Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Quebec finally accepts some English words are here to stay

The redoubtable Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the official language watchdog of the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, which sees the French language in Canada as under existential pressure from English incursions, has made a surprising volte face in the last few days.
Best known for its introduction and strong promotion of French terms in place of English terms that have become widespread in Quebec - including some rather awkward formulations like courriel éléctronique for email and mot-clic for hashtag, and an insistence on parc de stationnement instead of le parking and fin de semaine instead of le week-end - the OQLF have taken the surprising step of admitting that some French terms have just not taken off and so the English terms are OK after all.
Among these persistent anglicisms are
cocktail (the recommended homophobe coquetel never really took off) and grilled-cheese (instead of the government-approved mouthful sandwich au fromage fondant, which includes the English word sandwich anyway).
These are minor accomodations to be sure, but from an organization with such a fierce reputation for hard-lining, they are significant, and, to my mind, welcome. After all, if English had blocked the adoption of all foreign loanwords, it would only be half the immensely rich language it is today.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Solar or wind can't save the world alone, but all renewables together just might

A harsh but realistic article about renewable energy accepts what you hear so often from climate change skeptics and fossil fuel boosters: while there is a huge potential supply of solar and wind power, both sources of energy are necessarily intermittent and unreliable.
I think most fans of renewables would admit that is true, but that does not mean that it is not the right path to pursue. Every watt of energy produced by solar or wind, is a way that does not require carbon-heavy fossil fuels.
What, then, is the solution to this conundrum? The article suggests the following alternatives:

  • Use fossil fuel plants as back up (rather than the mainstay of energy production).
  • Oversize renewable energy production to be able to cope with peak demand (aware that much power will be wasted at other times).
  • Connect geographically dispersed renewable sources (such as from different states, provinces or countries, necessitating improved or expanded transmission grids) so as to smooth out variations in power production.
  • Store surplus energy for times when solar and wind power resources are low (requiring battery technology, which is improving fast but is still not everything we need).
  • Adjusting the demand to the supply by improving building and vehicle energy efficiencies (so that less power is needed, even at peak times).

I would probably add one more option to this list: invest in other renewable energy sources, like tidal, run-of-river hydro, geothermal, etc. There is no reason why we need to limit ourselves to solar and wind, even though these are currently the most economical methods of green energy production.
How many times have you heard naysayers claiming that solar or wind can never replace coal because it is too unreliable? But no-one ever said that one renewable resource was going to save the world all on its own? We need as many different options as possible, all working together.

Enough with the selfies already

Walking out after a Cirque du Soleil show the other night, I was struck by the sheer number of selfies being taken, with, or often without, the back-drop of the Grand Chapiteau.
A plurality of young people, most of them apparently of Asian heritage (which may or may not have been coincidental), were trapped in their own little bubble, completely unaware of the world around them, completely un-selfconscious or unaware of how they looked to the people around them, so caught up were they in the imperative to document the moment with yet another picture (or three) of ... themselves.
It has got to the stage where I just feel embarrassed for these people. I'm not saying that a selfie is never appropriate - hell, I have even taken a few myself, which my daughter tells me are hilariously amateurish. I just take issue with the cult of the selfie, the social obligation of it, and all the public preening that goes on around it. A recent article documenting selfies being taken on a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp is a good indication of the sorry pass we have come to, and the narcissistic, divorced-from-reality bubble that surround so many selfie addicts.
And I'm far from alone in thinking that the selfie is a fad whose time should be over. There is a multitude of articles on the subject, even within social media circles: 13 Reasons You Need To Stop Taking So Many Selfies, When you stop posting selfies, these 10 things will happen, 15 annoying selfies people should STOP takingWhy you can't stop taking selfies everyone else hates, etc, etc. (A point in passing: something else that needs to stop is articles that begin with "10 reasons why...", "12 things that...", etc.)
Maybe selfies are an innocent pastime, and I am just an old curmudgeon (quite possible). Maybe they are even empowering, as some have argued (I very much doubt it). Art? (definitely not). But I do think that, at the very least, if selfies are going to be taken, a little more thought should go into them, to prevent them from being just the knee-jerk response they so often are. I think the world probably already has a surfeit of most people's faces.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should the government be expected to rescue stranded Canadians?

I can't help but see all the whining by Canadians stranded in the path of Hurricane Irma as wrong-headed.
I have read several articles in which Canadian citizens are complaining that the Canadian government and Canadian airlines have not been doing enough to rescue them from the disaster zone in which they happened to be sunbathing and partying. They say that the Canadian response has been much inferior to that of the Americans (although Americans are complaining too).
All of which makes me wonder: what responsibility do governments have to bail out citizens who put themselves in harm's way? We are not talking here about an unexpected natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption: the series of hurricanes and tropical storms currently lashing the Caribbean and southern USA have been predicted and monitored for some time, and their approximate paths modelled in great detail. Neither are we talking about impoverished natives who are unable to make their own evacuation plans: these are well-heeled tourists taking expensive foreign holidays in St. Martins, Cuba and Turks and Caicos.
I think that if I were unlucky enough to be vacationing in an area likely to be hit by a record-breaking storm, I would rapidly make alternative plans, and not wait until some distant government comes up with a tardy rescue plan. Not that I would book a holiday in the Caribbean during hurricane season anyway...

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some interesting new ways to look at menopause

I read an interesting article in New Scientist recently (not a magazine I usually read or have access to) about menopause (not a subject I usually pay much attention to).
Menopause basically marks the end of a woman's ability to bear children. The number of eggs in a woman's ovaries starts to dwindle, and the amount of estrogen (oestrogen) and other related hormones she produces takes a nose-dive. This results in the typical menopause symptoms: hot flushes, tiredness, weight gain, mood swings, reduced sex drive and vaginal dryness.
One other common symptom of menopause, though, is memory and concentration lapses, and it turns out that changes in the brain that occur during this time are similar in many ways to those occurring during the onset of Alzheimer's Disease, something else that predominantly afflicts women. (Contrary to general belief, men are also affected by menopause - usually referred to as the andropause - but it is a much more gradual and undramatic process.)
Recent research has shown that brain cells have lots of estrogen receptors, and a drop in estrogen production can therefore have a significant effect on memory, mood and general brain health. Indeed, it is possible that menopause might kick-start Alzheimer's. Estrogen has a kind of protective function in the brain, as well as fuelling mitochondrial energy reserves. So, when estrogen production suddenly falls during menopause, the brain starts to use the fatty protective myelin sheaths around brain cells for fuel instead of the usual glucose, leading to decreased volumes of white and grey matter and an increase in beta amyloid production, all hallmarks of Alzheimer's. That being the case, research is now being carried out into whether menopause treatments like hormone replacement therapy (which gained a bad reputation after some damning studies in the 2000s, but which is now gradually being rehabilitated, at least when applied in more carefully-controlled and tailored therapies) might also help with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
One other aspect of the menopause the New Scientist article looks at is just why it happens at all. Humans, killer whales and pilot whales are the only animals in nature that live in good health long after their reproductive years are over (most animals continue to reproduce until they die). If the biological imperative of all animals is to pass on its genes to the next generation, what evolutionary purpose might these extra years fill, then? It has been hypothesized that grandmothers in such animals help to bring up and protect children, giving those children a better chance of survival. Also, after a certain age, helping to take care of grandchildren may be a more efficient way of perpetuating the species than trying to conceive new babies. Interesting ideas.

