Monday, December 05, 2016

Two important votes in Europe

A referendum in Italy and a presidential election in Austria over the weekend were two highly-charged events in the wake of the Brexit fiasco earlier this year and the Trump election just last month. What transpired in these two votes was kind of complicated, but certainly not disastrous.
First the Italian referendum. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a self-destructing and career-ending move not dissimilar to David Cameron's fateful decision to call a referendum on Brexit, decided to call a referendum to change parts of Italy's Byzantine political system, the main thrust of which would be to strengthen the power of the Prime Minister and to weaken the upper house, or Senate. Italians turned out in droves (well over 70%) to vote a resounding "No" to the changes, by a margin of 60% to 40%.
So, arguably nothing has changed. But Renzi had put his political career on the line with the vote, and has now been obliged to resign. Also, the vote was widely seen as a rejection of the status quo and establishment politics, and opposition parties (principally the rightist anti-Europe Five Star Movement and the Northern League) are now howling for a new general election. They probably won't get one, and the country will probably limp on with a Democratic Party caretaker administration until regular elections take place in spring of 2018. The Italian economy remains shaky, and several of its major banks are still teetering above the abyss, but life will go on much as before.
But there was some good news as well this weekend. The presidential election in Austria, touted as a referendum on traditional European ideals and liberalism, resulted in a surprise defeat for populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in favour of Alexander van der Bellen, the moderate pro-Europe candidate. The Austrian Presidency is largely ceremonial and does not carry much power in the country's internal and external politics, but van der Bellen's victory (with about 53% to 47% of the vote) was at least symbolic, and elicited a communal sigh of relief in Europe and around the world, even if the vote was relatively tight.
France, the Netherlands and Germany - all countries where anti-immigration and anti-establishment factions are gaining ground in recent years - all face general elections in 2017. But Austria has shown us that, sometimes at least, cooler heads can prevail.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Edward Page Mitchell - a sci-fi visionary

I have been reading a collection of short stories by a 19th Century American author, hitherto unknown to me, and generally little known to the wider literary public, of the name Edward Page Mitchell. The stories, which originally appeared anonymously in serialized form in the New York Sun between the 1870s to 1890s (Mitchell later became editor-in-chief of the same paper), are not available in book form, but can be downloaded for free from the Interwebs.
In more recent years, Mitchell has come to be regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction. Some of his fictional ideas predated similar ones by HG Wells and even Jules Verne by several years, and he anticipates many futuristic technological advances - some of which have come to pass, and some that are still to emerge - as well as social and political advances which would have appeared quite revolutionary at the time.
Among the best, and best-known, of the stories are:
  • A Man Without a Body (1877) - a scientist suceeds in teleporting matter, but when he tries to teleport himself, the electrical battery fails and only his head materializes, fully conscious and sensible, but lacking a body.
  • The Ablest Man in the World (1879) - a scientist develops a thinking, reasoning, computer-like machine, which he then installs in the head of a severely mentally-disabled boy, who as a result grows up into a fiercely intelligent and ambitious adult, set to take the world by storm, until someone discovers his dark secret and sabotages what they see as an abomination.
  • The Senators's Daughter (1897) - set in a futuristic 1937, this tale of a young American woman fighting for the right to marry her Chinese lover introduced a whole host of future technology (including travel by pneumatic tube, electrical heating, newspapers printed in the home by electrical transmission, food-pellet concentrates, international broadcasts, suspended animation or cryogenics), as well as social advances like votes for women, animal rights, racial equality, and interracial marriage.
  • A Crystal Man (1881) - a scientist discovers the secret of altering the colour of the human body, and even rendering it completely transparent, before dying unexpectedly and leaving his experimental subject to a fate of a lifetime as an invisible man (this was some 16 years before HG Wells pursued a similar idea).
  • The Clock That Went Backward (1881) - a mysterious old Dutch grandfather clock transports a group of people back hundreds of years, as it begins to turn backwards when struck with a bolt of lightning (written 7 years before HG Wells wrote The Time Machine).
  • The Tachypomp (1894) - in order to realize the apparently impossible task of achieving infinite speed (and thereby win the hand of his professor's daughter), a student of mathematics contrives a train which carries another train on top of it, which in turn carries yet another train on top of it, and so on, so that the combined speed of all the trains approaches infinity.
The stories are written in the same kind of gentlemanly, slightly stuffy, Victorian style as Wells and his comtemporaries adopted, but they are nevertheless eminently readable and not devoid of humour. They certainly make for an enjoyable and interesting few hours of entertainment at no financial cost, and very little tax on the intellect.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Rich medical specialists whine about tax changes

