Thursday, May 25, 2017

UBC student overcomes severe challenges to earn law degree

Here's a heart-warming story about triumph over adversity and friends helping friends.
Back in 2011, Rumana Monzur, a well-educated Bangladeshi woman with a degree from the University of Dhaka, was studying for her Masters in Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). When she travelled back to Bangladesh to see her daughter and to try to finalize her divorce from her husband, said husband viciously attacked her, incensed by her decision to study in Canada. Unbelievably, he gouged out her eyes and bit off part of her nose and forearm, while their five-year-old child looked helplessly on.
Her friends at UBC rallied round her, raising money for her medical treatment and for her return to Canada, along with her daughter. Meanwhile, her husband was arrested and tried, but died of a heart attack while still in police custody.
Despite her blindness, and with the continued help of her friends and some technology, Ms. Monzur persevered with her studies. Some friends read her textbooks out loud to her; others helped her transcribe her Masters thesis. She successfully completed her Masters in Political Science in 2013. But, still not satisfied, she enrolled in UBC's Law School, hoping ultimately to return to Bangladesh and work to change the legal system there, which is very biased against women.
Now, she has just earned her law degree from UBC's Peter A. Allard School of Law. Since her return to Canada, she has been making more and motivational speeches for organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and she contributed a good one to her law school graduation ceremony, in which she thanked her "UBC family", ending with the inspiring, "I have lost my sight but gained vision".
In September, she begins articling with an international law firm in Vancouver. Her daughter is now 11, and "doing great" according to Mom. Quite a story.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fidget spinners are not a miraculous cure for anything

It seems that fidget spinners are still all the rage, although I have still to actually witness anyone using one. They are just this year's fad toy - there's one most years - but there is a substantial coterie out there who really believe some of the claims that have been made for them, such as that they are good psychological tools for the relief of stress and anxiety, and that they can even help sufferers from ADHD or autism. In fact, they are a big distraction for most children, and some schools are even banning them.
A video by clinical psychologist David Anderson, from the Child Mind Institute who specializes in ADHD and other behavioural disorders, makes no bones about it: he says they are just toys and not a treatment. According to Anderson, "they have about as much scientific evidence for stress relief or for treatment of anxiety and ADHD as a pet rock ... fidget spinners have absolutely no scientific studies behind them, showing any sort of effectiveness in treating this ... there is no psychologically recommended gadget". Sounds pretty definitive to me.
It made me wonder, though, why do we fidget? It seems that, like most physiological phenomena, there is actually a point to fidgeting. But, like most physiological phenomena, it's not simple. According to one theory, fidgeting may be a self-regulation mechanism to help us boost or lower our attention levels as needed (in which case, suppressing it may be a bad idea). Another theory suggests that fidgeting may be a carefully programmed response that helps us unconsciously maintain our weight (apparently, fidgeting can burn between 100 and 800 additional calories a day). Yet another idea is that fidgeting represents a behavioural coping mechanism for stress (studies have shown that fidgeting and other "displacement behaviours" can improve performance during stressful times).
As so often with these things, the real reason may be a combination of all of these, and may even vary depending on what is required at the time. Either way, we really don't need a toy to fidget for us, and fidget spinners are not a miraculous cure for ADHD or anything else.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Toronto Wolfpack rugby league team is a strange animal

The Toronto Wolfpack played their second-ever home game on Saturday, and a great success it was too. They beat the Barrow Raiders by a huge margin of 70-2.
If you're not even sure what sport I am talking about, you wouldn't be alone. In fact, it's rugby league, not the better known and more mainstream rugby union (although even that is a small, if growing, minority sport here in North America), but its lesser-known and grittier 13-a-side cousin. The Toronto Wolfpack plays in the lowly Kingstone Press League 1, the third tier of English rugby league. It is the first and only transatlantic rugby league team, as well as the only professional team among a league of amateurs and part-timers (or, at best, semi-professionals). I don't know whose idea it was, but strangely it seems to be working.
The team plays at home at the ageing Lamport Stadium in the west end of Toronto, and this weekend's game attracted a raucous, if slightly bewildered crowd of just over 7,000. The team's undisputed star is a 230-pound 37-year-old Tongan who rejoices in the name of Fuifui Moimoi, and who rolls around the pitch crushing all before him. The fans love him, and he clearly loves the fans. All the players seem to love the sport and beer in almost equal measures.
Although this was only the team's second home game, they are now upbeaten at 8-0-0 in the Kingstone Press League 1, and have outscored opponents 482-73. Barrow too was unbeaten before this game, although their team was somewhat depleted as four key players were unable to obtain visas in time for the trip to Toronto.
The Wolfpack are resigned to playing most of their games in small grubby towns in northern England, the heartland of rugby league, but they look all set to gain promotion to the second tier league after this first season. What the English rugby league fraternity thinks of these strange big-city Canadians, I really can't imagine.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BC provincial election ends in a cliffhanger

Talk about a cliffhanger! The British Columbia provincial election took place the other week, and the incumbent Liberals looked set to be demoted from a majority government to a strong minority, having won 43 of the possible 87 ridings in the province, compared to the NDP's 41 seats, and the Green Party's 3.
However, it's not over yet. The riding of Courtney-Comox on Vancouver Island was won by the NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard by just 9 votes (she garnered 10,058 compared to Liberal candidate Jim Benninger's 10,049). This has therefore triggered an automatic recount, because the winning margin was less than the 0.2% stipulated in BC law. The recount will also include an estimated 1,500 so-called "absentee ballots" that have not yet been tabulated. These ballots include voters who voted by mail, voters who voted in a district office, voters who voted outside their electoral district during advanced voting, and voters who voted on election day but not at their assigned voting place.
If just a handful of votes can be shown to have been miscounted, or if the inclusion of absentee votes swings the result, as it could easily do, then the Liberals will vault from a minority position, where they are reliant on the (dubious) goodwill of the Green Party, whose three members hold the balance of power, to a majority, where they can push through their agenda regardless of the other parties.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the region has been in this position. In 1983, the long-standing NDP member for the Comox Valey riding appeared to have lost the election, only to find that she had won it after all following a recount.

UPDATE
After the recount, the NDP ended up retaining the Courtenay-Comox seat after all, so the final elections results remain the same: Liberals 43, NDP 41 and Greens 3. The Liberals are reduced to a minority government, and the Greens have a historic opportunity to influence government policy. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Amazon's new business model is not good for literature

Up until recently, when you clicked the prominent Add To Cart button on Amazon's websites (known in the trade as the "Buy Box"), you were agreeing to buy a book through Amazon itself, secure in the knowledge that Amazon has in turn purchased that book from a publisher or a publishing wholesaler. Under that system, you knew that Amazon took a sizeable cut, typically around 40%, but you also knew that 60% went directly to a publisher, which then used this money to pay the author his or her cut, as well as to cover the other expenses of producing and distributing the book, plus their own profit margin.
But, for some years now, Amazon has also been in the business of selling books through third-party sellers. Under this system, Amazon typically keeps about 15% of the total sale price including shipping, plus a $1.85 flat fee per item, with the rest going to the third party seller to pay for purchasing, shipping and warehousing costs. But it seems that, although the books sold by third party shippers are technically new and unmarked, they are often not actually purchased from publishers. It seems that just where they do come from, and how extensive the problem is, is not actually known, either by the publishers or by Amazon itself, but it is thought that many of them may be free promotional copies and/or perhaps books with minor cosmetic damage bought up from warehouses at a substantial discount. Either way, the publishers do not benefit much, or even at all, from these transactions, and the poor authors, who rely on their publishers to pay them, get even less of nothing.
Anyway, be that as it may, the recent change that Amazon has brought in, means that when you click on the Buy Box now, without looking for more options, you are buying a book from the "Buy Box Winner", which may be Amazon or it may be an approved third party seller, being the result of a competitive bidding algorithm for each product that Amazon advertises on its sites. So, you no longer have the assurance that a publisher, and therefore an author, is actually benefitting from your purchase. In addition, if a Buy Box Winner happens to be out of stock of a particular title you try to buy, it will look as though the book is not available anywhere else on Amazon, which may not be the case.
If it is more difficult for publishers to make a profit on Amazon sales, this will probably also result in them being less likely to publish artistically challenging or commercially risky books, so that the market will be (even more) flooded with Daniel Steel, James Patterson and Nora Roberts novels. Eventually, as Amazon drives the price of books down and down, fewer and fewer people will be able to make their livings as writers, difficult as this already is - even a typical Man Booker finalist, for example, can only rely on between 10,000 and 20,000 book sales, and sometimes a little as 3,000 - and so fewer and fewer will even try. Not a good prognosis for literature as a whole.

