Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars "monumental gaffe" really not a big deal

Well, the world is still whittering and twittering about the "monumental gaffe" at the end of the Oscars, when La La Land was initially announced winner by mistake in the Best Picture category, rather than the actual (and admittedly much more deserving) winner, Moonlight.
Yes, it was a mistake, but it was corrected. Price Waterhouse Coopers has accepted responsibility. No-one died. No black artists were cruelly overlooked. There was no grand conspiracy. The La La Land people weren't even that upset. In fact, it wasn't really that big a deal. And that's even presupposing that the Oscars are actually important per se (I'm sorry, but they're not).
And I don't actually do Twitter - never seen much point in it - but I suppose it was to be expected: there is an #OscarsSoBlack hashtag out there, fielding a rather strange mixture of complaints from disgruntled white guys, congratulations from happy and earnest black people, and a bunch of largely even-tempered suggestions that perhaps the large number of black nominations and winners this year is, in good part, just a politically correct knee-jerk reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry last year (which, even giving credit where credit is due, is probably not far from the truth).
Anyway, can we now get over it, please, and focus on what's actually important in the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

An ad-free CBC would cost us an extra $12 a year. Sign me up!

Whenever I watch the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), our national public broadcaster - which admittedly is not that often, given how little I watch television of any kind - I always bristle at the constant interruptions (particularly towards the end of a program) by inane advertising. Maybe that is unreasonable, given that every other TV station in Canada also advertises. But, hell, this is supposed to be our national public broadcaster, and to me this always raises memories of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) I remember so fondly from my youth, and which remains to this day one of the best and most respected public resources for objective news, incisive documentaries and varied entertainment in the world.
The BBC does not carry advertising, and is largely funded by an annual television licensing fee, levied essentially on anyone and everyone in possession of television equipment, plus revenues from selling high quality BBC programming worldwide (which provides about a quarter of its total revenue). Just for reference, the licensing fee is currently £145.50 (about C$240) per year per household.
So, why does Canada not operate on a similar publicly-funded advertising-free basis. Well, mainly as far as I can tell because we are more American and capitalistic than we are British and socialistic (although even the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS) does not carry advertising as such, but relies on private membership donations and grants and those incredibly annoying pledge drives for about 60% of its income, as well as corporate sponsorship of programs, or "underwriting spots").
Anyway, I got to wondering about the CBC's finances and what would be involved in it going advertisement-free. It turns out that the CBC itself has been asking itself the same question, and it submitted a position paper to the government just this last November proposing that the CBC move to an ad-free model similar to the BBC's. In rough figures, removing advertising would result in about $253 million in lost advertising revenue each year, and necessitate an additional $105 million for producing or purchasing additional content to fill the advertising space. The total cost would therefore be of the order of $360 million. In addition, the CBC suggests it would need about $100 million more each year for "additional funding of new investments to face consumer and technology disruptions", whatever that might mean, but would also save about $40 million year in costs associated with selling advertising. So, if we take the overall cost to the tax-payer to be about $400 million a year, then the CBC estimates that this would increase the cost every Canadian pays for the service to about $46 a year as compared to the current $34 a year (after the current Liberal government has reinstated $150 million a year in public funding axed by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper).
So, getting rid of ads on CBC would require an increase of the princely sum of $12 per person per year. $12? Sign me up now. I'll pay in advance if you like.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The sun finally shines on solar power (thanks mainly to China)

