Sunday, April 28, 2024

Who programmed AI to create child pornography?

Ah, dear God, who knew? Generative AI is being used to generate ... child pornography. 

Apparently, so much is being churned out that reporting systems for online child sexual abuse material, like CyberTipline, are just being completely overwhelmed. I don't even want to think about how it is all achieved. I'm more concerned with why?

You have to wonder who is responsible for this stuff. Presumably, it's not actual consumers of child pornography, who probably want the real thing, not just some digital facsimile. So, is it down to some anarchistic misanthropic hacker type, who just likes to "stick it to The Man", and see the status quo challenged in any way possible? 

It really does make you despair for the human race, though, that people get their kicks either from child pornography or from creating and disseminating ersatz AI-generated child pornography. Can they not just take up DIY or pickleball or something?

Toronto v Boston? Put it down to fate

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins last night in game 4 of the NHL playoffs. It was an ugly game, and it leaves the Leafs looking down the barrel of yet another first round knockout at the hands of their arch-nemesis.

As in the last couple of seasons, Toronto is one of the best teams in the whole league, but they just seem incapable of beating Boston, not in the regular season and certainly not in the playoffs. And they ALWAYS end up playing each other in the playoffs, usually in the first round. (Actually, they don't - it just SEEMS that way

Amusingly, depending on your sense of humour, someone had spent many idle hours analyzing what the playoffs would look like if there were no conferences or divisions, just one winner-take-all league. And guess what Toronto STILL ends up playing Boston! Fate, I guess. In which case Toronto are fated never to win the Stanley Cup ever again.


Well, they took it to Game 7, they took it to 0-0 after regulation time, and then Boston won it with a more-or-less random goal during sudden-death overtime. Not a nice way to go, but maybe, like I said, fate.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Why consumers are inclined (or not) to buy an EV

An illuminating survey, done by Electric Mobility Canada, and published in September 2023, shows that, if people are only given proper factual information on the potential cost savings, driving range, charging infrastructure, etc, of electric vehicles, they are much more likely to buy one.

Maybe that's obvious, but the difference a bit of education makes is startling. The percentage of people inclined to buy a zero emissions vehicle jumped from 43% to 63% after being presented with a few facts. I don't mean a full-blown marketing campaign; I literally mean the presentation of a few facts about lifetime costs, range, etc, from a reputable source. That's huge.

Other findings in the survey: 88% of current EV owners expect to choose an EV for their next purchase; motivating factors are cost savings (41%), environmental benefits (39%), and the cool advanced technology (32%); 91% were unaware that 40 EV models are now priced below the average new vehicle cost (including available rebates); only 10% believe that an EV's battery will last the lifetime of the car, with most expecting to have to replace it within 7-10 years; and only a small percentage of people can correctly guess the number of public chargers available in Canada, the range of most modern EVs, or the costs of recharging.

All of this is important information for governments and car manufacturers alike, as we reach what marketers call the "early majority stage" (after the "innovators" and "early adopters), and as EV sales start to slow. Both governments and car manufacturers should be working hard to rectify some of the misinformation consumers have been inundated with.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Appeal of Weinstein case on a technicality is unfortunate

New York's appeals court just threw out the landmark 2020 rape conviction of Harvey Weinstein. No-one is publicly saying that Weinstein was actually innocent, and Weinstein remains in prison anyway due to a separate Los Angeles conviction in 2022 (which might also be appealed now). 

The case put before the appeals court, and accepted by it, is a technical one, that the judge in the original case unfairly allowed testimony against Weinstein based on allegations of prior sexual acts and behaviour not directly relevant to the case in question. This was called "highly prejudicial" and may have unfairly set the jury against the man. Although, frankly, how this differs from a general portrayal of Weinstein's character is beyond me.

At any rate, the New York case will have to be retried, and the witnesses and traumatized victims will need to testify in public all over again. I hope the lawyers who brought this appeal are feeling good about themselves. 

The Weinstein case was a crucial turning point in the MeToo movement and, as the dissenting appeal judges noted, this kind of decision, based as it is on legal technicalities, risks endangering years of progress in sexual violence cases. Even if the Weinstein case is retried, and even if he is re-convicted, this represents a set-back for the MeToo movement (although MeToo founder Tamara Burke insists otherwise), and a foot in the door for traditional patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes in the courts.