A bunch of spurious arguments in the TWU debate

There is a whole load of sanctimonious claptrap and posturing going in the arguments around Trinity Western University's proposed Christian law school in Langley, British Columbia.
TWU is a private university, established back in 1962 by the Evangelical Free Church, attendance of which involves, among other things, a "Community Covenant" obliging students not to engage in sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. You get the general idea... The law societies of both BC and Ontario want to refuse to license the university's graduates, and court cases have, predictably enough, ensued. Some of the arguments being put forward, though - on both sides - seem pretty flimsy and spurious to me, although, given the parties involved, one has to assume that they have some legal validity.
For example, Trinity Western maintains that the law societies are discriminating against the religious freedom of its students because it forbids them to join together to express their beliefs. Not so: they can express their beliefs however they like outside of classes, but if they are to become lawyers serving the whole Canadian population then they need to follow the same educational secularism as everyone else does. Frankly, I'm not sure I would trust a graduate from such an institution to have unbiased and inclusive views on issues such as rape, abortion, homophobia, etc, and thereby serve the populace effectively and dispassionately.
On the other side, some same-sex advocacy groups are claiming that LGBTQ persons cannot be their "authentic selves" while attending TWU, and they they should not be "forced to renounce their dignity and self-respect in order to obtain an education". Also spurious: no-one is forcing them to attend TWU, and I would be surprised that any self-respecting would even consider attending such an institution.
I'm sure there are good arguments on either side of this debate, but these are not among them.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Hybrids and EVs represent less than 1% of vehicles sold in Canada

I was shocked - yes, shocked - by a graphic in today's paper showing just how paltry sales of hybrid and electric cars are here in Canada.
An analysis of Canadian vehicle sales shows that, as of July 2016, 96.6% of cars sold here were traditional gasoline vehicles, and another 3.2% were diesels. Only 0.74% were hybrids, and 0.05% were plug-in hybrids, with 0.17% categorized as "other" (meaning electric cars, perhaps?)
Now, I know that adds up to more than 100%, so something somewhere is wrong. And I know that sales of hybrids and EVs have probably burgeoned since July 2016. But this still indicates that a pitifully small percentage of car purchasers are ecologically conscious, much smaller than I expected, and much smaller than the amount of media attention these vehicles attract.
Less than 1% of car owners are really not going to have a huge impact on our national carbon footprint. Disappointing.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Entitled professionals should stop whining about tax reforms

I'm getting a little impatient with all the well-paid doctors and lawyers who are complaining so vociferously about the federal government's plans to close up tax loopholes that these people have been exploiting for years.
The Liberal tax reforms are aimed at clamping down on the kinds of shell companies that allow self-employed to pay lower corporation and dividend taxes, rather than the income taxes everyone else has to pay, as well as making further tax savings by "sprinkling" their incomes around their extended families. It aims to treat them just like any other salary- earner.
The tax plan, which is still a work in progress at the moment, is expected to only affect top-end professionals earning over $150,000 anyway, those who have already exhausted org we tax-saving methods like RRSPs and TFSAs: how much can they have to complain about? Furthermore, it only applies to Canadian-controlled private corporations (CCPCs), and studies show us that richer individuals are much more likely to have a CCPC than the middle- and lower-income individuals that much of the media complaints seem to focus on. According to the Canadian Tax Journal, among tax-payers in the bottom half of the income spectrum, less than 5% have a CCPC, as compared to almost half of the top 1% of earners. So, the focus of the tax measures seems well-placed, and it is unlikely to affect the proverbial mom-and-pop corner store owners that so many reports and conservative commentators talk about with such outrage in their tone.
All these doctors and lawyers have such a culture of entitlement that they have come to see the current system as the norm and the planned reforms as unfair incursions on their cozy little schemes, complaining that they would no longer be able to save for their retirements and maternity leaves.
Well, how do they think other people manage it? Other people who earn the same as them and pay a normal, reasonable amount of income tax.
The tax reforms seem eminently reasonable to me, even long overdue. The whining of a bunch of entitled upper middle class professionals has no place in this discussion.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Gas price hike might lead to more hybrids and EVs

Now, I'm no Trumpian nativist or protectionist, and I do see the value of globalism (flawed as it is). But it still seems a bit perverse that Canada - a major oil producer and exporter - has just seen its gasoline prices increase by almost 25% because of a storm at the other end of the continent, which may or may not result in supply shortages.
Well, if there's a silver lining to these particular storm clouds, maybe a bunch more people will invest in hybrids and electric vehicles as a result of this latest gas price gouge. That is perhaps the best we can hope for.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bangladesh flooding (and the war in Yemen) dwarf Texas' troubles

As you may have heard, there has been flooding in the south of the USA.
Indeed, you can't fail to have heard, even if you don't live in the US. It has received blanket coverage in newspapers, on television, and all over the internet. And, yes, it is certainly a major event, with at least 44 dead, and 32,000 people still in shelters. Hurricane Harvey was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in over 50 years, before it faded to a tropical storm, and 132cm of rain fell in just a few days (a record for continental America).
But I was a bit taken aback when I heard, just yesterday, that there has been much greater flooding happening at the same time in Bangladesh, northern India and Nepal. I first heard about this on CBC Radio report, although the Guardian also covered it (and pointed out the disparities in media attention) a couple of days later.
Now, Bangladesh is no stranger to flooding, but this is something on an unprecedented scale. Over 1,200 people have died, and an estimated 40 million are directly affected by this particularly vicious monsoon season. Many thousands of homes have been washed away, and farmland destroyed, and there have been any number of landslides, downed electricity towers, damaged roads, etc. Clean drinking water is always an issue in the region, but the flooding has pushed it to critical proportions, and widespread disease in the aftermath is a distinct likelihood. And the rain continues to fall.
We always pay more attention to events in our local neighbourhood; that is perhaps to be expected. We also pay more attention to events affecting people that look like us, which is less explicable and less justifiable. But the almost complete absence of coverage of a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude is just extraordinary. Perhaps the most shocking fact I heard was that the main English language newspaper in Bangladesh ran a detailed report on the flooding in Houston just the other day! Now, I don't mean to play down someone else's natural diaaster, but some perspective is definitely needed here.
The Guardian goes even further to point out that even the Bangladesh disaster pales in comparison with the biggest humanitarian crisis at the moment, Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the last couple of years, and about 7 million made homeless, under a constant barrage by Western-armed Saudi Arabia. Yemen, for various reasons, has received much less media attention than either Texas or Bangladesh (or Syria for that matter).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mayweather-McGregor: hype gone crazy

