Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal is a fictional challenge to our preconceptions

Recently, I have been particularly enjoying Lawrence Hill's 2015 book, The Illegal.
It is set in a mythical pair of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean: the large, mineral-rich, wealthy and developed Freedom State; and the much smaller, much poorer banana republic of Zantoroland. Zantoroland is populated exclusively by various shades of black people, and is, despite its lack of facilities and funding, the natural source of a never-ending supply of elite long-distance runners. The country exhibits a sad juxtaposition between the poor but (in some ways) idyllic and bucolic lifestyle of its populace, and the violence and corruption of its authorities, a juxtaposition that is familiar from any number of smaller African states. Freedom State, on the other hand, is predominantly white, apart from a poor and lawless suburb of the capital city known as AfricTown, an area of converted shipping containers largely occupied by emigrĂ©s and refugees from Zantoroland. Freedom State has elements of South Africa, Australia, America and several other developed countries, without being obviously and definitively any of them, and has an aggressively conservative government with a sworn policy of hounding out the illegal immigrants within its borders, and halting the influx of future black refugees.
By means of this conceit, Mr. Hill sets up a set piece situation for a fascinating mixed cast of characters, which he uses to explore the dynamics of international relations, institutionalized racism, and the ambitions and motivations of a whole host of different types and individuals. Among others, we meet:
  • Keita Ali (a young,ambitious, naturally-gifted runner from Zantoroland, who leaves Freedom State in order to avoid the government-sponsored assassination that took his father from him);
  • Charity Ali (Keita's fiercely intelligent and strong-minded sister, who ends up being plucked from her Havard education and used a political pawn in Zantoroland);
  • Rocco Calder (an ex-athlete and car salesman, now working, rather half-heartedly, as the Freedom State Family Party's immigration minister);
  • Viola Hill (a feisty, shaven-headed, black, disabled lesbian, desperately trying to make her mark as an investigative journalist in Freedom State);
  • Lula DiStefano (self-appointed "Queen of AfricTown", ostensibly a brash, rapacious and hard-hearted businesswoman, but also an inscrutable supporter and benefactor of the down-trodden blacks of Freedom State);
  • Anton Hamm (the avaricious, single-minded and slightly scary track-and-field agent with anger management issues, who sees Keita as essentially a cash cow);
  • John Falconer (scrappy and gutsy, pushy and overachieving, John is a 15-year old AfricTown resident and student at a school for the gifted, who is making a video documentary on the racial divides of Freedom State);
  • Ivernia Beech (the ageing sponsor of a major Freedom State literary prize, with a progressive sense of social justice); etc, etc.
I won't elucidate on his how all these characters interact, or just how the story develops. But rest assured that, in simple and undemanding language, Mr. Hill weaves a tangled, yet ultimately edifying, labyrinth of a plot, one that makes you think about your beliefs and values without being prescriptive or doctrinaire. It is an unputdownable page-turner of a political critique. And it even manages to work in a plug for Tim Hortons - what's not to like?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Do fish (and even plants) really exhibit intelligence and consciousness?

Here's some recent research that escaped my attention at the time, but which a friend brought to my attention last night. It seems that fish are more likely to be capabale kf thoughts and emotions than was previously thought.
Whether animals other than humans have consciousness (roughly defined as the ability to experience thoughts and emotions) had been debated for centuries, and fish, insects and plants have always been considered very low down on the scale of consciousness. Fish, for example, have small sinple brains and lack the cerebral cortex often considered a requirement for more high-level information processing and what we usually think of as consciousness. They show little capacity for learning and memory, and most of rheir responses are simple reflexes with little in the way of emotional content.
However, although a fish's brain is structured very diffrently from that if a mammal, it nevertheless has structures with the same evolutionary origin as the emotion-generating amygdala and the learning-controlling hippocampus of mammals, and appear to serve very similar functions. Some fish can memorize complex mental maps, and remember potential rivals' previous battles, and even use tools to crack open shells. They can perceive and respond to chemicals that might cause them pain.
It was always thought, though, that fish (unlike mammals, birds and reptiles) were not able to respond to a key consciousness test known as "stress-induced hyperthermia" or "emotional fever, whereby the body gets warmer in reponse to stress. Now, though, new research shows that stressed fish will move to warmer water where possible, suggesting that fish may be more sentient and conscious than we had previously thought.
Of course, some scientists (at the contentious end of the scale, but not complete whackos) also argue that plants exhibit a rudimentary consciousness. For example, plants have been shown to react to recordings of caterpillars munching on vegetation, by secreting defensive chemicals. Plants will shift growth direction in order to avoid obstacles. They have the ability to respond to 15 to 20 environmental variables.
While plants don't have a brain or nervous system or nerve cells like mammals, they do have a system for transmitting electrical signals, and they even produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin and other chemicals that mammal brains use to transmit signals. We are just not sure what they do with them. Now, it seems that plants also show some evidence of memory and learning skills. There is scientific evidence that plants can distinguish what is and is not a threat to them, and then remember that (for longer than some insects, for example).
Other studies have shown that individual trees as well as other plants like cacti) may protect and take care of their own offspring and seedlings, over and above those of other trees - make of that what you will.
This is contentious ground, and many scientists refuse to accept that this constitutes intelligence, much less consciousness. However, while they may not be self-conscious, they may show evidence of being conscious in the sense of knowing where they are in space. They may not engage in abstract reasoning, but they do exhibit a certain problem-solving ability. It all depends on your definitions of concepts like intelligence and consciousness, and your way of looking at things.
Either way, it's certainly food for thought (so to speak...)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Trump's first year some kind of record (but not the one he claims)