Canada's also granted "exemption" from Russian titanium sanctions

Hard on the heels of reports that Airbus' production in Canada was granted an "exemption" from sanctions against imports of Russian titanium (apparently after lobbying from the French government, which partially owns Airbus), comes the news that Canada airplane producer Bombardier has been granted just such an exemption too.

The only justification offered for either exemption is that, well, titanium is needed for airplane building (engines, landing gear), and Russia's VSMPO-AVISMA Corp. is one of the world's largest producers of titanium, i.e. no justification at all.

There's not much point in imposing sanctions if you're just going to cave in when it gets awkward. 

Even stranger, though, a look at the major producers of titanium shows China way ahead (and to be fair, for other reasons, we don't really want to buy from them if at all possible), followed by Mozambique, South Africa, Australia and ... Canada. Russia does not even appear in the top 15 of global titanium producers. So, exactly why are we buying titanium from Russia?

Bombardier CEO Eric Martel deadpans, "We did work with the government and we did work also with our supplier base to make sure we were doing the right thing. But at the same time we needed to ensure, you know, that we keep running our factories." Ah, well, that explains it then.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Jolie explains, "We will always make sure to put maximum pressure on the Russian regime and meanwhile protect out jobs here at home. We can do that together." Well, no you can't; that's not how sanctions work. 

Such fecklessness! Ukraine is livid, understandably. You can just imagine the wry smile on Vladimir Putin's ugly mug as we speak.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Why does Loblaws get all the hate?

There's a Reddit group out there called r/loblawsisoutofcontrol which does a good line in outrage, and is proposing that we all boycott Loblaws supermarkets during the month of May. They seem to think that this will force Loblaws to reduce their prices by 15% overnight, which seems like a rather optimistic goal. Buy, hey, power to them. Nothing wrong with a bit of idealism and consumer pressure.

What I don't quite understand,  though, is that there are lots of supermarket chains out there, some owned by Loblaws, some by Metro or Sobeys, some are standalone giants like Costco and Walmart, and some are smaller chains or independent stores. You can choose to shop wherever works for you, right?

So, if you don't like Loblaws stores, go to No Frills (also owned by Loblaws, but much cheaper) or Price Chopper or wherever. Some people like Loblaws for its wide aisles, cleanliness, freshness, selection, etc, and are willing to pay for that. Some people are not and go elsewhere. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

There are many indignant and impassioned social media posts of people making comparisons between Loblaws prices and those of No Frills or Food Basics or Walmart, and - surprise! - Loblaws is more expensive. They could have done a comparison of Loblaws with Pusateri's and concluded that Loblaws was cheaper. Should we be boycotting Pusateri's then? And a recent multi-university study concluded that Loblaws stores are still far and away Canada's preferred location for discounted food products, followed by Walmart, Costco and Metro.

Shopping at Loblaws is not a human rights issue. It's just a supermarket chain, one of many (although the largest in Canada, so it attracts much more attention and vitriol). More to the point, it's a business, not a charity, and it charges what it thinks its market will pay. Sure, boycott it if it makes you feel better, but there are probably better uses for your energy, anger and outrage.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Figures of authority just assumed Zameer was guilty - he wasn't

When humble Brampton accountant Umar Zameer finally received a verdict of not guilty a couple of days ago, he was looking pretty drawn and exhausted after three years of stress and uncertainty. But the court and jury were unequivocal in ruling that Zameer did not deliberately run down Detective-Constable Jeffrey Northrup in a parking lot back in July 2021, as all the evidence - with the notable exception of the rather suspect deputations of various police officers - suggest.

Zameer and his family and his lawyers, not to mention various legal experts and civil rights campaigners, celebrated in a very restrained style. "They just felt a real sense of relief, but they're not celebrating", as Zameer's lawyer Nader Hasan put it. But the first comment they heard from Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw was, "I share the feelings of our members, who were hoping for a different outcome".

Say, what? So, he was hoping for a miscarriage of justice in favour of a guy - the unfortunate victim of a gruesome accident, to be sure - who happened to be wearing the same uniform? Demkiw has since walked back his emotional comments, but the damage is done. The police are notorious for "looking after their own", but this was beyond the pale.

