Canada’s alcohol deficit: The public cost of alcohol outweighs government revenue

Alcohol has long held a hallowed place in the consciousness of Canadian society. A more socially acceptable drug than some others, it’s associated with relaxation, socializing and celebration. As a result, alcohol has received an almost free pass when it comes to changes in policy and public opinion.

Unlike other substances, alcohol is often present in our lives, filling spaces — social gatherings with family and friends or at the dinner table — where other drugs would possibly seem out of place.

But we’ve also largely turned a blind eye to the cost of alcohol in Canada. Some might see alcohol taxes and sales as a source of revenue for governments, but they might not consider the full story: the public costs of drinking far outweigh the revenues.

The public costs of alcohol

Federal and provincial governments derive revenue from taxing alcohol and, in most provinces, selling it directly in publicly owned liquor stores. In the 2022-2023 fiscal year, governments earned $13.6 billion from the control and sale of alcohol.

But those earnings were considerably less than public spending on health care and criminal justice, and the economic loss of production, caused by drinking across the country.

My recent research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs looked at the shortfall between spending and revenue between 2007 and 2020. This “alcohol deficit” is substantial and growing: it expanded by 122 per cent in real-dollar terms across the study period, beginning at $2.9 billion in 2007 and reaching an all-time high of $6.4 billion in 2020.

A growing alcohol deficit means governments are paying more to fix the problems caused by alcohol.
(Shutterstock)

Through excise and sales taxes, and public profits on sales and licensing fees, provincial and federal governments brought in $13.3 billion from the alcohol trade in 2020.

To study the other side of the coin, we tallied the cost of alcohol use in health care, criminal justice, economic loss of production and other direct costs like vehicle collision damage. The estimated public cost was nearly $20 billion. Put another way, every drink sold in Canada brought with it a deficit of about 38 cents.

Another divergence between how we perceive alcohol and other substances regards the drug supply. We may not think of the alcohol supply this way, but there are about 16.8 billion drinks sold every year in Canada. This amounts to more than 13 drinks per week for every drinker in the country. Compare this to Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health released in 2023 by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), which recommended that people consider drinking less and noted that any reduction in drinking helps lower alcohol risks.

This guidance also defined risk zones and found that consuming no more than six drinks per week would limit the risk of an alcohol-caused death to either low (one to two drinks a week) or moderate (three to six drinks a week) levels. Contrasting this advice with actual drinking rates indicates the alcohol supply in Canada isn’t consistent with promoting health and well-being.

Given the magnitude of the alcohol supply and the associated health impact, it’s practical to contemplate declines. This dovetails well with the main advice of the Guidance on Alcohol and Health: that people consider drinking a bit less. This would have health benefits for a lot of us — our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues — whether we’re heavier drinkers or more occasional imbibers.

Reducing the alcohol deficit

Research from the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation project provides some suggestions and possible ways towards reducing this alcohol deficit.

Regulating health-based labels on alcohol containers is a priority. Labels are well-supported by public opinion and it is generally accepted that users have a right to know any product’s potential harms. Labels can remedy the facts that most drinkers still don’t know that alcohol is a carcinogen and that most people have difficulty estimating how much pure alcohol — how many “standard drinks” — a beverage contains.

Compared to other legal substance like tobacco and cannabis, labelling is an area where alcohol has clearly been provided that free pass. Think of a bottle of wine, wrapped in fetching packaging showing pictures of a rustic vineyard. Imagine if the same was done for tobacco: a cigarette pack showing sprouting tobacco plants and farm equipment, instead of plain packaging with ominous health warnings.

Regarding pricing, a policy called a minimum unit price (MUP) has been implemented in countries like Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This sets a minimum price that a unit of alcohol can be sold for. An MUP effectively removes ultra-cheap alcohols from the marketplace, products that draw young people and heavier drinkers into problems with alcohol.

Better labelling on alcohol can educate more people about the risks associated with drinking.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Another potential benefit of an MUP is that it can level the commercial playing field. Ultra-cheap products tend to be produced by the largest multinationals, not by local distilleries, wineries or craft brewers. An MUP essentially levels the pricing playing field so local producers are better able to compete on quality, instead of economies of scale.

Most policy evaluations have also found that increases in the physical availability of alcohol, like a boost in the number of retail stores or added hours or days of alcohol sales, were associated with increased alcohol sales and alcohol-caused harms. Reducing how many stores there are in any given area and hours of sale is another potential mitigation policy.

Lastly, governments should consider advertising restrictions. When was the last time you saw cigarettes marketed on television, in print or on social media? It might be time to consider enhanced regulations on alcohol advertising as well.

In policy and public opinion, alcohol is treated differently than other potentially addictive substances. Alcohol policies like container labelling, minimum unit pricing and advertising regulations provide avenues towards reducing Canada’s costly alcohol deficit and, at the same time, improving public health. Läs mer…

How old are South African fossils like the Taung Child? New study offers an answer

One hundred years ago the discovery of a skull in South Africa’s North West province altered our understanding of human evolution. The juvenile skull was dubbed the Taung Child by Raymond Dart, an anatomist at the University of the Witwatersrand, who first described it. In 1924 Dart could not say exactly how old it was, but he announced that it belonged to a new species which he named Australopithecus africanus. It was the first evidence that confirmed British naturalist Charles Darwin’s assertion that apes and humans shared a long-ago common ancestor and that humanity originated from Africa.

Following on from the Taung Child, new discoveries of Australopithecus africanus were made, many at Sterkfontein, about 70km south-west of Pretoria. Sterkfontein is located within the “Cradle of Humankind”, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the century since the Taung Child was found and described, a great debate has developed about the geological ages of the Australopithecus fossils found at Sterkfontein as well as those from Taung and a third site, Makapansgat.

