Monday, November 30, 2015

Six graphics that explain climate change

With the Paris COP21 climate conference underway, the ever-reliable BBC has produced a webpage containing "six graphics that explain climate change".
The first one in particular is a great animated graphic that shows the monthly temperatures each year since 1880 gradually superimposing over each other. You can watch, over a period of about 30 seconds, as the temperature graphs stack up, with the older ones at the (colder) bottom of the graph, only reaching the 20th Century average mark by about the 1940s. As the 20th Century progresses, all the temperature lines are above the average mark, increasingly so, until in the 21st Century all the lines are right at the (hotter) top of the graph. Thirteen of the 14 warmest years were recorded in the 21st Century (i.e. the last 15 years), with 2015 on course to set another all-time record. It's a very graphic graphic.
Other graphics on the page show: the steady increase in global carbon dioxide concentration since 1960; the steady decrease in Arctic sea ice since 1980; the projected temperature change throughout the world by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions peak between 2010-2020 and then decline substantially, compared to if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st Century; the greenhouse contributions of the world’s top ten greenhouse gas emitters (China, USA, EU, India, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Canada, DR Congo and Indonesia); and, finally, the average global warming by the end of the century if we do nothing, if we follow current policies, and if countries follow through on their Paris pledges.
The last of these shows that, even if all countries that have made specific pledges for the Paris conference act on these pledges, there will be a rise of 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The generally accepted rule-of-thumb is that a 2°C global temperature increase will lead to substantial and dangerous climate impacts, hitting the world's poor in particular. So, we (all) need to act on these pledges, and then we need to tighten the screw still further down the road.
And, just for good measure, here is a link to the BBC's ultra-simplified 1-minute video on why 2 degrees actually matters.

How the future changes over time

Reading Mary Shelley's "The Last Man", what jumps out at me is the sheer ordinariness and unremarkableness of the early 19th Century conception of what the future might hold. The book was written in 1826, but its story begins in 2074, some two-hundred-and-fifty years into the future, and continues until 2100. Interestingly, though, Shelley's vision of the day-to-day world in 2074 looks like nothing so much as ... the world in 1826. Granted, then, an apocalyptic plague drastically changes the face of the world, but there is no sign of any grand, technological utopia (or dystopia) here. Even the geopolitical divisions and mechanisms of Europe seem to have weathered the two-and-a-half centuries with many a change. Plus ça change?
Sometimes called the first science fiction novel - and you can debate that one until the cows come home! - "The Last Man" was written eight years after "Frankenstein", but still some 60 or 70 years before the ground-breaking science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Quite honestly, there is little or no actual science in the novel, so perhaps speculative fiction or apocalyptic fiction would be a better label.
It seems to me that part of the point of science fiction (or speculative fiction, for that matter) is to imagine a world and a time that is very different from the world or time of the author's contemporary audience. But it is, by definition, impossible to imagine the unimaginable. An author's imagination appears to be circumscribed by their own, experience, knowledge and scientific understanding. Thus, the worlds envisioned by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury in the early 1950s would have been literally inconceivable to Mary Shelley (or even H.G. Wells). By the same token, Isaac Asimov would probably have been unable to conceive of the kind of technical detail in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, or the Culture universe of Ian M. Banks. Like it or not, we are, at least to some extent, a product of our times.
in 1826, big changes in science and technology were most definitely already afoot, and the well-educated Shelley was almost certainly aware of most of the developments. The Industrial Revolution was gathering steam (literally), Newtonian physics was well established, the first vaccines had been introduced, and the very early basis for modern chemistry, biology and geology were all in place. But, even so, the pace of innovation was positively glacial compared to what was to come.
When I think of what has come to pass in the fifty-odd years of my own lifetime - from near-Earth satellites to a man on the moon to probes approaching the edge of the Solar System and multi-spectrum photos from the edge of the observable universe; personal computers to the Internet to smartphones to virtual reality; genetically-modified crops to clones to whole genome sequencing and CRISPR gene editing; nuclear power to solar panels to hybrid cars; robotic assembly lines to 3-D printing to synthetic meat; the list could go on and on - and the speed of continuing development, envisioning two-hundred-and-fifty-years into the future seems all but impossible (or futile).
What we can be really sure of, though, is that the world in 2265 will look nothing like today's world.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday as cultural imperalism

So, today, it seems, is Black Friday. As a Canadian, to say that I am nonplussed would be an understatement of the highest degree.
In the USA, the day after Thanksgiving is a day marked by mass hysteria and commercialization on an unprecedented scale. It is by far the biggest single shopping day in the US, a de facto national holiday, and (in an egregious example of "Christmas creep") it is considered the beginning of what is now known as the "Christmas shopping season". It is capitalism gone bonkers. Many people forego their Thanksgiving holiday to camp out for a chance at snagging the best bargains. Apparently, it regularly results in injuries, and has directly caused 7 reported shopping deaths since 2006. In case people have not had enough shopping by the weekend, it has recently spawned the demon-child, Cyber Monday (and now Giving Tuesday).
Most Canadians (and probably even most Americans) have no idea what Black Friday even means, except that they are supposed to go out and shop. I had to look it up myself: it's origins are murky, but it either originated in the 1960s to describe the heavy and disruptive traffic in Philadelphia after the Thanksgiving holiday, or it marks the (mythical and spurious) point in the year at which retailers transition from operating in the red to the black, i.e. begin to turn a profit. Good reason for a national holiday, eh? And what a good choice of names!
Canadian Thanksgiving is at the beginning of October, and the end of November has no significance whatsoever to us. But, since the days of Canada-US dollar parity back in 2008-2009, the Black Friday phenomenon has made increasing inroads into Canadian trade and commerce. Apparently, it is now also a "thing" in the UK, Mexico and several other countries. This year, it is enjoying blanket coverage in Canada, from full-page ads in national newspapers to hand-written signs on mom-and-pop stores. It follows the judicious and discerning commercial logic that says, "if they are doing it, we should probably be doing it too", and it is snowballing out of control.
Enough, I say! Let us say a resounding "no" to this cultural imperialism! If we really need a dedicated shopping day, let's choose, I don't know, Boxing Day. Oh, wait, we already have Boxing Day, or rather Boxing Week (and probably, coming soon, Boxing Month). Is there no end to this madness?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yes, Virginia, Facebook does indeed lead to depression

