Thursday, July 30, 2009

Authenticity in SF

The question of whether Science Fiction should have less scientific inaccuracy is kind of like asking whether it would be nice if suntans weren't linked to skin cancer: well, sure, but expecting one without the other isn't a sign of a well-developed mind. But this post made me think of the matter, and I wanted to specifically note that the recent film Moon did a passable, though not perfect, job at keeping the science plausible and serving the plot at the same time.

But everyone knows China is doing nothing to stop global warming!

BEIJING – China has taken advantage of a drop in electricity demand due to the global financial crisis to speed up a campaign to close small coal-fired power plants and improve its battered environment, an official said Thursday.

Authorities have closed power plants with a total of 7,467 generating units, meeting a previously announced goal 18 months ahead of schedule, said Sun Qin, deputy administrator of the Cabinet's National Energy Administration.

"This couldn't be done when power demand was very intense," Sun said at a news conference. "Due to this financial crisis, the power generation has slowed down, so we took this opportunity to accelerate the shutdown."
Meanwhile, in this country even slowing the pace of tar sands investment is off the table.

Against dog-whistles

The perceptive observer may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing about the use of the phrase "honour killing". The short version is this: while it probably describes certain acts reasonably well, I basically see it as a dog-whistle for the crazy right -- like "death tax" or "partial-birth abortion".

But there are words that can be both accurate and totally useless, or worse serve to obscure and confuse matters. Consider that it would be technically accurate to describe Bernie Madoff as a crooked Jewish banker, but no newspaper worth the pulp it's printed on would describe him as such, and with good reason -- Madoff's crookedness had nothing to do with his Jewishness. (Just ask evangelical Christian Ken Lay.)

The sad fact of the universe we live in is that most women who die violently, die at the hands of men they know -- husbands, boyfriends, fathers, even sons. This is true of white Christians at least as much as brown Muslims. Indeed, given that Muslims are outnumbered by Christians in Canada about 30 to 1, and that substantial Muslim populations are a novelty in Canada's history, it's a absolute certainty that acts that could reasonably be described as "honour killings" have been committed far more frequently by white Christian men. Ergo crazy, shame-driven patriarchal violence has little or nothing to do with Islam, and only a little to do with religion.

The other problem is that all of this feeds in to an increasing, and increasingly stupid, view of Muslims within western countries. Mark Steyn has never had an original thought, so it's no surprise to learn that he didn't originate the genre of "scary Muslims are outbreeding us!" horror story. What's dispiriting is that some liberal voices are busy praising a book that is, if anything, just as incoherent and factually incorrect.

But what intrigues me is how tightly coupled, but incoherent, the two concepts are. Basically, the "Eurabia" thesis says that Muslims are fertile, confident, and have a strong culture that is overtaking Europe's, but the "honour killing" thesis says, effectively, that Muslim men are brittle, petty, and prone to avenge perceived slights with disproportionate violence.

None of this is any more illogical than we've come to expect from the Right. It's just a shame that when it comes to idiotic moral panics, too many lefties are busy joining them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I doubt your sincerity

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- A driver, now identified as an Asheville firefighter, shot a bicycle rider because he was angry the man was riding with his child on a busy road, Asheville police said.

The shooting happened Sunday morning on Tunnel Road.

Officers said the victim was riding with his wife and had his 3-year-old son in a child seat attached to his bicycle when a driver approached him.

Police said the driver, Charles Diez, claimed he was upset that the victim was bike riding with his child on the heavily traveled Tunnel Road.

Diez pulled a gun and opened fire, hitting the victim in his bicycle helmet, according to police.
Nothing says "I'm concerned for the safety of your child" like firing a weapon while enraged and, by all appearances, crazy.

Love to see what the guy's attorney tries to do with that.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Going to the wall for 6,000 people?

The government of Canada is going to the WTO to try and coerce Europeans to buy seal products? I'm not the only one who thinks this is insane, right?

I can't wait until the next time Canada tries to lecture the Japanese at the IWC. Our government is going to spend millions -- in all likelihood, more than the seal hunt brings in on a given year -- to defend part of the income of 0.02% of the population of Canada. (Seriously: WTO challenges are decidely not cheap.)

