The Mask

I have two masks for use in limiting the spread of COVID. I sewed them both. I have fabric for more but I need more elastic. I wear one of those masks whenever I might expose others to any theoretical undiagnosed infection in the droplets of my breathing.

So this is in no way an attack on mask wearing.

However I am increasingly alarmed by the fervour with which people, having latched onto the idea of masks, are willing to persecute others about them.

So let’s look at what masks are for and what they might do. When you breath or talk or any other gross function of your face holes, air comes out. Moist air, with which you may be “speaking moistly.” Tiny droplets that may contain virus spread out from your face. It is not impossible for some of those to get past a metre in front of you, but most will blow away or settle out or evaporate in less than a metre. And taking into account viral loading, if you are infectious, even if not obviously symptomatic, and another person is trapped in a confined space with you or within that 1m for long enough, generally 15 minutes or more, then you could pass that infection on to them.

Therefore, it seems reasonable that wearing a mask, when you are confined in poorly ventilated spaces with other people, is likely to restrict your face spray and possibly reduce your infectivity, if you are infectious.

More or Less yesterday, was discussing why fears of spikes in infections have not been realized following bank holidays and Black Lives Matter protests in the U.K. And the answer seems to be that along with warm weather, which SARS CoV2 apparently does not prefer, being outside in well ventilated conditions where people are social distancing and washing their hands a lot and using hand sanitizer, that behaviour does not constitute the same risk as getting to work every day spending 35 minutes on a crowded bus.

It is entirely possible that in particular circumstances everyone having the courtesy to wear a face mask may very well help limit the spread of COVID19. But calling for everyone to always wear a face mask if they are outside their home is unreasonable. If you are not in close proximity to others, not in enclosed spaces, not passing enough time to meet the requirements of viral loading, then there is not a transmission risk path that a mask can limit.

And some jurisdictions and many zealots are intent on people being fined or charged for not always wearing a mask. What this indicates to me is a clear lack of understanding of what the masks do and how they might help. A policy based more on desperation than understanding.

And I understand that people are feeling desperate. We all want there to be some way we can return to normal. And I think the ‘common sense’ idea that universal mask wearing will give us that is alluring. And I also recognize that there is a weakness in human nature that tempts many to the delights of persecuting others with enforcement of strict unconditional rules, whether those rules effect anything useful or not.

Masks may help limit the spread of the virus. If people are infectious but asymptomatic, or more likely if they are presymptomatic, them having the decency to wear a mask in confined spaces with other people for lengths of time will likely help. But requiring everyone to always wear a mask absolutely misses the point of masks and indulges a persecutorial impulse which we can ill afford to have compounding our problems right now. So stop it.

Plastic non-recycling

Reminder: By and large plastic is not recyclable, or at least not recycled. We have technology for reprocessing some plastic. Clean PET, that is pop bottles, thoroughly washed, with the lids and labels removed can be reprocessed into fibres that can be used to make fleece or shoddy tarp fabric or plastic wood. But that process is not ‘recycling’ it does not cycle.

Some clean second generation materials can be reprocessed again into increasingly lower grade materials but inevitably such plastic is headed for the garbage, or the environment. In fact, reprocessing is an important stage in reducing whole plastic items to microplastics as the material is extruded as fibres.

But all of this is moot, since we never built the local facilities to reprocess plastic and instead rely on shipping our plastic garbage to vulnerable developing nations that also do not have the proper facilities to deal with our waste. Slave-wage workers there pick through literal mountains of wind-blown plastic to find economically salvageable bits. And because this is marginally more lucrative than subsistence farming, the local agricultural economy is undermined.

What garbage pickers can’t sell to reprocessing they sell as raw fuel to be burned uncleanly in local industries. Just burned in furnaces. No emission controls.

What should be happening to our plastic is that is should be incinerated locally in waste-to-energy facilities with state of the art emission control. But to do that we would have to build the infrastructure. And to build the infrastructure we would have to admit we have been talking bullshit about plastic recycling for decades.

An ongoing fantasy about the stuff we insist on calling renewable energy… over… and over… and over… again.

