Monday, October 31, 2016

Americano? Macchiato? Never be embarrassed in a coffee shop again

Ever been caught like a deer in the headlights in a coffee shop, confused abut what things mean and what to order? I don't just mean perplexed by Starbucks' ridiculous sizing system (if I am ever caught there - and I try to avoid it like the plague, if only because it is overpriced and I don't like their coffee - I deliberately order a "small", knowing full well that such a simple thing does not exist in Starbucks' world). I mean just not knowing the difference between a filter coffee and an Americano, or the subtleties of cappuccino vs macchiato, etc.
Me too, me too! Coffee shops can be such intimidating places if all you want is a coffee. Often they are such temples of cool, that you feel such a fool dithering over the menu, especially when the goddess in yoga pants in front of you just ordered a "skinny venti decaf caramel macchiato with coconut milk" or something without batting a perfectly made-up eyelid.
So, after a sneaky bit of online research (there are many, many sources including this and this), here are the basics:
  • Filter (or drip or brewed) coffee - the basic coffee, such as you might get in a restaurant or even make at home, where hot water is poured over a bed of coffee grounds held in a paper filter. Tastes fine, is cheaper than any other option, and is what you'd get if you just asked for a coffee anywhere other than Starbucks (where they would probably take deep offence).
  • Espresso (also called short black) - a stronger, thicker, more concentrated coffee made by forcing almost boiling water under pressure though finely ground coffee. Usually served in small cup, about a quarter or less of the volume of a regular coffee, although you can always get a double shot (also called doppio), or a ristretto (which is an even more concentrated espresso). The spresso serves as the base for most other specialty coffees like latté, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, Americano, etc.
  • Cortado - a shot of espresso with just a small amount of steamed milk added (1:1 or 1:2 ratio, with no foam) to take off the bitterness.
  • Café Cubano - an espresso sweetened with demerara sugar.
  • Americano (also called long black) - a shot of espresso watered down with hot water, so that it is similar in strength to a regular brewed coffee but with the slightly different espresso flavour.
  • Cappuccino - a shot of espresso with steamed milk added (usually in 1:3 to 1:5 ratio), topped with milk foam (and often chocolate powder or cinnamon to flavour). Less bitter than espresso but stronger than a latte.
  • Latté - a shot of espresso with more steamed milk and less foam added than a cappuccino.
  • Flat white - a shot of espresso with the same amount of milk as a cappuccino or latté but no foam, for a smoother, milkier drink.
  • Macchiato - a shot of espresso with steamed milk and foam added on top to produce a layered drink (so that you kind of drink the espresso through the milk). A long macchiato uses a double shot of espresso.
  • Mocha - a capuccino with chocolate power added for a chocolatey flavour.
  • Café au lait (or café con leche in Spanish) - could mean anything from a filter coffee with steamed milk added, to a latté, depending on where you are. Basically, a milky coffee.
  • Chai latté - Indian spiced tea with steamed milk added. Dirty chai latté is the same with a shot of espresso added.
  • Affogato - more a dessert than a coffee, a shot of espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream, sometimes with caramel or chocolate sauce.
Of course, then you have to think about: regular or decaffeinated; light, dark or medium roast; etc. I can't help you with that - it's down to your own personal taste, your tolerance for caffeine, and any number of other factors. But bear in mind that the "half-life" of caffeine is around 5 hours (i.e. after 5 hours you still have half of the caffeine in your blood-stream, after 10 hours a quarter, etc), so if you are anything like me, you might want to switch to tea in the afternoon, and herbal tea in the evening. Just for reference though, regular filter coffee has about twice the caffeine of regular black tea (and more than Red Bull, incidentally); espresso coffee is more concentrated than filter coffee and so has more caffeine per oz/mg, but comes in smaller volumes and so probably has less caffeine overall; coffee or tea brewed for longer contains more caffeine; decaf coffee has much less caffeine than even tea (like about one-tenth or less) but still has a little; and there is minimal difference in the caffeine contents of dark roasts, light roasts, etc (contrary to what you might have heard). Oh, and it depends where you go: Tim Horton's coffee tends to have less caffeine than McDonalds', which has less than (you guessed it) Starbucks. And those nice chocolate-covered coffee beans? - about 20 times the caffeine of the same volume of coffee! Don't even go there.
And finally, for those that really insist on humouring Starbucks in their bid to take over the world, there are online guides to how to order there, including this one or this one. But I really don't encourage you.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Google has overreached itself with AMP pages

I recently encountered, against my will, Google's latest "improvement" to their search experience, accelerated mobile pages, or AMP.
It was only when creating links for this very blog using my cellphone that I noticed that several of the URLs included a Google URL and an /amp/ term, which looked superfluous to me. The links worked perfectly well when I took out the Google.com and the /amp/ terms, so I just edited the links down, and started to find out about amp pages.
AMP is a new variant of HTML markup that produces a simplified, static version of a web page that is designed to load extra quickly on mobile phones. And Google, in its wisdom, has decided that everyone should get that cached version, whether they want it or not. The URL in the address bar is therefore the Google domain with an /amp/ term and then the actual website address. There is what looks like a link to the "real" website in a bar at the top of the page, but all that does is to return us to the Google results page. Personally, I don't want that AMP URL, particularly if I want to share a link, but I don't seem to get a choice in the matter - Google chooses for me.
Some people seem to love AMPs, but clearly many, like me, hate it. Either way, there should at least be a choice, for example a separate link, much like the cached version that is made available on the non-mobile version of Google's results. It's not like web pages take that long to load on modern cellphones anyway, so in reality Google has just made an issue where none really exists.
If you are interested, a bit of research indicates that there is a work-around that seems to work - apparently, if you log out of Google (assuming you are already logged in, for Gmail or Google Calendar purposes or whatever) and then log in again, the AMP links are replaced by regular links in Google's search results, although no-one really seems to know why that should work. You may find you have to re-login from time to time, but it remains a reasonably effective solution.
But, of course, we shouldn't really be having to search for work-arounds. I thought I would let Google know my thoughts on this issue, but of course this is not as easy as it should be. In theory, there us a Send Feedback link on every Google page, but I'm blowed if I can find one, unless it means the generic cellphone feedback link (for example, mine links to a Samsung feedback form), in which case it seems that there is no way to contact Google directly.
Google really is an excellent search engine for most purposes. Hell, sometimes it seems to know what I am asking better than I do! But sometimes they overstep their bounds, and AMP pages are one such example.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Faux development proposals highlight dangers of façadism in Toronto

Toronto housing activists Daniel Rotsztain and Mike Strulberg have hit on a fun method of grass-roots protest with a very serious message. They have been posting up convincing-looking development proposal signs outside some of Toronto's most iconic and beloved buildings. The fake signs - complete with City of Toronto logos, artists' renditions of the outrageous and absurd building proposals, and convincing legalistic real-estate jargon descriptions of the projects - have got people talking (at last) about what kind of city we want to live in.
For example, there is one outside Old City Hall, calling attention to plans for a 90-storey condo development to be perched on top of the venerable old Romanesque Revival building. There is another showing a 50-storey residential building nestled within the circular wings of the iconic modernist building of New City Hall (with the existing building being converted for "commercial uses"). Or a 30-storey residential tower connected to the whimsical Gothic Revival castle of Casa Loma (the old structure even being relocated a little to acommodated the new tower). Or a 42-storey addition to be built on top of the current 76-storey condo tower recently completed at 1 Bloor Street East.
Because these faux development proposals are so convincing, many people have been taking them completely serìously, despite the absurdity of the suggested developments, and making complaints and objections to the city about the proposals.
And this is all part of the aim of the campaign: to point out the fact that there are so many inappropriate new developments being built recently in downtown Toronto, particularly those that purport to incorporate or repurpose existing heritage buildings, that these kinds of absurdities do not immediately seem ridiculous and comical to many people. (One particular example of just this kind of inappropriate development that sticks out for me is the new tower development that was recently built over and around the 19th century Royal Canadian Military Institute building on University Avenue. There are, though, many other examples of this kind of façadism in Toronto).
The creators of the campaign stress that they are not anti-development, or even against the need to increase population density in the city centre in order to avoid urban sprawl and thoughtless development of the suburbs and green-belt lands. Rather, they are cautioning against "concentrated hyper-density", and particularly against the inappropriate usurping of the few heritage buildings that still remain intact in Toronto. They are also, in the process, making a protest against the old style of development proposal signage that largely presents the propsals as a fait accompli, without engaging the public or encouraging their input.
How about a mid-air residential appendage clinging to the outside of the CN Tower, anyone?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Third person genderless pronouns a storm in a tea-cup

