Sunday, June 30, 2024

EU to be led by an anti-EU Viktor Orban

Europe is now in the weird position of being led by someone who doesn't appear to believe in the grand European experiment at all. As of tomorrow, July 1st, Hungary's Viktor Orban takes over the European presidency for half a year.

There's not much Europe can do about it. The post rotates among member countries, and this next six months happens to be Hungary's turn. Orban has been a thorn in the side of the European Union for years now, seemingly taking every opportunity to block, water down or delay key EU decisions, such as on Russia and the war in Ukraine, China, and any efforts to defend or extend democracy. 

Orban is a hard right-wing populist and demagogue, most of whose policies and beliefs are in direct contravention to those of mainstream Europe. He seems to relish his reputation as a spoiler and frustrater of EU policy, right down to his deliberately Trump-esque motto for the presidency position "Make Europe Great Again".

Luckily, the post of EU President does not actually carry with it that much power, and the bloc deliberately pushed through several of the more important votes while Belgium was still at the helm. So, as one commentator puts it, "Hungary cannot do potentially much harm". 

It will be interesting to see, though, to what extent Hungary under Orban will keep up its anti-EU rhetoric, even while technically leading it.

UPDATE

And now there are reports of Orban planning a trip to see Vladimir Putin, something that EU top diplomats say he has no mandate to do. Orban is the only head of government to have maintained close ties with Russia, even throughout the Ukraine war.

Friday, June 28, 2024

What's with those "strange" Black names?

If you've ever wondered about all those unusual Black names - often referred to as "strange" or "weird", and often the butt of off-colour jokes by the less politically correct white comedians - I don't think you need to be afraid to ask. Most Black people will happily oblige with an answer.

Black sports personalities, actors and entertainers, and just regular folks from suburbia, glory in names like Tayshaun, Raynell, Chaunte, Jamal, Latasha, Rau'shee, D'Andre, Latonya, DeMar, Trevell, LaKiesha, Sha'Carri, Tayvon, Shaday, Kareem, Michandra, JohnTae, D'Quell, Lakasia, Tavondra, DeShaun, Dremiel, Shanequa. Comprised of apparently random blended syllables, often with random capitalization and random punctuation, they are nevertheless distinctively Black.

And that is (part of) the point. Such invented - and inventive - names have a double purpose: they are asserting individuality, but they are also deliberately - and assertively - identifying themselves as Black.

While the current trend can be said to have begun with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s (and the later Afrocentrism cultural movement of the 1980s and 90s), the history of distinctively Black names goes much further back. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, names like Booker and Perlie were almost exclusively used by Black people, and many Biblical names like Elijah, Isaac, Moses and Abraham were as likely as not to be associated with Black people. Names designating empowerment, like Prince, King, Caesar and Freeman, were also very popular. 

In fact, the trend of distinctively Black naming became much more pronounced during the antebellum slavery period, and that is no coincidence. (At the same time, White people started deliberately avoiding these names.) This was partly a reaction to a time when White overlords would deliberately change the names of Black slaves to more standard names like Ruth, Mary, James and Joseph. The chosen names were not actually African, just ... different and individualistic.

So, don't think of these names as strange or weird, think of them as creative, affirmatory and assertive.

UPDATE

Incidentally, the report that has been circulating of a US judge railing against the "ridiculous names" Black women are giving their kids these days is in fact spurious

It was a spoof or satire, in deliberately poor taste "to make you think", according to the outfit in question ("The Peoples [sic] News").

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The rise of the "boss economy"

Canada is registering an extraordinary business statistic: management is the fastest-growing occupation in the country, with more than half a million new manager jobs being created since just 2021. This represents a 33% increase over a period when non-management jobs grew by just 8%. Managers now account for 10.2% of all workers, up from 8.5% just a few short years ago.

Now, it's not quite as black-and-white as that appears, and there are some complicating explanatory factors. For example: many employers are doubling up young managers as a large cohort of baby boomers continue to retire, so that they can be mentored by the retiring managers; companies are dispensing management titles more easily as means of staff retention in a period of historic low unemployment; and the title itself is being diluted ("title inflation"), largely as a sop to Gen Z workers who feel starved of recognition. 

In the tech sector.in particular, many new jobs, especially remote ones, may carry the title "manager", even if they don't involve the oversight of subordinates.

But the trend is real, and can be seen in many different sectors, from professional, scientific and technical services (up 59.4% between 2019 and 2023) to wholesale trade (up 49.8%) to manufacturing (up 41.5%) and, to a lesser extent, finance (up 27.1%). This outsized growth is even more marked in the private sector than the public. The USA has experienced a similar management surge, although less dramatic than in Canada (up from 5.5% to 6.9%).

This could, of course, have profound implications for Canada's productivity crisis,  which I have commented on elsewhere.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Maybe I can get behind the Edmonton Oilers this time

I'm not a big Edmonton Oilers fan, or a fan of anything from Alberta, really. But I have been captivated by the hockey team's spirited comeback in the Stanley Cup finals this year. And, truth be told, I'm even less of a fan of the Florida Panthers, who have beaten the Maple Leafs too many times for comfort.

So, when the Oilers (embarrassing name!) started their comeback against Florida from 0-3 to 1-3 to 2-3 to, finally, 3-3 last night, it's hard not to get a bit excited. After all, the only other team to come back from 0-3  to win the Stanley Cup finals was our very own Toronto Maple Leafs, who managed this feat against the Detroit Red Wings back in 1942. Indeed, only one other team has come back from 0-3 to 3-3, only to lose the final, and that was Detroit in 1945, who ultimately lost to - guess who? - Toronto in Game 7. So, history is potentially being written here.

