Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wanted: bilingual indigenous female western judge for Supreme Court duties

With the imminent retirement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has two big decision to make by December 15th, decisions that will affect the administration of justice in this country for years to come. He needs to appoint a new judge to replace Justice McLachlin on the 9-person top court, and he also need to appoint someone to take over her role as Chief Justice.
Trudeau doesn't necessarily need to steer the court in a "liberal direction" - even Stephen Harper's appointees were relatively liberal in their outlook (as he found to his own chagrin), and Canadian judges tend to be much less political than American ones. But the Prime Minister is hamstrung and constrained by decades of precedent, tradition and convention.
Traditionally, the court has to have three members from Quebec, three from Ontario, one from Atlantic Canada and two from the West (of which one should really be from British Columbia). Note that this is just a tradition, not a legal requirement, presumably roughly based on populations at the date of confederation. If it were to be based on the relative provincial populations today, the regional representation would be more like: four from Ontario, two from Quebec, one from British Columbia, one from Alberta, and half each from the prairie provinces and the Atlantic provinces (meaning, presumably, an alternating arrangement). But Mr. Trudeau tampers with tradition at his own political risk, and he is under a lot of pressure to appoint a Westerner, preferably from British Columbia (which is where the retiring Ms. McLachlin is from). Added to that, the appointee should be female, to maintain the approximate gender balance of the court (four women and five men), and she should be functionally bilingual or at least fluent in French, because Canada has two official languages. You can see that the pool of eligible candidates is already starting to look smaller and smaller.
Then there is also pressure to appoint an indigenous judge, something Canada has never seen, and that really dries up the pool. There is no convention that dictates this pressure, but Mr. Trudeau clearly sees himself as a champion of indigenous rights, and this would be a perfect opportunity to earn some serious Brownie points on the issue. Highly qualified indigenous candidates, though, are few and far between. Two or three possible names have been put forward: John Borrows, who is a member of Ontario's Chippewa First Nation, although he has lived and worked in BC for some years (he has spent the last year learning French on a sabbatical in Quebec, but is definitely not bilingual, and definitely not female); Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who comes from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, but has worked in BC for the last ten years, although not as a practising judge but as a Representative for Children and Youth (she is bilingual, and is definitely female); and Todd Ducharme, who is a Métis Ontario Superior Court justice, but has worked in all three Territories, and who is considered an outsider in the race.
None of the candidates tick all of the boxes, so somebody somewhere is going to have their nose put out of joint, and there will be complaints from some quarters whatever Mr. Trudeau decides.
As for appointing a new Chief Justice, these are usually chosen from the remaining sitting justice of the Court, but again convention comes in to play: Chief Justices almost always alternate between a judge from Quebec and one from the rest of the country. So, in theory, it should be a Quebecker this time, although the Prime Minister's father Pierre Trudeau did dare to make an exception to that rule some thirty-odd years ago. Ms. McLachlin is well-loved and respected, and is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone.
Tricky decisions, and Mr. Trudeau cannot fail but offend someone somewhere. And almost nowhere in these considerations does the requirement for the best and most experienced candidate appear. Convention and tradition appears to trump all.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Should we throw out the good art with the bad artists?

Globe and Mail arts critic Russell Smith, always an interesting and challenging commentator, has produced a particularly brave and provocative piece in today's paper.
In it, he asks whether we should ignore or shun works of arts - be they in the sphere of film, literature, painting or indeed any artistic field of endeavour - just because the creative force behind it was criminal, immoral, offensive, or just plain politically incorrect. It's a perennial thorny problem, but all the more pertinent in recent days with the ongoing revelations of the sexual assaults and inappropriate habits of filmmakers, media personalities and prominent sportsmen. Smith, though, holds nothing back, and comes out swinging.
He begins by asking whether we should blacklist the sublime work of Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini on the grounds that the artist was a double murderer and probably a rapist. What about Caravaggio (also a murderer)? Egon Schiele (abuser of teenage girls), Marquis de Sade (rapist), Ezra Pound (anti-Semite), Martin Heidegger (Nazi sympathiser), etc, etc? Should Adolf Hitler's youthful watercolour paintings be destroyed? What, then, about art by more or less good people on unpalatable subjects, like some of the films of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, uncomfortable books like Nabokov's Lolita, or the performance art of Zhu Yu, who photographed himself eating what is purportedly a human fetus?
Does it make a difference if the artist gains financially from his or her art? We then get into the realm of filmmakers with checkered pasts like Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al. Some of these people will probably never make a film again (although some seem to perennially escape public censure). But should their back catalogue be destroyed as well? Should they effectively be erased from history?
Russell Smith takes the outspoken view that art is completely divorced from the personal life of the artist. Indeed, he goes further to say that he actively seeks out art by bad boys. He argues that we should be curious to see how beauty is perceived by a violent person, and that great art is often about badness, at least in part. He further asserts that, by "consuming" art, we are not necessarily perpetuating the ideas behind it, or validating the beliefs of the individuals who created it. He positively expects that good art be about moral danger, that art should be troubling and uncomfortable, even unpleasant, that it is there to challenge the viewer, not just to be "enjoyed".
This is probably an extreme, purist view of the sanctity of Art-with-a-capital-A, and I'm not even sure that I subscribe to it. But kudos to Smith for having the cojones to publicly espouse it, particularly in the current charged environment.

Is the word "marijuana" racist?

I was at a talk recently on the purported beneficial effects of medical marijuana for Parkinson's Disease sufferers. It was an interesting enough exposition of the various products available, how to obtain them here in Ontario, and what benefits there may be for PD sufferers (not much, it seems, unless you have a good deal of pain, cramps, or severe sleep problems).
But what really struck me was the speaker's branding of the name "marijuana" as "racially charged" and to be avoided, in preference for "cannabis". She effectively said that we were being racist to use the word "marijuana", which made no sense to me. Since then, a Hamilton councillor has publicly vowed to stop using the word marijuana because of its race connotations, creating something of a firestorm of comments on the subject.
Now, the plant has any number of common labels (pot, weed, dope, ganja, hemp, herb, hashish, reefer, bud, etc, etc), and I had always assumed that marijuana and cannabis were just two more such labels, albeit slightly more "official", correct or formal ones. Well, it turns out there is a whole lot of rather unsavoury history behind the use of the word "marijuana", which does not apply to the word "cannabis".
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the plant (and its various derivatives) was almost exclusively referred to in North America as cannabis (which is the proper Latin name of the genus, the most common species being Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis), or sometimes hemp (after its popular industrial use). After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, up to a million Mexican immigrants and refugees flooded north, leading to a good deal of hostility, discrimination and prejudice among the locals, and the Mexican peasants' drug of choice, at least at this time, was cannabis, rather than the more socially-acceptable American drug of alcohol.
Some of the more Machiavellian American lawmakers and organs of the press, made use of the widespread dislike and fear of the incoming Mexicans by exaggerating their iniquities and dangers, and also by conflating the Mexican crime-wave with their pot-smoking habits. The idea was to use the Hispanic label marijuana or marihuana to demonize Mexicans, and to underscore that the dangerous habit of smoking marijuana was a Latino, even a specifically Mexican, vice. Sensationalist stories of pot-crazed Mexicans carrying out horrific crimes abounded in the early decades of the 20th century, peaking during the prohibition mentality of the 1920s and 1930s. A 1925 New York Times headline was typical: "Mexican, crazed by marihuana, runs amuck with butcher knife". Interestingly, such accounts were also quite common in Mexico, where there was also a prohibition movement around this time.
It's not even entirely clear where the Mexican word marihuana came from in the first place (the spellings marihuana and mariguana were used interchangeably, and it was only later that the word was Anglicized - or perhaps "Spanishized" - to "marijuana" in America). The plant was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, but mainly for use as hemp and not for its drug properties. It has been cultivated all over the world, though, and there are at least three theories about where the name marihuana came from: the Chinese phrase for cannabis, ma ren hua; the African Bantu word for the same plant, makaña; and the colloquial Spanish word for "Chinese oregano", mejorana. Take your pick.
Particularly important in the trend for using "marihuana/marijuana" as a pejorative term in America was Henry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was a zealot on a crusade to ban any and all intoxicants, from alcohol to cocaine to opium to cannabis. He used his 1937 congressional hearing testimony to establish the largely spurious connection between cannabis and crime, and to popularize the use of the Spanish label marihuana to refer to this Mexican "killer weed". At one point, he stated, rather disingenuously, "We seem to have adopted the Mexican terminology, and we call it marihuana", thus helping to associate this name with the plant's recreational use (as opposed to its medical or industrial applications), and particularly to its criminal Mexican reputation. He went on to link poor black people, jazz musicians, prostitutes and the criminal underworld, among whom cannabis was also a popular recreational drug: "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use ... this marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others". And, just for good measure, here is another gem from Anslinger: "Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men … the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races." Ouch!
Whatever its history, marijuana remains one of the most universally recognized and used term for the herb in the English-speaking world. Its history is clearly seeped in race and iffy politics to some extent. But is not in itself a racist term, and, moreover, the label predates this embarassing episode in American racist propaganda. It is merely the latest example of the politically correct language revisionism that is currently going on in Canada (see the article on UoT's attempts to ban the word "master" for another such example), a trend that I confess I am not entirely comfortable with. Do we need to start saying "the M-word"? Are Mexicans and blacks now the only people who can say "marijuana" in polite society? Aren't we over this by now, and hasn't the word lost its prejudiced bite?
Now, I am not black or Latino, and I know that I have had a very different life experience. But I have at least tried to put myself - hypothetically, of course - in their position, and I'm afraid I still don't see such things as that important in the scheme of things. Maybe I'm just insensitive, or maybe I have just signally failed to put myself in a black person's position, to see things more from their perspective. I don't know. It just seems to me that there are much more important things we should all be doing and thinking about to combat systemic racism than these kinds of diversions.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Loblaws signs up for Tesla electric delivery trucks

