Jury duty

Elizabeth Holmes, looking for a jury of her peers. (CNBC)

Elizabeth Holmes is the founder of Theranos who got charged with various counts of wire fraud. I haven’t been following her trial much at all, but I was struck by a news item about it this week.

What happened is that a juror was dismissed for playing Sudoku while the trial was going on. This led to her being called out by the judge:

“I do have Sudoku, but it doesn’t interfere with me listening,” the juror said. “I’m very fidgety, so I need to do something with my hands. So at home I’ll crochet while I’m watching or listening to T.V.”

In chambers, [Judge Edward] Davila asked the juror: “So has this distracted you from listening?”

“No,” the juror said.

“Have you been able to follow and retain everything that is going on in the courtroom?” Davila asked. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” the juror said.

I guess the judge wasn’t buying it because the juror was dismissed. This seems a bit harsh. A lot of what happens in any trial doesn’t take one’s full attention to follow. I don’t see anything wrong, at least to the point of disqualification, with doing a puzzle. It’s not much worse than doodling.

As part of the same story there was another item that caught my eye. Apparently this is the third juror to have been dismissed, as “a second juror was removed two weeks ago after revealing that, due to her Buddhist beliefs, she could not in good conscious [sic} return a verdict that may send Holmes to prison.”

This surprised me as well. Buddhists can’t send people to prison? I could see them being against the death penalty, but they’re against all incarceration? That seems like a pretty strict sort of Buddhism. I wonder if this was just an excuse the juror was using so they could go home. But then why did they take so long to notify the judge about their having an issue with the penalty? And shouldn’t this have come up during the jury selection process? This trial is a pretty big deal, after all.

Anyway, there you have it. You can’t play Sudoku in the jury box and if you’re a Buddhist . . . I guess you can’t be on a jury at all, at least if there’s any jail time involved.

Half-mast

The Canadian flag flying from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill has been at half-mast since May 30. That’s quite a long time. It was lowered in remembrance of the victims of residential schools. It’s unclear when it will be raised again. Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed the point of view that he has no authority to raise it, and that this can only be done after consultation with Indigenous leaders.

If we can’t say exactly when it will be raised again, I think it’s a safe bet that it will be up by November 11, when it is lowered in remembrance of fallen soldiers. That this is so indicates, I think, what a transparently political stunt it is. Yes, it’s more virtue signaling of the most blatant kind by our terminally woke prime minister.

Most of the criticism directed at the lowered flag has come from conservative commentators. They see it as disrespectful and expressing national self-loathing. I don’t care about any of that. What bothers me is its emptiness. This past week also saw the government of New Brunswick ask its employees to stop making land acknowledgments in reference to what may be Indigenous lands, as First Nations groups have begun a court case claiming ownership and title to over 60% of the province.

I’ve never liked the land acknowledgments. Like the lowered flag they are merely gestures, bankrupt of meaning. The lowered flag, however, is mostly harmless. The land acknowledgments are more invidious. But you can hardly blame Indigenous groups for wanting to take them at face value, and demanding courts do the same. I remember a few years ago hearing one Indigenous band member claiming restitution from a single, not-very-affluent Ontario municipality, in the trillions of dollars. That’s not a typo.

Another example of the same sort of thing — an expression of some moral principle never meant to be taken literally — can be seen in the diversity and equity movement. If you truly believe that your job is the result of your white privilege, shouldn’t you act on that by resigning so that a BIPOC person can have it?

But that would mean taking any of this seriously. The rhetoric and symbolism of woke culture is the essence of virtue signaling, by which I mean it’s a call for other people to make sacrifices and restitution for your beliefs. This makes signalers feel better about themselves. Presumably there is also some political payoff, but I think that’s starting to go into reverse. These virtuous balloons will burst. It’s all beginning to seem like the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade in Catch-22. It may, and I hope it will, end just as quickly.

Pumping up

Mamdouh Elssbiay (left) and Brandon Curry (right).

