Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Quebec finally accepts some English words are here to stay

The redoubtable Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the official language watchdog of the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, which sees the French language in Canada as under existential pressure from English incursions, has made a surprising volte face in the last few days.
Best known for its introduction and strong promotion of French terms in place of English terms that have become widespread in Quebec - including some rather awkward formulations like courriel éléctronique for email and mot-clic for hashtag, and an insistence on parc de stationnement instead of le parking and fin de semaine instead of le week-end - the OQLF have taken the surprising step of admitting that some French terms have just not taken off and so the English terms are OK after all.
Among these persistent anglicisms are
cocktail (the recommended homophobe coquetel never really took off) and grilled-cheese (instead of the government-approved mouthful sandwich au fromage fondant, which includes the English word sandwich anyway).
These are minor accomodations to be sure, but from an organization with such a fierce reputation for hard-lining, they are significant, and, to my mind, welcome. After all, if English had blocked the adoption of all foreign loanwords, it would only be half the immensely rich language it is today.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Solar or wind can't save the world alone, but all renewables together just might

A harsh but realistic article about renewable energy accepts what you hear so often from climate change skeptics and fossil fuel boosters: while there is a huge potential supply of solar and wind power, both sources of energy are necessarily intermittent and unreliable.
I think most fans of renewables would admit that is true, but that does not mean that it is not the right path to pursue. Every watt of energy produced by solar or wind, is a way that does not require carbon-heavy fossil fuels.
What, then, is the solution to this conundrum? The article suggests the following alternatives:

  • Use fossil fuel plants as back up (rather than the mainstay of energy production).
  • Oversize renewable energy production to be able to cope with peak demand (aware that much power will be wasted at other times).
  • Connect geographically dispersed renewable sources (such as from different states, provinces or countries, necessitating improved or expanded transmission grids) so as to smooth out variations in power production.
  • Store surplus energy for times when solar and wind power resources are low (requiring battery technology, which is improving fast but is still not everything we need).
  • Adjusting the demand to the supply by improving building and vehicle energy efficiencies (so that less power is needed, even at peak times).

I would probably add one more option to this list: invest in other renewable energy sources, like tidal, run-of-river hydro, geothermal, etc. There is no reason why we need to limit ourselves to solar and wind, even though these are currently the most economical methods of green energy production.
How many times have you heard naysayers claiming that solar or wind can never replace coal because it is too unreliable? But no-one ever said that one renewable resource was going to save the world all on its own? We need as many different options as possible, all working together.

Enough with the selfies already

Walking out after a Cirque du Soleil show the other night, I was struck by the sheer number of selfies being taken, with, or often without, the back-drop of the Grand Chapiteau.
A plurality of young people, most of them apparently of Asian heritage (which may or may not have been coincidental), were trapped in their own little bubble, completely unaware of the world around them, completely un-selfconscious or unaware of how they looked to the people around them, so caught up were they in the imperative to document the moment with yet another picture (or three) of ... themselves.
It has got to the stage where I just feel embarrassed for these people. I'm not saying that a selfie is never appropriate - hell, I have even taken a few myself, which my daughter tells me are hilariously amateurish. I just take issue with the cult of the selfie, the social obligation of it, and all the public preening that goes on around it. A recent article documenting selfies being taken on a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp is a good indication of the sorry pass we have come to, and the narcissistic, divorced-from-reality bubble that surround so many selfie addicts.
And I'm far from alone in thinking that the selfie is a fad whose time should be over. There is a multitude of articles on the subject, even within social media circles: 13 Reasons You Need To Stop Taking So Many Selfies, When you stop posting selfies, these 10 things will happen, 15 annoying selfies people should STOP takingWhy you can't stop taking selfies everyone else hates, etc, etc. (A point in passing: something else that needs to stop is articles that begin with "10 reasons why...", "12 things that...", etc.)
Maybe selfies are an innocent pastime, and I am just an old curmudgeon (quite possible). Maybe they are even empowering, as some have argued (I very much doubt it). Art? (definitely not). But I do think that, at the very least, if selfies are going to be taken, a little more thought should go into them, to prevent them from being just the knee-jerk response they so often are. I think the world probably already has a surfeit of most people's faces.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should the government be expected to rescue stranded Canadians?

