Friday, April 29, 2016

The most expensive object on earth

The venerable old Beeb has produced an interesting article on the most expensive objects in the world. The initial contention is that the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in the UK may be the most expensive single object ever built, although of course this depends on the definition of "object", and whether one considers a power station to be one object or an amalgamation of various objects.
The construction costs alone of two-reactor Hinkley C project, if built, is expected to amount to some $26 billion, although Greenpeace estimates that, with financing and other costs, the total might reach $35 billion (costs throughout are in US$). This is certainly an extraordinary sum, but does it make it the most expensive object on earth, as Greenpeace claims?
To put this in context, the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, cost a paltry $1.5 billion. Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 cost an estimated $3.4 billion. The Large Hadron Collider on the France-Switzerland border cost about $5.8 billion. The eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco cost $6.5 billion. Even a hypothetical reconstruction of the Egyptian pyramids would only require about $1 - $1.5 billion in today' money.
But none of these come close to the cost of a nuclear power station. Comparisons are difficult: the last nuclear plant in Britain, Sizewell B, was built back in 1995, at a cost of about $5 billion in today's dollars, and there have been no new nuclear plants built anywhere in Europe this century. The published costs associated with nuclear power stations built more recently, in places like China and India, are considered to be of doubtful reliability.
The only projects that are even in the same ballpark as Hinkley C include: the $21.6 billion London Crossrail railway system (if that can in fact be considered a single object); the refurbishment of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is reported to be costing around $23 billion (although this too stretches the definition of "object" somewhat, as it also includes things like road and rail links, etc); the Hong Kong International Airport, which cost about $20 billion back in 1998, or around $29 billion in today's dollars; and Chevron's Gorgon liquefied natural gas plant on Barrow Island in Australia, which cost a mind-boggling $37 billion.
And, finally, if we stretch the "in the world" part of the definition a little, the International Space Station had a price tag of no less than $110 billion. Even a multi-reactor nuclear power station, such as the four-reactor project planned by Turkey, or the six-reactor plant South Africa is thinking of, might have difficulty outdoing that as a pricey single object.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is naturopathy guilty too?

An Alberta couple, David and Collet Stephan, have just been found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life for their 19-month old son Ezekiel, who died of meningitis back in March 2012. The two parents clearly loved their son dearly, but they are aficionados of naturopathy and herbal medicine and that is what really killed the little boy.
Initially, the couple believed that their son had a bad case of croup or flu, so they "treated" him with smoothies made with hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish (poor little bugger!). Ezekiel's condition continued to deteriorate, and they resorted to giving him fluids through an eye-dropper when he wouldn't eat or drink. At some point, it should have been clear to them that he was close to death, and their current "treatments" were not working. It was only as a last resort that they took little Ezekiel to hospital, where he stopped breathing and died.
Earlier, a friend who was a registered nurse had even warned them that the child probably had meningitis. So, what did they do? They went to a local naturopath who prescribed an echinacea mixture without even physically examining the child. Credit where it is due, the naturopath also said that they should take Ezekiel to hospital if they thought he might have meningitis, but clearly not forcefully enough.
Ezekiel died due to his parents' (excessive) beliefs in an iffy pseudoscience that still masquerades as a valid and mainstream health strategy. David's own father, Anthony, is a naturopath who set up his own company to market naturopathic remedies, including one that purports to treat bipolar disorder, depression, even autism. David Stephan himself is a vice president in that company.
Naturopathy is a form of alternative medicine, which includes homeopathy, herbalism and, often, acupuncture. I have ranted about homeopathy elsewhere in this blog. But naturopathy in general is a similarly pseudoscientific practice, basing its trade on insufficient or unproven science, and relying largely on its regulatory status for legitimacy (even though many of the regulations that are in force are being widely flouted). As others have made the case before me, if naturopaths call themselves doctors, then they must also take the responsibility in severe cases that any other doctor would.
To add insult to injury, David Stephan is also one of those benighted souls who still believes that vaccinations cause autism in children (the subject of another rant of mine), so Ezekiel did not receive vaccinations which might have saved him. Stephan is still adamant that their three remaining children will not be vaccinated.
The Stephans, loving parents or not, deserve what they have coming to them. But who is taking the naturopathy business to task?

Scolds, cucking-stools, shrew's fiddles - life is not so bad these days

While reading recently (as one does...) about the use of the cucking-stool in medieval law, I got to thinking about the origin of scolding as a criminal offence.
A common scold is essentially an ill-tempered woman - there is no male equivalent - who nags or constantly grumbles and complains, also sometimes referred to as a shrew (as in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew). Not an attractive quality, to be sure, but illegal?
For centuries, a woman could be prosecuted as a common scold (communis rixatrix, in the Latin) if she regularly acted in a troublesome or angry way, and broke the public peace by habitually arguing and quarrelling with her husband or neighbours. It seems to have been a peculiarly British thing, although it was also exported to New England with the British colonists who settled there. It was a common "crime" in medieval Britain, with the earliest evidence of legal prosecution dating back to the early 14th Century. It became more common with the speech repression that followed the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348, and certainly continued into the late 17th Century, although with much less frequency than in its heyday in the 14th-16th Century. It was technically only deleted from the criminal code of Britain in 1967.
The punishment for being a scold was usually the cucking-stool or scolding-stool, a wooden chair into which a woman could be tied. The chair was often built on wheels so that it could be trundled around the parish, and/or suspended from a pole on a fulcrum so that it could be dunked into the water of a local river or pond (hence the later name, ducking stool). You may have seen engravings of the punishment being applied to suspected witches, but it was more commonly used for other feminine offences like scolding, and sexual offences like bearing an illegitimate child or prostitution. More rarely it was used for "unruly" unmarried couples, and also, strangely, for dishonest brewers and bakers. The main purpose was public humiliation and censure, but it did sometimes prove fatal, or the victim died of shock on being ducked.
Another barbaric punishment for a scold was the scold's bridle (also known as branks in Scotland), a locking metal mask or head cage containing a tab to fit in the mouth to inhibit talking. The bridle-bit or curb-plate that fitted into the mouth was sometimes studded with spikes, so that it inflicted pain if the offender moved her tongue to speak.
Other punishments included the pillory or stocks (an uncomfortable wooden or metal framework to secure the offender's neck and wrists, often on a raised public platform), the jougs (an iron collar chained to a tree or other public place, mainly used in Scotland), and the shrew's fiddle or neck violin (a hinged wooden contraption with three holes, one for the neck and one for each wrist, often fitted with a bell for maximum humiliation value).
Sometimes, it's tempting to think that we haven't really progressed much over the centuries. It's a salutary exercise, then, to look back at examples like these to see that, well, perhaps things aren't so bad after all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chasing Asylum - Australia's shameful secret

Today, CBC aired out a thought-provoking and somewhat alarming interview with Eva Orner, director of a new documentary called Chasing Asylum. Tagged "The film the Australian government doesn't want you to see", the film features disturbing, secretly-recorded and never-before-seen footage from Australia's detention centres for intercepted refugees, which are located on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (the latter apparently slated for closure).
Since 2001, it has been official Australian policy to intercept refugee boats, and government pronouncements have made it very clear than anyone caught trying to enter illegally will never, ever make Australia home. These would-be asylum seekers - mainly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - may be kept in these detention centres for many months, even years, with no ability to process asylum claims, and effectively outside the system and away from any possible publicity or prying eyes. The refugees are offered a choice of settling in Nauru - a failed state with huge unemployment problems and no facilities for refugees, all but destroyed by unfettered mining, and offering no future prospects for the asylum seekers - or a return to the very homeland they are seeking to escape. There are rumours that Australia is looking to pay tens of millions of dollars to countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Kazakhstan to take the refugees off their hands.
The documentary-maker argues that such a policy, which has been a popular one over a succession of recent elections, plays on the fears of many Australians of being overrun by foreign cultures and "undesirables", and underscores the essentially racist attitudes prevalent in Australian society. The solution is certainly not cheap: Australia currently spends about $1.2 billion a years to maintain camps for about 2,000 refugees, much of it going on military-style security companies and, effectively, bribe money for the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Even though the camps themselves are run on a shoestring, with substandard accommodation, poor food, and young and inexperienced staff, the kick-backs to the host countries still end up costing the Australian taxpayers a lot of money.
Some of the most harrowing parts of the documentary deal with the conditions in the camps. Most of the inmates, and even many of the staff that end up working there, are traumatized by the experience. Accommodation is in mouldy tents with cardboard and mud floors; malaria and other diseases are rife; food is substandard and maggot-ridden; mental illness, and self-harm in horrific ways, is commonplace; sexual abuse of both adults and children (mainly by local residents) is rampant.
Working on the film has caused Ms. Orner to question Australia's very status as a civilized and democratic country. None of the prominent Australian politicians who are, or were, in a position to confront the situation agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. Their public standpoint, when pressed, is that this is the policy that the voters of Australia want. Ms. Orner argues that the voters are just not aware of the facts, and neither are most of the country's politicians, and her brave film is intended to present the hidden facts so that people can make a more informed decision. I wish her the best of luck.

