Thursday, February 29, 2024

Renewables projects are now welcome in Alberta, provided...

I don't actually like that I spend so much time writing about Pierre Poilievre and Danielle Smith - God knows, I begrudge them the airspace - but they do need to be called out on some of their worst policies.

7 months after Ms. Smith unceremoniously called a moratorium on renewable energy projects in Alberta - because, well, it's an oil-and-gas province, don't you know? - the Alberta government has now technically lifted the moratorium, but has effectively just reimposed it in a different way. Because, well, it's an oil-and-gas province, don't you know? (I stress this because no-one can figure out any other good reason for it.)

Technically, renewable projects can proceed in Alberta: provided they are not on (private) property the province deems to have "good or excellent irrigation capability" (undefined); provided that it can be demonstrated that crops or livestock can co-exist with the power infrastructure; provided developers post bonds or securities with the government for future clean-up costs; and provided they are at least 35km from "protected areas and other pristine viewscapes" (also undefined), and subject to a "visual impact statement" before approval.

It has escaped no-one's notice that these obstacles have been put in the way of clean, profitable renewable energy projects, but not in the way of dirty, moribund oil-and-gas development. Nor that Ms. Smith, one of the most outspoken proponents of the free market and small government, is telling private landowners what they can and can't do with their land and property (but then we've seen before her inconsistency on that issue).

How tempted would you be as a developer of renewable energy projects to do business on these terms?  Might you not just move along to the next more welcoming province? Despite Ms. Smith's insistence that "renewables have a place in our energy mix", that place is clearly a long way down the pecking order. Alberta Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf claims that the move will strengthen investors certainty by providing clear expectations, but that's not how past and potential future energy developers are seeing it.

Once again, Alberta has drawn the lucky straw in the energy stakes; southern Alberta in particular is blessed with not only oil and gas, but with copious amounts of sunshine and prodigious wind resources. Renewable energy projects have been a game-changer for many struggling rural municipalities in the south of the province. But its booming wind and solar industries - 92% of Canada's new renewable energy capacity  was built in Alberta in 2023, and there are at least 26 large projects awaiting approval as we speak - just came to a grinding halt. For example, the 35km buffer zone around "protected areas and other pristine viewscapes", automatically puts 75% of Southern Alberta (ideal wind-generating territory) off limits to wind farms, although not to new oil and gas projects. 

Of course, provided you jump through all these hoops, and do not blight the "viewscapes" of Alberta's giant monoculture farms and its dead orphan wells, you are welcome to do renewables business there. Unless they change the rules again, that is... The whole province is in thrall to the fossil fuel industry, and its government is shot through with current and former oil-and-gas executives and lobbyists (including Ms. Smith herself), so it's hardly a surprise.

Michelle Smith's new rules, tilting the playing field firmly away from renewables and towards oil and gas, constitute an attack on private business, an attack on landowners' rights, and an attack on the entire free market that she claims to hold so dear.


I see the Globe and Mail's cartoonist had a very similar image in mind to mine above:

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Poilievre is predictable but hardly consistent

Pierre Poilievre - yes, I know, AGAIN, but there is just so much wrong with this guy - is vehemently opposed to the Liberals' forthcoming Online Harms bill C-63, which is designed to combat hate speech, terrorist content and some violent material on the internet.

Poilievre says it is all part of "Justin Trudeau's woke authoritarian agenda" (his latest favourite dog-whistle word-salad phrase), calling the legislation an "attack on freedom of expression", along with some other guff about Trudeau claiming that "anyone who criticized him during the pandemic was engaging in hate speech" (this presumably referring to the truckers' convoy). He dribbled on: "What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the words 'hate speech'? He means the speech he hates. You can assume he will ban all of that."

Well, of course, anything that Trudeau is in favour of, Poilievre is against. Period. I get that. That is how Poilievre has defined himself, and for some reason a lot of people believe and support him, however misleading, disingenuous or downright false many of his claims are (cf. the guff above). Hell, he opposed the bill even before he saw what was in it, on principle.

On the other hand, Poilievre is in favour of the Senator-proposed Bill S-203, which calls for a totally unworkable and unenforceable mandatory age-verification for all porn websites, making porn sites criminally liable for failing to check users' ages. 

Er, isn't that even more of an infringement on freedom of expression? Does he really think that people should give their ID information to the like of PornHub, OnlyFans and XHamster? Even the Conservative Party he supposedly leads does not agree. Oops. 

But, if Trudeau is against it, then he's for it, no questions asked. Poilievre is nothing if not predictable.

The gloomy environmentalist

When it comes to new technologies, there are two kinds of people: early-adopters and followers. I am not the earliest of adopters, but I am probably somewhere in the first wave. Solar hot water, solar PV panels, induction hob, electric car, heat pump (in that order) - I have the full set now.

Actually, there are probably three kinds of people: early-adopters, followers, and non-adopters. In the field of carbon footprint reduction, I worry that the early-adopters have already done their thing, and that the followers are becoming increasingly skeptical, and many may even be going over to the dark, non-adopter side.

Certainly in Canada, but also worldwide, we seem to be seeing a palpable reaction as people become more cynical about the practicality, and even the wisdom, of living a more sustainable, environmental life. Whether this is due to inept rollouts of new schemes by politicians, the worldwide resurgence of the self-serving, mendacious, populist right-wing, or just the unfortunate timing of a pandemic, a recession, and a general belt-tightening during times of high inflation and a housing crunch, is perhaps a moot point. 

Early-adopters tend to be relatively wealthy individuals, and that low-hanging fruit has been all but gobbled up. Even if the technology gradually becomes cheaper, as tends to happen with any new tech, governments and activists are now faced with the much harder task of persuading the much-less-enthusiastic hoi polloi to take up a new way of doing things. 

Even if greening their lifestyle is actually in people's long-term financial interests (as well as being the "right thing" to do), it still usually requires a larger initial outlay, and that's usually as far as most people look. We are talking about asking individuals with typically less financial acumen and fewer financial reserves to trust us, and put those scarce resources into new projects without a proven track record (at least in mass population terms), and which will not pay them back for many years, even decades.

Add to that the fact that government coffers are not endless, and many financial incentives brought in to encourage the new, more environmentally-sustainable technologies are already being phased out - arguably just at the time when they are most needed - and the outlook for more general take-up of electric cars and electric heat pumps, for example, begins to look increasingly shaky.

And this, mark you, is in the relatively rich, developed, Western countries. The chances of persuading even poorer people in the global South of the wisdom of this path seem slim to none. 

I am convinced that this path is indeed the wise, even necessary, one. But I confess I have no idea how to persuade the rest of the world of this wisdom and necessity. This is how I think in my more gloomy moments. Arguably, this is not my problem, not my job; that is what we have politicians and environmental activists for, isn't it. But that makes me even more gloomy.

Meanwhile, I just keep my head down, do the "right thing" as much as I can, mention the odd thing to people from time to time without proselytising too much, and generally try to lead by example. Sometimes, I feel that's all I can do.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Canadian mining company to "redomicile" to avoid financial restrictions

Chinese mining company Carbon ONE New Energy Group Co. Ltd (C-One) is looking to buy a 19.4% stake in Canadian miner SRG Mining Inc. for $16.9 million. That's nothing new: Chinese companies have been snapping up Canadian companies (and parts of them) for years now, particularly those in the "critical minerals" sector.

What is new is Canada's new-found wariness of these kinds of Chinese deals. What China is really after is SRG's graphite mine in the Republic of Guinea, and this deal would almost certainly attract a Canadian national security review. Nobody really knows anything about C-One, but it's probably connected to, or controlled by, the Chinese government - most large Chinese companies are.

But what's really new is that SRG hopes to find a workaround by relocating ("redomiciling") to UAE. That way, they would technically not be a Canadian company, and therefore not be subject to Canadian government oversight (or overreach, as they would probably see it), although they still hopes to somehow retain the company's listing on the TSX Venture Exchange.

Can they do that? Legally, they probably can, although, as one mining strategist put it, "it doesn't have a good look to it". For its part, the Canadian government has said that it will "make its own determinations of the applicability of the Investment Canada Act". If SRG's move goes through, it could trigger "a stampede" of Canadian companies, particularly those in the critical minerals sector, fleeing the country to avoid potential financing restrictions under the Investment Canada Act.

