Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars "monumental gaffe" really not a big deal

Well, the world is still whittering and twittering about the "monumental gaffe" at the end of the Oscars, when La La Land was initially announced winner by mistake in the Best Picture category, rather than the actual (and admittedly much more deserving) winner, Moonlight.
Yes, it was a mistake, but it was corrected. Price Waterhouse Coopers has accepted responsibility. No-one died. No black artists were cruelly overlooked. There was no grand conspiracy. The La La Land people weren't even that upset. In fact, it wasn't really that big a deal. And that's even presupposing that the Oscars are actually important per se (I'm sorry, but they're not).
And I don't actually do Twitter - never seen much point in it - but I suppose it was to be expected: there is an #OscarsSoBlack hashtag out there, fielding a rather strange mixture of complaints from disgruntled white guys, congratulations from happy and earnest black people, and a bunch of largely even-tempered suggestions that perhaps the large number of black nominations and winners this year is, in good part, just a politically correct knee-jerk reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry last year (which, even giving credit where credit is due, is probably not far from the truth).
Anyway, can we now get over it, please, and focus on what's actually important in the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

An ad-free CBC would cost us an extra $12 a year. Sign me up!

Whenever I watch the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), our national public broadcaster - which admittedly is not that often, given how little I watch television of any kind - I always bristle at the constant interruptions (particularly towards the end of a program) by inane advertising. Maybe that is unreasonable, given that every other TV station in Canada also advertises. But, hell, this is supposed to be our national public broadcaster, and to me this always raises memories of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) I remember so fondly from my youth, and which remains to this day one of the best and most respected public resources for objective news, incisive documentaries and varied entertainment in the world.
The BBC does not carry advertising, and is largely funded by an annual television licensing fee, levied essentially on anyone and everyone in possession of television equipment, plus revenues from selling high quality BBC programming worldwide (which provides about a quarter of its total revenue). Just for reference, the licensing fee is currently £145.50 (about C$240) per year per household.
So, why does Canada not operate on a similar publicly-funded advertising-free basis. Well, mainly as far as I can tell because we are more American and capitalistic than we are British and socialistic (although even the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS) does not carry advertising as such, but relies on private membership donations and grants and those incredibly annoying pledge drives for about 60% of its income, as well as corporate sponsorship of programs, or "underwriting spots").
Anyway, I got to wondering about the CBC's finances and what would be involved in it going advertisement-free. It turns out that the CBC itself has been asking itself the same question, and it submitted a position paper to the government just this last November proposing that the CBC move to an ad-free model similar to the BBC's. In rough figures, removing advertising would result in about $253 million in lost advertising revenue each year, and necessitate an additional $105 million for producing or purchasing additional content to fill the advertising space. The total cost would therefore be of the order of $360 million. In addition, the CBC suggests it would need about $100 million more each year for "additional funding of new investments to face consumer and technology disruptions", whatever that might mean, but would also save about $40 million year in costs associated with selling advertising. So, if we take the overall cost to the tax-payer to be about $400 million a year, then the CBC estimates that this would increase the cost every Canadian pays for the service to about $46 a year as compared to the current $34 a year (after the current Liberal government has reinstated $150 million a year in public funding axed by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper).
So, getting rid of ads on CBC would require an increase of the princely sum of $12 per person per year. $12? Sign me up now. I'll pay in advance if you like.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The sun finally shines on solar power (thanks mainly to China)

I've sung the praises of solar energy many times before on these pages, and I've made several mentions of how cost-effective it is becoming. But it does seem that, in 2016, solar has finally achieved "grid parity", that long-sought after status where solar electricity is cheaper to produce than coal-fired electricity, even without government subsidies. In many countries, solar (and, incidentally, also wind power) can now outbid traditional technology competitors on its own merits. A recent Deutsche Bank report says that solar electricity is now becoming price-competitive in 80% of countries.
And the future is looking even sunnier: over the next 5 years, the US Energy Information Administration is expecting solar power to become nearly 40% cheaper than a new coal plant built to modern specifications (i.e. incorporating carbon capture and storage). Recent competitive bids in South Africa and Chile have already bettered that margin. Tenders in the Middle East are even lower, with price quotes as low as 2.4c per kWh, a fifth of the cost of average American electricity prices. Many private corporations, from Ontario to India, are installing their own solar panels, in parking lots and on factory roofs, because over the long term it is cheaper than buying electricity from the grid.
So, how has this happened? In 2016 alone, the market price of solar cells dropped an astonishing 27%, thanks almost exclusively to Chinese mega-companies like Jinco Solar, the world's largest manufacturer of solar modules. Chinese producers are using smarter manufacturing techniques, more automation, faster machines, and greater output volumes to gradually reduce the price of new panels. Jinco, and other producers like it, now uses better quality silicon that is easier to handle, and has imported techniques from the semiconductor industry to improve productivity. Just three years ago, a typical Chinese cell factory churned out 1,600 units an hour; today, it is more like 4,000. It doesn't hurt that the price of polysilicon, the main ingredient in solar cells, has plummeted recently.
The burgeoning demand for solar installations, that has made substantial efficiencies of scale in solar panel production possible, is also being kick-started by China itself, and the country is expected to install fully 40% of the global total of new solar capacity this year. It is not too much of a stretch to say that China's aggressive ramping up of its solar program has single-handedly galvanized and subsidized the green energy push worldwide.
All of this is not to say that solar power has overcome all of its challenges and drawbacks. With the best will in the world, solar technology can not generate power in the dark, although it is now surprisingly efficient on a cloudy day, even in relatively high latitude countries like Canada and northern Europe. Electricity storage technology - essentially batteries - still lags behind solar generation technology, and makes base-load solar generation (such as can be provided by coal, gas, nuclear, etc) an impossibility at present. But then no-one is claiming that solar should shoulder the whole load of renewable power generation, and there are many other clean energy resources (e.g. wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, etc) that are available to run in parallel.
Also, the cost of the solar panels themselves can be a relatively small part of the overall cost of solar electricity (estimated to be less than 25% in Canada, for example), with installation labour and land costs making up the lion's share. So, the trend in cost reductions is necessarily limited in high labour and/or land cost countries like Japan (or Canada, for that matter). And, even if solar power might now be competitive without subsidies, an estimated 98% of installations over the last year were in fact subsidized, including those in China.
But, be that as it may, let's give credit where credit is due: solar is finally having its day in the sun. Donald Trump's characterization of solar energy as "so expensive" has become just another alternative fact among many.

