Thursday, March 30, 2006

Yet More On Torture

Here's something I honestly don't understand - why are we treating terrorism so differently from other violent crimes? We don't justify torture in the case of kidnapping or murder. We don't justify it in cases of assault or bank robbery.

But somebody says "terrorist" and all of the sudden we're getting ready to throw the rule of law and the presumption of innocence out the window. Indeed, it's even worse than that - we're embracing immorality because we suspect some people of terrorism.

What is more dangerous to a liberal democracy: The real but predictable threat of terrorism, or a number of intellectuals committed to normalizing massive abuses of state power?

On Those New French Riots

So Andrew Sullivan and Paul Wells are on the same page. This is distressing, as agreeing with Andrew Sullivan should generally be regarded as a sign to abandon ship.* Both Andrew and Paul accept the economists' argument that the easier it is to fire somebody, the more likely they are to hire someone. I'm sure this is true in a sense, but how true is it?

The law in question is the contrat premier embauche, or CPE. Broadly speaking, the law makes it easier for an employer to fire a worker for 2 years, provided the worker in question is younger than 26. Specifically, it reverses the burden of proof - the worker has to prove they were unjustly terminated, rather than have the employer prove the termination was just. Effectively, it make a two-year probationary period for employees.

And for Mr. Wells, this is just fine. In fact, it doesn't go far enough. This shows only that it's been a while since Mr. Wells had to flip a burger. (From the OTHER side of the till, Paul.) Fact is, the French law is basically a giant wet kiss to the low-end service industry.

A limited probation period is certainly reasonable - in Ontario, I believe it's still three months. It might be different in other sectors. But what possible rationale is there for a 2-year probation period? I can see 3 months, even 6. On the outside, for certain jobs, it might even take a generous employer a year to decide whether or not an employee is going to work out or not - but only if the employer is generous or stupid, or both.

The only excuse for a 2-year probation period is to give management enough time to build a competent labour force without any kind of long-term commitment. The reason to keep a probation period short is simple - management should, after a reasonable period, have to justify why they're firing a trained and competent employee.

Ah, you say, why should management fire perfectly good employees? To which I say: You tell me, it happens all the time. People who write about the economy, especially when we're talking about young workers, should actually talk to some young workers and find out what their work is actually like before they tell us how spoiled we all are.

*Despite his recent sanity, Andrew Sullivan should always - always - be remembered for calling the "decadent coasts" (including, presumably, the victims of 9/11) traitors for not voting for Bush.


The news keeps coming about EEStor, the ultracapacitor company I keep cheering about. In this case, an open house in EEStor's native land of Texas. Via Clean Break:
“This is a very sophisticated electric car, with 250 to 300 miles of range,” Richard Weir, CEO, president and co-founder of EEStor said. “It’ll take a full electrical charge in about the time it takes to gas up a regular car. Just plug it up for a few minutes and you’re off.”...

Many auto manufactures experimented with electric cars in the 1980s and 1990s but essentially abandoned the technology for hybrid or other alternative fuel systems due to their high cost of manufacture and maintenance. Weir believes EEStor has overcome those hurdles with their product. “This is just a preview of what’s to come. We have another major announcement for May. But seeing is believing!” he said.
Indeed it is. So far, FGC and EEStor seem to have simply built the ultracapacitor in to the existing ZENN car, making it a 2-person car that can get extremely good range - about what I predicted was possible in with a lighter body, as it turns out. I'm reassured that even when I engage in wild-ass guesses, I don't embarass myself.

Okay, so I'm waiting until late April for the 2nd season of Battlestar Galactica to come out, then May for EEStor's announcement. I can barely contain my glee!

What's really astonishing is that this is first-generation application, and they're already ready for prime time (motor vehicles.) If this technology can be improved significantly (and what industry hasn't found new efficiencies as time goes on?) then we really could soon be talking not about the fuel cell future, but the ultracapcitor one.


Jon Schwartz has a great catch. Bush, March 29 2006:
Today, some Americans ask whether removing Saddam caused the divisions and instability we’re now seeing. In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. He is a tyrant who exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power.
Bush, January 31 2003:
The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.” Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.

Lighter matters

Words of Wisdom from Steve Gilliard:
If you don't meet his friends, he's trying to hide you. Most men want his friends to know there is a woman in his life. If he doesn't, you don't need to be there.
I'm amazed that the book "He's not that in to you" even needed to be written, much less a best-seller.

Men can be dumb, but we aren't generally that complicated.

Trying to avoid simplicity

I'll admit right up front that part of the reason Michael Ignatieff's candidacy for the Liberal party leadership bothers me so is that it is the Liberal party. The history of the words "Liberal" and "liberalism" are proud ones, and having either associated with the abomination that is the Iraq War is simply depressing.

Now I hear that Ignatieff is going to announce publicly that he does not support torture, "coercive interrogation", nor would he have sent Canadian soldiers to fight in Iraq against the public will. I suppose I should be happy, but instead it's profoundly depressing that a leading intellectual and potential leader of a national political party should have to reiterate his belief in the high-level concepts of "torture is bad" and "war is bad too."

Red Tory has accuses me of reducing the issue to "cartoonish and simplistic levels" and calls this reprehensible. I agree that reducing the issue to a simplistic or cartoonish level would be reprehensible. However, we also need to resist the urge to overcomplicate this debate. This is what I think Ignatieff is doing, and it only serves to lower the bar for acceptable behaviour in a democracy.

I was deliberate in my use of the words sub-human and non-human for a reason. Not because I think the US is going to start depopulating Iraq so that they can have lebensraum or any Godwin-invoking idea like that. As reprehensible (there's that word again) as I think the US actions (and here I refer specifically to the torture) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba have been, they do not rise to that level.

They do, however, rise to the level of US domestic law, and treaties to which the US is the signatory - most relevantly, the Convention against Torture. The Convention Against Torture in particular is important, as it is a human rights document, not a document concentrating on wartime actions (like the Geneva Conventions.)

The language of the CAT is quite clear - it protects "persons", not exclusively enemy soldiers or any one group. It is a universal document, and it applies to every human being. In short, being protected from torture is every person's right as a human being, not as a citizen or as a soldier. This is why the CAT makes it illegal to extradite persons to countries where they will face torture, even if it is their home country. But we can ask Maher Arar about that.

This shouldn’t be a controversial question, but why are we even considering torture – that is, why did Michael Ignatieff feel compelled to kinda/sorta oppose it? The obvious answer in 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. But even then, why? Terrorism is defined in the criminal code of Canada as well as The US Criminal code. While some people will debate this, the law is clear - terrorists are criminals. In which case they still deserve the protections of domestic law as the accused in the Air India trial did. If not criminals, than they are at least persons under the law, and are therefore protected from torture.

This is the point: We are a liberal democracy, bound by law. No one is seriously suggesting that we legitimize torture of convicted murderers or rapists. Rather, we are talking about the “ticking bomb” scenario, where a suspect is believed to have operational intelligence of an impending attack. The first argument against this scenario is that it is fantasy, born of too many hours spent watching “24”. It is beneath the dignity of an academic or a politician to entertain it seriously. Ignatieff qualifies on both counts.

Secondly, the “nightmare scenario” of a nuclear bomb in a major city fails to pass even Ignatieff’s test of defending liberal democracies. I don’t want to minimize the danger posed by nuclear terrorism (or exaggerate it, for that matter) but the fact remains that no terrorist group has the power to pose existential harm to a national government. As I’ve argued in other contexts, nation-states are incredibly powerful. And those most likely to be attacked by terrorists are among the most powerful in the world. Nevertheless, the conflict between terrorists and liberal democracies is analogous only to one hyena snapping at a pack of lions.

The most important argument is that we are talking about torturing people who have been convicted of no crime. This is antithetical to the very ideas of rule of law, democracy, and human rights. The state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but that does not make every use of state violence legitimate.

The only principled way* to justify torture in domestic or international law is to strip people of their rights as human beings, as defined by the CAT and other international and domestic laws. This is quite simply an act of dehumanization. Given that it also obviously makes the victims of torture legally inferior to those criminals and prisoners who are not tortured (such as convicted murderers in Canada) I don't think it is at all "cartoonish" to argue that torture is only possible because the government has defined their victims as sub-human.

(*The unprincipled way to justify torture is to say that the US has the right to interpret the Geneva conventions and the CAT in such a way as to render both documents meaningless. See also: Canada's interpretation of the Kyoto Protocol.)

One of the great, and largely unrecognized, successes of the 20th century was the expansion of the moral force of law in to the realm of international conflict. It has of course been imperfect - international law was powerful enough to protect Americans and British soldiers from the Germans, but not from the Japanese. Nor was it powerful enough to protect the Jews from, well, anyone, including the callous indifference of the Canadian government.

