Monday, October 23, 2017

No, Virginia, cannabis does not cure cancer

As Canada lurches towards marijuana legalization next year, the scores of pot dispensaries that have proliferated (mainly illegally) are using all sorts of iffy advertising to move their product. A common trope is that cannabis can somehow mysteriously help or even cure cancer, and that at the very least it reduces chemotherapy-related nausea. Claims like "significantly reduces the ability of the cancer to spread" are bandied about, and anecdotal case studies of supposedly miraculous remissions are presented as scientific evidence.
Now, anecdotes are not evidence, however much you might like them to be. Without rigorous medical documentation, there is no way to tell whether it was the cannabis that helped, or previous radiation and chemotherapy treatments, or some other entirely unknown factor, or whether it was just a spontaneous remission, which also happens. So, what, then, is the actual scientific evidence behind these claims. Unfortunately, there really isn't any. Or, at least, not yet.
There have been some scientific studies done, and many more are under way or in the planning stages. Some have indicated that there may be some positive effects, perhaps enough to justify further studies and tests, but far from conclusive or definitive evidence. Others studies, however, have indicated that cannabis may interfere with the immune system's tumour-supressing role and could even stimulate cancer cell growth. Also, the high doses of cannabis-based THC or CBD oils that are often recommended for cancer treatments may also decrease quality of life, leaving patients psychotic or dangerously sedated.
The conclusions of one major meta-study may be the best summary of the situation: "there is not enough evidence for any of the cancers to state confidently that it is effective and safe". Perhaps, the best that can be said for cannabis is that it may reduce reliance on high-dose opioids, which can have even more negative side-effects. As such, it could be used as part of an overall risk-reduction strategy.
The good news is that many more studies are currently under way, and some teams seem very confident that a breakthrough may be imminent (read: within 10 years). Time, though, and not wishful thinking, will tell.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Amazon continues to grow, but still makes no profits

As Canadian and American cities desperately vie to outdo each other in a bidding war to host Amazon's second headquarters (HQ2), it's worth taking a closer look at the strange business beast that is Amazon.
We are used to thinking of Amazon as one of the most successful companies in the world, and in some respects it is: the company owns about a third of the huge American internet retailing market, and this could rise to a half within just a few years. It is worth around $460 billion (about 1,000 times its value when it went public 20 years ago). A graph of its share price looks like the archetypal geometric progression more commonly seen in fields like world population, and its price per share been hovering around the $1,000 mark for a while now. The revenue graph is a similar shape.
What Amazon doesn't do, though, is make profits. It has actually made losses in two of the last five fiscal years, and at no time in its 20-year history has it ever made a net income exceeding $5 a share. So, by the usual benchmark of success, Amazon has not been a stellar performer. However, this is mainly because founder and CEO Jeff Besos is so intent on crushing the competition that any spare cash is ploughed right back into bigger warehouses, new AI products, movie production, airlines, etc, etc. Bezos is single-mindedly positioning Amazon as the go-to company for pretty much everything, and he seems to be doing a bang-up job of that. And those tiny profits, then, are intentionally tiny profits.
Will this astounding growth ever translate into bottom line earnings? Possibly not, but investors don't seem to mind. They seem content to be as patient as Bezos, and to reap the huge share valuation advantages while they can. Bubble, anyone?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey making feminist poetry sexy (and saleable) again

I know I am hopelessly behind the times, as usual, but I have just been listening to Rupi Kaur reading her Milk and Honey poems. 
Ms. Kaur is a young (just 22 at the time of writing this short collection) Canadian woman of Indian background, who self-published her poems and then became an unexpected best-selling phenom. She has just published a second collection The Sun and her Flowers, hoping to build on this momentum.
Ms. Kaur's blank verse is quite visceral, powerful and affirming, even if some of the more aphoristic soundbites are perhaps not quite as deep as the dramatic pauses suggest. It is certainly a worthy addition to the canon of feminist poetry, and literature in general, if that is not damning it with faint praise (not my intention at all). 
And it is probably just the kind of thing that young women everywhere should read or listen to (and guys too, for that matter, in this age of #HimThough, #HowIWillChange, etc, etc).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New battery technologies could revolutionize electric vehicles

I was excited by news that some companies, notably Zap&Go in the UK, and StoreDot in Israel, are making some progress with faster-charging and more stable alternatives to the lithium-ion batteries which are generally used today in electric cars.
Zap&Go is pursuing nanocarbon-ion batteries in partnership with a Chinese battery producer, and is holding out the prospect of a full charge in as little as 5 minutes (about as long as it currently takes to fill up with gas). StoreDot also makes use of nano-materials and proprietary organic compounds, and is also talking about 5 minute charges.
Neither company is quite there yet, but the prospects are bright, and they could revolutionize the already-burgeoning interest in electric vehicles.