Why am I not surprised that recent studies have shown that regular use of Facebook can lead to depressive symptoms?
A pair of University of Houston studies was reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology earlier this year under the title "Seeing Everyone Else's Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms". The studies look at what social psychologists call "social comparison", a common phenomenon which is made even more acute by the fact that, on social media, people tend to over-report the good or exciting parts of their lives, what the author calls their "highlight reels". These particular studies focused on Facebook users, but the same almost certainly applies to other social media outlets like Twitter, Instagram, etc.
So, when we read about people jetting off to exotic locations while we are stuck at home, or when we see that friends are in stable relationships when we are not, or when we look at people's smug #AfterSexSelfie when we can't even get to first base, then our own lives appear by comparison to be so much worse or more boring, leading to feelings of depression and compound any existing feelings of loneliness and isolation. This effect is probably experienced to some extent by most people - unless we happen to be the guy in a stable relationship jetting off to Corfu and posting cute post-coital photos - but obviously some people are more prone than others to full-blown depression.
All of which makes me much more sanguine about not using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat or any other variant of social media. I may be less "social", but at least I am less depressed.

In Alberta, oil industry, left-wing government and environmental groups all on same page

An unlikely alliance appears to be developing between the relatively new Alberta NDP government and Alberta's commercial oil sands developers. Such a coming together of minds and opinions would have been unthinkable just a year ago, but in the new Zeitgeist of low oil prices and increased concern over global warming, it is perhaps not as unlikely as it first appears.
Rachel Notley's left-leaning NDP government was elected in May of this year, against all expectations and putting an end to an 80-year run of centre-right governments in Alberta, on a platform which included taking strong and effective action on climate change.
Alberta remains the "dirty man" of Canada, with its huge dependence on carbon-intensive oil sands development and more coal-fired electricity generation than the rest of the country out together. But the Alberta government has taken action recently to turn that around with the announcement of their new provincial climate action plan in the run-up to the Paris climate forum this December.
The plan includes a province-wide carbon tax, starting at $20/tonne in 2017, and increasing to $30/tonne in 2018 (which is also where British Columbia's very successful carbon tax is pitched). Sticklers may complain that it is not a completely revenue-neutral carbon tax like BC's, but the estimated $3 billion a year in carbon tax revenue will be ploughed back into green technologies and infrastructure, and also into compensation for the lowest earning 60% of households. So, it is not revenue-neutral for individuals, but it is revenue-neutral for the province as a whole.
In addition, the plan calls for a hard cap on oil sands carbon emissions, a phase-out of coal-fired power over the next 15 years (with two-thirds being replaced by renewables, primarily wind power), a 10-year goal to nearly halve methane emissions, and incentives for renewable energy development (which is to represent 30% of Alberta's power by 2030). All in all, a pretty comprehensive and ambitious policy.
But the expected howls of outrage and indignation from Alberta's oil industry did not arrive. Indeed, its reaction has been positively supportive and celebratory. Why? The strategy will cost Albertan businesses and residents billions, but there has been a grudging recognition that the perceptions (especially south of the border), even if not the reality, of the oil sands operations have been actively harming the oil industry's ability to do business. Premier Notley specifically referred to US President Obama's recent cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline over the environmental impact of oil sands development as "a wake-up call" (as well as "a kick in the teeth").
The leaders of some of Canada's biggest carbon dioxide emitters emitters lined up to express their support and to bolster their greem credentials. CNTL chairman Murray Edwards commented, "On behalf of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, my colleagues at Suncor, Cenovus and Shell, we applaud Premier Notley for giving us [sic], to provide the position of leadership on climate policy". Suncor CEO Steve Williams offered: "This plan will make one of the world's largest oil-producing regions a leader in addressing the climate change challenge". Shell Canada's president Lorraine Michelmore called the climate plan "a turning point" and "the end of a chapter for Alberta, and for Canada, where the economy and the environment were at odds". Kinder Morgan Canada's president Ian Anderson issued a statement saying: "The collaboration of industry, the government of Alberta and environmental groups helps pave a path forward and provides important clarity to policy and direction for the entire industry".
Wow! The Cool-Aid has definitely changed colour.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Atheism in the Arab World