What I still don't understand about all the fuss and breast-beating that is being generated recently over the use of appropriate genderless or non-binary pronouns for transgendered or gender-fluid people, is that the issue only even becomes an issue at all when talking of a transgendered person in the third person. And, in practice, how often does that actually happen?
Take, for example, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who single-handedly kick-started most of the current shenanigans (in Canada, at least) with his point-blank refusal to accommodate people who are asking to be referred to by genderless pronouns (like "xe", "ze", "ve", "hu", "hir", "nem", or even the inoffensive singular "they"). Peterson sees this trend, which is increasingly being taken up by other institutions of higher education, as part of a great political correctness conspiracy, and a step along the road to what he calls " totalitarian and authoritarian political states”.
Now, Professor Peterson is clearly a bit of a nut-job with a personal agenda and a huge chip on his shoulder, and should not necessarily be humoured too far. But my question is: how often in practice would he have occasion to refer to a transgendered person in the third person. I can see that he may have to speak directly the odd student who may have a chip on their own shoulder about what pronouns they feel are appropriate to their own particular minority sexual identification. But in that case he would be speaking in the second person and, as far as I am aware, "you" is not a problematic designation.
For the problem to arise, it seems to me that he would need to be speaking of the individual in question in the third person, and in that case (in most cases, anyway) he would probably be referring to them by their name. In order to require a third person pronoun, he would need to be speaking of someone to someone else in that person's actual presence, or perhaps repeatedly referring to a person after initially introducing them by name, surely both vanishingly unlikely eventualities in everyday professorial practice. I'm not wrong, am I?
So, storm in a teacup or what? And how much virtual ink has been needlessly spilled on this issue!
What I also wonder is just how many transgendered people are actually concerned by this pronoun issue, and whether there might even be an internal movement against it all by people who just don't care that much, or who perhaps see it as a distraction from more serious issues of gender identification.
The issue is muddied further by the fact that the trans community itself can't decide on a viable alternative pronoun, and everyone seems to have their own preference. So, each individual is expected to make their own preference known when they are introduced to a new acquaintance, and everyone else (friends, professors, dentists, etc) are expected to remember this. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, and I can't help thinking that "that way madness lies".

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Canada falls in 2016 Global Gender Gap Report

The Switzerland-based World Economic Forum has just published its latest Global Gender Gap Report. The index is a composite ranking, measuring differences between men and women in economics, education, health and political empowerment among 144 countries.
Overall, weighted by population, the average progress on closing the global gender gap across the four different dimensions measured stands at a score of 68% (meaning an average gap of 32% remains to be closed worldwide in order to achieve universal gender parity). When divided up into four sub-indexes, we see that 96% of the gap in health outcomes between women and men has been closed, 95% of the gap in educational attainment, 59% of economic participation and opportunity, and only 23% in the category of political participation.
Almost predictably, the Nordic countries continue to rank as the most gender-equal countries, with Iceland confirming its status as the best place in the world in which to be a woman, followed by Finland, Sweden and Norway. There are a few surprises near the top of the list, though, with Rwanda appearing at No. 5, Philippines at No. 7, and Nicaragua at No. 10. Indeed, when labour force participation alone is considered, five poor developing countries (Mozambique, Rwanda, Laos, Burundi and Malawi) all tied for top position with a ratio of 100%, because female labour force participation exceeds the male participation rate in those countries.
Down at the bottom of the list of 144 countries languishes Yemen, which is only marginally worse than other Muslim countries like Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Iran and Mali. 68 countries saw their overall gender gap score increase compared to last year, while 74 have seen it decrease. Heading up the "most improved" list are Rwanda, Nepal, Bolivia, Slovenia, France and Cameroon.
And how did Canada perform? Not too well. Canada is No. 35 out of 144 this year, sandwiched between Luxenbourg and Cape Verde. According to the data, Canada has closed 73% of the gender gap over the four factors measured (compared to Iceland's 87%). This is down from 30th place last year, although still above USA (which ranks at No. 45 this year) and still well below the UK (No. 20). Like most other Western countries, it scores a perfect 100% for equality in educational attainment, and almost perfect in health and survival. However, it scores only slightly above average (73%) in economic participation and opportunity, and a very disappointing 22% in political empowerment (49th position, and significantly below many other Western countries, although still well above the USA). Compare that to Iceland's 71%!
Ironically, Iceland has just seen a massive demonstration by women from all over Iceland in front of the Icelandic parliament in Reykjavik, to protest the gender pay gap and to call for equal pay for women. The women protesters left work at precisely 2:38pm, the symbolic time when women start working for "free" during a regular day, when the pay gap is factored in (the organizers say that Icelandic women earn 14-18% less than men for the same work).
Some people just don't know when they are well off. Or maybe they do...

Expo 2025? No thanks

I have long been in the habit of poo-pooing any major events that some of the more visionary (and usually less practical) among us have advocated for the city of Toronto e.g. Olympics. These things always sound like much more of a good idea than they actually are, and for a city having difficulty paying for day-to-day necessities, such vanity projects - largely resting on the nugatory premise of a need to be considered a "world-class city" - just cannot be justified.
So, kudos once again to Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has refused to be swayed by blandishments and has kiboshed a burgeoning movement to have Toronto host the 2025 World Expo. Or at least, at this point, to join his executive committee in recommending that a bid not be pursued - a full city council vote will take place next month.
Proponents of the bid (local politicians and business leaders, probably the same people who were recommending an Olympic bid) have wheeled out a whole host of supporters, from arts and community groups, the construction industry, unions, First Nations chiefs, former provincial ministers, even the Toronto Stock Exchange and Facebook Canada.
But many of these people should know better. History has taught us that such mega-projects rarely translate into the economic boons that are initially anticipated. And they almost always end up costing the host city way more than budgeted. A private feasibility study has suggested that capital costs for a Toronto Expo 2025 might amount to $1.9 billion (although this sum conveniently omits billions more that would be needed for the flood prevention measures and clean-up of contaminated land if the Port Lands area were to be developed  as anticipated). Given that the last two Expos cost in the region of $19 billion (Milan) and $60 billion (Shanghai), this looks suspiciously like a ridiculously low-balled estimate. Nor is there any guarantee that the work - and the rapid transit projects and major changes to the Gardiner Expressway and Lakeshore Boulevard that would need to accompany it - could even be completed on time. No offers of financial help from the federal or provincial governments have been forthcoming either.
All in all, the event could turn into a white elephant of almost Olympic proportions. So, forgive my lack of vision, but let's spend our scarce resources on things that actually need doing, and not on some feel-good project with dubious chances of success.

Imagine having to translate Donald Trump

One aspect of the Donald Trump presidential bid I had never even considered is the sheer impossibility of translating some of his flights of "rhetoric" into other languages.
God knows, it's hard enough to understand what he is saying in English oftentimes, with his twisted logic, his penchant for malapropisms, and those interminable run-on sentences. An article in Slate magazine tries (and fails miserably) to dissect and make sense of a particularly good example, but we are all familiar by now with sentences of the type: "The American economy, and this is very very important, the American economy is... ooh, look, a squirrel!"
I truly believe that this is a good part of what sets Trump supporters apart: most well-educated people just can't stand such undisciplined and wayward grammar and sloppy vocabulary and internal logic; the less-educated population that makes up the base of Trump's support (and, like it or not, that seems to be a fact) don't really care so much if he makes sense so long as he makes them feel good.
So, I was intrigued to read an article about the difficulty translators are having with Trump's literary flights of fancy. The article points out that the sheer difficulty of rendering accurate translations, and of making sense out of something that doesn't necessarily make sense can have some specific, if unintended, political effects, some of which may actually be helping Trump.
For example, his constant qualifications of statements - I don’t know, probably, maybe, I’m not sure, other people say, the lawyers say, I haven’t looked at it, I’m not familiar, etc - are often glossed over, or omitted completely, in quick translations, which may have the effect of making him sound more authoritative than he actually is. And some of his more colourful idioms (e.g. "I moved on her like a bitch", "grab them by the pussy", etc) may be translated less offensively, either to avoid internal censors or just because no exact translation exists.
On the other hand, some of his thinly-veiled sexist and racist comments may be translated more literally, rendering them even more sexist/racist.
Either way, it's funny (in a sad sort of a way) to read some comments of bilinguals who listened to the debates in Spanish, French or Chinese, and to hear from some the translators who were given the unenviable task of interpreting The Donald's pearls of wisdom.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Trump's shaky grasp of renewable energy

Well, Donald Trump (and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton) managed to get through three presidential debates without having to answer any serious questions on climate change or energy policy. Shameful! But he has come out since then to make his opinion of renewable energy abundantly clear, in an "interview" on Atlanta's vehemently pro-Trump WSB radio network (starting at 6'25").
Grist has fact-checked this little tirade, and it came up with no less than 17 falsities in just two minutes of Trump-blather. Grist has done a good job of linking their fact-checks to other websites, but very briefly:
 
Trump: "there is such a thing as clean coal"
Baltimore Sun: "Clean coal is a myth and more a marketing term than scientific reality"
 
Trump: "wind and solar...[is]...not working on large-scale"
Mid-West Energy News: "Utility-scale solar capacity has nearly tripled since 2014"
 
Trump: "It’s just not working"
Power Magazine: "More than 18.2 GW of wind power capacity is currently under construction or in advanced stages of development in the U.S."
 