So, full marks to SRG Mining for initiative; zero marks for moral standards.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Let's not bother with a 3-2-1-0 scoring system in NHL

Someone with way too much time on their hands has recalculated the current NHL standings to see how they would look if the league adopted three points for regulation wins, as some people would like to see.

Currently, the NHL awards two points for a regulation time win, and two points for an overtime/shootout win, with one point for an overtime/shootout loss, and of course nothing for a regulation loss (2-2-1-0). The new women's PWHL league decided to award 3 points for a regulation time win, two for an overtime win and one for an overtime loss (3-2-1-0). The feeling is that a regulation win should be valued more than an overtime win, and it might make the final minutes of regulation time more exciting as both teams play for the extra point.

So, how would the current NHL standings look with a 3-2-1-1 points system. Well, the answer is ... exactly the same. 

Well, near enough, anyway. Even given the Toronto Maple Leafs' ridiculous number of overtime wins this season, there they would still be in third place, behind Boston and Florida. A bit further adrift in terms of points, granted, but not actually any different in terms of positions and playoff chances. Same story in the other conferences. Surprising, really.

So, no compelling reason to change the current system, I'd say.

Doug Ford brings the MAGA approach to judicial appointments

While we're on the subject of judicial appointments, I can't neglect to mention Doug Ford's latest enormity, although I am heartily sick of reporting his constant political over-reaching.

Never one to beat about the bush (for which many people idolize him, regardless of the wisdom and ethical probity of some of the views he promotes), Ford is defending his right to appoint "like-minded" conservative judges, and to install two former political aides (and registered lobbyists) in the province's judicial appointments committee. An unrepentant Ford maintains that "we got elected to get like-minded people on appointments ... I am not going to appoint some NDP or some Liberal".

Of course, everybody else who is not a Conservative has called him out on this outright politicization of the judiciary, and raised the spectre of a political circus like occurs south of the border. Up till now, Canadian politicians have avoided going down that road, preferring to take the moral high-road and appoint judges on merit rather than political affiliation.

Decades of precedent may now be at risk. If Ford openly makes political appointments to the provincial judiciary, subsequent governments of other political stripes will feel obliged to rectify the situation, creating a political arms race which will end in the kind of shenanigans that routinely occurs in the US of A, a nasty outcome to be avoided at all costs.

Just by voicing his opinions on the matter, Ford has already tainted the whole process, including the legitimacy of recent appointees as well as future ones. Ford himself has expressed complete disbelief that so many people are kicking up a fuss about what he sees as "part of democracy" (or at least he pretends disbelief, it's hard to tell with Ford). 

He just doesn't seem to understand that the judges are there to make sure that governments stay within their constitutional guardrails. If he starts to appoint "tame" judges, or if he insists on using the notwithstanding clause to overrule the judges - as he has done, and threatened to do, many times - then those constitutional guardrails are worthless. So, yes, a big deal, however much Ford may pretend otherwise.

Once more, Ford proves that he would be much more at home on an American MAGA ticket than as a circumspect Canadian politician. Can he (and Michelle Smith and Scott Moe and Pierre Poilievre and a few others) not be persuaded to decamp over the border? I'm sure they'd be much happier there.

Who the hell is Morgan Wallen?

I was reading an article about pop concert promotions, and came across a little graph showing the top ten grossing worldwide tours last year.

So, there were Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay (really?), Harry Styles, Morgan Wallen, Ed Sheeran (yawn), Pink (is she still around?), The Weeknd and Drake.

Wait, hold on. Morgan Wallen? Grossing above Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd? Who the hell is Morgan Wallen?

Turns out, Morgan Wallen is a country musician singer from Tennessee, who came up through the music reality show The Voice (he didn't even win it!) He's broken all sorts of Billboard 200 records, so he's a popular guy. He seems to be able to command higher ticket prices than most of the other Top 10 too.

Now, I know next to nothing about country music, as I find it deadly boring (with very, very few exceptions, maybe the occasional song by Tenille Townes and Neko Case). But you'd think I might still have heard of a guy that famous, no?

The issue with unfilled judicial positions

The issue of unfilled judicial vacancies has come more to the fore in recent years, and especially in the last few months. Top judges have lambasted the federal government for not doing more to fill them, and words like "perpetual crisis", "untenable" and (of course) "unprecedented" have been thrown around, as important cases on serious crimes have been summarily thrown out after waiting for years for a judge to hear them. 

As of last May, there were 85 empty bench positions in the Superior and Appeal courts, out of a total of about 1,200. Some courts across the country are operating with 10-15% of their judicial positions vacant. People with personal injury or medical malpractice claims in particular may be waiting two years or more for their trials, and an increasing number are failing to get there in time.

Just this week, a Federal Court ruling has ordered the government to appoint judges within a "reasonable time", and, if nothing is done to rectify the situation, it reserves the right to make even more specific deadlines. This comes nine months after the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada denounced the critical lack of judges in a scathing letter to the government. But the issue goes back much longer than that; this is not a new problem.

The result is that hardened criminals are walking free for lack of sufficient appointed judges to hear trials. Other accused individuals may never get the chance to officially clear their names in court. And victims of crimes may spend years waiting for justice only to be told that, sorry, the case has not been heard in a timely enough manner (there are different time rules for different courts - thirty months in Superior Court, for example) and must be completely thrown out.

So, why are we in this situation and how did we get here? The process for appointing judges is not a very transparent one, but essentially it is the job of the federal Justice Minister (currently Arif Virani) to choose from a list of applicants presented to him or her by a panel of advisors. The process can take many months at the best of times, and these are clearly not the best of times.

One big thing for the government at the moment is to increase the diversity of the upper courts (people of colour, LGBTQ individuals, Indigenous people, women, etc), so it is possible that this is part of the reason for the backlog, although it's hard to really know.

The government maintains that it has actually been appointing judges at record rates. Part of the problem may also be that the current government has created a whole bunch of new positions, which has only made the issue of filling them more acute. There appear to be many good qualified judges out there who could take up these vacant positions, and the bottleneck seems to be mainly at the ministerial level. Either the current system needs to be applied more diligently, or it need to be changed completely. Does the Justice Minister need to approve each and every one of them? Should judges even be appointed (which necessarily lays the process open to political impropriety), or should they be voted in by their peers?

It should be said also that a lack of judges is not the only issue leading to the current crisis situation. Criminal lawyers argue that there are just too many cases being brought before the courts, including many cases that are just too weak to stand a real chance of conviction. Crown attorneys, for their part, argue that they need more Crown attorneys and support staff to do the work of weeding these cases out.

The bottom line, though, is that, if the government maintains its current rate of judicial appointments, then the problem is just going to gradually get worse. As more judges retire or go part-time, the backlog of cases will inexorably rise. More and more criminal cases will end up being thrown out for no good reason. Public confidence in our judicial system, and in our democratic institutions in general, is at risk.

An epidemic of church burnings

Since the Israel-Hamas war, tensions worldwide have been high and there have been many regrettable incidents of damage and despoilment of both synagogues and mosques, both here in Canada and elsewhere. But what seems to have been largely overlooked - at least, it has escaped MY notice - is the number of Catholic churches that have been burned down in recent years in Canada.

CBC reports that 33 Canadian churches have been burned down since May 2021. Just two of these were ruled accidental, and at least 24 were definitely arson, with more still under investigation. Other estimates put the number as high as 47, with a further 53 being vandalized.

Clearly, this is nothing to do with the Israeli war. Most of the burnings have occurred in rural northern and Prairie communities, many of them on Indigenous reservations, and this is all about the revelations of the recent discoveries of potential burial sites and unmarked graves at former church-run residential schools.

Has this phenomenon been deliberately under-reported out of respect for an Indigenous community that is going through a hard time? If so, I'm not sure how I feel about it. There has been more than one incident where motions to condemn the acts have been blocked from discussion on Parliament or in standing committees, which is strange, to the say the least. Certainly, if this many synagogues and mosques were being torched, there would be a major national inquiry by now.