I can't help but see all the whining by Canadians stranded in the path of Hurricane Irma as wrong-headed.
I have read several articles in which Canadian citizens are complaining that the Canadian government and Canadian airlines have not been doing enough to rescue them from the disaster zone in which they happened to be sunbathing and partying. They say that the Canadian response has been much inferior to that of the Americans (although Americans are complaining too).
All of which makes me wonder: what responsibility do governments have to bail out citizens who put themselves in harm's way? We are not talking here about an unexpected natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption: the series of hurricanes and tropical storms currently lashing the Caribbean and southern USA have been predicted and monitored for some time, and their approximate paths modelled in great detail. Neither are we talking about impoverished natives who are unable to make their own evacuation plans: these are well-heeled tourists taking expensive foreign holidays in St. Martins, Cuba and Turks and Caicos.
I think that if I were unlucky enough to be vacationing in an area likely to be hit by a record-breaking storm, I would rapidly make alternative plans, and not wait until some distant government comes up with a tardy rescue plan. Not that I would book a holiday in the Caribbean during hurricane season anyway...

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some interesting new ways to look at menopause

I read an interesting article in New Scientist recently (not a magazine I usually read or have access to) about menopause (not a subject I usually pay much attention to).
Menopause basically marks the end of a woman's ability to bear children. The number of eggs in a woman's ovaries starts to dwindle, and the amount of estrogen (oestrogen) and other related hormones she produces takes a nose-dive. This results in the typical menopause symptoms: hot flushes, tiredness, weight gain, mood swings, reduced sex drive and vaginal dryness.
One other common symptom of menopause, though, is memory and concentration lapses, and it turns out that changes in the brain that occur during this time are similar in many ways to those occurring during the onset of Alzheimer's Disease, something else that predominantly afflicts women. (Contrary to general belief, men are also affected by menopause - usually referred to as the andropause - but it is a much more gradual and undramatic process.)
Recent research has shown that brain cells have lots of estrogen receptors, and a drop in estrogen production can therefore have a significant effect on memory, mood and general brain health. Indeed, it is possible that menopause might kick-start Alzheimer's. Estrogen has a kind of protective function in the brain, as well as fuelling mitochondrial energy reserves. So, when estrogen production suddenly falls during menopause, the brain starts to use the fatty protective myelin sheaths around brain cells for fuel instead of the usual glucose, leading to decreased volumes of white and grey matter and an increase in beta amyloid production, all hallmarks of Alzheimer's. That being the case, research is now being carried out into whether menopause treatments like hormone replacement therapy (which gained a bad reputation after some damning studies in the 2000s, but which is now gradually being rehabilitated, at least when applied in more carefully-controlled and tailored therapies) might also help with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
One other aspect of the menopause the New Scientist article looks at is just why it happens at all. Humans, killer whales and pilot whales are the only animals in nature that live in good health long after their reproductive years are over (most animals continue to reproduce until they die). If the biological imperative of all animals is to pass on its genes to the next generation, what evolutionary purpose might these extra years fill, then? It has been hypothesized that grandmothers in such animals help to bring up and protect children, giving those children a better chance of survival. Also, after a certain age, helping to take care of grandchildren may be a more efficient way of perpetuating the species than trying to conceive new babies. Interesting ideas.