Good old Loblaws is doing its bit and ordering 25 of Tesla's new Semi all-electric delivery trucks, even though they are not even expected to start shipping until 2019 at the earliest, and the final price tag is still not clear.
I have always wondered why so little attention has been paid to making trucks more efficient and climate-friendly, when so much progress is being made in the field of electric cars. Not many people are aware of it, but delivery and freight trucks generate a surprising (and increasing) proportion of our greenhouse gases, almost as much as cars. It is rare to even hear mention of it, but Tesla, perhaps predictably enough, seem to be on top of the problem.
The Tesla Semi truck promises to save companies a substantial amount of money in the long run, even if the initial price will almost certainly be high. However, at this point, we only have Tesla's word to go on. The truck will have a 500 mile range, and it will boast faster acceleration, a much lower drag coefficient, and make much less noise, than conventional diesel trucks. Tesla has also tweaked the whole design of a truck, making them easier to get in and out of, allowing the driver to stand fully in the cab if needed, centring the driver's seat in the cab (there is a removable jump seat if needed), and adding in a whole host of fleet management, trip logging and routing tools, as well as not one but two touch screens. Indeed, they seem to have thought of just about everything, and its specs are impressive. It even looks cool.
Loblaws is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps in ordering the trucks - Wal-Mart has already ordered 15 as a trial - and all credit to them. Like Wal-Mart, Loblaws has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plan, and it hopes to have a fleet of at least 350 electric trucks operational by 2030. Go, Loblaws!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Carding? Street check? Well-being check? Racial profiling? Who knows?

Matthew Green, Hamilton's lone black councillor is kicking up a fuss after being questioned by the police while waiting for a bus in the city's downtown. Mr. Green sees the exchange as an example of racial profiling or "carding". The police are claiming that it was just a regular "well-being check", a regular and necessary part of normal policing.
The police officer in question is being charged with "discreditable conduct" under the Police Services Act, for conducting an "arbitrary or unjustified" street check against Mr. Green. It is alleged that the questioning was aggressive (at least until Mr. Green mentioned that he was a city councillor), and that he felt "psychologically detained" by the exchange. The lawyer acting on behalf of the police officer points out that the officer was in his cruiser, some 8-12 metres away, and that he thought Mr. Green appeared suspicious, standing as he was in a puddle of mud near a judge and near a group home. Mr. Green counters that he was just checking emails and waiting for a bus.
There are clearly some issues of fact to be sorted out here. But all sides will be watching the case closely for its implications on the difference between a street check and a well-being check, and on how the new Ontario regulations on street checks (introduced earlier this year) are being implemented.
Between 11% and 14% of street checks in Hamilton are done on black people, a demographic which makes up just 3% of the population, proof, activists claim, that racial profiling is still rampant. Similar stats and similar claims are regularly quoted elsewhere too. But I always wonder, when I see such assertions, what are the relevant percentages for the numbers of people hanging around on street corners at 2 o'clock in the morning? Now, I'm not saying that black people are specifically disposed to al fresco inner city nocturnal assemblies - although they may well be (or not) for all my paltry experience of urban nightlife goes - and neither am I saying that all black people are criminals. But the police obviously tend to focus on times and places where experience tells them that crimes are often committed.
Don't get me wrong: the Hamilton incident occurred in late afternoon, not at 2 o'clock in the morning. But I've no reason to believe, perhaps in my naivety, that the Hamilton police officer would not also have challenged a white guy in the same situation.

How "terrific" came to mean "terrific"

I've often wondered why the word "terrific" came to mean something good. "Horrific" still retains its original (unfavourable) meaning, as does "terrible". Why, then, has "terrific" come to mean "great" or "wonderful"?
Back in the day, "terrific" did in fact mean "frightening" or "terror-inducing", similar to "terrible". It was first used as such in the mid-17th century - it appears in Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667 - and was occasionally still used in this original context into the early 20th century.
In the 19th century, though, its meaning began to gradually change, through a process of semantic shift or, more specifically, amelioration, where a previously bad word takes on a good connotation ("tremendous", "awesome", "luxury" and "wicked" are a few other examples). Thus, by the early 19th century, there was already evidence of "terrific" being used to mean "severe" (as in "a terrific headache") or "very great" (as in "a terrific thunderclap"). This probably arose out of poetic exaggeration or hyperbole (i.e. so painful or so loud that it was actually terror-inducing). Gradually, it came to be used, by the 1870s and 1880s, to indicate intensity in general, and to be applied to positive experiences like "terrific beauty" or "terrific joy". From there, it is not such a great leap to its modern-day meaning.
All part of the terrific (in all its senses) English language.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Are you one of the Canadian 1%?

Statistics Canada has just released new data on what it takes to be considered part of the 1% in Canada.
The threshold for 1%-dom in 2015 was earnings of $234,700, up from $227,100 in 2014. There were 270,925 such individuals in Canada (the biggest increases over the previous year coming in Ontario and British Columbia). If you are interested in being part of the 0.1% Club, you would need to earn $826,800, and there were 27,095 others in the club. Aiming for the 0.01%, the top 10,000th of earners? The threshold was $3,636,000 in 2015, and you would be in the rarefied company of 2,710 other tax filers.
Well, all of this puts me well away from danger of being a 1%-er in wealthy Canada, although I am probably still a 1%-er worldwide (at least in terms of accumulated wealth, rather than annual earnings), which is a much lower hurdle, and has cheaper club fees.
The other interesting factoid coming out of the StatsCan data is that the top 1%'s earnings as a share of Canadian national total income actually took a little hop in 2015, to 11.2%, after remaining stable for a few years at just under 11%. To be fair, this was the last year of Stephen Harper's Conservative administration, and it is to be hoped that, in the last couple of years under the Liberals, this has fallen. But we are still going to be a long way from the 7% levels of thirty years ago.

When is a coup not a coup?