I really couldn't be less exercised about the upcoming Fight of the Century (I'm talking about the Floyd Mayweather - Conor McGregor match-up in case you weren't sure which Fight of the Century I was referring to).
Now, full disclosure, I have always hated boxing. I watched it as a kid because my Dad watched it; I have never watched it as an adult. It is brutal, animalistic and has little in the way of "sports appeal" in my view. My feelings towards UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship, also known as mixed martial arts) are even less positive.
But this fight is even less about the sport than most boxing matches. Two brash, obnoxious, rich, loud-mouthed entertainers are coming together to squeeze every last dollar (or every last million dollars) out of gullible, blood-crazed, testosterone-driven fans. It is the equivalent of a gratuitous mash-up of two previously chart-busting pop songs, and has little or no intrinsic value.
There is no championship or belt on the line: this is just for bragging rights (and, man, are these guys good at bragging). It's not even guaranteed to be a good fight: Mayweather (40 years old, and coming out of retirement for this match-up) is unbeaten in a professional career of 49 bouts and McGregor (29, and a dominant figure in his own field) is competing in a sport, traditional boxing, that is not his own. If you understand American-style betting odds, the odds for Mayweather are around -400, (although they were as low as -2250 at one time), and apparently more than one 7-figure bet has been laid by confident punters.
But that hasn't stopped the hype machine from doing its job. Watching the fight on pay-per-view or any number of other streaming options (or even on PlayStation) will set you back around $100. Given that around 50 million people are expected to watch the bout, estimated total revenue is in the region of $700 million, of which around $300 million will be shared by the fighters (probably split about $225 million for the winner - Mayweather - and $75 million for the runner-up. Not bad for an evening's work. Live tickets have not been selling as well as expected but, at $1,000 a pop, that is perhaps understandable.
So, why am I even writing about it? Good question. Schadenfreude, perhaps, or just an admission that no-one is safe from hype at this level.
The fight went pretty much as expected, with Mayweather beating McGregor on points in the tenth round, although perhaps McGregor acquitted himself better, and lasted longer, than many had expected.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Let's train police officers to use non-lethal force

I have never understood why our police force ends up killing so many people. I'm not saying these people are entirely innocent of wrong-doing, nor am I saying that the police are a bunch of out-of-control thugs.
But, as Andre Picard pointed out recently, about 40% of those shot to death by police are mentally ill (Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku, etc, etc), and not in complete control of their actions and reactions. Of the rest, most have some control over their anti-social or dangerous actions, and a certain percentage are probably out-and-out career criminals who just don't care about the consequences of their actions or lifestyles.
Police officers dealing with these kinds of violent cases, are on a hiding to nothing. They are supposed to engage these misanthropes, while all the time trying to defuse the situation, only resorting to violence themselves when all else has failed and the risk of injury or death (either to the police officers or to other standers-by) appears imminent. It is a near impossible position to place someone in, and mistakes are likely in such charged and high-stress circumstances. In very few cases, though, is a lethal police response the correct one.
After every such death, studies are carried out and papers are written, almost all of which conclude that police officers need more training to deal with such situations. But surely a big part of the problem is the very fact that the officers are carrying a lethal weapon that they are told to use only in the most desperate of circumstances. Are there really no alternatives?
In the movies, the good guys (and often the bad guys too) regularly shoot with non-lethal tranquilizer guns. The victim is incapacitated almost immediately, but is not killed. Do the real-life police not have access to such a solution? Well, from what I can glean from the internet, apparently not. Tranquilizer guns or darts are used with animals, but they are not instantaneous, especially when the adrenaline is pumping. Then there is the added problem that the dosage used needs to be customized to the size and weight of the assailant (which is clearly not practicable in the circumstances of a live situation), and that reloading, if required, is slow. Some people may also have a fatal reaction to the kinds of tranquilizer drugs that are available.
So, what about tasers? Well, tasers are indeed used on a regular basis, probably more than we think, but tasers too have their drawbacks: they are very slow to reload, they require a good connection of both electrode barbs (something even a partial miss or some thick clothing might prevent), their range is limited to about 6 metres, some people might have a fatal reaction to the charge, etc, etc.
Well then, why can't police officers shoot, but not to kill? Apparently, shooting an assailant's gun or knife out of their hand is the stuff of movies and fiction, and even an experienced marksman cannot achieve such a feat reliably. But I see no reason why they need to aim for the chest or head, when a shoulder or leg would serve just as well (certainly in the case of a knife-wielder, and probably even with a gunman).
But surely there must be other non-lethal options? Well, there are. One website lists several, ranging from "bean bags" (sock-shaped pouches filled with lead, silicone or rubber pellets, fired from a specialized gun), blunt-impact projectiles (silicone- or foam-tipped plastic bullets, also fired from a specialized gun), "pepperballs" (round plastic balls filled with capsaicin powder, fired from a paintball-type gun), "The Alternative" (a metal attachment that fits onto a regular gun that effectively slows down the bullet, making it non-lethal), "The XREP" (a longer-range, more effective, wireless version of a taser), the "ML-12 Less-Lethal Launcher" (a specialized handgun that can fire a range of non-lethal ammunition, including bean-bags, rubber balls, pepper balls, etc), even the military-style "Active Denial System" (a kind of wide-range heat ray that causes instantaneous debilitating pain).
Yes, police officers need more training on asessing and defusing situations and in dealing with the mentally ill. And maybe the good old nightstick or billie club still has a place in a police officer's kit. But if, for these and other reasons, a gun altercation is unavoidable, then let's try shooting to main instead of shooting to kill. At least that would be a step in the right direction. And a serious consideration of some of the available non-lethal options mentioned above might also be a good thing. There is certainly no time like the present to act on this.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total eclipse generating mass hysteria - just like centuries ago

I am somewhat bemused by the mass hysteria that seems to be holding sway south of the border regarding today's total solar eclipse.
Viewing glasses have been sold out for weeks now - as indeed they at here in Canada for our paltry partial eclipse, and every welder is probably enjoying unprecedented popularity right now. The interwebs are rife with advice on how not to fry your cellphone (amd ylur eyes) during this Event of the Century. There are probably more pinhole cameras being hastily constructed right now than ever before.
But the event is also being accompanied by sold-out motels and campsites anywhere the path of the full eclipse; catastrophic traffic jams are being predicted for some of the smaller towns along the eclipse's path; and there are warnings of Wi-Fi outages as excessive Facebook and Instagram uploads occur.
I guess I should happy be that a natural event is garnering so much attention and interests in all walks of life, but it does all seem a little de trop, wouldn't you say. Back in the Middle Ages, such an event used to generate any amount of panic and hysteria - it seems like we have not really progressed so much today.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trump's lies about Charlottesville cannot be allowed to stand

Yes, I know it's been covered ad nauseam on the internet and elsewhere, but this cannot be repeated enough. In Donald Trump's return to his own original script two days ago, in which he condemned the "alt-left" equally with the "alt-right" for the riots, injuries and deaths in Charlottesville this last week, he ... well, he lied.
Trump claims that the anti-white supremacist protestors came with their own violent agenda, that he watched the footage from the day ("very closely, much more closely than you people watched it"), and that "they came charging, with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs".
But, in fact, as eye witnesses confirm, the clubs (and the lit torches and the fists and the pepper spray and the lighter fluid) were being swung by the chanting neo-Nazis. The counter-protestors were almost completely peaceful and defensive in their actions, the only possible exception being a few desperate protestors who were hemmed in around the statue who used fists and pepper spray (sorry, no clubs) in their attempt to escape the melée.
I hate to give Trump more coverage than he deserves, but this needs to be made very clear. The man is shamelessly lying in his attempts to protect the fascists (and, make no mistake, these people are not "alt-right", they are neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan adherents), and he needs to be called out on it, and indeed he has been by both the right and the left.
Incidentally, if you missed it, check out the impressive eulogy made by the mother of slain protester Heather Heyer. Then compare it with Trump's rant.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The weird and wonderful world of electric eels