And I used to think that there is no point in supporting a team like Edmonton just because they are a "Canadian team". Because, like the Maple Leafs and most other teams, they are comprised of players from all over the world - aren't they? - and so not really any more "Canadian" than any other team.

But it turns out that this particular Oilers team has the highest make up of Canadians of any Cup finalists over the last 20 or so years, from star forward Connor McDavid down. There are 20 natives on the team, and 16 of them could well take the ice at some point in Tuesday's Game 7. So, if we can't get behind THIS "Canadian team", I don't know when we'll ever be able to. 

Canadian hockey teams used to completely dominate the Stanley Cup in past decades, as a quick perusal of past winners shows, but the Cup is more likely to end up in the deserts of Nevada or the swamps of Florida in recent years. The last time a Canadian team hoisted the Cup was Montreal in 1993. So, can this be first time in over 30 years the Cup comes back "home", as well as a fairy tale comeback story? Well, just maybe.

UPDATE

Well, it wasn't to be. The unlikely dream has ground to a halt as Florida beat Edmonton 2-1 in a gritty, hard-fought Game 7.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Pathways Alliance's response to the new greenwashing provisions says it all

You may have seen their advertising: earnest commitments from a consortium of six major oil sands developers to the effect that they are hard at work making Canada's environment cleaner and more sustainable. In particular, the Pathways Alliance assure us that they are well on the way to a net-zero future, through advanced carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects among others.

In fact, CCS is largely a failed technology and shows little or no prospect of success in the foreseeable future, while in the meantime proving a dangerous distraction from the more immediate problem of reducing our carbon footprint.

So, it's not a huge surprise to see that the Pathways Alliance has suddenly removed all content from its website and social media feeds in anticipation of the federal bill C-59 which, among other things, contains a truth-in-advertising amendment to the Competition Act that would require corporations to provide evidence to support their environmental claims. 

Otherwise known as the "anti-greenwashing provision", this is considered a major win by the environmental movement, even though it is in essence quite modest and not specifically aimed at the fossil fuel industry. 

Greenwashing is rampant these days, and studies show that up to 50% of companies' and governments' environmental claims have no supporting evidence and weak or non-existent verification. Worse, 57% of Canadian consumers no longer trust firms' green claims, making the work of honest firms that much harder.

The Pathways Alliance's public statement says that the amendment "will create significant uncertainty for Canadian companies that want to communicate publicly about the work they are doing to improve their environmental performance". What they actually mean is, "crap, we've been rumbled!" 

Rather than creating "significant uncertainty", the amendment does quite the opposite. It really just requires companies to tell the truth, and to be able to back up their claims with evidence. Seems reasonable, right?

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Record numbers dying at annual hajj as Middle East climate worsens

Religion leads people to do amd say some very silly things. Thus has it always been. It is almost the exact antithesis of common sense.

What would lead thousands - no, millions - of people to spend many hours out in the sun in record-breaking temperatures, surrounded by so many other people it is almost impossible to move, let alone seek shade when necessary? Oh, yes, religion.

Muslims are very strongly encouraged by their imams to make the hajj pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Poor people sell all their worldly goods and even abandon their families to make the trip. Every year, many die, mainly due to crowd crushes and stampedes, but also because of the heat. It's kind of a crazy thing.

This year the hajj coincides with 52°C temperatures (although the temperatures are almost always dangerously high), and an estimated 550 people have died (so far), mainly Egyptians, Indonesians and Jordanians, and almost all from heat-related causes. Other tallies put the death toll at 577 (so far). Over 2,000 have been treated for heat stress.

The Saudi authorities caution the use of umbrellas and water, and avoiding exposure to the sun during the hottest part of the day. But, as they well know, many of the prescribed rituals involve being outdoors for hours during daytime hours. There are some air-conditioned facilities along the route, but these are not accessible by the thousands of "unofficial" pilgrims who cannot afford the often costly procedures for official hajj visas, and often skimp on food and water too. The Saudi health ministry seems to consider it a huge success that they managed to avoid any major disease outbreaks.

Do people who die at the annual hajj count as martyrs for the cause? Do they get to enjoy all those virgin? I doubt it somehow. And, anyway, did anyone ask the women whether they want to enjoy virgins? Ah, forgive my flippancy, but it does make you despair about religion in general, doesn't it?

UPDATE

The heat death numbers have now surpassed 1,000, the vast majority of them unregistered Egyptians.

UPDATE UPDATE

The final tally was at least 1,300 deaths. Really, this has to stop.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

US ADVANCE bill not what America needs right now

A huge new bill just passed in the US Senate that has the American nuclear industry deliriously excited, and it has me (and others) in two minds.

The ADVANCE bill (Accelerating Deployment of Versatile Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy - an awkward moniker, to say the least) passed in the Senate by 88-2, with 10 abstentions and just Bernie sanders and Ed Markey voting against. It is designed to reverse the American nuclear industry's decades-long decline, by slashing development fees, speeding up the licensing process, and hiring new staff for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Spokespeople for the industry are calling it "monumental", "game-changing" and "much-needed".

The main impetus for the bill is climate change and carbon reduction, but it will affect more than that. The USA has been leery of new nuclear projects since the Vogtle plant on Georgia went so far over-budget and over-time, and solar and wind power generation became so comparatively cheap. Now, the US government - no doubt at the behest of the still-powerful nuclear lobby - is looking to tilt the playing field in its favour again.