Don't thank global warming for crazy warm February weather - curse it!

After the third-warmest January on record (after 2016 and 2007), and the news that 2016 was officially the warmest on record globally (the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures), February 2017 is also shaping up to be one of the one of the warmest on record.
Toronto had its warmest February day ever this Thursday, as the mercury rose to 17.7°C, smashing the previous all-time record of 16°C, which occurred in - guess what? - 2016. Just for context, the historical average high in Toronto for this time of year is 2°C.
And it's not just Toronto: over 5,000 individual temperature records were broken across the USA this February, including a ridiculous record-breaking 37°C (99°F) in the central US state of Oklahoma, and the general temperatures for February so far have been much warmer than average continent-wide.
But if one more person, jokingly or not, says to me "thank God for climate change", or something along those lines, I think I'll scream.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tax cuts do not lead to economic growth, only more income inequality

Like most conservatives, Donald Trump is relying on tax cuts to prime the economy and economic growth. Canadian Conservative Party leadership hopeful Maxine Bernier (as well as most of his competitors) is likewise sold on the effectiveness of tax-cuts and trickle-down economics. It has been a mainstay of conservative laissez-faire ideology for decades, and many economic models (like those of the US's voguish Tax Foundation, for example) just ASSUME the relationship.
But does it actually work? The short answer is that the jury is still out, but the evidence is, if anything, more on the side of "no" than "yes".
A 2012 survey of top economists by the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business found that 35% were convinced that, in general terms, tax cuts stimulated the economy - perhaps less than you might have imagined. A further 35% were undecided, while 8% were somewhat or very sure they did not. More specifically, a whopping 71% either disagreed or strongly disagreed that tax cuts would lead to higher revenue in the next five years, while a telling 0% were willing to state that cutting taxes would in fact raise revenue over the next five years.
Another 2012 report, this time from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, concluded that, over the last 60 years, there has been absolutely no correlation between the top marginal tax rate and economic growth. In the 1990s in the USA, for example, both Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. raised taxes, and the economy boomed, with incomes growing faster than at any time since the 1960s. George Bush Jr.'s subsequent tax cuts, on the other hand, led to the worst economic downturn since the Depression, as well as substantially increasing the deficit.
Of course, the economic effects of tax cuts depend on the kind of tax cut being applied. For example, a cut to the taxation of low income workers is likely to have more effect on the economy, because poorer people are more likely to go out and spend that extra $100 than a millionaire who already has more than enough discretionary income. Also, when tax rates are already relatively low, as they have been in recent decades, tax cuts tend to have a much more limited effect on people's behaviour and on the economy. A Moody's study from 2008 suggests that one-off or short-term tax cuts like rebates tend to have more economic effect than more long-term cuts (the study also noted that boosting spending on programs like feed stamps and employment measures has a substantially greater effect).
So, in general terms, the link between tax cuts and economic growth is far from proven, despite the heavy reliance on just such a link by most conservative politicians. And, as a Business Insider article shows, not only do tax cuts not spur economic growth, they also have the additional undesirable effect of increasing inequality: the lower the top marginal rate of tax, the higher the proportion of national income that goes to the top 0.1% (and vice versa).
It all seems pretty clear to me.

How do squirrels hang upside down on a tree trunk?

Did you ever wonder how squirrels are able to hang upside down on tree trunks? No, neither did I until my wife happened to mention it the other day. It was only then I started to question how they actually do that.
Like many other rodents, squirrels are well-adapted to scramble up trees with their super-sharp claws and big bushy tail for balance. It also helps that they are very light, and have a very strong grip, allowing them to hold on well at a variety of different angles.
But, unlike other rodents, you often also see them shinning DOWN trees head first, or even just hanging there by their back legs. And, when you stop and think about it, their feet and claws should be the wrong way round to let them do that.
It turns out that the squirrels' secret is super-flexible ankle joints. They can rotate their ankles fully 180°, so that they can hang from a vertical tree trunk with their bodies pointing one way and their feet the other.
Pretty neat. And apparently not at all painful.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Those amazing (and cool) tardigrades

And now, apropos of nothing at all, here's an interesting article on one of my favourite animals, the tardigrade, also known as water bears or moss piglets.
These amazing little critters kind of look like the blissed-out caterpillar from "Alice in Wonderland", except that they are tiny, ranging from 0.05mm to 1.2mm, depending on the species (there are over 1,000 different species within the tardigrade phyllum).
Tardigrades have long plump bodies with scrunched-up heads. They have eight legs with four to eight claws on each "foot", and they can also use these legs to swim quite effectively in water. Their mouths can telescope outwards to reveal sharp teeth which they can use to grab onto food, although they mainly just suck the juices from algae, lichens and moss (a few species, however, are carnivorous, and even cannibalistic). Female tardigrades may lay anywhere between 1 and 30 eggs at a time, and some species reproduce asexually.
Typically, tardigrades prefer to live in the sediment at the bottom of a lake or on damp mosses or other wet environments, but they can live almost anywhere, and this is one of their coolest attributes. They have been shown to be able to withstand environments as cold as -200°C, or as hot as +149°C; they can survive boiling liquids, intense radiation, and pressures of up to six times the pressure in the deepest parts of the ocean; they can even survive in the vacuum and radiation of space without any protection (their bodies produce a special protein that protects their DNA from radiation damage). In fact, they are almost indestructible.
In some conditions, tardigrades survive by going into a death-like state called cryptobiosis: they retract their head and legs and curl into a dehydrated ball called a "tun". In this state, their metabolic activity can go as low as 0.01% of normal activity, and their organs are protected by a sugary gel called trehalose. When exposed to water again, they can "come back to life" within a few hours. In fact, they need to always have a thin coating of water around their bodies in order to prevent them from turning into a tun. They can survive in this tun state for at least 30 years, and possibly for more than 100 years. In low oxygen water, tardigrade also have another trick: they stretch out their bodies and slow down their metabolism so that their muscles can absorb enough oxygen to survive.
And in case, you are waiting for me to say, oh, by the way, tardigrades are being pushed to the edge of extinction by our profligate modern lifestyles, it turns out that they are not on any endangered list, and they have happily survived five previous mass extinctions, and so they are not going anywhere any time soon. Cool or what?