When it is in accordance with the will of the people, perhaps? After 37 long years of chaotic, despotic and largely unpopular rule, 93-year old President Robert Mugabe is currently under house arrest by the Zimbabwe military. With the economy in tatters, unemployment rampant, and human rights violations a regular part of daily life, Zimbabwe has clearly limped along under Mugabe for far too long, and change is long overdue. But a coup?
Top army general Constantino Chiwenga and the military insist that this is not a coup, merely what some are describing as a "bloodless correction of gross abuse of power", and that they will soon return the country to "a dispensation that allows for investment, development and prosperity" (i.e. not necessarily democracy). But others have called this merely "putting lipstick on the pig": the President some of his senior ministers and possibly his wife, are all under arrest; military police and tanks are on the streets of Harare; the state television company has been seized - yes, it's a coup (albeit largely bloodless), whatever kind of a spin you like to put on it.
As far as can be discerned at this early point, the military have chosen this moment to act against a perennially unpopular and increasingly erratic leader mainly because Mugabe has been showing distinct signs that he intends for his wife, the equally disliked Grace Mugabe (disliked by both the people and the military), to take over the reigns of state. With this in mind, he recently dismissed his vice-president and once putative successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close ties to General Chiwenga and the military, on flimsy charges of plotting to overthrow him through witchcraft(!) This was just the latest of Mugabe's increasingly frequent crackdowns on political dissent, but the speculation in relation to this particular action was that he would then appoint his 52-year old wife as vice-president, with a view to grooming her for the leadership.
Thus is a once-admired liberation leader brought down: partly due to his own arrogance and hubris, and partly due to the machinations of his overly ambitious young wife. It's kind of like a Greek tragedy.
Mnangagwa's whereabouts are currently unknown, but it seems likely that he may well be installed as transitional leader, which will probably not help the country much: 75-year old Mnangagwa is a fellow veteran of Zimbabwe's war of independence, and has his own well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. He is also accused of masterminding various atrocities during the country's civil war, as well as attacks on opposition supporters.
Mnangagwa would probably be the closest thing to business-as-usual that the army can stomach. There is even a possibility that Mugabe himself can sweet-talk his way into staying in power, at least as a ceremonial figurehead if nothing more (he is currently reported to be in talks with the army over his future). There is technically an opposition party in Zimbabwe - the Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) was established in 1999 - and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai has come out swinging, calling for Mugabe to resign immediately. Tsvangirai was defeated by Mugabe in the 2013 elections, in a poll that, like many before it, was marred by violence and (largely unproven) allegations of rigging. Tsvangirai and war veteran leader Christopher Mutsvangwa have both just flown in from South Africa to insert themselves into the swirling chaos that is Zimbabwean politics.
So, coup? I guess so. But definitely a popular coup. At this point the people will take any change over more of Mugabe. Public dissent has been conspicuously absent, and there have even been celebrations and dancing in the streets of Harare - not the usual response to an army coup. Most people are just breathing a sigh of relief that Mugabe has been taken out of the equation (or has he? don't rule him out just yet). As with the Egyptian coup against Mohamed Morsi in 2013, it is a crying shame that democracy has to take a back seat to power politics. But sometimes, it seems, democracy needs just a little shove.

Iceland's recipe for teen success

Here's a fascinating glimpse into social engineering in one country. Twenty years ago, Iceland had a huge problem with underage drinking, smoking and drug-taking. Over the last 20 years, though, the country (and, in particular, its capital Reykjavik, where the vast majority of the country's population lives) has completely turned the situation around, and changed from Europe's worst to Europe's best. In 1998, 42% of 15-16 years old routinely got drunk; now that percentage is 5%.
So, how did they achieve this? Well, it's a pretty draconian recipe, but you have to admit it has been effective:
  • Firstly, they brought in a curfew whereby all children under 16 must be indoors by 10pm, a curfew that is often policed by voluntary groups of parents ranging the streets after dark.
  • Parents sign a pledge to control their children's drinking and to increase family time, and groups of parents get together to agree rules for their children's behaviour.
  • School children get a $500 voucher each year for after-school activities, particularly sports (one politician credited the program for Iceland's surprising soccer success as well as their international success in pop music).
  • All teens have to fill in a detailed Youth In Iceland survey every year, which covers aspects like their relations with their family, their feelings, and their habits, the results of which are reported back to the local communities and schools so that they can see what needs to be addressed. This evidence-based approach is seen as key to the program's success.
  • They got their politicians actively involved in the process, and took measures to fund the program effectively (for example, Reykjavik spends over $100 million a year on youth activities).
One parent joked, "we are a boring country", but you can see that the Icelandic people are actually pretty proud of what they have achieved. Now, 35 other cities across Europe are adopting programs based on the Icelandic experience to address their own teen problems. All in all quite impressive, although I really can't see it working in a city the size of Toronto.

How effective is mandatory sensitivity training for judges?

As yet more Canadian judges are being accused of a less than fair and sensitive approach to sexual assault cases, there are increasing calls for mandatory training in such cases for ALL judges, not just newly-appointed ones as is currently the case, and a bill is being introduced in the Ontario legislature to that effect.
I have to say, though, that I don't have much confidence that this kind of sensitivity training is likely to have much effect on the type of people we are talking about here. Just imagine a judge who is capable of suggesting that a victim should have kept her knees together or that she was probably flattered by the attentions of her attacker attending sensitivity training. At the very least, I can imagine a good deal of eye-rolling and yawning.
Sure, it can't do any harm, and it may be a reasonable first step, but don't expect it to change the philosophies of these dinosaurs overnight. Probably more effective is the kind of public shaming Justice Camp received after his bad behaviour. But then public shaming is not considered very politically correct either these days, is it?

Ontario still taking advantage of omnibus bills

The issue of omnibus bills raises its hoary head once again, this time in Ontario provincial politics. The ruling Liberals have introduced a bill that combines two entirely unrelated issues: a bill to clamp down on drivers illegally passing school buses, with new cannabis legislation.
Now, why would they do that? The Conservatives call it a "blatant and dishonest a use of the legislative process"; the Liberals counter that "this is just conspiracy thinking", claiming that it is merely a way of a getting a busy legislative agenda through to a final vote in an expedient manner.
I hate to say it, but I'm with the Conservatives on this. This kind of convenient bundling is inexcusable, and the Bill should be split up into its it's constituent parts so that each issue can be voted on independently. Or, at the very least, the speaker should have the power to split up voting in such combined bills, as is now the case at the federal level.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"So" - a little, annoying, but defensible word

So, the little word "so" is apparently becoming a bit of a bugbear for some people.
I refer to the use of the word "so" at the beginning of a sentence or explanation or story. I don't think anyone objects to its use within a sentence as a conjunction or "discourse connective" - along with words like "and", "or", "but", "because", etc. In this context, it means "therefore" or "with the result that" or "in order that". Neither are people objecting to its use as an adverb, meaning "to such a great extent". In these contexts, it is a terse and economical alternative to a much longer phrase.
What people are complaining about is the use of "so" at the start of a sentence, where it does not relate to anything that has gone before. In this context, it is known as a "discourse marker", other examples being "oh", "well", "now", "then", "you know" and "I mean", and it has to be admitted that they don't actually add anything to the substance of the sentence. They are a kind of conversational affectation, I suppose.
Now (see what I did there?), it has to be said that most of the people who are doing the complaining are Brits. I am aware that I use it quite a lot myself - me, who would never consent to intersperse extraneous "like"s into my conversation! - and when I visit family in England it has been commented upon. It is clearly something I have picked up in Canada, and I have noticed many times my friends and acquaintances here using it (and, I must confess, it has never particularly annoyed me).
I kind of see it as a way of marking the beginning of a story or explanation or personal narrative. It sets the stage for an extended conversational interlude or monologue or even a snippet of gossip. It gathers the attention of the other person(s), and it prepares them for a shift or a new topic in the conversation. "So" - shifts in position, leans forwards confidentially - "this is the way I see it..." So (in the conjunctional sense), you could say that it does serve a purpose of sorts. But equally, I have to admit, most times it could be omitted with nothing lost. I'm not convinced, though, that it really merits the complaints of an irate British public (c.f. "get a life").

Nine ways to save the world

15,364 eminent scientists have published an open letter to the world - the most scientists ever to co-sign a published journal article - in which they detail the things we need to attend to in order to avoid global catastrophe. What they suggest is simple and straightforward, and for the most part common sense. But it is nice to have it set out in such a clear and concise form, and we should sit up and take note (and, ideally, act upon in, with some sense of urgency).
So what are their nine calls to action?