However, because of this unsteady success, we have broadened and deepened the definition of humans as rights-bearing individuals. This is not just a nice thing, it is a Good thing. When the US, or China, or Syria, or Egypt tortures someone, they are doing their part to undermine our common humanity, and to build walls between us – who we can and cannot torture. And while any country that tortures deserves our scorn, only a few torture while being liberal democracies. The very country that has been a beacon to the world is simultaneously doing its part for the darkness.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq: Not just worse than you imagine, worse than you CAN imagine

via Kevin Drum, this little snippet:
I was reading the little scrolling news headlines on the bottom of the page.... Suddenly, one of them caught my attention and I sat up straight on the sofa, wondering if I had read it correctly....The line said:

“The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.”

That’s how messed up the country is at this point....The situation is so bad on the security front that the top two ministries in charge of protecting Iraqi civilians cannot trust each other. The Ministry of Defense can’t even trust its own personnel, unless they are “accompanied by American coalition forces”....

All of this directly contradicts claims by Bush and other American politicians that Iraqi troops and security forces are in control of the situation. Or maybe they are in control- just not in a good way.

They’ve been finding corpses all over Baghdad for weeks now- and it’s always the same: holes drilled in the head, multiple shots or strangulation, like the victims were hung. Execution, militia style. Many of the people were taken from their homes by security forces- police or special army brigades… Some of them were rounded up from mosques.
What an obscenity. The nightmare of some Rwanda-style endgame looks less and less unlikely.

I should say that thus far I've only read the report from Riverbend, and I've seen no confirmation from other sources. So this might not be. If it turns out to be true, however, things keep looking uglier and uglier.

This is Ignatieff's defense?

From Red Tory:
Most of the criticisms regarding this issue arise from an editorial he wrote in the NY Times in 2004 outlining the theme of his book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. In it, Ignatieff argues that we must not shrink from the use of violence in combating terrorism – that far from undermining liberal democracy, the measured use of force can be essential for its survival. This however most definitely does not include a systemic program of torture. Furthermore, Ignatieff argued that whatever we do in the name of freedom and democracy is good, but framed it rather cautiously this way, “We may need to kill to fight the greater evil of terrorism, but we must never pretend that doing so is anything better than a lesser evil.”
I'm not so naive that I believe that liberal democracies have never tortured, or that they never will. But if this is all Ignatieff is saying (and I haven't read "The Lesser Evil" yet) then he's really just wasting our time. Liberalism has, since Locke, acknowledged that the government will occasionally need to do nasty things to preserve the state.

And I'm fine with that - being a bit of a Hobbesian, and someone who watched Somalia implode when I was younger, I recognize that the lack of a state can be worse than the alternative.

However, Ignatieff's defenders are protesting too much when they say that Ignatieff's position on torture has been clear opposition. The facts are actually quite simple - there is no reason that torture even needs to be considered in the context of terrorism. Western, liberal democracies faced existential threats before without condoning torture. (Of course, this is not to say that torture didn't happen, only that it was not being justified by leading intellectuals.)

As Gwynne Dyer has written, the fact that we're now worrying about terrorists who, on their best day, killed 3,000 people when we used to worry about total global nuclear annihilation should be cause for rejoicing. Instead, we're now undoing any number of moral, legal, and intellectual safeguards against abuse by the state. And Ignatieff has played a role in that, make no mistake. His opposition hasn't been nearly as clear-cut as he would have us believe:
It is often said—and I argued so myself—that neither coercive interrogation nor torture is necessary, since entirely lawful interrogation can secure just as effective results. There must be some truth to this. Israeli interrogators have given interviews assuring the Israeli public that physical duress is unnecessary. But we are grasping at straws if we think this is the entire truth. As Posner and others have tartly pointed out, if torture and coercion are both as useless as critics pretend, why are they used so much? While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion.
Demosthenes is exactly right - what we have here is Ignatieff the astrologer: "People have been doing it for a long time. They believe in it, or else they wouldn't do it, and it doesn't matter that others (including former practitioners) claim that it's useless."

More seriously, does Ignatieff seriously believe that human sadism is only capable of explaining some examples of torture? For someone who's written so extensively on the Balkans, you'd think his conception of human sadism would be a bit broader than that.

There are too many problems with torture to identify "one" and say it's the worst. I feel dirty even having to argue against it on practical or moral grounds. But what Ignatieff is ignoring is the human ability to define people as outside the moral community. The same mentality that allowed Nazi technicians to massacre Jews as a day job and go home to their devoted wives and children at night is exactly the mentality that allows, and indeed encourages, torture.

The United States is - as we speak - torturing people in Gitmo, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not to mention the unfortunates like Maher Arar who are tortured by proxy. This is being done against "terrorists" (mostly innocent, it turns out) when it was not done systematically against Communists or Fascists because we have defined "terrorism" as a barbaric act, and the terrorists themselves are therefore not deserving of the same protections that we extend to other criminals or even enemy soldiers.

This isn't philosophy, of course - this is the stated policy of the US government. Terrorists are not criminals or soldiers, they are something else that is not protected by the Geneva conventions or the various domestic laws that supposedly bind the US government.

The point is that the US has, philosophically and legally, defined terrorists as subhuman, or at least non-human in the sense that they are not entitled to the same human rights that we all have.

(We'll ignore for a moment that the people being tortured are, almost to a man and woman, brown-skinned people. Too many issues for one post.)

This is what makes Ignatieff's half-hearted attempts to oppose torture (sometimes, maybe, kinda) so offensive. For a man who has written and spoken so passionately on human rights, he doesn't understand that the victims are literally being dehumanized, all in the name of engaging in some sadistic revenge fantasy.

We've got plenty of time to argue about this before the convention, so I'm thinking of busting my mad academic skillz once school is done and delving in to Ignatieff's writings a bit more. I'm hoping that either A) I can convince Liberals not to support him, or B) that my reading will convince me that Ignatieff is in fact being misconstrued and he's really just passionately concerned about the survival of liberal democracies.

I genuinely am waiting to be convinced, but as my writing to date indicates, thus far I'm not impressed with him.

I have excellent commenters

I'd just like to thank the people who do leave comments - there's not enough of you, and I rarely get flamed. (Knock on wood.)

Relating to one recent comment in particular, yes, the most recent album by Neko Case is excellent. Thanks to the magic of the internets I've managed to listen to it quite a bit recently.

The new album is called "Fox Confessor Calls the Flood", and if you know her previous stuff you won't be disappointed. The songs are very short though. Excellent, but short. "John Saw That Number" is particularly good.

Plastic Semiconductor?

Meant to blog about this a few days ago, in my quest to blog about all new nerdiness:
SAN FRANCISCO (AP)—Researchers have developed an ultra-thin plastic that allows an electrical charge to pass through it at speeds never before seen, a discovery that could dramatically drive down the cost of flat-panel monitors and other devices.

The plastic, which resembles cellophane when applied to electronic components, could one day replace the chemicals used to manufacture monitors and so-called radio frequency identification chips, which are used to keep track of store inventories, fleets of trucks and herds of cattle.

But a team of scientists led by Ian McCulloch of Merck Chemicals in the United Kingdom, has found a way to boost electrical performance in polymers six-fold, putting the substance on par with so-called amorphous silicon.
And what is the other major use for amorphous silicon? Why, solar power as it turns out.

So a plastic semiconductor could bring down the price of flatscreen TVs, and create a glut in the silicon market which has been extremely tight lately due largely to the growth of the solar industry itself. It's also potentially a big energy saver in terms of the manufacturing of TVs.

If this plastic can replace a large chunk of the silicon used in TVs and computers, that will presumably open up that supply for solar production. Even more tantalizing, however, is the idea that these plastics or their cousins may be usable for solar cells directly. So far, the efficiency of plastic solar cells has been relatively meager (3-4%) but promises much lower manufacturing costs.

There goes a deal for softwood

McClellan just blew good relations with Canada.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this will be -- you're talking about Canada? I mean, the President had a -- first of all, had a good discussion with Prime Minister Martin [sic] yesterday. That was a call that Prime Minister Martin [sic] initiated, really to thank the President on behalf of the people of Canada for the efforts of our coalition forces, our American forces, part of the coalition, to rescue the hostages last week, including one Canadian.
Sorry George, I bet you didn't realize Prime Minister Harper was so touchy. Too bad for BC.

I suppose there's something important to say here about national spokepeople not knowing the name of the leader of the country right next door, but what I'm worried about is the inevitable whining that will come from my corner. I remember when Bush neglected to mention Canada as one of the US's great allies post-9/11, and the flying shitstorm that created. My reaction was more along the lines of - who cares?