It was more than a decade ago now that I first read a misleading article claiming that wind and solar had become cheaper than coal for generating electricity. Turned out that this was only true if you ignored an approximately 95% subsidy. In other words the article was claiming that less than five percent of the cost of wind and solar was less than the entire cost of coal. Or, in other words, these renewables were about 20 times more expensive than coal.

Yesterday I saw the latest in a series of claims like this. “Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years.” And like that first time I had a thrill of excitement at the possibility it was true. Spoiler: it was not.

Nowadays you can look up such data.

There has been a decrease in coal burning for electricity, due primarily to an increase in natural gas burning. Better than coal, but still not great. There has been a small increase in non-hydro “renewables” but that includes a large share of manifestly unsustainable biogas which is an environmental nightmare.

All non-hydro renewables for electricity generation look to be about 12–13%. Coal at 20% and expected to increase in 2021.
So, the article is not even close to being true.

Coal for 2020: 730.30 billion kWh
Renewable non-hydroelectric: 476.92 billion kWh

And again “renewable” includes waste biomass, biomass-based diesel, ethanol, and a wood biomass electricity subtotal which are all sources of CO2.

Wood biomass electricity is shredding forests to make woodchips and essentially burning them. Wood biomass represents 9.822 quadrillion Btu of the “renewables” total of 11.797. So deforestation is 83% of “green” energy in this case.

And it is not even clear that in such a scheme the fuel output is greater than the total fuel inputs. It is entirely possible that harvesting shipping and processing the wood consumes more diesel than the output from the generation justifies. So this process overall can consume more resources than it produces, a net loss of energy, and produces CO2 and deforestation as a… as a… bonus?

So, no, renewables have never come close to “surpassing” coal. And much of that free wheeling term, “renewable” is either hydro, which capacity has not grown in the last 6 years or absolutely mad biogas/biomass schemes that are disaster.

And that is only the electricity sector. What about industry? Transportation? Home heating and cooling?

What minute fraction of the greater energy budget are wind and solar? These being what people naturally think you mean when you say “renewable.” No one looks at that headline and assumes that you have replaced coal with vast inexcusable deforestation of much less energy dense wood.

Coal burning is a serious problem. We have not in the past solved it by pretending fantasy nonsense about it and we are not going to wish or lie it away now.

For the love of life on this tiny blue dot, stop pretending that there is a simple miracle cure to climate change and start backing realistic non-imaginary technologies we can use to address our situation. We could go on pretending while the world burns, or we could do something about it.

Gun Culture

A very long time ago, from middle school through much of high school, I knew a funny, kind, creative young man. We were best friends. As is the way with these things, later we were not. However because we knew people in common, some time during college I got talking to him at a party. We were discussing gun culture and militarism, which I was not keen on and said so. Then he told me he had a friend in or out of the military or something who would happily beat the shit out of me for saying that…

Sometimes when we discuss gun ownership and gun culture we focus only on the victims of mass shootings, or racist gun violence, or suicide. While these are horrific social problems undeniably tied to gun culture, particularly in the US, we might consider whether they are the central problem itself or a byproduct.

I like guns. I liked target shooting as a child. I only ever owned a pellet gun myself; I think I still have it. But my dad was a member of the gun club. I knew kids who had dads with guns. Even today I love a first-person shooter.

If I were traveling in Polar Bear Provincial Park I would have to get a rifle. I do not think you are allowed to go in without one. If I were a mid-western American crop farmer being raided nightly by hundreds of feral pigs I would need a high-powered rifle with a telescopic infrared night sight. Guns are useful. But for most people, most of the time recreational gun ownership is a luxury.

Right-wing interests trying to weaken the state need levers with which to motivate supporters. Ideally those levers are free. A reason the religious right can agitate its constituents with anti-abortion rhetoric is in part because the abortion status quo has no cost to society. Although the people pulling the lever and the people gulled into being levered will disagree with spittle-flecked adamancy.