Trump: "Solar is very, very expensive"
FuelFix: "Rooftop solar is down 54 percent. Utility-scale solar farms are down 65 percent."
 
Trump: "Wind is very, very expensive"
Bloomberg New Energy Finance: "Wind power is now the cheapest electricity to produce in both Germany and the U.K."
 
Trump: "it only works when it’s windy"
GE Renewable Energy: "GE’s brilliant turbine platform includes battery technology"
 
Trump: "wind is very problematic"
National Resource Defense Council: "Clean Power Plan’s goals have become even more readily achievable as the electricity sector is already shifting to clean energy"
 
Trump: "they are destroying our energy companies with regulation"
Reuters: "Chevron sees big profits in California despite regulations"
 
Trump: "They’re absolutely destroying them"
Fortune: "among the Fortune 500’s most profitable companies[,] [t]ech giants, banks, and oil-and-gas producers all have outsized influence"
 
Trump: "Palm Springs, California - it looks like a junkyard"
 
Trump: "each one is made by a different group from, all from China and from Germany, by the way"
US Dept of Energy: "U.S. wind energy production and manufacturing reaches record highs"
 
Trump: "look at all these windmills. Half of them are broken"
Twitter: "I've driven through the wind turbines six times in the last week, and I'm not sure what he's talking about. Most of them work."
 
Trump: "it looks like a poor man’s version of Disneyland"
PhotoShelter: "[picture]"
 
Trump: "It’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen"
New York Times: "The Ugliest Dog in the World"
 
Trump: "it kills all the birds"
USA Today: "Wind turbines kill far fewer birds in North America than do cats or collisions with cell towers"
 
Trump: "they’ve killed so many eagles"
PolitiFact: "Trump inflates wind turbine eagle deaths"
 
Trump: "these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds"
The Desert Sun: "the agency has retracted that number and said most of the eagle deaths actually occurred elsewhere in California"

Some of the more bizarre Catholic saints

I keep reading on my daily bathroom calendar about patron saints for the most unlikely of groups or aspects of life, which led me to research some of the more bizarre patron saints the venerable Catholic Church has seen fit to canonize over the centuries.
There really is a saint for almost anything you can think of, and some of the patronage designations seem quite random, or, sometimes, in poor taste. And some of the back-stories are really quite bizarre (although bear in mind that many of these are more in the way of legends than histories).
Here are a small selection of what I found, from a variety of different sources, including Cracked, Aggie Catholic Blog, Listverse, Top 10, Weird Worm, Neatorama, etc, and of course Wikipedia:
  • Saint Adrian of Nicomedia, patron saint of arms dealers, soldiers, guards and butchers - once a member of the prestigious Herculian Guard of the Roman Emperor Galerius Maximian, Adrian came to admire the Christians he saw being persecuted and joined them, although he was arrested, tortured and burned before he could even be baptised.
  • Saint Albinus of Angers, patron saint against pirate attacks - a 6th century French abbot who used church money to free hostages from pirates on the Loire river.
  • Saint Agatha of Sicily, patron saint of breast cancer sufferers - a beautiful woman who rejected the advances of a powerful judge, Agatha was sent to live out her days in a brothel. When she continued to reject men, she was tortured mercilessly, including having her breasts cut off.
  • Saint Apollonia, patron saint of dentists - Apollonia was beaten by an Alexandria mob for her Christian beliefs, and had all her teeth knocked out or pulled out in the process. Rather than be tortured in a fire, she unexpectedly jumped into the fire and so died with out renouncing her faith.
  • Saint Arnulf of Metz, patron saint of beer and brewers - his patronage supposedly arose when the people of Metz went to reclaim Arnulf's body on a hot day, and a small remnant of beer miraculously multiplied to quench the thirsts of all.
  • Saint Barbara, patron saint of thunderstorms, sudden deaths, firemen and fireworks - when Barbara converted to Christianity, her heathen father had her tortured and executed, but he was then himself struck down by lightning and consumed with flames.
  • Saint Bartholemew, patron saint of leather and skin workers - Bartholemew was killed by being skinned alive (and then, rather redundantly, crucified upside-down) by the pagans of Armenia. The connection between skin and leather-workers was an interesting leap of association by someone.
  • Saint Benedict of Nursia, patron saint of spelunkers and students - Benedict overcame poisoning attempts and seduction by prostitutes to found the Benedictine Order of monasteries.
  • Saint Bibiana, patron saint of hangovers, headaches and mental illnesses - forced into prostitution and then into a mad house, Bibiana was eventually flogged to death on the order of Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. After her death, headache-curing herbs grew around her grave.
  • Saint Brendan the Navigator, patron saint of whales and sailors - Brendan, a 6th century Irish monk, travelled the high seas of the Atlantic evangelizing to the people of the islands (and possibly reaching the Americas according to some stories). At one point, he stopped on a small island and lit a fire to celebrate Easter Mass, but the island turned out to be an enormous whale!
  • Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers and bachelors - hailing from a part of North Africa that many Europeans believed to be inhabited by dog-headed people, Christopher was often depicted with a dog's head.
  • Saint Clare of Assisi, patron saint of needle-workers, laundry workers and television - founder of the monastic Order of Poor Ladies, Clare was designated as the patron saint of television in 1958, on the basis that, when she was too ill to attend mass, she had reportedly been able to see and hear it on the wall of her room.
  • Saint Columbanus, patron saint of motorcyclists - the 6th century Irish monk Columbanus did most of his missionary work in the Alps and northern Italy, which is considered a prime area for motorcycle tours.
  • Saint Cornelius, patron saint of twitching, epilepsy and earaches - Cornelius was Pope for just two years in the 3rd century before being executed by the Roman authorities.
  • Saint Cyprian of Antioch, patron saint of occultists - originally a pagan sorceror, Cyprian was converted to Christianity through the love of a good woman, Justina. For some reason, it was Cyprian, not Justina, who became the saint.
  • Saint Denis, patron saint of headaches and possessed people - a 3rd century Bishop of Paris, Denis was decapitated by pagans, but he reportedly picked up his head and walked a further six miles, preaching all the while.
  • Saint Dominic Savio, patron saint of juvenile delinquents - one of ten children, Dominic seems to have been the opposite of a juvenile delinquent, becoming an altar boy at 5 and training for the priesthood at 12. But his health was poor, and he died at the age of 15.
  • Saint Drausinus, patron saint of invincible people - wait, what?
  • Saint Drogo, patron saint of unattractive people, mutes and broken bones, not to mention midwives, cattle and coffee houses - Drogo was a keen self-flagillant, as he tried to atone for his mother's death while giving birth to him, and he was rumoured to be able to appear in two different places at the same time. He contracted a hideously deforming disease while on a pilgrimage (and coffee houses? not sure where that came from...)
  • Saint Dymphna, patron saint of incest victims and the mentally ill - young Dymphna's father wanted to marry her because she was the only woman as beautiful as his recently-deceased wife. When she repeatedly refused, her father summarily beheaded her.
  • Saint Eligius, patron saint of metalsmiths, jewellers, horses and (more recently) gas station workers - a 7th century French metalsmith himself, Eligius discovered a skill in designing and making reliquaries (and even finding the relics that went in them).
  • Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of bakers, nurses and brides - best known for the miracle of turning bread into roses (and how useful is that!)
  • Saint Expeditus (or Elpidius), patron saint against procrastination and for expeditious solutions - a 3rd century Armenian martyr who is reported to have been thinking of converting to Christianity when the devil appeared to him in the form of a crow, telling him that he could always wait until tomorrow to convert. Expeditus stamped the crow under his feet, and insisted that he would act that very day rather than wait.
  • Saint Fiacre, patron saint of sufferers from venereal and other sexually-transmitted diseases (as well as gardeners and cab-drivers!) - Fiacre established a hospice deep in the woods of France in the 7th century, where he is said to have miraculously healed blindness, leprosy, tumours and STDs, although he steadfastly refused to treat any women or girls.