It's a case of plus ça change in sexual relationships

Some 50 or 60 years after Masters and Johnson's ground-breaking research on sexual attitudes and practices, studies on orgasms are still being carried out. The latest of these was published recently in the American journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, and it looked at 52,000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 who were in relationships with a single partner, including 2,000 gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
What the study reveals is perhaps a little underwhelming, and maybe even depressing for women's rights campaigners. 95% of heterosexual men reported that they always or usually reached orgasm, compared to 65% of heterosexual women. A much higher percentage of lesbian women always or usually orgasmed (86%), although fewer gay men (89%), and even fewer bisexual men (88%) and bisexual women (66%). Make what you will of the statistics for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, by far the largest "orgasm gap" is between heterosexual men and women, and in some respects little appears to have changed over the last 50 years, despite the so-called Sexual Revolution.
This conclusion is backed up by another finding in the study: about 30% of men believe that good old-fashioned vaginal intercourse is the best way to ensure that a woman reaches orgasm. In fact, only 35% of heterosexual women actually orgasm from vaginal sex alone, while 44% rarely or never do. Compare that with the finding that 80% of heterosexual women, and 91% of lesbian women, climax as a result of the "golden trio" of moves - genital stimulation, deep kissing and oral sex - without any vaginal intercourse. A longer duration of sex also significantly increases a woman's likelihood of climaxing. As one of the research authors tersely puts it: "To say that there needs to be some education I think is an understatement".
And what about mood music, dimming the lights, changing sexual positions, joking, or saying "I love you" during sex? Apparently, none of this has any effect whatsoever on men, while women may increase their orgasm rate by as much as 20% by these simple expedients.
And finally the issue of fake orgasms. 44% of heterosexual men reported that their partners always reached orgasm, while only 33% of heterosexual women actually DID always orgasm. This suggests that a substantial amount of orgasm faking is still going on, and the reasons offered range from love of their partner or to protect their partner's self-esteem, to intoxication or just to bring the sexual encounter to an end.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Actually, more Mexicans are leaving the US than entering it

Well, here's something I hadn't realized. Maybe it's a fact I should have been aware of, but apparently, in recent years, more Mexicans have been leaving the USA than have entered it, and the estimated number of Mexicans in America, both legally and otherwise, has been shrinking throughout the administration of President Obama.
According to a 2015 report by the well-regarded Pew Research Centre, between 2009 and 2015, over a million Mexicans moved back to Mexico (mainly to reunite with families, or to start a new family, or because they found jobs there, although about 14%  of them were illegal immigrants who were deported). This compares with about 870,000 new immigrants over the same period. The total number of Mexicans in the USA in 2014 was about 11.7 million (including 5.6 million who were there illegally), compared to 12.8 million at its pre-recession peak in 2007 (including 6.9 million illegals).
So, maybe Donald Trump's "big beautiful wall" is actually really to keep IN the Mexican immigrants who keep much of the country running.

Are Canadian values on refugees and immigration starting to change?

If more evidence of a troubling slide were needed, a new poll of Canadian attitudes towards refugees. This appears to fly in the face of the usual assumption that Canadians are welcoming of refugees, and immigrants in general.
The poll suggests that, although 47% of Canadians believe that  the Liberal (and liberal) policy on taking in refugees ua about right, nearly as many (41%) think that the number being accepted is already too high, with just 11% responding that the number is too low. The government plan is to take in 40,000 refugees this year, down from the  55,800 that were accepted in 2016, although still substantially more than under the previous Conservative government. 61% said that the federal government had a god job on handling the resettlement of refugees.
More worrying, as many as a quarter of poll respondents believe that Canada should adopt a Trump-style temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.
A breakdown of these figures by political affiliation shows just how far to the right the Canadian Conservative Party has slid indecent months: 62% of Conservative voters believe that the number of refugees being accepted is too high, as compared to about 30% of Liberal and NDP voters.
This comes hard on the heels of another recent poll of Canadian Conservative Party members who support Kellie Leitch, which indicates that as many as 48% of them would welcome and support a Trump-style travel ban of immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries. Granted, this is a small subset of a subset, but this is Canada, for God's sake!
Yes, this is just a poll, and polls are often wrong (increasingly so, it seems). But it does seem to indicate a rather worrying slide in attitudes and - at the risk of linking everything back to the contagion of Donald Trump and American conservatism - to indicate that the accepting and inclusive attitudes we have always taken for granted as being part of "Canadian values" may be start in to change.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Canadian motion to condemn Islamophobia turns out to be contentious