Speaking as a Canadian who spends most of his time in a high dudgeon over something or other, there's nothing more aggravating than Canadians in high dudgeon over trivial slights. UNLESS it happens to work against the political parties that I disagree with. In which case, it's funny.

(Thanks, Michael!)

If not this, then what?

Cerberus is banging the drum for Ignatieff as a Liberal leader:
His support for the Iraq war is not as easy to explain as torture, but let me first ask two questions: Is that foreign war a litmus test against which all other Canadian policy issues become irrelevant? If someone supports an endeavour that the Americans also support, does it matter if the reasons are different? My answers: no and absolutely yes.
Both these questions are important, but Cerberus is wrong on both.

First of all, yes, the Iraq War needs to be a litmus test for a Liberal leader. Not because other issues are unimportant, but because this was, quite simply, a no-brainer. Before the war began, it was clear that this would end badly. I keep banging away at this, and I understand that some people refuse to see it, but all the same: The anti-war crowd didn't turn out correct by accident. We saw the same evidence as everyone else, we were just smarter. We were right. Ignatieff - and everyone who backed this war - was wrong. Period. Full stop. Give it up already.

If I can't expect Ignatieff to make the right decision in a case as morally and practically simple as the Iraq War, why on Earth should I expect him to make the right choice about taxes? Welfare? Daycare? Health care? Nevermind laws and security. The choice before the war began was simple - either you were for an aggressive war sold on lies, or you were against it.

Ignatieff was for it. If he wants a future in politics, let him run for the Conservatives.

The second question is also important - Cerberus is trying to excuse Ignatieff's support of the war because Ignatieff isn't Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. Fine, I'm sure Ignatieff honestly believed that his support for the war was based entirely on his belief in human rights. This makes him naive, not evil. If Ignatieff thought George Bush was both interested in defending Iraq rights, and competent to do so, than Ignatieff was even wronger than I imagine.

Once again, the anti-war crowd saw quite clearly that the war would be objectively worse for Iraqis. Even if Iraq had been "liberated" without a civil war, it was clear (again, before the war began) that the result would be a more Islamicized, Shia-run state. How Ignatieff could possibly believe this would lead to a net increase in human rights is beyond me.

There's more than enough reasons to oppose Ignatieff aside from his moral ineptitude - to but it bluntly, he's a crappy politician. Moreover, I don't share Cerberus' belief that Canada needs a new philosopher-king. Ignatieff can never be the new Trudeau, even if we wanted one. (What we seem to forget is that Trudeau was able to be intellectual without being academic. I have yet to see Ignatieff master this.) We mock politicians, but to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, that's because we can't handle the truth - we want those same politicians. Ignatieff would be a bad Liberal leader because he will lose any election he leads them in to.

I'm sure he'll manage to weasel his way in to Cabinet somehow. I just hope it's as Gerald Kennedy's Minister of Justice.

La Soudure

Something we in the west haven't had to worry about for some time - the period between harvests when last year's crop has been exhausted, but this year's crop hasn't been harvested yet. During these periods - in France, called La Soudure - food becomes scarce and civil unrest is more likely.

It was during la soudure of 1789 that the French Revolution really got moving, for example.

This, I think, is a useful way of thinking of our energy problems in the early 21st century. Our "harvest" of oil is rapidly dwindling, and there's going to be a growing gap between last year's harvest - oil and fossil fuels - and the next harvest - renewables.

So how do we bridge this particular soudure? Here, the ideas are abundant. John Quiggin responded to Salon's article on Peak Oil by boosting coal. You can read one of my earliest attempts to refute peak oil catastrophism here.

I think Quiggin is narrowly right that coal could meet our energy needs, but it's difficult to overstate what an environmental disaster this would be. Given that it now looks as if current levels of CO2 will be enough to melt the polar ice caps, relying on the most carbon-intensive fuel to survive seems like a surefire way to kill ourselves.

Ah, the Carbon Lobby says, you're forgetting carbon sequestration. No, says I, I just don't believe in it. In the 1950s, Freeman Dyson took part in an attempt to build a closed-loop, meltdown-proof nuclear reactor. It was a design years ahead of it's time, and it was promptly abandoned by the market.

Similarly, I don't believe that the market will, on it's own, sequester CO2. We need a stiff carbon tax to make sequestration non-optional. As an example, Sweden has put a tax of $150 on each ton of CO2 emitted. But if we're going to tax CO2, we are by definition making coal uneconomical anyway.

Meanwhile, wind is now competitive with conventional power sources without subsidies. Say that again:

Wind is now competitive with conventional power sources without subsidies. From the EPI, via the Energy Blog:

When Austin Energy, the publicly owned utility in Austin, Texas, launched its GreenChoice program in 2000, customers opting for green electricity paid a premium. During the fall of 2005, climbing natural gas prices pulled conventional electricity costs above those of wind-generated electricity, the source of most green power. This crossing of the cost lines in Austin and several other communities is a milestone in the U.S. shift to a renewable energy economy....

A similar situation has unfolded in Colorado with Xcel Energy, which is the state’s largest electricity supplier. Xcel’s 33,000 Windsource customers, who until late 2005 were paying $6 more each month for their electricity, are now paying slightly less than those using conventional electricity, which comes mostly from natural gas and coal. To meet fast-growing demand, Xcel is currently soliciting proposals from wind developers for up to 775 megawatts of new wind power generation, enough to supply 232,000 Colorado homes with electricity.

Austin Energy and Xcel Energy are among the first utilities to pass on the falling cost of wind energy to their customers.
Solar, having spent the last few decades lagging behind wind, is also competing with the high cost of natural gas:
Solar is a cheaper alternative than running costly power lines out to more isolated areas, he says. And once upfront costs are covered, solar modules provide “free” power for their 25-year lifespans, says Global Change’s Mr. Fusaro.

In fact, grid-linked solar power is becoming more affordable. Though more expensive than off-peak conventional grid power, it is cheaper at peak times when conventional power is most expensive.

Peak times, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., roughly correspond to when the sun shines. In some parts of California, solar prices now match peak power prices, even when incentives are excluded....

Let’s stay with subsidies for one last moment. Often forgotten in all the chatter is how oil industry subsidies have been outstripping anything solar ever received— for decades.

Solar subsidies usually take the form of investment or production tax credits—or price guarantees in some countries. Companies investing in oil, coal, and nuclear power do much, much better. They get subsidies to help extract and produce oil or coal, or to build nuclear plants, says UCS’ Mr. Wentworth.

In short, big energy beats solar hands down in the subsidy department and investors have yet to go weak at the knees over it. “We’d love to see a level playing field,” says Mr. Wentworth. “The central issue is financing and markets, and we want to have an equal shot.”
Solar and wind are rapdily becoming less expensive than any other option - including that retarded stepchild, nuclear - though admittedly this is due in part to the large price increases we've seen in oil and natural gas. Still, the trends are encouraging - wind and solar are going nowhere but down, oil and natural gas are going nowhere but up.

This is the fundamental reason I think Quiggin is wrong, as are those who think we'll need to rely on nuclear. Coal and uranium are the fuels of the past. Leave them there.

Monday, March 27, 2006

For Once, Big Oil Isn't To Blame

Via Suburban Guerilla:
WASHINGTON, March 26, 2006 — American attitudes about global warming are shifting, according to a new poll by ABC News, Time magazine and Stanford University — but it has taken years for the public perception of the problem to catch up with the warnings.

That lack of concern may have been just what big oil wanted.

It's not as if the information hasn't been out there: A new ad by the Environmental Defense Fund warns time is running out to combat climate change, adding, "Our future is up to you."
Yes, and if the American media didn't respond to every new piece of evidence by mindlessly portraying Climate Change as a "theory" instead of a fact, those poll numbers would've changed years ago. Instead (and in marked contrast with European media) CNN continually portrays climate changes as a controversy.

Partly, this is journalistic convention - you report the dispute. Of course, this is one of those many times that journalistic convention gets in the way of the truth. And the American people have been poorly served by their media. And the media may be influenced by big oil, but the US press should've had a spine, goddammit, and told the truth.

We (rightfully) expect honesty from our leaders. We should expect honesty from reporters too, even if that gets in the way of "balance".


25 %

My weblog owns 25 % of me.
Does your weblog own you?

I'm not sure I believe it.

Why is Vista Late?

Interesting NYT article on why MSFT can't get it's latest OS out on time. There's an interesting implication in this paragraph:
Remember that Steven P. Jobs came back to Apple because the company's effort to develop an ambitious new operating system, codenamed Copland, had failed. Mr. Jobs convinced Apple to buy his company Next Inc. for $400 million in December 1996 for its operating system.