The debate over cultural appropriation is not over (unfortunately)

The cultural appropriation debate has flared up again, as it does from time to time here in Canada (and probably elsewhere), stoked by the Appropriation Prize nonsense already reported on, and the troubles of the white artist Amanda PL who has had the temerity to adopt an artistic style that is influenced by the bright colours and bold outlines of the Woodland School of Art, popularized by Aboriginal artists like Norval Moriseau.
A few high-profile heads have already rolled as the issues get batted back and forth, and the debate becomes increasingly acrimonious. Today, though, the Globe and Mail has seen fit to devote a centre page spread to an article by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Ontario Anishnaabe writer, which she entitles "The debate is over: it's time for action". It may well be time for action of some sort, but it is wishful thinking to suppose that the debate is over.
Sure, it's good to get an in-depth response on the issue from a prominent Indigenous author, but I really can't accept some of the assertions she makes. Partly what rankles is Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm's implicit assumption that the opinions of an Indigenous person automatically trump that of a white male straight guy, and that she is the one to say when the argument is over/won. Were it the other way around, I'm sure she would agree with me on that. In actual fact, this issue is way bigger than just Canada's First Nations, which has been the entire focus of the recent debate. Cultural appropriation can refer to a man writing about the experience of a woman (and vice versa), a white man or woman writing from the perspective of a black person (and, of course, vice versa), a Chinese person writing about a Dutch family, a white straight male writing about the trials and tribulations of a transgendered homosexual (and vice versa)... You get the idea. In today's multiculti post-modern world, writing any book that restricts itself to just one race/sex/nationality/sexual preference would be almost impossible, not to mention tedious. But that is the logical conclusion of the cultural appropriation argument.
And, even if you want to argue that the reductio ab adsurdam is not what we are talking about here, then where exactly does the line fall between acceptable and not acceptable? Can an Inuit writer write about a Cree character, for example. Can ... well, I'm sure you can see where this is going. These are not just idle hypothetical questions: they are valid questions arising from the cultural appropriation standpoint. Unfortunately, I don't think that many of them have convincing answers.
Yes, I understand that the First Nations of Canada, as in most other colonial outposts the world over, have had (and continue to have, in many respects) a raw deal, from the Scoops to the residential school system to the MMIW phenomenon to the lamentable education/healthcare/social/water situation in many northern communities. These are all issues that need to be addressed, and supposedly are being addressed, although not very effectively thus far. And I also understand that unflattering, stereotypical and poorly-understood portraits of native peoples have been the norm for much of colonial history, although I sincerely believe that that has changed in recent years. But to claim, as Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm does, that Indigenous writers should be the only ones allowed to write about Indigenous people, and that "their" stories are being "stolen" by non-Indigenous writers (as she repeatedly claims), I consider arrant nonsense. Are Indigenous writers allowed to write about white experiences, to explore white characters (good and bad) in their books? If so, then please explain the difference. If not, then how stupid is that?
Ms. Akiwenzie-Damm also brings up an article by Lenore Keeshig in 1989, and echoes Ms. Keeshig's easy dismissal of the argument that what some call cultural appropriation others call freedom of speech and artistic imagination. This is not an argument so readily dismissed, though, and is not as "disingenuous" as the two native authors claim. Neither is it reasonable to claim that the appropriationists (my word!) are suggesting that "we are not capable of telling out own stories with the skill, beauty and depth that white middle-class writers could, or that, unlike them, we are too biased". I don't remember ever hearing such an allegation from anyone. She says, of stories about indigenous experiences, that "we can tell them best", and that may well be true, but surely it should not preclude others from trying.
Neither do I believe that Indigenous authors are not taken seriously enough in the world of Canadian letters. Indeed, I see many white people in the industry bending over backwards to institute a kind of positive discrimination climate for First Nations writers (and that's a whole other debate right there). It seems to me that native Canadian writers are completely eligible for the existing literary prizes - some have indeed triumphed in that sphere - and I don't see any obvious signs of discrimination against them. I don't know the breakdown of Indigenous prize winners, as compared to the proportion of the general population, but I would be surprised it were that skewed. If First national writers would like an Emerging Indigenous Voice prize as well, as has been proposed, that is fine by me, although I do worry that they in doing so are just establishing a kind of second-rank prize for those who can't win the big prizes, which would be unfortunate.
Well, that's my own opinion, and I am grateful to live in a country where I can express my views openly. These are not racist views. I don't even see them as being overly insensitive (otherwise I wouldn't share them). They are just views, backed up by a bit of logical argument, and I see them as just as valid as the views of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, even though I am not Indigenous or even a published writer.
And, no, the debate is not over. Unfortunately.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Google - global boon or scary future menace

Google is a wonderful resource. If you stop and think what modern life would be like without Google Search, Google Maps, Google Play, YouTube, Chrome, Android and Gmail, it doesn't really bear thinking about. Google has become an integral, even essential, part of contemporary Western life.
What I am less sure about is whether I want to see the company go ether down the Artificial Intelligence (AI) rabbit-hole. Because, make no mistake, that is where they are headed. A handy Guardian summary of its latest annual developer conference, Google I/O gives us a useful glimpse into the geek/technofile mindset that dominates in Google's world.
I used to worry about Apple's thinly-disguised plan to rule the world. But these days, Google is leaving Apple in the dust. The seven applications mentioned above all have more than a billion users, and the company is actively pursuing what it refers to as "the next billion" (or two). With this in mind, it's latest mobile operating system, Android O, which is designed to be more battery efficient and provide better protection against viruses and malware, also incorporates Android Go, a pared down of the operating system that uses less data and loads apps more quickly, aimed at the entry level devices and poorer signals still common in many developing countries.
But for the well-served developed world, Google make no bones about moving from a "mobile-first" to an "AI-first" approach. Google Assistant is now considered much superior to Apple's Siri, and is expected to become even more reliable and conversational in the near future, so that many common tasks will be easily achievable using simple voice commands, or what will feel more like natural conversations of chats. Its new Lens visipn-based computing application is also able to recognize a rapidly increasing number of real-life objects, locations, words, etc, and automatically link them to databases, searches, reviews, translations, etc.
The new Google Home app is also expected to start offer it more proactive advice, rather than just responding to specific questions, and can respond differently to up to six different voices in a household depending on heir personal preferences. This is the stuff of science fiction movies made real, but it carries with a whiff of Orwell's Big Brother, or at the very least.spme of the more dystopian elements of the Black Mirror television series. I'm also less than enthused with what I know I know of its new YouTube "super chat" option, in which audience members can 4pay to have their comments featured prominently during a live streaming event.
As it has already done with airline flights and sports, Google is in the process of aggregating information from job and recruitment agencies like Linkedin, Monster and Carer Builder to provide job listing information without the need to use the websites.
Although it already has its fingers in several aspects of Virual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), Google is surprisingly downplaying these sexy technological paths, perhaps due to the rather muted success of its Google Glass smart glasses experiment.
Google is still inventing the future before our very eyes, and a future without its dominant presence is all but inconceivable. But it is all too easy to forget that it is at heart a commercial company, out to make money for its owners. And the risks of hyper-dominant private enterprises are also a popular science fiction trope, and they rarely have happy endings. I'm just not sure I am entirely comfortable with that kind of brave new world.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why is Caesar pronounced SEE-see?

Maybe it's never occurred to you, or maybe it's not the kind of thing that worries you, but the pronunciation of the name "Caesar" has been bugging me for a while now. It started after passing a pizza restaurant quaintly named Ceasar's Pizza. Which, when you think about it, wrongly spelled as it is, actually makes a lot more sense...
So, a little research confirms my original feeling that, in Gaius Julius Caesar's day, his name would indeed have been pronounced KYE-sahr, not dissimilar to the German word kaiser, which it have gave rise to. By the same token, Cicero would have been pronounced more like KEE-kair-o, strange as that sounds to us. The change in pronunciation occurred as a result of the kind of pronunciation shifts most languages go through over their history. Even in Caesar's time, Latin was undergoing some pronunciation shifts.
Except that it's not quite that simple (of course it's not!) Part of the problem stems from the fact that ancient Roman pronunciation wasn't accurately reconstructed until about 1900. And, yes, we do have a good idea of the ancient pronunciation, partly because it was specifically designed as a phonetic language, partly because we have Roman teaching materials, and partly because we can look at pronunciations in other Romance languages, as well as transcriptions of Latin into other alphabets like Greek and Sanskrit. Before that time, scholars tended to interpret (guess) Latin pronunciations through the lenses of their own languages.
So, we end up with four main versions of Latin pronunciation:
  • Reconstructed Ancient Roman, in which Caesar would have been pronounced KYE-sahr;
  • Southern Continental or "Church Latin", as used in Italy: CHAY-sahr;
  • Northern Continental, recommended for use in scientific circles: TSAY-sahr; and the
  • "English Method", which, of course, is a law into itself: SEE-zer.
Even after my research, I am still not entirely sure why the English Method plumped for SEE-zer, except to say that it probably changed with the Frenchification of English after the Norman Conquest. But I am long past expecting to find logical justifications for English spelling and pronunciation.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A musical visualization of the Trappist-1 planetary system