Unmarked graves at residential school sites is an important news story and a hard issue to deal with for many Indigenous communities. But wholesale arson is still not an appropriate or acceptable response. I'm the last person to defend organized religion, but I do believe that today's churches are not the churches of yore, and that most of them are doing what they can to make reparations and to promote healing. 

Burning them down may be a gut reaction for some, but it's still a criminal act. And two wrongs do not make a right. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

Marjorie Taylor Greene loses big time

Outspoken US Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is possibly the person for whom the word schadenfreude was coined.

Few Republicans stir up as much hatred and vitriol as the Georgia Representative. She thrives on controversy. In this, she is probably on a par with Donald Trump, who of course she idolizes. So, when she gets her comeuppance, it's no surprise that half of the world cheers.

Ms. Taylor Greene made a point during the pandemic of 1) not getting vaccinated, and 2) not wearing a mask. Given that, at one point, there was a mask mandate in the US House of Representatives, she racked up a whole series of fines, to the tune of $100,000 eventually, presumably trusting that somehow she would be able to wheedle her way out of it.

Now, the $100,000 was deducted, over a period, from her salary (it's only half of her annual salary, so don't feel too sorry for her). So, she basically took Congress to court, arguing that it was an illegal deduction from her salary. But she lost in the District Court, and then lost again in the Appeals Court. Then, she took it to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court - stacked with Trump-appointed Republicans - where she has just lost again

Where will she go now? The International Criminal Court? Oh, wait, she disapproves of the ICC and the ICJ (and all those woke international institutions), doesn't she? So, probably not.

What, more sanctions on Russian warmongers?

So, two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, the governments of Canada, the USA, the UK and probably others are sanctioning a bunch more individuals and entities with connections to Putin and the Russian military-industrial complex.

Canada is slapping sanctions on 10 new people and 153 "entities". The USA is adding 500 more individual and entities to its sanctions list. The UK is adding 50 to its list, which is hardly even worth the cost of a press release.

So, my question is: if these people are helping Putin with his illegal war and  therefore worth sanctioning, why were they not sanctioned before? In the early days of the war, there were numerous announcements of new sanctions, and every time I thought to myself: why announce this now? Why did they not sanction everyone worth sanctioning right at the start?

It's almost like they were doing the bare minimum, deliberately saving up some for future press releases so that they can still be seen to be doing something. Is all those just performative, or is there some hidden logic that I'm not seeing? How many more Russian warmongers are there out there, carrying on with business as usual, who are still not being sanctioned?


Just as an aside, I had to do a bit of a double take when I wrote the word "warmongers" in this entry. I initially wrote "warmongerers", but that just looked wrong. And yes, as has been pointed out, a fishmonger deals in fish, an ironmonger deals in iron, so of course a warmonger deals in war. Why, then, would anyone add an extra "-er"?

Well, it seems that, although "warmonger" is the original word, and still the one considered more "correct", "warmongerer" is in fact a recognized word, although you won't find it in all dictionaries. When you consider that "warmonger" is also a verb, meaning to advocate war, then "warmongerer", meaning "one who warmongers", does actually make some sense. So, don't be so quick to dismiss!

Are men headed for extinction?

I don't know that much about genes and chromosomes (here's what I do and don't know), but I do know that humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, 46 in total, of which 45 are X chromosomes and only 1 is a Y chromosomes, and that only in men (women have 46 X chromosomes).

What I learned recently is that the Y chromosome in men is tiny, containing about 55 genes compared to the 900-1,600 or so in X chromosomes. Only one gene on the Y chromosome, known as SRY, is responsible for triggering a genetic pathway, starting with the SOX9 gene (which is NOT on the Y chromosome), which then switches on the development of the testes in utero, which results in maleness. Pretty much everything else on the Y chromosome is non-coding "junk" DNA, simple repetitive DNA that doesn't seem to actually do anything. Well, no-one could accuse human physiology of being straighforward and logical!

Be that as it may, what is even more strange is that the Y sex chromosome in men appears to be degenerating, and may actually disappear in a few million years (if humanity lasts that long). Monotremes (platypuses and echidnas) are the only mammals that have a full-sized Y chromosome, but then, as we know, platypuses are weird. Given that humans diverged from monotremes some 166 million years ago, this suggests that our Y chromosomes will disappear completely in less than five million years.

Of course, this is not assured. The degeneration may actually speed up as the Y chromosome weakens, or it could stabilize as the Y chromosome is stripped to essential (non-junk).genes. But, unless we evolve a new sex gene, it is possible that we will end up all female, which is not a good model for long-term survival, even if it may be preferable in other ways.

The good news is that there is a precedent for this in the animal kingdom. Two rodent lineages - the spiny rats of Japan and the mole voles of Eastern Europe - have already lost their Y chromosomes and and still surviving (albeit barely in the case of the spiny rat). They lack a Y chromosome (and therefore a SRY gene) completely, but what has been discovered is a tiny difference near the key sex gene SOX9 on chromosome 3. It only amounts to 17,000 base pairs out of about 3 million, but apparently that is enough to allow the SOX9 gene to kick-start the whole sex change pathway, even in the absence of the SRY trigger.

So, as so often, nature finds a way. But exactly how how this might play out in humans, who are spread throughout the world and come in a whole variety of shapes, sizes and colours, is anybody's guess, and the stuff of science fiction novels. Might we develop into different species? Might we develop some kind of parthenogenesis, like some lizards and snakes? Who knows?

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Men should butt out of the trans-women-in-female-bathrooms issue

Pierre Poilievre has made his stance on transgender politics pretty clear recently, backing up Alberta Premier Michelle Smith's rather extreme legislation. Well, he's at it again, offering his opinions on whether trans women should be using women's public washrooms and changing rooms.

But saying "Female sports, female change rooms, female bathrooms should be for females" does not really help much. That is not really up for debate. The debate is whether trans females or only "biological females" should have to join the line-up to use women's bathrooms.

When pressed, Poilievre did clarify his stance: "Female spaces should be exclusively for females, not for biological males." So, he is making the point that trans females are not really "females", they are actually just rather confused "biological males". Whether this also applies to trans females who have had gender reassignment/confirmation/affirmation surgery - and who therefore ARE biologically male - is not clear.

So, to protect the female general public from having to deal with trans women - who are almost certainly male perverts and predators in disguise, I suppose the argument goes - in their bathrooms, he is willing to expect trans women (who ARE at risk of abuse and attack, as is well documented) to try their luck in the Gents with all those testosterone-laden guys?

Poilievre did say, somewhat gratefully it seemed to me, that "it is unclear what reach federal legislation would have to change them" ("them" being the rules on changing rooms, bathrooms, etc), which are mainly provincially and municipally controlled.

Anyway, I thought it worth checking on what the general attitudes on the subject are. A meta-study on which gender is more concerned about transgender women in female bathrooms concluded that cisgender males are about 1.55 times as likely to express concern about safety and privacy as cisgender females, and that cisgender females are 4 times as likely as cisgender males to believe that transgender women do NOT directly cause their safety and privacy concerns. 

So, the women using those women's bathrooms are less worried about trans women sharing them than the guys who are not using them (again, the assumption being that men are more likely to assume that trans women are just males who are lying or mistaken about their gender.

Given that trans women themselves definitely know which bathrooms they want to use, it seems to me that men should just butt out of the whole conversation and let the women (cis and trans) get on with what THEY are most comfortable with, especially given that most of the action takes place in private stalls anyway. Is the idea of trans women washing their hands and adjusting their make-up in the mirror of a women's washroom so uncomfortable for men?

Monday, February 19, 2024

Presidential greatness is in the eye of the beholder, apparently

The latest Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey puts Donald Trump very firmly in last place, which of course has the right-wing press apoplectic.

It's a perfectly academic exercise,  featuring a poll of 154 "presidential scholars" (current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Assocation, i.e. scholars, academics, historians - not politicians) ranking all the American presidents from George Washington onwards, according to their perceived "greatness" on a scale of 1 to 100.

Top of the pack this year, as in previous polls, is Abraham Lincoln, with a ranking of 93.87, followed by FD Roosevelt, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. The most recent high-flyer is Barack Obama at No. 7 with a ranking of 73.8.