But it will almost certainly have the effect of drawing money and investment away from true renewable energy and battery technology, which is ultimately where we need to be going. Nuclear power is a low carbon option, admittedly, but it is also expensive, slow, inflexible, and comes with a whole catalogue of other unsavoury side-effects, not least the need to safely store spent fuel for centuries. It's also not even necessary. And don't get me started on small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear  plants, which people have been calling the saviour of the energy industry for decades, but which still doesn't even exist, and show no signs of ever becoming practical. Even notoriously pro-nuclear France has just scrapped its SMR plans due to soaring costs.

Joe Biden will almost certainly rubber stamp the bill when it is presented to him. But it is probably not the right direction to go. Focussing on nuclear is an unwelcome distraction from the job in hand.

UofT justifies Hebrew University associations in the name of academic freedom

If you needed further evidence that the Israel-Palestine issue is complicated - despite the black-and-white that both sides seem to be able to find in it - take just one of the demands of the University of Toronto pro-Palestine encampment.

The UofT protesters are calling on the university to boycott and cut all ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in addition to disclosure and termination of the school's investments in Israel and in weapons manufacturers that enable Israel's war in Gaza. 

Hebrew University is located at Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in the 1967 war, and is still claimed by Palestine as their capital city, despite being part of Israel's illegally occupied territory. Canada, like the UN and most other countries, "does not recognize Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem", and regards it as part of the illegal occupied territories, "stolen land" in less polite terms.

The UofT administration argues that it has had a working relationship with Hebrew University for some time (actually just since 2007), and that academic relations transcend political considerations and should be regarded as sacrosanct. The phrase that springs to my mind in this connection is "yes, but not at any cost" - such esoteric sentiments should not be used to justify abuses of human rights.

It is further argued that the university has been at Mount Scopus since 1925, long before the establishment of the state of Israel, when the area was part of British Mandate Palestine, and that it "maintains continuous private property rights in East Jerusalem, regardless of the area's sovereignty status", a highly suspect claim either legally or morally. But, anyway, it closed down there in 1948, and then re-opened again in 1967, at a time when the area was officially illegally occupied by Israel. So, bit of a red herring.

And should we care that 17% of the student population of Hebrew U are Arab? Or at least they were in 2022 - I've a suspicion that may well have changed in the past few months.

It should be noted also that Hebrew University has programs directly associated with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the outfit current laying waste to the remnants of Gaza. It also hosts Havatzalot, an IDF intelligence training program. The university describes this association as "purely academic", but somehow I don't think so.

So, complicated, perhaps, but not THAT complicated. As even a Jewish Faculty Network member at UofT concludes, citing academic freedom in this situation is "totally disingenuous and misleading ... how can the collaboration with such an institution be defended in the name of academic freedom?"

Monday, June 17, 2024

Can we have too much renewable power?

Every now and then (and increasingly so, it seems), there is a news report about a country where electricity prices turned negative due to a glut of renewable solar and wind power generation. The latest example is France, but there have been previous reports from Germany, Denmark, Spain, California, etc.

The language in these reports is often mildly disparaging, not so much "congratulations on being able to produce so much green energy" as "*sigh*, this whole renewables thing is never going to work". Or even, "those damned cheap renewables had the audacity force France to reduce their really expensive nuclear capacity". Those are not actual quotes, but that is the vibe. 

Actually, a big part of the problem is the difficulty and the cost of shutting down inflexible baseload generation like nuclear power stations, which therefore tend to get preferential treatment in these situations.

What these occurrences do highlight, more than anything, is the need for batteries. We have good battery technology now, but we need to be investing more in installing battery capacity so that, when there is a glut of renewable power, it doesn't just go to waste or, worse, mess up the whole grid supply system. That, and an improvement in transmission to neighbouring countries and jurisdictions that do not have such a wealth of renewable energy capacity.

That way, there won't be so many snide comments in the mainstream press. Excessive renewable power is not, in itself, a bad thing.

A power source with negative carbon emissions?

The idea of a power source with negative carbon emissions - yes, that's "negative", not "zero" - sounds like pure science fiction, right? But it can be done, just not at useful, commercial levels yet.

The technology described in a new research paper looks at effectively hijacking the photosynthesis process as algae converts carbon dioxide into food. With an anode and cathode chamber separated by a honeycomb-shaped proton exchange membrane, the process starts by taking in carbon dioxide from the air, and its only by-product is water, making the whole process carbon-negative. At a simplistic level, it works by capturing the electrons that the algae creates during photosynthesis, and harnessing them to produce electricity. 

Thus far, researchers have only succeeded in creating a terminal voltage of just one volt from a single micro photosynthetic power cell, and scaling it up may well prove challenging. But, hey, scientists love a challenge don't they?

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Does Elon Musk deserve a $56 billion pay package?

Should Elon Musk get a $56 billion pay package? Should we even care? Many people have weighed in on this, from Tesla shareholders to a Delaware judge to regular guys on the street like me.

Tesla shareholders, which comprise thousands of Tesla/Musk fanboys as well as serious institutional investors, originally voted for this unprecedented and record-breaking ten-year pay package for the company's eccentric and divisive CEO back in 2018. This was partly because the company actually did hit enough of the various benchmarks and targets set back in 2018 (Tesla is not performing as well as hoped, particularly of late, but it has been doing some things right). But it was also partly in an attempt to keep the famously mercurial individual's attention on Tesla, and not on his various other pet projects, like social media, space exploration, AI, etc, and even to prevent him from possibly leaving the company.