Is it out of the question for the sealers to find another customer, on their own dime?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blogging without self-indulgence is like water without wet

I'd like to take a moment to note my father's (probably temporary) retirement.  He's left a line of work he'd been in since before the last US helicopters left the embassy in Saigon[1], and he's the kind of guy who marks important moments in his life that way -- so I come by it naturally.

He really left it all on the road -- as of 5PM yesterday[2], he was still corresponding with colleagues, as if he was going to find some last little gem to put out before he left.  I think I probably would have just run out the clock starting sometime in June.

Congratulations, dad.  Even without a job you're still wealthier than me, so dinner's still on you for a while yet.

[1] Stories have been told, multiply.  (Of course, by the time the US diplomats returned to Vietnam, the embassy was moved to Hanoi, and Saigon was called Ho Chi Minh City.)

[2]  Seriously.  I've seen the emails.  I'm relatively certain they weren't being sent from a movie theater, this time.


Marcus Gee, after too long, finally pens a sensible column.  Still gives no evidence of picking up a phone.

George Lucas ruined this young man's life.

Colour-tunable OLEDs can match sunlight's feel.

Climate change will cause civilization to collapse.

On a related note: what will the climate deniers say when 2009 ends up hotter than 1998? Something even stupider, no doubt.

Finally, while this story was generally interesting, I object to the conflation of divorce and war as similar childhood traumas.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Happiness, now in blog form

Rob Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money is a daddy times two.

Speaking as one half of an unmatched pair, I don't know whether the appropriate reaction is "congratulations" or "you poor bastard." My parents would have more precise input, but I think time (and the fact that they no longer have to feed, clothe and house me) has clouded their memories.

Man, it seems like a lot of people I know are having kids lately. And just yesterday, my dad's all like "being a grandparent is so much fun... no pressure."

In praise of the National Post

For being the only newspaper to play it cool on this Kingston-Canal-Murder story. Basically, the facts are that after an almost month-long investigation, a muslim husband and wife and their son are being charged with murdering their three daughters and the husband's first wife.

The police, when asked, have specifically refused to use the words "honour killing", and good on them for doing so. The last thing a case like this needs is the use of inflammatory words, especially when the investigation is ongoing. So what do the brain trusts at the Toronto Star run as their web headline for the story? This:

Meanwhile, the Globe headline sticks to the known facts:

But the Post gets singled out for praise because not only does its web headline keep things cool:

But it deals with the honour killing charge briefly and factually:
A second vehicle, a Lexus, which had been driven back to Montreal by the girls' brother, has been linked to the crime scene, police said.

They would not confirm media reports that the deaths were part of an "honour" killing.
And, appropriately given the inherent speculation of the charge, puts it right at the bottom of the story.

So here's to the Posties! Just because I don't say it much, doesn't mean I don't like being able to say it every once in a while.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we land a man on the moon.... again?

One of my earliest memories involves the space program. My parents, believing it would do me good, had placed me in a Catholic school during the first few years of my academic life. These years corresponded with the early years of the Space Shuttle launches, and one launch in particular made the news in a big enough way that even an almost-five-year old couldn't ignore it.[1]

So the next day, as the nun was explaining to us kindergartners the breadth of God's powers (everything that happens, He made happen. Next?) I asked what, to me, seemed both important and timely: Did God make the space ship blow up?

I was told that yes, of course, God made the space ship blow up.

There are two ways the rest of this story can go: my lifelong skepticism of organized religion, or my lifelong obsession with manned space exploration. Tomorrow is July 20, 2009. Which way do you think we're going?

Manned space exploration suffers from a number of drawbacks, as far as we evangelicals are concerned. The first is that it is expensive. Not "invade a country that poses no threat so we can be bogged down in a ruinous war" expensive, nor even "help out bankers who've spent years reaming us for fun" expensive, but expensive nonetheless. Optimistic proposals to send a crew to Mars run to $100 billion over 10 years, and more pessimistic analyses take in to account the fact that America's industrial base can no longer make a commercially successful car, much less a lunar lander, and come up with much higher numbers.