Down at the bottom of the ranking are a bunch of presidents I have rarely ever heard of: Harrison (26.01), Pierce,(24.6), Johnson (21.56), Buchanan (16.71), and there, right at the bottom, No. 45 out of 45, we find Donald Trump with a ranking of ... 10.92. Just to add insult to injury, Joe Biden is up there at a surprisingly middling-to-good No. 14, with a ranking of 62.66, above Ronald Reagan and barely below John F. Kennedy.

The conservative press, of course, assumes that this is a purely politically-motivated piece of left-wing propaganda. It seems to be beyond them to believe that this is anyone's objective opinion. Fox News slams the "ivory tower elites" and calls the poll a "highly questionable ranking", concluding that "this is infuriating in so many ways!", and finally, definitively, "this list is bogus".. Well, that'll show those ivory tower pinkos.

Alberta's water problem

Alberta's oil and gas industry is widely considered (apart from in Alberta and maybe Saskatchewan) Canada's premier ecological and environmental embarrassment. It is our largest single source of greenhouse gases not to mention more general environmental degradation and pollution. Unfortunately, it is the province's sacred cow and, certainly while Danielle Smith and her ilk run the place, it will be protected tooth and nail, whatever bad press it garners for the province and the country.

However, another environmental disaster may be looming for Alberta that may completely eclipse Big Oil's depredations, and may bring the fossil fuel industry down with it, as well as the province's large agricultural sector. 

That problem is water, or, more accurately, the lack of it. Snowpacks are at all-time low levels. Glaciers are melting at record speeds, and some are disappearing all together. 51 major river basins are reporting critical water shortages due to low rainfall and high temperatures. Groundwater levels have reached record lows, and most reservoirs are at least 5 metres below normal waterlines (stranded boat launch docks, nowhere near the water they were built to access, are a common sight). Natural lakes and man-made reservoirs alike are at between 10% and 30% of capacity. "Unprecedented" forest fires wrack the province, and are only expected to get worse.

The culprit, of course, is mainly climate change, exacerbated by the oil and gas extraction and fracking industries. At the best of times, Albert's only has 2.2% of Canada's renewable fresh water, but it has nearly 12% of its population, a population level that has increased almost ten-fold over the last century, and continues to increase at least partly due to deliberate government encouragement. Premier Smith says she would like see the population double from its CURRENT levels. 

It doesn't help that 80% of Alberta's water flows north, while 80% if its population lives in the arid south of the province. And it's oil and agriculture sectors are huge water hogs. About 60% of all Canada's irrigation occurs in Alberta, one of the provinces that can least afford it. Its 6 million cattle has been reduced to about 4 million in recent years due to ... drought. Agriculture, oil sands development and highways expansion has destroyed up to 70% of the province's wetlands.

All of this was not unexpected. 18 years ago, a major report by respected water ecologists David Schindler and Bill Donaghue raised the alarm on Alberta's water situation. For a province with a historically precarious water footing, they pointed out, government policy over the last century or so has been cavalier to say the least. Back in 2006, they predicted an "unprecedented water crisis, and made several drastic recommendations which have been ignored ever since.

Meanwhile, climate change has got significantly worse, both Alberta and Sasaktchewan still have plans to expand their irrigation regardless of the drought, and the water demands of the oilsands just keeps increasing, with water-intensive fracking operations growing substantially too. Alberta may be in for a 20, 30, even 40 year drought, but the province's feckless politicians have their heads stuck firmly in the oilsands.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Guilbeault's announcement about roads wilfully misinterpreted by Tories

Federal Enviroment Minister Steven Guilbeault stirred up another hornets' nest this week. Well, he must be getting used to that; the environement is currently a bête noir throughout much of the country, as we are going through a (hopefully short-lived) period of denial and retrenchment in all matters environmental.

So, what did Mr. Guilbeault (never the most engaging or flamboyant politician) say that has so upset conservative, mainly Western Canada? Merely that the federal government is to "stop investing in new road infrastructure". You might think: hold on, the feds don't really invest in road instrastructure anyway! And you'd be right. Other than the TransCanada Highway and a few other major interprovincial projects, road building is a provincial and municipal responsibility. 

And Guilbault didn't even say that the federal government would stop maintaining its own roads, just that it won't build any new ones. So, no new TransCanada Highways, which was very unlikely to happen anyway. Then, in the usual (recent) pusillanimous Liberal fashion, Guilbeault amended the announcement to say that the feds won't be investigated in any "large" new road projects, and that "of course we're funding roads, we have programs to fund roads". Sigh.

Building more roads has never been a solution to traffic congestion. In fact, quite the reverse: it tends to make traffic even worse. This may be counterintuitive, but decades of experience and research tells us that. (Can you say "induced travel effect".) So, at least philosophically and theoretically, Guilbeault is quite right.

But, nevertheless, Conservative premiers like Danielle Smith and Doug Ford, and many conservative MPs and journalists - particularly in Western and Central Canada, which is increasingly becoming a foreign country, and not one I want anything to do with - have of course come out swinging, outraged that the Liberal government is going to rip up all the country's roads and stop people from indulging in their God-given right to drive cars.

Danielle Smith: "Does the Minister understand that most Canadians don't live in downtown Montreal. Most of us can't just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10km to work." (Actually, nearly four-fifths of Canada's population is now urban, well served by public transit. Our rural population is actually very small, but let's leave that for now.)

Conservative Transport critic Mark Strahl called the announcement "radical and extreme", claiming that "million of Canadians will find it impossible to go to work or pick up their children from school". A right-wing newspaper columnist warned that million of Canadians would be deprived of their cars and be "forced into cramped spaces in in city cores".

Can these people hear themselves? Do they even listen to the announcements being made, and then think about them? Increasingly, Conservative reactions to everything are excessive,  and outrage is their default setting. More likely, they know that their reactions are disproportionate and disingenuous, but they make them anyway because their political base laps this stuff up, and kicking the Liberals when they are down has become a national sport. 

It's the whole populist, dog-whistle approach popularized and normalized by Donald Trump (yes, that's really where all this came from!), and taken up gleefully by conservative politicians the world over. Truth and balance no longer matter, it's all about getting the partisan message across by any means possible. It's depressing.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Did pandemic school closures really save lives? Yup

A study out of McMaster University is giving credence to the beliefs of some that the decision back in the early, panicky days of the pandemic to keep kids back from school was wrong-headed, ill-advised and downright dangerous.

Except that other studies - for example, a large one by the University of Manchester and Imperial College London in 2022, based on data from 130 countries - have concluded the exact opposite. According to that Manchester study, closing schools and workplaces appear to have been the two most effective strategies out of the nine interventions looked at in mitigating deaths from COVID-19 in the early days of the early days of the pandemic. And school closures were nearly five times as effective as workplace closures (1.23 daily deaths saved per million, compared to 0.26).

That's pretty compelling stuff. So how then are we supposed to take McMaster's opposing conclusions?

The McMaster meta-study is not quite as black-and-white as the media coverage suggests. It admits that "the overall findings were mixed". But it seems to be the case that results changed over time, and that school closures were probably a very important measure in the early days when good information was hard to come by. 

Remember, these were the days before vaccines, the days when cloth mask held sway, and we were wiping down our groceries and doorknobs. These were the days before the pandemic was a pandemic, and the death rate from those early variants was huge. It stands to reason that removing children from general circulation saved many, many lives. At the cost of education outcomes and some mental health issues, granted; but given a choice of death or a poorer education, I know what I would choose.

As the pandemic progressed, however, we suddenly had vaccines, we had mask mandates, etc. And the review confirms that vaccines, masks, and test-to-stay policies were, overall, the best methods to reduce the spread of COVID and to save lives (whatever the Feeedom Convoy may have you believe).

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The conundrum of heat pumps - my experience

I had a heat pump installed just about a year ago now. Always keen to reduce my carbon footprint - I'm the guy on the block with the electric car, the PV solar panels, and the hot water solar panel - a heat pump seemed like no-brainer. Indeed, I was surprised I had waited so long to do it.

Anyway, after doing my due diligence, including a lot of research on different models, costs and savings, YouTube videos, you name it, I went with a Carrier model installed by Reliance, a large enough company with apparently plenty of heat pump experience. 