It wasn't the only off-colour comment this case has attracted. Immediately after the incident, and when Zameer was subsequently released on bail, several highly-ranked civic leaders weighed in. Then Police Chief James Ramer, speaking on the initial sparse information, called the incident an "intentional and deliberate act", not bothering to wait and see if his opinions might actually be right or reasonable. Ontario Premier Doug Ford called it "completely unacceptable that the person charged for [originally "responsible for"] this heinous crime is now out on bail", even though the usual bail procedures were followed to the letter. Former Toronto Mayor John Tory and former Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown added similar sentiments.

None of these supposedly responsible civic leaders allowed Mr. Zameer the presumption of innocence he was due. Some of them have grudgingly walked back their comments since the official acquittal; no-one has really apologized in so many words. But these kinds of unguarded comments from influential public figures can create a false narrative and affect the public's (and the jury's) view of the individual under suspicion. At worst, you could see it as a deliberate politicization of the issue, or even an openly racist response.

As Mr. Zameer and his family try to pick up the pieces of their lives, you can't help but think that they must be feeling somewhat jaundiced about the responses of these figures of authority.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Gas price increase NOT due to the carbon tax

I don't use gasoline personally, but people are outraged at the recent increase in gas prices at Canadian pumps. Prices increased by about 10c a litre overnight (more in some provinces, less in others).

Of course, many people are conveniently blaming the Liberal government and the latest increase in the carbon tax. But, in fact, that increase happened on April 1st, and amounted to a measly additional 3c on a litre, as the price on carbon was increased from $65 a tonne to $80. Moreover, the carbon tax rebate received by Canadians will increase proportionately.

The most recent price hike is solely down to the oil industry. In spring, oil companies switch to a "summer blend" of gasoline for the "summer driving season". Summer gas has a smaller proportion of butane and, given that butane is relatively inexpensive, that jacks up the cost, and therefore the price to the consumer. This change in the manufacturing process also costs money, and that too is passed on to the consumer. Go figure.

The quoted reason for this annual spring changeover is that gasoline evaporates faster in warmer temperatures, causing smog and "other environmental harms". Which wouldn't normally worry the oil industry unduly, but there are environmental laws in place requiring refineries to make this change. So, they can pollute more in winter and less in summer, it seems.

It kind of puts all the furore over the carbon tax increase into perspective, doesn't it? And you won't be getting a government rebate for this increase, either.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Why is the USA sending tens of billions to an already rich country?

The dysfunctional US Congress has finally managed to agree something. It is sending $26.4 billion to Israel because it is running out of drones and missiles with which to pound little Gaza.

Wait, isn't Israel actually quite a rich country? Can't it buy its own missiles if it wants to prosecute a war? Why is the USA bankrolling it?

Good questions, all. I can at least answer the first of them. Yes, Israel is a rich country. In fact, it is the 20th richest country in the world per capita. Not as rich as the USA (No.6) admittedly, but richer per capita than the UK, France, Italy, and the European Union in general.

So, why is the USA sending it tens of billions of dollars? No idea. The very pro-Israel Joe Biden has chosen to continue publicly calling on Israel to stop bombing Palestine, while at the same time giving it the wherewithal to continue the bombing. Not a very logical or consistent stance.

Now, Palestine, there's a poor country, No. 130 in the world, just below Venezuela, Honduras and Bhutan.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Complaints about capital gains change coming from the "ultra-rich"

Well, I go away for a few days and I get back to a chorus of disgruntled Canadian investors and business owners. The reason? The Liberals' 2024 budget had the audacity to touch the sacrosanct capital gains inclusion tax loophole

Previously only 50% of capital gains (from selling property, stocks and shares, etc) were taxable in Canada, which always seemed like an unfair boon to the wealthiest 1%, who are doing just fine and really don't need protecting from anything. I should know: I'm one of them. 

The new rule is that 67% of capital gains should be taxed - actually back to how things were in 1999 - although only for capital gains over $250,000 (that bar does not apply to corporations and trusts, only to individuals). Selling a primary residence remains exempted from capital gains tax, as before. 