Unexpectedly, Motion M-103 appears to be a highly contentious piece of parliamentary discussion. It is not a bill, and it will not change Canadian law in any way; it is merely a motion, calling for a study and report. More specifically, it calls on the government to recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear, and to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination. It further calls for the development of a "whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia", and for the government to report its findings to the House.
In the shadow of the recent deadly mosque attack in Quebec City, and a spike in anti-Islamic hate crimes in Canada, not to mention developments south of the border, this sounds pretty reasonable, right? I might quibble with the use of the word "Islamophobia", an over-used word which actually means a fear of Islam rather than a hatred of it, which I think is probably more what the motion's instigator, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, was intending (might "anti-Islamism" be nearer the mark?). But surely it's hard to oppose the general thrust of the motion.
In fact, the motion has already seen some pretty torrid debates in the House, and there appears to a substantial amount of opposition to it. Some Conservative MPs are merely complaining about the use of the very specific word Islamophobia, and would prefer to see just a blanket condemnation of racism and discrimination against religions groups. I could go with that, although any study that results from such a motion would only point out that Islam is by far the biggest recipient of hatred. It was specifically Muslims who were targeted in the Quebec City mosque attack recently, and Muslims who have been the main targets of the increasing number of hate crimes marring the country in recent months. And I, for one, am in favour of telling it like it is.
Some of the Conservative Party leadership hopefuls, however, have much stronger objections: Kellie Leitch has set up a whole website and petition, for what she calls "severely normal people", aimed at stopping the motion; Pierre Lemieux rails that "chronic political correctness is strangling free speech in Canada, and it has to stop"; Chris Alexander says that he couldn't possibly support the motion because it made no mention of "the number one threat in the world today, which is Islamic jihadist terrorism".
Online comments concerning the motion have, predictably, been even more outré, with some referring to Ms. Khalid as a "radical Muslim immigrant", a "terrorist", and a "cancer to Canada". One particularly disturbing YouTube video even suggested she be shot. Some websites have claimed that the motion will somehow change Canadian law (it won't), and even lead to jail terms for anyone heard criticism Islam. Rebel Media (Ezra Levant's ultra-rightist mouthpiece) referred to the motion as "sharia creep", suggesting that it is just the first step towards allowing Islamic sharia law in Canada (**sigh**).
I'm not sure if all of this says more about the current state of the Canadian Conservative Party, the current state of Canada, or the extent of the contagion spreading from the USA. Whatever the case, it is a sad and unwelcome development.

Where Canada's immigrants come from

There was a fascinating graphic in today's Globe and Mail showing Canada's immigration history from Confederation to date:
There, encapsulated in one image, is the ever-decreasing reliance on British immigrants (blue), which made up the vast majority of Canadian immigrants for so many decades, and almost all of it in the country's early days. There is the substantial contribution to our population from the USA (orange), although largely in the first half of the 20th century, and the even larger numbers arriving from Continental Europe (yellow) over the same period and even more so after the Second World War. And there is our increasing reliance on immigration from the Caribbean and Central and South America (purple) since the 1970s, and also from Africa, West Asia and the Middle East (green). And, finally, and perhaps most glaringly, the huge and rapid increase in Asian immigration (red) since the 1980s, to the extent that this represents fully 40% of Canadian immigration today.
The image shows the fascinating, and still unfolding, story of how Canada came to be what it is today. As one of the dwindling, but still substantial, element of British immigrants myself, I find it intriguing to see these trends unfurl.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Modern R&B has nothing to do with the old R&B (Rhythm & Blues)

So, I got to wondering why most American pop music these days is referred to as R&B.
Now, I'm an old fogey, so R&B, to me, stands for Rhythm & Blues, which is what it did stand for for the best part of 50 years. Originally, this referred to blues music produced predominantly by African American artists. Then, much of rock'n'roll became subsumed under the label, as well as more gospel and soul-orientated music. So, we are talking here about Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc, and then, by the 60s, artists of the ilk of Sam Cooke, Chubby Checker, James Brown, and even white British artists like The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Animals. By the 70s, R&B had morphed a little, and was being used as a kind of blanket term for black music in general, incorporating soul, funk and disco. All of which is more than a little confusing.
Things got even more confusing, though, when the genre of Contemporary R&B appeared in the 1980s, with the more production-forward music of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and their successors. Contemporary R&B, or just R&B as it increasingly came to be known (although never Rhythm & Blues), could be any music combining elements of soul, funk, pop and dance music, often with strong electronic influences and high, smooth, production values. 
R&B now has almost nothing to do with the gritty, simplistic music of early Rhythm & Blues, except that it is mainly (although not exclusively) produced by black Americans. It is absolutely ubiquitous, extremely popular, and most of it sounds very, very similar, especially since the advent of AutoTune.
Which raises the question of why the label R&B is being used at all. Couldn't they come up with anything else, anything better? In fact, can't we just call it Pop Music, a label that has been applied to popular mainstream music since the 1960s? Works for me.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Let's not throw Mexico under Trump's bus

Canadian Prime Minister Justin ("Joe") Trudeau recent visit to Donald Trump is being widely touted as a success for Canada, presumably on the grounds that Trump did not blow his top and wage all-out war on little Canada.
Contrary to what I perceive as the will of the Canadian people, Trudeau was willing to pussyfoot around contentious issues like Muslim bans and walls, Chinese and Israeli policies, etc, and contented himself with platitudes and bromides, and with generally not rocking the boat. Most commentators see this as a sensible and realistic approach, in much the same way as one usually does not take to task the parents of the spoilt kid yelling and playing up in a restaurant.
The contentious issue of NAFTA could not be avoided, however, and here again most Canadian media opinion seems to consist of a collective sigh of relief that Trump only intends to "tweak" the treaty as it affects Canada, although, as so often with Trump's pronouncements, what that actually means is anyone's guess.
What is becoming clear, though, is that the Trump trade team intends to hold completely separate negotiations with Canada and with Mexico, breaking down a tri-partite treaty into two sets of bilateral agreements. Given that Trump biggest problem with NAFTA is America's trade deficit with Mexico, most Canadian commentators see this as a good thing, and they also do not want to see our country caught up in the arguments about Mexican drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
Others are not as sanguine about it, arguing that having a  bad boy in the room will take the heat off Canada during trilateral talks would actually benefit Canada, from a diplomatic point of view.
What is not being talked about here at all, though, is the whole issue of whether Canada is willing to throw Mexico under the bus in order to placate Trump. Canadian and Mexican interests are not actually that different: both are middle powers that rely on US markets for much of their trade. And let's not forget that Canadian-Mexican trade has also blossomed in recent years.
For its part, Mexico is desperate for Canada not to abandon the tripartite formula. Both Mexican Economy Minister Ildelfonso Guajardo and President Enrique Peña Nieto have recently called pointedly for Canada to stay strong in dealing with Trump, and not to abandon Mexico in pursuing its own interests.
Now, I'm no expert in international trade and diplomacy, but I can't help thinking that leaving Mexico to fend for itself against Trump is a bad idea, and may come back to bite us one day. Surely, two amigos acting together will be stronger and less susceptible to Trump's divide-and-conquer techniques. And surely it is (or certainly used to be) part of Canada's MO to support and show solidarity with other countries that are being unfairly treated.