Here's another in my occasional series about weird and cool animals (see the entry on tardigrades, for example).
Electric eels, it turns out, are not actually eels. They are eel-like in shape, but they are technically a type of knifefish (they have actually been reclassified several times since Linnaeus first classified them back in 1776). What else do we know about them?
  • They grow up to 2 metres in length, and a full-grown adult may weigh up to 20 kilograms. 
  • They can be purple, grey, blue, black or white in colour, and do not have scales like most fish. 
  • They are only found in the Orinoco and Amazon rivers in South America. 
  • They have poor eye-sight but an acute sense of hearing. 
  • They live in water and have gills, but actually breathe air (they surface about every ten minutes or so to breathe). 
  • They are carnivores and eat other fish, small mammals, birds and amphibians (very young electric eels are quite happy to eat unhatched eggs and other eels).
  • They live for around 15 years in the wild, and up to 22 years in captivity.
  • They use three different organs in their abdomens to create electricity (which together make up most of their body mass). Two of these organs are used to shock their prey, the other is used for "electrolocation" (they have frequency-sensitive receptors on their skin that can sense electromagnetic fields).
  • A shock from an electric eel is enough to knock over, but not kill, a human, although it can cause heart attacks in those who are prone to them. The eel itself is insulated, and so immune to its own electricity.
  • There are about 500 other species of electric fish, including electric rays and several species of electric catfish.
Cool or what?

Minimum wage (and almost minimum wage) stats an eye opener

I've already blogged my support for Ontario's proposed increase in the minimum wage from $11.40 to $15.00, and addressed the complaints of some that such a move will bring our whole economy crashing to a grinding halt. But I am still reading regular reports from companies and business types whining that their businesses will be decimated, the latest such being Metro supermarkets' dire warnings that food prices will shoot up overnight.
So, I got to wondering just how many people will be actually affected by the changes. It's difficult to find up-to-date figures (not sure why), but I did find some 2015 stats that throw some light on the subject.
It seems that, in 2015, some 675,500 Ontarians were paid the minimum wage ("or less"), representing about 11% of the entire workforce. I have to say that's way more than I expected, and it's also more than in any other province (both in absolute and in percentage terms). Only PEI and Manitoba come close in percentage terms.
And then there's something else I had never considered before: it's not just minimum wage earners that will be affected - everyone who is paid less than $15 will effectively receive a raise. The same stats tell me that, again in 2015, 1,670,100 Ontario workers earned less than $15 per hour, or a huge 28.6% of the working population. Looked at through this lens, in percentage terms at least, several other provinces (mainly in the Maritimes) are even more reliant on the low-wage economy than Ontario: 38% workers in PEI earn less than $15/hour, 36% in New Brunswick, and about 33% in Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland.
One thing these stats highlight - apart from the blunt fact of the appalling numbers of Canadians who are essentially on the breadline - is that there are more substantially more people earning just above minimum wage than there are who earn the minimum wage itself, something that had never occurred to me before.
Other sources go on to explain that women, young people and the poorly educated are significantly overrepresented in the low-wage sector (which I DID know), and that the industries most affected are food and accommodation (27%) and retail (17%), which comes as no surprise.
Anyway, none of this has changed my opinions on Ontario's proposed legislation. But it certainly is an eye-opener to see the extent of such wage poverty within a wealthy country like Canada, and particularly in the very wealthy part of it in which I live.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My gamified Prius has changed my driving style forever

So, here's some free advertising for Toyota. We recently changed our old Ford Escape Hybrid for a brand spanking new Toyota Prius. It's red. And it's a lot of fun.
The game, of course, is fuel efficiency. I'm not going to the extremes of some "hypermilers", but the Prius' computerized displays definitely gamify the experience. Our old Ford was a 2009 model, so the displays were basic at best. The new Prius - even though it is only the standard configuration and does not boast the upgraded "Technology" or "Touring" packages - is a revelation to me. You can see exactly where the gas goes (sharp acceleration from standing, hills, etc), and it is so much more efficient than the Ford anyway that you can take a positive pleasure in starting off smoothly, keeping within EV mode, and saving lots of gas. And it's interesting to note that, although I start off much slower than the BMW next to me, I usually see it at the next lights anyway...
So, whereas I used to get around 8.5 L/100km (about 33 mpg UK, or 28 mpg US) in the Ford - despite being a hybrid, it was a 2.5L all-wheel drive to be fair - I am now averaging about 4.3 L/100km (66 mpg UK, or 55 mph US). Typical short trips around town, and even some medium-length highway journeys, regularly give me closer to 3.3 L/100km (86 mpg UK, or 71 mph US). On some journeys, I have managed 2.4 L/100km (118 mpg UK, or 98 mph US).
This continues to be an interesting game for now, although I am sure that the novelty will wear off eventually. It has probably changed my driving style forever, though, and I find myself much more likely to drive within the speed limit, and much less likely to race off at the lights.

A couple of weeks later, my average fuel
consumption is down at 3.6 L/100km (78 mpg UK, 65 mpg US), and my single trip record is a pretty impressive 1.9 L/100km (149 mpg UK, 124 mpg US), even though I wasn't actually specifically trying. And the novelty (and the changed driving style) is, I have to say, very much still there.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Make America great again?

Make America great again? How's that going, Donald?

Biggest ever dinosaur now has a name

Remember when the biggest dinosaur was something called brontosaurus, as it was back in the murky past of my own childhood?
Well, for several years, brontosaurus was no longer even called brontosaurus - it was reclassifield and consider a type of apatosaurus, although even more recently it has been re-reclassified as a separate genus containing three different species. Either way, brontosaurus, large as it was, is no longer considered to be the largest of the large, and neither are other names from my childhood like brachiosaurus, diplodocus, etc.
Of course, it depends to some extent on how you measure "big" (length, height, weight, etc), but as paleontologists have continued to toil away in ever more obscure parts of the earth, and new and better modelling techniques revise and refine estimates of the size and weight of the various contenders, a bunch of new names have vied for the title, some of which positively dwarf old brontosaurus: megalosaurus, supersaurus, giraffatitan, futalognkosaurus, elaltitan, turiasaurus, sauroposeidon, paralititan, dreadnoughtus, amphicoelias, puertasaurus, argentinosaurus, etc.
Then, in 2014, a truly massive dinosaur fossil was found in Patagonia, one which is the current favourite for the largest ever land animal. Although parts of its skeleton have been on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York for over a year now (with its head and tail protruding into adjacent rooms, despite the immense size of the display hall), this specimen hit the news again just this week when it finally received an official name: patagotitan mayorum.
Weighing in at about 69 tons, patagotitan mayorum is the largest of the titanosaurs discovered to date, some 10% heavier than the previous record-holder (argentinosaurus) and almost twice as large as brontosaurus and apatosaurus. It grew to about 130 feet long, and lived during the Cretaceous Period, around 101 million years ago.
And, for now at least, it is largest creature ever to walk the earth.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

So, what is this CRISPR thing anyway?