I'd like to see what Barack Obama has to say about Apollo 11, I really would. I think if someone can imbue this whole mess with some awe and dignity again, it would be him. But even I can't really tell you with a straight face that, on this anniversary of an enormous accomplishment, we should do it again before another decade passes. (That would make 50 years, and the likelihood of some or all of the Apollo 11 crew having passed by then is non-trivial.)

As I implied above, if we're going to light a pile of money on fire, I think the space program is one of the least obnoxious ways to do so. But even I can see that any money spent on my pet project is less money to go around for other things, like stopping the planet from dying. For example. While I don't think the fiscal reality is that a trade-off is necessary, I think the political reality is that a) military spending is sacrosanct, and unlikely to get less so, while b) NASA, as successful as it is at protecting its budget, has spent 40 years coasting on goodwill largely left over from the Apollo era.

And some day soon, the number of Americans who have no living memory of an Apollo launch will outnumber those who do.

Aside from the fiscal problems, there are some other, more intractable problems associated with space flight, especially the kind where we wrap men (almost always, penises seem to be required somewhere in the mission) in exotic fabrics and shoot them off at several miles a second. And that latter part of the process is a biggie: the amount of energy it takes to send even a minimal crew to the astronomical equivalent of the Canary Islands is truly staggering, and regular readers won't be surprised to think that I'm not certain that kind of energy will be easily available in the future -- or if it is, it won't be politically palatable to squander it on a vanity project.

So that leaves the wild cards: what happens if, say, the Bussard Fusion people turn out to be right, and we're soon deluged with all the cheap energy we joule-addicts could want? Suddenly, lofting a crew from the Earth to Mars, Jupiter, or Neptune looks positively primitive, and we can start discussing how much we want to invest in manned exploration of the inner Oort cloud. But that's basically what it will take: some kind of game-changing technology to make the task a whole lot easier.

I continue to think that the space program is valuable, and long for the days when Vicki and I can retire to our personal O'Neill colony in the sky. But fundamentally, we don't have a way of getting there from here. And in the meantime, there's important work that needs to be done planetside, first.

[1] Okay, an almost-five-year old me.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Sun Rises in the East

While Canada can barely get any stimulus, and the US's stimulus is late and inadequate, and German central bankers basically try to strangle the economies of Europe, China's economy grew at an enormous rate as Beijing both spent enormously on infrastructure and lent massively from state-run banks.

Are we seeing the center of demand for the global economy wander across the Pacific? Not yet, but at the very least we're seeing the beginning of it, I think. Of note is the fact that China's growth is continuing in spite of a collapse in exports.

Fascinating times. If only we didn't have a Prime Minister who'd spent a few years pissing off our new Chinese overlords...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The numbers are out. Or in. Or something.

Two weeks ago the government of Ontario notified the public that the bid by Crown Corporation AECL was being abandoned because the price was too high. What we didn't know was how high the bid had been, and whether Smitherman was right to balk. (I assumed so, but the Province has been throwing so much good money after bad in the auto sector...) Well, the Toronto Star has the numbers today (via The Jurist):
Sources close to the bidding, one involved directly in one of the bids, said that adding two next-generation Candu reactors at Darlington generating station would have cost around $26 billion.

It means a single project would have wiped out the province's nuclear-power expansion budget for the next 20 years, leaving no money for at least two more multibillion-dollar refurbishment projects.

AECL's $26 billion bid was based on the construction of two 1,200-megawatt Advanced Candu Reactors, working out to $10,800 per kilowatt of power capacity.... By comparison, in 2007 the Ontario Power Authority had assumed for planning purposes a price of $2,900 per kilowatt.
That's extraordinary. The economics of wind+storage are becoming so favourable, so quickly, that AECL (and every other fission-monger) has an enormous incentive to wring out every possible efficiency early on to try and guarantee some kind of path dependency for future governments. But, when confronted with a government that demands even a bare measure of transparency in its accounting[1], they can't even do that.

This is not a great day for the nuclear industry in Canada. Having said for years that if they couldn't sell an ACR to Ontario, AECL was going to go out of business, they simply cannot bring their costs down to make nuclear a viable option. (This doesn't imply incompetence on AECL's part -- you can't do the impossible, and my guess is this basic scenario will be played out in a bunch of different countries in coming years.)