  • Saint Friard, patron saint of those who fear wasps - when Friard was being tormented for his faith, a swarm of wasps appeared to sting his tormentors.
  • Saint Genesius of Rome, patron saint of actors and comedians - after converting to Christianity while on stage acting in a play, Genesius was tortured and beheaded by the notably anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian.
  • Saint George, patron saint of agricultural workers, archers, armourers, boy scouts, butchers, cavalry, Crusaders, equestrians, farmhands, farmers, field workers, Freemasonry, horsemen, husbandry, knights, riders, Rover Scouts, saddle-makers, scouts, shepherds, soldiers, Teutonic Knights, Canada, England, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Ethiopia, Aragon, Catalonia and Moscow - enough said!
  • Saint Germaine Cousin, patron saint of girls from rural areas and abandoned people - a poor 16th century French woman, Germaine is credited with many miracles and famed for her extreme austerity.
  • Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, patron saint of cats, suriphobes (the fear of mice and rats) and the recently dead - Gertrude died young after a life of extreme abstinence, fasting and prayer.
  • Saint Giles, (male) patron saint of breast-feeding, breast cancer, cripples and beggars - after giving all his money to the poor, the once-wealthy Giles lived a hermit's life in a cave in southern France, where he miraculously cured many illnesses. He was killed by the king on a hunting trip, by an arrow intended for the deer which was Giles' constant companion (and which sustained Giles for years by allowing him to suckle its milk).
  • Saint Hubert of Liège, patron saint of rabid dogs, hunting dogs, furriers, trappers and those who fear werewolves - once a passionate hunter, Hubert renounced all his worldly positions and wealth after his wife died following a stag hunt in which he received a vision.
  • Saint Isidore of Seville, patron saint of students, schoolchildren, computer users and the Internet - once an underachieving student, Isidore became a renowned 6th century scholar after turning to God. The patronage of computers and the Internet are, obviously, more recent designations.
  • Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, patron saint of in-law problems, orphans and forgotten people - Jane was raised by a single father after her mother died early in her life, and she was widowed at the age of 28 and forced to live with her unbearable father-in-law.
  • Saint Joseph of Arimathea, patron saint of undertakers, morticians and pall-bearers - a secret disciple of Jesus, it was Joseph that got permission to take down and bury the body of the crucified Jesus.
  • Saint Joseph of Cupertino, patron saint of air travellers, pilots, astronauts and the mentally handicapped - Joseph was a 17th century Italian friar with a learning disability, who was prone to ecstatic visions during which he would apparently miraculously levitate (hence the connection with pilots, etc).
  • Saint Jude the Apostle (Judas Thaddeus), patron saint of lost and forgotten causes and desperate situations - Jude may or may not have been Jesus' brother, and he may or may not have acquired the patronage of lost causes because few people wanted to pray to him for fear of accidentally praying to Judas Iscariot, Christ's betrayer, so he became eager to take on even the most undesirable of causes.

  • Saint Julian the Hospitaller, patron saint of wandering musicians, clowns, carnival workers and murderers - while his parents were visiting him and staying in his own room, Julian "accidentally" killed them, thinking he had caught his own wife being unfaithful to him.
  • Saint Lidwina, patron saint of ice-skaters - Lidwina fell and broke a rib while ice skating the age of 15, and as a result remained disabled for the rest of her life (she may have suffered from multiple sclerosis).
  • Saint Lucy, patron saint of blindness and eye problems - when Lucy rejected a suitor in order to follow Christ, the jilted suitor reported her to the pagan authorities, who saw fit to torture her, including gouging out her eyes, before killing her.
  • Saint Magnus of Füssen, patron saint of caterpillars and crop protection - a little-known German saint from the 7th or 8th century, Magnus apparently spent much of his time trying to protect crops from destruction by caterpillars. He also is supposed to have a dispatched several dragons, and even kept one as a pet.
  • Saint Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth - jailed for her beliefs, she is said to have been swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. After she clawed her way out of its belly (although only to be later beheaded), she became associated with childbirth.
  • Saint Monica, patron saint of alcoholics, difficult marriages and disappointing children - a reformed alcoholic herself, Monica (mother of the famous Saint Augustine of Hippo, who was a wayward son until his conversion to Christianity later in life) was given in marriage to a bad-tempered pagan called Patricius.
  • Saint Patrick, patron saint of ophidiophobes (those who fear snakes) - Patrick was a 5th century Irish missionary who supposedly banished all snakes from Ireland (in fact, Ireland has never had any snakes).
  • Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, patron saint of dysentery and earache sufferers - in the 2nd century, Polycarp was sentenced to be burned alive for his Christian beliefs, but when the fire did not seem to touch him, he had to be first stabbed to death and then burned. Dysentery was apparently a common complaint in the region where he was wont to preach.
  • Saint René Goupil, patron saint of anesthesiologists - a 17th century Jesuit missionary in the Americas, René was captured and tortured by the Iroquois for making the sign of the cross over a child’s head. He became the first North American martyr when he died of a tomahawk wound in the head, which somehow led to his patronage of people who work with or receive anesthesia.
  • Saint Roch, patron saint of dogs, epidemics and surgeons - Roch was a wealthy noble who gave up his position to work with and heal plague victims. When he himself contracted the plague he was befriended by a dog who licked his wounds and miraculously healed him. Once again, it was the man, not the dog, who was canonized as a saint.
  • Saint Scholastica, patron saint of convulsive children, storms and nuns - Scholastica was the twin sister of Saint Benedict and founded the women's branch of Benedictine monasticism. She once called up a rainstorm to prevent her brother from leaving for home, so that they could finish their conversation.
  • Saint Simeon Stylites, patron saint of shepherds - Simeon was a 5th century Syrian ascetic who supposedly lived for 47 years at the top of a tall pillar, from where he preached and performed miracles.
  • Saint Theodore of Sykeon, patron saint both for and against rain - Theodore lived in Galatia (modern-day Turkey) in the 7th century, and was the son of parents who performed acrobatic feats on camels. He was known as a miracle worker and once warded off a plague of insects by prayer.
  • Saint Vitus, patron saint of oversleeping, dancing and entertaining - Vitus was supposed to have been thrown (along with a rooster) into a cauldron of boiling tar, but miraculously escaped unscathed. The neurological disorder Sydenham's chorea is known as St. Vitus Dance after the dancing celebrations of the saint performed in medieval Germany and Latvia.
And, finally, an honorable mention goes to:
  • Saint Guinefort, a 13th century French dog who once saved his master's baby (although he was mistakenly killed for his pains), and who has supposedly been responsible for several miracles after his death. As a dog, though, he is not officially recognized by the Catholic Church.

Canadians love their immigrants

In a world that sometimes seems to be lurching inexorably towards anti-immigrant sentiments and attitudes, Canada stands as a beacon of hope.
Last year to July, Canada accepted over 320,000 (about 1% of its total population) new immigrants, it highest ever annual immigration figure, including over 32,000 Syrian refugees. And yet a recent Environics Institute survey suggests that public opinion on immigration and citizenship in Canada has remained stable or even improved over the last year or so.
Around 80% of Canadians across all demographic groups believe that immigration is good for the country's economy, with multi-cultural Toronto and those with a university degree holding this belief most strongly.
48% of respondents believe that Canada's refugee levels are about right, with a further 10% saying that the country takes in too few immigrants. 36% say the levels are too high, although most of these are mainly concerned about the country's capacity to support so many refugees, and not expressing discomfort with, or fear of, immigrants.
A graph of those agreeing or disagreeing with the statement "immigration levels are too high" shows a fascinating trend over the last 40 years. From 1977 to about 1996, the percentage of people in agreement with the statement was consistently over 60%. Then, from 1996 to 2002, that percentage fell precipitously to below 40%, where it has remained ever since.
About 90% of respondents in the survey say that someone born elsewhere is just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born here, and the numbers who are worried about immigrants not accepting "Canadian values" is now at its lowest level in over 20 years.
This poll comes as Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum is due to announce new immigration targets for the coming years. An economics advisory panel to the federal government recently recommended to him an increase in immigration to around 450,000 a year, although it is thought that Mr McCallum believes that to be too sharp an increase.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How can I influence my province's energy policy?