Much of the controversy is centred on Sterkfontein. Some researchers put the ages of fossils from a particular area (called “Member 4”) at between 3.4 million and 3.7 million years old. Others estimate that those fossils are much younger, dating back to between 2 million and 2.6 million years ago. The differences arise from the dating methods used by the opposing teams. Each has published articles rejecting the other’s methods.

Now the controversy may be a step closer to resolution. With my colleague Sue Dykes (who sadly passed away in 2019), I have used a different approach, applied directly to the fossil teeth of hominins (distant relatives of humankind), to estimate the Sterkfontein Australopithecus fossils’ ages. Our results for Member 4 suggest that the fossils range in age between about 2 million and 3.5 million years. This spans a period wider than previously thought, encompassing the ages estimated by the opposing teams.

Our method also allowed us to date the Taung Child to 2.58 million years ago.

We believe our method is accurate. But there will, no doubt, be other studies using other methods. We are dealing with a question that’s vexed scientists for decades and the quest to definitively say when these ancient members of our family tree existed in South Africa will continue.

One issue that hangs on the answer is the identification of the region from which our genus (Homo) originated: was it in South Africa or east Africa, from an ancestral australopithecine species?

Varying methods

One reason it’s been difficult to accurately date the Sterkfontein Australopithecus is that the initial discoveries were made in the course of mining for limestone, using dynamite. That means the context of the fossils was lost.

However, at Sterkfontein and elsewhere in South Africa, fossils have been found of animal species also found in east Africa. Volcanic deposits in east Africa have traces of potassium (K) and argon (Ar) which allow for accurate K/Ar radiometric dating.

The skull known as Mrs Ples, from Sterkfontein.
Lazarus Kgasi/© Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria, Author provided (no reuse)

Unfortunately active volcanoes did not occur in South Africa in the period of concern, between 2 million and 5 million years ago. But comparisons can be made between fossils of species from the two areas, including bovids (antelope such as wildebeest, hartebeest and kudu), suids (such as warthogs), and monkeys as well as gelada baboons.

Since the east African fossils can be well dated using the accurate K/Ar radiometric method, the ages of the same species in South Africa can be estimated. This approach is referred to as biochronology and is how one set of researchers in the debate reached their conclusion: that the Sterkfontein fossils from Member 4 are between 2 million and 2.6 million years old.

The group that sets the fossils’ ages at between 3.4 million and 3.7 million years old, meanwhile, used an approach called cosmogenic nuclide dating. They reached their conclusions by using the elements beryllium and aluminium to estimate the ages of chert (a type of sedimentary rock) in the Sterkfontein cave deposits associated with hominin fossils from Member 4.

Our approach

We also used a biochronological approach for dating. But, rather than using animal teeth, we worked directly from measurements of the Australopithecus fossils’ teeth.

We examined ratios of length and breadth of the lower first molars of east African hominins. Then, using an equation that we developed, we quantified a relationship between those ratios and geological age for our sample of Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ethiopian fossils, including Australopithecus afarensis and early Homo species such as H. habilis. The dates for these have been well established.

Under an assumption that the age of South African fossils representing the same genera could be estimated from the same relationship, we applied the equation to lower first molar teeth from Sterkfontein, notably to those attributed to Australopithecus as well as early Homo, for which tooth ratios could be determined. In this way we have been able to obtain dates for individual molars.

Our approach has been applied to molar teeth of the Taung Child, with a new result of 2.58 million years for this specimen of Australopithecus africanus.

Two teeth of Australopithecus from Makapansgat have also been dated using our method. The specimens are 3.07 million and 3.00 million years old, respectively. This is in good agreement with earlier estimates using palaeomagnetism.

We have also used our method to try to date fossils attributed to the hominin species referred to as Australopithecus sediba, found at Malapa near Sterkfontein. Our dates for two teeth representing this species (catalogued as MH1 and MH2) are respectively 2.14 million and 1.93 million years. This corresponds extremely well with the age of 1.98 million years obtained through methods using uranium, lead and palaeomagnetism.

We are particularly grateful to Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi for providing some of the measurements used in our study. Läs mer…

‘One inch from a potential civil war’ – near miss in Trump shooting is also a close call for American democracy

With an assassination attempt on Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania on July 13, 2024, the U.S. experienced another violent episode in its increasingly polarized politics. Former President Trump, who’s about to formally become the GOP nominee for president in the 2024 election, survived the attempted assassination when, initial reports said, a bullet grazed his ear. But one rally attendee was killed, more spectators were injured and the suspected gunman is also dead. The Conversation’s politics editor, Naomi Schalit, spoke with University of Massachusetts, Lowell, scholar Arie Perliger after the event. Perliger offered insight from his study of political violence and assassinations. Given the stark political polarization in the U.S., Perliger said, “it’s not a surprise that eventually people engage in violence.”

Schalit: When you heard the news, what was the first thing you thought?

Perliger: The first thing that I thought about is that we were basically one inch from a potential civil war. I think that if, indeed, Donald Trump would have suffered fatal injuries today, the level of violence that we witnessed so far will be nothing in comparison to what would have happened in the next couple of months. I think that would have unleashed a new level of anger, frustration, resentment, hostility that we haven’t seen for many, many years in the U.S.

This assassination attempt, at least at this early stage, may validate a strong sense among many Trump supporters and many people on the far right that they are being delegitimized, that they are on the defensive and that there are efforts to basically prevent them from a competing in the political process and prevent Trump from returning to the White House.

What we’ve just seen, for many of the people on the far right, fits very well into a narrative that they’ve already been constructing and disseminating for the last few months.

Donald Trump is rushed offstage by U.S. Secret Service agents during a rally on July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Political assassination attempts don’t aim only to kill someone. They have a larger goal, don’t they?