Gun rights are the same. Unless you are a biathlete, or a hunter, or exploring a dangerous wilderness, you are not fundamentally being deprived or punished, not being allowed to collect and play with banned firearms. Any collector might feel bad at not being able to collect particular desired weapons, but they will never suffer deprivation because of it. So gun-rights advocacy is a free lever. There is no cost to society in regulation limiting firearms as toys or collector items.

But the guns and rights are not the point. The lever is the point. The conflict between broadly agitated defenders against the infringement of rights to keep and bear arms, and the rest of society serves the people who fan those flames. Social unrest, discord, and conflict, these drive wedges into society preventing the formation of consensus and precluding unified action. If you are trying to weaken government, or empower and enrich a tiny minority of moneyed corporatists and profiteers you need division in broader society. You need anti-abortionists and gun-rights activists.

At the party I was taken aback. A person whom I had been fast friends with for many years had just told me, with some delight, that I should be shit-kicked for thinking of infringing a belligerent’s access to weapons. I did not feel reassured by the implication that it was fine for an angry gun owner to do violence to me for disagreeing, essentially, with whether that was ok or not.

Guns are fine though. They are neutral. But people are not. Gun ownership for worthy purposes is fine. But gun culture is a more dangerous weapon than a gun. It turns the kind to meanness, the reasonable to belligerence, and the gentle to violence. We should consider it a warning when a gun-rights advocate dismisses the École Polytechnique massacre as irrelevant for being 31 years ago. The problem is not that, in Canada at least, this is the continual crisis as it is in the US, yet. The problem is that a cultivated indifference to human decency allows anyone to act as though 15 deaths is less meaningful than a childish insistence on keeping a dangerous toy.

One day, off-duty policemen who were likely also members of the gun club and the Legion came to my house. My dad had been at the Legion, very drunk and spouting off. And I guess he made some threats against, likely my mum, but who knows. His Legion Gun-Club police acquaintances showed up at the house and took his gun. They took it, not because he had ever shot anyone, but because he should not have had a gun. And fine, after that he could not bring his own gun to go drinking at the Gun Club. But his not having it never was, could never be, a serious deprivation. Which is very unlike what would likely have occurred had the gun not been taken away.

Vote like you mean it!

I do not know what the best way of forming a government is. I am not sure what decisions I would make if I were tasked with making one up. At the moment we have first-past-the-post. Is first-past-the-post the best way to form a government? Almost certainly not. Is it the worst? No, not by a long shot.

Our democracy is based in political parties. I dislike party systems since political parties seem inevitably to become representatives of special interests. Whether that is the 1%, bankers, trade unionists, white supremacists, particular religions or fashionable ideologies there is hardly any way for selfish special interests to align with best public policy. But political parties is what we have to work with, so…

Firstly, I want to live in a country that can form functional governments. In principal and often in the past, first-past-the-post has delivered that. Not so much with Mulroney or with Harper, or Harris or Ford, but most of the time, until relatively recently. And there is no essential reason why another system, such as some form of proportional representation could not perform as well. There are certainly examples, contemporary and historical of either working. And there are examples of both not working. And there are examples where the formation of government is inherently undemocratic, but the country somehow gets a decent government anyway.

But no electoral system is proof against people voting irresponsibly, pointlessly, maliciously or stupidly. That we have more than one right-wing extremist party in Canada now fills me with shame. And that does not get better if you do not cast your vote so as to deprive those extremists seats. Elections may superficially seem like some kind of team-based popularity contest. What they are however is a mechanism for choosing a government.

I want you to imagine a bratty child who is given the choice between vanilla ice cream and poison. But they stamp their feet and shriek that they want Tiger. So not having contributed to the choosing they get the poison. People sometimes talk about voting strategically as if it is some sort of compromise, like choosing who to vote for can be a process that dispenses with any thought of consequence.

I do not care who you vote for so long as you deprive the CPC and the PPC and all those whatever-ya-wanna-call-ems seats. If a CPC candidate is elected in your constituency by a smaller percentage than votes cast for candidates who were never going to win then voters who decided to deliberately not elect someone, from whatever party, Liberal, New Democrat, Green, I don’t care, who could beat that CPC are just as guilty of electing them as anyone who voted for them.