In taxation, as in life, not everyone will be happy

An article in today's Report On Business introduced to me an interesting idea I had not thought about before (I don't necessarily agree with much of the rest of the article, but this part at least gives food for thought).
With respect to the ongoing tax reforms of the federal Liberals, the article points out that, while most people in Canada would agree that our tax system as a whole should be (and generally speaking is) fair, equitable and progressive, we have got to the point where our expectations have shifted so much that every new tweak to the system also needs to be fair, equitable and progressive. In Mr. Speer's words: "It's no longer adequate for overall spending and taxation to be equitable and progressive. Now, the new test seems to be that every spending and tax measure must be equitable and progressive. The scope for compromise is increasingly nil in such a zero-sum world."
There is an element of truth to this point. Any new tax measure introduced will always have winners and losers. Someone somewhere will always complain about it, claiming that it is unfair in one way or another. And if we are starting off with a tax system which is generally fair, equitable and progressive, any new fair, equitable and progressive measure introduced is not going to make much difference.
Except that the point only goes so far. It is still possible to want to make the overall tax system MORE progressive or MORE equitable. So, new tax measures may seem unfair to some individuals who are affected, but they may still improve the overall system ("improve", that is, in the eyes of the government of the day, which was voted in by a majority of the population).
This seems to be what is happening at the moment with the ongoing debate over small business taxation. Some individuals may feel aggrieved by the proposed measures - you can't please all the people all the time - but the country's tax system as a whole may be improved by them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Debunked Daily Mail climate change article still holds sway

An article in Britain's Daily Mail back in February this year entitled "Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data" set the right-wing media alight. Maybe you remember it.
According to a Buzzfeed analysis, the article received more than 211,500 shares, likes, comments, or other interactions on social media, and another 159 stories repeated the original’s claims and linked back to it, including coverage from conservative news giants such as Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Caller, and National Review, as well as from climate skeptic blogs. These stories received about 540,800 shares or interactions.
Unfortunately, the original story was just not true, and the Daily Mail's and other commentators' reporting of it skewed the truth still further. At least 66 online articles taking issue with or refuting the original article have appeared since, but these have only garnered a little over a quarter of the social media shares of the original. For what it's worth, the online version of the Mail's article is now prefaced by a detailed apology for all the errors and the misleading and inaccurate reporting.
However, the damage is done, and the kind of people who frequent Breitbart and Fox News have had (or at least feel that they have had) their erroneous views vindicated and strengthened. The old saw about first impressions was never more true, and it seems that no amount of debunking, however definitive, is going to change that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tesla under immense pressure to deliver

Tesla seems to be really struggling to keep up with the ridiculous demand for its beautiful Model 3 electric car.
Apparently, there is a waiting list of over 455,000 orders for the car (and that is after 63,000 preorders were cancelled by disgruntled or skeptical potential customers), whereas they produced only 260 in the whole of the last quarter (due to "production bottlenecks"). At that rate, it would take about 430 years (!) to catch up on current demand, let alone the expected increasing demand in future years. The Palo Alto, California-based company says it hopes to produce over 100,000 this year, after ramping up production, although this would still be far from sufficient to meet demand. But don't hold your breath on that.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this situation, Tesla has just laid off hundreds (an estimated 400-700) of its 33,000 workforce, mainly in administrative and sales departments, but also in its manufacturing operations, after its latest annual performance review. I'm not sure I'd be tempted to work for such an aggressive hire-and-fire company.
The other little factoid that came out during the reporting of this mess is that the Tesla company apparently has a market value of $59 billion, which is more than, say, Ford, even though (unlike Ford) Tesla has still be register a profit.
It's nice to be popular, and it's particularly nice to see so much interest in an environmentally-friendly product. But just imagine being the object of so much anticipation, so much pressure to deliver.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Think yourself lucky you are not taxed on employee discounts

Yet another storm-in-a-teacup concerning Canadian tax law. The Liberals are frantically down-playing a recent announcement that the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) wants to tax employee discounts. Justin Trudeau himself is on record as vowing that no such tax will ever be implemented, and that the CRA has drastically overreached itself in even hinting that there might be.
Politicians across the board have been falling over themselves to appear outraged and horrified that staff discounts for department store workers or reduced-price burgers at the end of a fast-food server's shift could ever be considered taxable.
And yet, technically, they most definitely are. As Globe and Mail columnist Tony Keller points out - albeit in a rather wordy, repetitive and long-winded way - the Canadian tax code, like that of most other western democracies, explicitly states that non-cash benefits in lieu of regular wages and salaries should be considered taxable. For example, if an employer gives an employee a $50,000 boat in place of $50,000 salary, it would be, and is, taxable. An employee who receives $500 in free groceries each week is taxed on the taxable benefit accruing. And that is all as it should be: there is, after all, no essential difference between such a benefit and normal earned income.
The only difference between the boat example and the burger example is one of scale and practicability. While the burger should technically be taxed too, the onus of reporting and auditing such a tax would be prohibitive, and the possibilities for the inevitable evasion of such a rule too extensive. The real reason such benefits are not taxed is because it is not worth the cost of collecting, processing and policing such small amounts. What is not clear is just where the cut-off should be - what kind of a discount is too small to be worthwhile taxing and what IS worthwhile - the tax code does not make that clear.
Given that, the outrage that has met the CRA's proposal seems excessive. Those who do benefit from such employee discounts and perks are not being taxed on them for incidental and administrative reasons, it is not a God-given or natural right as some seem to be implying. And they should be very cognizant that others, who receive larger benefits or perks, ARE in fact being taxed. In short, they should think themselves lucky, and not push that luck too far.