Ivanka Trump revels in Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Apparently, at least two world leaders thought long and hard before allowing it, but a picture of Ivanka Trump sitting behind the President's desk in the Oval Office has gone viral and has garnered predictably adverse comments.
The so-called "First Daughter" - and how creepy is THAT? - does seem to be a successful businesswoman in her own right, and is apparently a sharp cookie, although clearly she has risen at least to some extent on the coattails of her father. She was attending a meeting of the incredibly awkwardly-named "United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs", during the recent state visit of Canadian Prime Minister (and self-styled feminist) Justin Trudeau (or "Joe Trudeau", as Sean Spicer would have it).
Then, for a lark, Donald Trump and Joe thought it would be a jolly wheeze to show Ms. Trump behind the so-called Resolute Desk, with the two the two national leaders dancing attendance on her.
Trudeau has been accused of lacking a sense of decorum and appropriateness before now, and certainly nobody expects anything better of The Donald. But this was clearly an ill-advised idea from the get-go. Comments have varied from it being galling and patronizing to Hillary Clinton, who could (and perhaps should) be sitting there, and that Ms. Trump on the other hand had not earned the right to sit there, to admonishments that this is not "Take Your Daughter to Work Day".
No-one expects Donald Trump to be an arbiter of taste, but Justin Trudeau certainly should have known better.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Which animals mate for life? As it turns out, very few

So here is my first ever (and probably last) Valentine-themed post. I happened to catch part of a radio program about monogamous animals, ones that mate for life and that typically remain faithful till death them do part (so to speak).
Given that the divorce rate among humans is now over 50% in many developed countries (e.g. 47% in UK, 48% in Canada, 53% in USA, 61% in Spain, 67% in Hungary, 71% in Belgium), although much less than that in many more traditional or religious countries, it is debatable whether humans qualify for that designation. But in the animal kingdom the following are generally considered monogamous:
  • Prairie voles - unlike most rodents, male prairie voles are fiercely monogamous and may even attack other females that try to approach them, although they do occasionally stray and mate with strangers, for no apparent reason.
  • Eurasian beavers - beavers that have been reintroduced into Europe are typically monogamous, while the more common and less aggressive North American beavers are most definitely not.
  • Gibbons - the closest monogamous relative to humans, gibbons are mainly monogamous over their 35-40 year life, although around one in ten of a female's babies maybe from a different "opportunistic" partner.
  • Azara's night monkeys - studies have shown that these South American monkeys are entirely monogamous, and the males provide a large amount of parental care.
  • Wolves - the pairing of the alpha male and alpha female establishes the social structure of the pack, which is not dissimilar to the nuclear family of humans (although a family unit can number up to 20).
  • Kirk's dik-dik - dik-diks (and a few other African dwarf antelope species) establish permanent pair bonds, although the males do not help with the rearing of young.
  • Otters - some species of otters (including giant river otters) live, travel, sleep, play and hunt together in pairs and family groups, while others (including sea otters) don't.
  • Black vultures - vultures share incubation and feeding duties equally, and other vultures in the area have been known to attack philanderers who are tempted to stray from their monogamous bond.
  • Bald eagles - tend to spend the winters and migrations seasons alone, but the male always returns to the same nest and partner each year during the mating season, and helps out with the eggs and fledglings.
  • Barn owls - mainly remain faithful to one mate, unlike most birds (which are generally "socially monogamous" rather than "genetically monogamous"), and even cuddle and show affection to each other.
  • Golden eagles - usually monogamous, and pairs may remain together for several years or even for life.
  • Condors - like a few other large birds of prey, condors mate for life (and they can live anywhere from 50 to 100 years).
  • Penguins - many species, like Emperor, Royal and African penguins, stay together while the chick is raised, although they then usually split up.
  • Swans - pair bonds in swans last for many years, and often for life, and the male also helps to incubate the eggs and watch over fledglings.
  • Albatrosses - although they spend most of the year on the wing over the ocean, albatrosses always return to the same island to mate (and dance) with the same partner.
  • Mourning (turtle) doves - this common North American bird is mainly monogamous and both parents incubate and care for the young.
  • Sandhill cranes - these social birds live together in pairs of family groups throughout the year, and both parents hep incubate the eggs and care for the young.
  • Termites - unlike with ants or bees, the queens of some species of termites form lifelong bonds with a "king", and the two engender the entire termite kingdom.
  • Shingleback skinks - one of the few reptiles known to mate for life, these Australian skinks actually spend much of the year on their own, but always return to the same mate in the mating season.
  • Red-backed salamanders - they are at least socially monogamous, and will maintain co-defended territories.
  • French angelfish - these aggressive fighting fish live, travel and even hunt in lifelong pairs, and both partners vigorously defend their territory.
  • Pot-bellied seahorses - given that the male carries the babies (as with all seahorses), the females of this large Australian seahorse species vie for the attention of the males, unlike in most of nature.
  • Schistosoma mansoni worms - a parasitic flatworm found in humans (and responsible for the disease schistosomiasis or "snail fever"), they reproduce within the human body and form loyal monogamous pair bonds, and go on to produce about 300 eggs per day.
This list, compiled from various internet sources, shows that those animals that are wholly or mainly monogamous make up a tiny and seemingly random selection in an overwhelmingly promiscuous natural world.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Did you know that NASA only recently went metric?