Saudi Arabia getting out of the oil business?

I don't often have much good to say about Saudi Arabia, one of the world's great pariah states, but a radical and ambitious new plan they are calling Vision 2030 certainly made me sit up and pay attention.
The report is the responsibility of the Saudi defence minister, second in line to the Saudi throne, and favoured son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Deputy Crown Prince is such a strange title, but then this is, after all, a strange country). In a news conference to launch the plan, he openly accused his own country of being addicted to oil. "We have developed a case of oil addiction in Saudi Arabia," he said. Pretty clear, pretty damning, and pretty revolutionary in Saudi terms. Much of the report details the ways in which the country can wean itself off oil completely, which it recognizes as an old, potentially obsolete, technology. Canadian politicians and businessmen could learn a lesson or two here.
Prince Mohammed claims that Saudi Arabia "can live without oil by 2020". Given that some 77% of the country's revenues come from oil, this is ambitious to say the very least, and many commentators (including Saudi businessmen) see it as just pie-in-the-sky implausible and impractical. But with oil prices less than half of what they were just a couple of years ago - a situation largely brought on by Saudi Arabia itself - the country needs to do something pretty dramatic to stem the bleeding of its economy (it may have deep pockets, but they are not infinite).
Among the reforms Prince Mohammed is recommending is the sale of 5% of state-owned oil company Aramco, the proceeds to go towards establishing a $2 trillion "sovereign wealth fund". Given that Saudi Aramco is the world's largest company - reportedly worth about $2.5 trillion, way larger than Apple, Microsoft and Google/Alphabet put together - this would make it by far the largest IPO ever, and could have huge repercussions on world markets. Other economic reforms in the report include moves to diversify the economy, increased investment in mineral mining, and the expansion (and possibly privatization) of Saudi military production, this latter a worrisome trend for many.
Another recommendation is to reduce or even completely remove the huge subsidies that make Saudi gasoline prices some of the cheapest in the world (currently around 32c/litre).  As an indication of how this might play out, water and electricity subsidies have recently been removed, much to the consternation of many, although the prince insists that he is keen to make sure that the poor do not suffer due to the reforms. New public transit facilities in Riyadh and Jeddah are also underway already, as part of the attempt to wean people away from their reliance on gasoline.
Perhaps even more shocking, the report also recommends some (minor) social reforms as well, such as a new visa system to allow expatriate Muslims and Arabs to work long-term in Saudi Arabia, a relaxation of residency laws, and a move towards building affordable housing, collecting taxes, and even increasing the participation of women in the workforce.
Life in Saudi Arabia is perhaps not as idyllic as some people may think, at least for those outside the ultra-rich ruling class. It is a very rich country, but it is not necessarily full of rich people, and there is a huge gap between the rich and the regular people, especially those on public sector salaries. 50% of the Saudi population is less than 25 years old, and 70% under 30 (Prince Mohammed himself is only 30). Foreign workers make up about one-third of the population, and about two thirds of the actual work-force. Saudi social media is already rife with complaints from the local population that they are finding it difficult to pay their rent, or even to find a home. To maintain their old standard of living, many households now require two incomes, so there is increasing pressure to allow women to pull their weight in the workforce.
Changes of this magnitude will cause huge ripples in Saudi society and a massive upheaval in Saudi business circles. But it can only be seen as a positive shift in attitudes, and perhaps a reflection of a new generation in the Saudi ruling classes. Who knows, perhaps they will even let women drive there sometime soon?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Boomers, Millennials, Gen X/Y/Z - generations explained

I get very confused when I read about Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z, etc, etc. So, here are all those generations and demographic cohorts in black and white:
  • Baby Boomers (also known as the Me Generation) refers to the generation born after the Second World War, usually meaning from 1946 to about 1964.
  • Generation X (or just Gen X) are those born anytime between the early 1960s and the early 1980s.
  • Generation Y (also known as Millennials, Generation We, the Global Generation, Generation Net, etc) are those born just before the millennium, usually taken to mean anywhere from about 1980 to 2000.
  • Generation Z is the latest cohort, and refers to those born after the late 1990s or early 2000s.
Now, these dates are not fixed or definitive, and, as can be seen, there is also some level of overlap. But at least I can refer to this page to try and keep things straight in my ageing Boomer head.

Islamic terrorism? In the Philippines?

With the news today that a Canadian living in the Philippines has been kidnapped and executed by Islamist terrorists (with another Canadian remaining captive, and living on borrowed time), international terrorism has come very close to home.
John Ridsdel (the Canadian who was beheaded) and Robert Hall (who remains in captivity, and the subject of an ongoing ransom demand) were both kidnapped, along with a Norwegian man and a Filipina, on the resort island of Samal in the southern Philippines province of Davao del Norte, towards the end of last year. The kidnappings and execution were carried out by a shadowy Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf.
But I imagine that most people's reaction was, like mine, along the lines of: "Muslim terrorists in the Philippines? Isn't that a Catholic country?" So, a little research seemed in order.
So, here is the first thing to be aware of: the Philippines is a loose collection of over 7,600 islands in the western Pacific, covering about 300,000 square kilometers. The little island of Samal is about 800km, and hundreds of islands, away from the capital Manila. The country has a population of over 103 million from a whole bunch of different ethnicities. 19 main regional languages are officially recognized, in addition to the official languages of Filipino (standardized Tagalog) and English, although Ethnologue lists 186 individual languages in the Philippines, 182 of them still spoken. It is, then, a pretty disparate and heterogeneous place.
It has also had a checkered and tumultuous history of colonization, dictatorships and revolutions. In pre-colonial times, various separate nations were established under the rule of various datus, rajahs, sultans and lakans. Spanish colonization began in 1521, with all the misery that always seems to bring with it, and continued for over 300 years. The Philippine Revolution of 1896 gave rise to the First Philippine Republic. But this was short-lived, and the Philippine-American war of 1899 left the country as an American colony, which lasted until the Japanese occupation of 1942-45, and it was only in 1946 that the Philippines was finally recognized as an independent nation. Even then, though, the country had to deal with twenty years of the corrupt dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the People Power Revolution of 1986, the Maguindanao massacres of 2009, various volcanic eruptions, typhoons and other natural disasters, the Asian financial crisis, etc, etc. It seems like there is never a dull moment in the Philippines.
Yes, the Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, with an estimated 83% of the population identifying as Catholic, but that percentage is gradually falling as Catholicism - largely a hangover from Spanish colonial times - gradually loosens its grip. Muslims, mainly Sunnis, are the second largest religions group, making up about 5% according to the most recent census, but as much as 11% according to the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos.
Abu Sayyaf, the Muslim terrorist group that carried out the recent kidnappings, is based in the Mindanoa region in the southwest of the Philippines. For over 30 years, it has been agitating, like the larger Moro National Liberation Front, for an independent Islamic province. Although small (an estimated 200-400 members, down from around 1,250 during its heyday in the early 2000s), the group is violent and radical. Their MO is bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion, with side lines of rape, forced marriages, piracy and drug trafficking. They are most notorious for the Philippines' worst terrorist attack, the 2004 bombing of the Superferry 14, which killed 116 people. In 2014, like several other terrorist groups, they jumped on the Islamic State bandwagon, although the two organizations have no real connections. So, all in all, a small but thoroughly unpleasant terrorist group.
The rest as they say, is history. There is nothing to suggest that Abu Sayyaf is deliberately targeting Canadians, this is just business-as-usual for them.