  1. Control our fertility - limit our reproduction to "replacement value at most" (i.e. one or two kids per family).
  2. Eat better and waste less food - given the environmental impact of current food production, we should waste less and move towards "mostly plant-based foods".
  3. Buy green - we need to pay more attention to tbe overall environmental impact of everything we buy, not just food.
  4. Appreciate and engage with nature - this is particularly important for city dwellers, and should include outdoor nature education for children.
  5. Make our economies more equitable and environmentally aware - move to reduce wealth inequality and ensure that prices and taxation take into account all environmental externalities.
  6. Establish more nature reserves - to protect all animals in the sea and fresh water, in thr land and in the air, and make sire they are well-funded and well-managed.
  7. Stop wiping out whole ecosystems - like forests, grasslands and other native habitats, and work to re-wild some existing ones and to restore native plant communities.
  8. Stop wiping out animal species - avoid a sixth mass extinction by controlling poaching and the exploitation and trading of threatened species.
  9. Invest in and adopt green technologies - including renewable energy sources, and stop subsidizing older dirty technologies like coal, oil and gas.

Wise words to save a planet indeed. And, as I mentioned, simple and straightforward. But easy? Not so much.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Can we blame smartphones for our teen suicide epidemic?

We're currently going through something of an epidemic of teen suicides, and related symptoms. And the most likely reason might surprise you.
In the five short years between 2010 and 2015, the number of American teens who felt useless and joyless (classic symptoms of depression) spiked by 33%, teen suicide attempts increased by 23%, and teens between 13 and 18 years old who actually succeeded in committing suicide increased by 31%. This is affecting teens from every background, rich or poor, black or white, and in all geographical areas (this research is American, but I'm guessing that things are not dissimilar in any developed country).
So, what was causing such a drastic deterioration in teen mental health during a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment? Income inequality continued to rise during the period, but no more so than before. Academic pressures piled up on kids, but again this was nothing new , and teens spent hardly any more time on homework than they did before.
The study authors pinpointed the most likely cause on the boom in teen smartphone ownership among teens during this period. In 2015, 73% of teens owned and used a smartphone, up from less than 50% just three years earlier. So, the spike in teen depression and suicide is closely mirrored by the use of smartphones.
This is not in itself evidence of a causal link, but further research shows that the length of time that teens spent online was linked to mental health issue: teens who spent five or more hours a day online (and there are more than you might think!) were 71% more likely to exhibit at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan, and attempting suicide). Now, being cautious, this does still not prove causality. But the evidence does not stop there. Two studies have shown that social media uses causes unhappiness, but that there is no causal link the other way around (i.e. unhappiness does not lead to increased social media use), and another study showed how giving up Facebook for just a week resulted in fewer feelings of depression.
Maybe all of this still does not amount to bullet-proof evidence of causality, but it is all part of a mounting body of evidence. And it kind of makes intuitive sense: for teens, more smartphones = more time on social media = less time interacting face-to-face with real friends and acquaintances (social isolation is a known major risk factor for suicide, and face-to-face social interaction is well proven to be a source of happiness and emotional wellbeing). Add to this another equation - more cellphone time = less sleep = more depression - and the picture starts to make a whole lot of sense, even if the research is not definitive.
Of course, what can be done about the problem, if problem it is, is another matter entirely. The smartphone genie is well and
truly out of the bottle (the cat is out of the bag, the can of worms is opened, etc, etc).

Saudi Crown Prince taking his cues from the Trump family?

It seems to me no coincidence that Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia just days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent ill-advised and contentious moves at home, in Yemen and in Lebanon, moves that have alarmed the international community, and further destabilized an already rocky region.
The fiery and impulsive young 32-year old prince has clearly taken a hard line in Saudi Arabia's perennial war of influence against Iran. His role in cutting off already hard-pressed Yemen from the world, his probable involvement in the chastisement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and his recent purge of princes, officials, businessmen and military officers (involving the detention of over 200 people and the freezing of 1,200 bank accounts in a sweeping ""anti-corruption" probe), all seem pretty clear. And his headstrong, devil-may-care, act-first-think-later approach is so much like that of a certain American president is surely no coincidence.
Trump himself is, for reasons that remain vague to me, adamantly anti-Iran, and is, probably for that reason alone, doggedly pro-Saudi in all his pronouncements. He strongly endorsed the corruption crackdown on individuals who he accused of "milking" the regime for years. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, has been much more guarded in his comments.
It is looking as though the Prince has overreached himself, though, and he is now frantically backpedalling in the face of sharp criticism from human rights, humanitarian and aid agencies, from the United Nations as a whole, and even from the USA itself. Thus, al-Hariri is returning to Lebanon with a markedly more conciliatory tone than before being summoned to Riyadh; Yemen's shuttered airports and seaports are to be reopened; and Saudi Arabia's UN ambassador has promised that those arrested in the anti-corruption purge will be granted due legal process.
Perhaps the Saudis will take this as a wake-up call that a Trump-style approach is not necessarily advisable or acceptable, that the US administration is not just Trump (and Kushner) alone, and that they still need the goodwill of the international community not just a few American mavericks.
As for what Kushner and the other senior White House advisors who visited Riyadh recently actually talked about, well, like so many of these things, we'll probably never actually know. But Trump's modus operandi was all over the Crown Prince's cack-handed machinations of recent weeks.

Canada's racial earnings gap is not due simply to discrimination

There was an interesting article about the widening racial earnings gap in Canada in today's business section. When I spotted that it was written by a C.D. Howe Institute staffer, I was immediately suspicious and on guard for bias, but it is at least written by an immigrant (born and educated in Iran), even if not a particularly visible one.
So, yes, according to the stats, the earnings gap between Caucasian and non-Caucasian is growing, as the Canadian workforce and its population as a whole becomes more diverse, although only very slightly: visible minorities earned just 81.2% of what "non-visible minorities" earned in 2015, down from 83.8% in the year 2000. And this is clearly not a good thing. But Ms. Mahboubi delves further into the stats in order to unpack these bare figures a little.
It seems that discrimination is not necessarily the major player here, even if it almost certainly plays some part. Place of birth, education, language fluency, work experience and occupation all have an influence on the earnings outcomes of visible minorities. For example, immigrant visible minorities earn substantially less  than Canadian-born visible minorities. Some four-fifths of immigrants to Canada are visible minorities, and they arrive facing challenges like language barriers, lack of Canadian work experience, and lack of recognition of foreign education and experience, all of which necessarily affect their employment prospects. Interestingly, even immigrants with apparently good educations often lag behind Canadians in both literacy and numeracy skills.
Studies differ as to whether visible minorities who live in cities - and bear in mind that 56% of Canada's visible minorities live in just three cities, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal - benefit or suffer vis a vis earnings. Earnings disparities also vary substantially between different ethnicities: for example, Chinese employment earnings are 91% of non-visible minority earnings, while black earnings are as little as 73% (the main visible minority groups in Canada are South Asian: 25%, Chinese: 21%, and Black: 16%).
Canadian immigration is set to increase in the coming years in order to maintain long-term economic growth in a rapidly-ageing demographic, and most Canadians are on-board with that. The visible minorities earnings gap problem needs to be addressed (as does the gender earnings gap). But let's not pretend it is a simple problem of racial discrimination.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Professor Peterson's crusade against postmodernism