I am currently reading a science fiction series by an American author, the Paradox series by Rachel Bach, and it occurred to me that, centuries into the future, the characters were still using Imperial units: feet, miles, pounds, etc. Which prompted me to look into what units NASA use today, and what I found surprised and shocked me somewhat.
It turns out that, when the Americans landed a man on the moon, they managed to do so using an almost random combination of metric and Imperial units. Which is, frankly, astounding.
In fact, it was only in 2007 that NASA officially switched to metric, precipitated by a bunch of accidents including the loss of an expensive Mars Climate Orbiter robotic probe in 1999 (when a contractor provided thruster firing data in Imperial, while NASA was using metric units). It seems that, although NASA has ostensibly been using the metric system since about 1990, some missions still use Standard Imperial (SI) units, and some (including, amazingly, the International Space Station) use both!
What I had also not appreciated is that international aviation and air traffic control also still uses Imperial units (feet for altitude, nautical miles for distances, etc). Or at least most do, but not all: China, North Korea and Russia, for example, use the metric system for altitude and for wind speeds; and only North America and Japan use inches of mercury for pressure, while everyone else uses the metric millibars or hectopascals; nautical miles are pretty standard worldwide for distances, although North America uses Standard Miles; and some runways are measure in metres and some in feet. What a mess! Apparently, pilots use little conversion cards to do on-the-fly calculations, which seems like a quaintly low-tech solution to a potential problem that affects the lives of millions of flyers every year. It's amazing there have not been more accidents.
NASA's decision to switch to metric came after a meeting in 2007 between NASA and 13 other space agencies, all of which use metric, and it ended decades of American intransigence on the issue. In an era when space exploration is becoming more and more international in nature, it only makes sense.
And who knows, maybe the USA will also change their national measuring systems across the board, in a spirit of consistency and international cooperation. But don't hold your breath on that one, particularly during the next four years of Donald Trump control.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Can Othello only be played by a black man now?

With the news that WalterdaleWalterdalr Theatre, a small amateur theatre group in Edmonton, has been browbeaten into cancelling a controversial production of Shakespeare's Othello, the old face-off between artistic freedom / free speech and political correctness raises its head yet again.
The planned production was to be set in "a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted". Not my cup of tea, perhaps, but not immediately controversial - Shakespeare has been played in so many weird and wonderful ways over the centuries, that this is far from the most outrageous.
What has put the cat among the pigeons, though, is that the part of Othello was to have been played by a white person, a female white person at that, in the unfortunate person of local performing arts teacher, Linette J. Smith. Social media, predictably, lit up, and long-time patrons expressed their outrage and dismay, with one particularly menacing message that made Ms. Smith distinctly uncomfortable (although no charges were pressed). And ultimately the production was shelved until cooler heads prevail.
Many complained that the role of Othello is traditionally by a black man - not strictly true, given that the first time a black Canadian played Othello at Straford was only ten years ago, and the idea would.have been unthinkable in Shakespeare's time, or in most of the four centuries since. Yes, we may be more enlightened and less racist nowadays. But does this mean that theatre has to be so hidebound, restrictive and predictable that only a black man is allowed to play Othello? Could an Asian man play him? Could a black woman? Could a black woman play Desdemona? Does the actor playing Shylock need to be Jewish? And if a small provincial amateur company happens not to have a black man willing and able to take the star role, are they allowed to mount the play?
The ever-sanctimonious J. Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, clearly thinks not, as his smug, preachy article ably demonstrates. Me, as you may have gathered, not so much.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Trump's attacks on Dodd-Frank presage dark days ahead

Amid the flurry of executive orders emanating from the White House, as Donald Trump tries his level best to reverse all the good progressive work of Barack Obama over the last eight years, some of the smaller ones tend to get lost among the larger, more contentious ones. In fact, if I didn't know better, I might think that the more controversial orders were just a smoke-screen to hide the smaller ones from too much public scrutiny...
One such overlooled item is the imminent watering down of the regulatory Dodd-Frank rules (the executive order has not yet been issued, but is apparently due any day now). The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, to give it its full title, is a huge piece of financial reform legislation brought in by the Obama administration in 2010, in response to the financial crisis of 2007-8. Its provisions aim to protect the American economy, consumers and investors, to end bailouts of financial institutions, to provide an advanced warning system on the stability of the economy, to rein in corporate compensation packages, and to improve corporate governance. All of which sounds entirely laudable, except that many businessmen see it as a dastardly infringement on their God-given right to make profits by any means possible.
Enter Donald Trump. His expected executive order looks to reverse the Dodd-Frank rule that requires companies to investigate and disclose whether their products contain "conflict minerals" from war-torn parts of Africa like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Human rights groups spent years trying to get the issue recognized, and it was a major coup for them when it was tucked into the 2010 legislation. However, Dodd-Frank specifically allows the President to temporarily suspend or revise the rule for two years if it is considered to be in the country's national security interests, and this is presumably what Trump will argue (although it is difficult to see, at first blush, exactly how). The only people who would benefit from such a move are Congolese warlords and unethical US corporations.
In actual fact, the American business community has already made moves against the conflict minerals provision with a court case in 2014, in which a free-speech argument led to the paring back of the requirement for public disclosure. And just last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said it was looking into whether "additional relief" from the provision was warranted.
Add to that the fact that the Republican-controlled Congress repealed (also last week) another Dodd-Frank provision requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, and a separate Trump executive order calling on the Treasury Secretary, the SEC and other financial regulators to look into possible regulatory changes and legislation, and the whole American financial regulation framework (which was strengthened by President Obama in the aftermath of the 2007-8 financial melt-down) seems to be under dire threat from Mr. Trump's pro-business-and-hang-the-social-cost agenda.
I looks like dark days and a certain amount of déjà-vu lie ahead.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