Specialist doctors are up in arms about a recent federal tax change that is soon to be voted into force.
The legislation is designed to close up a loophole, whereby specialist doctors use complex partnerships and corporate structures in order to tame advantage of the favourable small business tax rate (10.5% on business income up to $500,000, possibly soon to be reduced still further to 9%) rather than the corporate tax rate (15%) or even higher personal income tax rates.
An estimated half of Canada's 80,000 physicians are specialists, and they are among the highest earners in the country, although only about 10,000-15,000 of these are in a position to take advantage of the kind of income-pooling structures at issue here.
The Canadian Medical Association and other medical professional pressure groups say that some doctors could end up paying tends of thousands more a year in taxes as a result of the proposed tax changes, which gives a good idea of just how much these guys are pulling in. Those same pressure groups are scare-mongering that "thousands" of specialists will pull out of group medical offices and that many of them will leave for the United States as a result.
If they want to brave a Trump-led USA, then good luck to them, I say, although they may not find it quite as easy to get in say they think. If a few thousand dollars in tax is all that stands between these people and the abandonment of all that Canada has to offer, then I'm not sure we really want them. Certainly, taxation was never an issue that figured in our decision to move here all those years ago.
Thankfully, Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears unmoved by the whining of a bunch of rich medical professionals and Conservative MPs, and the legislation looks set to pass comfortably.

Most dietary supplements are not even worth considering

The worldwide market for health and nutrition supplements and vitamins is truly huge. Americans alone spend about $30 billion a year on vitamins, minerals and herbal products (that's about $100 for every man, woman and child). This is partly the result of a 1990s law change that allows products to be sold to "support" the health of the body or various body parts, even if no claims are made for the prevention, treatment or cure of any particular ailment.
Millions of people swear by their daily regime of vitamins and minerals. But do we actually know whether the most popular health supplements are actually effective? Are they, in reality, anything more than placebos or just wishful thinking?
One article by a scientific journalist in the New York Times recently tackled just that problem, and his conclusions were disquieting at best. Among his findings:
  • Multivitamins - studies by a number of major health institutions and charities have concluded that a daily multivitamin does little or nothing to fend off chronic illnesses like cancer or heart disease, and a sensible balanced diet is likely to be much more effective.
  • Vitamin D - most people these days are deficient in vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium and phosphorus we need to maintain strong bones, and so this may be one of the few supplements that are actually worthwhile, particularly for older people, even if it has not been shown to actually prevent bone fractures.
  • Calcium - many people are also deficient in calcium, but a better diet with more dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, fortified breakfast foods, etc, would be a better solution than supplements, which can often cause constipation, and has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Vitamin B12 - many people, particularly older people, are deficient in this vitamin, which is needed for healthy brain and muscle function, even those who eat meat (the main source of B12), and a supplement may be necessary over and above what can be found in fortified food sources.
  • Fish oil - variously promoted as a miracle cure for heart disease, cognitive decline and much more, fish oil has actually not been found to be efficacious in studies, and may even increase the risks of an aggressive form of prostrate cancer.
  • Magnesium - studies have not borne out claims that magnesium can help prevent leg cramps, and, while it may help with constipation, it also brings with it a risk of diarrhoea and of interference with the functioning of antibiotics and other medications.
  • Turmeric - used in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, turmeric does have some anti-inflammatory, anti-diuretic and even anti-cancer properties (although official scientific evidence is rather thin on the ground), and anecdotally it can help with some inflammatory conditions like plantar fasciitis.
  • Glucosamine/Chondroitin - studies have shown that the supplement's much-touted efficacy against arthritis are completely unfounded, and it has no more effect than a placebo.
  • Vitamin E - once thought to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, studies have shown that those taking vitamin E supplements actually developed significantly more cancers than those on a placebo.
  • Selenium - also widely taken to lower the risk of prostrate cancer, selenium supplements have been shown in studies to substantially increase the incidence of diabetes.
Hmmm. All in all, it seems like a much better idea to spend some money on improving our diets than investing in dietary supplements. The only supplements that might be worth considering are vitamin D and B12.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Give Castro some credit, not just a knee-jerk reaction