Yes, some remote indigenous reserves may be unsustainable

An article by an aboriginal woman from the Bay of Quinte area in southern Ontario about why she would never leave her native home has struck a bit of a dissonant chord, judging by the Letters to the Editor it has generated. The article itself was a response to recent comments by ex-Premier Jean Chrétien, suggesting that remote reserves may indeed be unsustainable and uneconomic, and that some people may need to move.
I too sent in a letter, although I knew it was too long to print, but here it is anyway:
It was interesting to read a first-hand account of why aboriginal people might not want to move away from their ancestral lands (Why I won't leave my native home - April 25 2016). But I don't believe that the suggestion is "disrespectful", nor is it necessarily "racist" and "narrow".
I, and millions of other Canadians, have done just that (left our homes and ancestral lands) in coming to Canada.
Interestingly, much of the article is framed in quasi-religious or spiritual terms, but I suspect that not all indigenous people are quite so spiritual, or feel so close to the land. I would think that many of the teens of Attawapiskat, for example, would jump at the chance to leave.
And this does not have to involve a large, crowded city. Canada has many small and medium-sized towns, with good housing, education and healthcare facilities, and many with access to good hunting and fishing to boot.
The remote north of Canada may (or may not) be a sustainable location for a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But much of it is just too remote to allow for the modern, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle so many people want.
To open up the discussion to the idea of voluntary relocation is in no way sacrilegious, and has nothing to do with "judging" or "hate". The northern wilderness will always be there for those who wish to visit, and parts of it can even be maintained as sacred, protected areas for members of particular cultures if need be. But people should not be forced to live there.
I actually asked that the letter not be cut or edited, and thereby risk losing context, so I am not actually surprised it was not printed. Anything to do with indigenous people in Canada always seems to take on a hypersensitive political aspect, so I did not want to be seen as being dismissive, disrespectful or (God forbid) racist in some way.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Yemen's forgotten humanitarian crisis

An article by a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo Ontario, has alerted me to the forgotten war in Yemen. I kind of knew there was a civil war going on there between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Shiite Houthi insurgents, but I had not realized just how bad the situation was.
Over the last year, the civil war has been responsible for some 6,500 deaths, about half of them civilians. But, according to the article - and I have no reason to doubt its credibility - more people in Yemen are in need of urgent humanitarian aid than in any other place in the world, including Syria, with an estimated 21 million (the vast majority of the country's population) at risk from famine. Nearly 180,000 have already fled the country, and some 2.8 million have been displaced from their homes. But water security and nutrition are the biggest issues: about 20 million people lack access to safe water and sanitation (bear in mind that the total population of the country is only 24 million), and some 14 million need food security.
The UN and international aid organizations are desperately calling for money and resources for Yemen, but the country's plight is being overshadowed by nearby Syria. Canada, for example, provided $15 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen in 2015, as compared to $173 million for Syria. Taking into account the relative populations at risk, this translates to about $0.71 for each needy Yemeni, and $13 for each needy Syrian.
Whatever one's stand on what is happening in Yemen and why, Canada can still take a leading role in drawing the world's attention to this hidden humanitarian crisis.

This phrase strains credulity (or even credibility)

An article in today's paper, reporting a lawyer's contention that it "strains credulity" that Stephen Harper was not aware of his senior aides' plans, got me thinking about that commonly-used phrase. This is not so much one my pet peeves, like the hijacked misuse of words such as momentarily, alternate, etc (see a previous blog post), but a genuine confusion, because I do think that both "strains credibility" and "strains credulity" COULD be correct under some circumstances. But, generally speaking, I think that "strains credibility", as in this case, is more likely to be what is actually meant.
Credibility means believability, an ability or a worthiness to be believed or trusted. It can be used of both people and things, and is usually a positive quality. It was introduced into English in the late 16th Century from the French, and ultimately from the Medieval Latin credibilitas, meaning believability.
Credulity, on the other the hand, means gullibility or naïveté, an excessive readiness or willingness to believe. It is always used of a person, not a thing, and is usually used with a slightly negative connotation to refer to a person who is easily tricked or taken advantage of. It was introduced into English from the French in the early 15th century, and originally derives from the Latin credulitatem, meaning easiness of belief or rash confidence. According to Garner's Modern American Usage, credulity did originally mean belief, but that usage has long been obsolete.
Just for good measure, another word often confused with one or the other (or both) of these is creditability, which means a worthiness of praise, honour, commendation or credit. It is much less often used, although the adjective creditable (worthy of praise) is quite commonly used.
Thus, the phrase "strains credibility" refers to a person, situation or assertion that pushes believableness beyond normal bounds i.e. it is so bizarre or excessive that it is difficult to believe it can possibly be true. The phrase "strains credulity" could be taken to mean that something is beyond the powers of even a credulous person to believe, and so, as a phrase in its own right, it may not be definitively wrong. Given that credulous people tend to believe almost anything without thinking or "straining", this is perhaps not as effective or strong a phrase as "strains credibility", as Paul Brians' "Common Errors in English Usage" suggests, although it could be just as "credibly" interpreted as a stronger phrase, meaning that something is so unbelievable that even a credulous person would not believe it.
"Strains credulity", though, seems to be in the ascendancy in print and on screen, even though, in most cases, I think "strains credibility" is what is really meant. The Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, for example, counsels against using it, as does Garner's Modern American Usage, although I have come across many uses of "strains credulity" in judges' summings-up and other legal statements. A couple of examples I have encountered in quite "credible" publications (here and here) appear to use "strains credulity" as a stronger version of "strains credibility", in the sense of something that not only "strains credibility" but even "strains credulity". However, I have also seen another article where "strains credibility" is CORRECTED (incorrectly, in my opinion) to "strains credulity".
The verdict? The jury is still out, although I still believe that most uses of "strains credulity" are not well-considered, and "strains credibility" is what is actually intended.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Meat means murder - but perhaps not how you think

It is probably not news to many people, but a rash of recent articles is drawing renewed attention to the consumption of meat as a major environmental and economic challenge for the planet.
As even establishment corporations like the food multi-national Nestlé point out, a calorie of meat requires ten times as much water to produce as a calorie of food crops. By some estimates a pound of meat requires a mind-boggling 1,800 gallons of water to produce, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that fully 8% of human water usage is devoted to the production of meat.
As more and more people in developing countries gradually rise up out of poverty, they increasingly aspire to an "American diet" of up to 3,600 calories a day, including a substantial meat element. And, as the world's population is on schedule to soar to almost 10 billion by 2050, world food production will need to increase by an estimated 70% worldwide, and as much as 100% in developing countries. This will put pressure on the world's food production, and particularly on its already stressed water supply. According to Nestlé once again, a third of the world's population is likely to be affected by water shortages within ten years, and the situation will become potentially catastrophic by 2050.
The planet's water resources already appear increasingly unsustainable. Major crop-growing areas like California and northern India, for example, are inherently arid regions, so that crops grown there require more water than elsewhere. The result is that more water is being withdrawn from these areas than can be naturally replenished, leading to a vicious circle of reduced water table, increased salinity, and less productive crops, requiring ever more water.
So, what to do?
Yes, we can try to use our water more carefully, save a bit here, save a bit there. But reducing meat consumption could go a long way to helping a potentially dire situation. I became a vegetarian 30-odd years ago - yes, before it was trendy - and, for me personally, the inefficient protein production argument was one of my main reasons (among many). Bear in mind that, as well as bring wasteful of water, meat production is also about ten times more wasteful of farmable land than plant production (according to the FAO, livestock, and the crops to feed them, take up an estimated 70% of agricultural land, about 30% of the entire land surface of the globe). Livestock is also the single biggest polluter of water worldwide (animal waste, hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, etc). It is only recently that we have begun to understand the extent to which animal husbandry is responsible for climate change (an estimated 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector).
Looked at in that light, a movement towards vegetarianism seems like a no-brainer. But you can imagine the push-back if such a thing were to be legislated, or even talked about in polite society, whether in the developed or developing world. In the meantime, you could just do it because it's the right thing to do. And, actually, it's really not that hard these days. You should have tried it 35 years ago!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Duffy acquitted, but Harper and the PMO slammed