There are plenty of options left. If the province still has a hard-on for nuclear, building the previous generation of CANDUs -- the ones that Darlington was built to accomodate in the first place -- may save some money, though I imagine they'll still be more expensive than gas. Natural gas supplies have recently been uprated with the addition of enormous shale gas resources (I'm skeptical about these claims, however.)

What will probably happen is some variant of the following: the new nuclear build will be conclusively terminated, the refurbishment will go ahead (and extend the lifespan of some of our reactors) and the explosive growth in Ontario's wind energy industry will continue or even accelerate. Because of our ample nuclear and hydro capacity, we have baseload and spinning reserve to accommodate a high percentage of wind power (though certainly less than 50%) until somebody cracks the energy storage nut. Whether it's ZENN's Eestor-powered cars, or more mundanely some pumped-hydro or compressed-air variant, there are plenty of options for energy storage (and anybody who's still carping about intermittent renewables is basically not a credible voice.)

We won't go entirely nuclear-free for decades, but if the government is smart they'll put us on a mildly greener path than the one we were on only a month ago.

[1] The McGuinty government insisted on price transparency from the fission-mongers, but has been incredibly, notoriously secretive with its employers -- i.e., the Ontario public. It's worth noting that there's not a single government confirmation in the Star piece. It's pretty shameful to have a matter of public importance played out like a Balinese puppet show.

Your media at work

So two things happened on MSNBC's airtime yesterday. First, Pat Buchanan advocated the brutal murder of a young man for the crime of expressing an opinion:
Well, first, with regard to Levi, I think First Dude up there in Alaska, Todd Palin, ought to take Levi down to the creek and hold his head underwater until the thrashing stops.

Then, later in the evening Marcy Wheeler (Firedoglake's emptywheel) said the following:
[Y]our idea is that after investigating Bill Clinton for a blow job for like five years, we shouldn't investigate the huge, grossly illegal things that were done under the past administration, only because Alberto Gonzales was too much in the back pocket of Dick Cheney to do it while he was still in office. That's ridiculous.

MSNBC apologized for one of the two statements made above. Can you guess which?

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I did this weekend, then weirdness

Ah, wilderness. Spent the weekend camping in Killbear Provincial Park with good friends, and proceeded to watch, very early Saturday morning, as my tent walls went nearly transparent in the middle of an unholy lightning storm, and the walls bowed inward as somebody mischievous apparently turned a firehose on us. I was told later that was just the rain, but little in my experience has prepared me to believe that much water can fall from the sky.

The next night the temperature dropped substantially and I buried myself in my sleeping bag. Oddly, I woke up very early on Sunday feeling fine, until I changed out of pants in to shorts. (This was a mistake.) It didn't occur to me until later that maybe waking up at 7 was unnecessary on a weekend, but then later at home, 10PM rolled around and I basically passed out. Vicki woke me up a bit later, and we proceeded to have a really odd conversation:

V: Where are the car keys?

J: Umm... my brain isn't working.

V: (Slowly) Where. Are. The. Keys.

J: The AIs wanted the back yard. I said no. [Seriously.]

V: Uh, go back to sleep.

Clearly, the lesson is my mouth and brain aren't connected really well while I'm sleeping. But what prompted my strange, near-hallucinatory utterance? That, at least, has a relatively easy answer: I've been reading David Marusek's Counting Heads, a really excellent SF novel about nanotechnology, sentient computers, interstellar colonization, and a bunch of other things. The book clearly stuck with me when I went to sleep. As, apparently, did my concerns over the back yard. [?]

I'm almost done Counting Heads, and then I move on to the sequel, Mind Over Ship. I have enjoyed CH so much I can barely wait to get to the next one.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Fox News everybody:

In case you're wondering, the topic at hand was a survey of Northern European countries where married couples and other socially active people avoided the worst effects of alzheimers and dementia. And from that, Kilmeade heard "yeah, but they're all aryan ubermensch anyway, so it doesn't apply to America."

Charles Lindbergh died too soon, it seems.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Morning links

1) The Arctic ice cap is thinning dramatically at the same time as it loses area cover as well. Not really news, but more data to back up what we already suspected.

2) Google announces a new linux-based OS to compete with Windows in the netbook sector. Linux is always only ever 18 months from beating Windows, so I'll believe this when I see it, but it's true that Google has both deep pockets and a well-established brand. The big key will remain whether Google can convince IT departments around the west to abandon MSFT.