The Reliance sales guy seemed pretty clued-in about heat pumps, and he answered most of my remaining questions. I happily agreed to the energy audit before and after installation in order to quality for the $5,000 federal grant towards the S16,000 cost (for a heat pump and a compatible gas back-up furnace). The installation went well (in a snowstorm!), and everything seemed to be going swimmingly.

And not only "seemed", but really was: the heat pump worked well from early March onwards. Our electricity bill went up, but the gas bill went down significantly, all as expected. I switched the heat pump off in spring, as we have always switched off our heating as soon as it's warm enough. 

The Ecobee digital smart thermostat was brilliant, and we could enter in vacation settings, check temperatures in different rooms, etc, etc. Very cool.

In summer, we rarely need air conditioning, living by the lake as we do, but we did use it on a few particularly hot days (or nights, mainly), and the heat pump worked fine. A bit slower to cool than our old gas-powered air conditioner, maybe, but it got there eventually, and we felt suitably virtuous.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, partly to share the news (no longer news) that heat pumps are a good option, even here in frigid Canada. But partly because, after less than a year, things started going wrong. 

At first it was just a minor problem of excess condensation leaking onto the driveway during the heat pump's regular defrost cycle. Not a big deal, but I got Reliance's service guys in as it was all covered under the warranty anyway. 

Nobody really seemed to be able to fix a small problem like this. Most of the guys that came out knew little or nothing about heat pumps, which didn't help. Some of them tinkered with this and that, and probably made everything worse.

Anyway, after a while - we're in late December now - the whole heat pump iced up, and by early January it stopped working completely. We still had back-up gas heating, so it wasn't a major inconvenience, just an annoyance. 

I was now insisting to Reliance that they send someone who actually understood heat pumps, and eventually they did send a heat pump "specialist". Of course, the first day, he couldn't stay long enough to do anything useful. Then, we were away for a few days. Then, he caught COVID. It was mid-February - today, actually - before he could spend any time on it. He re-wired the control panel (somebody, one of the repair guys I assume, had clearly botched it), and re-set some stuff on the thermostat.

But the final thing - and the point of this interminable blog entry - is that he re-set the threshold temperature setting at which the auxiliary furnace takes over from the heat pump from -12°C (which is where I had set it) to +9°C (which is where he said that the manufacturer, Carrier, recommended it). 

So, that would mean that the heat pump would not be used whenever the outside temperature dipped below +9°C, which, in Toronto, means all of the winter as well as early spring and late fall. In fact, just about the only times I would actually be able to make use of it would be maybe April and October/November! The payback period just went up many-fold.

After all, the unit was supposed to be usable at -20°C, even -30°C. I re-checked the interwebs and, yes, there were a whole load of articles saying that heat pumps did indeed work to -10°F (about -20°C) and below. Lots and lots of articles saying don't believe what the manufacturers recommend, they do indeed work at ultra-low temperatures. There is this thing called the "balance point", where inefficient heat pump performance at low temperatures balances out the extra costs (and carbon enissions) of using auxiliary power, but even that is a very low (if slightly nebulous and elusive) figure.

Anyway, I tried to contact Carrier directly to find out where that +9°C threshold came from. I couldn't get through on the phone, despite trying during regular office hours. The email contact form kept telling me I hadn't completed the Captcha correctly when there wasn't actually a Captcha to complete. I did finally get through on the online chat system, where a young lady assured me that of course I could use it at lower than +9°C, I should just play it by trial and error.

So, now I just don't know. Did I break it by insisting on using at at too low a temperature? Did the Reliance repair guys break it with their tinkering? Who should I believe? Luckily, I am pretty well sold on the technology, otherwise I might well be trading it in right now. But I have to admit that my confidence is a bit shaken. And if I can't be confident about heat pumps, then what chance does a much less-committed environmentalist stand? It's a conundrum.


After the heat pump was finally repaired by someone who seemed to understand what he was doing (re-wiring the control panel, for example, after a previous repair guy had messed it up), I set the Aux Heat Max Outdoor Temp to +2°C and Compressor Min Outdoor Temp to -1.1°C. The heat pump did come on when the outside temp was -1°C. Promising. Over the next few days, it seemed to be working fine - heat pump when the temperature was over -1.1°C and gas furnace when it was below.

From here, I guess I will experiment with reducing the threshold degree by degree, while keeping an eye on the frost buildup on the heat pump compressor, and whether it seems to be having problems attaining the target heat. So far, so good. It shouldn't have to be this hard, but it is what it is, as they say.

It's hard to get excited about the ArriveCan debacle

I haven't bothered writing anything about the ArriveCan app "scandal", mainly because I just find it hard to get too worked up about it.

Sure, it was a poorly-handled project and the Canadian Border Services Agency, and any other civil service organization that had a hand in it, should take a slap on the wrist and institute some better processes and safeguards so that something similar does not happen again. I'm guessing that the fact that it happened in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic was something to do with it, but I understand that that can't really be used as an excuse.

But, as a letter-writer in the Globe and Mail pointed out today, the $59.5 million price tag - large sum though that is, especially compared to the original budget estimate - is barely more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of annual government spending. It's less than a rounding error.

Pierre Poilievre, of course, is making it out to be a huge issue (he's trying to make a criminal case out of it now), and all the personal fault of Prime Minister Trudeau, as if he were there supervising the app's development every step of the way. That's just what Poilievre does. It's annoyingly effective, but don't fall into the trap of his populist machinations. 

The ArriveCan "scandal", insofar as it can be called a scandal, was a failure of public servants, not politicians, whatever Mr. Poilievre might tell his captive audience. It was an unfortunate incident, but it has been dealt with and we have moved on. Well, most of us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Russia declares Estonian Prime Minister "wanted"

We've seen many examples of Russia's delusions of grandeur over the last couple of years since it illegally invaded Ukraine. Well, here's another.

Russia's interior ministry has declared Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas "wanted under the criminal code", along with Estonia's Secretary of State  Taimar Peterkop, and Lithuania's Culture Minister Simonas Kairys. Their crimes? According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Baltic politicians are accused of "hostile actions against Russia" and "the desecration of historical memory" relating to the destruction of Soviet-era monuments. In their own country, mind you!

Why Russia feels that it has jurisdiction over Estonia and Lithuania, independent sovereign states since 1991 and 1990 respectively, I have no idea. But then who knows what goes on in the minds of Vladimir Putin and his cronies these days?

Of course, it may be no coincidence that both Estonia and Lithuania have been vocal and outspoken supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and have repeatedly called for the provision of more arms for the Ukrainian resistance.

Criticisms of Joe Biden are not ageist

I normally have a great deal of time for Globe and Mail's health columnist André Picard, who has written a great number of very good and well-argued articles, particularly over the pandemic.

I am disappointed with today's article, though, and with the argument he presents. He argues that the current groundswell of negative opinion against Joe Biden after his embarrassing press conference a few days ago (which I have commented on elsewhere) is nothing more than ageism and unworthy discrimination.

Not so. No-one - not even US special prosecutor Robert Hur, who called Biden a "well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory" and referred to his "diminished faculties in advancing age" in his recent damning report - is saying that President Biden is, at 81, too old to stand again for the presidential election later this year for that reason alone. Biden is not being dismissed solely because of his age; that would indeed constitute ageism.

What people are saying is that the leader of the free world needs to be held to a higher standard than the average Joe. With great power comes great responsibility. And part of that is that the President of the United States needs to demonstrate a certain (superior) level of cognitive competency, as well as a certain (superior) ability to communicate well.

Joe Biden, of late, is not demonstrating those superior qualities, and maybe didn't even four years ago. Arguably, gaffe-prone Donald Trump does not either, albeit for different reasons than Biden, although Trump's ability to communicate is hard to criticize, however much you may disagree with what he actually communicates. 

To point this out is not prejudice; this is stating facts. The problem is not Biden's age at all, it is his competency and his ability to communicate. So, for Mr. Picard to say that "age alone cannot be the measuring stick", and to say that Mr. Hur's comments about Biden's age constitute "a gratuitous insult" is moot. No-one is actually saying that, and I am surprised that Picard has not pick up on the distinction.

John Banville's splendid evocation of Renaissance Europe

I confess to be unexpectedly enjoying John Banville's 1981 book Kepler, a semi-fictional semi-biographical account of the great German mathematician and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. A historical fiction you might call it.