The 2021 Mr. Olympia contest is in the books and Egypt’s Mamdouh Elssbiay (known as “Big Ramy”) has repeated as champion.

I used to follow bodybuilding a bit, but recently haven’t been paying as much attention. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been getting older and my only fitness goals now are directed toward downsizing and working on things like cardio. I’m also put off by the drug regimens these guys are on, all to build themselves up to a point that obviously isn’t healthy. Of course drug use isn’t new, but I keep looking at these guys now and thinking they’re going to drop dead on the stage one of these days.

Another point is that recent bodybuilding champions have been getting a lot of flak lately for looking less “conditioned.” They’ve even been called out by veterans of the sport.

What lack of conditioning mainly means is less definition generally and the swollen bellies often associated with HGH (Human Growth Hormone) use. To be sure, this latter condition — dubbed “HGH gut” — looks gross. It seems like at least some of the guys are avoiding it though (the belly, I mean, not the HGH).

I think these criticisms are on target. I actually didn’t think Big Ramy looked that good this year. I would have rated Brandon Curry (the 2019 Mr. Olympia and runner-up this year) higher. Curry most often gets picked on for his skinny calves, but I thought he looked better proportioned and more defined. Actually, I could say the same for some of the other contestants as well. Curry isn’t perfect, but I think he’s a cut above Ramy, who to my eye is just big. Then again, I remember them saying the same thing about Dorian Yates when he was on top, and he’s considered a legend now. Probably just as well I’m not judging these things.

Panama, Paradise, Pandora

There’s been another, even bigger data dump of the financial dealings of the rich, famous, and very well-connected. As the CBC reports:

Much like the Panama Papers leak in 2016 or the Paradise Papers the following year, the secret files provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how certain global elites — or in other cases, high-profile criminals — take advantage of financial wizardry or opaque corporate structures to either shield assets, wriggle out of their tax obligations, or hide wealth entirely.

I was surprised how angry this story made me. I mean, it’s really just more of the same. Even the Panama Papers were no revelation. We all know this is how the super-rich secretly arrange their affairs, and the real disgrace is that little of it is actually illegal. The perfect crime, as the saying goes, is the one that isn’t a crime.

What I think bugged me the most this time was reading all the stories about the people involved. They aren’t entrepreneurs (except some of the outright crooks) or people who have any socially-valuable skills. Instead, many are celebs, politicians who have presumably made fortunes out of their ability to work the levers of power, or else people who just happen to be very well placed. Apparently Vladmir Putin’s baby mama has been given tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from Vlad, who many people suspect is actually the richest person in the world. And where did he get his money? You probably don’t want to know. King Abdullah II of Jordan is monarch of a very poor country, but it hasn’t stopped him amassing a large portfolio of luxury real estate. Tony Blair? Nobody knows how much he has, or quite where he got it, but there are reports that he’s piled up a personal fortune of over $100 million just since leaving office. Doing what? Giving talks?

This is the global elite: secretive, parasitical, and useless. Those in the political class have gotten rich on the back of the state they have served, and now return the favour by seeking to hide their wealth from that same state. Would it be so hard to shut these offshore tax havens down and try to regulate some of this financial legerdemain? It seems we really need to do something. Here is Oxfam’s statement:

This is another shocking exposé of the oceans of money sloshing around the darkness of the world’s tax havens that must prompt immediate action, as has long been promised.

Bravo to the whistleblowers and journalists for shining a light into this secret parallel system of capital, one open only to those with fat amounts of money and the greed to hoard it all untaxed, and those who facilitate it.

This is where our missing hospitals are. This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need. Whenever a politician or business leader claims there is ‘no money’ to pay for climate damage and innovation, for more and better jobs, for a fair post-COVID recovery, for more overseas aid, they know where to look.

Tax havens cost governments around the world $427 billion each year. That is the equivalent of a nurse’s yearly salary every second of every hour, every day. Ordinary taxpayers have to pick up the pieces. Developing countries are being hardest hit, proportionately. Corporations and the wealthiest individuals that use tax havens are outcompeting those who don’t. Tax havens also help crime and corruption to flourish.

