Saturday, January 20, 2018

Canada much more urbanized than America, so we will never elect a Trump

For some reason, I find demographics fascinating, and I'm a sucker for a nice colourful graph. So, I found a comparison of Canadian and American cities in today's paper riveting.
The main thrust of the article was to point out how much concentrated the Canadian population is in its major cities. In overall terms, America's 10 largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and Boston) account for 8% of the country's population. Canada's 10 largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo), on the other hand, account for 31% of the Canadian population. If we use the census metroplotitan areas (i.e. including the suburbs), the proportions are 27% for the USA and 55% for Canada.
When ranked in order of the most populous cities by share of national population, 7 of the top 10 are Canadian cities: Toronto (16.86%), Montreal (11.66%), Vancouver (7.01%), New York (6.24%), Los Angeles (4.12%), Calgary (3.96%), Ottawa-Gatineau (3.77%), Edmonton (3.76%), Chicago (2.94%) and Quebec City (2.28%).
So, Canada is not a country of farms and small villages after all. We are apparently a gritty, urban bunch. And so, the articles argues, we are, for that reason, much less likely to ever elect a Trump-style populist, a type of politician that generally finds it constituency in rural areas. This is especially so given the racial make-up of Canadian cities (about three-quarters of Toronto and Vancouver, for example, are first or second generation immigrants), and the fact that we do not share the US's peculiar Senate system, which gives hugely disproportionate power to sparsely-populated rural states.
Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Aziz Ansari sexual assault allegations puts #MeToo in an awkward position

The sexual assault allegations against Aziz Ansari may well mark a turning point for the whole #MeToo / #TimesUp / #BelieveHer movement.
Not being an avid television viewer, I have to admit that don't know Mr. Ansari from Adam. But, apparently, he is a popular TV comedian and writer, and is best known for his starring role in a Netflix series called Master of None, a role for which he recently won a Golden Globe. From what I can make out, he seems like a nice enough guy, and he even wore a Time's Up pin for the recent 2017 Emmys awards ceremony, although I do understand that that in itself does not actually mean that much.
An after-party for another awards ceremony, the Emmys, was also the fateful occasion on which he met the photographer who is using the pseudonym "Grace" for the purposes of her public allegations. Although he apparently repulsed Grace's early attentions, they eventually bonded over a vintage camera that they both use, and they arranged to have dinner. Well, one thing led to another, as they say, and soon they were having mutual oral sex in Mr. Ansari's fancy TriBeCa apartment.
It was only when he did the fingers-in-the-mouth thing (something I have never understood, and which I honestly believe to be an invention of the porn video industry), and showed a keen and repeated interest in penetration that Grace finally used the word "no". And what did Mr. Ansari do? He stopped, saying, "How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?", and they watched episodes of Seinfeld for the rest of the evening.
Next day, he texted her to say what a nice time he had had, and it was only when Grace texted back that she had found it far from enjoyed it that Mr. Ansari had any idea that something might be wrong. In her text, Grace claimed that he had "ignored clear non-verbal cues", and that he "had to have noticed" that she was uncomfortable. He texted back, apologizing if he missed any such "non-verbal cues", but claiming that the encounter was "by all indications completely consensual".
Grace then gave her story to the feminist website Babe, calling it the worst night of her life, and social media lit up. However, this time, not all the responses were supportive of Grace and her allegations. A New York Times opinion piece claims that Ansari was being judged guilty of not being a mind-reader; the New York Post sees the case as evidence of the #MeToo movement officially "jumping the shark"; an article in The Atlantic opines that the story has destroyed a man who didn't deserve it; former CNN anchor Ashleigh Barfield warned that the case endangers the whole #MeToo / #TimesUp movement; a Guardian article calls the original Babe story a "bizarre hybrid of a reported piece and personal essay with editorial comments inappropriately intejected"; a rape survivor in another Guardian opinion piece argues that asault is not just a feeling but a concrete experience; a Washington Examiner article identifies "an unusual coalition of feminists, dissident feminists and conservatives has emerged to dispute the characterization of Ansari's behaviour as sexual assault"; etc, etc.
Now, this are not Fox News reports; these are esteemed women journalists writing for more or less progesssive news outlets. Other responses, it has to be said, have been more supportive of Grace's plight. But what comes out of the coverage as a whole is that we need to be more careful in the reporting of such allegations. It is worth noting also that this was not a Weinstein type of situation - Grace was not beholden to Ansari for her livelihood; it was merely a difference of opinion over what constitutes consent. Neither was it deliberate harassment or abuse of power; it was merely awkward, clumsy, or just plain bad, sex.
Like so many worthy and successful campaigns before them, #MeToo and #TimesUp are, predictably, going through a bit of a backlash at the moment - and I don't just mean Catherine Deneuve and her coterie of French bourgeoises, who have received a generally scathing reaction - and risk being branded as a witch-hunt. So, #BelieveHer by all means, but let's maintain some perspective and objectivity in our reporting, lest the good work of these valuable campaigns be lost amid the resulting flak. In the meantime, any publicity for the movement may be good publicity, to some extent, in that people are certainly talking about it, and it may hopefully give men pause to consider the issue of consent before they exercise their libido.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trump "shithole" outburst offensive, stupid, but not intrinsically racist