Well, I hope you're impressed that I bothered to read (most of) Ontario's just-released discussion guide, Planning Ontario's Energy Future.
It's a consultative document, designed to give regular citizens a say in how the province shapes its energy policy for the next few years. It's also 52 pages long (in its PDF form), and reasonably dense with turgid descriptions of Ontario's energy structure and statistics, so I really can't see many "regular citizens" bothering with it.
My overall impression is of a rather self-congratulatory back-slapping exercise. On greenhouse gases in particular, the closing of Ontario's coal-fired power stations over the decade receives much self-adulation (as perhaps it should): "Closing three of the province's-fired generating plants and converting the remaining two plants to biomass facilities was the continent’s largest single reduction effort, and reduced emissions from the electricity sector by 80%."
The guide also outlines some other recent sensible decisions, from the recent announcement about sharing Quebec's relatively environmentally-friendly electricity supply to smart meters, microgrids, etc. And, yes, the share of renewable energy has increased dramatically in the last decade or so. Fair enough, but this is no time for resting on laurels, and there ia no mention of Ontario's recent bewildering decision to cancel new renewables contracts or the equally poor decision to subsidize electricity prices.
Neither am I all-in with the implicit assumption in the document that nuclear power is an unalloyed good. It boasts that nuclear power now provides 58% of our electricity, and that this is a good thing, mainly because it helps with our greenhouse gas commitments. But that is not the only issue at play here. It also tells us that nuclear is cost-effective - which is far from the simple truth - and takes it as read that refurbishing the Bruce and Darlington plants and extending the life of the Pickering plant are sensible things to do (not so neither, either from a cost or an environmental perspective).
The other glaring mistake that I can see is the level of satisfaction with the share of natural gas as a heating fuel. Gas now supplies 36% of our overall fuels demand, up from 33% in 2005. The document does admit that there has been a lot of attention paid to electricity generation at the expense of other energy use, and even mentions that it would be better to switch more space heating requirements from natural gas to our relatively clean electricity. But it then goes on to extoll gas as the way of the future, especially for some of the more remote aboriginal communities, and even discusses an expansion of our natural gas capacity. Surely, this is not the way we should be going, and seems inconsistent with some of the guide's other conclusions and assumptions.
So, I have read the document, and decided that it is wanting, in my opinion. But I still can't see me making any kind of submission to the consultation process. For one thing, I don't feel myself qualified to do so, and don't have the arguments and the statistics at my fingertips. There seems little point in writing in with a vague "oh, I'm not sure I quite agree with all of that". So, I guess I will just have to trust that the various worthy pressure groups that I subscribe to will do this for me.
Although in theory this is an open consultative process, and a good example of grass-roots democracy at work, in practice there is little I can do to influence our future energy policy, even though it is something I feel reasonably strongly about.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Wonder Woman? Really? What about Nujeen Mustafa?

I don't know that I really need to weigh in on the United Nations' surprise announcement yesterday that the comic-book character Wonder Woman is to be the new UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, but it is certainly an interesting choice.
And, of course, a contentious one. Some say: what better choice than a strong, kick-ass heroine, who never backs down and is willing to take on anyone, even Superman himself. Others say: how could they think of selecting a fictional, overtly-sexualized figure like Wonder Woman when there are many other real-life role models available? The announcement even elicited a silent protest from some UN staffers.
Now, I haven't actually read a Wonder Woman comic since the early 1970s, but my memory is not really of some feminist icon, just a vaguely hot dame in a skimpy outfit, with rather lame powers and a poor and way-too-earnest line in fight patter. But then I was a 13 year old boy in an unstylish backwater of northern England.
I suppose my reaction to the UN's choice falls on the side of "could have done better", and preferably with a real, live person.
Soon after I heard the Wonder Woman news yesterday, I also happened to listen to an interview on BC Radio with a wonderful young Syrian refugee now living in Cologne, Germany. 14-year old Nujeen Mustafa fled war-torn Aleppo, Syria, with her sister and undertook the perilous 16-month trek through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and finally to safety in Germany, where she now attends (and excels in) school and leads a reasonably normal life. Oh, and did I mention that she has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair?
Speaking almost perfect idiomatic English that she taught herself from television programs as a child, Nujeen relates her woeful tale with an amazing brightness and positivity. It is well worth your while listening to this terrific young woman - she also has a new book out, Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair - and I thought at the time what a great ambassador she makes for refugees and girls in general.
Nujeen gets my vote.

UPDATE
In mid-December, Wonder Woman was summarily dropped from her contentious new UN position. UN spokespeople hastily asserted that it was never intended to last long anyway, but less than two months...?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ontario to import Quebec's excess hydro

The news that Ontario has struck a deal with Quebec to import Quebecois hydroelectricity is a rare but welcome step towards common sense and efficient energy sharing.
Under the seven-year agreement, Ontario will import up to two terawatt-hours of clean Quebec hydroelectricity (which sounds like a lot, but is actually just enough to power a medium-sized city, and represents just 1.4% of Ontario's total electricity demand). It will, however, allow the province to replace about a sixth of its more expensive and more polluting natural gas-generated power with clean renewable hydro power, saving the province in the process an estimated one million tons a year of greenhouse gas emissions.
The agreement also includes an arrangement to temporarily store 500 megawatts of excess Ontario electricity annually in Quebec's hydro dams (in a "pump-storage" system), which will allow Ontario to avoid the ridiculous current practice of paying US states to accept its excess energy. It also extends by another five years the existing agreement whereby Ontario ships 500 megawatts of excess power to Quebec each winter, and Quebec ships 500 megawatts back to Ontario in the summer months (when Quebec has an excess supply and Ontario an excess demand).
All in all, the new deal is expected to save Ontario's tax-payers around $70 million over the seven year life of the contract, in addition to the environmental benefits. It makes total sense to me, and hopefully paves the way for more similar arrangements in the future.

Wallonia against the world!

Whether or not you are in favour of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), you have to admit that the current situation is a pretty ridiculous one.
The little Belgian region of Wallonia (it is usually described as a "French-speaking" region, as though that explained everything) has effectively vetoed the wide-ranging trade agreement between Canada and the EU, which has been seven years in the making and which is supported by pretty much everyone else. Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has invested so much time and effort in the talks, left the meeting holding back tears, and calling the trade deal "impossible", and musing that "the European Union is incapable of reaching an agreement".
So, little Wallonia, a region of southern Belgium that few outside of Belgium have even heard of, and which boasts a population of about 3.6 million, is somehow able to scupper a deal that affects 508 million Europeans and 36 million Canadians. All the other countries of Europe are in favour of the deal, as is even the Belgian national government. But some quirk of EU and politically-decentralized Belgian law requires, for "jurisdictional" reasons, that all three Belgian regions also sign off on the deal. It also seems that the agreement must be unanimous - a "requirement" that was introduced late in the negotiations, leading to accusations of the EU moving the goalposts - whereas hardly any recent EU agreements have had such a strict requirement (most require a "qualified majority", meaning 55% of states representing 65% of the population).
The socialist government of Wallonia is convinced that they as a region may not benefit from the deal, which aims to eliminate 98% of tariffs between Canada and the EU and to generally boost bilateral trade between the two blocs. As a result, Wallonia seems happy to deny the trade benefits to everyone else. Yes, there are other anti-globalization groups within Europe who are not happy with the deal - as there always will be with such large-scale agreements - generally on the grounds that such deals give too much power to multinational companies. But Wallonia is the only regional government willing to stick their necks out on the issue, and to block a deal that is supported by every other government in Europe and Canada.
Yes, you can see that they want to protect their own, but somehow I don't think that this is the way that democracy is supposed to work, and Wallonia is messing with other people's livelihoods, in Europe and in Canada, as well as their own population's. The EU, and Belgium itself, seems embarrassed by Wallonia's intransigent stance more than anything else. There is more at stake here, though, and the EU is painfully aware that this may have repercussions for future EU trade deals. Wallonia's stance is only going to encourage other countries and regions to pursue their own specific grievances and demands for special accommodation. Many commentators in the media and political circles are musing that, if the EU can't manage to conclude a trade deal with Canada, then just who will they ever be able to deal with?
Many European officials are probably also worried that outsiders will see this as further evidence, if more were needed, of the level of disfunction within the European Union, which of course they will. And all because of little Wallonia.
Canada has limited itself to public expressions of "disappointment" at the news, but I'm sure that much stronger words have been used in back-rooms.