Governments’ promises to end tax havens are still a long way from being realized. We cannot allow tax havens to continue to stretch global inequality to breaking point while the world experiences the largest increase in extreme poverty in decades.

That breaking point seems to keep coming closer every day.

Federal election 2021: After

Voting wasn’t a lot of fun this year, but I got out and did my civic duty.

The voting station I had to go to was divided into 12 different polling sections. Lucky me, I was in the section where all the university students were dumped. So I had to stand in a long line for half an hour to vote while at least six of the other sections didn’t have a single person vote the whole time I was waiting. One of my neighbours was working as an elections official and I remarked off-handedly to her that the planning was terrible. She insisted that it was actually working really well, the only problem was that all the students were in my voting section. I thought this sort of made my point. No one had planned for this? For one section having ten times as many voters as all the other sections combined? I wasn’t sure if she’d understood so I said again, “Well, that’s bad planning.” She dug in deeper, pointing to all the desks for the sections where no one was voting and where the officials were sitting back doing nothing and looking bored. “You see,” she said, “some of the sections aren’t busy at all.” At this point I was glad I had a mask covering my face so that she wouldn’t see my gawping. “Yes,” I tried again. “I can see that the other sections aren’t busy. But there’s a line with sixty people in it for this one. That’s poor planning.”

“No it’s not,” she said. “You’re only saying that because you’re in the line with all the people in it.”

Like I say, voting wasn’t a lot of fun.

I begin with this anecdote to make a couple of points. First: voting is still too big a hassle. One old fellow who came in while I was waiting in line got vocally angry and took it out on the officials, telling them it was a disgrace before stalking off without voting. The second point follows from the first: the lines were just another thing to piss people off. I thought calling an election was a stupid move. The Liberals clearly figured they were going to upgrade to a majority government, but I don’t see how that was ever in the cards. I’ve written before about how we’re living in an age of anger, and the pandemic has only made people angrier. Why would a party in power want to test an angry electorate? Poor planning!

Now on to the election results.

As expected (and I predicted) it was a tight race but Toronto and Montreal came through for the Liberals again. The new house will look almost exactly the same as the old house. The Liberals will again have a minority government.

I can only think of this as a Pyrrhic victory, as it doesn’t put them in any better position than the one they were in, underlines the pointlessness of the whole exercise (which cost upwards of $600 million), and I think sets the Liberals up for the kind of massive backlash the Tories experienced in 1993 after Mulroney won an improbable majority in ’88. They are less popular now than they were and are going to have to wear this. Trudeau immediately claimed a “clear mandate” but early results had the Conservatives actually receiving a larger percentage of the popular vote. That’s not a very clear mandate to my eye.

I think the Conservatives had the right idea in tacking to the left — however insincerely — though their “Secure the Future” campaign, with a logo that looked like a bunch of interlocking padlocks, seemed kind of threatening, especially given that I think the target demographic skewed older and more affluent. And securing their future means something different than securing a decent future for the rest of us.

Erin O’Toole was not an inspiring leader, but he played his cards the right way I believe. American-style, right-wing nuttery won’t work here, for various reasons. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada didn’t have the regional base that the old Reform Party (now the Conservative Party) had, and in a first-past-the-post system it’s impossible to make any kind of dent on the two-party status quo.

Meaning that the NDP unsurprisingly failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough, again, while the Greens disappeared (with Annamie Paul finishing fourth in her own riding). I don’t know what the Greens should do at this point. Not only are they never going to have any kind of voice in FPTP, they aren’t even going to have any influence on shaping policy going forward. The environment as an issue simply isn’t a priority for any appreciable part of the electorate.

So there you have it. An election that nobody wanted ending with a result that will make nobody happy. Which will lead, I am sure, to more anger. A forecast of sunny days ahead.