One of three things must be true.

One of three things must be true.

One: “Renewable” energy sources, wind and solar, are well defined and resolved technologies that are now capable of meeting the lion’s share of our current electricity needs and expanding to all the proportionately larger component of that demand that must result in our transition from fossil fuels. In which case all is well with the world because even selfish market forces would propel any economy toward renewables.

Two: “Renewable” energy sources, are not fully developed technologies and many issues remain unresolved. However eventually, in ten or twenty or thirty years, they will be. For instance we do not have battery technology to support a transition to wind and solar. Also we need considerable advancement in materials research or vast new sources of rare minerals to come anywhere near meeting the demands of transitioning. But these hurdles may be overcome. At which point, eventually, all will be well as these technologies inevitably supplant ones with greater environmental footprints.

Three: “Renewable” technologies never really come up to meeting current generating levels, let alone the vast increases that would be required to supplant fossil fuels. This is entirely possible. There may not be practical batteries better than lithium-ion. There may never be enough rare elements to build all the units. I hope this is not the case. But it may be.

For decades people have been hoping that fusion was just thirty years away. However it is also possible that the €13 billion ITER experiment in France will conclusively show that fusion is not viable. Should the research have a more desirable outcome then it will still be decades before commercial reactors are displacing other electricity sources. We shall see.

And here is the thing. There is a gap. The gap started in 1997 with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. The day after that we should have been transitioning to the carbon-free sources of energy at our disposal. Twenty two years ago we should have been building nuclear reactors to at the very least fill the decades gap until some unrealized technology could replace them.

Unless you believe in option one, which is discounted by the very researchers working on the problem, we still need to be building nuclear reactors to fill that gap. And that’s assuming it is a gap and the problems of replacement technologies become resolved in coming decades. Which they may not.

Adobe Broken

Yesterday, working in Illustrator, which I first started doing in 1988, I discovered a curious thing. The PNGs I was outputting were not cropped the way they were set up in the document. I had run into a similar problem last summer but in this case the export was not respecting either the clipping mask or the artboard. I would have just exported the layers separately except with that workflow there is limited control over the resolution so I could not make the PNGs 96ppi as the client required.

The workarounds I tried were problematic in themselves. In the end I had to make a compromise between the size and resolution. Since they are for screens, I am hoping it does not matter.

In researching this I found online discussions of this exact problem from 2016. And it is still not fixed. All it needs is a checkbox, for what should be the default, “□ Use Artboard.” This exists in another export mode, so I know Adobe have an understanding of it. It is just that with all the thousands of millions of dollars they report spent on R&D each year they have not yet managed to fix an interface bug that is at least three years old.

And there we have it. The delicious impossibility of “innovation” endlessly improving. We are promised, and pay and pay and pay for better tools and what we get is just poorly realized feature bloat that is not properly supported and once rolled out will never be revisited.

It is a delusion promoted by marketing that we can endlessly have new and improved. This is absurd. There is always a point in a design process where you have solved the essential problem and if you keep poking it and won’t leave it alone, the product will start getting worse. And it is not the predator companies with their inane and often broken updates who are to blame. They could not break the tools we use if we stopped buying the broken tools.

Planned Parenthood

I was born late in 1963. In 1969 contraception stopped being illegal in Canada. In 1983 spousal rape became illegal in Canada.

So in the spring of 1963 when my father raped my mother the assault was perfectly legal. She had no access to contraceptives. She had little or no access to reproductive health services and certainly not an abortion. This despite the fact that she was living in astonishing poverty with a drunken abusive rapist and already had two nearly grown daughters.

In fact, gynecological neglect contributed to decades of health problems for my mother which significantly worsened the misery of her later years.

That being said, OHIP started in 1966 so she was more fortunate than her mother who, without birth control had a life of annual miscarriages that took a heavy toll on her health. And even so they both had it easier than my father’s mother who had an unknowable number of miscarriages as well as someteen surviving children by a physically abusive man who once hung his heavily pregnant wife out a second story window and would try to, in my aunt Virginia’s words, “beat the French out of her.”