An interesting article in the venerable New Republic magazine, which I missed when it first came out earlier this year, looks at the extent of, and the reasons for, the rise in atheism in the Arab World.
It begins, a little tongue in cheek, with "official" numbers of atheists in various Arab countries, according to Cairo-based Dar Al Ifta, which identifies, with exemplary accuracy, 866 in Egypt, 325 in Morocco, 320 in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen (a total of precisely 2,293 nonbelievers in a population of about 300 million). These may or may not be based on members of various Facebook atheist groups, and obviously should not be taken too seriously.
The Western stereotype of Arabs and the Muslim world makes it difficult to even conceive of an atheist Arab. While not everyone assumes that all Muslims are terrorists - yes, there are those that do - the common assumption is that Arabs are just sheep-like followers of the official line.
But, interestingly, a 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll found that Saudi Arabia, one of the most hard-line religious countries in the region, harboured well over a million people (5% of the population) who self-identify as "convinced atheists", and almost six million (19%) who self-identify as "not a religious person". In the Arab word as a whole, those who express some measure of religious doubt is estimated at 22%, which is actually higher than in South Asia (17%) and Latin America (16%). In some less theocratic Arabic countries like Lebanon, this reaches 37%.
Bear in mind that Saudi Arabia is a strictly theocratic country which, along with the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Yemen and others, upholds the sharia rule punishing apostasy of any kind with death, and regularly dispenses public floggings for the slightest misdemeanour. Saudi Arabia goes as far as characterizing atheism, and questioning the Islamic faith, as terrorist acts. In Bangladesh and elsewhere, there has been a spate of murders of high-profile atheists in recent months. Even Arab countries which have no apostasy laws, like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Oman, have strict methods of deterring religious disbelief, including substantial jail sentences, corporal punishment, enforced conversion, and even annulment of marriages.
Having said that, in practice, except in relatively small ultra­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world, in the same way as technically verboten drinking of alcohol, sex outside of marriage, and praying five times a day at fixed times are often overlooked. As the New Republic article points out, it seems it is the appearance of religiosity that is important, not the fact of it, and even outright atheism is tacitly tolerated so long as it is not claimed out loud and thrust in the face of the authorities.
Most Westerners would probably assume that the apparent rise in irreligion in the Muslim world is due to disgust with the horrors committed in the name of Islam by groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, but not so. Like anywhere else, the road to atheism typically begins with personal doubts and with questioning the inconsistencies and illogicalities in the Ko'ran. But in the Arab world, personally-experienced oppression and persecution in the name of Islamic beliefs is also a major factor, including experiences of the abuse of power and the physical abuse of women in particular.
I actually discovered this article through a HuffPost article about the burgeoning #ExMuslimBecause hashtag. The campaign, started recently by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, encourages lapsed Muslims to come out on social media and explain why they left Islam. Unexpectedly, it has become hugely popular (it was the UKs top trending hashtag for a while), both among disaffected residents of Muslim-majority countries writing under pseudonyms, and among the ex-Muslim diaspora. Various different viewpoints are expressed in the tweets, many of them quite poignant and powerful. Here is a sample:
  • I was told I was a Muslim. But then I learned that religion is not a gene and being born to believers doesn't make you one (@SamSedaei)
  • i know being a woman doesn't make me lesser. I shouldn't have to worship *behind* men, or be segregated from them. (@NiceMangos)
  • No REAL God should need protection from bloggers & no REAL prophet should need protection from cartoons. (@aliamjadrizvi)
  • I'm a woman who believes in . (@SecularlyYours )
  • I'm gay and proud to be the first public figure to come out and campaign for LGBTI Rights in Afghanistan. (@nematsadat )
  • my being unveiled is NOT the cause of earthquakes or other calamities (@MaryamNamazie)
  • I couldn't handle hearing my own family say that Shi'as, my neighbours and best friends, are kuffar. (@riyamnm)
  • my own mother told me I should be killed because I didn't believe the same things she did (@YasmienMills)
  • Bacon - what other reason could there possibly be? (@Wraithiest )
  • I'm told Islam gives you freedom of thought and religion but at the same time punishes apostasy by death (@Zxop11)
  • I was indoctrinated as a child and denounced my religion as soon as I was old enough to think for myself. (@90degree_flow)
  • I simply used my brain. (@M37158)
  • I prefer reality over myth and reason over ignorance. (@musaaziz)
  • I'd rather look through a telescope than read a book that says I came out of a man's rib to be lured by a talking snake. (@SecularlyYours)
  • Misogyny, homophobia, stoning ppl to death & killing apostates don't suddenly become "respectable" when put in a holy book. (@LibMuslim)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Russian plane bombing fades (quickly) into obscurity

It's interesting to note the extent to which the Russian plane crash on October 31st has been completely overshadowed by the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th.
A Russian passenger plane was brought down by a terrorist bomb over Egypt's Sinai peninsula on October 31st, killing all 224 people (tourists and crew) on board. It cause, then, almost twice as many casualties as the Paris bombings. A local affiliate of Islamic State has claimed full responsibility for the bombing, making it just as much a terrorist act as the events of November 13th.
But, even before the Paris attacks, there seemed to be relatively little news coverage and outrage over the Russian plane crash, and since Paris, hardly any.
Likewise, the Islamic State suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 12th, which killed at least 37, got lost in the Paris coverage, and the more recent Al-Qaeda-sponsored siege of a hotel in Bamako, Mali, on November 20th, in which 19 guests and two militants were killed, has received only fleeting attention from the press in comparison with Paris.
This, of course, is to say nothing of the casualties in Syria itself, at the hands of the various different armed groups which are operating there, which include Syrian governmental forces, Russian forces, Kurdish self-management forces, extremist Islamic groups, armed opposition groups, international coalition forces, and other unidentified groups. The death toll is estimated at between 120 and 180 each day, which includes 20-50 civilian casualties. And then, of course, there is also Iraq...
Now, Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, Syria and Iraq are admittedly a bit further away from the European/American centre of world gravity than is France, but not that much. And I am as unsympathetic to Russia and the Putin regime as most Westerners are. But why such disproportionate media attention, I wonder?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Health Canada needs its own health warning