In many ways, assassination attempts bypass the long process of trying to downgrade and defeat political opponents, when there is a sense that even a long political struggle will not be sufficient. Many perpetrators see assassinations as a tool that will allow them to achieve their political objectives in a very quick, very effective way that doesn’t demand a lot of resources or a lot of organization. If we are trying to connect it to what we’ve seen today, I think that many people see Trump as a unicorn, as a unique entity, who in many ways really consumed the entire conservative movement. So by removing him, there’s a sense that that will or may solve the problem.

I think that the conservative movement changed dramatically since 2016, when Trump was first elected, and a lot of the characteristics of Trumpism are actually now fairly popular in different parts of the conservative movement. So even if Trump will decide to retire at some point, I don’t think that Trumpism – as a set of populist ideas – will disappear from the GOP. But I can definitely understand why people who see that as a threat will feel that removing Trump can solve all the problems.

In a study of the causes and impacts of political assassination, you wrote that unless electoral processes can address “the most intense political grievances … electoral competition has the potential to instigate further violence, including the assassinations of political figures.” Is that what you saw in this attempted assassination?

Democracy cannot work if the different parties, the different movements, are not willing to work together on some issues. Democracy works when multiple groups are willing to reach some kind of consensus through negotiations, to collaborate and to cooperate.

What we’ve seen in the last 17 years, basically since 2008 and the rise of the Tea Party movement, is that there’s increasing polarization in the U.S. And the worst part of this polarization is that the American political system became dysfunctional in the sense that we are forcing out any politicians and policymakers who are interested in collaboration with the other side. That’s one thing. Second, people delegitimize leaders who are willing to collaborate with the other side, hence, presenting them as individuals who betrayed their values and political party. And The third part is that people are delegitimizing their political rivals. They transform a political disagreement into a war in which there is no space for working together to address the challenges they agree are facing the nation.

When you combine those three dynamics, you create basically a dysfunctional system where both sides are convinced that it’s a zero-sum game, that it’s the end of the country. It’s the end of democracy if the other side wins. If both sides are hammering into people again and again that losing an election is the end of the world, then it’s not a surprise that eventually people are willing to take the law into their hands and to engage in violence. Läs mer…

Odds are that gambling on the Biden/Trump competition will further reduce the presidential campaign to a horse race

Speculation about President Joe Biden’s future as the Democratic nominee for U.S. president is seemingly everywhere: cable television, podcasts, social media, and – perhaps unexpectedly – overseas sports betting websites.

After the first 2024 presidential debate, many of these websites offered wagers about whether Biden would stay in the race.

As scholars of political communication and sports media, we study how online betting platforms usually associated with sports frame U.S. presidential elections.

In our study of the 2020 and 2024 elections, we have found that the bets are more than just ways for people to play with or profit from politics. The bets also highlight distinct aspects of the electoral process and reflect people’s understanding of those elections.

And while people engage with these games for different reasons, it’s also the case that these bets flatten and simplify important electoral issues. Consider some of the bets offered by one platform before the recent presidential debate: “Will Donald Trump or Joe Biden curse on air?” “Will Joe Biden’s age be mentioned during the debate?” and “Will the debate include a question about climate change?”

Part of the betting menu on the 2024 first presidential debate offered by MyBookie.ag.
MyBookie.ag

Betting on Biden

Overseas sports betting websites might be surprising platforms for politics. Though betting on sports has been federally legalized in the U.S., American sports betting companies are not permitted to offer bets on political events.

However, sports betting companies housed outside of American borders offer wagers on who will clinch a party’s presidential nomination and which candidate will win the election. These bets also extend to presidential debates, affording participants the option to predict a candidate’s tie color or who will be the first to take a drink of water.

These bets are organized into a menu and gamblers can choose which bets to wager on and how much money to risk. Each selection is assigned odds, which simultaneously communicate the payout of a winning bet and its probability. Options marked with a negative sign are more likely to occur and earn less money. A positive sign denotes the selection will collect more money because it is less likely to occur.

For instance, overseas sports betting companies like BetOnline.ag are offering bets on whether Biden will step aside before the Democratic National Convention. Each option carries different risk and therefore profit.

These odds change regularly, but on July 8, a winning bet that Biden will withdraw would pay out $3 for every $1 wagered – a win of $2. Every $1 bet that he won’t step aside would deliver $1.33, a win of just $0.33. The website, therefore, has taken a financial stance that Biden is more likely to stay in the race.

The bets offered are based on the political context. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, some of the most memorable wagers focused on two issues that defined the political moment: the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread conversations about race and racism.

The politics of mask-wearing

The first 2020 presidential debate took place on Sept. 29 and in the midst of a global pandemic. U.S. officials had mandated the use of masks in 33 states and on public transportation.

Despite the advice of his own adminstration’s experts, Trump held large rallies. In contrast, Biden hosted virtual meetings or small, socially distanced events comprising mostly journalists. Where Trump poked fun at those who wore a mask, Biden argued that doing so was part of people’s “responsibilities as an American.”

Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in their first presidential debate of the 2020 election, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland.
Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP

It was in this context that two sites asked bettors to place wagers on whether the candidates would appear in masks onstage at the debate.

One put the chances that Biden would wear a mask at 69.2% and that he wouldn’t at 36.4%. Trump’s odds were set at 20% that he would and 87.5% that he wouldn’t. The probabilities don’t add up to 100% because the betting sites set odds to maximize profit regardless of which outcome actually happens.

These odds not only reflected how each candidate spoke about and embodied competing attitudes toward mask-wearing and public health, but also simplified what is a complex scientific and political issue down to two “yes” or “no” propositions to be wagered on.

‘Proud Boys’ and race

Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, betting websites featured numerous wagers predicting how Trump and Biden would talk about race. What they could not have predicted was that the sitting president would directly address white supremacists during the first debate.