Loath as I am to make yet another entry about Donald Trump, I have been trying to figure out why his latest outburst about "shithole countries" is being considered racist. Yes, the man is a racist in general terms - not to mention thoughtless, bigoted, supercilious and gauche - but I'm still not convinced that this particular remark is actually racist in and of itself.
During an all-party meeting on DACA and other immigration issues on Thursday, Trump is reported as having said, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" The context of the comment is not entirely clear: it could refer to El Salvador, Haiti and African countries in general, all of which had recently been discussed, or it could just refer to the African countries, which was the last item to have been mentioned. Either way it clearly refers to poor, downtrodden countries populated by non-white people. This was made even more clear by his subsequent suggestion that the US should instead be bringing in more people from countries like Norway, which just happens to be as close to Aryan purity as possible in this day and age. Trump himself, predictably enough, is denying using such language, although Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who was at the meeting, has confirmed it (and even maintained that Trump used the word "repeatedly").
So, minor contextual quibbling aside, Trump does seem to have called some poor black countries "shitholes". Is this actually a racist thing to say? The Guardian and Vox, among others, certainly seem to think so. But I find their arguments a little thin. Xenophobic, yes. Offensive, sure. Stupid, oh yeah. Ill-advised, definitely (although some are arguing that Trump says these kinds of things deliberately from time to time to shore up his core support - who knows?) But intrinsically racist, probably not, insofar as it does not directly claim that one racial group is superior to another.
Semantics, shmemantics? Perhaps. But if we slide into sloppiness, then arguably we are no better than Sloppy Steve Bannon.

CAMH's $100m anonymous donation comes with no strings attached

What I find interesting, though, is the anonymous part. Compare that with the $50 million donation a couple of years ago to Toronto East General Hospital by the Garron family, which required the renaming of the entire hospital (it is now officially known as the Michael Garron Hospital, even if everyone still calls it East General in practice).
Obviously, $50 million is not to be sniffed at, and the hospital would almost certainly have painted it with pink polka dots to land that kind of money. But, I can't help but look on it as distinctly declassé to insist on renaming a long-established and well-loved 85-year old hospital

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Trump's coastal drilling plan (and Florida's exemption) par for the course

As if Donald Trump's plan to allow oil and gas drilling in US coastal waters, after decades of environmental protection, were not bad enough, he and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have twisted the knife still further by exempting Florida from the plan.
Why Florida? Well, Trump's favourite hangout Mar-A-Lago is there, as well as several of his favourite golf courses. But, even more importantly, the announcement is almost certainly a political stunt in favour of the state's Republican governor Rick Scott, who is being encouraged byTrump to run for a Senate seat (currently Democrat-held).
So, of course, many the other coastal states, most of which are Democrat in demographic, are also asking for exemptions. California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and others are asking, "where do I sign up for an exemption". Even some Republican senators are questioning this bare-faced favouritism and political machination, although others, including environmentally-sensitive Alaska, appear quite happy with their vision of dollar signs.
The whole sad saga exemplifies two or three elements of Trump's typical modus operandi: one is the systematic dismantling of the USA's environmental protections (and, not incidentally, any progressive measures the Obama administration happens to have instituted); second is a measure of confusion and complication brought about by hasty and thoughtless planning (or sometimes, apparently, a complete lack of planning), usually requiring several tweaks and amendments; and finally, a willingness to flout (or, alternatively, just a compete lack of awareness of) laws and conventions that have been established over many decades for the protection of the environment, vulnerable members of society, minorities, etc. And, make no mistake, there will be legal challenges to this latest enormity.