The pay package went before a Delaware judge (also unprecedented), which ruled in January that Musk had unfairly controlled the company's compensation process, and that Tesla's disclosure of the pay package was inadequate. The judge took the extraordinary step of striking the down the package, calling it "unfathomable" and "deeply flawed".

Now, though, Tesla's shareholders have doubled down and reinstated the pay package, regardless of the legal ruling, although the award is now only worth about $45 billion sincere value of Tesla stocks have fallen substantially in recent months. The proposal is also now officially approved as a board resolution.  Moreover, the meeting voted to move Tesla's incorporation from Delaware to Texas on order to avoid more "woke" legal grief. 

It's not clear where things will go from here. Legal experts are unclear as to whether the shareholders approval will be enough to overturn the Delaware court's decision. As always, chaos and controversy follows Musk around everywhere he goes.

Law students and the Israel-Hamas issue

An excellent extended article by award-winning journalist Robyn Doolittle in the Globe and Mail does a really good job of looking at the complexities, the misunderstandings and the high emotions involved in the reactions of students and faculty to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

She does this in the context of the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University, an avowedly progressive school that embraces equity, diversity and inclusion. Specifically, it investigates the reactions and pushback caused by a pro-Palestinian petition circulated in the early days of the conflict.

In among all the detail that Ms. Doolittle sets forth, and all the interview clips she reports, a few things jump out at me:

  • The importance of distinguishing between criticism of the state of Israel (its politics, its rhetoric and its beliefs) and antisemitism (hostility to Jewish people in general).
  • The extreme conservatism of the legal profession (or at least the high-end, commercial wing of the legal profession, as often described as "Bay Street lawyers").
  • The way in which the Israel-Palestine issue polarizes people, unlike almost any other single issue.
  • The way in which law students (and even teaching staff) are in existential fear of the legal establishment, which expects them to toe the line on pain of excommunication.
  • And finally, be careful what you put your name to, and read it carefully first.

Several other thoughts occurred to me too as I read the article. It's worth a read.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Irony lives in the Republican Party (or are they maybe serious?)

This is priceless. 

Lara Trump, Donald Trump's daughter in law, who, coincidentally, is now chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), made an impassioned speech about election fraud at a convention in Detroit.

"If you cheat in an election, we will find you, we will track you down, and we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law." Thing is, I believe this was said in all seriousness, with no trace of irony.

So, the political party of Donald Trump, who is currently facing multiple trials for attempting to do just that, cheat in an election, is trying to take the moral high ground on electoral integrity. 

The RNC under Lara Trump even has a new "electoral integrity division", so you know she's serious. The division is being led by Christina Bobb, who has just been charged in Arizona with trying to interfere with the state's 2020 election results.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Welcome to the world of the "mouse-mover"

Well, here's a bizarre concept. The more I read on the internet, the more weird stuff jumps out at me.

Wells Fargo Bank has recently fired over a dozen employees for using "mouse-mover" or "mouse-jiggler" software. So, yes, there are computer programs out there that will move a computer's mouse or trigger phantom keyboard entries without any human intervention, so as to give the impression that the computer is being used, i.e. that the owner is working.

I mean, I guess it's quite clever, but it means that there is a market out there for such a service. And this is because, in this post-pandemic era of working-from-home, there are a whole load of people who want to appear to be working when they are actually out cutting the grass or smoking dope or working out or whatever it is they do.

And here's the kicker, the reason this is an issue in the first place is because companies like Well Fargo (and I'm sure many more) are employing their own software to check that absent employees are using their computer mouse or typing things (anything). Because, apparently, moving your mouse equates to work. 

I knew that some companies installed spyware on their employees' computers to check on what they are doing. And that's bad enough. But apparently there are some who just want to check that employees are moving their mouses!

This seems inconceivable to me. Can't they check that the employees are actually achieving concrete results, like bringing in customers, producing reports, or whatever? Or is that just incredibly naive and old-fashioned of me?

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Trans Mountain pipeline at risk over quality of Albertan crude oil

So, you know that Trans Mountain Pipeline extension (TMX) the government spent billions of taxpayer's money on to transport Alberta heavy crude oil to the Pacific coast? Well, it may have nearly tripled shipping capacity, but it turns out that a lot of American refiners on its West coast don't like it.

The oil that is. The heavy crude oil that is produced in Alberta's oil sands is very "sour" (i.e. it has a high sulphur content), has high acidity, and comes with a high vapour pressure. All of this can damage refining equipment, cause polluting vapour leaks, or is just not compatible with the specifications of the machinery.

There are fears that this could dampen demand for Canadian oil, or lead to lower prices. West coast American refineries were expected to be the top buyers of crude oil delivered through TMX, and they are unlikely to make major upgrades or changes to their equipment just to accommodate the Canadian oil. Therefore, there is now a lot of uncertainty over the pipeline's future (or at least its profitability).

The economic benefits of a more moral Canadian economy

In a thought-provoking opinion piece, political advisor and pundit Allan Gregg weighs in on the perennial bĂȘte noir (and what Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland recent called "the Achilles heel of the Canadian economy"), productivity, a subject I have also written on recently.