The Trappist-1 planetary system was discovered a few months ago, and immediately garnered a whole lot of buzz for having no less than seven Earth-sized planets, at least some of which appear to be in zones that could provide the conditions for life ("as we know it").
The system is less than 40 light years away from Earth, and revolves around a red dwarf star, which has been designated as Trappist-1. This star is much smaller and colder than our Sun, but its planets are much closer to it: all seven of the planets orbit within six million miles of the star, as compared to our own Solar System where Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, has an orbit of 36 million miles, while Earth is over 93 million miles from the Sun. The closely-packed Trappist-1 planets therefore orbit very quickly, with "years" (the time taken to complete one orbit of the star) ranging from just 1½ days to 19 days.
The system also presented something of a mystery to astrophysicists, because when the planets' orbits were modelled on computer systems, even with the added effect of tides, the model systems always completely fell apart, usually within a just a few million years, while the Trappist-1 system is actually 3-8 billion years old.
Now, it had also been pointed out, quite early in the investigation of the system, that the planets exhibited what is known as "harmonic orbital resonance", which is a fancy way of saying that the orbits of the different planets have a whole number relationship with each other, similar to the relationships of notes in a musical harmonic scale. Thus, the second planet of Trappist-1 completes five orbits in almost exactly the time the first planet makes eight, the third planet completes three orbits for every five orbits of the second planet, the fourth planet makes two orbits for every three orbits of the third, etc. It is thought that it is these harmonic relationships that somehow allow the planets' orbits to stay stable for long periods of time, a veritable "music of the spheres".
This has led Matt Russo, an astrophysicist who is also a musician, to play around with the data and create a musical visualization of the planets' orbits by assigning musical notes to the different planets based on their orbital distances and periods. Different percussion sounds were also added for each time a planet caught up with its neighbour. The result is a little disconcerting, and the resonances do drift slightly over time (probably as a result of more complex gravitation and tidal effects), but it is actually surprisingly listenable.
Interestingly, this is the only system yet discovered where the planetary orbits are stacked in resonance. For example, when Russo tried a similar musical treatment of the Kepler-90 system, another star with seven planets, the results were "very uncomfortable to listen to". Perhaps Pythagoras, who first came up with the idea of the music of the spheres, had something after all.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

We can't just keep paying for flood damage

The recent floods in Quebec, British Columbia and, to a lesser extent, Ontario amd New Brunswick, have led to a certain amount of politically unpalatable discussion along the lines of: how long are we going to keep using taxpayers' money to bail out (both financially and literally) home-owners who insist on living on recognized flood plains?
An estimated 1.8 million Canadian households are located in known flood-prone areas, areas considered by the Insurance Bureau of Canada to be at "very high risk" of flooding. Many of these householders know they live on a flood-plain, and choose to live with or just ignore the fact. The majority, however, seem to have no idea, despite the existence of maps, such as those from the Flood Damage Reduction Program, a massive flood mapping project which began in the 1970s and then was allowed to die in 1995 due to federal budget constraints.
Major floods occur in Canada pretty much every year. Within a few months of the establishment of the French colony of Ville-Marie (present day Montreal) in 1642, the settlement flooded, and settlers resorted to praying for it to end. Nowadays, we have better flood preparation and remediation protocols, but still floods continue to strike, particularly in these years of global warming - Peterborough in 2002 and 2004, Edmonton in 2004, Calgary, Red Deer and High River in 2005, Ottawa in 2009, Calgary and Toronto in 2013, and now Montreal, Gatineau and parts of BC. It is only likely to get worse.
The status quo is not cheap and not sustainable. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says that the federal government alone expects to spend $673 million a year for the next five years on flood disaster relief. Add to that sums to be expended by the provincial and municipal governments, and the amounts borne by affected individuals themselves, and the totals are quite significant.
Meanwhile, those householders and taxpayers who don't live on flood plains resent the money expended by all levels of government on those foolish enough to do so. Flood victims, on the other hand, whether or not they knew the risks, are just concerned with getting some compensation. And politicians of all stripes tend to be willing to grant it - there is nothing less likely to result in re-election than a politician who refuses to help the victims of a natural disaster, even ones who choose to live on flood plains. It is on a par with denying healthcare to smokers and heavy drinkers - intellectually logical, but politically impossible. Most times, governments just allow flood victims to rebuild in what is clearly a flood zone out of sheer political expediency and inertia, and usually even help them pay for it.
So, what are the options? Ever since the catastrophic flooding in Toronto after Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Ontario has had a system of conservation districts organized around watersheds, and the province exercises strict control over development in flood zones. After the 2013 floods in Alberta, the Albertan government offered to buy up homes in one flood zone, with the proviso that those who chose not to accept (and almost two-thirds did not) would not be covered for flood losses in the future.
Another idea, popular in some countries, is that of public-private flood insurance, whereby flood insurance would be made mandatory, with the premiums reflecting the relative flood risks of different areas. It wouldn't come cheap, but then neither is the alternative. If necessary, governments could help with the costs of premiums, through tax credits for example.
I'm not actually sure what the best solution is, but it's pretty clear that all three levels of government need to be at least talking about it, and preferably together. At the very least, up-to-date flood maps should be produced, and the public apprised of their risks and responsibilities.

It doesn't take much to become a Catholic saint these days

So, what does it take to become a saint these days? Not much, it seems.
Pope Francis has just canonized two Portuguese kids who died in the European influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Francisco and Jacinta Marto were shepherds living neat Fátima, Portugal, who reported seeing the Virgin Mary (sound familiar?) exactly one hundred years ago today. A third child, cousin Lúcia Santos, who seems to be on a different schedule to the others for some reason, is currently in the process of canonization. It was Lúcia - who did not die and became a nun after her experiences - who wrote down the so-called "Three Secrets of Fátima", in which Mary is believed to have revealed truths to supposedly help the whole of mankind. A huge complex of religious buildings, known collectively as the Sanctuary of Fátima, now exists on the site of the so-called revelations, and about 4 million Catholic pilgrims visit the basilica every year.
And just what were those world-changing revelations? Well, Sister Lúcia finally got around to telling the world about them in her memoirs in the early 1940s. She recounts for us:
  • a terrifying vision of hell, complete with a great sea of fire, demons and human souls (i.e. straight out of Catholic orthodoxy);
  • the end of World War 1, and the start of another second World War (probably a safe bet), as well as an ambiguous prediction worthy of the Delphic Oracle, that Russia will be "converted" or "consecrated" only if it listens to Mary's message, otherwise it will "spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church";
  • a tantalizing secret bonus revelation - sealed in an envelope and made available to the Vatican in 1957 but only revealed to the world in 2000 - suggesting that the Pope (no indication of which pope) will climb a mountain with some other clergy, only to be killed by soldiers with bullets and arrows. Some have taken this to predict the shooting attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, despite the lack of mountains, soldiers and arrows.
It's not a lot to go on, really, certainly nothing that any astute charlatan couldn't come up with. Apparently, though, it was enough for a whole cult to develop around in Portugal, and for sundry alleged miracles and intercessions to be recorded in dubious circumstances, and ultimately for the call for sainthood. The old long-held view within the Church that it was just not possible for young children and minors to display "heroic virtue" was overturned in 1979, and Pope John Paul II himself declared the siblings "venerable" in 1989, the first step on the road to today's announcent of sainthood.
Ah, gotta love that old Catholic Church...