The controversial University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, is a strange body, to be sure.
Professor Peterson is well known for his beliefs that the university's teaching staff and students are dominated by Marxist, socialist and postmodern ideas. He already has an online video empire, through which he makes thousands of dollars out of criticising the university's system, and he has been accused multiple times of encouraging the harassment of his critics through tweets and social media postings. His extra-curricular speaking engagements are frequent flashpoints for campus protests.
Now, he is threatening to launch a website that would specifically identify faculty and course reading lists that are what he calls "postmodern" (read, "leftist"). And "threatening" is the word, because even he admits that it could lead to chaos and possibly even violence. A similar website in the USA has resulted in death threats to at least one professor who was flagged as harbouring a "radical agenda".
Now, I know: that is the USA, this is relatively sensible Canada. But there are plenty of unstable, right-wing wackos here too. The university's faculty association claims that the project would create "a climate of fear and intimidation" and a "threat to ... the academic mission of the University", and has taken the unprecedented step of calling for an emergency meeting with the school's Provost over the issue. UoT's Women and Gender Studies Institute warns that the establishment of such a website would present "a serious case of harassment, fostering unsafe work and study conditions for students, faculty and staff". Peterson himself admits, "I've had qualms about whether or not to do this ... I think it's wrong to increase polarization, because it's dangerous."
According to Prof. Peterson, the disciplines of social sciences, law and humanities, at UoT and elsewhere - as well as, of course, women's studies and ethnic and racial studies - have all been "infected" by postmodernism, and what he calls "corrupt ideology" (meaning, presumably, anything left of centre). He believes that the poor, unsuspecting students should be warned about this clear attempt at subliminal radicalization.
Setting aside Peterson's tendencies towards patronization and perhaps paranoia, I think his use of the term "postmodernism" in this little crusade of his is disingenuous, to say the least. Postmodernism merely means anything that departs from modernism, usually referring to the spheres of art, architecture.and philosophy. In practice, and more broadly, it tends to encompass skepticism, irony, irreverence and moral relativism. What postmodernism is not, is (as Peterson seems to believe it to be) the same thing.as anti-rationality, or an abdication of concern with the truth.
But, in reality, Prof. Peterson is not objecting to the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He is more objecting to the leftist politics that these philosophers also espoused, and which so often comes with a postmodern outlook, even if the two things are not necessarily connected. If Peterson means "leftist", then he should say so, and not obfuscate and pussyfoot around it. If he means that he wants to out "political correctness" in all its insidious forms and disguises - and most of his recent obsessions and diatribes against ideas like white privilege, cultural appropriation, preferred gender pronouns, etc - suggest that that is where he is really coming from - then, again, he should say so.
I'm sure the University of Toronto would dearly love to get rid of this troublesome guy, but as a tenured professor, they will have real difficulty doing so. Eventually, he will probably do or say something that is beyond the pale. But, in the meantime, they are stuck with him.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Soulpepper's production of The Goat is challenging but edifying

A quick plug for Soulpepper's production of Edward Albee's 2000 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia (or as the Soulpepper program had it, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia, but then what's in a comma).
Written decades after Albee's heyday in the swinging 60s, and following an extended hiatus in his writing career, The Goat sees Albee continuing to push the envelope. He was always outspoken and often outrageous both as an author and as a person, and was for many years a champion of gay rights (although he did not want to be thought of as an "gay writer").
The Goat tackles subject matter like bestiality, incest and pedophilia in the most forthright of manners. The main plotline concerns a famous and sucessful architect who, at the height of his success and after 22 years of apparently happy marriage to a fiercely intelligent professional woman, falls in love (both physically and emotionally) with a goat called Sylvia.
Although there are elements of the Theatre of the Absurd of Albee's earlier works, and although there certainly is some comedy and witty wordplay, much of the play is devoted to the architect's attempts to get his family and friends to take his disquieting news seriously. And always, below the surface, there are more generalized questions asked about how even supposedly broadminded and liberal individuals can close their minds off to social taboos and moral grey areas. The difficulties faced by the couple's gay son is an obvious parallel.
So, what could have been an absurd, even farcical, story, actually turns out to be a poignant, at times harrowing and downright tragic, tale of a misunderstood societal outcast. There are distinct elements of Greek tragedy in the play, especially in the shocking final scene. Although there were a few members of the audience who insisted on giggling every time the architect's wife called him a goat-fucker, there wereay others who were clearly on the verge of tears, and there were quite a few sharp intakes of breath and sotto voce exclamations of "oh, God". Alan Aykbourne this is denitely not.
The Soulpepper production is, as usual excellent, and the two main characters are superbly played, one with judicious understatement and the other with extravagant vitriol and physicality. It's not an easy play, and one leaves the theatre feeling quite drained. But, hey, who needs Alan Aykbourne on a Thursday night?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

An oh-so-honest exploration of issues of consent and sexual assualt

It's the second time I've listened to it, but the CBC Out in the Open documentary on sexual consent is, I think, terrific, and worth sharing.
The first part is a candid description of the 1996 rape of a drunk and incapacitated 16-year old Icelandic girl by an 18-year old upper middle-class Australian boy. It is a fascinating, revealing and oh-so-honest exposé of the kind of entitlement many young men feel, and the kind of denial (or at least time-lag in comprehension) that often occurs after a rape, both on the part of the victim and the perpetrator.
What is particularly poignant about this story is that, some nine years after the occurence, the victim reached out to the rapist, mainly as a way of processing the events for herself, little expecting a response to her email. What followed, though, was an eight-year email correspondence between the two, in which the rapist (now humbled, remorseful and full of guilt) and the victim (angry, confused and irreparably hurt) attempted to work out their feelings, and to come to grips with the forces and circumstances that could allow such a thing to happen.
While not expecting, or even asking, to be let off the hook, the honesty of the rapist is both touching and affecting, and he is eloquent in his public prostration. Here is a particularly poignant passage:
"I'm not offering this as an excuse, but it's the case that I was part of a social grouping of young men that's often unseen and unscrutinized, but very privileged and not questioned. And these notions of masculinity that you have a right to a woman's body, that misogynistic notion that women are of less value, and that you have a privilege that is almost a birthright, that you are deserving, or that you can have these expectations that are hugely damaging and destructive. And if I were to ask myself who am I speaking to as I am discussing this problem publicly sitting in this chair today, I would certainly like to reach young men who might harbour such damaging notions of entitlement to a woman's body that I did ... and say that this is just simply wrong."
The second section of the documentary is an interview with a Calgary man whose job it is to talk to talk to 14-year old school kids about sexual assault and, particularly, about consent. In it, he explains how "yes-means-yes-and-no-means-no" might seems clear and black-and-white enough, but in fact there is greyness even within that. He argues that just a "yes" is not enough, that an "enthusiastic yes" is needed. He also explains how communication between partners can take many forms, and the process may be different every time; the important thing is to take the time to go through the process, and to take nothing for granted. One little nugget from this section: "If it's not consensual, its's not sex, it's sexual assault".
The whole program is pretty heavy going at times, but it's thought-provoking, even enlightening. It should probably be mandatory listening for all school kids of a certain age.

'Tis the season ... for snow tires

There may not be any snow around here in Toronto, although Northern Ontario and points further west have already had a few dumps. But it is nevertheless time for the annual debate over the need, or otherwise, for winter (or snow) tires.
Now, I must confess I've never bothered with winter tires before, always relying on the tired old argument that I have an all-wheel drive car so I don't also need to invest in an expensive set of snow tires. But now, with a new two-wheel drive Prius, I can't even fall back on that argument, threadbare though it is (effective though all-wheel drive may be when accelerating, it won't help at all when braking on snow or ice). So, I have bitten the bullet and ploughed $900 or so into my very own snow tires.
The research and the studies on the subject are unanimous and definitive. "All-season" tires are fine for most purposes but, in Canada at least, they are really only three-season tires. When the temperatures dip below the magic threshold of 7°C, the rubber used for all-season tires suddenly becomes harder, and its grip on the road poorer. Winter tires, on the other hand, are made of softer rubber mixed with silicon, which is able to retain its road grip down to -40°C. They also have "biting edges" that improve grip on ice still further.
With winter tires, which are marked with a little snowflake and mountain logo, acceleration in bad conditions is improved and, critically, braking distances are hugely superior to those of all-season tires (and even of "all-weather" tires, a kind of intermediate compromise category between the two). Some more expensive snow tires may be better than other cheaper ones, but all of the tires tested were significantly better than no snow tires at all.
Quebec is the only province where winter tires are mandatory, so take up there is 100%. Usage in the rest of Canada tends generally to decrease from east (about 80% in the Maritimes) to west (49% in British Columbia). Canada-wide the percentage is about 68% and, here in Ontario, an estimated 57% use snow tires. Just as an aside, most insurance companies give a discount for snow tire users.
So, the jury is out and the verdict is in: snow tires are a must in Canada for anyone who can afford them. I have just joined the ranks of the sensible.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