UPDATE
Well, the CETA deal was indeed signed today by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and top EU officials, just a few days late.
After a lot of frantic last-minute wrangling (and probably a significant amount of leaning by the EU, which we may never find out about), Wallonia and Belgium finally agreed on an addendum to the deal which "addressed regional concerns". The EU breathed a collective sigh of relief, and Canadians are left wondering whether the whole thing was actually a good idea after all...
However, although an agreement has been signed, it remains to be ratified, first by the EU parliament (in the next few months) and then by the legislatures of all the individual EU countries (which could take years more of protracted negotiations), although apparently some benefits of the deal should start to be felt immediately. And the controversial dispute resolution system, which has been the focus of much of the opposition to the treaty on both sides of the Atlantic, remains unconfirmed and in limbo.
It's all very confusing!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Brits are strongly in favour of wind and solar farms after all

An interesting piece in The Guardian shows how most people are positively disposed to wind and solar farms, even if those same people assume that others are not, and if most press coverage of these new technologies is predominantly negative.
This perception gap was highlighted by a recent British poll which found that 73% of the British public support wind power, and an even larger percentage (80%) support solar farms. This support can be broken down into 65% of people in rural areas (a constituency widely thought to be anti-wind development) and 75% in urban areas. The age demographic is also telling, with 77% of young people (aged 18 - 24) in favour of wind power compared to 66% of over-65s. Support in Scotland, the windiest part of the country, was even higher, with an 80% approval rate, which accords with other studies suggesting that people are more likely to favour wind farms if they have a financial stake in them, and also that people who live near wind farms overwhelmingly feel that the turbines have improved their area (also contrary to popular belief).
Contrast this, though, with the perception of other people's support for wind power: when asked to estimate what percentage of the population agreed with their own suppport of wind farms, only 10% thought that 71% or more of people would also support wind farms. And, while 80% of people said they supported solar farms, just 11% expected that many people to agree with them.
In trying to explain this disconnect, one possible explanation might be found in the disproportionately negative nature of media editorials and comment pieces on wind power. A study by 1010uk.org found that 52% of newspaper editorials were negative, 31% neutral, and only 17% positive. Over four times as many editorials were framed to look at the risks of the technology as were framed to look at the benefits (interestingly, editorial coverage of fracking showed the opposite relationship). This suggests that those who oppose wind power (and those who support fracking), for whatever reason, seem to be managing to find a disproportionate amount of space to air those views in the papers.
Make of all that what you will, but it does seem that then British Prime Minister David Cameron's 2014 cancellation of Britain's wind and renewables subsidies on the grounds that the public was "fed up" with wind farms was not actually based on good evidence, but rather was more likely to have been an attempt to placate the strong nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies. Didn't do him much good, though, did it?

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals after the first year in power

As Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government complete one year in office after their resounding electoral victory last October, many media outlets are taking the opportunity to grade his progress and achievements so far, and to look ahead to his prospects of fulfilling his ambitious electoral mandate in the months to come.
After a very promising start, I must confess to some disappointment and frustration with the man and his party in recent months. But he has managed to achieve one thing that hardly any previous Prime Minister (including his own, generally well-regarded, father) has ever been able to boast: he is apparently more popular now than he was when elected. Although the Liberals won over 54% of the seats in Parliament in the election, their share of the popular vote was actually only about 39% (see my comments on electoral reform below). But his much-vaunted "sunny ways" and his star power seem to have won over many who were not totally convinced by him at the time of the election. Some blame a leaderless and directionless opposition for at least part of this effect, but it is nevertheless quite an achievement. It certainly makes a very pleasant change to have a leader who is liked and respected the world over, and Canadians abroad are finally starting to hold their heads up again after a decade of embarrassment.
There is no doubt that Mr. Trudeau came in with guns a-blazing. He promptly withdrew Canada's CF-18 fighter jets from the air war against IS in favour of training and ground support; he went ahead with the immigration and resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, despite a series of world events that might easily have derailed the process; he ended Stephen Harper's visa requirements for Mexican visitors; he made moves to increase taxation on the richest Canadians and to lower taxes for the middle class; he reinstated the long-form census axed by Stephen Harper, to great popular approval; he instigated a long-overdue inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; he installed a gender-balanced cabinet, and re-opened long-soured lines of communication with provincial premiers, native leaders, and the press; he tried to rescue what is left of Canada's environmental reputation and integrity by signing the Paris accord on climate change; he personally negotiated the release of a Canadian missionary long held in a Chinese jail and eased a simmering trade dispute over canola exports to China, while only hinting vaguely at future talks on an extradition treaty with China (it remains to be seen whether such talks actually come to anything, and that might yet colour his other achievements in China).
Yes, there have been a few set-backs along the way, some of which I have already commented on in this blog - "nannygate", "elbowgate", aides' relocation expenses, etc - but these have been relatively minor and usually deftly handled. The disappointing government response to the ongoing scandal of Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia is a more concerning development, and is bruising Mr. Trudeau's squeaky clean reputation both abroad and at home.
However, now that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, there are several much more knotty problems to deal with in the coming months. For example, negotiating a health transfer deal with the provinces will be a challenge, as it always is. A climate change deal, including the imposition of a carbon tax on those provinces that do not already have one, will also be a challenge, although mainly due to the maverick Brad Wall in Saskatchewan (and kudos to Trudeau for having the cojones to propose it in the first place, and to finally talk seriously about bringing in energy conservation and renewable energy regulations for new building projects).
Trudeau also seems to be distancing himself from the Liberals' major election promise to change the electoral system in Canada from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) model to some kind of proportional representation system. Despite an unambiguous promise that the last election would be the last to be held under the FPTP system, Mr. Trudeau is now hinting that any decision to reform the country's electoral system should lie with the people, and his feeling seems to be that, after electing a majority Liberal government to replace the unpopular Stephen Harper Conservatives, the people are actually quite happy with FPTP. This is rather circular and self-serving reasoning, and has more the sound of a cynical political pragmatist rather than that of a young naïve idealist.
Other cracks are also starting to appear in the shining armour of the Liberals, one example being the apparently widespread use of exclusive and expensive fundraisers which give those who are willing to pay exclusive access to senior cabinet minsters. Although, Trudeau vehemently denies it, such events appear to contravene the Liberals own stringent rules on lobbying and fundraising.
So, some good, some bad, some middling, and some judgements reserved. One the whole, though, a reasonably promising first year, I think it's fair to say, and certainly not a disaster.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sweet potato breeding program is a win-win solution for sub-Saharan Africa

A simple but very effective expedient being developed in Uganda could save millions of children across Africa from malnutrition.
Sweet potatoes are one of the three main food crops in Uganda (along with plantain and cassava), as indeed they are they are in much of south and central Africa. But the starchy white-fleshed sweet potatoes that are usually grown in Uganda are relatively low in Vitamin A, and Vitamin A deficiency is a huge public health problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, affecting as many as 43 million children across the continent (children affected by the condition are more likely to go blind, suffer from stunted growth, contract diseases, and to die earlier).
Earlier this month, though, Ugandan scientist Dr. Robert Mwanga received a quarter-share of the prestigious and lucrative World Food Prize - a prize worth $250,000 and awarded for "improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world" - for his work in combining local varieties of sweet potato with others from around the world, particularly the non-native orange-fleshed sweet potato (which is very high in Vitamin A), in order to build in more vitamin A and to produce a vitamin-rich breed tailored to suit local tastes and the local climate.
The new crop was developed without the need to resort to expensive and controversial genetic modification, like the ill-fated golden rice experiment in Asia. Rather, it relies on bio-fortification using only conventional breeding methods The resulting potato grows well, has high yields, and the local population has already seen its health benefits over the last few years. It is also a significantly cheaper and more practical solution to Vitamin A deficiency than the vitamin capsule supplement programs that have been attempted to date.
Win-win, I'd say.
 