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cultural appropriation in literature is not a sacred cow

The dreaded phrase "cultural appropriation" has reared its ugly head again in the world of Canadian letters, and as so often I feel like I'm on the wrong side of things.
Hal Niedzviecki, editor of The Writer's Union of Canada's house magazine Write, has resigned (before he could be fired) after some ill-advised editorial comments in the latest edition, one that happens to be dedicated to showcasing indigenous Canadian writing. Mr. Niedzviecki begins, reasonably enough in my opinion: "I don't believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities." I'm right with you there, Hal, although even that is so contrary to the Zeitgeist, that he would probably still have been lambasted and villified for such a contentious assertion.
Mr. Niedzviecki, though, really ovestepped the bounds of good taste with his next comment: "I'd go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so - the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who are aren't even remotely like her or him."
At this, course, Twitter blew up. One First Nations writer claims that, "it [TWUC] enforces systemic oppression", and the TWUC Equity Task Force bemoaned the "structural racism" and the "brazen malice or extreme negligence" of the editorial, claiming to be "angry and appalled" by it. Personally, I don't see any evidence of either "systemic oppression" or "structural racism" or "brazen malice" - the worst Mr. Niedzviecki can be accused of is "extreme negligence", although his  own admission of being "a little tone deaf" probably comes closer.
And of course some Twitter users took things even further by proposing an actual Appropriation Prize, and thousands of dollars of pledges soon flooded in from various high-profile editors and journalists. The National's Steve Ladurantaye was "re-assigned" by the CBC after his contribution to this rather tasteless Twitter thread, which incidentally was nothing to do with Niedzviecki himself.
Either way, Niedzviecki apologized profusely and promptly tendered his resignation, the price of messing with the cultural appropriation lobby. I have commented before on what I see as the misplaced zeal of the political correctness police in this respect, and I still believe that authors of all colours, genders and political and sexual persuasions need to be free to express themselves however they like, and should not be limited to writing about their own lives and those like them. How much great literature would not exist without this kind of freedom?
Cultural appropriation should not become some kind of untouchable sacred cow, to the extent that authors are effectively censored from writing what they want to write. Neither should Mr. Niedzciecki be pilloried and sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, particularly given the contents of the rest of his essay, which is extremely sensitive to the challenges still faced by indigenous writers. Instead of the current knee-jerk Facebook/Twitter reaction, the literary community should use this as an opportunity for discussion.

UPDATE
The current storm-in-a-teacup over cultural appropriation has registered another high-profile victim. Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of Walrus magazine has resigned after his defence of Mr. Niedzviecki's position.
Mr. Kay tweeted (yes, Twitter again - it gets so many people into so much trouble) that, "The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let identity politics fundamentalists run riot", although he did say that the creation of an actual Appropriation Prize as some supporters of Niedzviecki have suggested "went too far". he followed this up with an interview on CBC, in which he stated: "There is a legitimate debate to be had t where the rights of artists to imagine other cultures end, and the rights of those other cultures to avoid appropriation begin."
Within hours after that, various incensed writers and poets started to pull their own contributions to The Walrus, and Mr. Kay soon resigned his position with the magazine. In his registration, he stressed that he "had editorial freedom within The Walrus" but that he found he was starting to censor himself.
Personally, I would agree with all three of Kay's sentiments, which seem reasoned and appropriate (to appropriate a touchy word). So, go ahead, sack me.

Has the time come for a less dogmatic approach to ransom payments?

Ex-CSIS assistant director, and now private travel security advisor, Andrew Ellis has perhaps shocked a few people with his impassioned article in today's Globe and Mail, in which he openly questions the perceived wisdom of not paying kidnapping ransoms.
Ellis, who is quite experienced in these matter from his time at CSIS, questions the widely-accepted theory - that it is unwise to pay ransoms on the grounds that it only encourages the kidnappers to strike again - and furthermore claims that there is little evidence to suggest that such a policy actually works. He quotes studies that show that there is no clear link between a country's official ransom policy and the number of its citizens taken hostage, and that countries that do pay ransoms or make concessions to kidnappers have a record of over three times the number of releases. He also alleges that government officials taken hostage are held to a different standard than private citizens, and that the official policy is not always followed (although firm evidence is hard to come by).
Canada, like the USA, Great Britain and many other countries, has a policy of non-payment by the state, and even makes it illegal for private individuals to make payment of ransom money, although the USA recently tweaked its policy and now tends to turn a blind eye to such private settlements (something I, for one, was not even aware of). All such cases present difficult ethical decisions, and one size does not necessarily fit all - compare a Mexican gang kidnapping for cash with a political jihadi kidnapping in the Middle East or Asia, for example - but how is it possible to have one policy for some situations and another for others?
Mr. Ellis counsels a more open mind and a less dogmatic approach to ransoms. This kind of seems like common sense to me, but God am I glad I'm not the one making these decisions!

Matt Ridley's conclusions on climate change arise from his own perspectives

When one comes across an article on the Internet like the one I read today by Matt Ridley in the respected (if staunchly conservative) Spectator magazine, it can easily throw off some core beliefs, so convincing and categorical do they seem. As usual, though, a little more research and perspective is required.
Ridley's article, boldly entitled "Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy", purports to be a damning exposé on how much CO2 is released in the production of supposedly green wind turbines, and just how little energy wind and other renewables produce in the overall scheme of things. It is well-written and appears authoritative, but it just seemed a little too glib and self-serving, so I did a little investigating.
For example, just who is this Matt Ridley? It turns out he is a Conservative English peer (i.e. he sits in the House of Lords), who also happens to be a journalist. He has written extensively about genetics, but his latest obsession seems to be with climate change and renewable energy, about which he is highly skeptical. Partly because of his connections and partly because he writes quite well, Ridley has published a whole host of articles in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American and the Spectator, as well as having conducted several high-profile radio interviews in the UK, and delivered many interminable speeches in the House of Lords. He is in no way a scientist or a climate or engineering expert, and he just happens to have extensive (although undefined and undisclosed) interests in the coal industry.
So, does what he says hold water? Carbon Brief recently asked a selection of scientists and energy policy experts to comment on Mr. Ridley's views, and they did so with gusto, the results of which can be read in detail on Scribd. The upshot is that many of Ridley's claims and assertions need to be taken with a substantial grain of salt.
I also did a bit of checking of my own, with particular reference to Ridley's claims about the carbon footprint of wind turbines. I found much research and a variety of opinions, although none quite as emphatic and dire as Mr. Ridley's contentions.
For example, one such article, from closer to home, comes from the Sakatchewan Community Wind organization, and looks in detail at the carbon and energy payback of wind turbines within the notoriously coal-friendly context of Saskatchewan. Their meta-study concludes that, taking into account their whole lifecycle (including the extraction and manufacture of raw materials, the manufacture of the turbines, blades and tower, and their transportation, erection, operation, maintenance, dismantling, recycling and disposal), wind turbines pay back, both in terms of energy produced and carbon dioxide produced/averted, in just 6 months.
What a difference an alternative perspective makes to publicly available data! The take-away from all this, of course, is: "don't believe everything you read on the Internet". Another conclusion is: "if it looks too good, or too bad, to be true, then it probably is". And, finally: "check sources and do your own research". But who has the time or energy for that?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Are Little Free Libraries failing to fulfill their own mandate?

Those Little Free Libraries are everywhere in my middle-class Toronto neighbourhood. I have always seen them as well-meaning, if slightly redundant, living as we do in the city with one of the biggest and best free public library system in the world. They are cute, and most people seem to like them. My wife, however, sees them as an evil blight (a slight exaggeration of her views, perhaps), set up in opposition to the public libraries. A recent article on Treehugger about the Little Free Library phenomenon has me possibly rethinking my own impressions.
Not all of the little free libraries out there are Little Free Libraries, but many of them are. Although the Little Free Library organization is a not-for-profit, it has something of a stranglehold on the sector, with over 50,000 official LFLs currently in use in over 70 countries. It charges a registration fee of between $42 and $89 for the use of its brand-name, as well as anywhere from $179 and $1,254(!) for its little house structures for books (although it is not mandatory that registrants use Little Free Library's own structures). I'd certainly be fascinated to see what a top-of-the-line unit looks like!
A couple of Toronto researchers (from Ryerson University and the University of Toronto) have recently published a study which questions the whole concept. Given the registration fee and structure costs, it may come as no surprise that the vast majority of LFLs are in wealthy, gentrified neighbourhoods, populated by an educated, degree-toting population. They are also overwhelmingly in areas where public libraries already exist. So much for addressing the issue of "book deserts", as the Little Free Library organization boasts! Neither do LFLs have any role to play in community-building, another claim of the project, with owners having almost zero interaction with strangers or the local community. 
The research study contends that the adoption of LFLs is a form of branded philanthropy known as "virtue-signalling", which is "driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way". Ouch!
The study concludes that public libraries (at least in a city like Toronto) do much better job of both community-building and providing appropriate literature to everyone at no cost than do LFLs. It does not go so far as to claim that LFLs are actually hurting the public library system, just that they are failing miserably in their own self-professed mandate.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Has the spectre of right-wing populism gone away?