Antiabortionists like to frame their cause in terms of protecting babies. I will not bother here, again, to explain that blastocysts and embryos and fetuses are not babies, and cannot be persons, but this is so. And such as it is, “pro-life” campaigners cannot be acting as they are to protect the unborn, because the unborn, in the sense that they are proposing, are imaginary.

No, what is actually the case is that these people, or more explicitly the leaders who agitate them for their own purposes, are trying to undermine women’s access to reproductive health services.

Most of the services that Planned Parenthood provide are the contraceptive and gynaecological services my mum and her mum and my dad’s bruised and beaten mother suffered without. Organizations making and distributing disinformation about Planned Parenthood are using abortion as an inflammatory issue as part of a systematic attack on women’s health and their rights in general.

And in some parts of the US this has been very successful and progressed quite far. Either of my grandmothers might have gone to prison multiple times under new legislation in Alabama because of their miscarriages. Please think about that.

Attacks on Planned Parenthood are attacks on women’s reproductive health, on women’s access to health services, on women’s rights. Abortion bans are on the same road as contraception bans and disenfranchisement of women. As the decriminalization of spousal rape. As a return to an appalling age of suffering and abuse of which we should all be profoundly ashamed.

Screening a film intended as part of a defamatory campaign against Planned Parenthood and by extension, women in general, is no grey area of free speech. It is obscene. And in its potential to spread disinformation that is likely to bring severe harm to many women, it is inexcusable.

Intractable Carbon Problem

We need to decarbonize. But it is delusional to think that will be today, or this month, or this year. We really do not have a technology for that.
Electricity would be easy if people were not what they are. We could build nuclear reactors and decarbonize electrical generation within 10–20 years. It would take that long to build them. But that is not going to happen because first you would have to convince misinformed people that we should build nuclear reactors. Best of luck with that. So while possible with existing tech, decarbonizing electricity is by no means going to happen soon. And all the carbon cost of the delay lies at the feet of the antinuclear (energy) lobby.

And yet this is not the most significant problem. In a recent interview a climate scientist was finally asked what the prognosis was for decarbonizing. She made the above point about electricity, but went on to say that both heating and transportation were less tractable problems. And they are. It is not easy to see how heating can be refitted to eliminate fossil fuels. A bigger problem however is that for this, or more problematically to electrify transportation would require a vast increase in core electrical generating capacity that absolutely cannot be achieved with wind turbines and photovoltaic cells.

For the UK alone, electrifying all the vehicles would require an additional 10 full-sized nuclear plants on top of those that would be built to replace existing fossil fuel production.

Particularly in light of the Canadian government’s announcement on the Trans-Mountain expansion it is important to understand that while we must move toward carbon free energy, primarily by educating people about nuclear power, we are still in a fossil fuel age and we still need to manage the production and infrastructure associated with that fact until we can get off this carbon producing ride.

Spun Rock Wool

Where I grew up, our next door neighbours were Louise and Paul Buss. Paul was an immigrant and an engineer. He and his brother invented the process for making spun rock wool.

The Busses built Spun Rock Wools Ltd. in Thorold, manufacturing the insulation and selling it all around the world. Later the whole shebang was sold to Rockwool International. Spun rock wool is Roxul, which you may well have purchased if you were doing any renovations involving insulation.

And yet the Busses lived next door to the relatively impoverished McKays, in if anything a smaller house, although situated on the corner. This wealthy successful man who owned a factory and an international business, who had made valuable contributions to both technology and the economy, was just a neighbour to me. And there it is. Rich and poor, workers and factory owners, we all lived similar lives in the same neighbourhood in much the same housing.

Just a couple of doors down from me was built a conspicuously consumptive mini-McMansion covered in “security” lights and with a crowded driveway. In that house lives someone prosperous enough to be a model of consumerism. And what has that person done, for the world, for the economy? He owns a clothing line… That’s it. He has a brand, marketing and subcontractors.

And somewhere in that difference at either end of fifty years, I think I see what is wrong with our economy.