First hijab-wearing Muslim to appear in Playboy

Noor Tagouri is a 22 year old American (born in Libya) Muslim journalist and motivational speaker who has ruffled some feathers in the Middle East by becoming the first hijab-wearing Muslim to pose for Playboy.
Yes, she's good-looking, but, more to the point, she's smart as a whip and extremely articulate. And remember, "posing" in Playboy is not what it used to be, since the venerable magazine stopped publishing pictures of fully nude women about a year ago.
As Noor tells it, though, what better place is there for her to tell her own story, and that of other Muslim Americans like her, than a media organ that has traditionally modelled itself around the objectification of women? After all, there is no point in preaching to the converted, is there?
Interestingly, she tells how she has had some push-back in the US too over her wearing of the hijab, and sometimes employers are reticent to take her on, and some interview subjects are unwilling to talk to her. Ms. Tagouri however, feels that some more marginalized subjects are actually more likely to trust her - another outsider - with their story.
Power to her!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Toronto cafe charges women more than men to highlight the "pink tax"

A Toronto coffee shop courted controversy recently when it started charging women more for their coffee than men.
Actually, it was a stunt organized by an American pressure group called GirlTalkHQ, which bills itself as "the global headquarters of female empowerment news media" (a rather awkward tagline, but you get the idea). The idea and the video it gave rise to are part of the organization's #FightPinkTax campaign to draw attention to the fact that women pay more for many product than men do for an essentially identical item, from clothing to toiletries to dry-cleaning to haircuts and beyond. By some estimates women pay up to $2,000 a year more than men due to this gender-based pricing.
The popular downtown Toronto cafe posted up new discriminatory prices on its pricing board, and the bar staff played along with the conceit, in order to get reactions from outraged customers. You can watch the results here.
GirlTalkHQ say they started this campaign in Canada because Canadians are already making some moves in the right direction on this issue. They give a special shoutout to Prime Minister (and soi-disant feminist) Justin Trudeau, who has made sex equality an important plank of his policy, and they make particular reference to his positive discrimination policy in his cabinet. You too can sign the petition which, it is hoped, will be handed to Mr. Trudeau and the Minister for the Status of Women with a formal appeal to end the imbalance.
Interestingly, though, some American jurisdictions are actually further ahead on this: the states of New York City and California have outlawed the practice of charging differently for products or services according to gender, and in California companies face fines up to $4,000 if they're caught breaking the law.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rwanda HFC/greenhouse gas deal a success worth celebrating

An important climate change deal recently signed at a UN conference in Rwanda has received relatively little media attention. Which is a shame, because it is potentially quite significant, and a good example of a little victory in a field where victories are hard to come by.
The 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer took place in Kigali, Rwanda on 10–14 October 2016. While billed as an ozone meeting and not a climate change meeting, it will nevertheless have some important ramifications in the world's struggle to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to keep global warming within bounds.
During the meeting, 197 nations agreed to drastically reduce their use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs were developed in the 1990s, after the 1989 Montreal Protocol in which it was agreed to phase out and replace the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were widely in fridges and air conditioners. CFCs were found to be eating large holes in the earth's ozone layer, and the Montreal Protocol came to be seen as one of the world's great environmental success stories.
However, although HFCs effectively solved the ozone problem, it turned out that they were also a potent greenhouse gas, up to 10,000 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere as they leak out into the air. Because HFCs are now so widely used in refrigeration, and as newly industrializing countries like India and China expand their use of air conditioning, they represent a significant source of greenhouse gases worldwide (an estimated 8% of total global warming impact).
Now, HFCs can be reduced by making air conditioners and refrigerators more efficient, and by sealing up leak (so that HFCs do not seep into the atmosphere). But an alternative to HFCs is also now available, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), which are much more benign chemicals and trap much less heat in the atmosphere over their lifetimes.
Unfortunately, HFOs are significantly more expensive than HFCs or CFCs, and large but relatively poor developing countries like India and Brazil just cannot afford the switch without help. Under the Rwanda deal, therefore, the wealthier countries of North America and Europe will make the transition away from HFCs first, while developing countries will be allowed more time (and will hopefully benefit from reduced prices and increased efficiencies as new products and processes are developed). The wealthier countries will also help finance the transition of the less wealthy directly.
Because the agreement is an amendment under the existing Montreal Protocol, there are already reporting and enforcement mechanisms in place, and there are penalties for any countries that do not meet their commitments. The amendment is expected to reduce HFC use by up to 85% by 2047.
So, say it loud! Celebrate the successes! God knows, we see so few.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Think positive - Bob Dylan might still refuse his Nobel Prize

I'm very much in two minds about yesterday's announcement that Bob Dylan is the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, officially "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, waxed lyrical in the official press release of the announcement, calling Dylan "a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards", and even comparing him to Homer and Sappho at one point.
My first thought was: seriously? But the Nobel Prize committee is nothing if not serious. Occasionally controversial, sure (think Barack Obama, Yasser Arafat, Al Gore, etc), but never flippant or trivial.
So, I then assumed that the announcement must at least be a controversial one, at least in literature terms. But apparently not: the vast majority of comments I have read have been wildly positive, even delirious. Most people, then, seem perfectly at ease with the decision, calling it well-deserved, long overdue, even inspired.
All this has surprised me, to say the least. Am I the only person out there who thinks that Dylan is overrated? His lyrics, while admittedly well above the level of Lady Gaga or Ozzy Osbourne, are nevertheless just that, lyrics, and do not really hold up as poetry in their own right, at least not compared to the work of any number of bona fide poets. And don't get me started on his voice (I'm sure even he would admit he can't sing for toffee), although I assume that the Nobel committee do not take such non-literary aspects into account.
So, my suspicion is that the estimable committee, perhaps in a misguided attempt at appearing "relevant" or even "edgy", just decided that this year they would choose a singer-songwriter, someone well-known and commercially successful, a populist choice. Then, out of the canon of hoary mainstream old geezers of a certain age and with a sufficiently copious back catalogue (perhaps the likes of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and others might have been considered), they decided to  plump for a certain Robert Zimmerman.
I just kind of think that many of the top-notch authors who never won the Nobel Prize (a list, lest we forget, that includes the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Primo Levi, W. H. Auden, John Updike, Robert Frost, Graham Greene, Chinua Achebe ... I could go on and on) might well be turning in their graves right now. And wasn't this supposed to be Philip Roth's year anyway? (Haruki Murukami was also widely touted.)
I think perhaps the best we can hope at this point is that the notoriously cantankerous Dylan might pull a Jean-Paul Sartre and refuse the accolade.

UPDATE
Nearly two weeks later, Mr. Dylan has still not bothered to contact the Swedish Academy or to publicly acknowledge the honour in any way. Apparently, a minor back-page of his official website did mention it briefly, but the mention soon disappeared, just as mysteriously.
The Nobel committee might just be starting to rue their decision right now...

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Why are the Republicans turning on Donald Trump now?

With House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan the latest senior Republican to distance himself from Donald Trump, what interests and surprises me is not that the concerted Republican movement away from Trump has happened at all, but that it has taken so long, and what this says about the current state of the American right.
It took the release of the shock 2005 video about Mr. Trump's penchant for gratuitously groping women (including his favourite ploy, "grab them by the pussy", which has led to some people using the moniker "Pussygate") to galvanize Paul Ryan into officially decoupling himself from the Trump campaign, although it took him a couple of days to come to this conclusion, and in fact he has still not officially withdrawn his endorsement of Mr. Trump. This suggests, then, that Ryan was actually quite OK with a Republican leader threatening to throw his opponent in jail, or barring all Muslims for entering the United States, or building a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug smugglers, or any number of other Trump policies.
Granted, some other senior Republicans - people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, etc -  had already distanced themselves before the video revelations, and they deserve at least some credit for that. But the video seems to have been the tipping point for many (over 2 dozen have officially withdrawn their support just since Monday, and many more have at least made hedging statements), indicating that they have the moral outrage bar set pretty high. Currently, it is though that about a third of Republican senators have either said they are not supporting Trump, or else have called on him to drop out as Republican candidate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former presidential rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are all still on board the Trump train to nowhere, though, as is poor beleaguered running mate Mike Pence. (The Atlantic has produced a long a detailed list of party elders, representatives, senators, governors and influential opinion-makers, and their stance on The Donald.)
As Globe columnist John Ibbotson suggests, there is now a case for every Republican candidate in this election to have to stand up and officially declare to the world whether or not they still support Donald Trump and his policies. Better still, they should be asked whether or not they support him AND whether or not they plan on voting for him, because clearly the two things are not as closely linked as they might appear. They owe the voters that much at least.
In a way, it is interesting that this should have been the straw that broke the camel's back for many people. It suggests that, for the right wing at any rate, overt sexism is a stronger taboo than overt and extreme racism, even though Trump has already made many degrading references to women during his campaign (including "bimbo", "dog", "fat pig", etc). Personally, I still harbour suspicions that the problem for many Republicans is not the disrespect that Trump shows for women, but an old-fashioned Christian objection to marital infidelity.
Rolling Stone opines, quite convincingly, that the reason that Republicans are scattering like rats from a sinking ship is just that: for a time, while the opinion polls remained optimistic, most Republicans were quite content to ride Trump's coattails to victory, regardless of their actual opinions of the man; but as soon as his support, especially in the critical battleground states, began to sink, Trump became an albatross from whom Republicans were desperate to cut free. For many, then, this is not so much an ethical decision, but a cynical exercise in Realpolitik.
Another rather disturbing part of what it all shows - in addition to the purely cynical aspect of what they are willing to do, what kind of deals with the devil they would strike, in order to gain power - is the extent to which Trump has singlehandedly shifted the American right wing rightwards. The fact that so many Republicans could apparently stomach some of the man's more extreme policies suggests a willingness on their part to return to the divisive, racist, sexist, politics of the 60's, to an extent that would have been unthinkable just four years ago.
Outside of the Republican establishment, though, things look even worse. Some of the behaviour that has come out at Trump rallies - T-shirts emblazoned with "Trump that bitch", "Lock her up" and the particularly succinct "Cunt" - would also have been unthinkable much more recently than four years ago. But, apparently, not today. And consider this: 8% of respondents in a recent poll said that the Trump "grab them by the pussy" video made them think BETTER of him, not worse; Republican lawmaker Michael Folk has publicly opined that Clinton should be "hung on the Mall", and Trump adviser Al Baldasaro has suggested that "she should be shot in a firing squad for treason"; 40% of Trump supporters in swing-state Ohio answered a recent poll that (in general terms not specific to this particular election) the country is better off with a male president than a female one. I could go on, but I'd only get even more depressed.
Ah God, but the man has a lot to answer for, however the election turns out.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Reality check on the second presidential debate