There has been a lot of attention paid to CRISPR - and particularly to the ethics of its use - in the wake of the recent announcement of a successful American experiment to edit the DNA of human embryos.
CRISPR is no longer new technology, but its use in the human genome remains controversial, and this particular study - which involves editing the genes of early-stage, viable, human blastomeres in order to correct for a genetic mutation that often leads to heart failure (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) - pushes the technique past even recent Chinese advances in the field. The edited embryos in this study successfully eliminated the mutation, and also avoided any incidence of "mosaicism" (i.e. where only some of the desired cells are repaired).
This kind of "germ-line editing" (genetic manipulation of embryos, eggs or sperm) is much more contentious than "somatic editing" (genetic manipulation of grown body tissues), largely because of the possibility of introducing errors or leaving "stowaway" mutations that will go on to affect future generations. But this Oregon Health & Science University suggests that successful, eror-free, germ-line editing is in fact quite possible, at least for certain specific heritable disease-causing mutations. Which of course raises the question of "should we?" and, if so, under what circumstances, for which diseases or mutations, etc. The "designer babies" argument and all that.
This is a huge debate for medical ethics, which the serious press is all over at the moment, and I don't have the time or energy to go into it all here. But what I did want to look at, at least briefly, is just what CRISPR actually is, because I think there is a reasonable amount of confusion, or at least misunderstanding, about it.
Part of the confusion is due to the popular media's insistence on calling it a "technology", and the use of the phrase "molecular scissors", which is a useful analogy but not quite accurate. All of this gives the impression of a kind of man-made machine or tool, perhaps something involving nanobots, which is really not the case.
So, without getting TOO technical, what is CRISPR really?
CRISPR is shorthand for CRISPR Cas9. CRISPR is an acronym for "clusters of regularly interspaced small palindromic repeats", specialized sections of DNA that include repeated sequences of nucleotides, interspersed with "spacers" (in the case of bacteria, bits of DNA from viruses that previously attacked the bacteria). So, CRISPR itself, then, is really just bits of bacterial DNA, not too exciting in itself. The "molecular scissors" part is actually the Cas9, a "CRISPR-associated" protein or enzyme that is naturally capable of cutting (chopping up and destroying) strands of foreign DNA by binding to two CRISPR RNA in a "double-stranded break".
Thus, the whole CRISPR-Cas9 process is actually the natural defense mechanism of single-celled bacteria and archaea to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. It was the achievement of a few very clever humans in 2012 to realize that this same simple process could be used to manipulate (or "edit") the genomes of other, more complex, organisms, including humans. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, the bacterial CRISPR-Cas9 process can be used as a kind of tool, effectively tricking a cell's natural DNA repair mechanisms into introducing the required changes (e.g. cutting out genetic mutations that lead to diseases). It is absolutely not a tiny pair of nano-scissors, or a microscopic programmable machine
But it sure is cool.

Google engineer's sacking has opened up the debate on women in computing

The 10-page memo about gender differences that got a Google engineer fired recently has generated a lot of discussion online, and by no means all of it is gender-specific.
Google tries hard to be a progressive company, and it has instituted a affirmative action (positive discrimination) initiative aimed at improving its gender and racial diversity, However, even with this recent push, currently just 20% of its worldwide technology employees (as opposed to admin staff) are female, about 7% were black, and 6% Hispanic, although this is still an improvement from the position just three years ago when these percentages were 17%, 1% and 2% respectively.
Software engineer James Damore's internal memo entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber", which has been leaked and is now available online in full, criticizes these attempts by Google to circumvent what Damore sees as a natural order which is no fault of either men or women.The memo attempts to show, in a more or less scientific way, that gender differences in preferences, psychology and personality - in particular, the ideas that women are more open to feelings, are more interested in people than in things, have a tendency towards gregariousness rather than assertiveness, are more prone to neuroticism and anxiety, and are more concerned with work-life balance than status - are underpinned "in part" by biological differences rather than by socialized responses and institutional sexism. The memo, though, has been publicly slammed by Google's management, including CEO Sundar Pichai, and has even resulted in Damore's termination.
Various responses to the leaked memo and the sacking, such as this one, have concentrated on refuting the science he quotes (via Wikipedia), arguing that Damore cherry-picks his studies, misquotes them, or extracts false conclusions from them. Others, however, like this one by a female scientist in Globe and Mail, suggest that, actually, his science is spot on.
No doubt the debate will rage on, with little hope of a resolution. The various views on affirmative action policies are a whole other subject on which many people will never agree. But I suppose we at least owe Mr. Damore a debt of gratitude for instigating the conversation, and for putting it front and centre in the international media.
There again, Google may have overreacted and overreached itself by firing Damore, in a hasty knee-jerk response that may end up causing it more headaches than the original leaked memo. He was officially fired for "advancing harmful gender stereotypes", a phrase I would be surprised to find anywhere in Google's employee handbook. Apparently, Damore is considering taking legal action for wrongful dismissal, and he may well have a case.
Certainly, even if you disagree with the man, an internal memo espousing unpopular but legal political views is not a sacking offence in any corporate world I know.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

€222 million soccer vanity project

Top French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) have just paid a record-smashing €222 million transfer fee to acquire Brazilian star Neymar from FC Barcelona.
Yes, Neymar is one of the best players in the world, up there with Messi and Ronaldo (and younger than either), but this is more than twice the previous record transfer, Manchester United's acquisition of Paul Pogba last year. To put it in some North American perspective, is is about C$330 million, an amount that would more than cover the combined player payrolls of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs.
PSG are a good team and the addition of Neymar gives them a good chance of winning a major trophy like the UEFA Champions League. Their attendance, sponsorship sales and merchandising will doubtless benefit too. But, unlike in North America where the profit motive rules professional sports, there are other forces at play here.
PSG are owned by Oryx Quatar Sports Investments, which is in turn controlled by Qatari emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, a very rich man fom whom €222 million is not that big a deal. Winning a prestigious soccer trophy would lend Qatar itself some serious prestige in the Middle East, something it desperately wants, mired as it is in an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia. Qatar also needs friends in high places, and France's position on the UN Security Council is a big attraction, and probably a subsidiary motivation in the deal. France also played a major part in helping Qatar secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a controversial decision which is still being talked about. And it doesn't hurt that the Qatari royal family own the company that broadcasts France's Ligue 1 and Champions League games on French television. A tangled web indeed.
But, as much as anything, and completely alien to the North American profit-motivated sports industry, the main impetus for the deal may be simply the glory that a resurgent PSG would reflect on Sheik Tamim. First and foremost, this record-breaking deal at just be a €222 million vanity project.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