I've read several of Banville's books before, but I don't remember his deft turn of phrase, his nifty way with a metaphors. It is not written in Renaissance language exactly, but the style neatly conjures the rich-but-slightly-squalid quality of the period, reminiscent of some of Hilary Mantel's historical prose. 

Like Mantel too, Banville's turn of descriptive phrase is quite splendid, often slightly off-kilter and unexpected. A few brief exemplars:

  • "Jobst Müller let spread like a kind of sickly custard over his face one of his rare smiles."
  • "He was today without the wide-brimmed conical hat which he sported most times indoors and out, and he looked as if a part of his head were missing."
  • "They went down the stairs, Jobst Müller's buckled shoes producing on the polished boards a dull descending scale of disapproval."
  • "She shut the big oak door behind her with elaborate care, as if she were assembling part of the wall. The world was built on too large a scale for her."
  • "The pack of hounds with an ululant cheer burst through a low gate from the kennels and surged across the courtyard, avid brutes with stunted legs and lunatic grins and tiny tight puce scrotums."
  • "The great noisome burden of things nudged him, life itself tipping his elbow. He smiled, gazing up into the branches. Was it possible, was this, was this happiness?"
  • "Cold it had been that morning, the sky like a bruised gland and a taste of metal in the air, and everything holding its breath under an astonishment of fallen snow. Soiled white boulders of ice lolled in the rivers."
  • "He had a wide smudged upper lip, a kind of prehensile flap; the drop at the end of his nose glittered in the glare of the brazier."

Part of the Revolutions trilogy of novels on Renaissance European scientists, along with Doctor Copernicus and The Newton Letter, this book is a splendid introduction to Booker Prize-winning Banville's style and his skill at depicting a distant and very foreign period in time, complete with interesting rounded characters and a rollicking good plot.

I do like me a good historical novel from time to time (or even "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral", as Polonius would have it). The past is indeed a foreign country, just as exotic and alluring as a distant geographical location, and for me personally a historical-scientific novel is more more interesting than a historical-romance. And John Banville does a very good line in historical-scientific novels.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Austria has INCREASED its reliance on Russian gas

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 (yes, it's been two years!), the European Union has vowed to decrease its reliance on imported Russian gas, with a view to completely decoupling from Russia by 2028.

In those two years, though, Austria - a member of the EU since 1995 - has INCREASED its dependence on Russian gas from 80% just before rhe war to 98% today!

So, why is Austria pedalling backwards so furiously, while the rest of Europe is doing its damnedest to unlink from Russia. Well, for one, Russian gas is cheaper (NOT a good reason!), and supposedly there are contractual reasons. But Austria really doesn't seem to have tried very hard to get out of these contracts.

The country's energy minister, Leonore Gewessler, a member of the Green Party, has made the situation public, as has the EU envoy to Austria Martin Selmayr, but they have been reprimanded for their trouble. If the energy minister can't do anything about the problem, then who can? It seems like a hopelessly embarrassing situation.

Ford government's attempts to evade the law should concern us all

The Ford government on Ontario is no stranger to controversy. I can't remember a government that has made more U-turns, many of them because it was pointed out that their policy changes were not actually legal or constitutional, from a whole bunch of different standpoints. Just to mention a few of these flip-flops: redefining the Greenbelt, dissolving Peel Region, new licence plates, anti-carbon tax stickers on has pumps, a French language university, autism funding (there's a handy list here). The latest of these is the repeal of Bill 124 (the imposed wage cap on public sector workers), which the Court of Appeal found to be unconstitutional just today.

I also can't remember a government that has gone to such lengths to try and immunize some of its more contentious decisions from lawsuits and legal challenges. In addition to its happy-go-lucky approach to invoking the "notwithstanding clause" - which, by definition, is only needed when a government wants to do something unconstitutional, which raises the entirely reasonable question of why we have it at all - the Ford administration has taken to embedding clauses in its legislation that have the express function of short-circuiting the ability of judges to review the decisions. This can't be a good thing.

The extent of the Ontario government's attempts to evade lawsuits and to shield its decisions from judicial review have put it out it in a class of its own. Even Alberta hasn't sunk to these depths. It includes language in its bills that even try to block court awards if the government or its former employees engage in "misfeasance" or "bad faith". It's like it knows that it's doing something really bad, but it's tryong to get out ahead and avoid legal responsibility.

It did these things with its illegal Greenbelt moves last year, and with any number of minister's zoning orders (MZOs) over the last several years, including ones that supposedly apply retroactively. It's doing it again with its controversial plans for Ontario Place, declaring that the project is exempt from the usual environmental assessments and heritage laws for such a development, not to mention violating all "rules of natural justice" and "principles of public trust".

They often try to justify such provisions on the grounds that they are needed to minimize costs to taxpayers and to reduce delays owing to litigation. But the constitutional rules and laws are there for a good reason.

Luckily for us, there are a whole host of organizations out there taking the government to task on these outrages, organizations like EcoJustice, Ontario Place for All and Ontario Place Protectors. The Ontario Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court have also stepped in to protect us from some of the government's excesses from time to time. But it shouldn't be up to individual citizens to stop our government from breaking the law. Indeed, it used to work the other way around! It represents an attack on our very democratic rights.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Advertising and climate change

A couple of interesting articles on the latest episode of the CBC environment program What On Earth caught my notice.

Firstly, a series of campaigns to clamp down on false and misleading advertising ("badvertising") by fossil fuel companies (from 5'30" into the audio). Many cities, like Sydney, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Norwich and others have introduced strict rules on greenwashing and advertising for fossil fuel companies and other high-carbon products (think big SUVs, airlines, etc) on public transit and other advertising media within their control. Charlie Angus of the federal NDP has recently proposed in the Canadian House of Commons a similar rule to apply Canada-wide.

The idea is to treat the fossil fuel industry much the same as the tobacco industry a few decades ago, and for largely similar reasons: the immorality of allowing profit-making at the expense of people's health and the health of the environment. The tobacco advertising ban was quite successful in its time, and the hope is to replicate that in the climate change field.

The other item (starting at 14'30" into the audio) concerns what kind of advertising about climate change actually works and what kind doesn't. Recent marketing studies show that 78% of people from all walks of life believe that governments should do "whatever it takes" to deal with the climate crisis (only 10% actually disagreed). That's a lot, and not at all what you might think from reading the papers and watching the daily news.

On the downside, though, many people have little or no idea about the issues involved. The average person apparently believes that the UN target for climate change is not 1.5°C but ... 4°C! 

As to what advertising messages actually work, if faced with three different messages - 1) we're solving the climate crisis, we have the solutions; 2) make the polluters pay, force them to take responsibility for their actions; and 3) this is an urgent generational issue, we have to solve this for the sake of our kids and grandkids - message No. 3 is by far the most effective message, across all demographics. So, the solution is to appeal to people's moral compasses and to people's urge to care for something other than themselves.

Interesting stuff.

What Trump thinks of NATO and the concept of mutual responsibility

We've a pretty good idea of what Donald Trump might do if he's ever let anywhere near the White House again (insofar as that can ever be known). But, just for good measure, he has given us a little insight into his views on NATO.

During his first term, Trump repeatedly threatened to take the USA out of NATO. But, at a rally in South Carolina recently, he elucidated his current thoughts on the crucial intergovernmental organization.

Trump says that, if a country doesn't meet NATO's defence spending guidelines (Canada, for example, not to mention Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark - in fact, two-thirds of NATO members), he would feel no responsibility to protect them, and would actively withold American aid, regardless of the Article 5 collective defence commitment built into the NATO charter. 

So, if Russia, for example, were to invade a NATO member which is not paying its way (i.e. 2% of GDP), Trump's response would be: "No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills." 

In fact, the 2% figure is just a NATO guideline, not a requirement. Countries are not billed by NATO, and are not in debt to the organization. Thus, they cannot be considered to be "delinquent" for not paying at least 2% of GDP. As so often, Trump has misunderstood, or he is deliberately trying to misrepresent the situation for his own ends.

I'm sure this elicited a huge cheer from the hyper-partisan crowd, which after all is all Trump really wants. Probably nobody there actually stopped to think about what that might entail, caught up as they were in all the showmanship, chest-thumping and testosterone. 