More corporate welfare for the aerospace industry

Quebec-based Bombardier Inc. is back in the news, which means either that the company is being sued for unconscionable delivery delays, or that some government or other is forking out hundreds of millions in corporate welfare. In this case, it is the latter, as the Canadian federal government recently gave the troubled aerospace company $372.5 million's worth of "repayable contribution". This is, then, technically a loan (interest-free, of course) and, although the terms of the repayment have not been made public, it will probably be based on sales targets (which, if they are never realized, therefore makes the loan a de facto grant). The money is supposedly to help the company get its struggling C-series planes and its developing Global 7000 luxury business jets off the ground.
Forgive my cynicism about all this, but this is now the 85th taxpayer-financed government hand-out Bombardier has received since 1966, totalling about $4.1 billion. Just last year, the Quebec provincial government made it a present of $1.3 billion, and Quebec has even had the gall to chastise the federal government for the insufficiency of its latest contribution (it was initially looking for $1 billion). The company, which is still largely owned by the Bombardier-Beaudoin families, saw its share price rise by 2% on response to the loan, so at least someone is happy, I guess.
Not surprisingly, Brazil (headquarters of rival aircraft-maker Embraer) has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, arguing that the Canadian aid amounts to an illegal subsidy and a distortion to the global market for airplanes (although Brazil too has a history of illegally subsidizing its aerospace industry, and the two countries have had many spats on the issue over the years).
Of course, the government is trying to sell the loan as a means of creating "good middle-class jobs". But why is it that the aerospace industry in particular (along with the auto industry) is the recipient of such largesse from national governments? It is not only Bombardier and Embraer (which rank merely 15th and 19th respectively in the list of top aerospace companies) that are implicated: the world's two largest jet-makers by far, Boeing in the USA and Airbus in Europe, have also benefitted over the years from various government hand-outs, both transparent and hidden, and the two companies have been hauling each other into the World Trade Organization's courts for decades, accusing one another of receiving illegal and improper government subsidies.
The usual argument presented is that the aerospace industry is "too important to let it slip away", or words to that effect, with the emphasis usually being on jobs. But, in reality, the benefits of corporate subsidies tend to be felt only locally and are usually short-lived. After Bombardier received the $1.3 billion from the province of Quebec last year, it promptly turned round and laid off 7,000 employees. Typically, all that happens is that jobs are just redistributed from one community or industry to another, with no new jobs actually being created. Any new jobs that do arise are usually very expensive in terms of investment per job.
Another reason often mentioned in favour of hand-outs to companies like Bombardier is that Canada "needs to be in the aerospace business" - for reasons that I have never been able to fathom - and that the only way to ensure this in the current world economic climate is to subsidize it. This, it seems to me, is an even weaker argument.
So, why are we still doing this, year after year? You would need to ask the Canadian government - they presumably have a good answer. I'm sure I don't.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Has NAFTA actually been bad for America? (Clue: probably not)

Throughout his election campaign, Donald Trump railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), calling it, with his typical subtlety and understatement, "the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere". Even Bernie Sanders on the left, and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton in the centre, all but dismissed the agreement as useless, or at least broken (Sanders called it a "death blow for American manufacturing"). The American zeitgeist seems to have turned abruptly against NAFTA (and free trade in general). Canada and particularly Mexico are in a mild panic as Mr. Trump looks to follow through with his electoral pledges and drastically renegotiate, or even potentially scrap completely, the tri-partite 1993 agreement, on the grounds that anything that benefits the USA must necessarily hurt the two other parties.
Now, I know that Trump is not big on evidence, logic, perspective and common-sense, but the issue is far from clear cut. Opposition to NAFTA in blue-collar, manufacturing-heavy states in the mid-West and mid-East arguably won Trump the election. And yet, just this month, the respected American economic think-tank the Center for Automotive Research has warned that pulling out of NAFTA could cost the US economy over 30,000 jobs in the auto sector alone, while leading to higher prices and less choice for consumers.
What, then, is the truth behind Trump's claims, shorn of "alternative facts", truthiness and political bluster? Can the decline in American manufacturing be laid at the door of free trade, or have the jobs just been lost to technology, or to the Chinese decision to join the World Trade Organization? After all, Germany is widely believed to have a strong manufacturing sector, and to have done everything right economically, yet its manufacturing employment share has followed a very similar trajectory to the USA's.
NAFTA, an extension of the earlier Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the USA, was negotiated and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and steered through Congress in 1993 by his Democratic successor Bill Clinton. It had all-party (although by no means unanimous) support. Since then, its overall effect, at least in terms of American jobs, appears to have been pretty much neutral. In 2015, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that, "In reality, NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters. The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest". Some areas (like small home appliances and clothing) may have taken a hit, while others have benefitted. Like a medical treatment, though, it is hard to parse exactly what the effect has been, in the absence of any control to compare it with.
What has probably had a much greater effect on the American economy, and particularly its manufacturing base, is China's "most favoured nation" status. The designation, which sets lower tariffs on goods traded between the countries, has been granted to China by American governments of all stripes since the 1980s, and became permanent when China was accepted into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Different studies suggest that between 1 and 2 million American jobs have been lost due to trade with China, and an analysis of American manufacturing employment shows that the steep drop-off in US manufacturing jobs only started after China joined the WTO (not after NAFTA came into effect), and then got a whole lot worse with the Great Recession of 2007-8. All of which perhaps makes it doubly ironic that Donald Trump's first action in office was to definitively nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that did not include China, and that was intended to help the USA compete against Chinese economic influence...
It should also be noted that, even as manufacturing employment has dwindled, American manufacturing output has been increasing since the mid-80s (with a temporary downturn during the Great Recession, which has since been largely made up), reflecting the increased productivity, and automation in the manufacturing sector. In fact, American trade as a whole has boomed since the NAFTA agreement was struck, with trade among the NAFTA partners increasing from about $290 billion in 1993 to over $1 trillion by 2016. Canada and Mexico are the two largest destinations for US exports, making up over a third of the total; the US auto sector become globally competitive due to the cross-border supply chains; and US agricultural exports have nearly doubled to Mexico, and have increased by about 44% to Canada. Canada is the largest destination for US agricultural products and the top buyer of American fresh fruits and vegetables; Mexico is the top export market for US corn, soybean meal and poultry.
But free-trade deals are not only about trade. They are also about fostering positive relations between countries, reducing tensions, and encouraging bilateral cooperation on issues like crime and the environment. In that respect, NAFTA has had a wholly positive effect on all three countries.
Dragging the USA out of NAFTA would be a hugely difficult feat, given how integrated the three economies are now. And even if it were to happen, shifting production of automakers and other manufacturers back from Mexico to the US, where labour costs are significantly higher, could prove very expensive and seriously impact American competitiveness relative to foreign producers. The profitability (and share price) of many S&P500 companies has benefitted substantially from moving some of their operations to Mexico over the last couple of decades. Unwinding the process, would almost certainly have the opposite effect. Donald Trump should be very careful what he wishes for.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Does Alcoholics Anonymous really need to be religious?