While on the subject of health, I also read a timely article about the much-ballyhooed claims of Cold-FX, and it comes as no great surprise to me that the claims are at best over-stated, and at worst downright misleading.
Cold-FX is a top-selling ginseng-based herbal remedy that boldly claims that it helps reduce the frequency, severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms, and furthermore that, when combined with a flu shot, it is clinically proven to reduce cold and flu symptoms. Health Canada have seen fit to allow these claims, and so obviously accepts the science provided by Cold-FX manufacturer Valeant Canada.
What the label (and the company website) fails to mention, though, is that, in order for any benefit to kick in, two pills a day must be taken for an absolute minimum of two months, and preferably four months (six months for seniors). Four months' worth of pills would cost well over a hundred dollars. Taking the pills when cold symptoms begin to be felt is completely useless and a waste of money. Even taking the pills for four months only reduces the average number of colds per year from 0.93 to 0.68, according to the developer's own studies, and.even this is based on self-reported data, which could include cold-like symptoms from other similar respiratory conditions such as allergies. The scientific basis of the claims that Cold-FX works even better when combined with a flu shot is, if anything, even rockier.
A new formulation, Cold-FX First Signs, actually specifically directs that it be taken "at first signs of a cold to help relieve cold symptoms and promote healthy immune function", when even its own research suggests that no instantaneous effects are possible. Again, Health Canada seem to have accepted this, arguing that the medication makes no specific promises about its effectiveness!
All of which begs the question of why Health Canada has accepted these scientifically questionable claims. The answer seems to be that the bar is, for some reason, set substantially lower for natural health products than for prescription drugs. Which suggests that there are probably a whole host of ineffective, and possibly even unsafe, natural health products out there, raking in the dollars while achieving little or nothing in the way of health benefits (zinc lozenges are another such cold remedy, once highly recommended, but now considered next to useless, and even positively harmful if taken in the kind of dosages required for its claimed effectiveness).
So, maybe Health Canada approvals need to come with their own health warnings?

The perfect health care system

An article on health care models in today's paper gives me a welcome excuse to think and write about something other than IS bombings and the war in the Middle East.
The article lists four different international reports comparing the health systems of various countries. A World Health Organization report in 2000 concluded that France had the world's best health care system, followed by Italy, San Marino, Andorra and Malta. Bloomberg's 2014 rankings show Singapore on top, followed by Hong Kong, Italy, Japan and South Korea. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Japan and No, 1, followed by Singapore, Switzerland, Iceland and Australia. The Commonwealth Fund ranks the UK as having the best health system, followed by Switzerland, Sweden, Australia and Germany.
There are a few recurring elements in the lists (Italy, Singapore, Australia, Japan, Switzerland), but it is notable that no one country appears in any three of the four lists. Canada, it can be said, appears in none. Perhaps all that can be gleaned from this meta-analysis, then, is that there are many different ways in which a health system can be judged or measured, and that anyway data is not always reliable, compatible or comparable.
With this in mind, Mark Britnell of KPMG, in his new book "In Search of the Perfect Health System", concludes that the perfect health system might include:
  • the values and universal access of the UK;
  • the primary care of Israel;
  • the community services of Brazil;
  • the mental health system of Australia;
  • the health promotion philosophy of the Nordic countries;
  • the patient and community empowerment of part of Africa;
  • the research and development infrastructure of the United States;
  • the innovation, flair and speed of India;
  • the information, communication and technology of Singapore;
  • the choice offered to patients in France;
  • the funding model of Switzerland; and
  • the elderly care of Japan.
Oh, and he might as well have added to this reverie: the medical outcomes of Star Trek or Hogwarts!
Interesting, though.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Retaliation for Paris attacks may not be the best plan

In the wake of the horrendous Islamic State (IS) bombings and shootings in Paris over the weekend, the responses of various countries are beginning to be articulated.
Predictably enough, some of the strongest words are coming from France itself, with President François Hollande calling the attacks an "act of war", and vowing in no uncertain terms to completely destroy the IS (or Daesh, as the organization is increasingly called, using the loose Arabic acronym of the organization, which coincidentally also sounds like the Arabic words for "one who sows discord" and "one who crushes something underfoot").
This is fighting talk indeed from the French, but it really is not as simple as that - if it were, it would already have been done. And I can't help thinking that M. Hollande is reacting exactly how IS want him to.
This was an act of terrorism, not an act of war. Despite the name, Islamic State, as even they would probably admit, is not even a real state against which a war can be waged. It is a scattered force of guerrilla warriors, and its aim is not to take over France, but to establish a Muslim caliphate in northern Syria and northwestern Iraq in which they can enforce their own version of conservative Islamic traditions (see my earlier piece on understanding jihadi groups).
So, attacking France does not serve any immediate purpose for IS, but it is presumably part of the "shock-and-awe" tactics it employs to drum up supporters, as well as an attempt to discourage countries, like France, who are actively fighting against them in Syria.
If France dramatically ups the ante in Syria, the death toll will rise substantially, including the collateral damage to the local population which will undoubtedly accompany it. And, given the terrain and the organization of IS, the chances of comprehensively destroying them are slight in the extreme (see this article for just one analysis of how hard it might be to deal comprehensively with IS). Death, torture, genocide and martyrdom are all part of the IS game plan, and boosting the number of martyrs will only serve to strengthen the resolve of the survivors, as well as to increase the likelihood of more retaliatory attacks in the West.
Now, I don't have a good solution to the situation, but I am pretty sure that all-out war will achieve little but a drastically increased death toll. If anything, the solution probably has to involve carving up Syria and Iraq in some way (the current set-up, established after the Second World War, is really not working well).
Luckily, Canada no longer has the belligerent Stephen Harper at the helm, as I am reasonably sure his reaction would have been very similar to President Hollande's, which would only have the effect of putting the whole country at an increased risk of retaliation while actually achieving very little. New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is still committed to taking the Canadian contingent of fighter jets (the 6 ageing CF-18 Hornets are hardly crucial to the allied military campaign) out of Syria and Iraq, in favour of a more behind-the-scenes role in local military training and humanitarian aid, although the timeline for the pull-out is still flexible. He was just voted into power with a strong mandate to do just that, so realistically what else can he do? Mr. Trudeau has since reiterated that the Paris attacks have not changed that commitment.
I have actually been a bit surprised by the extent of the militaristic tub-thumping in the Canadian press since the bombings. Most of it smacks to me of knee-jerk reaction, whereas what we actually need, now more than ever, is calm and considered decision-making, difficult though that might be in the heat of the outrage that most people are feeling. I don't see withdrawing our CF-18s as a blow to Canada's credibility on the world stage, as I have often seen it characterized, but as replacing something that Canada does not do very well with something we apparently do do well (i.e. military training). There is even some evidence suggesting that the air war in Syria may be actually strengthening IS and fuelling a surge in their recruits, as it feeds their narrative of a Western crusade against Islam. That alone would be a good reason to maintain the Canadian pull-out from the bombing mission.
Trudeau is also still committed to Canada's taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Despite some vociferous opposition since the French attacks (Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall being one of the most outspoken), this also still seems like the right thing to do. Yes, security screening is needed - that was always the plan - but I don't see any need to change that plan in the light of events in France. IS has been outspoken in its condemnation of Syrians fleeing to Europe as refugees, and it would like nothing better than for Western countries to shut their doors to Syrian refugees, as some 16 Republican US states and a few European countries are currently vowing.
There are rumours (still unconfirmed as far as I know) that one of the Paris attackers may have been a Syrian who entered France under the current EC refugee program. But it is still far from clear whether the passport found was planted, stolen, forged or genuine, or indeed whether it belonged to an attacker or a victim (why would a jihadist have his passport with him on an action of this kind?). Certainly, there is no reason to suppose that the refugees looking to move to Canada are doing so for nefarious purposes, any more than has been the case in years past. The refugees are those fleeing Syria, not those sympathetic to IS ideals, and anyway the vast majority of the Paris attackers were long-time residents and citizens of France and Belgium.
As for the idiots who set fire to a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, recently, apparently in retaliation for the Paris attacks, I have no idea what they were thinking, and they deserve everything that is coming to them. Islamic State is very little to do with Islam as most people understand and practise it, so making innocent Canadian Muslims suffer makes absolutely no sense. They are already fearful enough of revenge attacks as it is.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"The Bone Clocks" is Mitchell (almost) at his best