It took Mr. Jobs and his team years to retool and tailor the Next operating system into what became Macintosh OS X. When it arrived in 2001, the new system essentially walked away from Apple's previous operating system, OS 9. Software applications written for OS 9 would run on an OS X machine, but only by firing up the old operating system separately.

The approach was somewhat ungainly, but it allowed Apple to move to a new technology, a more stable, elegantly designed operating system. The one sacrifice was that OS X would not be compatible with old Macintosh programs, a step Microsoft has always refused to take with Windows.

"Microsoft feels it can't get away with breaking compatibility," said Mendel Rosenblum, a Stanford University computer scientist. "All of their applications must continue to run, and from an architectural point of view that's a very painful thing."
Note the tension - MSFT keeps hurting because of back-compatibility, but they don't want to dump back-compatibility because they feel they "can't get away with it." And MSFT is probably right - if people were suddenly faced with having to replace their old versions of Windows, Office, IE, Outlook, and all the other assorted programs that people rely on, consumers (and businesses) might simply decide it wasn't worth it, and either go with a Linux build, or go Apple. If you look at the costs to replace all that software, it might actually cost you as much as one of the new Mac Minis. (Though I'd have to check on that.)

The only thing Windows has left for it is a sense of corporate comfort - even people who never use MSFT's "support" functions are comforted by the idea that it's there. Being forced to abandon all the old software could seriously damage MSFT's brand, in other words.

I'd just like to point out at this time that you can buy "Beginning Ubuntu Linux" at (I'm a corporate whore) for just under $32. It comes with the OS. So the choice is - well-reviewed $32 book explaining how to use powerful new OS, or several hundred dollars for the next version of Vista, with no guarantee that you'll even know how to use the damn thing.

I have no doubt that most businesses and consumers - even when there's no need for Windows compatibility - will continue to pay the MSFT tax. Who ever said the market was rational?

Update: Oops, forgot to add the link. Fixed now.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


That's the sound of a bubble deflating, rapidly:
WASHINGTON—United States new-home sales plunged in February by the largest amount in nearly nine years, while the median price of a new home dropped for the fourth-straight month, providing fresh evidence the once-booming housing market is cooling off.

The commerce department said yesterday sales of new single-family homes dropped 10.5 per cent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 1.08 million homes.

It was the second straight monthly decline and was much bigger than the small 2 per cent dip Wall Street was expecting.

The drop in new-home sales followed news Thursday that sales of previously owned homes actually rose a stronger than expected 5.2 per cent last month after five straight monthly declines.
That last paragraph - stronger previously-owned home sales - sounds deceptively reassuring, but it shouldn't. When already-built homes sell strongly, that's doesn't make up for less housing starts, it replaces them entirely. This is because well over 90% of homes already have owners. The market in real estate plunges not because of new production, but because people who already have homes decide that now's the time to sell.

So you combine a dramatic decline in new construction with an increase in older homes being sold, and you've got the textbook definition of the housing market going keplooey.

Thank You Kevin

Someday, I'll be this good:
Port security? Chemical plant security? Pshaw. It's an infringement of private enterprise and not really necessary anyway.

Invading Iraq? Bombing Iran? Worth every penny. After all, don't you know there are al-Qaeda terrorists who might try to target our ports and chemical plants next?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Who Said This?

Alan Rusbridger: Are you comfortable with teaching creationism?

X: Ahh, not very. I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. Whatever the biblical account of creation is, it's not a theory alongside theories. It's not as if the writer of Genesis or whatever sat down and said well, how am I going to explain all this.... I know ' In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' [....] So if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories, I think there's - there's just been a jar of categories, it's not what it's about.
Multiple Choice:

A) America-hating baby-murderer John Kerry
B) Some homosexual hollywood type.
c) The Archbishop of Canterbury.

Answer here!

(via Frinktank.)

Actually, it's even easier

From Gristmill:
Here's one problem that should be relatively easy to fix:

"Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle--in "standby" mode--more than 99% of the time."

Apparently, somewhere between 5 and 13 percent of residential power is consumed by appliances that nobody is actually using. Hmph.

The solution here -- dare I even say it -- seems to be government intervention.
While I don't want to advocate against a new law mandating standby power drain, this is one of those things we can all fix at home. Simply take any appliances that don't absolutely need to be plugged in, and connect them to a power bar with its own switch. When you turn off the power bar, it's like unplugging the appliances.

Some caveats: If you program your coffeemaker or VCR, leave it plugged in directly. Similarly, if you don't want to have to turn on your TV before the remote control will work, you'll also want to keep it plugged in to the wall. Finally, your computer's motherboard has a small battery that will drain if you leave it unplugged for very long. You either need to replace it or leave the computer plugged in too.

But for things that are only used occasionally, like microwaves or DVD players, this solution works nicely. Until the feds pass a law mandating the one-watt standard, it'll have to do.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Post an Antiwar Song? Done.

I'm not sure if it qualifies as a blog meme, but SG links to Julia who asks that you post the lyrics to an anti-war song on your blog. So my all-time fave anti-war song: "I Ain't Marching Anymore" By Phil Ochs. If you can, you absolutely need to find the live performance Phil did in Vancouver in 1968. He was still all depressed from Chicago, but it's just an amazing CD. "Marching" is the last song of the CD, and he opens it with a small monologue:

"I'll do for you now, for you nice people here, a protest song. A protest song is defined as something you don't hear on the radio. And they say you don't hear it because the guy can't sing or the words are no good, or because they play... the shit that they play. But it's all got to do with the process. All around the western trail, which includes England, and France, and Canada, and America they have the media syndrome, where they distort everybody's minds with mindless and mind-distorting distortions of the facts which led all of us in to the Vietnamese War and led all of us in to the Kennedy Assasinations.

So, what can you do? Here you are, a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh amid all this cruel, cruel machinery and terrible, heartless men. All you can do is turn away from the filth, and hopefully start to build something new someday. And it affects all of us - it affects the people here too.

So here's a turning away song."

Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I've killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying, I saw many more dying
But I ain't marchin' anymore

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brothers
And so many others But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain't marchin' anymore


For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning
That I ain't marchin' anymore

Now the labor leader's screamin'
when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more,
No I ain't marchin' any more


This is what it feels like to go insane - via Boingboing:
BROOKLYN (March 22, 2006) --- A nude Britney Spears on a bearskin rug while giving birth to her firstborn marks a ‘first’ for Pro-Life. Pop-star Britney Spears is the “ideal” model for Pro-Life and the subject of a dedication at Capla Kesting Fine Art in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg gallery district, in what is proclaimed the first Pro-Life monument to birth, in April....

“Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” believed Pro-Life’s first monument to the ‘act of giving birth,’ is purportedly an idealized depiction of Britney in delivery. Natural aspects of Spears’ pregnancy, like lactiferous breasts and protruding naval, compliment a posterior view that depicts widened hips for birthing and reveals the crowning of baby Sean’s head.

The monument also acknowledges the pop-diva’s pin-up past by showing Spears seductively posed on all fours atop a bearskin rug with back arched, pelvis thrust upward, as she clutches the bear’s ears with ‘water-retentive’ hands.

The Incredibles

The awesome power of this blog. I demand that Ben Domenech be fired*, and he gets fired. (Or resigns. Whatever.) My power is UNLIMITED!!!

*My demand that he be fired came after about 8 Trillion other people's**.

**By "8 trillion other people", I of course am referring to the all the ants and other small insects on the planet Earth, who all had more brains then Ben Domenech, or the nitwits who hired him.

Fire the Bastard

So.... in some lighthearted news, the Washington Post hired a right-wing blogger to try and mollify the "batshit insane" segment of the population. It turns out that he's a racist, plagiarizing twit.

For a number of personal reasons, it was the plagiarism that got me the most. Maybe it's because I read about this group of numbnuts from Skippy. (In case you don't click through, a bunch of students successfully kept their professors from using software to detect plagiarism.) Plagiarism - academically, or in the real world - really gets to me.

Let me be obnoxious for a moment: I get As. I get a lot of As. I'm usually really, really disappointed in myself when I get Bs. I am, in short, a pretty good student. I have on several occasions had professors ask me to use my papers as examples of what every student should produce.

My point is not to simply brag (though it is that, a bit.) My point is that I've also, from even before I got in to university, had to be extremely careful about my work. If I print out my work, I have to make sure I account for every copy. Because (I swear this is true) I've literally seen my work fished out of the recycling bin and handed in by people who aren't me. (My professors and teachers have told me about this.)

So I've been a victim of plagiarism, at least in the academic context. And I have no patience or respect for plagiarism. I've never needed it, and I don't see any reason for it ever being something that can be excused.

And I have exactly zero respect for Ben Domenech. I don't care what his reasons are - forgot to cite, was careless, whatever. There's a pretty clear history of his work, and it goes without saying that he should be fired. What is one of the premier news organizations in the world doing hiring this guy without any kind of checking? Jesus. Are there literally no standards anymore?