Federal election 2021: Before

In 2015 I did a pair of before and after posts on the federal election, in which I made a prediction that was totally wrong (yeah, I thought Harper would be re-elected). In 2019 I did the before and after thing again, only with a more accurate forecast. Since I’ve been doing the “before” posts a week out from the election itself I guess it’s time to post an entry for what’s happening in 2021, even though I’ve already commented on the calling of a snap election, and the fact that it’s a snap election means there hasn’t been a lot of time for the picture to develop.

I think calling the election was a mistake. The plan was for the Liberals to upgrade from a minority to a majority government and I don’t see that happening now.

And that was all the plan the Liberals had. Asked multiple times to explain why an election had been called — a question they should have had been ready for — Trudeau couldn’t come up with anything very convincing. In one of the French-language debates he could only say that they needed “a clear mandate . . . to understand what Canadians want for the next years.” That’s weak, and I’m not sure it even makes sense. A mandate to understand?

As far as policy goes I don’t think there’s that big a gap between the Liberals and the Tories. Instead there are “optics.” This is where celebrity politics gets you: you live and die by the leader’s personality. Unfortunately for the Liberals, Justin Trudeau has not worn well. Even people I know who started out being supporters of him now feel quite disillusioned. He has not grown into the job. I find it surprising that he is still so bad at answering questions that take him off script, and being able to project confidence or competence. I know it’s an easy dig to say he’s all just fantastic hair and striped socks, a mere pretty boy playing at being a prime minister, but the shoe fits.

The various scandals surrounding his administration haven’t helped, reinforcing the sense that the Liberals are arrogant grifters. Allegations of hypocrisy and corruption have been hard to dodge, with the controversy over Raj Saini being just the latest example. Meanwhile, Jody Wilson-Raybould’s revenge was well timed. Hell hath no fury like a cabinet minister scorned.

Will the NDP be able to capitalize on voter disenchantment, or will voters duly fall into line, as they do every election, and vote for our Natural Governing Party? Never underestimate the timidity and steadfast resistance to change of the Canadian voter. Never.

I don’t know what happened to the Greens. I didn’t follow any of their leadership squabbles, but it’s depressing to think it came down to a disagreement over showing support for Israel. Why are we fighting over this? Annamie Paul seems bright and capable but hard to warm to. That may be why she hasn’t been widely embraced and the party has disappeared. I don’t think it’s racism, as people seem very fond of Jagmeet Singh. Heaven knows the environment should have been a strong issue to run on this year, but it hasn’t happened. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever will.

How well Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives do may depend on how many votes Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada draws away. I don’t think many. People who hate Trudeau will vote for the guy they think most likely to get rid of him.

Personally, I’ve been feeling quite alienated from politics. This is the first election in a while that I’ve seriously considered not voting in. I think on election day it’s going to come down to how long the lines are at the polling station. There are enormous challenges that we face, both in this country and globally, but so-called culture-war issues are in the driver’s seat. Why? Because cancel culture, wokeism, and identity politics crap really plays online. In short, it works. This is the form Western politics has taken in the twenty-first century. I blame the Internet.

Prediction: I have a hunch the Liberals get back in with another minority government, helped mainly by the Toronto vote. But a week out it’s really too close to call. I don’t think the NDP will do as well as forecasters have been expecting. The Greens are going to be annihilated.

As I’ve done previously, I’ll be back in a week with a post-mortem, when I’ll hopefully have some more to say.

Electioneering

Last night was the first, and only, English-language leaders’ debate for the 2021 federal election. It was a complete waste of time. At least the first hour was, which is all I could watch.

The medium of television led to the replacement of debate with the sound bite, a snippet of a few seconds of speech taken out of context. From the evidence on display last night this is getting worse. Brevity was strictly enforced by the moderator, as the leaders had only thirty seconds at the most to answer questions, and that not without interruptions. All of this just meant that they were trying to repeat slogans and catchy phrases as quickly and clearly as possible, without saying anything of substance that might get them in trouble.