When Biden asked Trump to denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right white supremacist organization, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Instead of condemning the group, the president effectively told the Proud Boys – and other white supremacist organizations – to be at the ready.

True to form, sports betting companies capitalized on this exchange post-debate. For the second debate, Mybookie.ag asked bettors to consider whether or not Biden would refer to some of Trump’s statements. These included wagers over whether Biden would say “Proud Boys” – Yes: 40.8% – or “racist” – Yes: 75%.

The gambling websites predicted it was fairly likely that Biden would address Trump’s statements from the earlier debate at some point but reduced the topic to the question of whether Biden would simply mention the Proud Boys and admonish Trump with name-calling.

The 2024 election and beyond

Four years later, overseas betting websites continue to distill important political issues – like whether Biden should remain in the race – down to simple and discrete events.

It is perhaps unsurprising that websites usually dedicated to sports betting don’t treat elections with nuance or depth. It is, however, important to consider where and how essential national conversations are being held.

Even though people may gamble for different reasons and with different levels of political engagement, these sites reflect a flattened and polar way of understanding the contemporary political moment. That’s not to say that the websites can or should do otherwise.

But it is worth reflecting on whether it is helpful to the democratic process to have yet another representation of U.S. elections as superficial, binary and contentious. Läs mer…

Sleep: a taut Korean thriller that leans into shamanistic and folkloric tradition

Sleep begins in the dead of the night, the opening credits roll accompanied only by the rhythmic sound of snoring. This sound is broken as a woman stirs to find her husband not beside her but sitting bolt upright on the end of the bed. As she turns on the light, he says in a deep and distant voice: “Someone’s inside.”

Jung Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) lives with her actor husband Oh Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun) and their dog Pepper in a typical, modern, urban Korean flat. The couple are expecting a baby and everything in their life seems to be perfectly normal – that is until this night. This eerie opening is Hyun-su’s first experience of parasomnia. He is talking and moving in his sleep with no memory of what he did when he wakes.

Sleep is the debut film from Korean director Jason Yu, a former assistant to the Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite, 2019). Told in three chapters, it’s a thriller following this couple as they try to work out what is causing Hyun-su’s parasomnia. As these opening moments show, it might take more than some sleep strips or medication to help Hyun-su. There is something else in their flat going bump in the night.

Drawing on Korean folkloric tradition and cultural ideas around shamanism Sleep is a gripping, beautifully shot supernatural thriller. Yu’s debut brings to the screen a new kind of shamanism, a religion and part of Korean culture that has been ignored and suppressed for hundreds of years, but is reportedly being embraced by a new young generation of believers thanks to social media.

Chapter one shows the everyday life of the happily married couple. Yu paints a picture of wedded bliss through close-up shots that show a typical morning. The breakfast lovingly prepared by Hyun-su for Soo-jin before she wakes, the flowers on the balcony, a well-organised diary, a large framed photograph of the couple.

This sun-dappled montage ends on a large piece of wood with the words “Together We Can Overcome Anything” being righted on the wall by Soo-jin. This sentiment will become a recurrent theme throughout the film as Hyun-su’s parasomnia becomes more disturbing and threatens his safety (eating raw meat, attempting to jump from a window) as well as that of his whole family.

Soo-jin’s mother first suspects the supernatural might be responsible and suggests the couple seek a shaman’s help. Shamanism in Korea culture stretches back over 5,000 years. It’s found in the nation’s founding myth of Dangun, the first ruler of Gojoseon (the first Korean kingdom) and the son of the ruler of the heavens – a sort of Korean divine right of kings.

Shamanism in Korean film has a long history, with features such as Ieoh Island (1977) and The Wailing (2016) being among Korea’s best. It also featured in Exhuma, which was also released this year and presents young shamans as they try to rid a family of a curse. These films, however, portray shamanism as a provincial, rural concern. Sleep brings it into a modern and urban setting.

In Sleep, we are introduced to the shaman Madame Haegoong, who confirms someone is indeed inside Hyun-su. Koreans usually turn to shamans when they have problems or are experiencing trouble making decisions. A shaman has played the role of priest, healer and diviner throughout Korean history.

In most cases, shamans serve clients as communicators – a kind of intermediary between the client’s world and the other world where the spirits, the ghosts, reside. As a healer, the shaman usually performs a kut, an extravagant and expensive ritual, to enable connection with the spirit – an essential part of the treatment – as is the case of Hyun-su in Sleep.

In Sleep, the frustrated and sleepless Soo-jin is initially suspicious of shamanism but gets increasingly drawn in as medical avenues bear no results and Hyun-su’s behaviour becomes more dangerous.

In Soo-jin’s journey from non-believer to obsessive follower, familiar folkloric narratives associated with shamanistic belief arise. For instance, Soo-jin starts to believe her husband’s sleep problems are connected with ghosts latching on to him while he sleeps because, as Madame Haegoong explains, “the soul becomes more vulnerable and they exploit this to sneak into your body”.

The couple fight to stay together but things get increasingly worse as Hyun-su’s parasomnia becomes more and more violent.
Lotte Entertainment

Such narratives about death and spirits are typical in Korean culture. In the film, a now seemingly crazed Soo-jin explains: “If [your soul doesn’t] ascend in ten days you become a ghost,” and “A ghost cannot ascend 100 days after death. [It will] wander around our world forever.”

These ideas sound old-fashioned and ridiculous. However, that it’s a young woman being taken in by these ideas chimes with the recent reported interest in shamanistic belief among some South Korean youth. Some shamans have put this interest down to young people looking for hope and reassurance in the face of instability, much like Soo-jin.

Sleep is an expertly crafted modern occult film, featuring strong performances, including the posthumous leading man appearance from Lee Sun-kyun, who died by suicide last year. In his directorial debut, Yu has combined suspenseful horror and thriller with traditional folkloric shamanistic stories in an effective way.