Oh Goody, We're Doomed

First: (via Adam) We're killing things as fast as the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. So: If asked to rank which force is more destructive, and your choices are:

1) Megatonnes of rock hurtling at thousands of meters per second towards the unsuspecting Cretaceous period, or:
2) 6 billion humans,

You'd have to say "both."

Second: (via Battlepanda) We're all gonna die too. Except we're gonna drown. And not because of the future - because of the present:
Over the past 30 years, temperatures in the Arctic have been creeping up, rising half a degree Celsius with attendant increases in glacial melting and decreases in sea ice. Experts predict that at current levels of greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide alone is at 375 parts per million--the earth may warm by as much as five degrees Celsius, matching conditions roughly 130,000 years ago. Now a refined climate model is predicting, among other things, sea level rises of as much as 20 feet, according to research results published today in the journal Science.
So now we're proper fucked. With no further increase in emissions, we could see a 5 degree push and a 20ft sea level rise.

The word "antediluvian" is about to be current again - but to refer to the present. Lovely.

Your morning smile, courtesy of Dymaxion World!

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Very odd. I'm here, I'm at the computer, but I just don't have the urge to blog at all.

I've been working overtime between school and work and a few other things, and I think my brain may have hit a limit. Basically, I just don't feel like typing anymore for now.

I'm not hanging up the spurs or anything like that, but if you're coming here looking for new material, it ain't here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Things I Did Not Know, Pt. MMXCVIII

The reason my MP3 player does not support Ogg Vorbis? My MP3 player is made by RCA.

RCA is also known as Thomson Multimedia.

Thomson Multimedia owns the patent for the MP3 format.

MP3 and Ogg Vorbis are competing formats.

It doesn't matter much - all my music is MP3 anyway. Still, I'd like to have had the option.

The Monopoly on Legitimate Violence

Lester Brown, being interviewed by Wired:
WN: What did you think of President Bush's recent statements about hybrids and wind and solar energy?

Brown: Despite the talk, there's not been any major commitment of resources or any policy adjustments. If you want to read something interesting, read those couple pages (of Plan B 2.0) on the mobilization during World War II -- when Roosevelt banned the sale of private automobiles in the United States. For nearly three years. That was his response to Pearl Harbor, mobilizing an enormous arms-production effort. But Bush's response to 9/11 was, "Go shopping."
Today, has an article on Peak Oil. Salon has actually one of the few media of any kind that has paid attention to Peak Oil from the beginning, so before I dump on them I'd like to say they've generally been for more diligent in their duties than... pretty much any other outlet.

My problem with today's article is simply that it gives way too much time to guys like Matt Savinar and James Kunstler - basically, the apocalypse fetishists who think that Peak Oil will be The End of Civilization As We Know It(tm).

It's times like this I think more people should read about the Black Death. Pretty much the worst time to be alive in Europe - which, considering how badly European life sucked for most people for most of the last 2,000 years, is saying a lot. At least 1/3 of Europe died. Imagine 100 million dead Americans to start with. Then consider that in some places, it was even worse. Some villages in England were hit so hard by the plague that the handful of survivors simply left the town to be reclaimed by the forests.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon. Or rather, a funny thing didn't happen. Not a single kingdom, duchy, or pontificate was overthrown or collapsed in the chaos.

Read that Brown quote again - FDR, in response to the war, simply stopped all new automobile sales in the US. We've gotten used to the neoliberal ideas of small government, weak government, and inefficient government. Guess what? Governments can be incredibly powerful when they need to be. Think gasoline won't be rationed? Think you'll be allowed to commute alone in your car? Think you can't be arrested for refusing to take a bus to work? If Peak Oil gets to be even half as bad as Savinar and Kunstler think it will, you'll see all that and more.

But, you say, our modern economies - and the governments they support - are far more fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Surely no national government can survive the end of oil? Of course the government will survive. The government may be the only institution with any access to fuel whatsoever, but if anyone does the state will. Cop cars will keep running, police helicopters will still fly, and if necessary tanks and combat aircraft will still operate.

It's also worth pointing out that Cuba went through it's own version of Peak Oil when the USSR collapse, and Fidel is still in power, and there was no die-off. Cubans lost about 1/3 of their caloric intake for a while, but the US could lose 1/3 of their calories and the only thing that would happen is a decline in diabetes. And we should really consider for a moment how bad an "economic collapse" would be. For example, if we went back to a level of economic activity before the large, widespread use of oil inputs in every aspect of our economy we're talking about going back to those dystopian years of, say, the 1940s. (People don't realize how different 1950 was from even 1940, in terms of science, technology, and the economy, but it's pretty astonishing.) My point isn't that this would be an easy transition, but that it's not the end of the world. Civilization - and organized, powerful nation-states - will survive quite well, thank you.

In one sense, I agree with people like Savinar and Kunstler - Peak Oil, if badly handled, could very well challenge the power of national governments. But here's the thing - I never bet against the power of national governments. If it takes a crash program to build coal-to-oil plants, you'll see the House of Representatives start writing cheques faster than they can raise the debt ceiling. (Which, in case you missed it, is pretty fast.)

I should of course point out that I am in fact an optimist - I think renewables and conservation can bridge the gap before the heavy hand of the state comes in. That said, we in North America generally don't have a good idea of how powerful the state can be when it is challenged. To remember, people my age might have to ask their grandparents. It's ironic, in one sense. Because "small government" conservatives have fought tooth and nail against any kind of sustainability for the last 30 years, they're largely responsible for any far more intrusive policies the state may take to stave off disaster.

Up Next: The Guangzhou Chopstick Party

No taxation without representation!
China imposes chopsticks tax
Wednesday, March 22, 2006. 10:45pm

The Chinese Government is imposing new or higher taxes on a range of goods and fuels as part of its efforts to control energy consumption and protect the environment.

Car taxes will go up, while disposable chopsticks will be subject to a new tax.

The tax on chopsticks may seem a curious way for the Chinese leadership to demonstrate its new found commitment to the environment.

But from next month, a 5 per cent tax will be levied on every pair of disposable, wooden chopsticks.

China gets through about 10 billion boxes a year.

The Government says it is a terrible waste of timber that is depleting the country's forests.
Question: If some Chinese Sons of Liberty were to throw boxes of chopsticks in to the Pearl River Delta, who would they dress up as? I assume Mohawks have no real meaning in China. Maybe Tibetans?

Somebody Ate Their Wheaties

Boy, Kevin Drum used to be such a nice boy...
If President Bush announced that he was firing Donald Rumsfeld, limiting Dick Cheney's future activities to attendance at foreign funerals, and sending a couple more divisions to Iraq, even I might be willing to grudgingly concede that there was at least a slim chance of winning the war. But this is fantasyland. Bush thinks Rumsfeld is doing a great job, we don't have a couple of divisions to ship to Iraq, and Bush quite clearly doesn't think we need to do that anyway.

Given the reality that Boot thinks (a) the war is going very badly and (b) Bush is clearly not willing to do the things he thinks are necessary to win, why continue to support it? Does he just enjoy watching people die pointlessly? Or does he lack the guts to admit that Bush is an unserious clown who ought to be impeached for wartime malfeasance? Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, March 20, 2006

PNAC, circa 1790

Convinced that the "victory of liberty over despotism" spelled an end to wars, the National Assembly [of France] resolved in May 1790 that the "French nation renounces the initiation of war for the purposes of conquest," and Victor Comte de Mirabeau, it's most influential early leader, proclaimed in August that "the moment is not far off when liberty will acquit mankind of the crime of war." Finally, the French Constitution of September 1791 incorporated the renunciation of "war for the purposes of conquest" in Article 6.

-Guenther E Rothenburg, "The Origins, Causes and Extensions of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon" Journal of Interdisciplinary History, v. 18 #4 p. 778
September 1791: France renounces war, says liberty, equality, and fraternity will bring global peace.

July 1792: France declares war on Austria.

Once - just once - I'd like to believe a large, imperial power when they say democracy will bring peace to the world.

Gore 2008

You know, there's really something tragic about Gore being considered seriously for 2008. Ezra Klein's new article is excellent, but the problem is that it should be unncecessary. On this, the anniversary of the Iraq War, we really should be talking about who will replace President Gore after he leaves in 2008.

I can't help but be really, really depressed.

That said, were Gore to be running the US Government (praise Jeebus, with a Democratic congressional majority) from 2008-2016, I'd feel a lot better about the future.