Today, August 2nd, is the day in the year when we, as a planet, have officially used a year's worth of the planet's natural resources, hence the label Earth Overshoot Day.
Through overfishing, overharvesting of forests, and the generation of more carbon dioxide than the forests can naturally absorb, we are currently using about 170% of the earth's natural output (i.e. the extent to which it can renew or regenerate), a clearly unsustainable situation.
Yes, this is a slightly artificial and arbitrary measurement of our ecological footprint, one developed by the NGO Global Footprint Network. But it does provide us with a salient reminder of our actions, and all the more so when we look at the trend over the years: 10 years ago we used up 144% of the planet's biocapacity each year; going back to 1963, we only used about 78%. In fact, the tipping point came in about 1970, the last time the earth as a whole was in a more or less sustainable position, and since then our ecological footprint has been accelerating out of control. Currently as much as 60% of this excessive footprint is as a result of our carbon emissions. Cutting our carbon emissions in half would have the effect of pushing back Earth Overshoot Day by as much as three months.
Another interesting graphic produced as part of this report, shows the number of times the ecological footprint of individual countries exceeds the earth's biocapacity. Australia heads this table of shame with a score of 5.2, the USA 5.0, South Korea and Russia 3.4, with Germany, Switzerland, France, UK and Japan all at around 3.0, etc. Canada is not listed but it would probably be somewhere around Australia and the USA. When looked at in terms of their own individual biocapacities, though, South Korea and Japan are far and away the worst offenders, followed by Switzerland, Italy, UK and China, while the USA, Germany and France (and presumably Canada) are much lower down the list.
Anyway, it's an interesting metric, even if not definitive, and kudos to the Global Footprint Network for getting it into the mainstream media.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Scoby - what it is and what you can do with it

Yesterday, I was introduced for the first time to a SCOBY. Not personally, you understand, but through a radio program.
SCOBY, or more usually the lower-case scoby, is actually an acronym, and stands for "Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast". It is a sort of blobby light brown jelly thing, and is mainly used in the production of the currently-oh-so-popular drink, kombucha (kombucha, if it has somehow managed to pass you by, is a flavoured carbonated drink made from fermented sweet green tea).
A scoby is undeniably strange, not to mention gross and almost alien-looking. It sits like a raft on top of the fermenting kombucha, sealing it off and protecting it from the outside air and any undesirable bacteria. It is the living home for the bacteria and yeast that transform sweet tea into tangy and fizzy kombucha, kind of like a coral reef for microbes. It is a natural part of the kombucha brewing process, and a new layer grows on top of the old one each time a new batch is brewed. Over time, it becomes thicker, smoother, and more consistently coloured (although still not exactly appealing to look at).
What is perhaps even weirder is that there is now a whole subculture that has grown up around what to do with your excess scobys. Apparently, they can be added to a smoothie or other blended food, dried and made into a kind of jerky and used as a snack or in salads, made into a candy, used in place or raw fish in sushi, used as a face mask or bandage to help heal the skin from burns or other wounds, fed to pets or chickens, composted or spread on the garden, used in crafts in place of leather, used to make jum tea, etc, etc.
Other sources suggest it can also be used to wash your hair, as a cocktail, to make frozen popsicles, as an all-purpose cleaner around the house, as a foot soak, to ease a sore throat, as a natural pesticide in the garden, etc.
A few less convincing uses are for clothing, lampshades, and as a container for electronics projects.

Sperm counts are tanking in the developed world

There has been debate about it for years, but it now seems definitive that men's sperm counts, at least in the more developed parts of the world, are tanking.
A new high quality study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem indicates that sperm counts for men in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have decreased by an alarming 50-60% between 1973 and 2011. Interestingly, no such decline was found in men from Africa, Asia and South America. On the current trajectory, the developed world may be headed for a scary Handmaid's Tale-type infertility epidemic by around 2060.
Although the study was not able to pinpoint any causes, the fact that the declines are in the developed world (in both the northern and southern hemispheres) suggests that modern developed lifestyles may well be to blame. Whether that relates to air pollution, crop pesticides, or ubiquitous chemicals and agents like Bisphenol A (which has been linked to fertility problems) is not at all clear. Obesity has also been linked to low sperm counts.
Maybe the time has come to move back to the cradle of civilization?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Anthony Scaramucci generates hilarious misattributed lyrics meme

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Quebec Muslim cemetery vote not necessarily a racist reaction

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

A few weeks later, Quebec City Council has stepped up and sold the Quebec Muslim community a parcel of city land adjacent to a Catholic cemetery (and therefore already zoned for burials). So, they now have somewhere to bury their dead and, I guess, all's well that ends well.

Canadian Tories playing with fire when they involve American Republicans

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop peddles all kinds of snake oil

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographical comparisons of Antarctic iceberg

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The worst of the Web, and how it brings out the worst in us

Reading Mike Dover's latest book, Dante's Infinite Monkeys: Technology Meets the 7 Deadly Sins, one could be forgiven for giving up the Internet once and for all. It is basically a book about all the bad things that the Internet makes possible and aids and abets, and it is unabashedly gloomy and negative (on the premise that there are already enough books about how wonderful the Internet is, a premise that is probably the single optimistic one in the whole book).
Dover catalogues the myriad iniquities of the Web using the conceit of the Seven Deadly Sins - Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Sloth, Pride and Gluttony - but it is just a conceit, and a more or less arbitrary and artificial way of dividing the book into chapters. I was aware of many of the nefarious schemes and ruses he enumerates, but seeing them all laid out together paints a particularly bleak picture of the whole system.
  • Greed: The sheer scope and scale of all the greed-fuelled scams, hoaxes and rackets going is quite incredible, and I have never even heard of half of them: Nigerian and Bahamian email scams, keylogging attacks, link-baiting scams, social media scams using fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, phishing, ransomware, cyber-shoplifting, Microsoft service telemarketing scams, stock manipulation, false financial rumours, spoof and ultra-high-frequency stock trading, patent trolls, user data exploitation, illegal online poker and fantasy sports betting, etc, etc. So many different ways to fleece us poor suckers, day in, day out. And this chapter does even touch on the seemingly endless ambitions of various Internet entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, etc.
  • Wrath: Cyberbullying, trolling, swatting, public shaming, online plans for weapons, drone spying - it's all out there, and the anonymous and pervasive nature of the Web can make a simple angry reaction into a potential life-threatening campaign of vitriol that takes on a life of its own (and so-called "keyboard courage" has the effect of making everything even worse).
  • Envy: Thanks to the Internet, we can now keep tabs on the daily lives, salaries, property values and many other aspects of the lives of our friends, enemies and celebrities. Facebook in particular is, as Dover says, an "envy engine", and can lead to clinical depression and worse, especially given that usually we only see one side (the good side) of others, while we are all too aware of our own shortcomings.
  • Lust: Internet porn is a $97 billion industry worldwide and growing, even if only an estimated 10% of users actually pay money for online pornorgraphy. Interestingly, it has been instrumental in the development of Web technology like streaming video, live chat, online payments, malware, spam, domain name hijackers, pop-ups and pop-under, "teledildonics", etc. It has also been blamed for spikes in conditions like erectile dysfunction, relationship anxiety, sex addiction and risky sexual behaviour, and implicated in the spread of taboos like pedophilia, bestiality, rape, etc, and in even the death of romance. Online porn also serves as a major gateway for extortion and identity theft.
  • Sloth: Is the Internet making us lazy? Developments like "txtspk", over-reliance on Google and Wikipedia searches, form autofill, speed-dial, GPS and Google Maps, tweet bombing, Siri, armchair "slacktivism", medical self-diagnosis, spell-check, wholesale plagiarism, decreased participation in outdoor sports, etc, certainly suggest so.
  • Pride: In an environment where anyone can become a celebrity overnight, pride can be seen at work in the ubiquitous selfie (and their enabling outlets like Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc), over-sharing in general, "humblebragging", YouTube sensations with limited talents, self-publishing ebooks, etc.
  • Gluttony: The interface between the Internet and food has led to endless photos of restaurant dishes on Instagram (as well as photos of people eating said dishes, photos of people taking photos of said dishes, etc), as well as phenomena like feeder fetish porn (where people document their unhealthy and extreme eating in order to put on as much weight as possible - apparently some people find this sexy), fat acceptance and activism sites, pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites, etc.
All this is without even going into the murky depths of the Deep Web or Dark Web! And, in a world lurching towards 3-D printing, replication, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, where will it all end? Scary stuff.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The challenges of Ontario highway driving