Looking for something good? Cut through the noise with a carefully curated selection of the latest releases, live events and exhibitions, straight to your inbox every fortnight, on Fridays. Sign up here. Läs mer…

Why an ‘AI health coach’ won’t solve the world’s chronic disease problems

Last week, two big names in the artificial intelligence (AI) and wellness industries announced a collaboration to develop a “customised, hyper-personalised AI health coach that will be available as a mobile app” to “reverse the trend lines on chronic diseases”.

Sam Altman (head of OpenAI, maker of ChatGPT) and Arianna Huffington (a former media executive who runs a high-tech wellness company called Thrive Global) announced their new company, Thrive AI Health, in a Time magazine advertorial.

Health is an appealing direction for an AI industry that has promised to transform civilisation, but whose huge growth of the past couple of years is beginning to look like it’s stalling. Companies and investors have pumped billions into the technology, but it is still often a solution looking for problems.

Meanwhile, venture capitalists Sequoia and the investment bank Goldman Sachs are wondering out loud whether enough revenue and consumer demand will ever emerge to make this bubble feel more solid.

Enter the next big thing: AI that will change our behaviour, for our own good.

Personalised nudges and real-time recommendations

Altman and Huffington say Thrive AI Health will use the “best peer-reviewed science” and users’ “personal biometric, lab and other medical data” to “learn your preferences and patterns across the five behaviours” that are key to improving health and treating chronic diseases: sleep, food, movement, stress management and social connection.

Whether you are “a busy professional with diabetes” or somebody without “access to trainers, chefs and life coaches” — the only two user profiles the pair mention — the Thrive AI Health coach aims to use behavioural data to create “personalised nudges and real-time recommendations” to change your daily habits.

Soon, supposedly, everybody will have access to the “life-saving benefits” of a mobile app that tells you — in a precisely targeted way — to sleep more, eat better, exercise regularly, be less stressed and go touch grass with friends. These “superhuman” technologies, combined with the “superpowers” of incentives, will change the world by changing our “tiny daily acts”.

Despite claims that AI has unlocked yet another innovation, when I read Altman and Huffington’s announcement I was struck by a sense of déjà vu.

Insurance that manages your life

Why did Thrive AI Health and the logic behind it sound so familiar? Because it’s a kind of thinking we are seeing more and more in the insurance industry.

In fact, in an article published last year I suggested we might soon see “total life insurance” bundled with “a personalised AI life coach”, which would combine data from various sources in our daily lives to target us with prompts for how to behave in healthier, less risky ways. It would of course take notes and report back to our insurers and doctors when we do not follow these recommendations.

In a related article, my colleagues Kelly Lewis and Zofia Bednarz and I took a close look at the theories of behavioural risk that might power such products. A model of insurance based on managing people’s lives via digital technology is on the rise.

We examined a company called Vitality, which makes behavioural change platforms for health and life insurance. Vitality frames itself as an “active life partner with […] customers”, using targeted interventions to improve customer well-being and its own bottom line.

Similar projects in the past have had questionable results. A 2019 World Health Organization report on digital health intervention said:

The enthusiasm for digital health has also driven a proliferation of short-lived implementations and an overwhelming diversity of digital tools, with a limited understanding of their impact on health systems and people’s wellbeing.

Hyper-personalisation

Altman and Huffington say AI-enabled “hyper-personalisation” means this time will be different.

Are they right? I don’t think so.

The first problem is there is no guarantee the AI will work as promised. There is no reason to think it won’t be plagued by the problems of bias, hallucination and errors we see in cutting-edge AI models like ChatGPT.

However, even if it does, it will still miss the mark because the idea of hyper-personalisation is based on a flawed theory of how change happens.

Sam Altman and Arianna Huffington plan to use AI to create a ‘hyper-personalised’ behavioural change app.
Eric Risberg / Greg Allen / AP

An individualised “AI health coach” is a way to address widespread chronic health problems only if you envision a world in which there is no society – just individuals making choices. Those choices turn into habits. Those habits, over time, create problems. Those problems can be rooted out by individuals making better choices. Those better choices come from an AI guardian nudging you in the right direction.

And why do people make bad choices, in this vision? Perhaps, like middle-class professionals, they are too busy. They need reminders to eat a salad and stretch in the sunshine during their 12-hour workday.

Or – again from the AI health coach perspective – perhaps, like disadvantaged people, they make bad choices out of ignorance. They need to be informed that eating fast food is wrong, and they should instead cook a healthy meal at home.

The social determinants of healthcare apps

But individual lifestyle choices aren’t everything. In fact, the “social determinants of health” can be far more important. These are the social conditions that determine a person’s access to health care, quality food, free time and all the things needed to have a good life.

Technologies like Thrive AI Health are not interested in fundamental social conditions. Their “personalisation” is a short-sighted view that stops at the individual.

The only place society enters Altman and Huffington’s vision is as something that must help their product succeed:

Policymakers need to create a regulatory environment that fosters AI innovation […] Health care providers need to integrate AI into their practices […] And individuals need to be fully empowered through AI coaching to better manage their daily health […]

And if we don’t bend society to fit the AI models? Presumably we will only have ourselves to blame. Läs mer…

Indigenous businesses are thriving across a wide range of industries – here’s how to make sure that continues

When discussing the creativity and ingenuity of Indigenous people, we often talk about our deadly artists, sportspeople and Elders.

But more and more, Indigenous business leaders are finding themselves in the spotlight.

This year’s NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year is Uncle Kim Collard, a Balladong/Wadjuk Elder of the Noongar Nation.

Collard established two of Australia’s largest Indigenous-owned businesses – workplace supplier Kulbardi and fleet management and salary packaging firm Kooya.