Money isn't Things

via Atrios, Daniel Davies has an excellent post about why ownership restrictions - and capital restrictions in particular - aren't "protectionism", but often make perfectly good sense, policy wise:
It's easy to explain why tariffs are bad. They're a tax on a particular economic activity - trade. ... There is a deadweight loss associated with this, and empirically it turns out that this deadweight cost is substantial. That's why tariffs are bad, and why we have a WTO dedicated to removing them.

On the other hand, ownership of a company isn't an economic activity at all (because "ownership" isn't an activity, it's something you can do while sleeping, in a coma or even dead). So it is much harder to see how any deadweight loss can be created by placing taxes or other kinds of barriers on overseas investment in domestic companies. ... And the empirical evidence bears this out as well; while the gains from goods markets liberalisation are big and definitely there, the gains from capital account liberalisation are small and frustratingly difficult to detect, no matter what econometric techniques you bring to bear.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we pursued a whole collection of policies in the developing world more out of ideological fervor than any economic efficiency. Starting in 1997 - and more or less continuing until 2002 - we had a series of continuing debt crises caused to varying degrees by those same capital account liberalizations.

It's important to say that - whatever the merits of the fight against Dubai owning 6 ports - there's a reasonable position on ownership restrictions in particular, and capital restrictions generally.

Microsoft wastes money, time: Film at 11

MSFT is going to try to build an iPod killer:
In a bid to capture the huge audience for handheld entertainment gadgets, Microsoft is designing a product that combines video games, music and video in one handheld device, according to sources familiar with the project.

The Microsoft product would compete with Sony, Nintendo and Apple Computer's products, including the iPod. And Microsoft has some of its most seasoned talent from the division that created its popular Xbox 360 working on it. Game executive J Allard leads the project, and its director is Greg Gibson, who was the system designer on the Xbox 360 video game console. Bryan Lee, the finance chief on the Xbox business, is leading the business side of the project.
Nothing really to add to the story, but I think MSFT is probably wasting it's time. But I'm wondering what MSFT could do, if it really wanted to make a splash. One idea would be to make something like a PSP, but to embrace the homebrew community rather than shun it the way Sony has.

I don't understand the corporate antipathy to open-source stuff (except at MSFT, where it seems to be Bill Gates' personal psychosis.) Last I heard, an army of free labour would be an excellent deal for most companies. Yet you've got Sony deliberately sabotaging the people who make the PSP a much, much better product than the one Sony sells you.

Why not work with these people? The costs would be minimal, and you'd end up with a better product. "If it's a hobby for us and a job for you, then why are you doing such a shoddy job?"

Hell, control isn't even a concern, really. As Groklaw has pointed out over and over, open-source programs tend to be extremely hierarchical. The difference is simply that you can get in at the bottom at no cost.

Of course, MSFT will ally with the open source community shortly before monkeys fly out of my butt.

Indulge Your Prejudices Everyone

From The Toronto Star:
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.
Your morning smile, courtesy of Dymaxion World.

(via Suburban Guerilla)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Who Writes the First Blank Cheque?

So with the US siding with India against China, Pakistan is getting all cute and cuddly with China:
( - Pakistan increasingly is looking to China as a natural strategic ally and energy partner, and some Pakistanis see the move as all the more important given the new emphasis Washington is placing on its ties with India.

Pakistan and China have enjoyed good ties for decades, but the relationship is heading for a new level, a shift likely to have strategic ramifications for U.S. interests in the region.

...Because of the longstanding enmity between the nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan has traditionally viewed good U.S. ties with India as inimical to its own interests, and vice versa.

...In a little-reported comment during Musharraf's visit to Beijing his Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, told Chinese television Pakistan would stand by China if the U.S. ever tried to "besiege" it.
This is just swell. We've now got incumbent overseas powers meddling in continental politics, rising powers making defensive alliances against each other, and enough potential hot spots to start a world war.

I used to write that I hoped China, India and Japan would emulate Germany, France, and England of 1945-present, not Germany, France, and England of 1914-1945. I am far less optimistic these days.

On Imagery

How's this for an image:
On an equally bright summer's morning in Australia a few days ago I open the Sydney Morning Herald. It tells me, on page six, that the news agency, using the Freedom of Information Act, has forced US authorities to turn over 5,000 pages of transcripts of hearings at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. One of them records the trial of since-released British prisoner Feroz Abbasi, in which Mr Abbasi vainly pleads with his judge, a US air force colonel, to reveal the evidence against him, something he says he has a right to hear under international law.

And here is what the American colonel replied: "Mr Abbasi, your conduct is unacceptable and this is your absolute final warning. I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words international law. We are not concerned about international law."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

In the future, we will all be Catholic, and it will always be Friday.

So - about fish. A few weeks back, I passed on the story about how, yes, we've passed Peak Fish. (At least, Peak Wild Fish.) But humans still need to eat, and if global poverty decreases (A Very Good Thing) global food diets are also likely to swing more towards proteins, and away from carbohydrates. Read: Less rice, more beef. (Potentially, A Very Bad Thing.)

Put simply, we cannot feed the projected population of 12 billion people (by 2050) on beef. Hell, we probably can't do it on pork. That leaves chicken and various forms of fish. Chicken are much better at our favourite form of alchemy - turning vegetable in to meat - than beef, and most fish are better still than chickens. Were we willing to plan our diets rationally (no evidence of this, based on North American consumption) we would almost certainly choose to get our proteins from fish.

Unfortunately, the way we get fish is pretty horrible too. Forget the wild stuff - it's almost gone anyway. No, the growth industry for fish is the marine equivalent of ranching. Unfortunately, farmed salmon regularly tests much, much higher for pleasant little additives like PCBs.

(As an aside, you really have to admire western ingenuity. The Chinese and Indians have had a tradition of sustainable aquaculture going back millenia. We turn our aquaculture in to a toxic waste site.)

So what to do. Well, in this month's edition of Popular Science, it looks like the latest idea is open-ocean fish farms. Basically, the problem with fish farming as it's practiced conventionally is one of space - too many fish confined in too little volume. This is because relatively few places have the calm surface waters needed to build fish farms. So the few good spots are terribly crowded. This leads to intolerable pollution of the hydrosphere.

Solution: the ocean floor! There's plenty of room, and the rent is cheap. (Yes, rent. National governments get to lease out chunks of their exclusive economic zones, which extend from 3-200 miles from the shoreline.) Specifically, one company called Net Systems has been selling an underwater fish pen for years now. The pens are really very simple - a ballast tank sinks them to a depth where they don't endager shipping, and the waters are relatively calm. The outer net is made from military-grade plastic, both to keep the fish in and the sharks out. The next model - the 5400 - is also being designed with an automatic food hopper and remote maintenance abilities. The potential is pretty huge:
In 1999 the state of Hawaii granted Cates International permits to set up operation in state waters, and the company became the first private OOA outfit to start production in the U.S. Randy Cates currently sells 8,000 pounds of moi a week, but with plans in the works for a total of 16 cages and a new hatchery already going up, he expects to be selling four million pounds of the fish annually within two years—more than the total caught in Hawaii over the past half-century.
Some interesting problems remain, of course. The biggest is that we tend to like carnivorous fish for dinner - Salmon, Tuna, Halibut, Cod all need to be fed protein, which has traditionally meant scooping vast amounts of wild catch out of the sea and turning those fish in to fish food. However, there is hope here. First, Cates and other early entrants in to the market seem to realize there's a branding opportunity here, and are making efforts to actually be sustainable (as opposed to simply looking sustainable.) This has meant a great deal of experimentation with feeding - including using soy as a feedstock to partially replace fish meal. In the future, your tuna will be fed tofu.

If Futurama taught us anything, however, it's that you can't feed a carnivore exclusively on tofu. So where there's a necessity for actual meat, it should be possible to replace wild catch with farmed feedstock. Given that Wal-Mart (!) wants certified sustainable fisheries for its stores, there's a real market here.

Option #2 is to simply not eat carnivorous fish, but instead eat carp or tilapia. Probably a non-starter.

The other problem is that many advocates for open ocean aquaculture seem to think - like we all did, back in the 1950s - that the solution to pollution is dilution. That is, if all that fish crap is being dumped in to a body the size of the pacific, it doesn't matter. I want to see independent measurements and data from some fish farms before I sign on. Factory hog farms have shown us that, above a certain density, animal wastes can be incredibly toxic.

Still, there's a lot of space out there, so at least initially there shouldn't be the same pressures to cram fish in so densely - the American EEZ actually encompasses more area than the lower 48 states. Meanwhile, beyond the EEZs are international waters, the last real wild west. I can't wait until we start reading stories of gun-slinging salmon rustlers, or mavericks who refuse to brand their halibut.

And to bring it back to energy (because I always do) even if these installations become more complex and industrialized, it should be possible to power them renewably, using ocean currents (analogous to windmills, but underwater) or the thermal difference between the warm surface of the ocean and the cold depths.