Having just completed a couple of road-trips in Ontario, in addition to my usual ferrying of my daughter back and forth to university, I feel like I need to vent a bit about some of the challenges and frustrations of highway driving in Ontario.
Driving anywhere has its challenges, but what particularly bugs me here in Ontario is:
  • Left (and centre) lane hogs - most slow drivers (except, to be fair, trucks) tend to gravitate to the centre lane, partly, I think, because they're the same drivers who don't like to keep changing lanes to accommodate traffic joining at intersections (either they are not confident about changing lanes, or are just plain lazy). Some take this a step further and tootle along in the fast lane, apparently completely oblivious of traffic accumulating behind them.
  • In practice, this causes people to have to overtake on the right as well as the left, which is a whole other problem. This is a practice that seems to be accepted here, unlike in Europe where passing on the inside is strongly frowned upon. Certainly, it is potentially more dangerous, and makes driving more stressful, but, well, if that is the local custom, then so be it, I guess.
  • What I am less willing to accept is the habit of weaving in and out of traffic, to the left and to the right, in order to get ahead, and thereby save five seconds on an hour's journey. Now, my assumption is that most of the people that do this are 22 and male, with more testosterone than brains, and their interest is not so much in saving those five seconds, but in experiencing the adrenaline rush and watching the outraged expressions on the faces of old codgers like me. Either way, it needs to stop, and the police force should reassign some of the officers tasked with radar-gun cash-grabs in the city to blitzing this kind of much more dangerous behaviour on the highways. Here endeth today's lesson...
  • It is probably those same testosterone-fuelled twenty-somethings, plus a good number of overpaid, middle-aged, male line managers and sales execs in expensive Lexuses, BMWs and Camaros, that are mainly responsible for tailgating, driving scant metres behind the car in front and trying to intimidate them into moving over (see left lane hogs above). However annoying the left lane hogs are, this is dangerous, annoying and inexcusable, and needs to stop.
  • Which brings me to a really big and fundamental point. The majority of Canadians, in my opinion, drive way too close to the car in front, necessitating constant micro-braking, which has a cumulative domino effect on all the traffic behind, resulting in slow-downs, back-ups and greater potential for fender-benders. This isn't just the curmudgeon and party-pooper in me speaking: I was weaned on European driving, where the traffic goes siginificantly faster than here, but people typically a much leave greater braking distances, and traffic is less stop-go as a result.
  • I hesitate to impugn truck drivers - most of them are pretty responsible drivers, and I would not want their job for the world - but one thing bears mentioning. I know it can often take one truck a long time to pass another, and I know that they have to try and keep up momentum wherever possible, but several times recently I and everyone else have had to wait while a truck starts to overtake another and just doesn't succeed (either it loses momentum on a hill, or overestimates its own power compared to the other). So, several minutes into the manoeuvre, it gives up and pulls over, allowing the frustrated built-up traffic behind to continue. Or maybe it eventually succeeds, after several minutes of traffic disruption, only to be re-overtaken by the very same truck, and whole disruptive dance starts over again. Surely, it can make little or no difference to a truck's ETA whether it arrives just in front of, or just behind, another truck, and a lot of angst and frustration could be avoided for everyone else if it were to just tuck in behind and slipstream a truck going a similar speed. Or maybe it's just that the drivers are just bored out of their skulls and need something (anything) to think about for a while.
  • It would be remiss of me not to mention a common practice that probably leads to more road rage than any other: cars joining the highway at an intersection, or approaching a lane that is soon to discontinue (due to temporary construction work, for example, or a permanent lane reduction), who make no attempt to join the main traffic flow, but blithely continue along a clearly-terminating lane, until (surprise!) there is no room left and they just force their way into the line of traffic, causing everyone else behind them to brake suddenly. It is usually the same Lexus, BMW and Camaro drivers that are to blame here, and the same me-first inconsiderateness and sense of entitlement.
  • A recent intensification and worsening of this issue - I don't remember this being a thing here until just the last few years - is the tendency for drivers in a traffic queue to pull out to the right, into a joining lane which they know will end in 200 metres, or sometimes even onto the hard shoulder, in order to get ahead 10 or 15 car lengths, followed by the same forcing-in and associated braking chain. This used to be a common problem when we lived in Venezuela (a country and culture where common courtesy and a sense of social responsibility were all but completely absent), and I do sometimes find myself wondering whether the Ontarian perpetrators are not actually recent immigrants not yet fully versed in the polite Canadian way of doing things. Or it could just be indicative of a total breakdown in polite society and civilized mores. I don't know which would be a worse, a more depressing, conclusion.
Now, I'm not a perfect driver. I may be a little too aggressive, a little too "European", for some people's tastes (my daughter's, for example), and maybe I go a little too fast. But I don't think I am guilty of any of the above sins, and I am sure that the majority of the courteous drivers here are, like me, driving along with a constant simmering resentfulness and low-level anger that could easily be dissipated by a little thoughtfulness on the part of the average 22-year old male and the average middle-aged male driver of a Lexus, BMW or Camaro.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Renaming Ryerson University would achieve nothing

A certain group of holier-than-thou politicos are campaigning to change the name of Toronto's Ryerson University, on the grounds that it glorifies a 19th century Canadian statesman who, they argue, was instrumental in establishing the reviled residential schools system for indigenous Canadians.
Egerton Ryerson is considered a founding father of Canada. He was a Methodist preacher and missionary, but his main achievements came in the field of education. He campaigned for free, compulsory early education, and set up a professional teacher-training school. He worked for standard school inspections and uniform textbooks. He was essentially, as the plaque under his statue at the University campus says, "founder of the school system of Ontario".
Now, Ryerson, a product of his colonial Victorian times, also believed in all-year live-in schools to teach agricultural skills to native children - what he termed "industrial schools" - although he was not personally involved in setting up the iniquitous system of residential schools that later took hold (unlike Hector-Louis Langevin, whose name was recently pulled from the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office).
As the University's own website puts it: "While Egerton Ryerson supported education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These beliefs influenced the establishment of the Indian residential school system that has had a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada."
It is right and good to be upfront about this aspect of Ryerson's legacy. But it is equally right and good to stress his positive contributions, and revisionism and attempts to expunge him from history are not helpful to.anyone. As an indigenous student at Ryerson has (bravely) commented, "It's the history of the school. You do not have to agree with it, but it is the history of what people back then were thinking. It is a reminder … No one's hands are clean when it comes to the history of Canada". I couldn't have said it better.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Canadian innovations that changed the world