It's something I've never put much thought into before, but I guess that the venerable institution of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is in fact a religious, indeed a specifically Christian, outfit.
It may be the butt of many a spoof and comedy routine, but as far as I know, AA does a bang-up job of helping people kick their alcohol problems. The organization goes back to 1934, when founder Bill Wilson experienced what he thought of, in the Christian zeitgest of the period, as a holy vision on his way to hospital, leading him to establish the network of peer counselling groups according to his own precepts, and it has changed very little since. Indeed, Step 3 of the famous 12 steps exhorts members to: "Make a decision to turn over our will and our lives to the care of God as we understand Him." It doesn't get much plainer than that.
However, not everyone is entirely comfortable with this level of religious content, and there was a feeling that, in some areas at least, meetings were becoming increasingly religious in tone. So, Larry Knight and others in the Toronto area started organizing agnostic AA meetings to service this perceived need, and at first the regional organizing body (the grandly-named Greater Toronto Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous) seemed to embrace the move, and listed the meetings in its directories.
Then, in 2011, the Intergroup abruptly de-listed these groups and meetings, and started to actively ostracize those local groups that offered a more secular interpretation of the 12 steps. Mr. Knight, himself actually a member of the Unitarian Church, felt obliged to take his local AA coordinating body to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in order to get them to recognize and list the agnostic groups (arguing religious discrimination). Just this week, he won the case, and the Intergroup is once again listing the rebel meetings. As a quid pro quo, though, they have agreed to use the official 12 steps, complete with the mention of God.
Interestingly, these agnostic AA groups have blossomed since the court case began in 2014, going from just 2 groups in the GTA to 12 today, and from 80 to 350 worldwide. There is clearly a market there. Personally, I don't really understand why the AA feels the need to dogmatically cling to its Christian roots. Surely, its raison d'etre is to alleviate and cure alcoholism, and it should therefore be open to all, regardless of faith (or lack thereof). In fact, one of its founding Traditions is that "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking". That also is very plain.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Superbowl ads outspeak Lady Gaga

If the world was expecting (and hoping for) some political fireworks from Lady Gaga's half-time performance at yesterday's Superbowl - the biggest single platform in America's television year, and one with an audience profile skewed notoriously to the right - then all they actually witnessed was a proverbial damp squib.
After Beyonce's politically-charged performance last year, and given Lady Gaga's usually outspoken persona (especially on LGBTQ issues), and the recent election of one of the most politically divisive and reactionary presidents in US history, I think most people were ready for her to push the envelope at least a little. The closest she came, though, was the predictable inclusion of her song "Born This Way", just one of several mega-hits she covered in the performance, and so well-known and mainstream now that it fails to shock.
Perhaps surprisingly, the half-time commercial ads were probably more politically uncompromising than Ms. Gaga's performance. AirBnB's ad (with its message of: "We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept."), and 84 Lumber's story of a Central American family's journey to US citizenship, were both more poignant and edgy than anything Lady Gaga presented.
So, did she bail, or was she pushed?

Gaga's safety-first performance has done her no harm - apparently her sales have surged 1000% after the Superbowl. What's a mega-star to do?

Federal judge opposing Trump is a "mainstream Republican"

Judge Robarts - or "so-called judge" as Trump insists on referring to him - is a respected, if heretofore unexceptional, Washington lawyer, comfortable with his own convictions and unafraid of passing down potentially unpopular rulings.
He is also described by colleagues as a "mainstream Republican", in the moderate Republican tradition of the Pacific Northwest. Hell, he was appointed to the federal bench by none other than George W. Bush!
The issue is far from over, and is headed for the appeals court and probably ultimately the Supreme Court. But in handing down Mr. Trump's first public legal slap-down, Judge Robarts has single-handedly offered hope to millions of disgruntled people. And, given that Trump is already facing over 50 legal challenges to his early executive orders (about 10 times the number filed against Presidents Obama and Bush at this point in their tenures), it gives hope to those other challenges too.

On February 9th, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco upheld the halt to Trump's attempt to ban refugees and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries.
An unhappy Mr. Trump tweeted in response, "See you in court, the security of our nation is at stake!", suggesting that he is still living in his own little make believe world, and that the issue is bound for the Supreme Court.