Sunday, July 23, 2017

Anthony Scaramucci generates hilarious misattributed lyrics meme

Couldn't resist covering this. New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci recently tweeted a pithy little quote attributed by him (and apparently by many other people) to the 19th Century American epigrammist Mark Twain:
Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you've never been hurt, and live like its heaven on earth.
Unfortunately, as its style probably suggests, this was not a Twainism at all. In fact, no-one really seems sure where it originally came from, although the closest source is a song lyric by country and western songwriters Susana Clark and Richard Leigh dating back to, oh, at least 1989:
You got to sing like you don't need the money, Love like you'll never get hurt, You got to dance like nobody's watchin', It's gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
An easy mistake on Scaramucci's part, perhaps. But, when you are the White House communications director, you have to expect a bit of push-back, and the tweet quickly generated a whole meme of mis-attributed song lyrics, some of which are hilarious. Here's a little sample:
When you cried, I'd wipe away all of your tears. When you'd scream, I'd fight away all of your fears.
- Albert Einstein
Don't want to close my eyes, Don't want to fall asleep, 'Cause I'd miss you baby, and I don't want to miss a thing.
- John Locke 
It's been 7 hours and 15 days, Since you took your love away. I go out every night and sleep all day, Since you took your love away.
- Plato 
Love, love will keep us together. Think of me, babe, whenever some sweet-talking girl comes along...
- Jesus Christ 
Mmmbop, ba duba dop. Ba du bop, ba duba dop. Ba du bop, ba duba dop.
- John Milton
So, Scaramucci has already added some value to the world. I truly believe that Sean Spicer would not have been capable of all that.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Quebec Muslim cemetery vote not necessarily a racist reaction

A narrow vote against creating a Muslim cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire, Quebec, a small town near Quebec City, has raise hackles all around. The province of Quebec, so progressive in so many ways, does seem to have a real problem with Islam, and many outsiders are calling the decision discriminatory and racist. However, I'm not sure that's necessarily the case.
As I understand it, the vote was only offered to the 70 immediate neighbours of the proposed cemetery. 49 of these 70 bothered to register to vote, and only 36 of those actually did vote. The result was 19 against and 16 for (with one spoiled ballot), a narrow margin of just 3 votes. As an exercise in local democracy, therefore, this was not a resounding success (in fact, it was downright embarrassing).
But I am not so sure that it was necessarily a vote against Muslims. It is more likely to be a knee-jerk not-in-my-back-yard reaction. A vote on a new Christian cemetery may well have turned out essentially the same. Given that the proposal was for a wooded area right on the edge of town, it could just as easily be a vote for environmentalism as one against Islam.
Interestingly, Sunny Létourneau, the woman who was instrumental in forcing the referendum in the first place and in galvanizing and organizing the "no" vote, does not live close enough to the site to qualify for a vote. But her main argument is that Quebec needs to ensure that its cemeteries are non-denominational - she is equally opposed to the many Catholic-only cemeteries in Quebec.
And I totally see where she is coming from. As one letter in the newspaper pointed out, we don't designate neighbourhoods for the living for Muslims or Catholics or whatever other faction, so why should we do so for the dead?
The Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre that is calling for the new cemetery says that traditions carried out in other cemeteries may conflict with their beliefs (such as cremation), but I would have thought that different traditions could easily be accommodated in the same cemetery. I'm sure that in any regular cemetery, some bodies would be buried and some cremated. And Jews and Christians seem perfectly able to share cemeteries, so why not Muslims too.

Canadian Tories playing with fire when they involve American Republicans

In the short time since his election as leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer appears to be taking the Tories in a dangerous direction. Or perhaps they are taking themselves, in the absence of guidance from above.
I refer to the recent unprecedented cross-border campaign by Conservative MPs to discredit Justin Trudeau for his difficult (but principled) decision to apologize to former child-soldier Omar Khadr, and to pay out $10.5 million to him in settlement of a wrongful imprisonment suit (which has been ruled on by the Supreme Court of Canada, and which could have cost the state much more).
Prominent Conservative MP Peter Kent wrote a strongly worded op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, decrying the decision and arguing that it was a "cynical subversion of Canadian values". Conservative MP Michelle Rempel resorted to the Republican mouthpiece Fox News to lambaste Trudeau, claiming that "most Canadians are absolutely outraged about this" (read: "most Canadian Conservatives").
Other online campaigns are also under way, such as the Conservative Party's "Khadr Questions" website, and the unfortunate "fake news" video by Ontario Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (which was hastily taken down, although not before damaging Canada's credibility abroad).
What all these efforts have in common is an apparent willingness by Conservatives to put party political (and anti-Trudeau) aspirations above Canadian national considerations and the bipartisanship that has always marked Cannada's relations with the USA. This is not just a matter of airing the country's dirty laundry: this is deliberately flaunting said laundry in a particularly disruptive and destructive manner.
Yes, I understand that the Conservatives have their own opinions about Mr. Khadr (although just how they planned on squaring that opinion with the Supreme Court's decision, I am not sure). But attempting to drag the whole US Republican media machine into what is very much a domestic issue, goes against decades of precedent and common sense.
Whatever the Conservatives actually believe Canadians think about Omar Khadr, I'm pretty sure they do not really want to ally themselves with the Republicans south of the border. This is a dangerous tendency that needs to be nipped in the bud pronto.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop peddles all kinds of snake oil