A cautiously optimistic view of the fight against climate change

The Guardian has identified what it calls "the seven megatrends that could beat global warming", and only one of them is currently going in the wrong direction.
Our global lifestyle and technology needs to change drastically if we are to keep global warming down to below the 2°C increase that climatologists tell us is essential to avoid some of the more existential threats of climate change. But in many respects things are actually going surprisingly well, even if we do need to ramp up the speed of change (oh, and replace a certain president and his government...)
So, what are those seven megatrends?
  • Renewable energy uptake continues apace, and is one of the best-developed and most promising aspects of the fight against climate change. Costs of solar and wind power in particular have plummeted in recent years (and continue to fall), and the future for the industry looks rosy.
  • Coal, one of the most climate-damaging ingredients of our modern lifestyle, has peaked, and is declining rapidly in what looks like a death spiral. World coal production peaked in 2013 - largely a result of the improved costs of renewable energy - and continues to decline, despite the best efforts of a certain D. Trump.
  • Electric cars are finally being taken seriously, and the EV market is surging (although still in its early phase), spearheaded by China. Virtually all major car-makers have committed to an electric future, and, although the EV market share is still tiny overall, projections of growth rates suggest that 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030. Hybrids, and a general improvement in fuel efficiency, are also contributing to weaning us off our oil dependency.
  • Batteries, both for electric cars and for storage of intermittent renewable power, are essential to a green future. Costs of lithium-ion batteries (which are still expected to be the main battery technology for the foreseeable future) have tumbled in recent years, and look set to continue. New technologies are also being developed all the time.
  • Good progress is being made on energy efficiency - in homes, transport and industry - particularly in the EU, where overall energy efficiency has improved by about 20% since 2000. Much more work remains to be done, though, especially in the industrial sector.
  • Curbing our planetary meat addiction is essential if we are to reduce methane production from livestock farming. There have been recent advances in lab-grown meat, and a steady increase in demand for vegetarian/vegan meat and dairy substitutes, although, realistically, both of these developments are still in their infancy.
  • The megatrend that is not yet pointing in the right direction concerns the destruction of forests, which contributes an estimated 10% of global GHG emissions: annual tree loss has roughly doubled since 2000. Stopping deforestation and plating new trees is potentially the cheapest and fastest way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but, despite good progress in China, India and South Korea, investment in trees is severely underfunded compared to other efforts, and the need is becoming urgent.
So, the overall report card reads like a typical "good work, but can do better". Former UN climate chief Cristina Figueres and several other influential commentators remain staunchly optimistic, or at least cautiously optimistic. But it does sometimes seem like we are pointed in the right direction but barely moving.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Governor General's speech used as political football

Canada's latest Governor General, Julie Payette, has ruffled some feathers with one of her very first speeches, one she gave to the Canadian Science Policy Convention just the other day.
Ms. Payette is an engineer by training and made her name as an astronaut. She is therefore a scientist through and through - as well as a multi-lingual, all-round over-achiever - and her speech was being made to a bunch of scientists. So, when she broached the subjects of man-made climate change, evolution by random genetic changes, the shortcomings of astrology, and science-based medical procedures, she was very much preaching to the choir. She merely layed out the facts - hardly controvesial ones - and her audience lapped it up.
What has rankled with some conservatives and religious people, though, was the tone of her delivery, which has been described as "incredulous" and "pointed". For example, she employed phrases like "can you believe...?" and "lo and behold!" This has resulted in her speech being characterized as "mocking" those of a religious or non-scientific persuasion. Frankly, I find this an exaggeration (watch that part of the speech for yourself, most people have not even bothered to go that far before commenting), but I know that many religious people seem to have taken the gibe very personally, even if at no point did she mention or attack religion as such.
And then, of course, the politicans got involved and things immediately got much worse. Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, careful to attack Justin Trudeau for his support for Ms. Payette and not the GG herself, blustered: "It is extremely disappointing that the prime minister will not support indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion ... Justin Trudeau has offended millions of Canadians with his comments."
Cobblers! All the man said was that "We are a government grounded in science", and that he "applaud[s] the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth". What else was he going to say? That everything Ms. Payette said was garbage, and the the small percentage of religious types who believe that life on Earth arose due to "divine intervention", or who believe that sugar pills and crystals can cure cancer, are right? Would that have satisfied Mr. Scheer? Of course not. He was just responding with the knee-jerk reaction that everything that Mr. Trudeau says or believes must be wrong, hoping, as ever, to score some cheap political points.
Well, I guess that Ms. Payette will learn from this experience. Maybe she will modulate her tone so as not to offend the easily-offended. Maybe she will get used to the idea that everything she says is on the public record, and that someone somewhere is always going to be looking to score points and make political hay from it. It's a sad truth, but a truth nevertheless. But let's not confuse this with the idea that anything she said in her speech was wrong, or even particularly controversial (there was nothing that is not already taught in Canadian high schools), or that religious beliefs somehow trump the truth.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Artybollocks Generator

If you've ever been to an art exhibition or a modern dance performance, you'll know exactly what we're talking about when we say "artybollocks": those bombastic, pretentious and often largely incomprehensible descriptions and artist's statements that usually accompany artistic displays or performances.
Suffused as they are with jargon, "artspeak" and obscure abstract concepts, I've been reading these things for years in performance programs and gallery fliers. But I find my patience with them significantly diminished in recent years, particularly as I struggle with the artfully dim lighting we are usually provided with. They do seem to be something of an artform of their own, and they often appear to follow a kind of template or proforma, into which various stock phrases, and wilfully obscure, difficult or bewildering words can be inserted.
Well, now you can generate your very own, thanks to the Artybollocks Generator. Here's a random example:
"My work explores the relationship between the tyranny of ageing and life as performance. With influences as diverse as Derrida and Roy Lichtenstein, new combinations are manufactured from both constructed and discovered structures.
"Ever since I was a postgraduate I have been fascinated by the essential unreality of the mind. What starts out as triumph soon becomes finessed into a hegemony of temptation, leaving only a sense of unreality and the chance of a new order.
"As subtle derivatives become clarified through diligent and personal practice, the viewer is left with an epitaph for the darkness of our condition."
Yes, that sounds famliar. I think maybe I saw that show.
There's also a handy Twitter-friendly abbreviated version:
"What starts out as vision soon becomes debased into a cacophony of lust, leaving only a sense of dread and the unlikelihood of a new reality."
Quite.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

#MeToo - why now?

I have been trying to figure out, to my own satisfaction, just why the outpouring of #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment and rape has taken so long to come about.
Because outpouring it most definitely is: women are contributing to the hashtag by the thousands, and there are now numerous equivalents in other languages. The problem is a well-know and well-documented one. An Abacus Data survey released just this week suggests that 53% of Canadian women have experienced "unwanted sexual pressure" in the workplace, and about 12% (10% of men and 14% of women) say that sexual harassment in their workplace is "really quite common".  Perhaps even worse, nearly three-quarters (63% of men and 77% of women) felt that harassers would face no repercussions. These figures tally quite closely with other studies from the UK and elsewhere.
So why, then, all these #MeToos all of a sudden? It took the Harvey Weinstein allegations to galvanize women into action, and then it took celebrities to give those allegations teeth. It took Tarana Burke to come up with the #MeToo Twitter campaign in the first place, and Alyssa Milano to popularize it. But then - it's sad but true - it took the attentions of people in power (the Angelina Jolie's, the Gwyneth Paltrow's, the Rose McGowan's) to attract serious media attention to the reported abuses of those other people in power.
After that, it was just the power of a successful social media viral campaign that carried it along, and the feeling that, "well, if so-and-so is willing to go public, then maybe so can I", a feeling sufficient to overcome any residual shame or legal/financial intimidation the survivors may feel. Clearly, the need to speak out is juxtaposed with the career challenges it could create, whether it be in show business, politics, professional sports, firefighting, or just in an office cleaning job
Now, though, there is a palpable feeling of solidarity, of the-time-is-come-the-time-is-now. For example, there has been a spike in women seeking legal advice about pursuing sexual harassment claims since the #MeToo campaign. Although the show business cases have received the majority of the media attention, predictably enough, sexual harassment is probably even more rife in male-dominated fields like engineering, construction, the military, finance and transport, as well as in minimum wage work, like care-workers, cleaning staff, bar staff, shop assistants, etc, and these often-overlooked victims are also taking to #MeToo and making their voices heard.
Another question that occurs top me is: what is the the value of airing allegations that go back 20 years or more? Well, sometimes it's hard to see, but things have changed, certainly since the 1970s, when sexual harassment was a widely tolerated part of working life, a kind of "occupational hazard" for women. In those days, women were very reticent to report sexual abuse, and those that did often ended up regretting the ridicule, retaliation and discrimination that resulted (this also persists today, but to a lesser degree). Someone who might not have felt comfortable admitting or calling out an impropriety 20 or 30 years ago, may feel able do so now, particularly as part of a groundswell like we are currently experiencing . Also, some of these encounters can take a long time to work through psychologically.
There is a force in numbers, and (at least in theory) the more perpetrators that are called out for abusing their power, the less likely it should become in the future. Yes, there are still risks to pursuing a case, and the process can be protracted, expensive and unpleasant: it is probably not for everyone. And yes, the onus should be on men to improve and to make amends (hopefully, that is happening too). But the more the issue hits the mainstream media - whether it relates to something 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago - the more likelihood there is that change will actually occur. This is not just about individuals like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey - attitudes across the board need to change.
As Montreal writer Toula Drimonis puts it, the "culture of silence and complicity" has been shattered. And that's just as it should be.