The problem with everything I write about the future, as always, is the difference what "can happen" and what "will happen." And as far as open ocean aquaculture goes, the inital signs aren't encouraging - the Bush administration is pushing legislation that would give the Commerce Department the regulatory oversight of offshore fish ranches. This is expected to mean little to no environmental regulation.

Some interesting links:

The Popular Science article itself.

A piece from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

An earlier Wired piece.

The University of New Hampshire's site on OOA. Some interesting info there.

Finally, a group that is very critical of OOA, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy. Specifically, here. (PDF) Where they lose my vote is opposing OOA because it will harm fishing jobs. Sorry, when fewer people produce more food, that's called a good thing. Farming put the hunter-gatherers out of work, fish farming should do the same.

Hail, Victorious Sanity!

Holy jumpin' Jeebus! The CRIA - Canada's own RIAA - has done actual research and found that P2P file sharing doesn't hurt their business. Not that we expect them to admit it. Michael Geist, via Boingboing:
In summary, CRIA's own research now concludes that P2P downloading constitutes less than one-third of the music on downloaders' computers, that P2P users frequently try music on P2P services before they buy, that the largest P2P downloader demographic is also the largest music buying demographic, and that reduced purchasing has little to do with the availability of music on P2P services. I've argued many of these same things, but now you don't have to take my word for it; you can take it from the record labels themselves.

Friday, March 17, 2006

An Anniversary Play in Three Acts

(I'll be working the next few days, so I present this early.)

Act 1: March 20, 2003

Hawk: Yee-haw! Let's roll, motherfucker! We're gonna roll in to Baghdad, make Iraq a democracy, sell oil to Israel, destroy OPEC, and then move on to Tehran! Suck it, bitches!

Dove: Umm... do you even listen to yourself talk? Sell oil to Israel? Are you serious? How long do you think any Iraqi government is going to last doing that? Do you really think that the Bush Administration is competent enough to pull this off? Mark my words: America is going to be bogged down in an occupation that won't be able to stabilize things. Iraq is awash in weapons, and most adult Iraqi men survived two wars - against Iran and the Americans. This is going to be a lot messier than you think. And what the hell happened to those WMDs you were so worried about?

Hawk: Why do you hate America? Go back to Russia, you Dixie Chick!

Act 2: June 2004:

Hawk: Man, I can't believe the media insists on reporting on nothing but the bad news from Iraq. Don't they know about all the schools we're building?

Dove: Yeah, but they might not be able to tell the whole story, what with the whole "6 hours of electricity thing." Also, you know, the regular car bombing.

Hawk: Please. That's just CNN's propaganda. Obviously, they want Kerry to win.

Dove: Well, he can't do any worse than this bunch. I mean really - have you seen the news from Abu Ghraib?

Hawk: Whoever leaked those pictures should be arrested!

Dove: Yes, because the obvious solution to a problem is to eliminate any evidence that the problem exists. I'm beginning to see a pattern.

Act 3: March 2006

Hawk: Boy, this war sure isn't going well.

Dove: Yeah, I - wait, I'm sorry. I'm not sure I heard that right. Did you just tell me the war is going badly?

Hawk: Yup.

Dove: Finally! After the atrocious planning, the lack of equipment, the historical ignorance, the thousands of casualties, the total inability to maintain order, the destabilization of the entire region, the constant drumbeat of bad news from Iran and North Korea, you finally agree that this war is going badly?

Hawk: Yup. But really, who could possibly have predicted that America would be bogged down in an occupation that isn't able to stabilize things? How could we know that Iraqis had so many weapons, or that they were so well trained to fight a war? How could we have known it would be so messy?

Dove: Me. I predicted it. I used exactly those words.

Hawk: Yeah, but you're a Democrat. I'm going to go ask John McCain when he thinks we should invade Iran.

Dove: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!! (Head explodes.)

It's the end of the world as we know it

via, Salon's review of Kevin Phillips' latest book, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century". Some excerpts:
At any time, of course, one can catalog apocalyptic portents and declare that the end is nigh. Obviously, things in America have been bad before -- there has been civil war, depression, global conflagrations.... Books about America's decline in the face of an ascendant Japan filled the shelves in the 1980s, and a decade later, the country was at the height of power and prosperity.... Yet just because America has endured in the past does not mean it will in the future. Thus figuring out exactly how much danger we're in is difficult. Are things really as dire as they seem, or are anxiety and despair just part of the cultural moment, destined to be as ephemeral as the sunny mastery and flush good times of the Clinton years?
The segment in bold is, to me, a misconception that America desperately needs to disabuse itself of. The reality of the 1990s was that America's relative power was declining rapidly, just not as rapidly as the USSR's had. This gave the appearance of unbridled power, while the reality was that American power had peaked (I would argue) decades earlier. "Power", in this case, needs to be defined simply as the ability to compel action from another country. While this kind of power is never absolute, I think the record of the 1990s is clear that US power was effective in fewer and fewer cases. A 100-day bombing campaign over Kosovo achieved remarkably little, all things considered.

There's a left-wing belief that George W. Bush is somehow the root of all of America's problems. He's not. America had problems during the Clinton years - exactly the ones that Phillips addresses in his new book, in fact. Those problems were left unadressed by the Clinton administration, and the election of 2000 was the result. Bush is a symptom, not the cause. For my money, there's a lot more continuity between Reagan and Clinton than most American Democrats would like to admit. To put it simply, the primary qualification for an American president since 1980 has been to keep Americans from ever suspecting that the world beyond their borders might be important. More from Salon:
The end of previous empires, Phillips explains, also corresponded with the obsolescence of their dominant energy source. The Netherlands was the "the wind and water hegemon" from 1590 to the 1720s. In the mid-18th century, Britain, harnessing the newly discovered power of coal, became the leading world power, only to be left behind by oil-fueled America. "The evidence is that leading world economic powers, after an energy golden era, lose their magic -- and not by accident,"
When someone makes a predictive theory for Social Sciences, I usually run screaming the other way. But this one has some appeal, largely because I'm just now reading Paul Roberts' book, The End of Oil. (Fantastic, by the way.) One of the themes that Roberts emphasizes is that it's unrealistic to assume ExxonMobil or BP can simply walk away from literally hundreds of billions of dollars worth of capital investments. Even if the option was there - that is, even if there was something waiting to replace oil - EM or BP would be insane to abandon oil.

Similarly, Phillips' argument makes sense, simply in the sense that the dominant energy paradigm is bound to be defended by powerful incumbents. If someone does manage to crack cheap solar, or wind, or fusion or whatever, it's likely to be fought tooth and nail in the US and Canada. And that fighting might get nasty:
Desperate economic times are not good for democracy. The Great Depression, which ushered in the New Deal, was an anomaly in this regard. In an Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman wrote, "American history includes several episodes in which stagnating or declining incomes over an extended period have undermined the nation's tolerance and threatened citizens' freedoms." During the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of families lost their land due to a combination of rising interest rates and falling crop prices, the Posse Comitatus, a far-right paramilitary network, made exceptional recruiting inroads. One poll had more than a quarter of Farm Belt respondents blaming "International Jewish bankers" for their region's woes.
It must be so easy to be a fascist - you never even need new material. Just blame the jews. Nobody ever accuses the fascists of needing a better message, or worries that the fascists are too enthralled by their base. Or, for that matter, that the fascist bloggers are too extreme for the party's mainstream appeal.

Once I'm done The End of Oil (plus a few papers) I'll be reading Phillips.

A Moment of Humour

Doing some random Googling, and came up with this:
October 23, 2001, 5:55 PM PDT
CUPERTINO, Calif.--Apple Computer unveiled on Tuesday the iPod, a digital music player that can store 1,000 songs on its hard drive.

The product, the size of a deck of cards, was unveiled during an event at Apple's headquarters here.

The stainless-steel unit costs $399, has a 5GB hard drive, connects to a Mac using FireWire, includes a 10-hour lithium polymer battery, offers 20 minutes of anti-skip protection, and works with Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. It will be available Nov. 10.

...Analysts offered mixed reactions to the iPod--especially to its $399 price tag....Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Intelect, said that the iPod will likely stand out for its large storage capacity but predicted that the device may have trouble digging out a niche in the market.
Boy. I wonder how many of those analysts - especially Mr. Baker - still have paying jobs. Probably all of them.

The World is Strange and Unfair

PZ Meyers:
1965: First contact: Mary and I are in same third grade class. Protective shell of cooties and girl's germs around Mary inhibits interaction. Mary increases inhibition by being consistently smarter than me. Except in spelling. I rule in spelling; I think there must be some fundamental association between spelling ability and intelligence.