Questions weren’t answered. People talked past each other. There was the usual empty virtue signaling. Impossible, to my eye, to pick any clear winners or losers. I watched a breakdown of the “highlights” again this morning and found they were moments that hadn’t registered with me at all.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul came across as strong, but also fatalistic. She talked about having to come together across party lines to work on addressing environmental issues, which seemed to be conceding to reality. Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada wasn’t allowed to join the debate because the PPC didn’t meet the threshold for voter support, even though they are apparently polling ahead of the Greens now. I’m afraid it’s not looking good for the Greens this election, or for the environment as an issue moving forward.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet wasn’t worried about being likeable, so he didn’t even try. Which was actually kind of fun to watch.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was the most assured and articulate and it didn’t matter much. In the first hour anyway he was the only one I recall making a clear policy statement, about ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. That’s something I would have liked to hear some debate over, but things had to keep whipping along.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole hit his talking points. He’s not a charismatic or inspiring personality, but at least doesn’t come off as an arrogant jerk, which is something the Tories have struggled with recently. This isn’t a party with any new ideas though, and it’s not as if their old ideas were any good.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hasn’t changed in six years, which isn’t to his credit. He still has a lot of trouble speaking off script and can’t explain why this election is happening.

It’s come to this

At a time when only just over half of all Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 there has been a sudden interest in use of the drug ivermectin, a horse dewormer, as an antidote. This madness hasn’t stopped at the border, with a run on supplies of the livestock drug in Alberta and Amazon Canada including warnings on search results for the drug on its site (even though Amazon doesn’t sell it).

In the U.S. the Federal Drugs Administration posted the following on their Twitter account: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” Nevertheless, celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan recently admitted that he was taking the drug after having come down with COVID.

This is stupid on the level of the Tide Pod Challenge, where people would eat packages of laundry detergent. The Tide Pod thing was performative jackassery that I assumed was being done just to get clicks and views on social media and it didn’t involve more than a couple of dozen cases, at least as far as I can tell. Is the use of ivermectin any different? Are people just doing this to get attention? Or as a way of publicly declaring their pathological distrust of all authority and expertise? It can’t be just because they’re stupid, because I don’t think they all are. At least I don’t think they’re all this stupid.

And they’re off!

Somebody take his picture.

Justin Trudeau has called a snap Canadian federal election for September 20.

It is a tactical move, as the current Liberal minority government still has a couple of years to run before an election is required. Party political strategists, however, have presumably looked at the numbers and feel that now is the best time to upgrade to a majority government.

Why is this such an opportune moment? I think there are two main reasons.

In the first place, the competition is reeling. The new Conservative Party leader, Erin O’Toole, has not, thus far, been playing well with the public, Jasmeet Singh of the NDP still hasn’t caught on (and likely never will), and the Green Party is in total disarray.

Secondly, Canada is recovering (hopefully) from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Liberals want to take credit for the general sense of relief that Canadians feel.

In the next month I’ll probably post my usual, wildly inaccurate election predictions, and then offer some thoughts on the results. But for now, here are some preliminaries.

I think calling an election this early is cynical gamesmanship. Will the Liberals be punished for it? People don’t like being taken for granted, especially by politicians.

We live in a time of crisis and great challenges. And our political leadership continues to decline in quality. Is this the fault of the media? Of democracy? Looking at the field of candidates it’s hard not to feel despair.

As always, the Liberals will gain a lot from comparison shopping. The Big Prize in Canadian federal elections is Ontario, where there is already a Conservative government in power, and not a very popular one at that. This plays well for the Liberals. Also helping them out is what’s been happening south of the border, where it seems like the American right is imploding into a molten ball of ignorance and madness. Canada’s political right can now easily (and not always unfairly) be painted with the same brush as an anti-vaxxer, gun-toting, climate change-denying mob. Not in Canada! will be the cry. We’re better than that!