After an interminable trial, and even more interminable deliberations (if something can BE more interminable than interminable), Ontario Justice Charles Vaillancourt has somehow managed to find Senator Mike Duffy not guilty of all 31 fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges against him. In fact, the judge found Duffy to be a "credible witness" whose conduct was "reasonable and honest".
Now, I wasn't involved in the court case, nor was I privy to the reams of evidence brought before the court. But I find it a bit difficult to believe that at least some of the charges did not stick. The judge admitted to a "certain uncomfortableness" over some of Duffy's expenses filings, but nothing that amounted to "criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt". In effect, Duffy has merely been acquitted of breaking the all-too-lax rules of the Canadian Senate.
Regarding the $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright, the judge argues that Duffy "did not demonstrate a true acceptance of the funds" and that he was effectively "forced into accepting Nigel Wright's funds so that the government could rid itself of an embarrassing political fiasco that just was not going away". I beg to differ: Duffy had a free choice to do the right thing and he chose not to, and so should suffer the consequences. Similarly, in declaring his non-winterized PEI cottage as his primary residence (his justification for so many of the expense claims for trips to Ottawa, where his main home is actually located), it is no excuse to say that he was advised to do so by another senator, as Justice Vaillancourt argues: he had a free choice to do the right and he chose not to.
As for how Duffy can be considered not guilty in claiming expenses for reasons like: to attend the Saanich Fair in BC (which he never actually attended); or a trip to Peterborough to buy a puppy; or to attend the birth of a grandchild; or to spend New Year's Day with family in BC; or to keep a medical appointment in Ottawa (on one of the few times he happened to be in PEI); or to attend the funerals of friends and acquaintances; or the $10,000 paid to a personal trainer/"consultant" - these are personal expenses that should not be borne by the taxpayer. The addition of what the judge euphemistically describes as the "opportunistic acceptance of  a legitimate speaking engagement" does not somehow make them acceptable, notwithstanding Justice Vaillancourt's mealy-mouthed mumblings about "the chicken or the egg".
So, Duffy is reinstated in the Senate, which returns to business-as-usual, including all manner of iffy expense claims, but now with the sanction of the courts. How can that be a desirable outcome? My wife argues that Duffy is forever tainted by the proceedings, in much the same way as individuals exonerated of sexual harassment are forever tainted. But seeing his smug smile and his oh-so-measured comments on the verdict, I'm not so sure that Duffy will suffer too much (and may even benefit from the kudos of beating the system).
Far fom suffering any financial inconvenience, he will almost certainly come out of this with a one-off payment of $270,000 (two years income foregone during the trial), and perhaps even a hefty reimbursement of legal costs. I think he will do quite nicely out of the whole sordid affair.
In fact, the only plus side to the whole trial and verdict comes from the judge's harsh words about the Prime Minister's Office under Stephen Harper, in which he bandies around phrases like, "political covert, relentless", "mind-boggling and shocking" and "ruthless efficiency" with reference to the PMO, and even to Stephen Harper himself. One more official black mark against Stephen Harper's legacy can only be seen as a good thing.

Bright times ahead for concentrated solar power

The Crescent Dunes solar power plant in the Nevada desert, as well as being visually stunning (see the pictures on the Time Magazine website, and scroll through them using the arrows just below the first picture), uses some revolutionary new technology, and circumvents a major drawback of solar power.
While most solar power generation uses photovoltaic technology to produce power from the panels themselves, Crescent Dunes uses over 10,000 billboard-sized mirrors (heliostats), covering an area of nearly 3km diameter, to reflect the sun's rays onto a 200m tall central tower, where the concentrated sunlight heats up salt to temperatures of over 560°C. The molten salt is capable of retaining these high heat levels for long periods, with a heat loss of less than ½°C per day, thus turning it into a kind of thermal battery. This stored heat can then be used to power traditional steam turbines to produce electricity whenever power is needed by the grid, such as during periods of peak demand, even at night.
The plant is capable of producing over 500,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to power 75,000 homes, all with zero carbon emissions. Nevada electricity utility NV Energy has a 25-year contract to purchase all the electricity produced by the plant.
Crescent Dunes' developer, SolarReserve, now has three of these concentrated solar power projects - the other two are in Copiapó, Chile, and in Postmasburg, South Africa - and as the price of electricity from traditional sources continue to rise, as is predicted, this relatively new technology will become increasingly cost-efficient. While millions are being invested in battery technology to store renewable energy in the form of electricity, SolarReserve's molten salt storage technology uses a relatively cheap and plentiful medium. The company is also hoping that, as its model begins to enjoy more widespread deployment, costs will fall substantially, much as has been seen in the photovoltaic market.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

San Francisco pushes the envelope on green electricity

As of April 19th 2016, San Francisco has become the first major American city to actively require the installation of solar panels on the roofs of all new buildings of less than 10 stories (larger buildings must wait, although I am not quite clear on why). The initiative is expected to avoid about 26,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Smaller Californian cities like Lancaster and Sebastopol already have such ordnances, and the state of California has long had a requirement that new buildings with 10 floors or less designate at least 15% of their rooftop area as being READY for solar panel installation. But San Francisco - always a progressive city - is the first major metropolitan area in the USA to mandate the installation of photovoltaic solar panels and, as such, sets the pace for other cities to follow. New York City is considering mandating solar panels, but only on some its municipal buildings. Nothing else comes close to San Francisco's commitment.
As things stand, San Francisco's Better Roofs Ordinance only requires that a minimum of 15% of the roof space be devoted to solar panels. There is a plan for future legislation to allow for living roofs to be installed in place of solar panels (living roofs provide insulation, reduce storm-water from entering the sewer, enhance biodiversity and habitat, sequester carbon, and capture pollution), and possibly for the percentage to be increased.
The city’s ultimate goal is to power itself with 100% renewable energy. Through the CleanPowerSF program, it already pools residents’ and businesses’ electricity demand in order to purchase bulk renewable energy from solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and hydroelectric sources at competitive rates, and it automatically adds city power users to the program (although they can then opt out if they choose). As a result, the average San Francisco homeowner actually pays less than the electricity utility Pacific Gas and Electric’s standard rates for their greener power, and even those who request a 100% renewable mix only pay about $6 more per month extra. California also has various other solar incentive programs, such as the Million Solar Roofs Program and the California Solar Initiative.
Let's hope that more utilities - including here in Canada - see the benefits of San Francisco's visionary approach and join the bandwagon.
Another article on Vox Energy & Environment suggests that increasing housing density in cities like San Francisco could have an even greater environmental impact than undeniably worthy initiatives like the Better Roofs Ordinance.
San Francisco, like many other cities, currently has stringent zoning restrictions that artificially limit the number of housing units that can be built in the city, often by curbing building heights, which have the effect of constraining the total number of people who can live in the city (as well as raising housing costs). Studies have show that people who live in central San Francisco emit far less carbon dioxide than people living in nearby suburban areas, partly because their apartments tend to be smaller and so require less energy for heat and electricity, and partly because residents in the dense centre of San Francisco drive much less. A 2015 report from UCLA suggests that the average person in the city of San Francisco emits just 6.7 metric tons of CO2 per year, as compared to the 14.6 metric tons of CO2 per year emitted by the average person living in the surrounding Bay Area.
The Vox report suggests that the savings in CO2 yielded by a change in the zoning and density laws of a city like San Francisco could dwarf the effects of the solar panel initiative, and there is already a movement to bring this about.
I've often said that San Francisco is one of the very few jurisdictions in the USA where I could actually see myself living. This has only confirmed my opinions.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Swiss religious accommodation issue misses the point