1970: Junior high years: I enter puberty. At the same time, Mary's cooties and girl's germs dissipate.
Funny how those two events so often coincide: boy hits puberty, suddenly girls aren't icky anymore.

The great injustice, in my eyes, is that the reverse is so often not true. It was years after I started noticing the non-ickiness of girls - oh so many long years - before girls showed any evidence of being at all interested in me. It was many years more before the magic combination of me being interested in a girl who was also interested in me occurred.

I can only assume the entire female gender is insane. Either that, or they didn't share my adolescent passion for science fiction and strategy-based computer games. Which amounts to the same thing, doesn't it?

(Note: Like PZ, I also ruled in spelling in the third grade. I attribute this to my reading of science fiction, and Archie comics. There was, however, no noticeable impact on the opposite gender from my leet grammatical skillz.)

Apple: The New Microsoft. No, Really.

So there's a computer company that's managed to build an incredibly successful product line, but has used the success of that same product to try and monopolize the delivery of content over the internet.

Quick question: Am I talking about MSFT and Internet Explorer, or Apple and iTunes?

Answer: Both. Steve Jobs is attempting to build a monopoly on content delivery on the back of the near-monopoly Apple already has on portable media players. iPods are built to not work with any other music service, which has pissed off Sony and other music companies to no end. It's as if GE built TVs that could only receive NBC content.

Not to put too fine a point on it, if Apple got it's way we could end up with a more closed, consumer-hostile media system than we've ever had before. If we're being honest, we should be willing to say that Jobs is playing exactly the same game the Gates tried to. But for some reasons, iPods are cuter or something.

Apple has gotten away with this kind of practice largely by virtue of not being Microsoft. Except in France, apparently. The French government is introducing legislation to force Apple to open the iPod to non-iTunes music services. Here's one example of the French being way ahead of us in tech regulation. So I say way to go Paris.

My Degree Will Be Lopsided

I'm doing a double major - Political Science and Communications (with a minor in history!) This leads to a certain amount of... schizophrenia in one's academic life.

For example, a sentence I heard on Monday in one of my PoliSci classes, representative of the general level of conversation:

"Yeah, but is that in nominal GDP or purchasing-power-parity? Are we talking GDP, or GDP per capita?"

In contrast, a sentence I heard in my Communications class last night:

"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is an excellent example of ethnic media."

Well. At least half of my degree will be useful.

Stupid Blogger

Double posts make me angry. Get what you pay for, indeed.

Update: Aw, crap. Now I lost the post entirely. Brilliant.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What 3 billion degrees means

So a few days ago, the Sandia National Labratories' "Z machine" achieved a pretty spectacular milestone - they generated a plasma that reached 3 billion degrees fahrenheit, or 2 billion kelvins. Hot stuff, coming through!

Aside from the pure scientific value, this is interesting because it is quite a bit higher than necessary for hydrogen-boron (pB11) fusion. I've written about Focus Fusion before, who are just one of a couple of competing groups working on pB11 fusion. I've avoided writing about them too avidly, because of the snake oil potential.

In any case, the people at Focus Fusion have a message reacting to the news from Sandia:
The Sandia machine could potentially be used to burn pB11 fuel, if a pellet containing the fuel were placed at the center of the array. However, there are serious obstacles to a Z-Pinch being used as a practical fusion reactor. For one thing, the giga-gauss fields needed for generating practical amounts of fusion energy are not achievable with the Z-Pinch unless it can be used to form plasmoids. Second, the Z-Pinch destroys the electrodes with each shot, so rapid pulsed operation is precluded.

The Sandia result does confirm two important conclusions of focus fusion research — that high ion temperature can be obtained from a pinch machine, and that huge differences between ion and electron temperatures are possible.
The focus fusion website is full of all sorts of wonderful promises - cheap, limitless energy from seawater for example. I want to believe, I really do. If nothing else, if we're going to avoid an environmental calamity we need a technology that can make coal obsolete for electrical generation. The Focus Fusion site claims a potential capital cost per watt of about 3-6 cents per watt, which would make it an order of magnitude cheaper than coal.

Even if fusion doesn't give us the energy we need to desalinate the Indian Ocean and irrigate the Sahara (ambitious, much?) something that can keep China and India from building their economies on coal will do quite enough, thank you very much.

Of course, a cheaper supply of electrical energy would also make yesterday's plasma/FT ethanol process more economical.

And yes, I would absolutely favour nuclear fusion as an alternative to coal, oil, gas, and conventional nuclear if it were anneutronic (radiation free.) Hell, if Focus Fusion delivers, I'd prefer it to wind and solar!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mexico announces new Supergiant field

So Mexico has announced a new super-giant field, potentially holding 10 billion barrels of oil. Good news for Mexico, pretty much a non-story for the rest of the world. Consider:

-Humanity uses 10 billion barrels every 4 months.

-This field holds "as much as" 10 billion barrels, which is something very different from actually having 10 billion barrels. The South China Sea was supposed to be the New Persian Gulf(tm) and that never happened. Same with Kazakhstan. I expect this discovery will be retroactively lowered. I certainly wouldn't count on seeing more than 5 billion barrels actually make it to market.

-This is an offshore field in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know the exact location, but the odds are good that this field is going to be subject to hurricanes, like pretty much all of the Gulf of Mexico.

-Hurricane season '05: Sucked. '06: Gonna suck. As climate change gets worse: More suckage. Who wants to bet on this trend not holding?

-Mexico's largest field is already in decline. At best, this field will simply fill the growing hole in Mexican production. At worst, Mexico faces some lean years as existing production declines before they get the new field online.

Sorry to rain on your parade.

(Link via The Oil Drum.)

I Heart... The Army Corps of Engineers? Huh?

Weirdness incarnate. The Army Corps of Engineers - the agency whose corporate ideology was once described as "build a dam on anything wet" - has put together a report (PDF) on the energy security of the United States. And it's good. And I don't mean "good, considering it's written by the Army Corps of Engineers." No, I mean it's good.

On oil: "The oil market will remain fairly stable in the very near term, but with steadily increasing prices as world production approaches its peak. The doubling of oil prices from 2003-2005 is not an anomaly, but a picture of the future. Oil production is approaching its peak; low growth in availability can be expected for the next 5 to 10 years."

On nuclear: "Assuming an annual usage of about 150 million pounds per year, this equates to about a 33 to 43 year supply at current consumption rates. Here again, since uranium is a non-renewable natural resource, it supply will eventually reach a peak and trend downward."

On renewables: "Renewables have significant potential in the United State to contribute energy in a more environmental friendly format, close to where it is needed. The economics of renewables will change over time as they begin to receive some of the subsidies that have been the largess of the more traditional power sectors. Also, their costs will continue to drop as deployment increases and economies of production scale and standardization can take effect. Most are significantly more environmentally friendly than the fossil fuel or nuclear alternatives. Clean energy technologies will impact faster and to a greater amount than current projections."

Oh, Army Corps of Engineers, you had me at "Hello."

(Link via Past Peak.)

Neato New Ethanol Source

I continue to bolster my argument - whatever problems we have with biofuels (and they are numerous) the one problem we won't have is a lack of source material.

Latest example: a company has devised a plasma reactor that takes used tires, whips them up to about 30,000 degrees (fahrenheit, celcius, does it matter?) and thus dissociates the carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen into separate gases. The reactor then cools the gas, and reacts it through a catalyst in to ethanol.

That 30,000 degrees sounds like it would cost a lot, in terms of electricity. But ionized plasmas are well-understood, and you can buy plasma torches commercially. The company's press release (yes, grain of salt) says that the output should be at least 4x as much as the energy input.

In the 1970s, the Soviet experimented with a coal-fueled plasma reactor for electricity generation. It was hugely expensive in terms of capital, but had zero particulate emissions and was extremely efficient. So this isn't really buck rogers stuff.

I'm not certain, but it looks to me like this kind of reactor could potentially take almost any kind of carbon-rich waste (plastics, biomass, garbage, dried sewage) and convert it to ethanol. As a bonus, the reaction doesn't need a direct source of natural gas, like conventional ethanol. The ionizing plasma just needs a supply of electrical power, meaning we can potentially power this renewably.

It's nice to think of a future where our cities don't emit massive amounts of solid waste, to be buried in the ground or dumped in to our watersheds. We could potentially scale up technology like this to produce ethanol not just from our current flow of garbage, but our massive garbage reserves as well.

Inevitably, however, our civlization will reach a point where we begin depleting our garbage reserves, a point I will call "Peak Garbage." (Alternately, "Dymaxion's Peak.") We will then need to either massively increase our investment in garbage exploration and production, find alternate sources of garbage and sewage, or dramatically constrain our consumption of garbage. Are we ready for this earth-shaking era in human history?

(Story via Energy Blog & Green Car Congress.)