There are also some further carve-outs regarding lifetime capital gains limits for small businesses, farms, fishing property, and for entrepreneurs selling shares in some circumstances. So, a small business owner can still sell their business and not pay any tax on the first $1.25 million (increased from $1 million) in capital gains, and company founders in some industries now pay less tax on up to $2 million in capital gains over their lifetimes. It's complicated, but these carve-outs are designed to keep at least some of the business community (relatively) happy.

As the government points out, 28.5 million Canadians will not be declaring any capital gains at all next year, and a further 3 million will be protected by the $250,000 annual threshold. So, in the end, a paltry 40,000 ultra-wealthy individuals (about 0.13% of Canadians) are likely to be affected by the change, and maybe 12% of corporations.

So, not really that big a deal, right? Well, you wouldn't think that reading the financial pages of the Globe and Mail for example. Most people there, from tech entrepreneurs to regular rich investors, are outraged - outraged, I tell you! - that the government should interfere with their wealth-making in this way. There are headlines like "Higher capital gains won't work as claimed, but will harm the economy", and "Industries upset at being left out of new tax break for small business". 

They say that the change will discourage entrepreneurs and chill venture capital investment, although the government has poo-poo'd these arguments, and it seems very unlikely to me that people are setting up businesses specifically to take advantage of the capital gains tax breaks. 

There's also a certain amount of disinformation flying around from people who should know better. Just as an example, an article in the Globe and Mail Business section no less, which states that "the change amounts to a 33-per-cent tax increase on investment activity" (no, it's a 33% increase in the inclusion rate for capital gains, i.e. of the amount that is taxable, not the actual tax paid - an article from accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton says, "an individual subject to the top marginal tax rate can anticipate about an 8% - 9% increase in taxes on capital.gains in excess of $250,000".

Doctors and the medical profession in particular are complaining, with the Canadian Medical Association warning that it may push some doctors and surgeons (who often incorporate to take advantage of the tax breaks) out of the profession completely. This seems like real sky-is-falling hyperbole to me. How many doctors go into the profession because of the capital gains tax system? Doctors can still make a good living and be taxed (as a corporation) lower than many other lower-earning Canadians. If they also want to make additional money on the stock exchanges or property markets, that's on them, and they should be taxed appropriately on this unearned income. Right?

There are those, and I would count myself among them, who believe that the CMA's press release is a disingenuous marketing campaign. Capital gains tax is not the reason that Canada has a shortage of doctors (there are many other reasons for that). Capital gains still get preferential tax treatment compared to the employer pension plans that the CMA bemoans that doctors are not able to have (because they chose to incorporate for the tax breaks!) It's pretzel logic in the extreme.

Well, there are always going to be some complainers, whatever you do. In this case, it's the "ultra-rich" (a convenient shorthand for that 0.13%). So be it. 

But are Canadian taxpayers really that badly done by? It's hard to compare the Canadian capital gains tax with the American one, partly because the American system is so complicated, but if anything Canadian tax seems to be slightly less onerous at first glance. And the government is quick to assure us that Canada's marginal tax rate is much lower than the OECD and the G7 average, and certainly lower than the USA's and UK's.

And anyway, having a low tax rate is only really good for rich people (although those rich people will tell you that they are the real engine of the country's economy). Take, for example, the fact that the happiest countries in the world are those with the highest tax rates. Maybe it's not all about the money after all.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Conscription of ultra-orthodox Jews threatens Netanyahu's grip on power

Benjamin Netanyahu is a very unpopular guy, both outside of Israel, where most of the world is dismayed by his intransigence and his scorched-earth (bordering on genocidal) tactics in Gaza, but also within Israel, where many Jews blame him personally (for some reason) for allowing Hamas to kill, maim and kidnap Israeli citizens in the first place, but also for failing to recover said kidnap victims over the last six months.

Netanyahu had been clinging to power with the aid of a very unsavoury bunch of right-wing ultra-nationalists, including the ultra-orthodox Sephardic Haredi party. Now, though, Netanyahu risks losing the support of these traditional Jewish hard-liners as he looks to end the decades-long exemption from mandatory military service for ultra-orthodox Jews

The exemption was begun back in 1948 when the newly-established Jewish state allowed 400 Haredi scholars to avoid mandatory military service, in an attempt to keep alive sacred Jewish knowledge. But the community has grown exponentially since then, and now makes up 13% of the entire population. They have become accustomed to many privileges and special treatments, which brings with it a whole heap of problems, not least the issue of national service and conscription for the army.