Friday, November 03, 2017

How do animals survive the Canadian winter?

While walking through a Toronto ravine in all its fall glory recently, I got to wondering how animals survive the harsh Canadian winter. Now, I knew the answer would be, "it's complicated" - I've seen my share of nature documentaries - but I still wasn't prepared for just how complicated.
First off, it depends on the distinction between endothermic (warm-blooded) and ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals, although even then some ectotherms are able to produce some heat thermogenically (by basking in the sun, for example).

Mammals and Birds
Endotherms like mammals and birds employ a variety of different mechanisms to survive the sub-zero winter temperatures. Many birds simply migrate to warmer climes as the cold weather approaches, and even some mammals migrate - barren-ground caribou trek from the open arctic tundra to the more protected boreal forest; whales and some bats also migrate south; deer and elk move down the south-facing slopes of the mountains to warmer elevations.
Some animals are just so well-insulated and -adapted that they can survive even extreme temperatures. For example, the arctic fox can remain thermoneutral in temperatures as low as -80°C. Predators like polar bears and lynx are supremely well-adapted to the cold, to the extent that winter is their main hunting season. Even animals like deer and moose are surprisingly adept at foraging in the winter snow, and so do not need to hibernate.
Many animals and birds grow more and thicker fur or feathers to help them survive the winter, and some are able to fluff them up to increase the insulation. Grey wolves have two separate layers of fur to help them stay warm. Many mammals (and even some birds) huddle together to keep warm, and they may also curl up, draw in their legs, or cover their faces with their tails to help conserve heat. Many small animals, like squirrels, chipmunks, pikas, weasels, etc, store and hide food in the fall for the cold days ahead, as also do beavers and some birds like chickadees, blue jays and owls. All animals that have to survive the winter spend the fall eating extra food and storing it as body fat. Voles, mice and shrews take advantage of the warmer and more protected subnivean (under the snow) spaces, where food is relatively easily to obtain and the temperatures are more consistent and manageable. Grouse also sometimes dig themselves snow refuges for much the same reason.
Some animals, like deer for example, can reduce their metabolisms during cold spells so as to require less food, while others can voluntarily reduce blood flow to their skin and extremities. Some birds like chickadees lower their internal temperature and shiver durimg the cold of night to generate heat from their flight muscles, in a kind of controlled hypothermia. Some wading birds and gulls have complex vascular systems that operate like heat exchange systems, moving heat from warmer arteries to cooler veins (caribou also employ a similar vascular mechanism, as do the tails of beavers).
The best-known over-wintering technique is hibernation, in which the animal's metabolism is reduced down to 5% or less of normal, and respiration and heartbeats are reduced to very low levels. Groundhogs, for example, may breathe as little as 10 times per hour during hibernation, their heartbeats fall to 4-5 per minute, and their internal temperatures fall to just a few degrees above freezing. During full or true hibernation, an animal will probably not wake even for a loud noise or if moved. They use energy-rich brown fat for internal energy production during their dormant periods.
More common than full hibernation, though, is torpor or light hibernation. In this state, animals like bears, racoons, mice, shrews, chipmunks, ground squirrels, skunks, etc, sleep deeply, with a reduced heartbeat, but, unlike with true hibernation, their core temperatures remain quite high. These animals tend to wake quite often on milder days to search for food or change dens, etc. Their body temperatures may fall several degrees each night in order to conserve energy.

Reptiles Amphibians and Fish
The hibernation equivalent for cold-blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians is known as brumation. The condition can last for months during he cold weather, but the animals often wake up briefly to drink water or to shift position before returning to sleep.
Amphibians and reptiles typically lie dormant under decaying logs or in rock crevices, caves or the burrows of other animals. Snakes, many of which are freeze-tolerant (see below), gather in protected rock dens, often in multi-species groups. Toads burrow down into the soil, but some amphibians remain above ground, protected only by moss, ground litter and snow. Many amphibians, turtles and salamanders over-winter in the mud at the bottom of swamps, ponds and lakes (they can absorb oxygen from the water through their skins).
Some reptiles and amphibians are able to reduce their metabolisms enough to remain active in water throughout the winter. Many frogs are still capable of swimming in water that is almost freezing, provided it is deep enough to have enough oxygen. Some species such as wood frogs and spring peepers are freeze-tolerant, and produce extra glucose that acts as a kind of antifreeze in their extracellular spaces and prevents their cells from freezing. Once the weather warms and the ice melts, the frogs thaw and their hearts and lungs resume normal activity.
Freshwater fish are able to survive under the ice because their body fluids freeze at a lower temperature than water. Many of them hide under rocks, logs or fallen leaves. Saltwater fish typically just migrate to deeper waters, but some remain in shallower saltwater because they are able to produce chemicals with antifreeze properties.

Insects and Invertebrates
Most insects spend the winter in diapause, a hibernation-like state of dormancy when normal growth and development stops. Insects may over-winter in their egg, larva or pupa states, or in some cases even as adults, and they use a huge diversity of strategies to achieve this. A few insects like winter stone flies, crane flies and snow fleas are even able to remain active throughout the winter.
Some insects and invertebrates are "freeze-tolerant" (i.e. they can survive ice formation within their tissues, by a variety of different biological and biochemical means), while the others are "freeze-intolerant" or "freeze susceptible". Freeze-susceptible insects avoid freezing by "supercooling": they seek out dry sites for the winter, empty their guts, reduce their body water content, and pump a kind of antifreeze (like gycerol) through the anaerobic pathways of their bodies.
Freeze-tolerant insects, on the other hand, actively encourage ice crystals in their bodies, generating ice-nucleating proteins in their extra-cellular spaces (ice crystals within the cells would damage the cell walls and its organelles), and they limit total ice formation with antifreeze compounds. Many beetles, flies, wasps, moths and butterflies are freeze-tolerant, and they spend the winter in deep protected crevices in tree bark or plants. Others, along with many spiders, mites and ticks, survive in the relatively warm, protected and moist subnivean spaces. Some butterfies, like monarchs and painted ladies, are capable of long migrations to warmer regions.
Aquatic insects move from shallow pools prone to hard freezing to deeper pools or larger streams. Some over-winter out of the water completely, either as eggs or protected by cocoons like butterflies.
So, as I say, it's complicated - to put it mildly!