And of course, you never really know if Trump means what he says. Hell, you never really know if he's even aware of what he says. But there's always the possibility that he actually does, and that's how he has us all hanging on his words.

President Biden's White House spokesperson called Trump's remarks "appalling and unhinged". Most other thinking people just looked on in disbelief. But thinking is not what the Republican base is about these days. It's all about the show. And the fate of the world be buggered. 

In a world where the equally unhinged Putin might well make a move on Poland or one of the Baltic states after he's finished decimating Ukraine, not being able to rely on the USA in the event of such an attack on a NATO member changes the calculus significantly.

Maybe he didn't mean it literally, or maybe he did, but he should not be joking about this kind of thing. This is quite literally traitorous talk. It's hard to believe that many millions of Americans will still vote for someone who speaks publicly in this way. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Hawaii Supreme Court disproves the usual American interprtation of its 2nd Amendment

The Hawaii Supreme Court may have sounded the death knell for the much-ridiculed (by the rest of the world, anyway) United States Second Amendment.

Used by Republicans and small-c conservatives to justify their gun fetish, the Second Amendment purportedly gives Americans the unfettered right to have and use firearms. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly protected that right by using a literal originalist interpretation of the 1791 amendment to the United States Constitution.

But the Hawaii Supreme Court has put a very different interpretation on the exact same words that also appear in Hawaii's own Constitution. In a unanimous 5-0 decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court argues that the US Supreme Court just got it completely wrong, repeatedly, and offered a robust explanation of exactly why. Consequently, it is now illegal to carry guns in Hawaii without a permit.

Without going into too much legalese, the Hawaii court argued that, rather than granting individuals the right to bear arms, the 18th century language actually refers to the right of a militia to bear arms in order to protect itself. It argued that the US Supreme Court in its previous decisions has cherry-picked historical evidence and discarded historical facts that don't fit its beliefs.

Moreover, it also argued that, anyway, it's just not practical, feasible or wise to use history as the only guide to constitutional interpretation, particularly given that it was written by a bunch of misogynistic slave-owning dead white guys. It makes as much sense as an originalist interpretation of the Bible, most of which has no relevance to the lives we live in the 21st century (and yes, many conservatives do that too).

The Hawaii decision does not actually overrule the US Supreme Court's interpretation (except in Hawaii). But surely it provides ammunition towards future contestations of the standard (conservative) interpretation of this and many other elements of the US Constitution.

Friday, February 09, 2024

What I remember most about Biden's fateful press conference

Maybe you saw Joe Biden's press conference last night where he tried (and failed) to get ahead of the flak he is going to receive after the report of the special council investigation into the finding of classified documents at his home. 

The report concluded that Biden willfully kept and shared classified documents, but stopped short of recommending criminal charges (which was the part that Biden focussed on in the press conference). Biden didn't have to hold a press conference about it, but somebody somewhere thought it was a good idea.

It wasn't an edifying experience. The President came across as a doddering, bumbling old man (well, he's 81), poor at communication and unable to parry opponents' verbal attacks and to think on his feet. The report itself described Biden as "a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory". Biden admitted to being well-meaning and elderly, but insisted that his memory was fine, countering with the confusing non-sequitur, "My memory is so bad ... I let you speak". He then went on to describe Sisi the president of Mexico (not Egypt), and to confuse "the public" with "the press", among other gaffes.

It was pretty embarrassing, and even Democrats have been calling it "awful" and "brutal". Fox News went away with new ammunition against him ("Biden raises even more questions about cognitive health after disastrous press conference"). What Trump will make of it is anyone's guess. Whoever decided it was a good idea to put Biden in front of a live press conference is probably handing in his resignation as you read this. 

But the thing that really got me about the press conference was the way the press yelled and harangued him. After each of Biden's answers, the protocol seemed to be that whoever can shout fastest and loudest gets the next question, the result being a cacophony of importunate yells and ill-mannered bellows. Biden clearly had problems telling what questions were being asked and by whom, and frankly so would anyone.

Could they not have a hands-up or a numbering system of some sort? Wouldn't that be a bit more civilized? Biden's performance may have embarrassing, but the press' was even more so. 

Is a "polar vortex collapse" even worse than a polar vortex?

We're well used to hearing about polar vortexes (vortices?) these days. But what I hadn't realized is that we've always had polar vortexes, and they usually just sit there being polar vortexes without any need to report them, with great drama and stürm und drang, on the evening news.

What causes us to take note of them, and to be affected by them directly, is when there is a "polar vortex collapse" event.

The polar vortex is really just the normal winter circulation of air over the Arctic (and Antarctic). It extends from the lower troposhere part of the atmosphere (which is where what we experience as weather occurs) and the upper statosphere, and the two layers interact to some extent. A stable or strong polar vortex is usually constrained by the jet stream, so that the ferocious extreme cold of the high Arctic does not leak into the regular winter cold of northern North America. 

However, when there is a weak or disrupted polar vortex, the resulting weakened jet stream cannot contain the polar vortex, and cold air escapes or leaks in a few places into the more-inhabited south, creating intensly cold and snowy conditions, like we are expecting later this month. This is known as a polar vortex collapse, although it is just a temporary collapse, usually from a few days to a few weeks.

You can get much more detail on this from the Severe Weather Europe website, but that, in a nutshell, is most of what you need to know to impress people at your next dinner party, when politics and religion starts to become too awkward.

Green investing may not (or may) be the most environmental way forward

Here's an interesting conundrum: a new study suggests that ESG investing may not be doing as much overall good as it was once thought, and may even be counterproductive.

Putting money into companies with positive environmental, social and governance characteristics is supposed to help "save the world" by divesting in the least sustainable ("brown") companies in favour of more sustainable ("green") companies. The idea is that depriving brown companies of money pushes their cost of capital up, and this should encourage them to become greener.

At first blush, that makes a lot of sense. This report, though, suggests that unintended consequences may follow. This is because, it argues, companies that are already green have a limited scope for further improvement, while increasing the cost of capital for brown firms may actually lead them to lean even further into their existing high-pollution operations and even cut more corners on pollution controls. Thus, it may be making brown firms browner without making green firms greener.

The report suggests a better strategy may be what it calls "tilting": investing in brown firms that are at least taking some corrective action (what you might call "greenish-brown" companies) in order to encourage them to extend their corrections still further.

Well, maybe. I think there may be some flaws in this logic, though. While a green insurance company or IT firm may be hard-pressed to improve their green credentials still further, increased investment in renewable energy or cleantech companies WILL allow them to raise their output and increase the total amount of good in the world. 

It seems to me that there are different kinds, and different levels, of greenness, and to lump these all together may not be wise. It's a bit like making the decision to buy a hybrid car over a full electric vehicle.

Plus, investment in greenish-brown firms may not have the stated desired results, particularly if they don't know why people are investing in and supporting them. Are investors approving of the brown side or the green side of their operations? Should we be investing in an oil company that continues to pollute the world while paying lip-servive to ESG by putting some small sums into carbon capture technology?

I'm sure the report came from a good place. I'm less sure that it's taking us to a good place.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Conservatives' opposition to any mention of carbon tax is laughable

Maybe I'm obsessing, but I do worry about Pierre Poilievre and his Trumpian hold over the Conservative Party of Canada (and his almost Trumpian laser-like will and lack of common morality - although he's not quite in Trump's league, yet).

I can't believe that the whole of the Conservative caucus would vote against a modernized free-trade deal with Ukraine unless Poilievre was at the helm with an aggressive whip. And, like the American Republicans, no-one dare opposed Poilievre's iron will, even when it makes no sense (as it increasingly does not).

So, when a Liberal bill to update the Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement came together floor, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois all voted for it. ALL the Conservatives voted against it. And the reason? For some logic not entirely clear, Pierre Poilievre and others are convinced that the bill has some nefarious provision in it that would force Ukraine to adopt a carbon tax, and that for Poilievre is a dealbreaker, of course. That, and he is opposed to anything the Liberals might propose, on principle.

Now, if Poilievre had done a little homework - and it has been repeatedly pointed out to him - there is actually nothing in the bill that forces Ukraine to have a carbon tax, as even the Ukrainians agree. Oh and, by the way, Ukraine already has a carbon tax anyway, and has had since way longer than Canada.

As Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer explains it, for those of us who just don't understand, the very fact that the bill even MENTIONS a carbon tax "is not something we can support". That's how much they don't like carbon taxes. The bill actually says that the two countries will cooperate to "promote carbon pricing and measures to mitigate carbon leakage risks", something that Ukraine is entirely on board with anyway.

The bill passed easily, although with no help from the Conservatives. Their dogged opposition to this kind of language risks making them a laughing stock, though, if they are not already. But, wait ... why should I care?

Teen shooter's mother charge with manslaughter

And while we are on the subject of the American legal system, here's another eye-opener, but one that maybe reassures us that there is yet hope for the United States.

A trial in Michigan has ruled that the mother of a child mass murderer has some responsibility too. Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 at the time (November 2021), killed four schoolmates and injured 7 others with a pistol which was bought for him as a birthday present - I kid you not! - by his parents.

Crumbley Jr. was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, his mother has just been convicted by the Michigan jury on four counts of involuntary manslaughter, each of which attracts a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, on the grounds that she shared some responsibility for Crumbley's frame of mind and his access to weapons, and for ignoring clear warning signs. The father will be tried separately soon.

This case ups the ante significantly over previous trials elsewhere where parents were charged with reckless conduct or neglect. Who knows, it may even make American parents think twice about their relationship with firearms. Don't hold your breath, though.

US hard-right desperate to ingreatiate themselves eith Trump

This stuff would be hilarious if it weren't so sad and scary.

In the aftermath of the DC Court of Appeals' unanimous decision that Donald Trump definitively does not have presidential immunity in criminal cases like the January 6th insurrection trial, right-wing Republicans are running around like headless chickens because they have put all their eggs in the Trump basket and they will be lost if all those eggs are broken.

Mixed metaphors aside, the right-hand side of the GOP are lining up to publicly ingratiate themselves with Trump in a rather embarrassing display of abject obsequiousness, engaging in their usual Orwellian doublespeak.

Matt Gaetz seems to believe that a non-binding resolution in Congress "to authoritatively express that President Trump did not commit an insurrection" will somehow carry some legal weight (even if such a resolution were to somehow be passed). I assume the thinking is that if Trump does not have a legal carte blanche to do anything he likes, which has always been his contention, then they better make damned sure they have tried everything possible (and a few things impossible) to ensure he never ends up in court, or at least not until he is elected again. 

The indefatigable and horrible Majorie Taylor Greene, of course, made her own obeisance to Trump, arguing, without any explanation for those which could not follow her logic, that it was President Joe Biden's inauguration that was the actual insurrection, not Trump's action on January 6th. Er, OK....

Up-and-coming Trump acolyte Elise Stefanik also chimed in, rambling on about "extreme Democrats" who will "stop at nothing in an attempt to prevent Donald Trump from returning to the White House". Yawn.

In all, some 60 Congress members from the right wing of the right wing signed the resolution, which they must know does not have any standing,  legal or otherwise. This is all about setting themselves up as Trump uber-suppoters, in hopes of gaining preference in some putative Trump Royal Court.

Note that all of this is not out of some ethical desire to be doing the right thing, to right a wrong, even if that is how it is portrayed; it is a cynical exercise in right-wing realpolitik. Gaetz himself is currently under investigation for alleged sex trafficking of a minor. These are not ethical people.

Monday, February 05, 2024

The longest piece of music, ever

You may have heard of avant-garde American composer John Cage's famous piece 4'33", which calls for an orchestra to perform four minutes and thirty-three seconds of complete silence. It's an interesting conceit. Or, depending on your outlook, you might see it as just plain daft. Certainly, it's one of those things about which people will say, "But is it art?", which other people would argue just proves that it is indeed art.

Anyway, what I didn't know is that Cage also wrote another piece, for piano or organ, called Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible). It is a very simple piece, the score covering just eight pages, with no exact tempo specified, although the title makes the composer's wishes pretty clear.

The work's first performance, in 1987, lasted just under 30 minutes. But then performers started taking the instruction in the title more seriously, and a 2009 performance lasted 14 hours and 56 minutes. 

But another performance, using a specially-constructed organ in Burchardi Church in the German town of Halberstadt, began in 2001 and it may never be outdone. The mechanical organ uses an electronic wind machine to push air into the pipes, while sandbags keep the keys pressed down.

The performance is planned to take 639 years, finishing in the year 2640. There have been 16 chord changes so far, with today's marking the 17th. Volunteers have added a new pipe to the organ to create the new sound. The last chord change occurred 2 years ago, and the next one is planned for 5 August 2026.

And these chord changes have become quite the tourist attraction, with large crowds in attendance, and tickets reportedly booked years in advance. But is it art? God, who cares? - this is a very cool thing.

De-influencers come into their own

Social media influencers have been around for some years now. De-influencers are a more recent trend, really just in the last year or so, but they are enjoying quite a moment recently.

As influencers make millions of dollars promoting goods and services they probably don't even like or use, and the majority of corporations now routinely include a healthy budget for such online influencing costs, a backlash was always going to happen. Many consumers are becoming disillusioned and skeptical with the barrage of competing spending imperatives. Enter the de-influencer.

De-influencers promote less consumption, more financial responsibility, more honest product reviews (and often negative ones), and generally a more minimalist approach to life. Often, they will propose more affordable alternatives to pricey name-brand products which, in a period of belt-tightening, is a timely move. It's about making people aware of just how influenced they are, and how insidious and sophisticated influencing has become.

However, it's not like influencing is going to just go away any time soon - the Harvard Business Review estimates it is a $16 billion industry, and that's an old 2022 figure - but it's good to know that there are people out there doing something to counter its most insidious effects. 

Of course, some of these de-influencers are also starting to promote competing products, and it's probably only a matter of time before significant numbers of them get co-opted into an influencing business of their own, but so it goes.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Danielle Smith spurns small government approach when it aids her social conservatism

Ah, that Danielle Smith! She's at it again, eh? Never one to sidestep a bit of controversy, she has now waded into the quagmire that is the debate over transgender medical and education issues.

It had to happen. After Tory governments in New Brunswick and Sasketchewan dared to go there, Ms. Smith was never going to throw up the opportunity to shore up her right-wing voting base. With that lugubrious hang-dog expression that she has perfected for the more serious issues, there she was lecturing us about how all she wants to do is to protect "confused adolescents" from themselves.

Specifically, she has introduced a plan to roll back access to medical treatment for transgender youth, banning them from taking puberty blockers and hormone therapy for gender-affirmation purposes, and banning gender-affirming "top and bottom surgeries" (the rather weird label used these days for breast and genital operations). 

Just for good measure, she threw in a prohibition on teachers using a student's preferred pronouns without parental permission, and a requirement of parental permission for a student's participation in discussions on gender identity, sexual orientation and sexuality in general. Plus, she intends to make sure that women and girls will not have to compete against transgender athletes.

So, this is a pretty comprehensive package of measures, although the actual mechanics of implementation and penalties are not yet clear. True to Alberta's (and Ms. Smith's) reputation, it goes way further than either New Brunswick's or Saskatchewan's forays into the area. Amd all this in spite of the fact that the numbers of individuals affected in Alberta is negligible (if you were gay or transgender, would you choose to live in Alberta?) It's the principal, right?

The opposition NDP, the federal Liberals, the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton, and a whole host of trans activists and organizations and various medical and education experts (including the Canadian Pediatric Society), have all expressed their opposition and outrage at this government overreach, and the plan's passage will not be smooth. There will doubtless be legal challenges. 

But Ms. Smith's right wing base are lapping it up. This kind of "parental rights" talk - the positive-sounding phrase "parental rights" is always used by these people, in the same way as anti-abortionists called themselves "pro-life" - plays very nicely with them. The usually fully-engaged Pierre Poilievre and his federal Conservatives are deliberately keeping quiet on the issue (meaning that they are fully in favour of Smith's radical policies, but don't want to talk about them in public in case it reflects badly on them). In fact, Poilievre has specifically directly his troops to keep quiet. (Poilievre has since come out in open support of Smith's controversial gender politics.)

So much for small government and a concern for personal rights and liberties. It seems that only applies in certain situations.