A 2017 decision by Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the exemption is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and that even ultra-orthodox Haredis should be subject to the usual 32+ months of national service required of all Israeli men over 18 (and a lesser period for women). The initial end-of-March deadline has been extended to the end of April, but that is fast approaching.

If Netanyahi is to make the Supreme Court's ruling a reality, he will have to do so over the protests (and dead bodies, they say) of Haredis, protests that have already begun in some parts of Jerusalem. In March, he announced the suspension of the handsome subsidies paid to ultra-orthodox Jews studying in yeshivas (institutions for the study of Jewish religious texts), and a draft for all ultra-orthodox Jewish men to do their mandatory military service, whether studying in yeshivas or not.

Three-quarters of Israelis support such a move, but Mr. Netanyahu stands to lose the support of the ultra-orthodox parties propping up his precarious coalition government. What's a self-respecting despot to do?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Foreign interefence in Canadian elections - maybe the sky is not falling

To hear Pierre Poilievre tell it, Justin Trudeau was quite aware of Chinese interference in Canada's electoral process, and even deliberately covered up the extent of it in order to benefit the Liberals' electoral chances.

This was, though, some weeks ago. Poilievre has been much more circumspect since then. Surprisingly circumspect, you might say, given his usual penchant for ad hominem attacks on Trudeau and for disingenuous misleading soundbites.

In particular, he has been suspiciously quiet since the public inquiry into foreign interference has shone some light onto some of the nuances of government and intelligence services' practices. After days of testimony from CSIS leadership and high-level politicians, including from Trudeau himself, the situation is looking far from black-and-white. The CSIS reports look much more like hearsay and uncorroborated suspicions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of government ministers and the staff of the Prime Minster's Office look much more reasonable and measured. 

Poilievre's claims, and the repeated doomy warnings of the opposition Conservatives and NDP that the very structure of Canadian democracy is teetering, are starting to look like so much hyperbole and overreaction. I'm not saying that the Liberals come off squeaky clean, but certainly not as grimy and sullied as Mr. Poilievre would have us think.

Vietnam is perhaps not a great substitute for China

Canada, like the EU, USA and many other countries, has been assiduously courting Vietnam as a trade partner, mainly in order to reduce reliance on an increasingly belligerent, rights-abusing and unpredictable China. Just a week or two ago, a high-profile Canadian delegation concluded what it sees as a very successful trade mission to Vietnam.

But, if Vietnam is not as bad as China in some respects, it is by no means a paragon of virtue, and we should have our eyes wide open as we dive in. Vietnam is still a Communist state, and arrests, surveillance and censorship of dissidents is rife.

Vietnam is expected to be among the fastest-growing economies in the world this year - everyone is trying to distance themselves from China - and its cheap workforce is a tempting attraction. It has even talked about opening up politically. But the global Democracy Index still shows Vietnam third from the bottom, with only Laos and Myanmar scoring lower. What's more, it's democratic freedom ranking of 136th is actually worse than its 128th showing back in 2015. It also ranks 178th out of 180 in media freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. It continues to maintain close, even upgraded, relations with Russia and China.

So, while Vietnam may talk a good game in trade talks, it's actions at home are far from open and free. But so toxic is China currently that most Western countries are trying their best to ignore Vietnam's more outrageous practices and policies. And Vietnam knows that full well, and so carries on more or less with impunity.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Biggest individual contributors to global warming

A new and comprehensive report by international non-profit organization InfluenceMap points an uncompromising finger at the biggest individual contributors to global warming, whether they be nation states, state-owned companies or investor-owned companies. It comes to the striking conclusion that 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions are produced by just 57 entities.