A bunch of spurious arguments in the TWU debate

There is a whole load of sanctimonious claptrap and posturing going in the arguments around Trinity Western University's proposed Christian law school in Langley, British Columbia.
TWU is a private university, established back in 1962 by the Evangelical Free Church, attendance of which involves, among other things, a "Community Covenant" obliging students not to engage in sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. You get the general idea... The law societies of both BC and Ontario want to refuse to license the university's graduates, and court cases have, predictably enough, ensued. Some of the arguments being put forward, though - on both sides - seem pretty flimsy and spurious to me, although, given the parties involved, one has to assume that they have some legal validity.
For example, Trinity Western maintains that the law societies are discriminating against the religious freedom of its students because it forbids them to join together to express their beliefs. Not so: they can express their beliefs however they like outside of classes, but if they are to become lawyers serving the whole Canadian population then they need to follow the same educational secularism as everyone else does. Frankly, I'm not sure I would trust a graduate from such an institution to have unbiased and inclusive views on issues such as rape, abortion, homophobia, etc, and thereby serve the populace effectively and dispassionately.
On the other side, some same-sex advocacy groups are claiming that LGBTQ persons cannot be their "authentic selves" while attending TWU, and they they should not be "forced to renounce their dignity and self-respect in order to obtain an education". Also spurious: no-one is forcing them to attend TWU, and I would be surprised that any self-respecting would even consider attending such an institution.
I'm sure there are good arguments on either side of this debate, but these are not among them.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Hybrids and EVs represent less than 1% of vehicles sold in Canada

I was shocked - yes, shocked - by a graphic in today's paper showing just how paltry sales of hybrid and electric cars are here in Canada.
An analysis of Canadian vehicle sales shows that, as of July 2016, 96.6% of cars sold here were traditional gasoline vehicles, and another 3.2% were diesels. Only 0.74% were hybrids, and 0.05% were plug-in hybrids, with 0.17% categorized as "other" (meaning electric cars, perhaps?)
Now, I know that adds up to more than 100%, so something somewhere is wrong. And I know that sales of hybrids and EVs have probably burgeoned since July 2016. But this still indicates that a pitifully small percentage of car purchasers are ecologically conscious, much smaller than I expected, and much smaller than the amount of media attention these vehicles attract.
Less than 1% of car owners are really not going to have a huge impact on our national carbon footprint. Disappointing.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Entitled professionals should stop whining about tax reforms

I'm getting a little impatient with all the well-paid doctors and lawyers who are complaining so vociferously about the federal government's plans to close up tax loopholes that these people have been exploiting for years.
The Liberal tax reforms are aimed at clamping down on the kinds of shell companies that allow self-employed to pay lower corporation and dividend taxes, rather than the income taxes everyone else has to pay, as well as making further tax savings by "sprinkling" their incomes around their extended families. It also clamps down on the practice of using private corporations as a means of makinmaking (and protecting from tax) passive investments not related to the business, as well as converting income into (less taxed) capital gains. In short, it aims to treat business owners just like any other salary- earner.
The tax plan, which is still a work in progress at the moment, has generated near panic in some quarters, although there is also a lot of misunderstanding and confusion, even among financial advisors. However, it is expected to only affect top-end professionals earning over $150,000 anyway, those who have already exhausted org we tax-saving methods like RRSPs and TFSAs: how much can they have to complain about?
Furthermore, it only applies to Canadian-controlled private corporations (CCPCs), and studies show us that richer individuals are much more likely to have a CCPC than the middle- and lower-income individuals that much of the media complaints seem to focus on. According to the Canadian Tax Journal, among tax-payers in the bottom half of the income spectrum, less than 5% have a CCPC, as compared to almost half of the top 1% of earners. So, the focus of the tax measures seems well-placed, and it is unlikely to affect the proverbial mom-and-pop corner store owners that so many reports and conservative commentators talk about with such outrage in their tone.
A Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey suggests that, although over two-thirds of business owners pay family members compensation from their businesses, and a similar proportion hold passive investments within their businesses for tac purposes, nearly two-thirds say that the proposed changes will actually have no effect on them.
These outspoken doctors and lawyers have such a culture of entitlement that they have come to see the current system as the norm and the planned reforms as unfair incursions on their cozy little schemes, complaining that they would no longer be able to save for their retirements and maternity leaves.
Well, how do they think other people manage it? Other people who earn the same as them and pay a normal, reasonable amount of income tax.
The tax reforms seem eminently reasonable to me, even long overdue. The whining of a bunch of entitled upper middle class professionals has no place in this discussion.