Gwyneth Paltrow is a funny old bird. She was always little flaky but, after a series of OK acting performances in Shakespeare in Love and the Iron Man movies (and many more less-memorable ones), she has obviously made a very deliberate decision to reinvent herself as a New Age guru and a self-made healthcare entrepreneur peddling "cutting-edge wellness advice".
Now, maybe she is just naive or gullible, or maybe she is downright balf-baked, but most of the product she is flogging through her booming e-commerce company Goop is at the batty end of dubious. Maybe she really believes in this stuff, or maybe she is merely unwilling to let good science stand in the way of making a buck or two.
One mainstay among the many varieties of snake oil Goop promotes is the wildly successful Clean Cleanse detox diet, designed by Paltrow's Uruguayan doctor Alejandro Junger and endorsed by multiple celebrities, and which largely involves avoiding anything pleasurable and replacing it with expensive proprietory powders, supplements and juices. Unfortunately, responsible nutritionists will tell you that our bodies really do not need detoxifying in this way, and that even if they did, the kinds of products and diets recommended by the cleansing industry would not be the way to go about it. There is no - repeat, no - scientific evidence at all that these kinds of detoxifying regimes achieve anything positive.
But what other lines of mystical and magical cures does Goop deal in?
  • Crystal therapy, the application of crystals, preferably wielded by a Goop "crystal shaman", in order to "transform our energy" in some unspecified beneficial way, is completely unscientific and unproven, as will probably not come as a big surprise to most people.
  • Colonics, essentially a kind of enema to eliminate the toxins we routinely ingest as part of modern life, is also not supported by any scientific evidence, and may even prove dangerous.
  • Homeopathy, the idea that ultra-diluted solutions (i.e. basically, water) can mysteriously help with all manner of diseases and health conditions, has been repeatedly discredited over the years.
  • The raw goat-milk cleanse, perhaps predictably, is a particularly ill-advised method of detoxifying, were such a thing even advisable in the first place. Pasteurization of milk products has become standard practice for a good reason.
  • Energy stickers, purportedly to "rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies" (whatever THAT might mean), were originally advertised as using a material developed by NASA for the American space program until NASA caught wind of it and called for their name to be removed. 
  • And perhaps Goop's pièce de résistance, vaginal jade eggs to "help cultivate sexual energy" and "invigorate our life force". Guess what, they are ineffective and potentially dangerous, increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis or even toxic shock syndrome.
Now, you can just think of Gwyneth Paltrow as a harmless kook. But through her celebrity endorsement, and that of her influential celebrity friends, she is both wasting people's hard-earned money and encouraging an unjustifiable belief in scientifically unproven (and potentially dangerous) fringe ideas. Bad, bad, not good.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Handmaid's Tale TV series is good, but misses a big opportunity

I am, rather belatedly as usual, currently watching the Hulu TV series version of Margaret Atwood's book, The Handmaid's Tale, and trying to decide what I think about it.
It is such a beloved and iconic book that many other people are clearly also having problems coming to terms with it. The consensus seems to be that it is generally well done - as I suppose it should be: Ms. Atwood has apparently been integrally involved in the production - but there are certain beefs that keep recurring:
  • The TV series seems to be set in pretty much the present day, while the book, written in 1985 and set in an unspecified near future, was deliberately vague about the timescale. I guess that's not really a big deal.
  • The book never mentions the protagonist Offred's real name, even if the real names of some of the other characters ARE mentioned. This seems deliberate on Ms. Atwood's part. The series, on the other hand, makes no bones about identifying her as June, presumably with Atwood's permission and blessing. Is this important? Probably not as much as some commentators are suggesting.
  • In the book, the state of Gilead is inherently racist as well as sexist, to the extent that "the children of Ham" had been segregated and relocated en masse to some unspecified "Homeland". In the TV series, several of the characters are black, including, crucially, some of the Handmaids themselves, suggesting that the system is happy to allow mixed-race children to be born to the high-ranking white supremacist families running the state, which rings somewhat false to me. I assume the decision to substitute in some black actors was made in order to avoid the allegations of racism and white-washing so prevalent in the film and TV industry these days. I do understand that argument, but it seems unfortunate in this particular case, where the whiteness of Gilead is such an important tenet of the state's philosophy, and I am frankly surprised that Atwood sanctioned the decision.
  • The head of the household to which Offred has been assigned, Frederick, or The Commander, is described in the book as older, silver-haired, paunchy and mustachioed, and the choice of a young, fit, dark-haired Joseph Fiennes with a full beard seems a rather perverse one. Presumably, the producers were looking to inject some sex appeal into the dour society of Gilead, where sex appeal is just no longer relevant. Margaret?
  • Ditto the Commander's wife, Serena Joy.
  • The character Ofglen is made into a handsome gay woman in the TV series, not the grumpy, dowdy character in the books, and she is tortured and mutilated for her "gender treachery" in carrying on relations with a Martha, rather than being taken away for her connections to the rebellion, as in the book. Gratuitous titillation? Why not just stick to the book.
  • In the "salvaging" scene in the book, it is the radicalized Ofglen who is the first, and the most strident, to attack the rapist. In the series, however, it is Offred herself who takes this role, which seems somewhat out of character.
There are other complaints as well, some of which I agree with and some not so much. But I think that in general the series does a good job of visually portraying a beloved dystopian novel.
The other big thing I am not so happy with, though, is the whole idea of adding in new plot lines, such as the Mexican deal that appears out of nowhere in Episode 6. Now, I think this is probably to do with the strictures of the modern TV series. I have a suspicion that someone told the producers around this time that ratings were good and a whole new series was needed, and hence a need to string the existing plot out and add in new material while the economics were still good. That's a really bad reason to alter the plot, and I am saddened that Margaret Atwood did not have the balls to specify at the get-go that the plot should follow the book, and that it would take just one series of ten episodes to achieve that.
Story arcs are important, after all. But, instead, it looks like we will end up with yet another bloated, shapeless series that is just as long as the paying audience can stomach it and no more. What a shame.