I feel the need to report on "The Bone Clocks",  the latest offering from the always excellent and provocative David Mitchell, which I have just finished reading.
Mitchell is probably unrivalled in his ability to tease and braid subtly interconnected plot lines across a series of different chronological periods, as he does to great effect in "Cloud Atlas" (which I have reviewed elsewhere). "The Bone Clocks" is another such feat of interweaving, involution and genre-blurring.
The book begins with an apparently mundane and distinctly earth-bound story about 15-year old working class schoolgirl Holly, her rather banal and prosaic family life in banal and prosaic 1980s Gravesend, Kent, her decision to run away from home after a tiff with her boyfriend, and the sudden disappearance of her little brother. Gradually, though, and increasingly, some less mundane, not to say downright inexplicable, elements begin to intrude into this workaday story.
But, before anything starts to make sense, this plot-line unceremoniously sputters to a halt, and a completely new, and apparently unrelated, story takes over. Here, we are immersed in the decadent lifestyle of the spoilt rich kids of early 1990s Cambridge University, with their devil-may-care nihilistic schemes and their dissolute jaunts to swish European resorts. Except that, here too, unexpected elements of the paranormal begin to intrude. And eventually Holly-from-Gravesend briefly resurfaces in a story that is decidedly not her own. A little more of the fantastic reality underlying the unexplainable incidents is allowed to trickle out, before ... SKREEEKK! ... unconnected plot-line three abruptly takes over. Mr. Mitchell clearly does not want us to get too comfortable.
In 2004, Holly is now married to old school friend Ed Brubeck and, in between Ed's reminiscences of life on journalistic assignment in war-torn Iraq and more homely scenes from a family wedding, their 6-year old daughter mysteriously goes missing, and is only found through Holly's unconscious channelling of unknown and incomprehensible powers ... SKREEEKK!
2015's story arc follows a dry and cynical writer's travels on the international literary festival circuit, with cameo appearances from Holly, who is herself now a celebrated author thanks to her account of her own earlier brushes with the supernatural.
As the story begins to stretch into the near future, it criss-crosses the globe ever more frantically, lurching from England to Norway to New York and beyond. Plot strands begin to entangle further, previously-introduced characters discover increasingly complex and unexpected interconnections, and the paranormal becomes increasingly the norm. Some explanations do also start to unfold at this point, with lots of rather deep and turgid talk of capitalized concepts like Atemporals, Anchorites, Sojourners, Horologists, the Aperture, etc. It is only here, in 2024, that the story becomes a fully-fledged fantasy tale, and it turns out that unassuming Holly Sykes still has a key role to play. But, alas, this is neither the time nor the place to give away too much more of the plot.
Functioning as a kind of epilogue, the final story arc, dated 2043, is a grim, although ultimately hopeful, post-apocalyptic tale. In a world beset by catastrophic climate change, drastic fuel shortages, mercenary globalized capitalism, and social and technological breakdown, Holly and her grandchildren hunker down in rural Ireland, living a hard life of fearful resignation and humble prospects, until an unexpected visit brings thing full circle.
As with "Cloud Atlas", Mitchell's conceit of tenuously-connected, time-disjointed stories allows him to display his prowess at writing in a series of quite different styles, with different voices and tones, all within one novel. A few short quotations from different sections might illustrate this.
Plotline 1984 is written in teen demotic Estuary English:
"The summer holidays'll be here before the truancy officer can fart, and I'm sixteen in September, and then it's stuff you Windmill Hill Comprehensive."
1991 showcases Cambridge-elite erudition mixed with a debauched and irreverent machismo:
"The gents smells well fermented and the only free urinal is blocked and ready to brim over with the amber liquid so I have to queue, like a girl."
The 2004 subplot spends much of its time in the war zones of Iraq, featuring journalistic passages like:
"Through a hole blasted in a dry block wall, Aziz snapped a family hurrying across the wasteland north of the doctors' compound. An Arabic Grapes of Wrath, on foot."
In the world-weary back-stabbing literary environment of the 2015 segment, the tone changes abruptly once again:
"I, the Festival Elf, Publicity Girl, and Editor Oliver traverse the wooden walkways over the sodden sod past booths selling gluten-free cupcakes, solar panels, natural sponges, porcelain mermaids, wind chimes tuned to your own chi aura, biodegradable trays of GM-free green curry, eReaders, and hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts."
In 2024, Mitchell delves into full fantasy mode, complete with an apocalyptic battle on a kind of astral plane:
"The psychoduel becomes too magnesium-bright to look at, so it is through my chakra-eye that I see the long table rise ten feet into the air, hang there for a second like a bird of prey, then hurtle straight at Arkady and Unalaq."
And finally, the 2043 epilogue visits the genre of the post-apocalyptic novel, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World":
"People talk about the Endarkenment like out ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it's an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through."
All in all, it's not "Cloud Atlas" - what could be? - but "The Bone Clocks" is nevertheless a very worthy and welcome addition to David Mitchell's oeuvre. And, looked at as six novels in one, over 620 pages, it's a bargain.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Israel's predictably excessive response to the EU