But he and his family have also made outstanding philanthropic contributions to Aboriginal communities, raising almost A$1.5 million through the Bibbulmun Fund.

Kim Collard, a Balladong/Wadjuk Elder of the Noongar Nation, is the 2024 NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year.
Supplied/Brendan Blacklock/NAIDOC

Collard is just one example of many outstanding leaders across the thriving Indigenous business sector.

This cohort drive more than just dollars and cents in the economy – they serve as role models and employers, sponsors and philanthropists, and suppliers to major corporations. They also bring important cultural knowledge and cultural guidance to bear.

Yet many Australians still don’t grasp the sheer size and diversity of Indigenous-owned and led businesses.

Greater visibility of these businesses – both in government statistics and Indigenous business directories – would do more than just showcase their diversity and excellence. It would also help them succeed further.

A thriving sector

Indigenous businesses operate at every scale in Australia, from small sole traders through to large corporate enterprises.

As previously reported in The Conversation, our research revealed that in 2022, the Indigenous business sector generated more than A$16 billion in revenue. We found that 13,693 unique businesses employed more than 100,000 people, paying annual wages of $4.2 billion.

Read more:
Indigenous businesses are worth billions but we don’t know enough about them

This job creation is really important. One of the sector’s biggest benefits is that it supports such a wide range of families and households across Australia.

Previous research has found that Indigenous businesses employ Indigenous Australians at a greater rate than non-Indigenous businesses.

Operating across diverse industries

Indigenous-owned businesses are often associated with important cultural services and cultural tourism. But their influence extends far beyond these areas into industries such as technology, architecture and construction, manufacturing, property, financial services, education and legal services.

There are some great examples of firms integrating cultural knowledge at the cutting edge of their fields.

The Queensland-based agriculture technology company RainStick uses electricity to mimic the natural effects of lightning to grow bigger crops faster.

Indigenous businesses are represented in many cutting edge fields, such as agriculture technology.
djgis/Shutterstock

And design firm Nguluway DesignInc is currently overseeing the design and development of the new University of Technology Sydney Indigenous Residential College.

But registration really helps

To help people and organisations engage with Indigenous businesses, whether as customers or large-scale suppliers, it’s important they are able to find them.

It’s not currently possible to declare a business as Indigenous when filing for an Australian business number (ABN).

However, it is possible to become registered in other directories. These include a range of state and territory chambers of commerce and other non-profit organisations.

The NSW Indigenous Chamber of Commerce (NSWICC) was the first of its kind when it was established in 2006. It has now grown to represent more than 500 businesses in 70 different spend categories.

Victoria’s Kinaway Chamber of Commerce was established in 2010 and now has close to 300 businesses on its registry.

Registration means people who want to work with Indigenous businesses as customers or suppliers are better able to find them.
xavierarnau/GettyImages

At a national level, Supply Nation operates a large non-profit directory called Indigenous Business Direct. This aims to connect the procurement teams of large organisations with verified Indigenous businesses.

To register with Supply Nation, businesses need to demonstrate Indigenous ownership of at least 50% to be a “registered” business, or 51% or greater ownership to become “certified”.

Relevant documents are verified with bodies including ASIC. And regular audits and spot checks are conducted to ensure these companies continue to be Indigenous-owned and led.

Supply Nation has just passed the significant milestone of registering its 5,000th Indigenous business, up from just 13 in 2009.

Registration takes effort on the part of a business, but it’s really important. Our Snapshot study found that formally registered businesses were responsible for around 70% of all the revenue and jobs generated across the Indigenous business ecosystem.

All of these organisations provide business mentoring, guidance on procurement and a clearing house for opportunities.

But more importantly, registering a business as Indigenous on any of these directories allows corporations, non-profits and governments to find and connect with it, opening the door to all kinds of opportunities.

Read more:
Indigenous businesses are worth billions but we don’t know enough about them Läs mer…

Why saline lakes are the canary in the coalmine for the world’s water resources

When it comes to inland surface water bodies, saline lakes are unique. They make up 44% of all lakes worldwide and are found on every continent including Antarctica. These lakes’ existence depends on a delicate balance between a river basin’s water input (precipitation and inflows) and output (evaporation and seepage).

The reason a lake turns saline is often because it doesn’t have a consistent stream outlet, leading to a build-up of dissolved salts from water inflows. The water levels of saline lakes are naturally unstable and these lakes are generally susceptible to any disturbance.

This heightened sensitivity makes saline lakes more responsive than freshwater lakes to natural and human-caused factors. The main cause of change in a saline lake is disturbances in its water balance. These can be the result of natural or human-induced factors that are local, such as droughts, pollution, and upstream water diversions, or global, such as climate change, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperature.

The rapid response of saline lakes to the changing conditions makes these lakes suitable candidates for reliably reflecting the regional, and potentially global, status of water resources, and revealing crucial changes in the water balance. Unsurprisingly, many of the world’s saline lakes are shrinking rapidly, a major warning about the sustainability of regional water resources.

How are saline lakes changing?

There have always been fluctuations in saline lakes. Unfortunately, more lasting changes have become more common in recent years due to regional human activities and global climate change.

Most lakes have been shrinking and their water quality has declined. In permafrost regions of the Arctic and the Tibetan Plateau, however, some salt lakes have expanded due to areas of ice melting in a warming climate.

Changes in saline lakes pose significant challenges. They can endanger local ecosystems and industries, threaten public health and cause broader socio-economic harm.

Iran’s Lake Urmia is a good example. Until a few decades ago, Lake Urmia was one of the the world’s largest saline lakes, but it shrunk rapidly due to unsustainable human activities. The resulting problems include a decline in tourism, dust and salt storms, falling agricultural productivity and a loss of biodiversity.

The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest inland water body, is another tragic example. Since the 1960s it has shrunk to a fraction of its former size largely due to poorly planned irrigation development in the region.

