Monday, December 18, 2017

Plaudits pour in for retiring Chief Justice McLachlin

The plaudits continue to roll in for Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as she retires after 28 years on the Supreme Court of Canada, including 17 years as Chief Justice.
Probably Canada's best-known judge, Justice McLachlin has been a beacon of common sense at the head of Canada's legal system, and has earned almost universal respect. She refused to be cowed by Stephen Harper during the Conservative Dark Ages of the early 21st century, and almost single-handedly preserved the country from some of his most egregious excesses. She has provided a leading voice on native issues, and a splendid role model for women and girls in her still male-dominated field.
Her replacement as Chief Justice is to be Quebecois Justice Robert Wagner, who will almost certainly do a good job in the post, but is unlikely to prove the same kind of activist and firebrand judge as Justice McLachlin.
She will be sorely missed.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why are British novels "translated" for American readers?

Reading Jim Crace's Harvest, I am confronted once again with the inexplicable practice of Americanizing British novels.
It is most disconcerting and jarring to be reading about quintessentially British things like "winter ales", "porridge", "tinkers" and "rooks", but juxtaposed with American spellings like "labor" and "traveler". I'm sure that's not how Jim Crace would have written it, so some American editor or publisher has taken it upon themselves to "translate" the story for an American readership.
Worse, that American translation is also foisted on us in Canada (despite the fact that Canadians typically use more British spellings than American). The book I am reading, with its American spellings, is published by Hamish Hamilton, the Canadian arm of the British publishing house, now part of Penguin Canada: it is not an American book that has found its way into a Toronto second-hand book store.
So, why do they do that? Why go to the trouble? Are American readers really not able to deal with a word like "labour", and make the link with the more familiar "labor"? Do they really need "car park" to be rendered as "parking lot", and "lavatory" as "bathroom"? It remains a mystery to me, and I have never seen a good justification for it.
It also make me wonder what else has been changed in the text I am reading. Other blogs have catalogued some of the enormities that have been enacted in the interests of American cultural imperialism. Harry Potter fans, in their usual obsessive way, have exhaustively documented changes made between the British and US editions in the Harry Potter Lexicon (remember the furore when "Philosopher's Stone" was changed to "Sorceror's Stone").
Surely, it's not too much to ask that we get to read to what the author actually wrote, and not what some publisher thinks we should read.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bitcoin's carbon footprint rises inexorably

As the bitcoin continues to lurch to ever more unsustainable record highs, one other unexpected implication has come to light.
I'm sure that no-one ever even considered the eventuality, but, as more and more bitcoins are created, the difficulty rate of the token-generating computer calculations increases dramatically, and, as a result, so does the electricity usage of the process, to the extent that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are becoming wildly expensive to produce, and their carbon footprint are also going through the roof.
Bitcoin "mining" requires the linking together of literally thousands of computers. Estimates of the amount of electricity used in bitcoin mining put it in the region of the equivalent of 3 million US homes, or the consumption of the entire population of Denmark (other estimates are significantly lower). And it is increasing rapidly, about 30% inthe last month alone according to one blockchain analyst from PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Given that about 58% of the world's large cryptocurrency mining pools are currently in China (followed by the USA with just 16%), and that China still gets 60% of its electricity from coal (although that is changing), the carbon footprint of bitcoin is huge. The PwC analyst mentioned above cautions that, "If we start using this on a global scale, it will kill the planet", which seems unduly alarmist. But one thing is for sure: it is certainly getting more and more expensive to produce cryptocurrencies, as the energy use of the process continues to rise.

US abandonment of net neutrality could affect Canada too

The Grinch-like Donald Trump continues in his crusade to pick apart civilization as we know it with his latest wheeze: the deregulation of the American internet structure and the abandonment of the principle of "net neutrality".
As you will probably have heard by now, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the body that regulates American phone, television and internet companies, has dropped the net neutrality protections introduced by the Obama administration, thus technically allowing big telecom companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to slow down or even block entirely services and websites they don't like, or that they want business concessions from. So, they could, for example, charge more for premium access to popular sites like Netflix, Amazon, etc, or they could give preference to their own products and services.
The telecom companies are expected to play nice for a while at least, so as not to alienate their customer base straight away. Plus, they will probably want to wait and see what comes of the various legal challenges that will inevitably be levelled at the policy. But, some people see the internet in America ending up with tiered service like the cable TV system. Most stakeholders orher than the Republican Party and the telecommunications companies themselves think it was a BAD IDEA.
So, how will all this affect us here in Canada? Typically, when America sneezes, Canada gets a cold (or sometimes pneumonia), but the general consensus seems to be that Canadian access to the internet will not be affected much at all by the move. Net neutrality is well protected in law here, and support for it is strong, even among the big telecom companies. Where things get a little messy, though, is in the fact that Canadian internet traffic often transits through the USA, and there are some concerns that Canada's access to the internet could get caught in the American non-neutral policies that way. This is largely unexplored territory, and it is not at all clear just how far the fallout may reach.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Electric cars now cheaper overall than gas or diesel cars