There has been much hand-ringing over the decline in Canada's productivity, a measure of gross domestic product per capita. Over the last 40 years, Canada's economic growth per population has been sadly lagging that of its peers (although, anecdotally, that does not seem to have translated into anything disastrous, if you ask me). As things stand, the OECD predicts that Canada's economy will grow slower than all other advanced economies (per capita, that is, part of the calculation being attributable to Canada's relatively high immigration rates).

Mr. Gregg has a few solutions to offer. The first is to do away with corporate subsidies. Whether in the form of tax incentives or direct funding and loans, $50 billion a year is put into such subsidies at the federal level, almost as much as is spent on healthcare, and as much as 80% of it is useless and does not lead to increased productivity or boost real income for Canadians in any way. That's $40 billion a year going into propping up failing companies and subsidizing their already-rich shareholders. There is an argument to just stop such corporate welfare (although Mr. Gregg does not consider the potentially disastrous employment effects of allowing such companies to actually fail). 

Likewise with corporate share buybacks: when a company buys back its own shares, the only people who benefit are those same rich shareholders. It does not strengthen the company or improve its productivity in any way. Why then do we allow them? Once again, the practical impossibility of such a government intervention is not considered: this is very much a theoretical brainstorming session on the author's part.

Education is a major driver of personal income, and with 200,000 to 300,000 young Canadians dropping out of high school every year, many potentially higher incomes are being squandered. Again, there is a real world practical caveat being ignored here: not every child can go on to higher education - some have neither the drive, the intelligence, nor the aptitude for it, and the higher education system would not be able to cope with it anyway.

Most of Mr. Gregg's potential solutions, though, focus on rectifying social inequities, which in addition to the moral benefits would, he argues, have a huge economic boon. The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen, he contends, and Canada's Gini Index, a measure of income or wealth inequality, has increased shamefully. (In fact, as far as I can see, at 31.7, Canada's Gini Index is not that bad, and has been steadily falling since 2006. Indeed, it is better than that of the UK, many European countries, and certainly the USA.)

Leaving that aside, Mr. Gregg suggests that closing the 10% employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, for example, could add 100,000 people to the Canadian work force, and generate $27 billion, or about 1.7% of GDP, to the Canadian economy (this according to the National Indigenous Economic Development Board).

Closing the 18% employment gap between foreign-born and Canadian-born workers of equal qualifications - immigrants are typically much more highly educated than those born in Canada, with 55.1% having a bachelor's degree or better, compared to 28.5% for Canadian-born - could boost GDP by about $50 billion, or 2.5%, if barriers were removed and new Canadians of equal qualifications were paid the same as their Canadian-born counterparts (this according to RBC Economics).

And finally, if women made up their 10% employment gap and their $7,200 average pay gap, almost 2 million new employees could be added to the labour force and (according to McKinsey) as much as $150 billion, or 7.5% of GDP, could be added to the economy.

The total of all these measures together would be in the region of $268-$317 billion, or 12-15% of our total national wealth, Mr. Gregg estimates. The hurdles to be cleared en route would be prodigious, and in practice only a small proportion of these gains could ever be realized, but the potential gains are clearly huge.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Hunter Biden's conviction is not in the same league as Trump's

It seems bizarre to me that Hunter Biden's conviction for gun crimes is being equated in some circles with Donald Trump's conviction on 34 counts of falsification of business records with intent to defraud the voting public.

Hunter Biden is not standing for President of the United States last I checked. Donald Trump, for our sins, is. Joe Biden was not involved in his son's bad decisions. The worst you could argue is that he should have been, although that would be a stretch, and being a good father is not a major requirement of the presidency, not should it be (can Trump be said to be a better father?)

If anything, the Biden trial served to confirm the probity of the American justice system. And Joe Biden's grave and measured response to his son's conviction - his respect for the verdict, painful as it may be, and a heartfelt hug - marks a pointed difference from Trump's denial, outrage and histrionics.

There are many better bases on which Americans can hang their votes. Policies, maybe? International respect? Ability to tell the truth? Fathering? Not so much.

Still, Trump and the more rabid elements of the right-wing American press now talk about the "Biden Crime Family" and the "Biden Family Criminal Empire". And some, not content with the conviction, are portraying Hunter Biden's trial as a fake cover-up for the family's "true crimes". Conspiracy theories abound as to what these putative crimes may be, and truthfulness, or even a basic level of truthiness, are not a necessary element. Trump's son, Jr., for example, talks about the Biden trial "trying to create that illusion of equal justice under the law"

Canada has its own problems, most countries do. But America today is a sad old place, and the longer this stuff goes on, the lower the country's image sinks in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Elizabeth May is, once again, the adult in the room

Once again, Green Party leader Elizabeth May has shown herself to be the adult in the room. She took the responsibility of obtaining special security clearance and reading the unredacted version of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) report, and reporting back to Canadians that perhaps the sky is not falling.

Although circumscribed in what she was allowed to divulge publicly, Ms. May did the work for us and was able to confirm that the Canadian parliamentarians that the report fingers as having engaged in "semi-witting or witting" collusion with countries like China and India were not in fact current sitting parliamentarians. 

This is a big deal, and will maybe have put many people's worst fears to rest. "There is no list of MPs who have consciously, deliberately, sought to sell out Canada to preference another government." She now has, she says, "no worries about anyone in the House of Commons".

Thank you Ms. May. Why could someone else not have said that? Why could the government not have told us, without giving too much away, what the report is and is not saying?