I've sung the praises of solar energy many times before on these pages, and I've made several mentions of how cost-effective it is becoming. But it does seem that, in 2016, solar has finally achieved "grid parity", that long-sought after status where solar electricity is cheaper to produce than coal-fired electricity, even without government subsidies. In many countries, solar (and, incidentally, also wind power) can now outbid traditional technology competitors on its own merits. A recent Deutsche Bank report says that solar electricity is now becoming price-competitive in 80% of countries.
And the future is looking even sunnier: over the next 5 years, the US Energy Information Administration is expecting solar power to become nearly 40% cheaper than a new coal plant built to modern specifications (i.e. incorporating carbon capture and storage). Recent competitive bids in South Africa and Chile have already bettered that margin. Tenders in the Middle East are even lower, with price quotes as low as 2.4c per kWh, a fifth of the cost of average American electricity prices. Many private corporations, from Ontario to India, are installing their own solar panels, in parking lots and on factory roofs, because over the long term it is cheaper than buying electricity from the grid.
So, how has this happened? In 2016 alone, the market price of solar cells dropped an astonishing 27%, thanks almost exclusively to Chinese mega-companies like Jinco Solar, the world's largest manufacturer of solar modules. Chinese producers are using smarter manufacturing techniques, more automation, faster machines, and greater output volumes to gradually reduce the price of new panels. Jinco, and other producers like it, now uses better quality silicon that is easier to handle, and has imported techniques from the semiconductor industry to improve productivity. Just three years ago, a typical Chinese cell factory churned out 1,600 units an hour; today, it is more like 4,000. It doesn't hurt that the price of polysilicon, the main ingredient in solar cells, has plummeted recently.
The burgeoning demand for solar installations, that has made substantial efficiencies of scale in solar panel production possible, is also being kick-started by China itself, and the country is expected to install fully 40% of the global total of new solar capacity this year. It is not too much of a stretch to say that China's aggressive ramping up of its solar program has single-handedly galvanized and subsidized the green energy push worldwide.
All of this is not to say that solar power has overcome all of its challenges and drawbacks. With the best will in the world, solar technology can not generate power in the dark, although it is now surprisingly efficient on a cloudy day, even in relatively high latitude countries like Canada and northern Europe. Electricity storage technology - essentially batteries - still lags behind solar generation technology, and makes base-load solar generation (such as can be provided by coal, gas, nuclear, etc) an impossibility at present. But then no-one is claiming that solar should shoulder the whole load of renewable power generation, and there are many other clean energy resources (e.g. wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, etc) that are available to run in parallel.
Also, the cost of the solar panels themselves can be a relatively small part of the overall cost of solar electricity (estimated to be less than 25% in Canada, for example), with installation labour and land costs making up the lion's share. So, the trend in cost reductions is necessarily limited in high labour and/or land cost countries like Japan (or Canada, for that matter). And, even if solar power might now be competitive without subsidies, an estimated 98% of installations over the last year were in fact subsidized, including those in China.
But, be that as it may, let's give credit where credit is due: solar is finally having its day in the sun. Donald Trump's characterization of solar energy as "so expensive" has become just another alternative fact among many.

Don't thank global warming for crazy warm February weather - curse it!

After the third-warmest January on record (after 2016 and 2007), and the news that 2016 was officially the warmest on record globally (the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures), February 2017 is also shaping up to be one of the one of the warmest on record.
Toronto had its warmest February day ever this Thursday, as the mercury rose to 17.7°C, smashing the previous all-time record of 16°C, which occurred in - guess what? - 2016. Just for context, the historical average high in Toronto for this time of year is 2°C.
And it's not just Toronto: over 5,000 individual temperature records were broken across the USA this February, including a ridiculous record-breaking 37°C (99°F) in the central US state of Oklahoma, and the general temperatures for February so far have been much warmer than average continent-wide.
But if one more person, jokingly or not, says to me "thank God for climate change", or something along those lines, I think I'll scream.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tax cuts do not lead to economic growth, only more income inequality

Like most conservatives, Donald Trump is relying on tax cuts to prime the economy and economic growth. Canadian Conservative Party leadership hopeful Maxine Bernier (as well as most of his competitors) is likewise sold on the effectiveness of tax-cuts and trickle-down economics. It has been a mainstay of conservative laissez-faire ideology for decades, and many economic models (like those of the US's voguish Tax Foundation, for example) just ASSUME the relationship.
But does it actually work? The short answer is that the jury is still out, but the evidence is, if anything, more on the side of "no" than "yes".
A 2012 survey of top economists by the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business found that 35% were convinced that, in general terms, tax cuts stimulated the economy - perhaps less than you might have imagined. A further 35% were undecided, while 8% were somewhat or very sure they did not. More specifically, a whopping 71% either disagreed or strongly disagreed that tax cuts would lead to higher revenue in the next five years, while a telling 0% were willing to state that cutting taxes would in fact raise revenue over the next five years.
Another 2012 report, this time from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, concluded that, over the last 60 years, there has been absolutely no correlation between the top marginal tax rate and economic growth. In the 1990s in the USA, for example, both Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. raised taxes, and the economy boomed, with incomes growing faster than at any time since the 1960s. George Bush Jr.'s subsequent tax cuts, on the other hand, led to the worst economic downturn since the Depression, as well as substantially increasing the deficit.
Of course, the economic effects of tax cuts depend on the kind of tax cut being applied. For example, a cut to the taxation of low income workers is likely to have more effect on the economy, because poorer people are more likely to go out and spend that extra $100 than a millionaire who already has more than enough discretionary income. Also, when tax rates are already relatively low, as they have been in recent decades, tax cuts tend to have a much more limited effect on people's behaviour and on the economy. A Moody's study from 2008 suggests that one-off or short-term tax cuts like rebates tend to have more economic effect than more long-term cuts (the study also noted that boosting spending on programs like feed stamps and employment measures has a substantially greater effect).
So, in general terms, the link between tax cuts and economic growth is far from proven, despite the heavy reliance on just such a link by most conservative politicians. And, as a Business Insider article shows, not only do tax cuts not spur economic growth, they also have the additional undesirable effect of increasing inequality: the lower the top marginal rate of tax, the higher the proportion of national income that goes to the top 0.1% (and vice versa).
It all seems pretty clear to me.

How do squirrels hang upside down on a tree trunk?

