Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canadian Conservative leadership candidates an uninspiring bunch

I am not a Conservative, that much will be clear to anyone reading any of these blog posts. Neither am I a Liberal, other than in a very small-l kind of way (although I will admit to entertaining some hopes for the progressive platform of Justin Trudeau, before he started to lose his way). Nor, for that matter, do I support the NDP, at least not since Tom Mulcair decided to throw their traditional values under the bus in the pursuit (presumably) of populist votes. In a world where strategic voting was not needed, I would probably vote Green, if anything.
So, I am observing the ongoing d├ębacle of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign with something like dispassion. But, boy, am I glad I'm not a Conservative. What a bunch they have, vying to lead the party and, potentially, the country! What an unedifying and depressing spectacle!
Where once there were fourteen candidates, we are now effectively down to four:
  • Kevin O'Leary, defiantly unilingual and expatriate reality TV personality and businessman, with no political experience and no personal charm, self-consciously copying Donald Trump almost note for note with his social media outbursts and his petulant allegations of unfairness.
  • Maxime Bernier, clearly not a Conservative at all but an unrepentant Libertarian, complete with plans for an extreme scaling back of government, and carrying with him the baggage of his earlier disgrace when he left sensitive government documents with his biker gang-related girlfriend.
  • Kellie Leitch, a firebrand populist also hoping to jump on the Trump bandwagon (despite evidence from the recent Dutch election that right-wing populism may no longer be the flavour of the month), with her stridently anti-immigration, nativist slant.
  • Andrew Scheer, perhaps the least offensive of the four and the favourite of the Conservative caucus, but lacking in star-power, personality and (perhaps) electability.
The race has already started to get nasty, with name-calling and allegations being bandied around, although still nothing like to the extent of the Trump nomination race. And now there are allegations of widespread fraud and vote-rigging, which O'Leary is determined to pin on Bernier, but which, in my opinion, seems much more likely to emanate from the O'Leary campaign itself.
All in all, not a pretty sight. Perhaps, I should be pleased to see so many apparently unelectable Conservatives, but then that's what we said about the American Republican Party a year ago. And look how that turned out.

It's looking like my initial suspicions about the vote-buying issue may well have been correct. A Brampton-based O'Leary official was probably responsible for fraudulently purchasing Conservative Party memberships using pre-paid VISA cards. O'Leary then tried to lay the blame his main competitor. If, like me,you thought O'Leary was sleazy, then your suspicions are more than confirmed.

Friday, March 17, 2017

US women's hockey team stay strong under pressure

Kudos to the U.S. women's hockey team as they don't even blink while pursuing their insistence on fair wages and support as the World Championships loom imminently.
The US women are the best and most successful hockey team in the world - sorry, Canada, but, in recent years at least, that's true - having won gold in six of the last eight world championships (including the last three), and a medal in every Olympics. And the annual IIHF Women's World Championship is the premier international competition in women's hockey.
The gutsy US women's team have selected this sensitive time to pursue a contract with USA Hockey that compensates them fairly. Currently, they are expected to train year round with only a nominal payment, except for a slightly better-paid six-month residency period in the run-up to the Olympics. Most have second, and even third, jobs to make ends meet, and even then they are expected to jet off to international games and a regular national team camp every few weeks, during which they lose those wages. They also get inequitable support for equipment, staff, meals, travel and publicity and, furthermore, they complain that the boys' National Team Development Program is much better funded than the girls' equivalent.
In protest at this inequitable and unfair treatment, they are willing to boycott the highest profile competition of the year. They have even spoken with possible replacements that USA Hockey might use in their place (such as the Under-18 and Under-22 teams, and the National Women's Hockey League) and obtained their general support, to the extent that they are confident that those young players are unlikely to want to risk their potential welcomes on the national team by strike-breaking action.
USA Hockey has now upped the stakes and laid down a deadline for the women to commit to playing in the Worlds, but they remain steadfast in their determination and in their cause. Good for them!