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Just require all politicians to put their assets into blind trusts

As allegations of conflict of interest continue to swirl around federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and disputed claims are made by the federal Ethics Commissioner that "fewer than five" Liberal cabinet minsters (including Morneau) are in the position of holding "controlled assets" indirectly through a corporation, people are finally starting to wonder whether, hey, maybe Conservative politicians were (and are) doing the same thing?
For example, Joe Oliver, the Conservative Finance Minister under Stephen Harper, also held controlled assets, as did Lisa Raitt and almost certainly several others. I imagine that the problem is probably rife at all levels of government and across all parties.
Mr. Morneau continues to insist that he has complied with the letter of the law, and that he followed the advice of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson at the beginning of his tenure. All of this is true and indisputable, but:
  1. whatever the letter of the law says, Mary Dawson was wrong to advise him that he did not need to put his assets into a blind trust (as Justin Trudeau did with his millions), and a good part of the blame for the situation lies squarely in her lap;
  2. Morneau is a big boy and supposedly intelligent - he should have seen this coming and gone the blind trust route, regardless of the letter of the law;
  3. Morneau has promised to sell $21 million of his shareholdings and to put the rest into a blind trust (God, how much does he have?), but the horse has already bolted, and the optics already spoiled.
It seems clear that the conflict-of-interest laws for politicians amd ministers need to be strengthened and made clearer. By no means all, but many politicians enter politics after having made a bundle of money (in finance, in industry, as lawyers, etc). They are probably good people, but given the nature of the job, and the nature of politics in general, they need to go above and beyond to distance themselves from their personal financial situations, a blind trust being the most obvious, and simplest, solution.
Just make it mandatory for politicians to put tbeir assets in a blind trust for the duration of their term, and have done with it - no grey areas, no negotiations, and the politicians can just get on with what we are paying them to do: running the country. This may have the effect of discouraging rich individuals from going into politics in the first place, but that may not be that bad a thing either.

UPDATE
The Ethics Commissioner has done us all a favour and cleared up some of the confusion around this issue, confusion largely of her own making. It turns out the "less than five" cabinet ministers she referred to were in fact just two, Bill Morneau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Now, two is indeed less than five, but could she not just have said "two" and saved an awful lot of uncertainty and endless pointless questions in the House of Commons.
Of those two, Ms. Wilson-Raybould actually sold her indirectly-owned shares back in April 2016, so really the "two" is "one", as the Commissioner herself now admits, and Mr. Morneau has also since disposed of his indirectly-owned shares.
So, the "two" (or the "one", depending on how you look at it) is actually "zero". Which, coincidentally, is also "less than five".

Monday, October 30, 2017

Carbon dioxide: a record increase to a record level

The absolute levels of CO2 have been increasing since reliable records began 60-odd years ago. What is particularly alarming, though, is the rate of increase ion recent years. An average concentration of 403.3 parts per million was recorded in 2016, based on readings in 51 countries by the World Meteorological Organization. This represents an increase of 3.3 ppm in just one year, about 50% more than the average annual increase over the last ten years, for example.
The last time anything like an increase of this magnitude was recorded was back in 1998, when an increase of 2.7 ppm was recorded. Both years were intense El Niño years (El Niño tends to cause droughts that limit the uptake of CO2 by plants and trees). The 2016 increase was substantially higher than 1998, though, which points to a significant increase in the underlying man-made CO2 levels.
The last time CO2 levels were at or above these levels was around three to five million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene era, when average temperatures were 2-3°C higher, and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher due to the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. That time we humans were not involved, but we really don't want to go there again.

What we learned from a year in space

Some interesting insights into human space flight have arisen out of the ongoing study of Scott Kelly, the American astronaut who has logged the longest continuous stay in space, spending 340 days on the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016 (Russian astronaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record of 438 days).
Kelly, now 53 years old, was specifically being monitored for data on the physiological effects of space travel, and he will continue to provide data even since his return to earth and his retirement from NASA last year. Much of the data involves comparisons with his earthbound identical twin, Mark (actually, Mark too made a space trip in 2011, but only of a modest 54 days). Mr. Kelly has recently published a book, Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery, detailing some of the findings, or at least those that NASA are willing to release.
One of the most important factors in the study is his reaction to the radiation he experienced in space (more than 30 times the exposure we receive on earth, although apparently this still represents less of a cancer risk than a terrestrial smoker exposes himself to). Scott remains cancer-free for now, and is remarkably sanguine about the risks for the future.
Loss of bone density is another big one. It is unavoidable in the zero gravity of space, although interestingly the loss appears to level off, and his bone density loss is no more after 340 days than it was after less than half that time. Kelly muses that future generations that live permanently in space may evolve without a skeleton, and live perfectly serviceable lives as invertebrates.
One interesting, and perhaps unexpected, corollary of life in space is the toll it takes on vision. The reasons are not entirely clear, but time in space appears to cause permanent folds in the choroid (the blood-filled layer between the retina and the white of the eye), and Kelly has had to increase his eyeglass prescription several times since returning from space. Interestingly, women astonauts do not seem to be affected in the same way, and Kelly envisions a female-only flight to Mars unless more progress can be made on this problem.
Breathing much higher levels of carbon dioxide while living in the confines of the Space Station is another big impediment to space travel - it causes headaches, congestion, burning eyes, irritability, and trouble thinking straight (the latter in particular has distinct and obvious drawbacks in a space flight context). It remains to be seen what long-term effects this might have, but Kelly is quick to point out that NASA could have allowed much cleaner air using additional CO2 scrubbers available on the ISS, but chose not to. NASA has since agreed to improve CO2 conditions by up to a third for the future.
In fact, Mr. Kelly has some pretty harsh words to direct at NASA, particularly regarding its secrecy and its authoritarian attitudes. I guess when your life is effectively in their hands from day to day for nearly a year, it leads to a pretty fraught relationship.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a classic of early feminism

Having just read Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I came away suitably impressed, not so much with the writing or with the deep characterization in the novel, but with the sheer audacity of it. I'm sure any number of monographs and papers of which I am unaware have been written on the subject, but it occurs to me that it must be one of the first mainstream feminist novels.
Anne Brontë is the "other" Brontë, less famous than her overachieving siblings, Emily and Charlotte, and probably less accomplished as an author. It was Anne, the youngest of the sisters, who bore the brunt of caring for her feckless and alcoholic brother, Branwell, and this experience - one that her sisters may not have undergone to the same degree - may well have given her a singularly cynical outlook on the opposite sex. Although Anne is much better known for her other novel, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be her real legacy.
Not only is the novel a searing account of alcoholism and psychological spousal abuse, common phenomena in 19th century Victorian England, even if not mentioned in polite society. But Ms. Brontë's heroine, after of course doing her Christian duty (and more) in attempting to save her husband from himself and his demons, takes matters into her own hands and walks out on him, taking their young son with her, to live by her own wits and skills. This was all but unheard of in genteel literature, and would really have made the Victorians sit up and take note (and, I am sure, in many cases, grumble and denounce).
The men in the novel are split between thoughtless, adulterous, high-living cads, and rather anaemic, wimpy but sensitive types. They are most definitely not the brooding, romantic, Byronic archetypes of her sisters' novels. Ms. Brontë makes her preference clear, but does not try to hide a certain amount of disdain for both manifestations of manhood. And, while there are a certain number of scheming, unpleasant, upper class women in the book, many of the women are quite strong, matter-of-fact, level-headed individuals, none more so than the heroine, Helen Huntingdon, herself.
Some of Helen's diary entries would definitely cause the eyebrows of the Victorian reading classes to rise:
  • "I am satisfied that, if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are, or should be, written for both men and women to read."
  • "Because, my dear, beauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men."
  • "His idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly, and to stay at home — to wait upon her husband and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way, while he chooses to stay with her; and, when he is absent, to attend to his interests, domestic or otherwise, and patiently wait his return; no matter how he may be occupied in the meantime."
  • "Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection, that though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is much more likely to produce a contrary result."
Ouch! Helen's advice to her younger protégée, Esther, in particular, is not merely world-weary and cynical, it is the counsel of a strong independent woman. In Victorian terms of 1848, it is downright sacrilege and heresy! Add to this the way in which Helen manages the attentions of her various suitors - invariably calm, assured, and nothing less than masterful - and the way in which (after an admitted mistake in marrying Arthur in the first place) she vows to live her life on her own terms and to protect her young son, she presents an early model for feminine fortitude and autonomy.
Whether this is indeed the first feminist novel is probably open to debate, and I'm sure it has been debated ad nauseam in circles of literary academia to which I am not privy. But, regardless, eve I can see that it is a most worthy (even if not stylistically outstanding) work of Victorian fiction. Indeed, it is a deep irony that Ms. Brontë felt the need to publish it under the masculine nom-de-plume, Acton Bell.