And just for the hell of it, let's list them here:

1 China (Coal) 276,458 14.01%
2 Former Soviet Union 135,113 6.82%
3 Saudi Aramco 68,832 3.63%
4 Chevron 57,898 2.98%
5 ExxonMobil 55,105 2.79%
6 Gazprom 50,687 2.31%
7 National Iranian Oil Co. 43,112 2.22%
8 BP 42,530 2.19%
9 Shell 40,674 2.06%
10 Coal India 29,391 1.49%
11 Poland 28,750 1.46%
12 Pemex 25,497 1.32%
13 Russian Federation 23,412 1.19%
14 China (Cement) 23,161 1.31%
15 ConocoPhillips 20,222 1.01%
16 British Coal Corporation 19,745 1.00%
17 CNPC (PetroChina) 18,951 0.97%
18 Peabody Coal Group 17,735 0.90%
19 TotalEnergies 17,584 0.90%
20 Abu Dhabi National Oil Company 17,383 0.90%
21 Petroleos de Venezuela 16,901 0.88%
22 Kuwait Petroleum Corp. 15,922 0.84%
23 Iraq National Oil Company 15,188 0.81%
24 Sonatrach 14,955 0.735
25 Rosneft 14,295 0.75%
26 Occidental Petroleum 12,907 0.65%
27 BHP 11,042 0.56%
28 Petrobras 10,799 0.56%
29 CONSOL Energy 10,490 0.53%
30 Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. 10,243 0.53%
31 Czechoslovakia 9,618 0.49%
32 Petronas 9,130 0.45%
33 Eni 9,075 0.45%
34 QatarEnergy 8,405 0.42%
35 Pertamina 8,270 0.42%
36 Anglo American 8,163 0.41%
37 Libya National Oil Corp. 8,146 0.43%
38 Arch Resources 7,969 0.40%
39 Lukoil 7,835 0.41%
40 Kazakhstan 7,769 0.39%
41 Equinor 7,739 0.39%
42 RWE 7,585 0.38%
43 Rio Tinto 6,767 0.34%
44 Glencore 6,329 0.32%
45 Alpha Metallurgical Resources 6,127 0.31%
46 ONGC India 5,917 0.30%
47 Sasol 4,992 0.25%
48 Ukraine 4,969 0.25%
49 Surgutneftegas 4,735 0.25%
50 Repsol 4,584 0.23%
51 Petroleum Development Oman 4,387 0.22%
52 Sinopec 4,374 0.23%
53 Egyptian General Petroleum 4,318 0.22%
54 TurkmenGaz 4,223 0.19%
55 Petoro 4,174 0.21%
56 CNOOC 4,147 0.22%
57 North Korea 4,104 0.21%

There is a whole host of other interesting data in the report, like graphs of the annual progression since 1854 (including the continued rise since the 2016 Paris Agreement), a breakdown of contributions by entity type (which shows the emissions from investor-controlled companies starting to decrease since about 2010, while those from states and state-owned companies continue to inexorably rise), an analysis of emissions by main commodity type (coal, oil, gas and cement all rising, but coal rising much more than the others), etc.

It's rather alarming and depressing reading, but essentially reading nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Cechnya bans fast music (and slow music)

Gotta love this. Muslim-majority Russian republic Chechnya has announced a ban on music that is either too fast or too slow

More specifically, the Chechen Minister of Culture Musa Dadeyev announced that, henceforth, Chechen musical, vocal and choreographic compositions can only have tempos between 80 and 116 beats per minute, a tempo which is considered to align with "Chechen mentality and musical rhythm", and with "the cultural heritage of the Chechen people". Notably, this would exclude most rock, pop and techno songs.

This was not an April Fools gag, and the culture minister delivered it with a straight face. But you have to think that the average Chechen yokel is going to be a bit peeved, and a bit embarrassed, at the announcement. Or maybe not. Maybe Chechens are just really into that traditional folk groove?

Monday, April 08, 2024

If the moon is moving away from the earth, will we stop getting eclipses?

I already knew that the moon is gradually moving away from the earth, and that eventually it will be far enough away that a total eclipse of the sun will no longer be possible. Only as North America experiences mass hysteria over the total eclipse later today did it occur to me to question just when that might happen.

Total eclipses occur when the moon moves directly between the earth and the sun so as to block out the sun completely. By sheer coincidence - a quirk of the age we happen to live in - the moon is currently just the right distance away from the Earth that its shadow blocks out the entire sun almost exactly, which is why, within the "path of totality" of an eclipse event, we can only see the corona surrounding the sun, and not the sun itself.