A story from a small town in rural Switzerland has once again brought into sharp relief the thorny issue of religious freedom and accommodation of religious views.
Two Muslim teens, aged 14 and 15, who have lived in Switzerland for many years (their father, a Syrian imam, was granted asylum there in 2001), have refused to shake hands with a female school teacher, which apparently is something that Swiss kids are routinely expected to do as a mark of respect. At first, the school granted them special dispensation not to take part in the handshake ritual, suggesting that they don't shake hands with male teachers either in order to avoid charges of gender discrimination. But local people have taken umbrage and, more recently, the family has had their Swiss naturalizations proceedings put on hold as a result of the uproar.
Now, while you could justifiably say to the Swiss authorities, "get over it already, this is not important", apparently shaking hands is a big deal in Switzerland. The two brothers' refusal is on the grounds that physical contact with women who are not family members is against their faith. To me, as a non-believer either in Allah or in any other God, this seems even more childish and unjustifiable than the Swiss authorities' stance. Even the Swiss Federation of Islamic Organisations have confirmed that there is no reference in the Koran that would justify a refusal to shake a woman teacher's hand (although the smaller Islamic Central Council of Switzerland say that a handshake between men and women is indeed prohibited by Islam).
I have no time at all for people intent on applying random medieval tribal beliefs to modern day multicultural society, and I kind of feel sorry for the Swiss administrators who are caught in the middle of such infantilism. You can almost see why so many countries are currently balking at taking in more Muslim refugees. The initial problem arises, though, from the politically-correct impulse to accommodate religious views, and to bend over backwards in trying to reconcile various disparate religions with modern secular life.
Now, I may be taking a harder line as I get older, but it seems to me that, if an immigrant's religious views are not compatible with local customs and norms, then they should probably take them elsewhere. After all, these people chose to go to live in Switzerland or wherever: the least they can do is to try to fit in. Sure, pray and fast and do whatever you feel you have to in your private life, but don't expect the host country to change itself to fit around you.
I too am an immigrant, here in Canada. It was my choice, and I am grateful to be here, so I obey the local laws and cultural norms, even if they are not those of my youth. Granted, I have not found that particularly hard, but surely the same principle applies even where an immigrant has to work harder, or make more changes, in order to fit in with the local way of life. A principle is a principle, is it not?

English has, or at least had, some pretty stange words

Many, MANY moons ago, as a callow, sickly and geeky pre-teen, I remember being fascinated by the breadth and the sheer immensity of the English lexicon. There seemed to be so many words that it was almost impossible to make up a word that did not already exist somewhere in the thickest English dictionary. So, of course, that is just what I would try to do.
In particular, it was not so much the fancy inkhorn terms that charmed me - the extravagant, self-indulgent Latinate constructions so popular with writers and academics in the 17th and 18th centuries, words like ingent, devulgate, attemptate, obtestate, fatigate, deruncinate, subsecive, nidulate, abstergify, arreption, suppeditate, eximious, illecebrous, cohabit, etc, etc - although these also have their own appeal. For me, it was mainly the shorter, more unprepossessing words that caught my attention, many, but by no means all, derived or adapted from Old English or Norse, as I now know.
For example, if there exists a strange word like snot, I would wonder why was there not also a word drot? If we have catch, then why not gatch? If bonk, why not nonk? Bigger, migger; gold, jold; throat, broat; and so on and so forth.
Fast forward to 2016, and my bathroom calendar of Forgotten English is teaching me that many such words probably did exist in some part of Britain, even if they are not in currency today, along with many others difficult to invent or imagine. Here are just a few examples:
  • poat - to walk quietly and unobtrusively
  • elench - a subtle or fallacious argument
  • gowk - a cuckoo
  • siker - dependable, without doubt
  • fidther - a rustle, such as a mouse might make
  • gussock - a sudden strong gust of wind
  • fragor - a strong, sweet smell
  • slurg - somnolent, in a sleepy state
  • skaffay - short-lived or disturbed sleep
  • cloffey - a slattern or tawdrily-dressed woman
  • plunt -  a walking stick with a large knob
  • shegger - to beat an opponent in a game of chance
  • blague - a hoax or pretence
  • sharooshed - taken aback, surprised, disgusted
  • bossack - an ache, discomfort or ailment
  • astone - to confound or astonish
  • tumbies - ablutions, having a bath
  • grannows - streaks of dirt left on clothing after poor washing
  • gocks-bobs - amazement, surprise
  • hoorip - very fast, esp. of boiling water
  • drent - drowned
  • chouse - to cheat or defraud
  • bleezed - sozzled, slightly inebriated
  • prigge - to steal or filch
  • scorse - to barter or exchange
  • thruffing - the whole matter
  • luby - good clothes, Sunday best
  • gafty - doubtful, suspect
  • tucket - a musical flourish
  • gleek - a joke or jest
  • tift - something as it ought to be, or under perfect conditions
  • cowse - to pursue animals, to wander about idly
  • whilt - an idle or indolent person
  • tutty - cross, irritable
  • arg - to quarrel, argue
  • lashigillavery - plenty of food and drink
  • chowp - to prattle, chatter
  • slatch - an interval of fair weather
  • carriwitchet - a perplexing or puzzling problem
  • doggerlone - wreck or ruin
  • culch - a great quantity of rain
  • woofits - hangover
  • pungled - embarrassed
  • skice - to race about
  • chuffy - haughty, proud
  • puggle - to stir or stoke a fire
  • blunk - a fit of squally, tempestuous weather
  • stife - obstinate, inflexible
  • conny - pretty, comely
The more I think about it, the more I realize that, at some point in history, in some obscure corner of Britain, there probably WERE words like drot, gatch, nonk, migger, jold, broat, etc.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Catholic Chuch has a moral obligation in residential school case

Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Phil Fontaine, is calling on the federal government to fill the big hole left by the Catholic Church in providing compensation to survivors of Indian residential schools, calling it the government's "moral duty" to do so. What about the Catholic Church's moral duty?
As a quick recap, the residential schools system, funded by the Canadian government and administered largely by the Catholic Church (and abetted to a lesser extend by the Anglican Church and even the usually sensible United Church), was a deliberate attempt to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant Canadian culture. An estimated 150,000 First Nations children were forced into the system, starting with the 1876 Indian Act and peaking around the 1930s, although, shockingly, the last school was not closed until the 1990s. Aboriginal children attending the schools were usually removed from their families, deprived of their ancestral languages, exposed to physical and sexual abuse by staff members and other students, and in some cases sterilized, even tortured. In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) mandated a $2 billion compensation package for survivors, and in 2008, after a public apology by the then Prime Minister, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to gather first-hand statements from survivors.
As part of the IRSSA agreement, the 50 "Catholic entities" that ran many of the schools reluctantly agreed to pay a total of $79 million for healing and reconciliation programs for the survivors - a paltry sum in the scheme of things, both in terms of the overall scope of the IRSSA, and in terms of the Church's wealth - made up of $29 million in cash, $25 million in "in-kind services", and a further $25 million that, for reasons best know to the Conservative government of the time, was to be tied to a 7-year fundraising campaign. A court case last year, designed to get the entities' to pay up the fundraised portion of their obligations, revealed that they had only been able to raise $3.7 million of the $25 million, despite their supposed "best efforts".
Then, due to what is usually described as a "miscommunication" by one of the federal lawyers, Alexander Gray, the Catholic entities were led to believe that  they could walk away from their fundraising responsibilities if they paid just $1.2 million to resolve the case. The Court of the Queen's Bench of Saskatchewan later ruled that this "deal" was binding, despite its bearing no relationship with the federal government's clear intentions, and the Catholic Church was suddenly off the hook. The government, for some reason did not appeal the decision, and the appeal period has now expired, and no other legal remedies now remain.
So, a series of embarrassing legal mistakes by the outgoing Conservative government, but it seems to me that the moral duty of the Catholic Church - to step up to the collection plate, as one wag had it - still remains. Yes, the ultimate responsibility to make up this shortfall is the government's, as Mr. Fontaine points out, but the Department of Indigenous Affairs is trying to persuade the Catholic Church that the moral imperative is actually theirs.
So, here is a handy little test case to evaluate whether the Catholic church is ine fact an ethical organization, or whether it is willing to hide behind a legal technicality to evade its obligations. I will follow the outcome with interest.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Métis are now bona fide Indians - so what is a Métis anyway?

The Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous ruling yesterday that the Métis and non-status Indians are indeed "Indians" within the meaning of the 1867 Constitution is a big deal, both for both the Métis/non-status Indians themselves, but also for the country as a whole. It opens the door to all sorts of negotiations over land claims, enhanced social benefits (including education and health), revised tax status, hunting rights, etc, for an estimated 450,000 Métis and 200,000 non-status Indians.
Just to be clear(-ish), Métis refers to a group of "indigenous people" who have mixed First Nations and European blood. Historically, this referred to the offspring of marriages between local indigenous people and European settlers, mainly between Algonquian women and French trappers and fur traders - métis is actually an old French word meaning "mixed". The most famous example is the 19th century activist Louis Riel. Over the years, many different labels have been used for such people, most of them more or less pejorative, including half-bloods, half-breeds, michif, bois brûlé, chicot, country-born, mixed bloods, Road Allowance people, etc. In 1982, the Métis were included as "aboriginal people" in the Canadian Constitution, after which they became defined as an ethnic group with their own culture, distinct from the First Nations and Inuit peoples.
Non-status Indians, on the other hand, are indigenous people who, for one reason or another, have lost their legal Indian status. Back in the day, this could have been for reasons like a First Nations woman marrying a non-indigenous man, voluntary forfeiture of status (often for a cash payment), missing the initial enrollment for whatever reason, or even for receiving a university education, becoming an ordained minister, or joining the army. Most of these rules were abolished in 1955, but many people still find themselves in limbo as a result of those earlier laws.
Despite the minor legal changes in the last century, both of these groups have found themselves marginalized, basically since the time of Confederation. The late Harry Daniels, a Saskatchewan native-rights lawyer, first launched a case to amend this situation back in 1999, and it is his son, Gabriel, among others, who has finally seen it through to fruition this week.
So, all well and good. What I don't understand, though, is what actually defines a Métis. The progeny of early European settlers and local natives were clearly of mixed indigenous and non-indigenous blood. But their progeny, and succeeding generations? With each generation, and depending on the various marriage arrangements, the mix of blood has become more and more complex, with some presumably becoming less indigenous, and some more, I suppose.
Wikipedia defines the Métis as "descendants of specific mixed First Nations and European ancestry, who self-identify as Métis, and are accepted into their current community", which still does not help me much. The Métis National Council - and they should know, if anyone, I guess - has defined a Metis as "a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry, and who is accepted by the Métis Nation". Better, but still pretty vague. In neither definition is the percentage of aboriginal blood important, though.
The best resource I could find is the thoughtful and well-written blog of an Albertan Métis woman transplanted into Quebec. Even she could not definitively say what makes a Métis a Métis, but she does a good job of talking around the issues, from Pan-Métisism to the "little m vs. big M" identity issue, culture vs. ethnicity, etc. Don't expect much clarification, though. As she says, "Being Métis is something you can spend a lifetime trying to understand", and when asked, "How Indian are you?", she is forced to respond, "I have no idea. That's not the point."

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The oil industry's cover-ups began many decades ago

If more evidence were needed, new documents released this week by the Washington-based non-profit legal organization, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), some dating back to the 1940s, show how the oil industry has systematically covered up the evidence for, and risks of, climate change for many decades.
For instance, 70 years ago, in 1946, in the face of mounting public concern over smog (particularly in rapidly-growing Los Angeles), a group of oil executives formed a group called the "Smoke and Fumes Committee", whose remit was to fund research into smog and other air pollution issues, which it would then use to inform and shape public opinion about environmental issues related to fossil fuels. The express goal of this collaboration was to use science and public skepticism to prevent environmental regulations that they considered hasty, costly and unnecessary. The Smoke and Fumes Committee would later become known as the American Petroleum Institute (API), a highly influential and well-funded organization in the field. The Smoke and Fumes Committee and the API had a policy strangle-hold over many of the institutes and research bodies it funded, including the well-known Stanford Research Institute.
A 1957 paper, published by the independent Scripps Institute, demonstrated scientifically for the first time that far more CO2 would remain in the atmosphere than had been previously assumed, and would potentially accelerate the impact of global climate change. In direct response to this report, another report, known as the Brannon Report and funded by Humble Oil (now Exxon Mobil), acknowledged the rising levels of atmospheric CO2, and also the fact that fossil fuels were contributing to that increase, early evidence that the oil industry itself was well aware of the problem. But this new report made a point of suggesting that CO2 would be retained in the oceans for much longer before returning to the atmosphere than the Scripps Institute report had concluded, so that the impact of fossil fuel emissions would be delayed by decades or even centuries.
In 1968, the Robinson Report, published by the Stanford Research Institute for the American Petroleum Institute, gave a stark account of how rising levels of CO2, for which fossil fuel burning provided the best explanation, would probably result in rising global temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, warming oceans, and serious environmental damage on a global scale. It recommended serious and speedy research into technologies to bring CO2 level under control. The Robinson Report was delivered to industry experts at the 1971 World Petroleum Congress, and another report the next year, based on the Robinson Report's findings, was submitted to the Department of Interior committee on air pollution issues, although in both of these presentations the uncertainties behind the science were stressed. The American Petroleum Institute hastily commissioned a toned-down "Supplemental" report to the Robinson Report, which it relied on heavily in its subsequent questioning of climate science, and industry and climate change skeptics continued to cite this watered-down report for years afterward.
So, just as in the case with the tobacco industry, the oil industry has clearly been well aware of global warming, and its own part in it, for many decades, and it has done its best to cover up the inconvenient truth with its own version of the science.
Dirty business, oil.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Big Business speaks out for the American LGBT community

Hot on the heels of an entry about corporations taking the lead in renewable energy investment, comes news that big business is at the forefront of the American fight against sexual discrimination.
Several states have passed, or at least attempted to pass, legislation aimed at curbing LGBT rights in recent months. North Carolina's "bathroom bill" HB2 (which bars local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances, and stipulates that transgender people must use the washrooms appropriate for their birth sex) has received the most press, but South Carolina. Mississippi, South Dakota, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee (yes, the predictably conservative redneck states) have all either passed such laws recently, or are in the process of attempting to.
Enter the politically correct modern corporation: PayPal and Lionsgate both cancelled plans to build a new operations centre in North Carolina over the issue, Deutsche Bank suspended plans for expansion there, Apple, American Airlinesty and Wells Fargo Bank have weighed in on the  matter, and over 100 executives from companies like Goldman Sachs, Hyatt Hotels and Bank of America have signed an open letter opposing the new bill; Disney has threatened to pull out of Georgia over a bill to allow businesses to deny services to individuals based on the business owners' religious beliefs, as did AMC studio and tech giant Salesforce (the state's Governor later vetoed the bill based on these interventions).
Other big players have also made their views known: the NFL put an Atlanta, Georgia Super Bowl in jeopardy over the issue; rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, Ringo Starr and Jimmy Buffet (effectively corporations in their own right) have cancelled or postponed shows in some of the offending states; local governments in cities like New York and Boston have made a stand, directing government employees to effectively boycott the states; etc.
Some people seem a bit concerned that unelected corporations meddling in politics is in some way undemocratic. Me, I'm all for it. I see it as a bit of pay-back for all the undemocratic politicking perpetrated by the big oil and gas companies for all these years.

Did these books change science fiction and fantasy forever?

On perusing Gizmodo Australia's 21 Books That Changed Science Fiction and Fantasy Forever, I was quite gratified - as no more than a sporadic sci-fi/fantasy reader - to find that I had read 18 out of the 21. I'm not a huge fan of these "X Somethings That Changed History" or "Y Somethings You Should Something Before You Die" websites, but sometimes I can't resist a peek, even if only to see how much I disagree, or to look at the inane comments they generate.
Anyway, for what it's worth, the list includes:
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney
  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
  • War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  • Dangerous Visions Edited by Harlan Ellison
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Neuromancer by Wiliam Gibson
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
Of these, I have had to add Dhalgren, Kindred and The Forever War to my reading list.
I actually thought that this was as good a stab as any at what is essentially an Impossible Task. Several commentators bristled at the inclusion of the likes of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones. Yes, these are largely Young Adults books, and not necessarily ground-breaking or even great literature per se, (hell, neither is much of Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury for that matter). But if "changing fiction" involves changing reader habits, influencing popular culture, and/or generating copy-cats, then I think they earn their places.
If it were up to me, I might have extended the list to 25 or even 30 and included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and perhaps something by Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men or The Star Maker), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Man in the High Castle), Iain M. Banks (Consider Phlebas), John Wyndham, (The Crysalids), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (The Coming Race), or George Orwell (1984), and maybe even Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) or François Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel).
No list is ever going to satisfy everyone, though. My own list would probably not even satisfy me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Corporations are now investing heavily in renewable energy

It's interesting to note that a major trend in renewable energy in the USA is for corporations, municipalities, universities and other "non-utility customers" to buy up new generating capacity from wind and solar farms.
2015 was a bumper year for renewables in the USA (and elsewhere for that matter). For example, although wind power only makes up about 5% of total American generating capacity (as compared to coal and gas which represent about 33% each), it accounted for 41% of the new capacity added last year. And about half of that was bought up by big corporations like Google. Walmart, Amazon, Facebook, Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, Dow Chemical, etc.
This is partly out of environmental (and associated PR) concerns - Google and Walmart, for example, both have explicit 100% renewable energy goals. But it is also because wind and solar power have now got to the stage where they make financial sense - they are good economic propositions in and of themslves.
And that can only bode well for the future of the renewable energy sector, and of the planet itself.