In the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron' s strong win in the French presidential elections this week, many people around the world are breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief, and wondering whether the threat of a surge right-wing populism is finally receding.
Centrist M. Macron won about 66% of the popular vote, compared to white nationalist Marine Le Pen's 34%, an apparent runaway victory for commonsense and wisdom that extended across almost all demographics. But this still represents the French National Front's best ever showing at the national level, and the party could still do well in the National Assembly vote in June (without a supportive majority in the lower house, M. Macron's victory may well be a hollow one).
After populist victories in the UK Brexit vote and the US presidential elections last year, the spectre of rising anti-immigrant anti-globalization populism seemed more than likely. But, since then, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and now Marine Le Pen in France, have all to stamp their right-wing vision on their respective countries. Britain's populist UKIP party was also almost blanked out in local council elections just last week. Next up is Germany, and few are predicting that Angela Merkel will lose control of Europe's biggest economy.
Italy, however, could be a different story, and the populist anti-Europe Five Star Movement has a handsome lead in the polls there, although a lot can still change in the run-up to the Italian election next spring. And the upcoming French National Assembly vote could have an influence on that too.
So, the forces of middle-of-the-road democracy can perhaps give themselves a pat on the back. But they certainly can't rest on their laurels, or slacken the pressure. The spectre is not yet at bay.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Mark Z. Danielewski's at it again in The Familiar

I have set myself the always-daunting task of reading another of Mark Z. Danielewski books, 2015's The Familiar Volume 1, subtitled One Rainy Day in May.
It is probably the heaviest book I have ever read, weighing in at 1,650g (for context, my copy of Ulysses only weighs 430g, my Complete Works of Shakespeare is 810g). The paper is very high quality and glossy, and there are at least 840 pages, if the book's sporadic page numbering can be believed. It even comes with convenient built-in page-marker ribbon. Like a Bible. My Bible weighs 730g.
But, being a Mark Z. Danielewski book, it is not only heavy in terms of grams. Reading it is not a passive exercise. There are a number of different story arcs under way (nine in total, I believe), each of which take place over the course of the same single day, and which may, or may not, eventually come together. Each story arc, helpfully identified by time-stamped colour-coded page corners, employs a completely different writing style, not to mention different typeface(s) - there is an appendix of typefaces at the end, for God's sake - different page design(s) and layout(s), as well as assorted other species of visual and literary trickery.
Indeed, like Danielewski's earlier book, House of Leaves, (which I have also reviewed in these pages), it is a graphic designer's (and typesetter's) wet dream. Some of this visual trickery even out-House of Leaves his own House of Leaves: blocks of text may be fashioned into shapes, or moulded around voids; pages may comprise hundreds of tiny lines, or just one word or phrase; text may be horizontal, vertical, or skitter around at random angles; it may appear as screenshots of a computer program, as a medical log, or as a full-body tattoo; it may wander drunkenly around the page, or spiral into nothingness with scientific precision; punctuation may be almost completely absent, or be replaced by computer-language-style nested parentheses; etc, etc. Eventually, the brain-jarring design innovations do calm down a little, as the "story" proper unfolds, but, in terms of typesetting, page layout and off-kilter presentation, there is very little that is not attempted here at some point.
And those writing styles? A few representative examples may help.
  • One story arc is written in what I take to be Singlish (the almost impenetrable colloquial patois or creole popular on the streets of Singapore): "they saysay she tutor demons, lah. saysay mice dance to her finger snap and a pelesit does her bidding. saysay sa-ruckup rang bumi fly to her window and call her mother. they say-say a lot."
  • Another is almost poetic in its pretensions, despite the geeky science-y subject matter it covers: "She scrolls to the peak of the present and still discovers the temple unmarred. The unplayed music of this structure never repeals its secrecy. At least on this edge, where the future waits, explanation and hope also wait."
  • Yet another employs sassy, uber-urban, obsessively name-dropping, jargon- and acronym-laden, West Coast cop-speak, like Thomas Pynchon on steroids: "Helicopters still overhead, KTLA and LAPD. Journalists by van and taxi. Police Scanner Twittidiots. What a former South Bureau deputy chief nicknamed PeSTs. Supervising sergeant already running things. Even DRE. Though Ösgür has yet to sense any drug connect. It all looks Robbery-Homicide."
  • Or how about skanky Latino underworld gang argot: "'¡Lo que es un escuincle!' Lupita laughs. Pleased. Almoraz holds his tongue. Most of the crew drifts into the kitchen, her latest cucarachas settling around Almoraz at the big table, same veteranos Luther's known over the years, none as old as Miz but a few getting there."
I could go on, but you get the picture.
This is probably not beach reading (the book's weight alone would preclude that). It's the kind of book you will either love or hate - there will be very little middle ground. My erudite bibliophile wife, for example, hated it, did not get past 50 pages or so. She found the constant type changes and the so-called "visual writing" (what Danielewski himself describes as "signiconic" work) distracting, annoying and self-indulgent, and the effort required to penetrate the text not worth the rewards. Me, I think I love it, although it's a close thing. Just having absolutely no idea what you are going to find on the next page is actually quite refreshing, the very epitome of a page-turner.
And the Volume 1 part? Apparently, this is the first installment in a proposed 27-volume serial novel, which Danielewski appears to visualize more as a television series than as a work of literature, and about which he laconically says, "The story concerns a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten". He is currently churning out 800+ page volumes at a rate of one or two a year (four volumes are available as of early 2017). Never let it be said that Mr. Danielewski is not ambitious.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Guinness is now good for you AND vegan-friendly

Most people aren't aware of it, but Guinness has been using fish swim bladders as part of its manufacturing process for most of the last 256 years it has been in business. The company has been looking for a more palatable (and vegan) alternative for some years now, and has just announced that keg Guinness will no longer use fish bladders in its manufacturing process, with canned and bottled Guinness to follow by the end of the year.
Guinness, as well as many other British real ale cask beers and even some wines, uses a collagen product called isinglass, which is produced from the dried swim bladders of fish, as part of its filtration and fining (clarification) system. There is no requirement to state the use of isinglass on the bottle. As of a couple of days ago, draught Guinness in keg form - brewed at their huge St. James Gate Brewery and exported around the world for use in pubs, bars and restaurants - will be swim bladder free, and therefore totally vegan. All bottled and canned Guinness will also be vegan by the end of the year, as the new process is extended.
Now, I'm not vegan, but I am vegetarian, and when I found out that Guinness probably has traces of fishy bits floating around in it (courtesy of my daughter's Fermentation Biology course in university, as it happens), it was one of those small disappointments, like finding out that most Caesar salad dressing, Branston Pickles and Worcestershire Sauce have small amounts of anchovy paste in their ingredients (why would they DO that? - for the record, British Branston Pickles, available in Canada at British import stores, does not have anchovy paste in it, and neither does Kraft Caesar Salad Dressing, and Wizard's Sauces even make a vegan Worcestershire Sauce, although good luck finding that).
Guinness's change of heart comes after many vegan organizations lobbied and petitioned the company to change its manufacturing process (here is just one example of such a petition), so chalk on up for consumer activism. If you are interested, Barnivore has an exhaustive list of vegan beers and wines.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Denying all older athletics records a futile exercise in revisionism

A proposal by a European Athletics task force to effectively rescind all world records before 2005, on the grounds that they cannot be verified, has many athletes up in arms.
Under the proposal's provisions, a world record would only be recognized if it fulfills three criteria: 1) it occurred at one of an approved list of events, where top level officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed; 2) the athlete has been subjected to an approved number of doping tests in the months leading up to the event; and 3) the doping control sample taken after the record was stored and made available for retesting for at least ten years. As the IAAF only started storing and retesting doping control samples in 2005, any record from before that date would therefore not meet the final criterion, and so any pre-2005 records would no longer be officially recognized.
I understand where this is coming from, and the need to regain the public's trust after a plethora of high-profile drug test fails in recent years. Many world records still date from the 1980s, when illicit drug use was rife and there was no out-of-competition testing (and what testing there was nothing like as sophisticated as today's is). Apparently, many of the athletes and athletics authorities in Europe are strongly in favour of the idea (the British much less so).
But, as some of the athletes affected by the proposal point out, such a move would be incredibly disrespectful to the drug-free majority of athletes, who have already had to compete against cheats in attaining their achievements. To lose out again as a result of this proposal, would merely add insult to injury. Tarring everyone with the same brush seems unnecessarily brutal.
Records will continue to be broken, and it seems to me that all that can be reasonably done is to make sure that all new records are legitimate. Denying all older records seems like a futile exercise in revisionism.
The European task force plans to recommend its radical proposal to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the main organizing body for international athletics worldwide) at its next major meeting in July this year.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

US budget bill an indication of Trump's lowered expectations

In a measure of the depths to which the Trump administration has fallen, they are hailing the upcoming budget legislation - which still remains to be actually voted on, but which is widely agreed on in its essentials - as a "bipartisan win for the American people".
Its significance is that it will be the first major piece of bipartisan legislation to be actually passed during Trump's now more than 100 days in office. But it's worth a look at just how successful the spending bill actually is.
First and firemost, by agreeing something, anything, Mr. Trump has avoided the spectre of an embarassing government shut-down. It also includes $85 billion towards strengthening the US military, although that is much less than he was asking for.
But Trump's calls for substantial cuts in domestic spending on medical research, the Environmental Protection Agency and infrastructure grants, were all rejected. And, significantly, his signature call for a Mexican border wall was rejected out of hand. In fact, Democrat politicians are also calling this a win for the American people, so none of the two must be lying or exaggerating.
The bill receives its final vote on Wednesday, and then the whole thing will happen again in October when another budget bill is negotiated. But it's interesting to see just how much the Republicans have pared back their expectations, when faced with the reality of governing.