Injection device that does not use a needle

Well, how cool is that? They've invented an injection device that does not use a needle, just like on Star Trek (and every other science fiction movie you've ever seen).
It actually emits an ultra-thin stream of liquid which somehow enters the skin directly without the need to puncture it, and it is propelled by a powerful battery/electric motor that is able to inject even thick viscous liquids that are difficult with traditional needles.
The future is here already.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Google wants you to put a solar panel on your roof

Say what you like about Google and its dastardly plans to rule the Earth, but the company's geeks do keep coming up with some amazing products and services. The latest such goes under the codename Project Sunroof, which identifies the suitability for solar panels for 60 million buildings in the United States.
The project, which has been ongoing for about 2 years now, has finally covered all 50 states. It uses imagery from Google Maps and Google Earth, 3D modeling and machine learning to create an interactive solar map of the whole country - state by state, town by town, and building by building - to calculate the amount of sunlight received by each section of roof throughout the year, taking into account weather patterns, the position of the sun in the sky at different times of the year, and potential shade from obstructions like trees and nearby tall buildings, in order to make an assessment of whether each building would be a suitable candidate for solar panels.
The project concludes that 79% of all rooftops analyzed are technically viable for solar power (in that they have enough unshaded area for solar panels), with over 90% viability for open, sunny states like Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Even the more forested, northern states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Maine reach over 60% viability. The single city with the most solar potential is Houston, Texas, followed by Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, New York and San Diego.
As a corporation, Google has always been proactive on renewable power, particularly solar, and has a stated goal of running all of its global operations solely on renewable energy. They may have intruded themselves into the very fabric of our lives, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree, but sometimes I think that I'd rather trust Google to run the world than many a government I can think of.

Blue Whale game is probably not real (but it could have been)

If you've never watched the cult British TV series Black Mirror, then I suggest you rectify that. It holds up what is indeed a very black mirror to our modern technological and slightly paranoid society. It's not science fiction exactly, but neither is it the comfortable, morally unambiguous life that most of us lead day to day. It is a dark take on how things might turn out, indeed how they might already be if we but knew.
One episode in particular, called Shut up and Dance, is particularly disturbing. A series of individuals receive mysterious, and mysteriously knowledgeable, messages directing them to carry out increasingly violent and shameful acts or face having equally shameful personal secrets revealed to their loved ones. Even after breaking all their deepest-held personal moral codes, though, their secrets are ultimately revealed anyway, and the characters end up being punished for both their original misdemeanors as well as for their imposed crimes. No underlying mastermind is ever exposed, and we are led to conclude that it is somehow the Internet itself that is spying on and blackmailing these unfortunate people, and generally making their lives a misery.
So, it was perturbing to read today about an Internet-mediated cult or game in Russia, known as the Blue Whale game (after the whales' propensity to fatally beach themselves for unknown reasons). According to some reports in the Russian media, gleefully picked up by the British gutter press, teenagers (particularly pretty girls, it seems) are being seduced by cryptic online videos, that are propagated mainly through the social network VKontakte and filled with obscure ciphers and codes, into fulfilling a series of challenges, often involving some kind of self-harm, culminating after 50 days with the directive to commit suicide. Some Russian news outlets have reported 130 recent suicides that have been "linked" to this practice, a statistic that has been been bandied about ever since.
Except that it is far from clear whether such a suicide club actually exists at all, much less that 130 young girls have lost their lives to it. Radio Free Europe has reported that its own investigations into the alleged cult have drawn a blank, and hoax-monitoring websites has deemed the story "unproven".
So, it seems likely that this is just another one of those false news/conspiracy theories, and thank God for that. But it speaks volumes that such a nefarious scheme could be taken so seriously, to the extent that at least one British police force saw fit to warn the local populace against it, calling on parents to remain vigilent for mentions of Blue Whale in their children's social media feeds. What a dark world we live in!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What woman would actually want to be a member of a club like Muirfield?