Ms. May's succinct summary made it clear that, while the press' worst suspicions (stoked, it might be said, by the Committee itself) may not be appropriate, all is still not well as regards foreign interference in top-level Canadian politics. Some (unnamed for now) former MP is still alleged to have maintained a "relationship" with a foreign intelligence officer and provided them with confidential information, and legal prosecution may well be appropriate in this case. These are still allegations, however egregious, and so no names should be made public just yet. Also, a small number ("fewer than a handful") of current MPs/Senators may also be caught up in "meddling" that amounts to something less than treasonous activities.

Compare Ms. May's calm and sensible approach to the issue with Pierre Poilievre's, who still says he has no intention of reading the report because that would tie his hands and disallow him from talking about the issue (and scoring cheap political points in the process). It didn't seem to stop Elizabeth May, and we should be very grateful for that.

All in all, the media firestorm that has blown up around the foreign interference issue, and around the NSICOP report in particular, seems to have been overblown. Surprise? Not really.

UPDATE

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP, also read the same report, and somehow came away with entirely different conclusions.

Where Ms. May found relief in the details of the report, Mr. Singh found alarm. Where Ms. May found no evidence of sitting parliamentarians having engaged in witting collusion with foreign countries, Mr. Singh found quite sufficient evidence to talk about "treason": "What they're doing is unethical. It is in some cases against the law. They are indeed traitors to the country." Where Ms. May's reaction was calm and measured, Mr. Singh's was hectic and distressed, bordering on panicky. He has a bit of a flair for the dramatic, and sometimes he just can't help himself.

As though realizing that Mr. Singh had got a bit carried away, a party spokesperson did later issue a statement saying that Singh's comments should not be taken as confirming or denying that the parliamentarians cited in the report are currently serving.

How can two individuals have two such different reactions to the same information? Both are lawyers and should know how to read and parse a report. Of course, it's all about interpretation, but it may also be about image. Singh is often at pains to show that he is cross - very cross! - with Prime Minister Trudeau, because he does not want his voters to think he is soft on the Liberals, despite his sticking with them, through thick and thin, as part of the supply and confidence agreement between the two parties. Ms. May, with just two Green Party members in parliament and no formal agreement of support, has no such need.

Pierre Poilievre, meanwhile, seems serene in his ignorance, and still has no intention of reading the report, he says.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The European Parliament's centre did indeed hold

All the news media are describing the European Parliament election results in almost apocalyptic terms, highlighting the continued rise of the far right in European politics. "Far right parties surge in European Parliament vote", says the CBC. "Marine Le Pen's far right party makes historic gains in EU election", says EuroNews. "The far right made big gains in European elections", says AP. "Far right makes significant gains in European Parliament elections", says the Financial Times. Etc, etc.

But a particular graphic in the Globe and Mail, comparing the old Parliament make-up and the new post-election make-up, has me scratching my head. It really doesn't look that bad.

Yes, the Green's took an unfortunate tumble from 71 to 53 seats, as people continue to jettison environmental concerns in favour of their own selfish, short-term economic concerns. And yes, the liberal-centre Renew Europe party likewise suffered a sizeable 102 to 79-seat haircut, and the Socialists and Democrats party a smaller loss (from 139 to 134). The far left parties more or less held their own relatively modest share, losing only one of their 37 seats.

But the ruling centre-right European People's Party actually picked up ten seats (from 176 to 186), and remains far and away the largest single party in the Parliament. The centre-right European Conservatives and Reformists grouping also increased their seat count (from 69 to 73). As Ursula von der Leyen stresses, "the centre is holding", and her party remains very much at the helm of the European political enterprise. 

Like last time, she still needs to cobble together a coalition, preferably without having to involve the more extreme groupings. But she is a wily and experienced coalition, and I for one have great faith in her ability to do that.

So, where is the "catastrophic", "historic" and "unprecedented" rise of the anti-immigration, Euro-skeptic and climate-skeptic extreme right in all this? As far as I can see, the far right Identity and Democracy grouping (which includes France's National Rally, Austria's Freedom Party, Italy's League, and Germany's Alternative For Germany, among others) increased its seat count from 49 to 58, a big gain in percentage terms, but still pretty modest in absolute numbers. They will not be running the chamber with those numbers.

Probably of more concern are the far right gains in specific countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and Austria. (Although, even so, what on earth was Macron thinking immediately calling a general election, thereby risking handing the far right domestic power as well as power within the broader European context? If you are down, keep a low profile until you can do something about it - don't expose your vulnerable underbelly to more abuse.)

But overall, the centre did indeed hold, and the sky is not yet falling. The prospect of a surging extreme right is admittedly alarming, but it hasn't happened yet. Let's keep this in perspective.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

The simple problems that AI can't handle

It's interesting to hear that AI can have problems answering some pretty simple logic problems, problems that humans typically have no problems with.

The problems in question are often referred to as Alice In Wonderland (AIW) problems, and are usually stated as follows: "Alice has four sisters, and she also has a brother. How many sisters does Alice's brother have?" Humans, even relatively young humans, typically have no difficulty in figuring out that the brother has four sisters plus Alice herself, i.e. five.

As often as not, though, AI applications like ChatGPT, Opera's Claude 3, and Meta's Llama 3 get this wrong, often offering confident and detailed step-by-step workings and explanations of its erroneous thinking (one even with a drum roll!) 

OpenAI's new GPT4o model had the highest success rate, but even that only achieved about 65% success. Claude 3 only managed a 43% success rate, while the best version of Llama languished at just 30%. Google's Gemini Pro only got it right 0.8% of the time, so the less said about that the better.