Canadian mosquitoes don't carry Zika virus - at least not yet

Scientists have been studying whether Canadian mosquitoes might be able to transmit viruses like Zika, and there's good news and bad news.
There are over 60 different species of mosquitoes spoiling the Canadian summer, but most of them are relatively benign and don't carry nasty diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever and Zika (although West Nile Disease has occasionally, and increasingly, reared its ugly head in recent years). But the two species known to transmit the Zika virus, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are tropical and subtropical species, not typically found in Canada.
So, the good news from the study - which has been backed up by a similar study at the National Biology Lab in Winnipeg - is that none of the Canadian species tested seemed able to transmit Zika (although a few species still remain to be tested).
The bad news is that, unexpextedly, some A. aegypti were found in traps in Windsor, Ontario, a long way from their traditional southern home. And with climate change, that is only going to become a more and more common trend.

Turns out, brain games don't make you smarter after all

Have you ever thought that the claims of those brain-training games like Lumosity seemed too good to be true? Well, you were probably right.
Games and apps like Lumosity like to claim that, by playing their games, we can train out brains to be stronger, faster and better. But a study by Dr. Joseph Kable at the University of Pennsylvania, which looked at changes in the "executive function" of people who engage in brain-training games, other recreational video games, and no games at all, indicates that brain games actually have no effect at all on measures like working memory, attention focus, decision-making, and general brain activity.
This came as quite a shock to Dr. Kable, who was expecting his study to back up the claims of Lumosity et al. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, will come as a blow to brain-game companies, which may now have to temper some of their more outlandish claims.

Geographical comparisons of Antarctic iceberg

One of the very, very few fun aspects of the recent news about a huge iceberg calving off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica recently is the way the size of the iceberg, which is one of the largest ever observed, has been reported in the press.
The iceberg is around 2,200 square miles (or about 5,600 square kilometers) in size, and weighs around a trillion tons. To put this in some perspective that us mere mortals might be able to relate to, the media has usually reported it as a comparison with some local area. For example, in Canada it is usually described as being about the size of the province of Prince Edward Island. In the USA, it has been reported as the size of the state of Delaware. But each jurisdiction around the world seems to have its own comparison, and Quartz magazine has collected some of these together. You might notice that some of these are more obvious, or more convincing or useful, than others:
  • Argentina: 25 times the size of Buenos Aires.
  • Australia: twice the size of the National Capital Territory.
  • Belgium: half the size of Flanders.
  • Brazil: the size of the Federal Disrict.
  • Chile: the size of the Cordillera Province.
  • Cyprus: equivalent to two Luxembourgs.
  • Denmark: twice the size of the Danish island of Funen.
  • Finland: twice the size of the Swedish island of Gotland.
  • France: 60 times larger than Paris.
  • Germany: twice the size of the German state of Saarland.
  • Greece: the size of the island of Crete.
  • India: one and-a-half times the size of the state of Goa.
  • Indonesia: almost as large as the island of Bali.
  • Italy: the size of the region of Liguria.
  • Japan: the size of Mie Prefecture.
  • Mexico: 55 times the size of Paris.
  • Netherlands: slightly larger than the province of Gelderland.
  • Norway: the size of the county of Akershus.
  • Poland: the size of the province of Malopolska.
  • Russia: a quarter the size of the region of Moscow.
  • South Korea: half the size of Gyeonngi province.
  • Taiwan: one-sixth the size of Taiwan.
  • Turkey: four times the size of Istanbul.
  • UK: a quarter the size of Wales.
  • Ukraine: half the size of Transcarpathian region.