Monday, May 01, 2017

High Lake Ontario levels not the fault of Plan 2014

Lake Ontario, on whose shores I live, is currently about 60cm higher than normal April levels. We spent quite a while yesterday watching huge breakers crashing right over the boardwalk on our beach, and creating a whole new mini-lake on the widest part of the beach, something I have never seen in the 27 years or so that I have been here. Apparently, the last time the lake was this high was in the 1970s.
Some lakeshore property-owners have seen whole chunks of their gardens washed away. So, of course, people are worried about their property values and looking for someone to blame. In particular, many people are, without much evidence, laying the blame on the controversial Plan 2014, which was instituted earlier this year by the US-Canada International Joint Commission, after 16 years of research and negotiations, in order to help conserve threatened wildlife, as well as to protect communities downstream on the St. Lawrence that often flood in the spring, as indeed they are even now. That plan calls for higher high water levels and lower lows (Lake Ontario's levels are regulated to some extent through regulation of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence Seaway near Cornwall, Ontario).
However, a spokesperson for the International Joint Commission estimated that only a few centimetres of the current high levels are attributable to Plan 2014. The rest (i.e. over 90% of it) is due to the record April rainfall, particularly in western New York state and further west in Michigan. The US Army Corps of Engineers concurs. Nevertheless, many lakefront property owners persist in blaming Plan 2014, and a couple of Republican senators are calling on Donald Trump to reverse the plan (opinions vary as to whether that is legally even possible).
Erosion of lake-front properties is a normal and expected phenomenon. One Niagara property owner estimates that they have lost about 50 feet (that's about 15 metres to you and me) in the 50 years they have lived there, including about 2 feet (60cm) so far this spring. Blaming it (incorrectly) on an environmental protection measure is totally unreasonable. Blame it on Mother Nature if you like, or blame it on man-made global warming and climate change, but don't blame poor old Plan 2014.
Meanwhile, it is still raining...

You don't have to get high to use medical marijuana

As Trudeau-era Canada moves to legalize marijuana, I am reading more and more articles about how efficacious medical cannabis can be. From PTSD to Parkinson's to arthritis to depression, more and more anecdotal evidence, and, to a lesser extent, clinical studies, are raving about its beneficial effects. It seems to be the panacea (or possibly the snake oil) of the age.
It is particularly, and increasingly, popular among the over-55 set, in which the kinds of aches and pains that cannabis seems well-suited to are rife. And, while many in this demographic are wary of lighting up a toke (many are ex-smokers who do not want to reactivate an old habit), they are increasingly equanimous with the idea of ingesting cannabis oils and lozenges. Equally, many older people really do not want or need the "high" that comes with smoking marijuana, or its addictiveness - let alone the drowsiness, nausea and constipation that can also be involved - but have found that they can obtain the medical relief they need from other aspects of cannabis, or at least that cannabis can reduce the need for other more dangerous or addictive medications like opioids.
That said, dosage, treatment protocols and some knowledge of the active compounds in cannabis are essential in making it a beneficial treatment for chronic pain and other ailments, and even many doctors are not yet au courant with these, and no standard dosages yet exist.
For example, what I hadn't realized is that, unlike in the case of most manufactured drugs, the marijuana plant has hundreds of chemical compounds which can affect a wide range of bodily processes. There are, though, two main active compounds which are thought to have therapeutic benefits: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the better known of the two, and is the substance that create the marijuana high (as well as having some medicinal effects). Complications arise, in that different strains of marijuana have different levels of each of these ingredients, and that no ideal level of THC and CBD has been established for treating particular pains. For example, CBD oil can be effective for osteoarthritic pain, but comes with none of the high, the addictiveness and the lessening of control that many people associate with THC.
The use of medical marijuana is nothing new, but its application has been severely constrained, and rightly so, until the data on its benefits and dangers are better understood. But as Canada and other jurisdictions move to legalize it completely, the science will have to grow up fast. As I start to experience the very early symptoms of arthritis myself, who knows, I may even find myself resorting to it in the future.

Some coffee shops start to ditch the obligatory wifi

An interesting current trend, although still in its infancy, is the movement of some cafes and coffee shops not to offer wifi.
Almost every coffee shop, from Starbucks, McDonalds and Tim Hortons to the little independent roastery on the corner, now feels obliged to offer a wifi internet connection, which is a good part of the reason why coffee shops are now dominated by young people silently tapping away on their computers, completely divorced from the world around them, and usually sporting a cold (or often empty) cup of coffee as proof that they did in fact buy something at one point. They may hog a table for hours at a time, something that cafes seem surprisingly acquiescent about.
However, café owners have also begun to notice that other people are often reticent to sit down at a shared table next to a laptop user, and may even leave coffee-less rather than do so. I often look in a cafe window and see the isolated islands of laptop-users, and think how soulless it looks.
So, some coffee shops in Vancouver and Toronto are bucking the trend and ditching the wifi for customers, in an attempt to return to an earlier time when cafes were social hubs full of conversation. It's a brave move, and some have seen their daily take reduced, at least in the short term, as a result. But I have to say it's nice to at least be given a choice of such an establishment.
Personally, I have never understood the attraction of using a computer in a coffee shop, with all the distractions and noise and obligation (as I see it, anyway) to buy expensive coffee at regular intervals. My university-age daughter assures me that she finds it conducive to working, and finds the background noise comforting, although every study I have ever read suggests that noise of any kind is distracting and detrimental to studying.
It will be interesting to see if the infant trend becomes a full-blown movement.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Peel school secularism protests may have hidden religious element

In the district of Peel, just northwest of Toronto, the spectre of religious, even racial, factionalism appears to be rearing its ugly head, although perhaps not in its usual guise.
A series of small demonstrations in support of secularism in the Peel education system, a cause that I am all in favour of myself, is bringing with it an odour of religious intolerance. The protesters are, quite rightly, complaining about the Peel school board's recent decision to allow Muslims to perform their Friday prayers (or jummah) in schools, arguing that such excessive religious accommodation is misplaced, and that schools should be kept as wholly secular institutions.
That is all well and good, but some of the protests have become more overtly anti-Muslim (as opposed to pro-secular), resulting in some anti-Muslim remarks and even, at one point, the tearing up and stomping on of a copy of the Koran and a YouTube offer of a cash reward for evidence of Muslim students using hate speech in their Friday prayers.
More than half of the population of Peel is South Asian, and the region hosts the fastest-growing Muslim population in Canada (an estimated 12% of Canada's total Muslim population lives there). And, interestingly, now that the minority population has become a majority, it is beginning to splinter and divide, and identity politics are beginning to take hold - even here in multicultural Canada, where such prejudices are largely absent.
For example, it is apparent that the school board protesters are overwhelmingly Indian and Hindu. They represent small and earnest-sounding protest organizations like Concerned Parents of Canada (CPC), Religion Out Of Public Schools (ROOPS), and Keep Religion Out Of Our Public Schools (KROOOPS). But there is also an element of Hindu demagoguery in some of these groups, and more particularly in the Rise Canada organization, which is also involved, and many of the participants are unashamed supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist revival. Such movements have apparently established themselves in the United States and in Britain, although this is the first I have heard of them here in Canada.
Despite the ostensibly reasonable, democratic and secularist concerns of these protest groups, and their stress on Canadian values and freedoms, there is at times a distinct anti-Islam undertone to them, which is both disturbing and unwelcome.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Canada no longer has to worry about a Trump-esque O'Leary

