tax

I guess I have to make some sort of comment on Saskatchewan's ill-advised move to stop collecting and remitting to Ottawa the federal carbon tax in its natural gas bills.

Actually, when I say Saskatchewan, what I really mean is Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. Because Moe has personally "instructed" SaskEnergy (the provincial gas utility) to stop collecting the carbon charge element of its bills to residential customers as of the beginning of 2024, and for some reason the utility went along with it. Moe's justification is that it's "not fair" that the federal Liberals have given a carbon tax break to heating oil users in Atlantic Canada, and not to Saskatchewanians (is that really the demonym?)

While I admit that the Liberal move was ridiculous and inexcusable (although for very different reasons than Moe would probably list), heating oil is a very different beast from natural gas, and calling it "not fair" just sounds puerile and adolescent. Oh, and also, unilaterally not paying the tax to the feds - a tax, incidentally, that the courts have repeatedly ruled it is perfectly within its rights to levy - is highly illegal.

The issue won't come to a head until the end of February, the due date for paying over January's levy. At that point, though, officers of SaskEnergy will be officially breaking federal law and could face hefty fines or even jail time for failing to remit the tax, notwithstanding the series of iffy legal moves Saskatchewan has made to shift the responsibility and supposedly protect the utility's executives. 

Moe calls Saskatchewan's violation of federal law "unfortunate". Well, I sincerely hope it proves extremely unfortunate for the right-wing populist. Even co-populist Danielle Smith in Alberta stopped short of outright law-breaking with her equally iffy Alberta Sovereignty Act, however much tub-thumping she engages in.

This is legal nonsense on a par with the predilection of the current crop of populists for using the "notwithstanding clause" to defy the Canadian Constitution (which I have railed against elsewhere), or possibly even worse. This is a challenge to the constitutional order of the country, and to the rule of law. It cannot be allowed to proceed.

Canada-US dispute over Arctic boundary line

It happens from time to time, but the claims of ownership of the Arctic Sea (known as the Beaufort Sea in this area) by Canada and the USA are once again under dispute.

It may sound academic in the extreme, but the argument centres around whether the border between Canada and the USA for the statutory 200 nautical miles off the Beaufort Sea coast is extended directly north along the 141st meridian, as Canada claims, or perpendicular to the line of the coast at the point of the border, as thr4 USA prefers.

I didn't understand the difference between the two at first, but a map makes clear the effect, which is actually quite significant.

The triangular region in dispute is about 21,000 square kilometres in area, and is estimated to contain upto 1.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas and over a billion cubic metres of oil (although technically both countries have environmental preservation programs within the disputed area, at least AT THE MOMENT).

Now, the Canadian position is based on the 1825 Treaty of St. Petersburg between Russia and Britain (subsequently transferred to the USA and Canada, who are current owners of the landmasses in question), which rules that the maritime boundary is to be an extension of the land border which follows the 141st meridian. The USA claim follows the "principal of equidistance", which is a general legal concept regularly used in maritime boundary claims. The difference occurs because the coastline at the border point is not quite exactly east-west.

Call me biased, but I would have thought that the former trumps the latter.