Life is cheap in Canada in some contexts

Three separate articles on the front page of today's Globe and Mail all relate to Canadians dying for the "wrong" reasons (the only "right" reasons being old age and illness).
One describes a purported "suicide pact" among young people in Attawapiskat First Nation, a tiny, remote Cree settlement way up in northern Ontario, which has also been in the news in recent years for its housing crisis and its tainted water. A state of emergency has been established in the town after no fewer than 11 teenagers tried to take their own lives on Saturday night alone. There have been over 100 suicide attempts in the small community of just 2,000 inhabitants since last September, although thankfully just one actual death.
This may have been a deliberate conspiracy or pact (some of the children had apparently been overheard discussing some kind of a loose plan to commit suicide) in what passes for high jinks in the wilds of northern Ontario. Or it may have been a kind of mass hysteria more reminiscent of 17th century Salem than 21st century Canada. Or, I even wonder if some of the blame can't be laid at the door of the local water problems - Attawapiskat's water supply is laced with naturally occurring bromide and other organic contaminants, to the extent that the local water purification plant is not able to filter it, and even boiling does not fully fix the problem.
As I mentioned in a previous post on Cross Lake Reserve, another isolated community suffering from a plague of youth suicides, do we really need to have reserves in such inaccessible and inhospitable places in this day and age?
Another article deals with the burgeoning challenge of fentanyl overdoses after two more overdoses from the drug were reported in Winnipeg over the weekend. This is one I have real problems getting my head around. Fentanyl seems to be the drug du jour, even though (or perhaps because) it is forty to fifty times more potent than heroin, and has already led to hundreds in deaths in the short time it has been available (418 deaths in 2015 alone in British Columbia and Alberta, which is where the current craze began in Canada). Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate painkiller, a prescription drug that has became a "recreational" option, particularly after Oxycontin was discontinued in Canada in 2012 for the same reason. The illicit fentanyl currently doing the rounds in Canada is manufactured in China, and usually cut into cocaine or heroin, and it is gradually making its way eastward across the country. The fentanyl experience also brings into sharp relief the whole problem of the ongoing over-prescription of opiates in Canada. There are now apocalyptic warnings of a new drug called W-18 (I'm sure a better street name will be coined soon), which is apparently up to 100 times stronger than even fentanyl.
How can people be so desperate as to need this kind of "recreation"? This not some kind of a pleasant buzz, a way of forgetting day-to-day cares and concerns; this is more like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer, and about as safe. In my cocooned middle-class life, I am just completely unable to relate to this, and I wish someone would explain it to me.
The third article relates to pre-natal sex selection among Indian immigrants in Canada, the abortion of female fetuses out of a preference for male offspring. This arguably does not involve killing per se, depending on your definitions and beliefs, but is nevertheless a despicable custom. The practice is well-documented in India, but a couple of recent studies in the Canadian Medical Association Journal have shown the extent of the practice in Canada, something that was only hinted at by anecdotal evidence until now. The very idea of it has always been extremely contentious here in multi-culti, politically-correct Canada.
While couples in this demographic may accept a daughter as their first, or even second, child, this changes dramatically with the third child: one study showed 138 boys born to Indian-born mothers for every 100 girls, and 166 boys for every girl for a fourth child. The other study revealed even greater discrepancies of 196:100 for a third child after two daughters, and a huge 326:100 for Indian-born mothers who already had two daughters and also already had an abortion before their third child.
It is hard to know what can be done about the problem. Suggestions have included banning disclosure of the sex of a fetus until 30 weeks (after which abortions are only performed in rare circumstances), but this is heavy-handed and difficult to enforce. Targeting specific groups for practising sex selection is clearly discriminatory, however conclusive and justifiable it may appear to be in other respects. It also gives one pause to think what might transpire when genetic testing for other traits becomes widely available, as it probably will one day.
Canada, unlike some other countries actively encourages immigrants to bring their cultures with them, but this particular one we can do without, thank you.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"The Joy of Love" is definitely not "The Joy of Sex"

  (David Parkins/The Globe and Mail)
I had a good chuckle at David Parkins' cartoon in today's Globe and Mail, which shows a bishop recovering after mistakenly reading "The Joy of Sex" instead of the Pope's new encyclical "The Joy of Love". I can just imagine the librarian's face as he checked it out of his local lending library.
I have to admit, I had exactly the same thought when I first read the title. Maybe it's one of those titles that loses something in the translation, and it may perhaps be safer to stick to the Latin, "Amoris Laetitia".
I'm not totally convinced that the document represents a "paradigm shift" with the "potential to shape the church’s response to the family for generations to come", as some would have it. But it is at least a little more hopeful for the Catholic LGBT community than anything else to have come out of the One True Church, calling at one point for the church to "reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration", even if it stops short of pushing for a change in actual church doctrine, or of actually condoning gay marriages.
In the same way, divorcees are still only accepted grudgingly, and without a call for any change in church rules, and abortion and fertility treatment are definitely still beyond the Catholic pale.
So, all in all, "The Joy of Love" can definitely not be mistaken for "The Joy of Sex". Ah well, baby steps...

Friday, April 08, 2016

Is using a tax haven legally, or just morally, wrong?

In all the furore surrounding the so-called Panama Papers, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly who are the real crooks and where the real blame lies.
The Panama Papers refer to a huge leak of data (and when I say "huge", we are talking about 11.5 million documents, or about 1,500 times as large as the famous Wikileaks leak of 2010 in terms of actual data) from a secretive Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca. This firm is just one of many in Panama and elsewhere that specialize in "international tax planning", including setting up shell companies (empty shells or fronts, whose sole purpose is to manage the money in it, while effectively hiding who owns the money), bearer bonds (anonymous bonds, useful for transferring large amounts of money around without indicating ownership), etc, in order to help their clients to evade tax, dodge sanctions and launder dirty money. The Panama Papers have already implicated at least 12 current or former heads of state and government, including several dictators accused of looting their own countries, as well as more than 60 relatives and associates of heads of state and other politicians. The leak is still being explored, and more discoveries will no doubt come to light over time.
The Panama Papers, though, barely scratch the surface of the overall problem, and just offer us a small glimpse into the shady dealings going on all the time throughout the world. By some estimates, the total sum hidden away in low-tax, low-regulation jurisdictions around the world could be as much as $21 trillion (about as much as the total annual economic output of the United States and Japan combined).
Many small countries - including Panama, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Macao, Seychelles, Jersey, Luxembourg, Ireland, and many others - operate as tax havens (or "Offshore Financial Centres"), but people often forget that even some US states (Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming) can be included on this list. While most of the financial services in these jurisdictions are actually perfectly legal, they tend to have a great deal of banking secrecy, weak or restricted regulation systems, and very low or non-existent taxes on financial transactions, all of which makes them very attractive to tax evaders and crooks the world over.
What I have been trying to get my head around, though, is: To what extent is a company like Mossack Fonseca operating illegally? Are tax haven countries like Panama or Luxembourg actually doing anything wrong? Or, does the legal responsibility lie purely with the individuals themselves? What constitutes tax evasion (illegal) and what tax avoidance (technically legal, but often on dubious moral ground)?
All those Third World dictators, Russian cellists and Icelandic prime ministers implicated by the Panama Papers are no doubt morally very bad people for not declaring all of their worldwide incomes for tax purposes in their countries of residence. It seems that funds, ill-gotten or not, can be legally moved around the world from one jurisdiction to another, until they sit in a country that will not give away personal information to the tax authorities of other countries. It then becomes a personal ethical decision for the investor whether or not to make a full disclosure of their earnings.
In most, but not all, countries, though, it is also a legal duty. The vast majority of countries require their residents to report (and be taxed on) their foreign income, as well as local income, which would therefore include income generated in tax havens. The USA and, strangely, Eritrea, are the only two countries that go even further, and also have a legal requirement to disclose the foreign income of citizens even if they live abroad. So, unless you are from a country that either has no income tax at all (like Bermuda, UAE, Monaco, etc), or one of those countries (like Panama itself, Hong Kong, Singapore, Syria, etc) which only taxes local income, then the legal responsibility is clear: not to disclose the income is tax evasion, not tax avoidance, and it is illegal. (If you are interested, Wikipedia has a good breakdown of which countries fall into each of these categories.)
The Panamanian legal firm Mossack Fonseca maintains that it has been operating for 40 year now without reproach, and that it is actually doing nothing wrong, and certainly nothing illegal. As far as I can see, this is true: they are merely fulfilling a legal service for the their clients in setting up shell companies, etc, and they have no legal responsibility to ask those clients what they intend to do with their companies or their money. You can perhaps argue that they might have a moral responsibility, but then you could point the same finger at any number of businesses in all manner of fields for a variety of different reasons. No-one ever claimed that businesses are moral animals.
Do countries have a responsibility to eliminate, or at least discourage, the evasion of tax by foreign individuals or companies? Legally, probably not. They are essentially offering foreign investors and businesses a politically and economically stable environment in which to invest their money, with little, or often no, tax liability, and enhanced secrecy and disclosure laws. There is nothing intrinsically illegal in providing the structure for tax evasion, or even in hiding the true owners or origins of money. Morally reprehensible? Sure! But then so is so much else in the big, bad world of high finance.
So, it seems that facilitating companies like Mossack Fonseca and tax haven countries like Panama are not actually doing anything wrong from a legal point of view. Those individuals who make use of these services and then do not report the income for taxation purposes, however, ARE breaking the law, except in a handful of cases where their country laws allow it.
Either way, though, it's a dirty old business. If tax havens and tax planning companies are not actively criminal, they are at the very least guilty of aiding and abetting.