America's Donald Trump and Canada's Kevin O'Leary are scarily similar in many respects. They are both mega-rich reality show celebrities with zero political experience. They are both narcissistic prima donnas with unpredictable tempers, and come armed with a conviction that they are right and the rest of the world must be wrong. They are both intelligent, but they have no empathy and no thought for their fellow man or woman. Basically, it's all about them.
In Trump's case, as we have seen all too often in his first few months of power, this translates into a political MO which is very difficult to deal with. His policies tend to begin with a blustering middle-of-the-night tweet, which his policy wonks then try to formulate into something halfway workable (which, as we have seen from the number of Trump edicts that have back-fired and either been abandoned or legally blocked, is no easy task).
The so-called "dealmaker-in-chief" has a very stressful and inefficient method of dealing, which usually starts with promising the moon and then gradually paring it back to something more practical. Thus, he will initially bluster that he is going to pull out of NAFTA or NATO or the Paris Climate Accord or whatever it might be. But then, after a conversation or two with more reasonable and seasoned individuals (which usually means someone outside his own cabinet), he will tone down his demands substantially, or often withdraw them completely. This must be incredibly frustrating for other politicians, who are not used to having to deal with the temper tantrums of a six-year old.
Kevin O'Leary is another such soi-disant dealmaker, and Canada should consider itself very lucky that he has recently decided not to pursue the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Not that the Conservatives are in any danger of running the country again for quite some time (even most Conservatives are admitting that Trudeau is going to be unbeatable in 2019, and they are meekly setting their sights on 2023).
O'Leary's rationale for quitting the leadership race at this late stage is that he is "a numbers guy" and his extensive private polling has shown him that there is no way he can possibly win enough seats in Quebec to defeat the Liberals, and he is really not interested in being the leader of an opposition party. Why it has taken him this long to figure that out is a moot question, as is why he thinks that Maxime Bernier, with all the baggage he is bringing to the position, is in a better position to do so. O'Leary is portraying his decision as the best one for the party and for the country, as of course he has to do. But, in reality, it is the response of another megalomaniac six-year old, along the lines of "it's my ball, and I'm taking it home".
Now, I'm no fan of Maxine Bernier, and I am really not convinced that his libertarian vision is going to resonate with Canadians. But I consider that the country has dodged a bullet by not having to contend with a Trumpian monomaniac like Kevin O'Leary.

Crane-climber a welcome break from politics as usual

In a welcome diversion from the dominant news items of the day (Trump tilting at the windmills of NAFTA and NATO, the Ontario provincial budget, blah blah blah), a Toronto woman was rescued from the top of crane yesterday, in an early morning drama which has captured the imaginations of the population and the local media.
23 year old Marisa Lazo, described by a friend as "an adventurous girl" (which is perhaps an understatement), was discovered around 4am on Wednesday morning placidly sitting on the pulley of a crane about 10 stories above street level in a construction site at Yonge and Wellesley in downtown Toronto.
Crane rescue
Dressed on this cold night in jeans, button-down short, a light denim jacket and two inch heels, Ms. Lazo had somehow scaled the huge crane, and then shinned down the cable to the pulley, where she was spotted swaying gently in the breeze by neighbours as it was coming light in the morning. Firefighter Rob Wonfor, who carried out the rescue, is quoted as saying: "I have no idea how she did it ... It was hard enough for me to go up with ropes and harnesses and she free-climbed that".
The next day, Ms. Lazo faced six mischief charges, and was ultimately released on $500 bail on the condition that does not enter an more construction sites or do on any rooftops. Which might sound kind of ridiculous, but apparently she has a penchant for standing on, or dangling off, tall building sin Toronto, as her Instagram account (since taken down) attests. In fact, "rooftopping" for photos is apparently a thing among some young people, and some have even died from it. Who knew?
Anyway, I just wanted to thank Ms. Lazo for brightening my day a little, and for giving the press something other than dry politics to feast on, for a while at least.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Canada's dairy trade and the supply management system

Wow, it's been a while since my last post! I was away for a couple of weeks, but as for the rest, I can only put it down to political lethargy and a surfeit of Trump news, which has recently become an instant repellant for me.
So what has prompted this sudden renewal of interest? Canadian dairy economics and supply management? Sounds unlikely, but it's an issue I have never really understood and wanted to get my head around, and a recent article about Canada's dairy trade woes with the USA has provided me with some answers at least.
Mr. Trump is currently blowing hard about Canada's "unfair" dairy policies, bleating that American dairy farmers in Wisconsin and New York are "getting killed" by the current provisions of NAFTA on the dairy trade. And, unusually, he may actually have a point, although as usual his language is characteristically exaggerated and excessive, and the story is predictably much more complicated than he suggests. Ground zero in the allegations being throw around is the state of Wisconsin, known as the dairy capital of America, and coincidentally instrumental in Donald Trump's narrow election victory (as well as the home state of the influential Republican House speaker Paul Ryan).
The current dispute has been precipitated by a recent decision by Canadian milk marketing boards to introduce a new classification for a type of milk concentrate used to make cheese, a classification that apparently makes it much more beneficial for Canadian cheese companies to use domestic milk rather than import cheaper milk from the USA. As a result of this new policy, the American milk processor Grassland Dairy Products summarily cancelled 58 contracts with dairy farms in Wisconsin and another 9 in Minnesota, arguing that it has suffered a "severe loss" and been "forced to cut back on our milk intake volumes on a very short notice".
But further contributing to the problem is the fact that the world, the USA, and Wisconsin in particular, is currently facing a huge glut and oversupply of milk - a problem clearly not of Canada's making - and so farmers like those in Wisconsin just have nowhere else to go, and many are faced with selling off their cows where possible, or even slaughtering them for meat.
While dairy practices in the USA are even more egregious than those in Canada, the machinations currently at work in the industry are almost entirely economic and not related to the environment or animal welfare. Somehow, NAFTA notwithstanding, Canada has managed to maintain a huge 270% duty on most imported dairy products, which keeps most imports out (and also props up artificially high dairy prices at home). Up until recently, "ultrafiltered milk", a milk concentrate primarily used to make cheese and yoghurts, has been exempt from this duty, and this is the loophole that many Canadian cheese and yoghurt manufacturers have been taking advantage of in using cheaper American ultrafiltered milk. It is the reversal of this exemption, then, that has precipitated the current crisis.
Although not immediately to blame for the current situation, the infamous Canadian regime of "supply management" is also implicated in the fracas. The dairy industry in Canada, as well as the chicken and egg industries, has since the 1970s been protected by a tariff wall to block imports, strict production quotas and centrally fixed prices. The practice has faced mounting criticism from abroad, particularly from America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and is even under fire internally, as it leads to artificially high prices for Canadian dairy, eggs and chicken. Although Canada had nearly 140,000 dairy farms at the time the policy was implemented, that number is now down to  about 12,000 and falling annually, so one would have thought that it might be an idea whose day has passed. Nevertheless, all three major political parties still strongly support it, and the dairy lobby is still disproportionately powerful.
The official Canadian response to the current American spat over dairy tariffs is that the global oversupply of milk is the main culprit, but the supply management system is most definitely the elephant in the room, and it would frankly surprise me if it survived the current negotiations. And that may not actually be a bad thing (unless you are a Canadian dairy farmer, of course).
Not that the USA is not also subsidizing its own dairy industry, but that's another story....

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Executives of "cash-strapped" Bombardier get 50% pay rise

Not that much time has elapsed since I was reporting on the $1.3 billion gifted by the Canadian and Quebecois governments to the troubled aerospace company Bombardier Inc.
But here I am reading another article explaining how Bombardier's senior executives received a nearly 50% increase in their compensation last year.  So, at the same time as the company was laying off thousands of workers, pleading poverty and failing to deliver products on time, it saw fit to reward its top brass with unprecedented wealth: among others, board chairman Pierre Beaudoin raked in $5.2 million, and CEO Alain Bellemare earned $9.5 million; the top six earned a ridiculous $32.6 million between them.
And the justification for such largesse? Apparently, achieving profit and cash flow targets, securing orders for the C-series airplanes, the first flight of the Global 7000 business jet, and making significant progress on the company's plans to revive its fortunes.
All of which makes one wonder why the company needed a huge injection of public funds.

UPDATE
After a huge public outcry and substantial demonstrations outside their Montreal headquarters, Bombardier's CEO Alain Bellemare has announced that the increases that have so incensed people will be postponed. Actually, just over half of the proposed increases will be deferred  ("deferred", notice, not cancelled), so that the poor beleaguered execs of Bombardier will now have wait until 2020 for their 2016 bonuses.
It's too little, too late, of course, but hey, now no-one can accuse Bombardier of being crass and insensitive...