Donald Trump's disastrous tax bill may be the first major legislative victory after nearly a year in power, but he has actually signed 96 laws during 2017. Although Trump himself thinks he has signed 88 bills into law, he nevertheless maintains that even this is some sort of a record, eclipsing even Harry S. Truman's long-standing record, an achievement for which he is just not receiving due credit from the lying, biased press.
Setting aside the perverse idea that the number of legislative approvals is somehow a measure of his accomplishment as a President, Trump's claims are, as so often, just not based in fact. Just a quick look at the bills signed into law in their first year by his six most recent predecessors - Barack Obama 124, George W. Bush 109, Bill Clinton 209, George H.W. Bush 242, Ronald Reagan 158, and Jimmy Carter 249 - Trump does not even come close. He also trails Nixon, Kennedy and Eisenhower on this particular dubious metric. And Harry S. Truman? The Truman Library puts his figure at 240-250.
So, the lying, biased press have a pretty good reason for not giving Trump credit for his claims. As for whether his laws have been good for the country, well, we had better not go into that too closely... His first year may well have broken several records, including that of least popular president, but none that he or his country should be proud of.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Banning e-bikes is not the right solution

New York City has not only banned electric bikes, but made it illegal for businesses to employ delivery staff who use e-bikes. This will affect a whole sub-section of poor, largely immigrant New Yorkers.
Electric bikes, and converted standard bikes, can reach speeds of over 30kph, and are admittedly often ridden recklessly, both on roads and on sidewalks. Part of the reason for New York's ban is supposedly the threat that electric bicycles represent to pedestrians and motorists, although there does not seem to be any reliable publicly-available data (other than anecdotal claims) that e-bikes are actually particularly dangerous, at least no more than other vehicles.
Banning them seems like overkill to me. Regulate and license them by all means, as is currently done with electric scooters. Police their use, enforce the rules of the road, and fine aggressive and reckless drivers, as with any road vehicles. But banning them does not seem like a good solution.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Electric cars don't need artificial noise pollution

Having just read an article on the need for electric cars to make more noise, I must admit to being somewhat perplexed. The article begins: "One of the biggest complaints about electric cars from enthusiasts is their lack of noise. Compared to the sound of an internal combustion engine working, an electric car is flat-out uninspiring." It gets worse after that...
Granted, the article was a BMW blog, but the underlying assumption was quite clearly that electric cars should make some kind of an aggressive car-like noise for two main reasons: one, to warn pedestrians that there is a car in the vicinity, and two, because that's what cars do, and because drivers of expensive, fast cars want the gratification of a loud, macho driving experience to go with their over-inflated egos.
The first contention is the more easily justified, and has been a concern of electric car makers since the first electric cars in the early twentieth century. But I still maintain it is a misplaced concern: pedestrians need to learn to deal with the new Zeitgeist by not wandering across busy roads, crossing at appropriate places, and not using roads while distracted by phones or anything else; car drivers, for their part, need to pay more attention to possibly distracted pedestians, while remaining undistracted themselves. Treating the symptoms with an artificial car noise is missing the point - some serious traffic education needs to take place on both sides.
As for the proposition that electric cars should sound like gas-powered cars because some drivers think that it's cool to hear the roar of a well-tuned engine? This argument is indefensible, and people who think like that don't deserve to drive a nice powerful electric car. The reduction in noise pollution in our towns and cities is just one of the benefits of electric car technology, and to deliberately pollute for no compelling reason is just perverse. These people just need to get over themselves.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making 40 year economic projections is pointless