However, that was not always the case. Back in prehistory, the moon was much closer to the earth and, by the same token, in the future it will be further away. In fact, the moon is moving away from the earth at a rate of about 3.8cm (1½ inches) a year. The Moon exerts a tidal or gravitational force on the earth (you could think of it as a kind of friction), which has the effect of gradually slowing the earth's spin (a day on earth used to be much shorter than the 24 hours we have today). Due to the law of conservation of angular momentum, this slowed spin also has the effect of making the moon spiral further away from the earth.

So, at some point in the future, the moon will be far enough away that it's shadow won't block the whole of the sun, and eclipses will be "annular" rather than full, with the moon's shadow blocking just the centre of the sun, as we see it, leaving a ring of sun around a black shadow.  In fact, we already get annular eclipses now: because the moon's orbit around the earth is elliptical not circular, sometimes it is further away than other times. About half of the eclipses we see are currently annular, because only about half of the time is the moon close enough to the earth to block out the sun completely. Today is one of those times.

But as the moon moves away from the earth, there will come a time when, even at its closest, the moon will not appear big enough to completely block the sun. There will be still be eclipses when the three bodies line up, but they will all be annular. No more full eclipses. But, don't worry, best calculations suggest that it will be about 650 million years before that point is reached. In the meantime, enjoy!

Friday, April 05, 2024

Alberta's electricity system is failing because of thermal generation, not renewables

Alberta has experienced more rolling blackouts, after an "unexpected outage of thermal generation led to tight conditions", according to the Alberta Energy System Operator (AESO). What this means in English is that the province's fossil fuel power generation - coal, oil and gas - failed (that's what the euphemism "thermal generation" actually means).

Predictably enough, just like last time, Danielle Smith's announcement gave a very different impression. She blamed it on the province's renewable energy generation. "We've built a structure that gives priority to wind and solar ... we've built the system completely backwards".

Wind and solar get priority because they are the cheapest and least polluting sources of energy. The fact that Alberta's system can't deal with that, like everyone else seems to, is on Alberta. Don't blame the sun, Danielle!

Apparently, micro-plastics are used extensively in agriculture

Plastic is ubiquitous. That said, I had no idea that plastic was widely used in agriculture until I read about it here.

For example, plastic is used in protective wraps for crops, and irrigation tubes for watering. But apparently, microplastics are also added to fertilizers to allow for the controlled release of the product, as well as to increase seed storage life and improve drainage in soil conditioners. Who knew? But then, who knows how commercial agriculture works these days? There are probably all sorts of practices routinely carried out that would make our toes curl.

It is well known now that macro-plastics break down over time and turn into micro-plastics and nano-plastics that find their way into our bodies, causing all manner of bad things to affect our health. They also block the gastrointestinal tracts of small birds and fish, and cause harmful changes in the feeding behaviour and fertility of invertebrates and seafood, among many other issues.

So, why we would be deliberately adding them to our soils and plant fertilizers, I have no idea. Oh, yes, I know - it makes farmers and food distributors more money. Farming, in the main, is not what it used to be. Forgot those childhood images of happy cows and hard-working farmers on old-fashioned tractors; farming is now an industrial process better labelled agri-business. And part of that business involves deliberately adding a substance with known health and environmental harms to our food supply. Go figure.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Be wary of Foreign Interference Inquiry claims

Canada's Foreign Interference Inquiry chugs along - yes, yet another public inquiry! - and now Canadian politicians are having their say about whether, and how, China (and other countries, but mainly China) interfered in Canadian elections, particularly those of 2019 and 2021.

Given that the Conservatives lost those two elections, it comes as no surprise that they are at pains to point out how they were negatively affected, even though Chinese interference has been an issue for many years, and has affected all parties to some extent. The narrative is that the Tories' platforms in those elections were much more anti-China, or at least they were perceived that way by the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party, and so they were specifically targeted by Chinese interference.

Erin O'Toole, one of the losing Conservative leaders in those elections, testified yesterday, and made the claim that two, three, five, maybe as many as nine, Conservative seats may have been lost as a result of Chinese interference, as "a lot of people did not vote because they were intimidated". O'Toole admits that even this many seats would not have swung the election results his way, but adds that it may have affected the party's decision to remove him as leader (which, you get the impression, is his real beef). 