There has been an interesting development in national politics, both here and in the U.S., that has seen personality/celebrity and cultural issues jump into the driver’s seat. This is regrettable, but I can understand why it’s happening. The media, for one thing, tend to focus on these things because they push people’s buttons and they don’t take a lot of explaining. Try digging into the details of budgets and fiscal policy and see how many clicks you get. In the next month I expect we’re going to be hearing a lot of stuff about the personality of the leaders and the signaling of identity politics. Which national leader do you like the best? Are you woke? Are you for/against cancel culture?

I feel like I have to fight against this political tide myself. The fact is, Justin Trudeau has gone from being a slick, shallow, and dim figure I never cared much about to someone I despise. I don’t want to call him a bad person, but he is a sanctimonious hypocrite (the accusations of groping, the blackface) and, like so many establishment Liberals, he’s someone long steeped in the traditions of Natural Governing Party corruption (SNC-Lavalin, the We Charity). But how much of this should I be taking account of when casting a vote? Shouldn’t I just be concentrating on policy and platforms? Not that these mean all that much. But even though I knew Trudeau was never going to get rid of the FPTP electoral system, I still felt let down by that broken promise.

In any event, now they’re off to the races and we’ll have to see how things shake out. Here’s hoping we go for the least bad option, whatever it is.

Burning, burning

The latest assessment (the sixth) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a massive (4,000 page) and exhaustively-sourced document laying out that climate changing is happening, is “unequivocally” being driven by human activity (specifically the burning of fossil fuels), is getting worse, and is already to some extent irreversible.

None of this is new, but it helps to have these reports dropped on us with some regularity because it keeps what’s going on in the news, along with stories about extreme weather events like raging forest fires and devastating floods.

Some reflections:

(1) We’ve known about this for fifty years now. Powerful interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, have effectively waged a disinformation campaign against the science through their funding of the “merchants of doubt.” That said, I think most people get it and understand what’s really going on. But what can be done?

(2) The root problem is overpopulation. At present the global population is 7.9 billion. I was actually surprised it was already that high, but it’s going up by 200,000 a day. Some environmentalists get upset when you bring up the matter of population, seeing it as a diversion. I think it’s fundamental. As David Attenborough put it, “There is no environmental problem that is not made easier by less people.” Sure if we all lived with the carbon footprint of the average Bangladeshi then we might get by, but that’s not going to happen. And yes, global population will likely peak sometime around mid-century and then go into a sharp decline, but by then we’ll be cooked.

(3) In addition to overpopulation there is the fact that we live in an industrial economy based on mass production and mass consumption of goods. Some people blame capitalism, but I don’t see how a socialist government would be doing any less damage running the same industrial system. The old communist Soviet Union and China under Mao were two of the worst environmental offenders in history. As I’ve said before, the only environmentally sustainable human economy is life in a medieval village. We can’t go back to that even if we wanted to, and we certainly don’t want to.

(4) As for climate change, things are, as David Wallace-Wells put it, even worse than you imagine. And as bad as they are now they are likely to get much worse, and on an even faster schedule, than we expect. The feedback loops are already in place and operating.

(5) The only non-catastrophic way out would involve a global movement based on an egalitarian spirit of shared sacrifice. This would avoid total social and environmental collapse, but life would still get a lot harder. That said, I see no chance of people coming together to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to avert disaster. There’s no putting a happy face on this one. Our situation is worse than we think, and will soon end up being worse than we can imagine.

Postscript: As a final point, I want to address something that I’ve seen being said online in various forums: that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is grounds for hope that we can successfully respond to climate change.

This is deluded. I already wrote up my own report card for COVID, but just to highlight: The only really successful part of the global response to the pandemic was the creation of a vaccine. We may liken that to the work done by the IPCC scientists. They did their job. But the job done by the medical establishment, even in the wealthiest countries, was spotty, the political handling of the epidemic was generally poor, the economic fallout, I believe, will be disastrous, and the social response was depressing in the extreme. Anyone looking at how we coped with COVID for signs of hope on the environmental front is wearing rose-tinted glasses indeed.