It's not quite clear why they have such difficulty with these apparently simple tasks. The AI systems' official ratings for problem-solving ability is 88%, 87%, 64% and 72% respectively, but that does not seem to be reflected with these particular problems. Maybe the problem-solving evaluation needs to be re-evaluated?

How much special treatment for Jews is apparopriate?

It's no secret that there have been attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues in Canada - B'nai Brith Canada has compiled a list of 18 such attacks since early November last year, however it might define them - and these seem to be genuine antisemitic attacks (or, to a use a more useful term, anti-Jew), rather than just anti-Israel. Despite repeated protestations from politicians that "this is not who we are", it apparently is who who we are, or at least a tiny unrepresentative minority of us.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, self-appointed upholder of all things Jewish in today's Canadian Parliament, is calling for specific responses and protections for Jewish people and their institutions in Canada - the creation of policed safe zones around Jewish schools and synagogues, the recognition of Samidoum and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as terrorist organizations, and some changes to the Criminal Code. And, given the political climate and the all-consuming fear of being labelled antisemitic, he will probably get them. And perhaps that is right.

Where things get slightly problematic, though, is when one minority group gets too much preferential treatment. Squeaky wheels are one thing, but the oil needs to be spread across the whole vehicle fairly. So, how much attention should the beleaguered Jewish community receive, at the potential expense of the beleaguered Muslim community (which has been experiencing this kind of opprobrium for many years now). Or the LGBTQ community? Or the Black or Indigenous communities?

It's really hard to complain about Housefather's demands, but there is a potential for favouritism here. Just sayin'.

Are great artists magical beings or vessels of God, or is all art really theft?

Canadian author Michael Harris has written a brave and compelling article for the Globe and Mail. Brave because he calls out and all-but-destroys some longstanding shibboleths about art and artists.

He approaches the subject by questioning whether the process followed by artists (of all kinds) is really any different from the process employed by artificial intelligence (AI). This is, of course, dangerous ground. Haven't Hollywood screenwriters and animators just spent weeks striking about incursions by AI into their own artistic fiefdom? Haven't some famous authors sued OpenAI over its false literary pretentions?

The argument is that all a computer does, and all they can do, is aggregate examples of previous art to produce faux "new" art, whether that be poetry, music, pictures, or stories. Surely, this is different from human art, which requires novelty and individuality to make creative work meaningful. Human art is an expression of the soul that machines can never achieve.

But in reality, even the most radical art merely builds on what has gone before. Art is not spontaneously conceived (whatever artists might tell you). The solitude chosen by the proverbial artist in a garret is merely a romantic notion, and at best is a means of managing the constant flood of inputs from our big crowded world. So, are great artists unique and magical in some way, or just particularly clever utilizers of freely available ideas, merely individual steps in an ongoing evolution of artistic endeavour.

As Mr. Harris puts it, "The truth is: no art emerges without enormous quantities of material borrowed or stolen from others ... That material is absorbed, re-assembled,  and finally presented as 'new' ideas that we happily receive."

This is never more apparent than when artists are taken to task over plagiarism claims. Was the music "sampled" or stolen? Is the movie a "homage" or a rip-off? Did the author "reference" a prior work or plagiarize it. Often, the distinctions are fuzzy and indistinct, but individuals may get socially cancelled and even lose their livelihoods over such fine distinctions.

It may be that generative AI may just have exposed a fundamental truth about the creative act, and Mr. Harris is just the one brave enough to call it for what it is. In his words, again: "By consuming, digesting and repurposing stacks of content, AI does exactly what humans have always done ... they are learning to do our jobs in far less time and at far less cost". And who's to say they can't do it just as well? Or better?

Maybe, in time, human artists will learn to use AI as a tool, much like the 19th century impressionists used the then emerging technology of photography as a tool. A final word from Michael Harris? "All generation is regeneration. All art is theft." Ouch!

Saturday, June 08, 2024

The raccoons are taking over

I hadn't realized it, but apparently raccoons are on the move. Indigenous to the USA and southern Canada, they are increasingly being found in places like Western Europe, Central Asia and Japan. And, with climate change, they are moving into areas where they used not to be found. One study suggests that over 60% of the world is currently suitable for the "raccoon invasion". And wherever they go, they establish a love-hate relationship with the local humans.

We are used to raccoons (affectionately known as "trash pandas") here; they are just part of the environment we live in. Toronto, in particular, is Raccoon Central. We can admit that they are cute, smart, dextrous, curious and interesting animals, but at some point this always tips over into annoying, troublesome, destructive, even detested. The residents of some of the newer raccoon habitats are just starting to realize that.

Raccoons were imported into places like Germany in the 1930s and 40s to farm for their pelts, and of course some of them eventually escaped (or in some cases were deliberately released, just for the hell of it). Japan had something of a love affair with raccoons after a popular children's book was televised in the 1970s, and thousands of Japanese children wanted pet raccoons of their own. Of course, that didn't go well, and many escaped or were quietly released when it was realized that they don't make good pets. In other places, they were used for medical experiments, alongside mice and rats. But, unlike the mice and rats, they managed to escape from there too.

Raccoons as an invasive species have proved difficult to eradicate. They are consummate survivors. Their birth rate is prodigious, and a surprising proportion of babies survive into adulthood, even in a hostile city environment. They can eat almost anything, and can find their way into the most unlikely of hiding places. 