Did you ever wonder how squirrels are able to hang upside down on tree trunks? No, neither did I until my wife happened to mention it the other day. It was only then I started to question how they actually do that.
Like many other rodents, squirrels are well-adapted to scramble up trees with their super-sharp claws and big bushy tail for balance. It also helps that they are very light, and have a very strong grip, allowing them to hold on well at a variety of different angles.
But, unlike other rodents, you often also see them shinning DOWN trees head first, or even just hanging there by their back legs. And, when you stop and think about it, their feet and claws should be the wrong way round to let them do that.
It turns out that the squirrels' secret is super-flexible ankle joints. They can rotate their ankles fully 180°, so that they can hang from a vertical tree trunk with their bodies pointing one way and their feet the other.
Pretty neat. And apparently not at all painful.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Those amazing (and cool) tardigrades

And now, apropos of nothing at all, here's an interesting article on one of my favourite animals, the tardigrade, also known as water bears or moss piglets.
These amazing little critters kind of look like the blissed-out caterpillar from "Alice in Wonderland", except that they are tiny, ranging from 0.05mm to 1.2mm, depending on the species (there are over 1,000 different species within the tardigrade phyllum).
Tardigrades have long plump bodies with scrunched-up heads. They have eight legs with four to eight claws on each "foot", and they can also use these legs to swim quite effectively in water. Their mouths can telescope outwards to reveal sharp teeth which they can use to grab onto food, although they mainly just suck the juices from algae, lichens and moss (a few species, however, are carnivorous, and even cannibalistic). Female tardigrades may lay anywhere between 1 and 30 eggs at a time, and some species reproduce asexually.
Typically, tardigrades prefer to live in the sediment at the bottom of a lake or on damp mosses or other wet environments, but they can live almost anywhere, and this is one of their coolest attributes. They have been shown to be able to withstand environments as cold as -200°C, or as hot as +149°C; they can survive boiling liquids, intense radiation, and pressures of up to six times the pressure in the deepest parts of the ocean; they can even survive in the vacuum and radiation of space without any protection (their bodies produce a special protein that protects their DNA from radiation damage). In fact, they are almost indestructible.
In some conditions, tardigrades survive by going into a death-like state called cryptobiosis: they retract their head and legs and curl into a dehydrated ball called a "tun". In this state, their metabolic activity can go as low as 0.01% of normal activity, and their organs are protected by a sugary gel called trehalose. When exposed to water again, they can "come back to life" within a few hours. In fact, they need to always have a thin coating of water around their bodies in order to prevent them from turning into a tun. They can survive in this tun state for at least 30 years, and possibly for more than 100 years. In low oxygen water, tardigrade also have another trick: they stretch out their bodies and slow down their metabolism so that their muscles can absorb enough oxygen to survive.
And in case, you are waiting for me to say, oh, by the way, tardigrades are being pushed to the edge of extinction by our profligate modern lifestyles, it turns out that they are not on any endangered list, and they have happily survived five previous mass extinctions, and so they are not going anywhere any time soon. Cool or what?

It's a case of plus ça change in sexual relationships

Some 50 or 60 years after Masters and Johnson's ground-breaking research on sexual attitudes and practices, studies on orgasms are still being carried out. The latest of these was published recently in the American journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, and it looked at 52,000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 who were in relationships with a single partner, including 2,000 gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
What the study reveals is perhaps a little underwhelming, and maybe even depressing for women's rights campaigners. 95% of heterosexual men reported that they always or usually reached orgasm, compared to 65% of heterosexual women. A much higher percentage of lesbian women always or usually orgasmed (86%), although fewer gay men (89%), and even fewer bisexual men (88%) and bisexual women (66%). Make what you will of the statistics for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, by far the largest "orgasm gap" is between heterosexual men and women, and in some respects little appears to have changed over the last 50 years, despite the so-called Sexual Revolution.
This conclusion is backed up by another finding in the study: about 30% of men believe that good old-fashioned vaginal intercourse is the best way to ensure that a woman reaches orgasm. In fact, only 35% of heterosexual women actually orgasm from vaginal sex alone, while 44% rarely or never do. Compare that with the finding that 80% of heterosexual women, and 91% of lesbian women, climax as a result of the "golden trio" of moves - genital stimulation, deep kissing and oral sex - without any vaginal intercourse. A longer duration of sex also significantly increases a woman's likelihood of climaxing. As one of the research authors tersely puts it: "To say that there needs to be some education I think is an understatement".
And what about mood music, dimming the lights, changing sexual positions, joking, or saying "I love you" during sex? Apparently, none of this has any effect whatsoever on men, while women may increase their orgasm rate by as much as 20% by these simple expedients.
And finally the issue of fake orgasms. 44% of heterosexual men reported that their partners always reached orgasm, while only 33% of heterosexual women actually DID always orgasm. This suggests that a substantial amount of orgasm faking is still going on, and the reasons offered range from love of their partner or to protect their partner's self-esteem, to intoxication or just to bring the sexual encounter to an end.