My patience with the state of Israel continues to decline from an already low level. In the face of the European Union's proposed new guidelines for the labelling of food products from Israeli-occupied parts of Palestine, the outcry from Israel is predictably deafening, not to mention excessive, inappropriate and often puerile.
Goods from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights and Gaza that are exported to the EU must now make clear that they came from an Israeli settlement or business in territories that are internationally considered illegal, rather than simply "Product of Israel" or "Product of Palestine". Additionally, such goods will no longer receive the preferential tariff extended by the EU to Israel. Initially, I thought this may have been something of a storm in a teacup, but it turns out that this actually involves about 1% of Israel's annual $30 billion of trade with the EU, so the amounts are pretty substantial.
Benjamin Netanyahu, in his usual considered and understated way, slammed the ruling as "an immoral decision ... it chose to single out Israel and Israel alone while it's fighting with its back against the wall against the wave of terror", and warned that it could lead to "emboldening those who are not interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace but in eliminating Israel altogether". Other Israeli politicians called it "anti-Semitic" and drew comparisons with the use of the yellow star during the Holocaust.
This is just the kind of thing that annoys me. The EU decision may well be political, but it is a political statement against the policies of a maverick pariah state which continues to build and maintain illegal settlements against the almost unanimous will of the international community. This is not a racist action, and the race and religion of the illegal settlers is just not relevant to the decision. Rather, it is Israel that pulls the race card, as it does so often, and it does so secure in the knowledge that the rest of the world (and especially Europe) feels distinctly uncomfortable singling out a people who have suffered so extensively throughout history. But their mention of anti-Semitism, and using the Holocaust as a get-out-of-jail-free card, is starting to get really tired.
This wilful conflation of race, religion and politics, and this cynical reliance on guilt-tripping, is the hallmark of Israeli international relations. Maybe a certain amount of paranoia is inevitable, given their history, but, contrary to Israel's assumptions, most other people really don't care what race or religion they are. Europe is making a purely political point based on current geopolitical circumstances (i.e. Israel's illegal settlement in Palestine, their subversion of basic human rights in the region, and their quasi-apartheid treatment of Palestinians).
In fact, this most recent example of the apparent Jewish single-mindedness about race led me to some research I had long wanted to pursue. I had always thought that Semitism, as a race, culture and language, was a shared root of both Jews and Arabs. And, yes, it seems that I was right. Wikipedia and other sources confirm that the language, culture and ethnicity of both Jews and Levantine Arabs stem from common Semitic roots (along with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, etc, i.e. essentially all of the Middle East and North Africa). The Jews and the Palestinians are therefore close cousins ethnically and culturally, and genetically almost indistinguishable.
The use of the word "Semitic" to refer to Jews in particular (especially in a hostile or discriminatory manner) is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to a handful of 19th Century German and French historians and political agitators, although the Jews themselves seem to have wholeheartedly embraced this usage during the last century or so.
Indeed, the Jews, so fiercely proud of their race, turn out to be at least as mongrelized as most other races and cultures, if not more so. In terms of Y-chromosome (male line) genetics, for example, Palestinians are to be found right in the middle of the various Jewish populations, with little or nothing to distinguish one from the other. Even in mitochondrial DNA (female line) terms, so important in matrilineal Jewish culture, Jewish women demonstrate a highly diverse gene pool, consistent with constant intermarriage both with a wide variety of local populations and with other Jewish groups.
So, Jewishness essentially comes down to something as arbitrary as their choice of religion. Centuries of strife, and countless deaths all over the world, can be traced back to which particular old book they choose to revere. Unbelievable, when you think about it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tory-appointed judge should be struck off