Having just experienced the combined hysteria and ennui of Canada 150, Canada's uneven celebration of 150 years since confederation, I thought I would dip into a book called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier, a book with pretentions almost as bloated as its title.
The preamble to the book makes clear that it lists Canadian innovations, not necessarily inventions. "Innovation" means a change in the nature or fashion of something to make it more useful to more people; "invention", on the other hand, is the act of discovering or finding out, either accidentally or as  a result of search and effort. It also makes clear that the list will almost certainly be controversial and lead to "lively debate".
Anyway, although many of the items listed are well-known Canadian achievements (like the telephone, standard time, insulin, Trivial Pursuits, ice hockey, basketball, poutine, etc), or obscure things I had never even heard of (the flexi-coil air seeder, anyone?), and some were such vague or general concepts that it is hard to attribute them to Canadians or to any particular person or nationality (e.g. canoes, snowshoes, potlatch, etc), some items were nevertheless pretty interesting and eye-opening. For example, did you know that:
  • The electric light bulb was actually invented by Toronto medical student Henry Woodward and hotelkeeper Matthew Evans in 1874 (they did patent the invention, but they couldn't obtain financing to market it, and ended up selling the patent license to none other than Thomas Edison, who refined their design and has taken all the credit for it ever since).
  • Theodore Witte of Chillwack, British Columbia, invented the caulking gun in 1894 after watching a local baker decorating a cake.
  • The radioactive chemical element radon, as well as the process of "atomic recoil" or radioactive decay, were both discovered by Canada's first female nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks in 1901 at McGill University, Montreal (where she worked with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics), and not by Marie Curie as I had always thought.
  • The idea of the dump truck was first thought up and manufactured by Robert Mawhinney from Saint John, New Brunswick, back in 1920.
  • Geologist John Tuzo Wilson of the University of Toronto is credited with first describing the theory of plate tectonics in 1962, something I thought had been figured out a couple of centuries earlier.
  • In 1967, Canadian physicist Richard Taylor (along with a couple of American colleagues at Stanford University who shared his Nobel Prize) was the first to physically demonstrate the existence of fundamental particles called quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons in atoms, and which had only ben theoretically predicted before then.
  • Mike Lazaridis' BlackBerry (not the iPhone, and not some basic model Samsung) became, in 1997, the first digital wireless communications device, capable of exchange text messages over a secure network and syncing remotely with email accounts, as well as making good old-fashioned phone calls.
  • The ship's propeller was apparently invented by the gloriously-named Captain John Patch one day in 1833, thus bringing the age of sail to a close almost overnight, but Nova Scotia at the time had no legal mechanism for registering patents so that Captain Patch's name is all but lost to history.
  • The modern odometer was invented in 1854 by Samuel McKeen, also of Nova Scotia, although at that time it was used on horse-drawn carriages.
  • Henry Taylor of Stanstead, Quebec, built what may have been the first ever horseless carriage - also known as a "steam buggy" or "car" - in 1868 (although the French, Brits, and Germans may disagree), but then, after showing it off at various local fairs for a few years, he grew bored with his invention and dismantled it, leaving the field open to names like Benz, Daimler, Ford, etc.
  • Reginald Fessenden, a little-known inventor from East Bolton, Quebec, apparently invented both radio (in 1900, possibly before Marconi) and television (in 1929, just after John Logie Baird, but completely independently).
  • Torontonian Norman Breakey, who invented the paint roller in 1939, is another example of a Canadian inventor who failed to patent (and profit from) an idea that later went on to sell hugely,thereby sinking into historical obscurity.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the fledgeling United Nations back in 1948, was written by Canadian John Humphrey in his capacity as first director of the United Nations' division of human rights at the time (not an invention as such, but certainly a worthy inovation).
  • Winnipegger Harry Wasylyk developed the plastic garbage bag (later sold under the tradename Glad Bags and other brands), which have made garbage day slightly less unpleasant for millions, but which now clog landfills the world over.
  • The Blue Box system of municipal curb-side recycling pick-ups was the brainchild of Kitchener, Ontario's Nyle Ludolph, and from Kitchener it went on to spread across Canada and the rest of North America, and throughout most of the world.
  • It never occurred to me that road lines were an invention attributable to one individual, but apparently the world's very first dividing lines on roads were painted on a road near the Ontario-Quebec border in 1930, and were an innovation of one John Miller, an engineer with the Ontario department of transport.
  • Peanut butter was invented, not by American botanist George Washington Carver (as many seem to believe) but by a chemist from Quebec called Marcellus Gilmore Edson in 1884, and he has the patent to prove it.
  • Another surprise is that the world's first oil well was dug by James Miller Williams right here in southwestern Ontario in 1857.
  • The heart pacemaker is one of a whole host of biomedical engineering breakthroughs (including the electron microscope, molecular spectroscopy, telesurgery, etc) attributed to Canadians, this one invented by the Toronto physician Wilfred Bigelow.
  • Instant mashed potatoes were first developed by Edward Asselbergs, a chemist at Agriculture Canada in Ottawa in 1960.
  • IMAX films, bigger, clearer and steadier than traditional films, were first developed by a goup of five Toronto filmmakers in 1971.
  • The ubiquitous hookless fastener now known as the zipper was invented in 1913 by Swedish-born Canadian Gideon Sundback, who also created a machine to manufacture the fasteners in St. Catherine's, Ontario.
  • The humble, and highly practical, egg carton was invented by Joseph Coyle in 1911 in Smithers, British Columbia.
  • The world's first functional internet search engine (yes, before Google, Yahoo, even Altavista) was called Archie, and was developed in 1990 by three students at Montreal's McGill University.
  • And, finally, who knew that the synthesizer traced its roots back to Canadian physicist Hugh Le Caine, whose "electronic sackbut" of 1937 was the first electronic music synthesizer.
So, this is a book aimed at stroking the fragile egos of Canadians. It tries to give the impression that Canadians are a uniquely resourceful and inventive bunch, and often that it is the land itself that causes this in some way, but I'm sure that the same book written in Italy or Germany or Japan would be just as impressive and twice as thick.
It tells many poignant stories of Canadian creativity overwhelmed by rapacious European and American commercialism, although I have a suspicion that many of the important advances listed here that became overshadowed by other, better-known discoveries elsewhere, may not have been exactly comparable, or maybe were independently developed after the better-known gadget - yes, history is written by the victors, but I have to assume that there is probably a good reason why the world does not know names like Reginald Fessenden and Henry Woodward.
Maybe this is just Canadian excessive modesty, another trait we are known for, but it's probably not a bad thing to be wary of tub-thumping and self-congratulation. Ingenious is an interesting read, nevertheless.