3) Blu-ray continues to, um, suck. PS3 is third of three in the console market, and portable, reusable media are getting to the point where buying actual discs seems like a waste of money. Example: $150- or so will buy you a 1TB drive and a portable enclosure. SD Cards can already hold 32GB of storage, and the next generation could hold up to 2TB -- 40 Blu-ray discs on something the size of a thumbnail. And if this pans out, we'll have these records for a long time.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ur doin it wrong

Ah, the conflict of being a technology nerd and a penitent environmentalist. I can see something like this, and simultaneously think two things at once:

1) Neato, a robotic horse powered by biofuels.


This post is for my mother, who ensured that I've spent a sufficient amount of time in a stable to write this.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Holy crap

So, one of my obnoxious little habits as a blogger is to point out when I've been right before other people. Nevertheless, when I started referring to the Arctic Ocean as "a slightly fresher lake" because of all the global warming and whatnot, I really thought I was making a lame joke. Uh, not so much:
In particular, the authors find that freshwater volume in the Canada and Makarov basins on the Pacific side of the Lomonosov Ridge increased by about 8,500 cubic kilometers (about 2,000 cubic miles), while the freshwater volume on the Eurasian area decreased by about 1,100 cubic kilometers (about 260 cubic miles).

The freshening of the Arctic occurred in conjunction with the recent dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice, the authors note. They find that these changes have altered Arctic Ocean circulation, with a large increase in northward transport of fresh water in the Canada Basin.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Are we feeling proud yet?

Canada is back!
Canada and Japan were blocking a possible deal on climate change at the Copenhagen summit, Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, warned yesterday.

Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists, Sir David said that the two countries had stepped into the breach left by the Bush Administration, which had strongly resisted cutting CO2 emissions.

“Copenhagen is faltering at the moment,” said Sir David. “The Americans are now fully engaged. But several countries are blocking the process.”

Governments previously were able to hide behind the US’s intransigence on climate change, he said, but the pro-climate policies being launched by the Obama administration means this is no longer possible....

Canada’s position is widely believed to be driven by its powerful industry lobby, which is keen to exploit oil reserves in the country’s tar sands. “These people are very outspoken, aggressive lobbyists,” said Dr Robert Falkner, a specialist in international relations at the London School of Economics. “They are gung-ho about rising oil prices and want to exploit that.”
But we can expect the Liberal Party to stand up to the Mass Death lobby, right? Wrong:
In part, he said, the Liberals have tried to win votes in Toronto by blowing off Alberta and bashing the oil sands. Mr. Ignatieff believes that strategy is insane for a number of reasons.

“I think sometimes we tried to establish our environmental bona fides by running against the oil sands,” he said. “And I just think: This is a national industry. It's pumping something like $8-billion into the federal treasury. So it's slightly bad faith to beat the goose that lays the golden egg over the head with a stick. The goose is a little messy. The goose needs to be cleaned up. The goose needs to make better use of the yard, but let's make this a sustainable industry that all Canadians can be proud of.”
First off, I would hope that a politician with any sense would avoid avian metaphors when talking about the tar sands. Secondly, the idea of making the tar sands "sustainable" is a fantasy, though it's clear that the influence of Marc Jaccard continues to be felt. It's fantastical because a) we still have no strong evidence that CCS is ever going to be a real technology, and b) even if we had working CCS today the oil lobby would never be willing to pay the price to clean up their own emissions. Inevitably, the Feds will end up subsidizing any CCS scheme, and that's assuming they can ever find a working model. And of course CO2 is only one of the many, many problems inherent to tar sands production -- water issues, settling ponds, and air pollution are all serious issues too, and are even more intractable than CO2 pollution.

I really want Liberals to be honest about what the choices are now between the Conservative Party and their own. We can choose between a party that has no serious commitment to cleaning up the country's worst environmental problem, led by a man who vocally supported the Iraq War -- or we can vote for the Conservatives. Blech.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Happy Canada Day, everyone

I now present you the most Canadian thing anywhere on the Internets: Stan Rogers' "Northwest Passage" interspersed with stills from Due South. You're welcome.