The Federal Court of Canada has ruled that an Alberta judge overstepped the bounds of reasonableness during his handling of a rape case back in 2014. He is accused of being "dismissive of, if not contemptuous towards, the substantive law of sexual assault and of evidence ... combined with a refusal to apply them".
Justice Robin Camp was, at the time, a judge in the Alberta Provincial Court. He has since been elevated to a position on the Federal Court by then Justice Minister Peter Mackay, a final gift to the country from the Conservative government just before losing October's federal election. Go figure!
The case in question involved the washroom rape of a homeless 19-year old woman. During the case, Justice Camp peppered the victim with questions like "Why couldn't you just keep your knees together?" and "Why didn't you just sink your bottom down into the basin so he couldn't penetrate you?" He also openly mocked the very idea of consent, asking "Are there any particular words you must use, like the marriage ceremony?", and "Do children learn this at school? Do they pass tests like driver's licenses? ... It's not the way of the birds and the bees."
A few other pearls of wisdom from Justice Camp during the same trial: "The accused [sic] hasn't explained why she allowed the sex to happen if she didn't want it"; " Sex and pain sometimes go together - that's not necessarily a bad thing"; "Sex is very often a challenge"; etc. He also insisted on including evidence of the victim's previous sexual activities, contrary to the express legal injunction against doing so.
Justice Camp ultimately acquitted the 240-lb accused rapist in the case, although a court of appeal later overturned the ruling, noting that the judge did not seem to fully understand the concept of consent in Canadian case law.
Clearly worried about his job since the complaints came to light (and just why did this take so long?), Justice Camp has promised to take voluntary gender sensitivity training, and has issued a public apology both to the woman involved in the case and to other women who may be dissuaded from reporting sexual abuse due to attitudes like his. So, he is at least receiving competent advice now, although just how heartfelt his apologies are is anyone's guess.
The Federal Court has already taken the unusual step of ruling that he cannot preside over cases involving sexual conduct pending the outcome of a judicial review of his earlier conduct. And it may yet go further and remove him completely from the court. The last time that happened was 2009, and it has only occurred twice since 1971. The final decision actually rests with Parliament, but typically judges choose to resign before a case reaches that stage.
Justice Camp's behaviour and comments are clearly unacceptable from a senior Canadian judge in this day and age, and I would happily see him struck off. It seems to me unlikely that this was a one-off "mistake" or aberration, and I am guessing that the Canadian Judicial Council review will uncover other equally dubious behaviour that, taken all in all, might well lead to his dismissal.
It also raises for me questions about the Canadian practice of political appointees to top judicial positions. I have never understood why this is allowed to happen, and why top judges are not appointed on merit or at least according to some more democratic process.

UPDATE
As of November 25th 2015, Justice Camp has been removed from all cases indefinitely. "Indefinitely" seems to mean at least until he has completed "a comprehensive program of gender sensitivity counselling", although there is still a continuing campaign within the legal fraternity to have him removed completely.

The health effects of marijuana

With the recent election of a new Liberal government, Canadians are becoming more exercised about the possibility of the legalization of recreational marijuana (cannabis) in Canada. In fact, it was one of the few campaign issues that clearly separated the three main parties, with the Liberals advocating full legalization, the NDP decriminalization, and the Conservatives the death penalty (sorry, the status quo). It is an issue with sharp dividing lines and strong opinions, from vehement opposition to unthinking acquiescence to an attitude of almost complete indifference (as in my case).
With that in mind a timely report has come out of the University of Queensland in Australia on the health effects of marijuana. The report, published this week in the respected journal Addiction, examines and summarizes the scientific evidence from 1993 to 2013, a twenty year period during which cannabis use burgeoned throughout the world, and in which the drug itself, and the industry in which it operates, underwent some substantial changes.
Among the findings are:
  • People who drive under the influence of marijuana double their risk of being in a car crash.
  • About one in 10 daily marijuana users becomes dependent on the drug.
  • Adolescents who use cannabis regularly are about twice as likely as non-users to drop out of school.
  • Adolescents who use cannabis regularly are also about twice as likely to experience cognitive impairment and psychotic disorders as adults, including disordered thinking, hallucinations, delusions, even full-blown schizophrenia (although some critics argue that it is possible that people with mental health problems may be more likely to use marijuana to begin with, so the link may not necessarily be causal).
  • Regular cannabis use in adolescence is linked to some extent to the use of other illicit drugs (the "gateway" effect), although there is still some debate over this.
  • Cannabis use in pregnant women may slightly reduce the birth weight of the baby, with all the various health implications that may have for the child.
  • While the chances of dying from an overdose of marijuana are almost vanishingly small, there have been several case reports of deaths from heart problems in otherwise healthy marijuana smokers. Middle-aged people who smoke marijuana regularly appear to be at an increased risk of heart attacks.
  • The effects of cannabis on respiratory function and respiratory cancer remain unclear, mainly because most cannabis smokers also tend to smoke tobacco (or at least used to).
The report also notes that the content of the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) has increased dramatically from about 2% in 1980 to 8.5% or more today. So this is not the relatively innocent Mary Jane of the 1960s. There is also evidence that users generally have not adjusted their doses to account for the increased potency of the drug, thus increasing the risk of accidents and of developing dependency.
All in all, although marijuana is clearly not as dangerous a drug as cocaine, heroin or amphetamines (with which it is often classified in many countries), it does carry many of the same risks as alcohol use, including an increased risk of accidents, dependence and psychosis. It is not a pretty thing, but then neither are alcohol and tobacco, and these are still condoned, albeit less so than heretofore. It seems to me that marijuana belongs in the same category as these legal drugs, and not with cocaine and heroin. Legalize it, regulate it, tax it heavily, discourage it, and get over it.