Climate change turning green sea turtles all female

What a strange evolutionary development! It seems that the sex of baby green sea turtles is dependent on the temperature of the sand in which eggs incubate.
For some evolutionary reason that remains unclear (to me at least), the sex of baby turtles - as well as alligators and crocodiles - is not yet determined when an egg is laid. Within a very narrow and specific temperature range, the eggs will produce a clutch of roughly 50% male and 50% female baby turtles. However, if the temperature of the sand is just a few degrees cooler, the clutch will turn out 100% male; a few degrees warmer, and the eggs turn out 100% female.
So, you can imagine that the hotter temperatures created by climate change could wreak havoc with the gender profile of baby turtles. And that is exactly what is being found among the green sea turtles of Australia: 99.8% of green sea turtles born recently along the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef are female. Along the cooler southern part of the Reef, the population is also skewed female, although not in such an extreme manner, around 65%-69%. There has also been a much higher incidence of mortality in the developing eggs, a phenomenon also found in other sea turtle populations, such as those in Florida, where the heat is effectively cooking the eggs and killing the babies.
Between them, these two effects of climate change puts the viability of the whole population of sea turtles, which is already seriously impacted by habitat loss and the effects of unbridled tourism, in jeopardy.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Call me old-fashioned but ... Oprah?

In the wake of her barnstorming speech at the Golden Globes awards recently, Oprah Winfrey is now being touted, in all seriousness, as the potential saviour of the Democratic Party and their best bet to beat Donald Trump in the presidential elections of 2020. And, by all accounts, she may well be seriously considering it.
Now, while no-one is denying that, in a straight choice between Oprah and Trump, one outcome is clearly more desirable than the other, this is probably not a bad time to stand back and say "Woah!" Has it really come to this, that the US presidential elections will be fought between two TV billionaires? What happened to politicians? You know, those people who actually understand how countries are governed and international relations function?
That Trump has single-handedly debased the political process in America is beyond doubt. That we should abandon all precedent entirely, though, is by no means a necessary corollary. Rather we should see this as a salutary warning not to proceed further down that path. Ronald Reagan was one thing (and not necessrily a good thing, depending on your point of view). But now talk of Oprah - and, not so long ago, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, even Dwayne Johnson - getting into the politics game is an alarming development, to put it mildly, and a scary indication of where mainstream American priorities may lie.
Surely, high level politics should be about more than Twitter followings, more even than the ability to turn in a good rousing speech. Can we please get back to the good old bad old days of seasoned politicians arguing policy positions based on their ideological interpretations of well-understood and documented economic data and tried-and-tested foreign policy traditions. God, the boring old status quo has never looked so good!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's

I had thought I'd blogged about this already, when I first read about it a year or so ago, but apparently not. So, here, belatedly, is an article about The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's. I actually watched a BBC documentary on her last night, at a Parkinson's support group meeting, and it's certainly a fascinating story.
Scottish retired nurse Joy Milne is one in a million (or, most likely, one in many millions). She has a ridiculously acute sense of smell. One researcher describes her as somewhere between a human and a dog - but in a nice way. Joy's husband Les was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (PD) when he was in his late 30s, but Joy noticed that his smell had subtly changed some 6 years before that diagnosis. When she started attending Parkinson's support groups with her husband, she noticed that all the other PD sufferers had a similar smell to them. Les died at the age of 65 in 2015, but before he died Joy promised him that she would bring her special knowledge to the attention of PD researchers in case it could be of any help to others in the future.
At first the researchers were skeptical of her claims. But they were largely convinced when Joy identified 11 out of 12 Parkinson's sufferers and control candidates in a blind test, just by smelling their clothes. Then, when the one individual that she had identified as having Parkinson's, but who was actually in the control group, was later diagnosed as indeed having Parkinson's, the whole scientific world sat up and took note.
Joy's ability to identify Parkinson's by smell, even before normal symptoms start to show, holds up the possibility of early detection of the disease, either by trained dogs, or by the scientific identification of which specific molecules make up the particular tell-tale odour that Joy is able to detect. Joy has been dilligently working with researchers and mass spectroscopy technicians, and has been able to identify 10 molecules that appear to be linked to the condition. Although there is currently no cure for PD, new advances in our knowledge of the disease are being made almost every day, and at the very least the research could lead to a definitive clinical diagnostic test for Parkinson's Disease, something that just does not exist at the moment.
It's certainly a fascinating and exciting development. And how cool that a dumpy Scottish senior has super powers like this.