In fact, the Inquiry thus far has found that eleven electoral campaigns were affected by Chinese money in the 2019 federal election, seven Liberal and four Conservative candidates. It turns out that Justin Trudeau was also targeted, as was Jenny Kwan of the NDP. So, it was not all one-way traffic, and not as simple as the early Conservative narrative would have us believe.

But it all seems so loosey-goosey. It is clear that some attempts at voter intimidation and suppression did take place, but just how many people "a lot of people" amounts to is far from clear. Claims that anywhere from two to nine seats were affected are so vague as to be meaningless, and there is no actual evidence that ANY seats were actually lost as a direct result of the foreign interference. It is all about "hunches" and "feelings", which really should have no place in an objective investigation.

So, sure, have a public inquiry: foreign interference in Canadian elections needs to be addressed and clamped down on (although we should be realistic enough to admit that it will never actually go away). But we should be wary of specific unsubstantiated claims of this kind. 

And you have to know that Pierre Poilievre will have no qualms about using this "evidence" to batter the government. Indeed, it would not surprise me at all if he went full Donald Trump and claims that the elections were stolen, or at least to hint at that (Poilievre, for all his bluster, is much more subtle and careful than Trump).

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

American owl cull - immoral or a necessary evil?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to kill 470,000 owls, and conservation organizations are at each other's throats over it.

The department has reluctantly concluded that they need to cull nearly half a million barred owls from California, Oregon and Washington over a span of some three decades. This is because the native northern spotted owl is becoming increasingly endangered in the region, partly because of human-driven habitat destruction (mainly logging activities), but partly because the barred owls - originally native to the Eastern United States, and NOT endangered - are much more adaptable and are moving into traditional northern spotted territory in the West.

Critics of the proposal argue that the plan is impractical, reckless and ethically questionable. But without it, the northern spotted owl may well go extinct. So, what to do? Well we could maybe stop the logging of old growth forest for starters, no?

Tesla takes a dive, and Musk is at least partly to blame

The shine is off Tesla these days. Once the golden boy of the fight against climate change and the poster man-child of sustainable capitalism, Elon Musk has gone well and truly off the rails in recent months, and he has dragged Tesla with him. 

Tesla sales and deliveries have faltered recently, and it has started to offer deep discounts as inventory continues to pile up (we are mainly talking about America here). The company's stock price has also headed down the drain in recent months.

Tesla, of course, was the electric car that started it all. It revolutionized the auto industry, and forced other car manufacturers to develop their own electric models. You can't take that away from Tesla and Musk. But as the market for EVs in general starts to sputter somewhat, Tesla is starting to feel the heat from China's BYD and Korea's KIA and Hyundai. It doesn't help that the rollout of the long-awaited Tesla Cybertruck has been, well, spotty and underwhelming, but there is much more going on here.

Part of the problem is Tesla's insistence on completely redesigning the family saloon, with its minimalist interiors and its lack of familiar buttons and switches. The early adopters and techies, who actually like doing everything from a glorified tablet screen, now all have their Teslas, and the hoi polloi are much less gung ho about driving an iPad. (I'm one such - I deliberately gravitated towards a more traditional style interior, and ended up with a Hyundai Kona Electric, not a Tesla, some two years ago.)

The other problem, though, is Musk himself. Once an impish maverick and iconoclast, he has since turned hard right and become something of a running joke. He appears completely disengaged from Tesla's commercial woes, and fresh out of new ideas (once his stock-in-trade). He seems bogged down in his failing social media outlet X (a sorry, disembowelled Twitter), content to make disparaging lame jokes about anything he considers "woke", all while condoning hate speech in the interests of extreme free speech. (Musk was also a consideration when I was looking for an EV two years ago - I really did not want to line the pockets of such an unpleasant, hypocritical, sociopathic billionaire.)

Be that as it may, it remains a fact that Tesla's latest quarterly car deliveries fell for the first time in nearly four years, and the company's share price has taken a substantial hit recently. It's also a fact that some people are definitely blaming Musk personally (and his toxic behaviour in recent months) for Tesla's problems. Predictably, Musk reacts to such criticisms in a suitably toxic and childish manner.