Monday, November 09, 2015

News: Toronto's transit system is actually pretty good

I read somewhere recently the surprising (to me) fact that that Toronto's transit system was the second most heavily-used in North America after New York City, with Montreal running a close third. I can't for the life of me find that report now, but I did a bit of alternative research into the subject.
According to Wikipedia, Toronto's subway usage comes fourth in North America, way below New York City and Mexico City, and slightly below Montreal. Compared to the rest of the world (particularly Asia), of course, even New York pales into insignificance, as another Wikipedia table demonstrates, and many European and Latin American cities also exceed Toronto's ridership by a large margin.
There again, also from Wikipedia, Toronto's light rail system (i.e. streetcars) is the most heavily used in North America, slightly ahead of Guadalajara and Calgary. Plus, we have the third largest bus fleet in North America, after New York City and Los Angeles (Wikipedia again). The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) as a whole, therefore, is in fact the third most heavily-used urban mass transit system in North America, after New York City and Mexico City (thank you Wikipedia). So, it all depends whether or not you consider Mexico to be part of North America, I guess.
Of course, Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America in terms of population, after Mexico City, New York City and Los Angeles (thank you again Wikipedia), and the fifth largest "urban agglomeration", after Mexico City, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago (Wikipedia), so all this should probably not come as much of a surprise. It's just that, with typical Canadian understatement and modesty, I still think of Toronto as much less significant than storied cities like Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, etc.
Other related snippets my research threw up:
Toronto ranks the best in Canada for the quality of its public transit. Despite our constant complaining and whining, when ranked for types of service (light/heavy rail, buses), transit coverage and frequency of routes/stops, Toronto handily beats out Montreal and Vancouver. In North American terms, Toronto comes a respectable third, after San Francisco and New York City.
Toronto is one of the least subsidized transit systems in North America. About two-thirds of the TTC’s operating budget is covered by fares paid by the riders, and it only receives a subsidy of about $0.78 per ride (out of a $2.70 fare), as compared to New York City ($1.03), Montreal ($1.16), Vancouver ($1.62), Chicago ($1.68), Mississauga ($2.21) and York Region ($4.49). Er, $4.49!?
The TTC is also one of the priciest transit systems in North America. This is perhaps not surprising given the subsidy issue mentioned above, but Toronto's transit is more expensive than that of any other large city in North America for monthly passes, Senior Citizen fares, and multi-trip fares, and is only bested by Ottawa for adult base fares. These comparisons actually date from 2011, but a 2014 study yielded pretty similar results for passes and Senior fares, although cash fares in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Calgary, Edmonton, Philadelphia and Ottawa seem to have outstripped Toronto in more recent years. That said, Toronto has a more integrated transit system than many other cities, with the ability to change between subway, streetcars and buses for free. I have not seen a cost-per-kilometer-travelled comparison anywhere.
The take-away from all this? Suck it up and stop moaning, Toronto! Despite years of severe under-investment and interminably protracted negotiations on expansion plans, we actually have it pretty good.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Keystone XL decision will not save the earth or trash the economy

American President Barack Obama's official rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was to run from Alberta's oil sands down to the refineries of Texas, comes as no surprise. The decision has been some seven years in gestation but, despite the positive spin of Canadian ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pipeline builder TransCanada Corp, its ultimate arrival was never really in any doubt. Its timing was merely a matter of political expediency and, in Mr. Obama's judgement, the right time has finally presented itself just a month before December's Paris UN climate change summit.
But I must admit that the whole thing has left me a bit nonplussed.
I am, in most respects, an ardent environmentalist. I even believe that, in the interests of the fight against global warming, the incredibly dirty and carbon-intensive oil from the Albertan oil sands should stay in the ground. But it seems to me far from obvious that Keystone XL has much, if any, bearing on all this. Certainly, the greenhouse gas impact of the proposed pipeline pales into insignificance against Obama's much more important climate change initiatives of recent months, such as his tightening of power generation rules, improvements to fuel economy standards, and boosts to renewable energy production.
Despite the wording of the statement and the claims of some climate activist groups, President Obama's decision, and its timing, are all about symbolism and political optics rather than environmental concern and the moral high ground. Certainly, Canadian considerations did not enter into the equation: US domestic politics will always trump US-Canada relations when push comes to shove.
However, as Obama himself explained: "this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others". This reflects my own suspicion that, in the scheme of things, Keystone XL would not make that much difference either way.
The environmental party line on the subject is that the pipeline is unequivocally "a bad thing". But in the absence of a pipeline, more oil will be transported by rail (or, for that matter, other even less desirable pipelines), with all the concomitant environmental concerns that brings with it. And, in unexpected agreement with the US State Department and even the Fraser Institute, I really don't think that the oil sands will suddenly magically cease, or even reduce, production just because one pipeline among many is not built. It is rarely mentioned that there are already no less than seventy existing oil pipelines criss-crissing the Canada-US border. The Canadian oil sands' development already has its own intrinsic challenges - economic, environmental and political - which I sincerely hope will bring about its downfall, regardless of whether this pipeline is build or not.
In and of itself, then, the Keystone XL decision will not save the earth. Nor will it trash the economy. Having said that, I would hate to have been the politician who had to make a firm decision one way or the other.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Perhaps the new Amazon store will sell The Cyberdisk

With the rather bizarre news that Amazon.com, paragon of the brave new world of cyberspace and pre-eminent success story of the wireless internet age, is to open a bricks-and-mortar store in Seattle, Washington, and the associated Brian Gable editorial cartoon (below),

  (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

I was reminded of an old CBC Irrelevant Show sketch about retro technology, the text of which is roughly:
Introducing the world's newest smartphone, The Cyberdisk, from Tennessee Instruments! Using our proprietary technology, our design team has created a phone that will make communication faster, easier, and clearer.
The Cyberdisk is the world's first smartphone to offer hands-free texting. With our patented voice-to-text vocal decoding technology, you simply call the number of the recipient, and speak into the mouthpiece. The Cyberdisk will analyze your vocal patterns and convert them into text!
And that's only half of it...the recipient's phone will then take that text, analyze it with our voice reconfiguration software, and then translate that text to sound. Our software is so accurate, it will perfectly mimic your own voice. Just like the real thing, thanks to our patented VTTTVMRT (Voice To Text To Voice Modulation Reconfiguration Technology).
Plus, you'll never charge another battery again! Cyberdisk, from Tennessee Instruments, has a new connective technology that ensures your Cyberdisk unit is always powered up. Your batteries will never die. And, you'll never lose your phone again. The Cyberdisk uses what we call an "e-cord" to physically attach the smartphone to your wall. You won't have to worry about leaving that iPhone on the bus ever again!
That wheel on top of the unit is the Cyberdisk. It uses spring-action, wheel-based technology in its dialling terminus. No more fumbling around on that touch screen. Forget about using two thumbs: you can dial using just one finger!
What about the web browser? This big yellow book never crashes.
Welcome to the future of smartphones.
It does sometimes seem that what goes around comes around.