CNN has done a detailed fact-check on some of the more important and outlandish assertions made in last night's presidential candidate debate between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton (yes, that old American election thing is still going on, bored to tears with it as we are). Bear in mind that this is not some partisan Democratic hatchet job, but a report by a respected American news outlet.
In a gloves-off, no holds barred slanging match, some pretty loose and lurid statements were bandied around by both candidates during the debate, and Mr. Trump repeatedly gel back on his favourite attack ploy: the schoolboy taunt of "liar, liar".
But just how do the assertions of the two candidates stand up to scrutiny?

Hilary Clinton's claims:
  • Obamacare has meant that 90% of Americans now have health insurance of some kind. In fact, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows that the percentage is actually 91.4%. CNN verdict: True.
  • The hacking of Democratic Convention emails this summer was orchestrated by the Russians, and intended to benefit Trump's presidential campaign. In fact, National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security have indeed fingered Russian agents as responsible for the hacks, but aspersions that the intention was to boost Trump at the expense of the Democrats merely speculative. CNN verdict: True (as regards Russian involvement) and probably False (as regards the underlying intentions).
  • During Bill Clinton's presidency, Americans (and especially African-Americans) enjoyed substantially improved economic prosperity and reduced unemployment. In fact, between 1992 and 2000, African-American incomes increased by 31.5% (close to the 33% figure Ms. Clinton quoted) compared to an increase of 13.9% for Americans as a whole. CNN verdict: True.
  • Trump's plans would end up increasing the taxes of middle-class families, despite his claims to be cutting taxes for everyone. In fact, a detailed analysis done by a former member of President Obama's National Economic Council (and checked by conservative Tax Foundation) suggests that, while Trump's tax plan may reduce average tax burdens, around 25 million poor and middle-class families (especially single mothers, and those with young children) would see their tax burden increased. CNN verdict: True.
  • During his campaign, Trump has insulted many different groups, including women, immigrants, blacks, Latinos, people with disabilities, Muslims and POWs, never once apologizing. In fact, Trump is on public record as insulting all of these groups and more. CNN verdict: True.
Donald Trump's claims:
  • Under Obama care, health premiums are going up by "astronomical" amounts like 68%, 59% and 71%. In fact, while the odd insurance company may be calling for increases of this nature, the average increase requested is just 9%, and 2016's average premium increase was just 2%. CNN verdict: True But Misleading.
  • Canadians go to the US for major operations because the Canadian health system is so slow and waiting times are so high. In fact, about 52,000 Canadians travelled outside the country for operations in 2014 (the latest figures available, according to CNN), the majority probably to the US, but this only represents a tiny percentage of the 35 million population. Actually, The Fraser Institute's figures for 2015 show a substantial fall to about 45,000, and the organization's methodology has been much criticized anyway. CNN verdict: True But Misleading.
  • Clinton wants a single-payer government-run health insurance system. In fact, Clinton has clearly said all along that she sees the government system as just one choice alongside private health insurance providers. CNN verdict: False.
  • Clinton's 2008 Democratic leadership campaign was the source of the controversial picture of Obama in traditional Somali garb. In fact, the original source of the photo was never fully disclosed, and the Clinton campaign organization quickly distanced itself from the photo, which was not part of its authorized campaign. CNN verdict: It's Complicated.
  • Clinton's deleting of 39,000/35,000/33,000 emails while Secretary of State was inexcusable. In fact, Ms. Clinton admits to deleting 32,000 emails, and handing another 30,000 over to the Department of State when asked. About 5,600 of the 15,000 deleted emails that have been retrieved and reviewed were probably in some way work related. CNN verdict: False (as regards the numbers) and True (as regards Clinton's downplaying of their work-related aspect).
  • Trump will be able to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton's actions regarding the deleted emails. In fact, the Attorney General could appoint a special prosecutor if he or she believed that there was a good chance of criminal charges sticking, but that remains rather doubtful. However, Trump as President could technically force the AG to do so, although only by threatening to remove him or her from office if they refused. CNN verdict: True.
  • Ex-President Bill Clinton lost his license to practise law, and had to pay $850,000 in damages to Paula Jones. In fact, Bill Clinton's Arkansas law license was suspended for a period after the Monica Lewinsky hearings, and he did have to pay out $850,000 to Paula Jones as the result of a later hearing. CNN verdict: True.
  • If Trump had been President, the USA would not have gone into Iraq in 2003, and Captain Khan would not have lost his life. In fact, Trump publicly declared his support for a US invasion of Iraq both before and after the decision was made in 2002, and only changed his mind on the issue later, in 2004. CNN verdict: False.
  • Clinton plans to raise "everyone's taxes massively". In fact, she has proposed a tax hike only on the top 1% of Americans, i.e. those earning over $250,000 a year, and everyone else will not be affected. CNN verdict: False.
  • Syrian President Assad, Russia and Iran are all "killing ISIS" while American troops stand on the sidelines. In fact, both the Assad regime and Russia are concentrating their strikes on anti-government (and often US-backed) rebel groups, only some of whom are also coincidentally working against ISIS. There is also little evidence that Iran has been targeting ISIS is Syria, although they have been of some limited use in Iraq. CNN verdict: False.
  • Muslim-Americans don't cooperate with American law enforcement and anti-terrorism agencies. In fact, there is no evidence that any Muslims were aware of and withheld informational after the San Bernardino shootings, as Trump claims. Indeed, a University of North Carolina study concludes that, since 9/11, Muslims within the USA have been more effective in providing information on terrorist activities than government security forces have. CNN verdict: False.
  • Neither Hilary Clinton nor President Barack Obama are willing to publicly use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism", which Trump insists is the first step in dealing with the problem. In fact, Clinton is not averse to using the phrase where it is merited, although President Obama is more reticent, warning that a fixation with labels can sometimes be a distraction from the real issues involved. CNN verdict: False (in the case of Clinton) and True (in the case of Obama).
  • Clinton has used her time in office to earn $250 million. In fact, Hilary Clinton has made about $21.6 million from speeches and appearances made since she stopped her job as Secretary of State in 2013. Even together with her even higher-paid husband, this figure is in the region of $150 million, and their joint income from all sources is estimated to be around $230 million, most of it attributable to Bill Clinton. CNN verdict: False.
  • As a Senator, Clinton failed to bring 200,000 jobs to upstate New York as she had promised to do. In fact, as Senator from 2001 to 2008, which coincided with the start of the Great Recession, employment rates in upstate New York did fall slightly, as indeed they did in most of the rest of the country, although some areas did see some improvement. CNN verdict: Mostly True.
  • The USA had an almost $800 billion trade deficit last year. In fact, the country had a $763 billion deficit in the international trade of physical goods last year, but a $262 billion surplus in services, yielding an overall trade deficit of about $500 billion. CNN verdict: False.
So, the score? Well, that is probably not the best way to look at it, but suffice to say that Donald Trump made many more unsubstantiated claims than did Hilary Clinton. And this list does not include a whole host of other iffy Trump claims, like that he never said that Japan should have nuclear weapons, that Arab-Americans were seen partying on the afternoon of 9/11, that pallets of American money were seen being delivered to Iran, that Barack Obama (or possibly Hilary Clinton) was the founder of Islamic State, and many other such Trump delusions. All of this may go some way towards explaining the fact that, according to a CNN poll, 57% of voters polled thought that Clinton "won" the debate, compared to 34% who saw Trump as the winner.
Probably more to the point, though, is how many of the claims Trump aired - whether unsubstantiated or not - are believed by the gullible public. Many people will believe that if a politician is willing to stand up in front of millions of people and assert something, then it must surely be true. How little they know The Donald...