The government has just issued its annual 40-year projection of federal spending and revenue trends, in which it claims that this year's stronger-than-expected economic growth means that the federal deficit could be elimited by 2045, rather than last year's estimate of 2055.
This seems like arrant nonsense. How can one year's results change a future projection by ten years? More to the point, what is the practical value of projecting 40 years into the future, given that a week is condidered a long time in politics?
Next year could prove to be a weaker-than-expected year - could it not? - in which case these current projections will suddenly become redundant. Several changes in government, both in Canada and south of the border, will take place over the next 40 years, all of which will probably impact the projections being made now. Bitcoin may take off or implode; several new, world-changin technologies will almost certainly occur; wars will be fought, won and lost; trade treaties we can not even imagine will be signed and broken; major companies will come and go.
What, then, is the point is making projections forty years into the future? Or even five years for that matter? I understand that governments have to justify their current policies with reference to their future impacts, and to sound like their plans are in the long-term interests of the country, and particularly that "hard-working middle class" politicians always talk about. But surely no serious economist can take such projections seriously.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trump descends to a whole new level of crassness over UN vote

I am desperately trying not to write about Donald Trump, but I am failing miserably. His latest enormity just cannot be ignored. The word "unprecedented" is grossly overused in general, but it continues to be the apposite word here.
First, Mr. Trump instructed his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to take a note of "who voted against us" in the upcoming vote on a resolution opposing the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the latest bee in Trump's bonnet. Ms. Haley chose to share that instruction with the UN (as well as on Trump's official news agency, Twitter: "The US will be taking names"), and left it hanging as an implicit threat. But then Trump himself made the intimidation explicit by threatening to withdraw American financial aid from countries that vote against the US over the issue: "They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars from us, and then they vote against us. Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care."
This is taking crassness, and an arrant disregard for the processes of democracy, to a whole new level. Surely it contravenes some UN rules of international respect and behaviour. Can we not just ban the guy?
The UN emergency vote comes on the heels of a UN Security Council vote on the matter which saw the USA defeated by 14 to 1, requiring it to use its power of veto to save it from complete embarrassment. The general vote seems likely to go along the same lines, although it will be interesting to see which countries take Trump's threats seriously.

Threats or no threats, the UN voted 128-9 (with 35 abstentions, one of them, embarrassingly, Canada) against the controversial US plan to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.
Several countries, including Palestine, stood up to declare that they will not bow to threats like Trump's.  For the record, the eight counties that voted with the USA on the resolution were: Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo.
It remains to be seen whether Trump actually acts on his threats.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bell Media can not show Canadian ads during the Superbowl broadcast

Bell Media finds itself in an interesting conundrum regarding their broadcasting of the American Superbowl.
Bell owns the rights to show the NFL Championship game on Canadian television. But the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's regulatory body for all things TV, has ruled that Bell cannot substitute the famously expensive and high-profile American half-time advertising with its own Canadian ads, and now the Federal Court of Appeal has upheld the CRTC's policy on this.
Bell is complaining that it is losing out on $11 million in advertising revenues as a result of the policy (which I can believe), as well as experiencing a 39% decrease in audience numbers for the game (which I can't believe, especially given that, up until a few years ago, people used to be up in arms about NOT being able to see the splashy new American ads, which are considered quite a viewing spectacle in their own right, with something of a cult following, at least among media-heads). This is diametrically opposite the usual simultaneous-substitution (simsub) rule that applies to all other American shows broadcast in Canada, and not only does it mean that Bell CAN show the US ads, it is in the strange position of being FORCED to show them.
The legal decision is certainly not without its critics, and its inconsistency is clear. The irony of legislation that is supposed to help protect the Canadian broadcasting industry being used to require the use of American (and not Canadian) ads during the broadcasting of a major sporting event was not lost on at least one of the Federal justices.
I have to say that I do feel a bit sympathetic to Bell's point of view. Essentially, the CRTC is saying that the game and the US ads come as a package, and that people expect to see them together, which I feel is a bit of a stretch. If Bell broadcasts a movie, it is allowed to break it up with advertising, but not the Superbowl? Furthermore, the American ads are widely available on the internet after (and often even before) the game. So, do we really need to make them sacrosanct?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

BC bans bear-hunting, USA encourages it

The NDP/Green government of British Columbia has unexpectedly banned all trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the province. Effective immediately, all hunting of grizzlies in BC is now prohibited for both BC residents and non-residents alike, except for members of First Nations ("for treaty rights, or for food, social or ceremonial reasons").
Although the animals are not actually endangered in the province and the grizzly population is considered stable and sustainable at around 15,000, environmentalists are ecstatic at the announcement yesterday, arguing that this is a means of keeping the population stable. The opposition Liberals blasted the decision, of course (because that's what oppositions do). The hunting and guiding industry in the province is predictably disappointed, warning that some operators will probably go out of business as a result. However, research suggests that bear-watching is a much more important industry economically than bear-hunting in BC.
Contrast this announcement with the one earlier this year when the Trump administration removed the endangered protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a much more threatened, isolated and declining population of just 700 bears.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Plaudits pour in for retiring Chief Justice McLachlin

The accolades 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 has been a splendid role model for women and girls, particularly those looking towards her still very much male-dominated field.
Her replacement as Chief Justice is to be Montreal-born Supreme Court judge 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", "neighbor" 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 or Ireland (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...