The consequences have been disastrous. Despite many efforts, it has not been possible to restore the lake to its former glory.

Our natural early-warning systems

Saline lakes, much like the canaries used to give coalminers early warning of dangerously poor air quality, could play a vital role in monitoring the health of our water resources.

To better understand this analogy, we must first step back in time to the depths of underground mines where coalminers battled a hidden danger: carbon monoxide. This gas could build up silently, without any warning, endangering the miners’ lives.

Miners devised an ingenious solution: canaries. These small birds, with their rapid breathing rate, small size and fast metabolism, were tiny detectors of danger. When carbon monoxide levels rose, the canaries would be the first to show signs of distress, giving the miners a crucial warning to evacuate before it was too late.

The natural world continues to offer us unexpected insights. Saline lakes, with their intricate ecosystems and unique characteristics, act as nature’s early-warning systems.

Just as the canaries signalled hidden dangers in coalmines, the behaviour of saline lakes can alert us to looming issues with our water resources.

The bigger picture demands our attention

Of course, it is crucial to act when lakes are shrinking, whether through preservation efforts or restoration projects. But we must not overlook the bigger picture. It would be like a miner focusing on a distressed canary when it’s a sign of a more serious problem.

The real challenge lies in delving into the root cause, much like improving poor air quality in mines rather than merely trying to revive the birds.

This highlights the urgent need for a fundamental shift to water management and getting to the root of the problem rather than just dealing with the surface issues. Unfortunately, real-world experience shows we’ve often failed to make much of an impact when tackling these issues. But we can learn from our past mistakes to make better decisions now and in the future.

In the quest to ensure water resources remain sustainable, paying attention to saline lakes would be a good starting point. We need to grasp their intricacies and accurately gauge the water budget of these lakes around the world. We can only do that by investing in continuous monitoring of their health and behaviour. Läs mer…

VCA graduate Kristina Ross set her novel at a ‘vicious, cutthroat’ famous drama school. She says she wrote it for young actors

Some time in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, 17-year-old Kristina Ross became “one of the youngest actors ever selected” to enrol in the Drama School of the Victorian College of the Arts. Her experiences so shaped, reshaped, made and unmade her that many years later she reconfigured them as fiction.

The resulting novel, First Year, has been awarded the Australian/Vogel Literary Award for Young Writers (aged 35 and under) – becoming its final winner. The award, founded in 1980, has now closed, though the Australian’s book editor has indicated it will rise again with new sponsorship.

The book begins with a quotation from Hamlet: “The purpose of playing […] is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature”. That seems a harmless enough choice for a novel about acting, but its meaning is clarified by the author’s prologue. Her narrator calls out the “cult-like” drama school’s “vicious, cutthroat” culture, embedded within a place that demanded its students “offer ourselves up to be dissected in the pursuit of becoming artists”.

Review: First Year – Kristina Ross (Allen & Unwin)

In a newspaper interview, the author said one motivation for writing First Year was to help others embarking on an acting career. “I searched for a story like this when I was a young actor in training and just never found it,” she said.

Kristina Ross enrolled in the Victorian College of the Arts young: aged 17.
Allen and Unwin

However, if the young Ross had read something like First Year before moving to Melbourne, she probably would have decided to defer her studies. Maeve, the name she gives to the character seemingly based on herself, continually stumbles through a combination of ignorance and immaturity. Her fellow students are older; some are university graduates while others have come from theatrical families. Even those not from Melbourne are familiar with the city and its culture.

A cultural novice

Maeve, fresh out of a Gold Coast private school, has never heard of the Australian Performing Group (APG) or the Pram Factory or been to La Mama, those great Melbourne theatrical institutions.

She is able to proclaim Juliet’s emotion-charged soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet for her audition, but until her second term, when she is an usher for Much Ado About Nothing, had never sat through an entire performance of a play by Shakespeare.

Her cultural interests are so limited, she has not read 1984, Wuthering Heights or Anna Karenina. Her protective parents pay for her to live in upmarket student accommodation, which further separates her from her colleagues. She may consider the living allowance her parents give her as “small”, but she is free of financial stress.

Drama training is intense. Ross describes it as needing to “become malleable to the method”. Yet Maeve is so inexperienced, so naive, that when she has to embrace a fellow student in class, she is overwhelmed by her emotions, as she was “unused to being in such close proximity to a man”.

“The man” is Saxon, who had flirted with her at her audition and names her “Juliet”, referring both to her audition piece and to her romantic naiveté. Her relationship with Saxon runs through the book as a variation of the classic romantic trope: girl gets boy, girl confuses acting with reality so loses boy, girl grows up.

Easy for predators to flourish

In class the students are challenged to move, to speak, to become the realities of the characters they are performing. The reader is introduced to teachers who oversee their education. Some of the portraits may be composite but the Head of School, the charismatic Quinn Medina, is drawn in such precise detail that it is relatively easy for insiders to guess the person on whom it is based.

In such an environment, it is easy for predators to flourish. And so we meet Yates, the famous actor and director, whose sexual harassment of female students is accepted as normal by the teaching staff. This is one of the implied questions raised by the author: is it worse to damage people by exploiting their bodies, or their minds?

Quinn uses her knowledge of the students, their circumstances and their private lives to ridicule them as she draws out their best possible performances, unconcerned at the cost of their mental health.

Maeve hears stories of a student who committed suicide after experiencing the intensive interior lives of others, but she also hears of the example of Sylvie, a student apparently so talented that her second-year performance led to a part in an upcoming film of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Even before she meets Sylvie, Maeve becomes obsessed with her as an example of what she herself may achieve. Later, Maeve models her appearance, dress, and behaviour on Sylvie – including developing a serious cocaine habit. After all, as Quinn said, “the most direct entry point to the work was through living”. The combination of lifestyle, performance anxiety and emotional turmoil leads to an inevitable crash and burn.