Racism and walking the tightrope of conflicting interests

While I would be automatically suspicious of any blog entry starting with "I'm not racist but...", I am beginning to wonder whether there isn't some element of sacred-cowism (yes, that's my own word) in discussions of racism in modern, multicultural, progressive Canada. It is some years now since I was involved in the Camden Council Anti-Racism Task Force (is that even what it was called? I can't actually remember exactly) back in England, so my credentials are a bit rusty to say the least. But, the more I read, the more I worry that politicians these days are caught in a political correctness trap of their own devising.
I refer more specifically to the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and even more specifically to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's recent comments about policing in Toronto, which have the police force understandably upset.
Yes, of course black lives matter as much as white ones (and vice versa), and yes, individual police officers have made mistakes under pressure (viz. Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby). Yes, police officers are probably still under-trained and over-armed, despite decades of attempts to confront and deal with any possible systemic prejudice in the force. Yes, the numbers of black and aboriginal people in prison or subject to police attentions are much higher than their demographic representation might warrant, but there may also be some good reasons for that (relative poverty, different cultural norms, gang culture, drugs culture, etc, etc), and this does not in itself point to police racism. Individuals like Carby, Yatim and Loku may not have deserved to die, but, despite the protestations of their families, they were certainly no angels, nor were they "good boys" unfairly picked on by the police.
But for Ms. Wynne to claim, as she did the other day, that there is "systemic racism" and "anti-black racism" in Ontario society, implying (given that she was specifically discussing policing at the time) racism in the police force, is taking generalization and extrapolation to an unjustifiable, even dangerous, level. To tar a whole society, or even a whole police force for that matter, with such a sweeping brush, smacks to me of political correctness gone crazy.
I actually think that Ontario society is one of the least racist, and most inclusive, I have ever lived in. This is not to say that every single individual (including every single police officer) is colour-blind and infinitely accepting of differences: that's just not how societies work. But to call us - as a society or as a police force - racist belies decades of improvements, and the efforts of millions of people to put such attitudes behind us.
The problem is that politicians such as Ms. Wynne (who, despite our differences, I still believe to be entirely sincere and to have her heart in the right place) are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are under intense political pressure to make the right anti-racist noises, and to show that they are taking organizations like Black Lives Matter (whose heart is also in the right place, despite its own mistakes, viz. distinctly iffy incendiary tweets from co-founders) seriously. To publicly voice any opposition to an anti-racist organization is political suicide for those in power, and even for me to question the orthodoxy in a blog like this is difficult, and kind of feels wrong. In supporting activist groups over-zealously or unthinkingly, though, politicians risk alienating the rest of the population.
Politics these days is, and I suppose always has been to some extent, a balancing act, a tightrope above a quagmire of conflicting causes, lobby groups and special interests. I sometimes wonder why anyone goes in to it in the first place.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The atheist church minister

I thought I had already posted a blog entry some time ago on the atheist United Church minister, Gretta Vosper, who is making waves in Canada's religious establishment. It seems I was mistaken. Another article, in the latest edition of The Walrus magazine, has reminded me of my omission.
The United Church of Canada has been a refuge for progressive liberal Protestants for almost a century now, since its establishment in 1925 out of a union of Canadian Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. It is unapologetically radical, has no official creed, and is more interested in political and social activism than in the spiritual lives of worshippers. It is also unapologetically Canadian, with a made-in-Canada vision of inclusivity, and is considered by many to be effectively Canada's national church. Over the years, it has been at the forefront of, and outspoken on, issues like gay rights, same sex marriage, indigenous residential schools, nuclear disarmament, anti-poverty initiatives, Palestinian self-determination, medically assisted suicide, etc, etc. It is one of the very few religious organizations that I have any respect for at all.
However, the Church, like most other Christian denominations in Canada and elsewhere, has been struggling. Just six years after its founding, in 1931, its membership was about 2 million out of a Canadian population of 10 million (20%); by 2013, its active membership was down to about 500,000 out of a population of 35 million (barely over 1%). Its budget and its staff have been slashed in recent years, and the profiles of both its ministers and its attendees get a little bit older every year. It no longer has the ear of influential politicians and the movers and shakers of the country, and the divisions between the traditionalists and the activists within the Church are becoming ever more apparent.
Into this scenario, enter Gretta Vosper. She was brought up in the United Church, graduated from Queen's University theology school, was first ordained as a minister in 1993, and became minister of the West Hill United Church in eastern Scarborough in 1997. In 2001, she first revealed to her congregation her long-held beliefs: that there was actually no such thing as a God that answered prayers, that the Bible is not the word of God; that Jesus was not the divine son of God; that we probably don't go to Heaven after death. In her view, all religions are mere human constructions, and the existence of God is essentially unprovable and, more importantly, unnecessary. In Ms. Vosper's church and its services (or "gatherings"), then, there are no prayers, no liturgical readings, not even any mention of God or Jesus or the Bible. In spite of all this, though, her congregation has doggedly stuck with her, and she even attracts attendees from far away.
Progressive and tolerant though the United Church may be, many within the Church find Ms. Vosper's views distinctly uncomfortable. It is, after all, at least nominally a Christian organization. In 2005, a committee to review her beliefs was proposed but ultimately came to nothing. In 2015, though, a more serious challenge was mounted, with a committee established to review the "effectiveness" of her ministry, which as far as I am aware is still ongoing. So far, her battle has already cost her $60,000 in legal fees.
Ms. Vosper is not alone in her views. 24% of United Church ministers responded (anonymously) to a 2011 United Church Observer survey on whether they believed in God with "Depends what you mean by 'God' ", and some think the real number may be closer to 50%. Two other United Church ministers have openly admitted in recent years that they had lost their faith in God, although both then resigned (or were asked to resign) from the ministry. Several belong to The Clergy Project, an "anonymous online community for former and active religious professionals who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs".
Ms. Vosper's case, though, is quite different qualitatively. She views her lack of belief in the supernatural as a positive thing, and sees it as her mission to help the United Church change and adapt to new circumstances, in order to allow it to continue its work into an uncertain future. She claims to be, in her words, "irritating the church into the 21st century".
She is clearly disappointed in the Church that she grew up in, the Church that, as she puts it, gave her the tools to explore and encouraged her to ask difficult questions and to challenge the status quo. She is also disappointed in, even understandably resentful of, her fellow ministers, many of whom she knows to be sympathetic to her views, for their lack of public support.
However the review into her ministry may turn out, Ms. Vospers is articulate, passionate and compelling. Watch an interview here.