Fidel Castro has finally shuffled off his mortal coil, and Justin Trudeau is in the doghouse for finding some nice words to say about the dead guy. Ah, politics.
Trudeau, like pretty much every other political leader the world over, was obliged to make some kind of statement on the death of a major statesman, and, like it or not, that's what Castro was. Personally, I thought his statement was pretty reasonable and appropriate:
"It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.
"Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
"While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante'.
"I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
"On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader."
Problem is, saying anything remotely nice about an avowed and unrepentant communist is just not done in some political circles. So, Mr. Trudeau was piled on by most conservative Canadian politicians, almost the whole US Republican machine, Margaret Wente (obviously), and even the Globe's Editorial. God, even the usually sober and measured Guardian got in on th act.
But it should be mentioned, before all proportion is lost in the ensuing hysteria, that many other world leaders also made largely positive and respectful statements on Castro's death, including the UN Secretary-General, most presidents of Latin America, and the presidents of the EU, China, Russia, Spain, France, South Africa, India and, yes, the USA.
Castro was a "controversial figure", as Trudeau himself admits, and his democratic failings and civil rights abuses are well-known and reported ad nauseam in thr media. But they do not necessarily have to preface every comment made about the man. Neither do we need to dance in the streets with the Cuban exiles of Miami.
And, just for good measure, neither is it reasonable to characterize pre-revolutionary Cuba as some paragon of wealth, commerce and development, as many anti-Castro partisans (and, once again, the Globe and Mail's editorial team) often insist. In fact, Cuba under Batista was a US colony in which (in the words of one Globe letter-writer) "American-owned plantations and businesses raked in huge profits using cheap labour working in slave-like conditions". The mafia controlled Havana's drugs, casinos and brothels, the government at all levels was hugely corrupt, the police force brutal and repressive, and the regime almost totally indifferent to the education, medical care, housing, social justice and economic opportunity of its people. It was a revolution waiting to happen; Castro was the man who made it happen. Yes, the revolution, like so many others before it, went astray later, but at least give the man some credit where credit is due.

Big news: smoking is bad for you

My last post (forgive the unintentional pun) was about someone killing themselves, and coincidentally so is this one. A new study in the USA has confirmed, in unequivocal and all-too-graphic statistical terms, what most sensible people already knew: smoking is bad for you.
The study concluded that almost 29% of all cancer deaths in the USA are attributable to smoking (23% in women and 34% in men). So, not only is smoking bad for you, it's VERY bad for you. And this does not include deaths from various other diseases that are often linked to smoking. Nor does it include deaths from second-hand smoke, pipes, cigars, e-cigarettes, etc. Also, the data depends on self-reporting, and so could well be understated.
An estimated 8 million premature deaths have been prevented by tobacco control efforts, and yet such controls in some parts of the country remain quite weak: only about a third of US states prohibit smoking in public places; no state fulfilled the WHO's recommenderecommendation for a75% tax on cigarettes; only 7% of states provided comprehensive coverage for smoking cessation treatments under Medicaid; etc.
Geographically, the numbers are highest in southern states like Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, where the vast majority of American tobacco is grown, where tobacco controls are weaker and cigarettes cheaper, and where there is economic and commercial pressure in favour of the industry.
The writing is on the wall, people; all you have to is read it and act upon it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Would you kill yourself for the environment?