In time, Maeve sees that students are used by Quinn as elements in manipulative games that may develop their craft as actors, but are more likely to stereotype them so they will be limited in the roles they are allowed to play. At the beginning of the year, a fellow student told Maeve “she fits the mould”, but now she sees that she is being moulded to play only the ingenue – and also, on occasion, to be the patsy.

After a student’s very public mental collapse, where the only words she can utter are Nina’s soliloquy from The Seagull, a senior teacher reminds the students, “Trust your instincts. After all, that is what drew us to you in the first place.”

Ross has indicated she sees First Year as a part of a series. While it reads more like a catharsis, I can see a sequel. But I do hope her writing is able to break out of what appears to be the autobiographical. Läs mer…

Boeing plea deal: The manufacturer has a long road ahead to regain public trust

If ever there was a need to exemplify the term annus horribilis in the annals of corporate history, 2024 and the Boeing Company would be the perfect match. And the year is not even over yet.

The last seven days have seen Boeing face a number of issues. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an airworthiness directive on July 8 requiring airlines that operate the Boeing 737 Next Generation and the 737 MAX to inspect each aircraft’s oxygen generator system for restraining strap failures within the next five months.

This directive followed multiple reports of passenger oxygen generators shifting out of position — an issue that could prevent passengers from receiving oxygen during an emergency.

Additionally, Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to a fraud charge resulting from failing to disclose critical design elements to regulators responsible for certifying the 737 MAX aircraft into commercial service.

The U.S. Department of Justice revealed that Boeing agreed to the plea deal on July 7, after the government determined Boeing violated an agreement that had protected it from prosecution.

Landmark plea deal

The plea deal is the culmination of a three-year review process initiated in 2021. Boeing was ordered to demonstrate changes in their operating and production practices that contributed to the 2018 Lion Air and 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crashes, which involved 737 MAX aircraft and resulted in 346 fatalities.

It is estimated that Boeing has lost US$60 billion in sales because of these crashes, and it has seen its profitability reduced by over US$32 billion since 2019. Its debt increased to close to US$50 billion. Beyond the financial impact, the crashes have also had an emotional toll on the families of the victims.

Chris and Clariss Moore — parents of Danielle, one of the 157 crash victims of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Ethiopia — hold her photograph as they speak during a news conference on Capitol Hill, on June 18, 2024, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

If the plea deal is approved by a federal judge and comes into effect, it will result in additional fines and expenses for the company. Boeing will be fined an additional US$243.6 million and be required to invest at least US$455 million in compliance and safety programs.

Lawyers representing some of the families have been pressing for a rejection of this Department of Justice plea deal, stating that:

“The only way to enact meaningful change at Boeing would be to take action that affects its bottom line, which would mean imposing larger fines and more severe consequences.”

If this challenge is successful and the plea deal is rejected, it will result in a public trial that will require Boeing staff to testify about their roles in deceiving FAA regulators about a flight-control system that was implicated in the crashes. The financial implications for Boeing in such a trial have been estimated to exceed US$25 billion.

Financial and emotional tolls

The aggregate of these events will yet take more of a toll on Boeing. Political and regulatory discussions have highlighted the frustration with Boeing executives who have continued to apologize and promise change.

Whistleblowers have presented a number of failings with Boeing’s assembly practices that have prevented potential safety issues from being addressed while aircraft are on the assembly line.

Read more:
What the Boeing whistleblower’s death reveals about exposing corporate wrongdoing in North America

It is startlingly evident that these failings could impact the safe and reliable operation of the final product. The culprits in these failings have been identified sporadically as the Boeing culture, the Boeing leadership style and the management performance measures in place.

Much has been published about Boeing leadership having morphed from engineering- and quality-focused mindsets to one focused on economics and financial performance.

Boeing 737 MAX airplanes are shown on the assembly line during a brief media tour at the Boeing facility in Renton, Wash., on June 25, 2024.
(Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)

Regaining public trust

Can Boeing overcome its current challenges and regain its reputation as a winning corporation? One that its employees, clients and the travelling public can count on to produce commercial aircraft that are safe, comfortable and sustainable?

To do so, the world needs to trust the Boeing brand once again, a trust that was developed through decades of producing aircraft that customers held in high regard for quality and engineering design.

As we await the announcement of a new CEO, the board of directors at Boeing needs to stand before the governance mirror and ask themselves if they have met their entrusted oversight responsibilities.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun takes his seat to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations about troubles at the aircraft manufacturer at the Capitol in Washington, on June 18, 2024. Calhoun announced he is stepping down at the end of the year.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It should not come as a surprise that many of Boeing’s directors are long-serving in their roles, bearing responsibility for the missteps taken by management in the recent past.

Recent legal challenges aimed at limiting board members’ liability in instances of corporate mismanagement have failed in the U.S., with the courts reinforcing the need for directors to be aware of corporate malpractices and take action to remedy such instances.

Global aviation in jeopardy

All this raises an important question: is there a risk to Canadian airlines and Boeing’s Canadian supply chain members resulting from this litany of issues?

If the plea agreement is permitted to come into effect, Boeing will be identified as an organization convicted of a felony. As such, it would be subject to a U.S. statute that prevents defence contractors who have been convicted of certain felonies from winning future defence contracts.

Given the nature of Boeing’s presence in both commercial aviation and defence, it seems unlikely this felony conviction will hinder Boeing’s relationships with suppliers and customers.

The world needs Boeing to return to its fabled engineering, safety and quality roots. Global aviation safety depends on the reliability of major aircraft manufacturers. The clock is ticking and Boeing cannot make promises. Actions and results are needed — and needed quickly. Läs mer…