The historic Muirfield golf club in Scotland finally dragged itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century when it voted this week to admit female members.
The vote, which required a two-thirds majority to be enacted, saw just over 80% of the current (male) members vote to allow women to become members of the prestigious club, which was established as an all-male preserve back in 1744. A similar vote last year resulted in just 64% in favour of allowing women through the door, but then the R&A (the organization that organizes the British Open championship) slapped a ban on the club, stripping it of eligibility to host the Open.
Clearly, the club could not see the main money-spinner in its golfing year walk away, so please don't think that the wealthy denizens of the Muirfield clubhouse have suddenly had a change of heart and seen the moral error of their ways - this was a purely commercial decision. And bear in mind that 20% of them still don't want women members, regardless of the Open ban.
Which leads me to question what woman would actually want to become a member of such a club. It seems to me that the optimal outcome would be for the club to retain its new pro-women rule, but for no women to actually join it.

Italian band jailed and deported at US border for no good reason

Every year in the run-up to the big SXSW rock festival in Austin, Texas, there are reports of bands being turned back at the US border, usually for no good reasons. This year a band called Soviet Soviet seems to have had a particularly bad time of it.
Soviet Soviet hail from the small town of Pesaro, Italy, that hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. They arrived, armed with the correct visa and a letter of introduction from the SXSW organization and from their American record label, which explained that they would be performing a series of concerts for promotional purposes only and would not be receiving any form of payment for those shows. Basically, they did everything right.
But that did not stop the American border authorities from grilling the three band members for about 4 hours, before announcing their decision to deny the band admission and to deport them back to Italy, for reasons no-one still quite understands. The band were then frisked, handcuffed, had their cellphones confiscated, and were taken to jail in a police car, where they spent the night like common criminals.
And Americans wonder why most of the world hates them...

NDP electricity solution not convincing (and renewables are not the culprit!)

I have been receiving blanket emails from the Ontario NDP about their new "solution" to what is apparently the pervasive issue of our times, electricity prices (here is a link to the details of their policy, although their campaign-style emails just take me to a donations page, which is perhaps instructive in itself). With the policy, and the email blitz, the NDP is clearly positioning themselves for the next Ontario election - which is scheduled for summer 2018, for God's sake! - in which electricity prices are expected to be a major issue, as though we had nothing more important to focus on.
The NDP's solution is to: re-nationalize that part of Hydro One that was sold off by the Liberals and the preceding Conservatives, which the NDP estimates will cost around $4 billion, but which it says will pay for itself in just 8 years through the province's share of its profits (even though the point of nationalizing would supposedly be to stop profiteering); reduce the delivery costs to rural customers down to those enjoyed by urban customers, which it proposes to achieve through a fee charged by Ontario Power Generation, through some as-yet-unexplained mechanism; eliminate the mandatory time-of-use (TOU) pricing system, which was originally designed to reduce peak demand (and thus reducing the amount of installed capacity needed by the system) but which the NDP claim is just "not working"; review and possibly renegotiate "bad private power contracts", which could come with potentially huge cancellation costs. All of this, according to the NDP, will save Ontario customers 30% on their bills, although it is not clear to me how much of that will just come out of our taxes, and how much of the plan is actually feasible.
As you can tell, I am not totally enamoured of the NDP's plan, which smacks of smoke-and-mirrors dog-whistle politics to me, and does not seem convincingly argued or priced out, although the current Liberal government's knee-jerk reaction of just subsidizing the unpopular high electricity prices and extending the paper life of current projects is admittedly no better (and that definitely just comes out of our taxes).
What prompted my blog entry more than anything, though, were some of the comments regular Ontarians were making to the proposed plan. The level of discourse is generally poor, and many contributors are scarily misinformed about many aspects of our electricity system. One particular recurring theme is that the Liberals' Green Energy Act - which had the entirely laudable goal of encouraging the growth of renewable energy in Ontario, and which was reasonably successful in that until it was scaled back recently due to its unpopularity with the general public - has been somehow responsible for most of the increase in Ontario's electricity prices.
In fact, as a detailed report by Environmental Defense explains better than I ever could, the combined total of solar, wind and bio energy only accounts for about 12% of the total, about $20 out of the average electricity bill of $170. Renewables do not even represent a large chunk of the Global Adjustment charge, an element of the total bill which has seen a large increase in recent years. By far the largest part of that is due to nuclear power (cost overruns, refurbishments, etc), followed by gas. So, if people really want to single out a culprit for our high hydro prices (which, as I have reported elsewhere, are not even that high), then nuclear power would probably have been a better candidate.