This is the first post I have made which has both Environment and Religion as category tags. I read in The Guardian today that a young man in southern India has become perhaps the first voluntary martyr to the cause of environmentalism. Many people have died over the centuries due to environmental degradation, and others have been killed as a result of their environmental beliefs. But this is the first time I am aware of where someone has taken their own life in the cause of the environment. It is a disturbing development.
Jawahar Kumara, a 19-year old from the small town of Thanjavir in Tamil Nadu, was found drowned in the local canal, having left a suicide video on his phone, explaining his actions, thus:
"I am sacrificing my life in the hope that it will trigger serious concern about plastic use in India. Since all of my peaceful means of protest failed, I’m forced to choose suicide. To save the lives of millions of people affected by toxic plastic, I don’t think it’s wrong to kill myself."
The young man was an ardent environmentalist, as well as a deeply religious person, and he had already gone on a hunger strike and threatened to throw himself off a building if his environmental grievances were not addressed by his local government. His grievances were to do with the excessive and polluting use of plastic, and particularly of plastic bags, in India. Basically, he killed himself over plastic bags
Now, India does have a plastic bag problem. Having arrived late on the plastics scene, with the economic liberalization of the 1990s, its use of plastic since then has been increasing dramatically, by about 10% a year. National and state-level actions to control the problem have been less than robust and policing of new policies is almost non-existent. Perhaps the most effective activity has been to rope in India's informal army of waste-pickers or "rag-pickers", who salvage items from landfill sites for recycling (as a result, India's recycling rate is around 60% compared to 22% worldwide). But, in the scheme of things, the country is still not a big plastics consumer, using less than 10kg per person annually, as compared to 45kg in China and a whopping 109kg in the USA.
So, yes, this is indeed a fight worth fighting, but not something that should be inspiring people to kill themselves over. These kinds of extreme religious tactics are just not appropriate for environmental protests.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Facebook effect in a post-truth world

A lot of ink and pixels have been devoted to the allegations that fake news and misinformation of Facebook and other social media sites may have swayed the recent US election Trump-wards, and that this may have been the first (but probably not the last) "post-truth" election.
Much has been made of the fact that Oxford Dictionaries have made "post-truth" their word of the year, as though this is in some way significant or even prophetic. Post-truth refers to circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals, and you can see how this has become a buzz-word in a year of Brexit and President Trump.
But back to Facebook.
It has long been the known that social media (and Facebook in particular) s rife with false news (either deliberately or accidentally so). What has changed more recently is the extent of the influence that social media has over the perceptions of the general public. Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of American social media users - and, let's face it, that's most people these days - get the vast majority of their news directly from that social media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists, somewhat disingenuously, that 99% of the content reported on Facebook is "authentic" (as opposed to factual), and that he finds it "extremely unlikely" that false news on Facebook has been instrumental in influencing the American election one way or another. In fact, he has specifically denied that Facebook helped Trump win, calling such accusations a "crazy idea". But then he would say that, wouldn't he? Zuckerberg says that Facebook is working to identify and flag false news, although he is right to point out that this is a tricky line to walk and that Facebook staff should not be seen as, or be involuntarily put in the position of being, "arbiters of the truth". And certainly fact-checking everything that appears on the site does appear to be just impractical.
Part of the problem is that Facebook's News Feed service is specifically designed to show people the kind of news it thinks they want to see, creating a kind of "filter bubble" which merely serves to reinforce a person's views without exposing them to any alternative or contradictory viewpoints. What an individual ends up seeing (and believing) depends, to a large extent, on their friends and what they choose to share, which just exacerbates both confirmation bias and the so-called "backfire effect".
So, as a result, we have seen fake video of Democrats stuffing votes into ball at boxes, stories accusing the Clintons of murder, stories claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslimfalse claims that popular black actor Denzel Washington has praised Trump, etc, etc. Hilary Clinton connected to a pedophilia and child sex trafficking ring, anyone?
And there is some evidence that, for whatever reason, these kinds of sensational fake stories are actually shared more on social media than other, more mundane, factual claims. One analysis by Buzzfeed News shows that the top fake news stories during the election generated significantly more engagement on Faceook (in terms of shares, reactions and comments) than the top real news stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
So, did Facebook influence the US election? We will probably never know. But it does seem likely that the inexorable rise of fake news has at least increased the political polarization and confusion in a fraught and hotly-contested race.