Several years ago, the city of Toronto spent millions of dollars on raccoon-proof compost bins, only to find that their strong, clever little paws found a way into them anyway. (The most recent version of a city compost bin seems to be keeping them at bay ... for now!) Bungee cords just don't cut it. You can now buy t-shirts with "Raccoons vs. Toronto" logos here, or "Home is Toronto" with a raccoon poking out of a trash can, or "Raccoon City". For the most part, we have come terms with living in their city.

So, good luck Germany. Good luck Japan. From our experience, the best you can hope for is a grudging coalition; at worst, expect them to take over. In the meantime, maybe invest in some raccoon-proof bins. And maybe a t-shirt.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Poilievre knows alleged foreign collaborators can't be named, but demands it anyway

Ah, how easy it is to be an opposition politician. 

Pierre Poilievre can, quite reasonably, call on the Prime Minister to identify the alleged foreign collaborators in Parliament, secure in the knowledge that, if he were in charge of the governing party, he would not be able to do so either, because of, you know, intelligence and national security reasons. 

Given that the allegations could amount to treason, there is no way that the government could, or should, be releasing names publicly at this point. Releasing any uncorroborated and unverified names would be irresponsible and probably illegal. It would violate the due process of any criminal legal proceedings that might ensue from the allegations. 

As the phrase goes, "intelligence is not evidence", and we should not be ruining the reputations of major public figures on the basis of allegations and suspicions alone. Expose the culprits by all means, but not until they have been proven to be collaborators. This is not a partisan reaction - I have never voted Liberal - it is just common sense. Even the (non-partisan) Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) counsels against precipitous denunciations.

Comparisons with Prime Minister Trudeau's public disclosure in September last year of allegations that agents of the Indian government may have been involved in the shooting death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar are equally disingenuous. No names were mentioned there, and it was pointing fingers at another country, not at our own lawmakers.

But, by loudly calling for the government to disclose names, Poilievre can still appear to be doing something, protecting the Canadian people and democracy and all that. You could call it disingenuous or cynical or whatever you like, but it's effective politics, and Poilievre's core base will be loving it.

CSIS recommends that all party leaders obtain security clearance to allow them access to the full report. Jagmeet Singh has done that. Yves-François Blanchet says he probably will. Pierre Poilievre, notably, has not, and yet most of the noise for the release of names is coming from him.

The names will probably come out eventually, and MPs and/or Senators will fall. Some of them may be Liberals, some may even be Conservatives or NDP-ers. But, in the meantime, Poilievre can take what appears to be the moral high ground, and make hay while the Liberals squirm. Should he? That's a moot point. Poilievre is the consummate politician, with all the good and bad that entails. He's not going to let a little matter like morality get in the way of a good soundbite.

China's highest waterfall is actually fed by a pipe

If you thought that it was impossible to believe almost anything China does or says, well, this will only strengthen your opinion.

Deep in the mountains of Henan Province in northeastern China is Yuntai Mountain, a UNESCO Geo Park and one of China's premier natural tourist areas. You may remember it from news reports back in 2015 about a newly-installed glass walkway that cracked just two weeks after opening and had to be closed down. 

One of the major attractions within Yuntai Park is Yuntai Falls, at 314m the highest uninterrupted waterfall in China. Well, it turns out that it is actually fed by a hidden water pipe, high on the mountain, and so is not a natural feature at all. An intrepid hiker discovered the pipe at the source of the waterfall and posted video of his findings on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Since then, it has attracted some 10 million views on Douyin and 14 million on Weibo.

The waterfall itself (yup, I know!) issued an apology, saying it was only trying to help give people a good show, and a surprising number of people were sympathetic (albeit a minority). Only in China, you say.

It's not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Hangguoshu Waterfall in the southwestern province of Guizhou was shown to be benefitting from a water diversion project from a nearby dam in 2006.

You can't help but think that China is somehow missing the point here.

Monday, June 03, 2024

LNG may be even dirtier than coal

The scourge of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, Robert Howarth, is back. Howarth, a biogeochemist and environmental scientist at Cornell University, has already raised the hackles of the oil and gas industry with his analysis of the hidden carbon footprint of the LNG industry. He has now published a new study (still in preprint and not peer-reviewed) that paints the LNG industry in an even worse light, concluding that LNG is even worse than coal from a cradle-to-grave carbon pollution viewpoint.

Howarth argues that, taking into account methane emissions and the whole lifecycle (including extraction, liquefaction, tanker transportation, regasification, distribution and consumption), LNG maybe up to 2.7 times worse than coal for the environment. Even taking transportation out of the equation, LNG is still slightly higher in emissions than coal.

Howarth is a polarizing figure in this area of research, and both this and his previous publications have met with stiff resistance in some quarters. But I have always had a sneaking suspicion that LNG is not as good an alternative fuel as many in Western Canada and the USA maintain, and I have not been swayed by arguments that LNG is a  "transition fuel", or a "bridge to the new energy economy". Other studies have also come down against that kind of thinking.

But Howarth's research seems to have been instrumental in Joe Biden's recent decision to temporarily halt new LNG terminal expansions in the USA until their climate impact can be fully investigated. Future "market need" is also being analyzed as part of the investigation. The USA is now the world's largest natural gas exporter, having overtaken both Australia and Qatar, so to "tap the brakes" on LNG while a time-consuming environmental review takes place is a brave move on Biden's part. 

There is no sign of such bravery in Canada, although the federal Liberal government has said that it is not interested in subsidizing the industry: "The government is opposed to using government money to fund inefficient fossil fuel subsidies ... We are not interested in investing in LNG facilities". Well, that's something, I suppose.