New research suggests that electric cars are now cheaper overall to buy and run than gas cars and hybrids.
The study looked at cars in the UK, Japan, Texas and California, over a 4 year life, taking into account the purchase price (after any available discounts and rebates), depreciation, fuel, insurance, taxation and maintenance. Pure electric cars came out cheapest overall, although mainly as a result of government support and subsidies. It is expected, though, that they will be cheaper even without subsidies in a very few years, if production is scaled up as expected.
Hybrids, which generally attract lower subsidies, turned out to be more expensive than gas or diesel cars over 4 years, and plug-in hybrids even more so.
Just one more reason to go electric.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Inuit don't actually have hundreds of words for snow

The latest Grammar Girl blog post looks at a commonly-encountered urban myth, namely that the Inuit - or, as they are often referred to, even these days, the "Eskimos" - have 50 (or 100, or even 400!) different words for snow, and so, by implication, can conceive of snow in ways that we English speakers cannot even begin to imagine.
It is a fun conceit, and one that is reflected in a bunch of similar claims, such as that Australians have many words for sand, a particular Philippino tribe has many words for rice, etc, etc, claims that are now bundled under the label "snowclones". But, unfortunately, like those other claims, and like similar popular assertions, such as the one that the Hopi natives of southwestern American have no word for the concept of "time", it's just not true.
The idea seems to have been started by the popular by the American amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf back in the 1940s, but his claim was only that the "Eskimos" had several words for snow. (Mr. Whorf was also responsible for the erroneous Hopi time claim). The contention began to be repeated and exaggerated in a bunch of popular anthropology books in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the assertion, and many other similar ones that have arisen, have been comprehensively debunked by several modern linguists, but the compelling and vaguely romantic idea nevertheless persists in the popular imagination.
Part of the reason the myth has arisen is the fact that there is no single language used among the native people of the Arctic. There are two main languages, Inuit and Yupik, but those languages also have multiple dialects. Thus, several different words exist for most things, not just snow, in much the same way as there are many different (and often linguistically related) words for "king", "wood", etc, in the various languages of Europe, or the native peoples of the Amazon.
Another part of the reason for the confusion is the agglutinative nature of the Inuit language - like German, Japanese, Esperanto and many other languages - so that quite complex phrases in English may be rendered in a single word in Inuit. Thus, the West Greenlandic word for sea ice, siku, is incorporated into their word for pack ice (sikursuit), new ice (sikuliaq), thin ice (sikuaq), melting ice (sikurluk), etc. So, the same concepts exist in English, but require more than one word to express them, simply due to the characteristics of the language itself.
Add to that the fact that the inuit and Yupik languages are highly inflectional (in English, for example, "looked", "looking", "looks", etc, are all inflections of the base word "look"). One linguist estimates that a noun in Yupik can have up to 280 inflections, but they are not really different words.
So, you can easily see how the idea might have developed, even if Mr. Whorf himself did not make such wild claims. But, however much you might like it to be true, the native people of the Arctic don't actually have many more words for snow than do other languages. Sorry.

Friday, December 01, 2017

More nuggets from the 2016 Canadian census

More interesting factoids are coming to light from the 2016 Canadian census. Call me a geek, but I am a bit of  sucker for statistics, esp3cially when it comes with pretty graphs and diagrams.
Canadians in their core working years, defined by the census as between the ages of 25 and 54, has shown a marked doward trend in year-round full-time work over the last 15 or 20 years, particularly among men, suggesting a move towards seasonal or part-time work. The percentage of seniors in full-time and particularly part-time employment has continued to rise over the same period.
Another interesting graph shoes the gender pay gap for graduates, broken down by field of study. The gap is smallest (over 95c to the dollar earned by men) in nursing, engineering and the humanities, closely followed by biological sciences, arts, education, computer science and healthcare (all over 90c to the dollar).
Some 54% of Canadians 25 to 64 years old have a college or university degree, higher than Britain and the USA (46%), and substantially higher than the OECD average (less than 37%). Shockingly, Italy and Mexico are languishing at 18% and 17% respectively. Now, I am not entirely certain whether or not this is comparing apples with apples, but that seems like a very significant spread. Immigrants in Canada, particularly recent immigrants, are much more likely to have a bachelors degree or master's degree than the Canadian born population (over twice as likely for recent immigrants), so that is one easy way of bumping up out stats right there.
One rather depressing stat shows how workers commute to their place of work. 74% of them drive, with only 12% of them taking public transit, 7% walk or bike, and 5% travel as car passengers (car-share). However, this relates to Canada as a whole, both rural and urban, and will probably not be representative of a city like Toronto, for example. Average one-way commutes show, unsurprisingly, Toronto as the worst city (at 35 minutes), followed by Oshawa, Barrie, Montreal, Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton.
Anyway, I thought it was interesting...