Fearless Girl only serves to improve Charging Bull

The recent addition of a little girl, staring with resolve and a measure of disapproval and confrontation at the Charging Bull on New York's Wall Street, has garnered a good deal of admiration and approbation since the installation of the new bronze statue. Most people see it as a welcome foil to the machismo and testosterone represented by the bull, which can itself be seen as a reflection of the prevailing state of affairs on Wall Street and in the financial industry as a whole.
However, not everyone is happy about it - when were they ever? The artist who created the bull, Arturo Di Modica, is livid. And you can kind of see his point: his career-defining work of art has been usurped, even over-shadowed, by an artistic (and perhaps commercial) decision over which he had no control. There again, his bull was originally plonked down in front of the New York Stock Exchange back in 1989 without any invitation, permission or license, installed under the cover of night as a kind of guerrilla art. Does he, then, retain ANY artist's rights?
The other criticism being leveled against the new addition, both by Di Modica and others, is that it is merely a thinly-veiled advertising campaign for State Street Global Advisors, the company that commissioned the Fearless Girl statue from artist Kristen Visbal. State Street Global Advisors is not known for its strong advocacy of women, numbering just 5 women among its leadership team of 28, and it has been facing its own PR challenges of late, with several high profile lawsuits directed against it. And, yes, the statue does indeed boast a small street-level plaque in the company's name. But corporate patronage of the arts is just the name of the game nowadays, just as historically patronage came from wealthy burghers, royalty and churchmen. And remember, Di Modica himself has profited greatly from his Wall Street Bull statue (which he once considered selling the for $5 million), and he has even sold replicas to other cities.
Certainly, Fearless Girl does indeed change the meaning and impact of Charging Bull, both as a work of art and as a symbol. But, as I see it, that's not nesessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump administration playing fast and loose with scientific data

And finally, the third in a string of consecutive posts on the Trump administration's War on the Environment, here is another depressing article about another plank of his campaign.
There is incontrovertible evidence that, in the few weeks since coming to power, important and irreplaceable data has been disappearing from government-controlled science databases and websites, particularly data concerned with climate change and the Arctic. Arctic researcher Victoria Hermann reports that she has seen valuable data disappear, almost before her very eyes. She has been receiving a deluge of invalid citation warnings as previously-available resources are mysteriously taken offline.
The alarm was sounded, in the weeks and months before Trump's inauguration, that websites and data on polluters, climate measurements, etc, needed to be backed up and copied in case they became "lost" in the new administration's overhauls. At the time, it sounded like paranoia, but apparently it was a good, even an essential, call, and most data has indeed been backed up, and alternative sources are usually available, albeit with a bit of extra sleuthing.
As Ms. Hermann points out, American environmentalists - and researchers throughout the world - were lucky enough (if that is the right phrase) to have learned a lesson from the last time something like this happened: just three years ago, the government of our very own Stephen Harper closed down no less than 11 Department of Fisheries and Oceans regional libraries, including the only Arctic centre. Reports and studies from over a century of research were lost overnight, a loss from which Arctic research has still not recovered.
Frankly, I find it amazing that such data is not copied and stored redundantly as a matter of course, and maybe now it will be. But imagine the panic this kind of scientific revisionism would strike into the hearts of committed environmentalists and scientists! Let's hope that nothing irreplaceable has been lost in this current round of right-wing over-zealousness.

Solar geoengineering may be Trump's favoured solution to climate change

As if Donald Trump's latest executive order, the so-called Energy Independence Executive Order (which I looked at in some detail in my last blog entry), were not enough, I have been reading about some of the other planks of his War on the Environment (or at least War on Environmentalism). One such is the issue of solar geoengineering, which, although not well advanced, or even well regarded, from a scientific point of view, is apparently firmly in the sights of the Trump administration.
Solar geoengineering is the idea that the atmosphere can be engineered (for example, by spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere, or cloud whitening) to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus theoretically controlling the increase in atmospheric temperatures that are occurring due to global warming. The idea has been around for decades, but Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch are making a lot of noise recently about a possible large-scale test in 2018 (their last planned test, back in 2012 had to be cancelled, but now they seem to think they are ready).
The Obama administration sensibly distanced itself from such rash, and potentially dangerous, large-scale manipulations of the Earth's ecosystems. Many scientists have warned that such tinkering could have catastrophic implications for the Earth's weather systems, including a high possibility of droughts and food supply threats for much of Asia, Africa and South America. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a moratorium on such geoengineering projects back in 2010, and reaffirmed that position just last year.
The USA never ratified that motion, though, and the current administration seems quite enthusiastic about the technology. In particular, David Schnare, a major player in Trump's scheme to turn the Environmental Protection Agency into an Environmental Destruction Agency, has strongly lobbied for a multi-phase geoengineering plan, involving real world testing within 18 months, followed by massive stratospheric spraying for up to a hundred years. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also a big fan, seeing in it a method of appearing to make a move on global warming while not impacting his beloved oil sector.
This administration just gets scarier and scarier.

Trump's anti-environment directive may not be quite as disastrous as it appears

As Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt's new (and now misnamed) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) start on the main thrust of their long-promised destabilization of the basis of America's environmental regulations, just what does his Energy Independence Executive Order on environmental regulation actually take aim at, and, given how impractical and unsuccessful many of his previous directives have been, how successful might this one be?
  • Roll back President Obama's Clear Power Plan - Obama's signature climate change policy was aimed at cutting emissions from US power plants to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The policy has not yet come into force as the Washington DC Circuit Court is still considering various legal challenges to the drafting of the plan, the emissions targets it sets for the individual states, and whether it contravenes the 10th Amendment by "forcing" states to make cuts. Trump, nevertheless, wants to completely rewrite (and water down) the provisions of the plan, mainly to placate the coal lobby. This could take a long time, and it will still need to go through the court process, just as Obama's plan did, and any rewrite can expect to face strong legal challenges from environmental groups.
  • Reconsider carbon standards for new power plants - The EPA under President Obama also set stringent CO2 standards for the building of new power stations, standards that effectively make new coal power plants all but impossible without expensive carbon capture and sequestration measures (which make an already rocky economic case into a prohibitive one). Trump and Pruitt will not be able to avoid carbon standards entirely, but they will look to water them down, again in (rather forlorn) hope of making coal cost-effective again.
  • Reconsider regulations on methane emissions - Obama and the EPA's standards changes also looked to reduce emissions of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from oil and gas operations to 40% below 2012 levels by 2025. Trump et al will try to reduce that commitment, although they will have to justify any changes through the courts.
  • Reduce the estimate of the "social cost of carbon" - Under President Obama, a dozen or so federal agencies established a social cost, or effective price, of carbon, based on scientific modeling. In 2009, it set this cost at $36 a tonne, a value to be used in setting efficiency standards for appliances, etc, based on cost-benefit analyses. Mr. Trump will try to reduce this in any way possible, although once again he will face significant court challenges (and many federal agencies believe that it should actually be significantly higher).
  • Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing - The Department of the Interior under President Obama stopped the government from leasing out federal lands with coal reserves buried below for commercial development until the program had been reviewed and evaluated. Trump wants to lift the moratorium, although it is far from clear that mining companies will actually be interested in such leases anyway, given the adverse economics of coal right now.
  • Do away with climate change guidance for federal NEPA reviews - Under President Obama, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidelines on how federal agencies should incorporate climate implications into their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. Trump's executive order will repeal the need to follow these guidelines and generally make the whole process much easier, although federal agencies will still need to carry out the environmental reviews, and the lack of guidance may in fact lead to more litigation, not less.
  • Rescind other Obama executive orders on climate change - These include the Climate Action Plan (laying out the country's overall goals on climate change), and orders to urge federal agencies to reduce their CO2 output, and to help communities reduce their own individual carbon footprint. There seems to be little to stop Trump from just cancelling these.
  • Instruct federal agencies to review any rules that might inhibit the development of domestic energy production from any source - Trump's justification for this is that it will promote "energy independence", but the agencies will be merely instructed to report their findings to the White House, and it is not clear what will happen then (although the Trump administration's favour of the coal, oil and gas industries is well known).
This is a large and potentially important executive order, although as noted above, the various changes are by no means slam dunks, and it is not even certain that Mr. Trump's own party will accept all of the changes he is proposing. Nor is it likely to affect the momentum towards renewable energy and carbon-responsible decision-making that has taken hold among American utilities, states and businesses. One recent study by the Rhodium Group suggests that, even if Trump's executive order were to be adopted wholesale, emissions may remain stable or even decrease slightly, thanks to market forces and other policies that Trump cannot affect. Of course, this would be nothing like the progress that would have been made under Obama's Climate Action Plan. But hopefully this will only be, at worst, a four year hiatus anyway.
Leaders throughout the world have expressed their disappointment with Trump's trajectory on climate change, and on the environment in general, with most seeing this latest directive as a major mis-step. With somebody's idea of a flair for the dramatic, Trump signed the order surrounded by a gaggle of photogenic coal miners, repeating his promise to "put our miners back to work". But industry experts say that ship has already sailed, and the coal industry is unlikely ever to be the powerhouse it once was. As the Washington Post points out, there are less than 70,000 workers in the coal industry today, including less than 16,000 of what might actually be called coal-miners (extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers), although the strength of their lobby is grossly outsized compared to their employment statistics.
One thing the executive order has done, perhaps predictably, is to set business groups and environmental campaigners at each others' throats once again. Supporters say it will create thousands of new jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries; opponents say it will only create more jobs in the legal profession, as challenge after challenge are brought forward. Environmentalists should be wary of just jamming things up in the courts indefinitely, though, because that is partly what Trump wants - inaction on climate change. And the status quo will not get the USA to anywhere near its Paris climate deal commitments - which is also playing into Trump's hands.